Communities often forget energetic, bold, and vibrantly creative people in their time, directing their attention to new figures that seem to shine as bright as those who came before. So it has been with the Traverse City’s Jens Petersen, an architect whose designs, innovative ideas, and general approach to architecture live on in the buildings he helped to create.
Historian and writer Julie Schopieray has uncovered the achievements of Petersen in her most recent book, Jens C. Petersen: From bricklayer to architect: the life and works of a visionary Michigan architect. Meticulously researched and documented, the work is much more than a biography: it is a treasure trove of diary entries, newspaper articles and advertisements, advertising circulars, and treasured photographs of Petersen’s family, the man himself, and the vestiges of his architectural work that remain. It is a gorgeous work of scholarship.
Son of a stone mason and trained in that trade, Jens Petersen was born in 1873. The family moved to the Traverse area when the boy was eleven years old, his father having been employed in the construction of the Northern Michigan Asylum. As a young man, Jens worked on other cottages of the Asylum as well as other well-known buildings around town. However, his ambitions exceeded that of being a first-rate bricklayer. He wanted to become an architect.
Through correspondence school courses taken in Traverse City, night school classes taken in Chicago, and apprentice work received in a well-known Chicago firm, he passed the Illinois examination for a license in architecture in 1903. He was one of the first licensed architects to practice in Northern Michigan.
The buildings Petersen was responsible for are well-known to those interested in local history: the Union Street school, the Empire school, the old stone school in Sutton’s Bay, the C.S.P.S. Hall on Front Street in Traverse City, the Bellaire Courthouse, and many residences throughout the area. There is much evidence that Jens Petersen designed Holy Rosary Church near Cedar, Michigan. While some buildings have been demolished, many still stand.
Petersen was known for two innovations, one having to do with his use of concrete in construction, both for interior and exterior design, and the other with marketing architectural designs to the general public. He frequently published articles in a journal aimed at builders and architects called Concrete, ever advocating for the application of that substance in all kinds of construction. In the Little Tavern, a restaurant in downtown Traverse City, he even had counters made of concrete, as well as spreading a reddish layer of it on the floor (something Julie found in a chipped-away spot at the entry to the present business at that location!)
Petersen’s mail-order business for architectural residence designs was very successful. Such plans could always be obtained from builders and lumber suppliers, but few firms would answer correspondence regarding construction problems and considerations in the manner Jens Petersen did. In addition to many local sales, it is said that Petersen-designed houses stand in other states and even in South America and Europe.
Jens was an esteemed member of the Traverse City community, his name appearing in newspaper articles that told about his exploits in bowling, card playing, singing, roller skating, and more. He was such an exciting person to be around, it was a surprise when he announced he was moving to Sacramento, California.
From 1919 to his death in 1939, Petersen designed many buildings in California, some of which remain at this date. Julie Schopieray offers thirty-three pages of his notable buildings, many entries with pictures, from both his Michigan and his California years. The California buildings frequently reflect Art Deco and Modern designs, consistent with architectural styles during the 20’s and 30’s.
Petersen’s life was not without controversy. In California, because he was apparently not familiar with California building codes emphasizing earthquake protection, he temporarily lost his license to practice architecture in that state. Responding to demands to improve his qualifications, he regained licensure within a short period of time, and continued to design buildings until the end of his life.
Thank you to Julie Schopieray who has restored the life and work of a great architect to us all. Jens Petersen lives again!
Jens Petersen: A Biography can be obtained from Horizon Books, Amazon, or directly from the author.
This stairway is all that remains of a formerly well-known nightclub in Traverse City that operated from the 1930’s up to 1970. It is located where Maple Street crosses over Kid’s Creek. What was the name of that nightclub? (Hint–the Kid’s Creek name might suggest the answer!)
Thanks to reader Mark (with a little help from fellow readers Larry and Mozelle), we have our answer! “The Brook” was a happenin’ nightclub, a real jazzy joint, the old timers might say.
This article was discovered, copied, and notated by Julie Schopieray, regular contributor to Grand Traverse Journal and author of the fantastic new biography, Jens C. Petersen: From Bricklayer to Architect. Copies of the book can be obtained from Horizon Books, Amazon, or directly from the author.
To every man who fights, grins and wins, this little story is respectfully dedicated.
Jens C. Petersen
State Bank Building
Traverse City, Mich.
The Boss is Reminiscent
Twenty-five years ago a cross-eyed woman by the name of Borden, taught our school in a little village, and not-withstanding the fact that the years have changed my focus on most things, when I close my eyes to-day, I can still see “Granny Borden,” as we young devils disrespectfully called her, and I realize now, as I could not then, that back of those crooked eyes there was a lot of straight thinking going on, and beneath that old fashioned, cheap, but scrupulously clean plaid waist there beat a warm and honest heart.
Tonight as the whistle blows and the boys and girls, singly, in pairs and in groups, trudged on their homeward way past our office window, there was one in the lot, possibly because her eyes were so hung that she could look around a corner and still see what was going on around her, who brought vividly and instantaneously to mind the old school house, the high platform, the long pine table, and back of it, book in one hand and ruler in the other, the school mistress, Miss Henrietta Borden, (that is the older and more respectful people called her “Miss”), but to the younger generation it was“Granny,” (especially when we had to stay after school).
I had my hands on the desk ready to close it for the night, but those cross-eyes, as they looked up at our office window, and at the same time up and down the street and over in the next block, brought forth memories which stay the hand and force me to sit down in the twilight, close my eyes and for a half an hour, and until Carrie telephoned that the soup was getting cold, I could hear the hum of bees outside the schoolhouse window. I could see “Fatty Matt” diving into his dinner pail for bread crusts, which he viciously threw at Almeda– a way Fatty had of conveying to the said Almeda that she had all the other girls in the room backed off the boards– and I also instinctively placed my hand under my coat as I felt the jab of the pin in the end of a stick, guided by the warty but unerring hand of “Tart.”
And what a delicious half hour that was, sketches and plans for houses, churches, government buildings, and even dinner could go to the dogs, at least they would have to wait for attention from me until my dream was finished.
In the hurry and rush of life, in the trying to keep what we have, and get more, did you ever sit down after banking hours, when you could not be notified of the note that was coming due tomorrow, in a place where no one could reach you from the outside, then from a cubbyhole in your memory bring forth a package, yellow with age, soiled with finger marks of youth, but containing a chapter of life’s history, around which each succeeding year ties a fresh bloom of “Lilies of the Valley and For-get-me-nots?”
It was Friday afternoon, our freshly dug worms were even now safely hid away in an old tomato can under the back porch, and, as tomorrow was a holiday, Percy and Tart would whistle under my window about four o’clock in the morning, and I would jump into my clothes, grab the piece of bread and butter mother had laid out for me the night before, shoulder my pole and hike across the fields and- – – but time flies. I must have another look at that Friday afternoon picture before I receive another hurry up call from home and am obliged to hide it away to be brought out, well, perhaps never, because I find less and less time for everything, except trying to keep from being run over.
Charles has just been called to the platform to speak his piece. By way of inspiration, he rubs a dirty leg with a stone bruised heel and still dirtier foot, and then by fits and starts he laboriously, and to the onlooker, it would seem by main strength, relieves himself or the old-time masterpiece, “The Curfew Shall not Ring tonight.” When he is through the boys snicker as loudly as they dare. “Granny raps vigorously for order, then at a nod from her, Amy our star soprano, sings four verses of “Pull for the Shore,” the whole school joining with her in the chorus.
When school is dismissed for the week, the boys yell, hoot, holler, turn somersaults, engage in an imitation fight or two, by way of showing off to the girls, old “Granny” turns the key in the door, and another one of life’s chapters has been unthinkingly, but nevertheless irrevocably written. Percy and Tart are daring me to go swimming, but out of the corner of my eye I am watching a little Miss with yellow braids, who has carelessly dropped away from her companions, just as I am trying to do from the boys. The other girls notice it and quietly smile and whisper to each other, but not in an obtrusive way to embarrass her. Percy and Tart also see what I am up to, but a smile or a nudge is not expressive enough for them, no, indeed. They all become particularly chummy, throwing their arms over each other’s shoulders and pointing their fingers at me, sing out at the top of their lungs, ‘Jens has got a girl, Jens is going home to cut out paper dolls with his girl,” and more of like effect, but I never faltered, those two yellow braids pulling me harder in the direction of the girl than the taunts and jeers of Percy and Tart could overcome, and I pictured to myself two boys who would, each in their turn, receive a nice licking before school opened Monday morning, and I marched over to little Miss Yellow Hair, and the shy but appreciative look I received not only blotted out Percy and Tart and their stinging words, but so blinded my eyes that my world narrowed itself down to a few trees, a path just wide enough for two, a slip of a girl and an awkward country boy. I wonder where she is now, it cannot be that she is married and has sons and daughters of her own, but why not? We were the same age, and look at my boy and girl, not quite so heavy around the waist but both of them growing to be as tall as their mother.
The years have come and the years have gone, as years have a way of doing, bring me their mixture of joys and sorrows, of successes and failures, but they have left their memories with me.
There are so many roads leading in so many different directions from that little school house that I have lost track of most of my boyhood friends. Some of them I can still place. Fatty Matt, who was, as I remember it, one of our brightest boys, and one for whom a brilliant future was predicted by the entire district, is tending bar I believe in Chicago. Joe, big hearted, warm hearted Joe, I believe died a few years ago in a little town out west. Willie, who was the prize pumpkin in the row, when it came to speaking pieces and showing off on the last day of school, was once Mayor of the little city, is in line for Governor and United States Senator, and will soon be a member of Congress and be helping to make our financial laws.
And what of me, well I am in the architectural business, yes, and successful too, at least from a worldly view point. I have one of the finest offices in the state of Michigan, have a nice force of draftsmen and designers and turn out the best work in our line in the country, but really it makes my heart ache when I think of the hills I had to climb and the many hard bumps I received before I reached a point where I dared speak of an assured success. When I left school at fifteen, of course I must work, so father secured me a job to work with him, learning the art of laying brick, and I put on a pair of overalls and went at it. I served my apprenticeship under a mighty good man. He was not the largest contractor in the country— he didn’t claim to be, but he did turn out honest work, and while the old gentleman is away out in sunny California, over sixty years old and still at it, and probably does not know that I am eulogizing him, I want to say that when he closes his eyes for the last time the world has lost at least one honest, competent and operative mason.
Finally, in one way and another, and I trust without crowding my neighbors into the ditch, I accumulated enough money to take a course of study in designing, then secured a nice job for a few years with one of the biggest architectural firms in the United States, in an office in the city of Chicago, attended night school and the University of Illinois, finally passing the examinations and accumulated enough to make a humble start in an office for myself. The proudest moment of my life was when I had my first sign placed on my office window. That was some time ago, and the office, while large enough to be noticed quite some locally, was small as compared with our present one. Of course at that time I did not have anything like the facilities that I have today for turning out quality and quantity, but it was mine— the thing I had been striving for had come to pass, and for a little while at least I was peacefully happy.
Perhaps I have not received more bumps than come to all of us. In the light of years I have come to believe that I needed them for my development, at any rate I got them, as you get yours. If we use them to our advantage, as I believe we may, well and good, otherwise they may lame us, keep us to the rear, and we go through life nursing our bruises. Just now there isn’t a sore spot on your Uncle J.C., not a single one, because taking everything into consideration, we have the best equipped office for the furnishing of plans for homes by mail in the United States, I realize that this is talking pretty loud, but it is a fact nevertheless.
I believe we can turn out more work of the right quality and at a lower cost than any other institution of its kind in existence. When you visit Traverse City, come up and see us. I will refrain from talking business unless you want to, but I will show you the prettiest little city your eyes ever feasted on. We have miles of paved streets and shady drives, thousands of well kept, happy homes, the finest trout streams and the prettiest little bay in the country, and last, but not least, it would give me pleasure to act as your host, and incidentally take you on a tour of inspection through the cases and files and equipment of what I know to be the most thoroughly up-to-date architect’s office anywhere.
I issue a large and expensive catalog, showing a few of the hundreds of different styles of houses we plan, and if you cannot possibly make a personal visit, write and I will mail you the catalog, also quote some prices for plans for your home which will be just as attractive to you as the plans represented.
I say again, “come if you can, but if you can’t come, write to me about plans for your new home.”
You can remember the place and I trust you will be able to remember the name.
Yours very truly,
JENS C. PETERSEN, Architect,
418 State Bank Building Traverse City, Mich.
NOTE– My book, the Cream of 1000 Plans, is an expensive catalog and cannot be sent free. If you will enclose 50 cents, coin of stamps, in your letter, I will credit you with this amount when you order your plans.
Jens C. Petersen came to Traverse City in 1884, at the age of eleven. Research shows that his parents lived in and were running a boarding house for construction workers, near the site of the Northern Michigan Asylum. The nearest school would have been the Union School between 7th & 8th Streets, where Central grade School is currently located. Petersen talks about his teacher, Miss Henrietta Borden but it’s unclear whether that was his teacher’s real name or if he changed it for the story. I haven’t yet found that there was a teacher in Traverse City by that name between 1884-1889 when Jens would have been in school, however there was a Harriet Borden who taught in Kalkaska for many years between 1880- 1915. It is possible she spent a term in Traverse City as Jens Petersen’s teacher.
He talks about “Willie” who was the prize pumpkin in the row, who goes on to be mayor and further into politics. It’s likely he’s speaking of William D. C. Germaine, locally known in later years, as “Wild Bill”. Germaine was three years older than Petersen, but would have been at the same school. He became mayor of Traverse City between 1908-1910 and again in 1912-1913. Unfortunately, Mr. Germaine did not become the successful man Petersen had envisioned in his 1911 writing– in 1912, Germaine was attempting to make a bid for Congress, but by 1913 was removed from office by the governor for extorting money from a local saloon keeper. Germaine was known locally to have trouble with “the bottle.” In 1916 he was arrested for attempted arson, after trying to burn down his his wife’s house after she filed for divorce. In 1923 he was arrested for bootlegging and arrested again in 1926 for prohibition violations. He died in 1943.
“Percy” would be Percy Holdsworth. He was a year younger than Jens but while Jens only completed the 8th grade, Holdsworth finished high school, graduating in 1892. He then attended the University of Michigan, attaining a degree in mechanical engineering in 1898. Holdsworth died in Chicago in 1925.
You can read more about the life and work of Jens Petersen in Jens C. Petersen: From Bricklayer to Architect. Copies of the book can be obtained from Horizon Books, Amazon, or directly from the author.
I wanted to see if the phrase “off the board” was a commonly used in 1911. The jury is still out, I did find it defined here. In the publishing world, it doesn’t look like it was a common phrase until in mid-1920s, atleast within the monographs scanned in the Google Books Project Ngram Viewer.
by S.A. McFerran, B.A. Environmental Studies, Antioch University
A cognoscenti of fishers met at “The Shack” that was located on the Boardman River near the community of Keystone. Operated by Traverse City Fly Club founder and barber, Art Winnie, and frequented by nine of his friends, The Shack was a fishing camp that encourage anglers to fish stretches of the Boardman River, South of Boardman Lake. There was much to discuss at The Shack meetings because the grayling were disappearing and the banks of the river were in tatters due to logging and dams.
A diary of activities at The Shack was kept. The first entry was March 3, 1913. Visitors such as conservationist Harold Oswald Titus and Remington Kellogg of the United States Biological Survey joined members for fishing trips on the Boardman River. Also noted in the Shack Diary was the planting of fish in the Boardman River and its tributaries. (1)
The milk cans that were dropped off at the Keystone train station each contained 2000 trout. The water in the cans had to be changed hourly until the fish were released into the Boardman and its tributaries. Creeks flowing into the Boardman River such as Beitner, Thorpe, Bonath, Jaxon, Sleight and Hogsback all received trout raised in the state fish hatchery.
With the forest gone, erosion washed sand into the Boardman and the sun warmed the water. Dams also warmed the water and blocked the movement of fish up and down the river. The elegant structure of the Grand Traverse ecosystem was reduced to a shack, and the grayling died. Self-appointed architects of the ecosystem at The Shack did the one thing they could think of: add fish to the water so that they could catch fish.
The Shack Diary entry dated April 3 – 4, 1920: “Planting Liberty Brown trout as follows: Thorpe Creek,10,000. Shack below the bridge, 10,000. Shack Creek above the bridge, 10,000. From Umlor down in Hogsback Creek, 4,000. Boardman River, 20,000. Between Summit City and Keystone there were planted 294,000 trout of which 112,000 were brook and 182,000 were Liberty Brown.” (The name “German Brown” was changed to “Liberty Brown” in response to anti-German sentiment related to World War I.)
The Shack members had a shortsighted view: If the fishing was good, all was well. The State of Michigan provided the fish to support the efforts of these sportsmen, but not to create an environment in which these fish would naturally thrive. In retrospect the answer is: river restoration. The answer still is river restoration that takes an ecosystem view and includes fish stocking as one measure of the restoration. If the river ecosystem is functioning and habitat cared for the fishing will be good.
River restoration seeks to link ecosystems. The Grand Traverse Bay once teemed with fish and some moved from the Boardman to the open water. Coregonids, a very important and numerous mid-tropic level fish that were preyed on by the trout spawned in the open water of the Bay. The Shack cognoscenti were well aware that the elegant structure of the ecosystem had been lost. Art Winnie: “But here’s where we always put the conservationists…let the perch spawn . . . once every two or three years. Let them spawn and get a new breed in. Then they’d be comin’ pretty good. Look how they used to come up the river.” (2)
Captain Boardman built his dam in 1847, and the electric power Boardman Dam was built in 1894. The Sabin dam was built in 1907. The Keystone dam was built in 1909. In 1921 the Brown Bridge dam was built. The Boardman dam was rebuilt in 1931. Each of these actions were major disruptions to the ecology of the Boardman River. Dams were also built on the upper reaches of the Boardman River in Kalkaska, South Boardman and Mayfield’s Swainston Creek. (3)
There was disruption of the river ecosystem and disruption of the large Grand Traverse Bay that once teamed with whitefish, herring and cisco. The bay was host to “pound nets” that devastated corigonids. The State of Michigan managed the river and open water separately. Progress is now being made in raising coregonids in the state hatcheries. There will be another attempt to re-introduce grayling.
With the removal of the Boardman Dam and the Sabin Dam the only barrier that will remain to upper stretches of the Boardman is the Union Street Dam. The restoration of the Boardman River could mean the restoration of fish populations in the Grand Traverse Bay.
But will an elegant structure that resembles the ecosystem that once stood be able to be built? I think not.
For more information on the FishPass Project, visit the Great Lakes Fishery Commission website. The next meeting of the Boardman River Implementation Team will take place on January 18th, from 1:30-3:30 p.m. at the Traverse City Governmental Center, Commission Chambers, 400 Boardman Avenue, Traverse City, MI. Meetings are open to the public.
Stewart. A. McFerran teaches a class on the Natural History of Michigan Rivers at NMC and is a frequent contributor to the Grand Traverse Journal. Many of his contributions, including this piece, are written as a direct result of interviewing people with stories to tell.
(1) Grand Traverse County Historical Society. Currents of the Boardman.
In response to several readers’ desires, all of whom greatly admire the 110 Years Ago column written for the Traverse City Record-Eagle by Cathy Griffin, volunteer for the Traverse Area Historical Society, Grand Traverse Journal has solicited the assistance of regular contributor Bensie Benghauser, to produce 50 Years Ago. The readers who requested this column asked that we cover years more recent than 100, as they hoped to encounter the names of people they once knew. Please enjoy, and if you would like to assist Bensie with a bit of news from the past, you are welcome to join her! Email your editors at email@example.com.
So, what was Traverse City talking about in January 1968?
A second heart transplant was performed by Dr. Christian Barnard in Cape Town, South Africa. This was his second operation, and the third such operation to be performed. The gentleman receiving the heart was a retired dentist, Dr. Philip Blaiberg, 58. His donor was a 24 year-old man who died from a brain hemorrhage while playing touch football with friends at a beach resort. The operation took 5 hours. Dr. Barnard’s first operation was on December 3 of the previous year and took 7 hours.
The polls are split when it comes to guessing who will be the best Republican candidate against incumbent Lyndon Johnson. One poll has Richard Nixon as the most likely to get the GOP nomination, but another poll feels the Governor Nelson Rockefeller would be a stronger candidate. Newsweek shows that Nixon has a commanding lead while the New York Times says that Johnson would carry the states with 378 electoral votes.
Graveside funeral services for George W. Raff, 88, of 306 W. 7th Street, were held this afternoon at Oakwood Cemetery, with Rev. George A. Belknap of the Evangelical United Brethren Church officiating. Arrangements were made by the Reynolds Funeral Home. Mr. Raff was born October 29, 1879 in Napoleon, Ohio. He moved to Traverse City in 1880 and had operated a fishing camp at Northport for 20 years, and one at Grand Marais for 15 years. He is survived by his wife Nellie Mae Chaney whom he married November 8, 1927.
The Grand Traverse Bay YMCA will sponsor a cake decorating course beginning Wednesdays at the YMCA. Mrs. Richard (Jean) Kluzak will be the instructor. Participants are to bring an eight-inch cake pan. All other materials will be furnished. The fee for the course is $6 for members and $8 for non-members and covers the cost of the cake decorating kit.
Miss Suanne Stouten and Jack R. Keyes were married Friday evening, December 22 at the Mayfair Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids. Mr. and Mrs. Robert Keyes of 13910 West Bay Shore Road are the parents of the groom. Mr. and Mrs. Niel Stouten for Grand Rapids are the parents of the bride. They honeymooned in Northern Michigan following a church reception. Jack Keyes is serving with the U.S. Navy stationed at Great Lakes Naval Training Station.
Movies showing on this day were “More Than a Miracle” starring Sophia Loren and Omar Shariff, and “Reflections in a Golden Eye” starring Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando.
Original prints by master artists of the 15-20th centuries are currently on display at the Mark Osterlin Library at Northwestern Michigan College. The exhibits of 36 woodcuts, engravings, etchings and lithographs is circulated by the Michigan State University Art Collection at Kresge Art Center and is sponsored by the Michigan State Council for the Arts.
Traverse City area’s “Fabulous Four” ski resorts and related businesses all report the best start in many years for a winter sports season. Thousands of skiers a day enjoyed the slopes at Traverse City Holiday Hills, Crystal Mountain, Shanty Creek, and Sugar Loaf Mountain on several Christmas week days. In addition, restaurants, hotels, and motels reported excellent volumes of business.
Young people of the Mesick Free Methodist Church will host the Cherryland youth rally which is held each month at a different community within the area. The event will take place at the Mesick High School Saturday evening, January 13, in the old gymnasium at 7:00p.m. A drama, “Dream of Heaven”, will be presented by the Pisgah Heights Wesleyan Methodist Church group.
Classified ad: To all the nice people in the Grand Travese Area…Thank your for making 1967 another fine year for Vita-Bay Potato Chips, “The Outstanding Potato Chip”. And for Snacktime Nuts & Snacks. Your Friendly Vita-Boy Man.
Traverse City firemen went to the Mary E. Lawton residence, 809 Thirs, at 1 a.m. today after a furnace humidifier’s plastic pipe broke and spilled about an inch of water on the basement floor. A water vacuum was used to remove the water and no extensive damage was reported.
Funeral services for Mrs. George (Hattie) Amiotte, 100, of 319 Sixth Street, Traverse City, will be held at 11 a.m Saturday at Reynolds funeral home. Mrs. Amiotte was born May 1, 1867 at Muskegon, an in 1899 came to Traverse City with her husband, the late George E. Amiotte, who entered into the partnership of Straub Bros. and Amiotte Candy Manufacturers. Mr. Amiotte died in 1939. Mrs. Amiotte was a life member of Traverse City Woman’s Club, a member of the First Congregational Church, a charter member of the Ladies Library Association, and was very active in civic affairs until her health no longer permitted her to be so. On her 100th birthday anniversary, she was honored with a celebration at which she received messages form the president of the United States, Governor George Romne, and many others.
The First Baptist Church announces the arrival of its new pastor, Rev. Elmer Katterjohn, a graduate of Moody Bible Institute, as is his wife. He will commence his pastorate Sunday during the 11:00 a.m worship service. Eugene Pelizzari, moderator for the church, has stated that the call to Rev. Katterjohn was voted unanimously by the church members. For several months the church has been under the leadership of interim Pastor Gilbert Miles.
Comstock Park school officials today had under advisement a complaint charging that one of its instructors is teaching religion. The complaint was made to the board of education at a meeting Wednesday night by Mrs. Lorraine Dykehouse. She said that James Gole, a sixth grade teacher, has been teaching Bible stories in his classroom. She claimed it was a violation of Supreme Court opinions banning prayers and Bible teaching in public shcools during regular school hours. Mrs. Dykehouse said unless the Comstock Park board instructs Gole to refrain from teaching Bible stories, she will transfer the complaints to the American Civil Liberties Union.
The state of Michigan has a state flower: the apple blossom; it has a state bird: the American robin; it has a state wildflower: the Dwarf Lake Iris; it has a state gem: Lake Superior greenstone; it has a state stone: the Petoskey stone; and it has a state soil: Kalkaska sand.
Wait! A state soil? Who would care enough to advocate for a state soil? As a student of nature, I know that there can be only one answer—and correct me if I am wrong: a soil science class somewhere pushed state legislators for the adoption of Kalkaska sand as the state soil–and got the job done.
What of this Kalkaska sand, then? Besides a location where it is found, what more is to be said about it? Is it the soil that made this state rich in agriculture, the soil that grows soybeans, corn, potatoes, and fruit? Perhaps it is the rich mucky soil found around Kalamazoo that used to produce so much celery that the city was once called Celery City? Or, is it the fabled soil close to Michigan’s thumb with rich, black humus that goes down two feet or more?
No, it is none of these things. Kalkaska is located in the pine barrens of Northern Michigan. It once grew white pine, red pine, jack pine, and a variety of oaks—and still does between logging operations. It generally does not grow crops successfully, especially those requiring moisture retention—like soybeans, for example. The parent material of Kalkaska sand, is, unsurprisingly, a coarse sand that let’s water percolate through easily. It dries out quickly between rains.
The parent material of a soil is made up of varying amounts of clay, silt, and sand, those particles graded in size from very small to quite coarse. A clayey soil—most common in Southern Michigan—contains microscopic grains that retain moisture well–while sand is gritty, unable to retain water; silt is somewhere in between. Soils that are most versatile contain fair measures of clay, silt, and sand: they are termed loamy soils.
In Northern Michigan a soil much prized for cultivation of many crops—corn through potatoes—is Emmet till, a loamy sand that takes on a reddish hue when moist. It is commonly found plastered upon the hills of the region, the glacial morraines that cover much of Leelanau and Benzie counties as well as other nearby places. When you take a handful of it, and squeeze, you get a gritty ball that sticks together, unlike Kalkaska sand that slithers through your fingers like dry sugar when compressed.
All of the soils in Northern Michigan—and in Michigan generally—are transported, in the sense that the glaciers brought down the parent material from the north. Elsewhere, as in the Southern states, soil developed from underlying rock layers as they weathered. Commonly, such soils are made of reddish clay that dries almost as hard as concrete in droughty summers. Root crops—like potatoes—and flowers like lilies—struggle under such conditions.
Emmet till naturally supports hardwood forests made up of Sugar Maple, Red Maple, North American beech, American basswood, White Ash (now gone), and Eastern Hemlock, while Kalkaska sand (and its related sandy relatives) grow pines and oaks. From the beginning, settlers to the area recognized the fact that hardwoods made better farms than pines. Many abandoned homesteads are to be found in the sandy barrens of Nothern Michigan, testimony to the difficulty of making a living on such unpromising soil.
So, why should Kalkaska sand achieve such recognition? My theory is this: the state tree of Michigan is the White Pine, and for good reason–it supported the logging industry that eventually tamed a vast Michigan wilderness. That being the case, then what soil grows white pines in abundance? You know the answer—Kalkaska sand.