Hunts' Guide to The Upper Peninsula

Alberta Village Museum and Ford Historic Sawmill

Alberta museum
Like many of Henry Ford's pet projects, the prim 1930s sawmill (rear) and powerhouse (foreground) at Alberta combined his economic and social goals. The timber sawn for his autos was logged from 400,000 acres of Ford-owned U.P. forests near Sidnaw, Pequaming, Big Bay, and elsewhere. Millhands and their families lived in adjoining Ford-designed Cape Cod houses, agreeing to live by his many rules.

To see Henry Ford the social engineer, a visit to this picture-perfect sawmill village, built in 1935, is well worth while assuming you watch the excellent 10-minute introductory video and find the illustrated interpretive displays about Ford's thinking behind Alberta. They are tucked away upstairs in the sawmill. Then you'll likely walk away with a new appreciation of what means Ford used to create a certain type of worker and community. Some tidbits are unique to the Upper Peninsula: how Ford hoped to mechanize logging using his beloved Fordson tractor, why Ford wanted to own his own timberland (he thought his suppliers were taking advantage of him), and why he needed so much lumber. In 1924, when Ford founded Kingsford and built its extensive industrial complex, Upper Peninsula leaders were thrilled with the prospect of more Ford involvement in the U.P. They saw him as a source of jobs when area mines would eventually shut down.

Summer visitors can take a self-guided tour at their own pace. Some people will be so fascinated they could spend hours here. First there's the picturesque sawmill and its intact machinery and other logging equipment. Then there's a walk around the 12-house model wilderness village with its central village green, showing Ford the admirer of New England. Its Cape Cod houses have charming individual details, quite unlike typical Upper Peninsula company housing for workers. Sawmill workers were required to raise much of their food on garden plots, two acres per family.

Ford's ideal village also shows what he thought of his own cars and their impact on the landscape. Workers were to keep their cars in long group garages well behind their front and back yards. An outing to Alberta shows the sunny side of corporate paternalism. This is not the place to examine the darker aspects of Ford and Fordism, which were significant.

Alberta was part of Henry Ford's idealistic "village industries" : rural factories where workers could live close to the land - "one foot in industry, one foot in the land" - in contrast to the hundred thousand workers at Ford's giant Rouge complex in Dearborn outside Detroit. After the Rouge was up and running, Ford quickly soured on the immigrant urban proletariat he had attracted and created. His creative mind set to transplanting America's self-reliant rural roots into the industrial age he had done so much to develop. The Greenfield Village museum in Dearborn was one such result of Henry Ford's thinking. His money-draining village industry concept was another. Most village industries were in old southern Michigan towns (Dundee, Tecumseh, Manchester, Northville, Milford, Plymouth, and many more), tucked away on dam sites where they could generate their own power. (Ford was enthralled with the notion of having self-sufficient power sources.)

Alberta was consciously sited to be a showplace. By 1923 E. G. Kingsford, the Iron Mountain Ford dealer who was married to Henry Ford's cousin, had purchased for Ford Motor 400,000 acres of timberland in Baraga, Marquette, Iron, and Dickinson counties. Ford came to own the mill and village of Big Bay; a hydroelectric plant, sawmill/chemical processing plant, and iron mine at Iron Mountain/Kingsford; and sawmills at Munising, Sidnaw, L'Anse, and Pequaming.

Motoring along U.S. 41 between his summer home near Big Bay and his L'Anse facilities, Ford is said to have stopped his driver here by Plumbago Creek and exclaimed how this would be a fine spot for a mill pond and factory. "The mill and houses were in full view of passing motorists, demonstrating how a lumber mill operation should be managed," wrote Ford historian and relative Ford R. Bryan in Beyond the Model T: The Other Ventures of Henry Ford. "Signs along the road for miles made it clear that the village and surrounding forests were the property of Ford Motor Company. Visitors were welcome to picnic on the neatly mowed grounds beside the mill pond and visit the immaculately clean mill in operation." On a few occasions Henry Ford himself greeted visitors. There's still a small picnic area and nature trail by the millpond, on the east side of the highway.

Wood was used for Ford bodies until 1937, when Ford switched to steel. Ford station wagons or "woodies" continued to have wood bodies and sides. Ford's Upper Peninsula lumber operations were just one part of Henry Ford's program to acquire his own supplies of raw material, from iron and coal to timber and rubber. He revived one mine in Michigamme and started a new one. "On these ventures it is certain Ford wanted his source of supply primarily for reliability rather than for profit," Bryan wrote.

Here at Ford's model sawmill, band saw, log carriage, edger, trimmer are all in place - everything except the engines, which are at Henry Ford Museum complex in Dearborn. It's all in tip-top shape, meticulously painted, just the way Henry Ford expected all his far-flung properties to be maintained. A bolt chain lifts sample logs from the "hot pond," here represented by sand. It was a pond of heated water six feet deep where ice and dirt could be cleaned off logs throughout the winter. Large window areas allow for lots of natural light into the factory.

Ford corporate historian Bob Kreipke has prepared excellent signs, photos, and descriptions of each stage of sawing and milling wood. His video is quite interesting. The nifty gift shop has inexpensive scale models of woodies, relevant books including wildlife (Henry Ford loved birds), and bird's eye maple and other wood products, often made by Alberta's last sawyer, who sometimes gives tours.

When Henry Ford II took over from his senile grandfather, he quickly closed old Henry's beloved village industries. In 1954 Ford Motor gave the Alberta facility to Michigan Technological University. Michigan Tech's School of Forestry and Wood Products continues to use its Ford Forestry Center and 4,000-acre forest as a teaching and research facility with overnight housing. Other groups can rent it for conferences and classes, too. Call (906) 524-6181.

Alberta Village, a nonprofit museum, has an outstanding web site, http// . It has a good history section, excellent links on forestry and on area attractions, and specifics about events at Alberta. Tin Lizzie Day in June is its big celebration.
On U.S. 41 nine miles south of L'Anse and five miles north of the U.S. 141/M-28 turnoff. (906) 524-6181. Open for tours from June 15 thru Oct. 15. Monday through Saturday 9:30 to 3:30. Group tours at other times by appointment. $5/adult, $3/students. Wheelchair accessible except for mill's second floor.
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Alberta Village Museum and Ford Historic Sawmill. Henry Ford the social engineer built this showplace sawmill village in 1935, when Ford auto bodies used wood from Ford's vast U.P. timberlands. Now it's a museum/gift shop in mint condition. Millworkers' Cape Cod homes and village community center are now Michigan Tech's conference center. ... more

Canyon Falls & Canyon Falls Roadside Park. A fragrant 10-minute woodland walk leads from a pleasant picnic spot to the Upper Falls of the Sturgeon River. Adventurous hikers can ignore signs and continue on to Canyon Falls and a wild canyon. There pines and balsam grow out of mossy stone walls. ... more

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