Once bustling iron town now mines tourism

Michigan Historical Museum photo

Fayette iron workers pose on a blast furnace at the height of the town’s heyday in the 1880s.

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is littered with ghost towns, monuments to the  lumber and mining industries that flared in the last century and then quickly burned themselves out. One of those towns,  Fayette, a little iron mining town near Escanaba with a colorful but short history, has been restored and now mines tourists instead of iron ore.

Although guidebooks persist in describing it as a “ghost town,” historian Thomas Friggens objects to use of the term, as the town was never completely deserted.

Sailors called Fayette’s protected harbor the Snail Shell Harbor.

      Back in the days when the charcoal-smelted iron industry was flourishing, Fayette had a population of a thousand souls. A 1930 article in The Detroit News reported that “former residents say it was the closest that any community ever has come to measuring up to the standards of the mythical Utopia.” Some doubt this depiction of the town’s “idyllic life,” pointing to records that show there was plenty of hardship.

Fayette was founded in 1867 and boomed for about 20 years. Like lumbering, the charcoal iron industry left a trail of towns fallen on hard times when it faded. The industry dwindled with the depletion of the hardwood timber from which charcoal was made. The charcoal furnaces could not compete with the soft coal smelters established in the Pittsburgh, Pa., and Gary, Ind., districts. It was more economical to ship ore to the lower lake mills than to transport coal to upper Michigan and then ship the pig iron back. Incidentally, the term “pig iron” came from the shape of the molds into which the molten iron was poured. They looked like piglets with a sow.

Fayette was named for Fayette Brown, one of the directors of the Jackson Iron Company, which constructed the town’s first blast furnace. The first pig iron was cast on Christmas Day in 1867.

Michigan Historical Museum photo
The town’s stock barn crew poses on Fayette’s main street.

      Ore was shipped from a mine in Negaunee by rail to Escanaba, where it was loaded onto a schooner, the J. B. Kitchen, and taken to Fayette. The company owned about l6,000 acres of hardwood timber land near Fayette. When the timber was finally all cut down and had been converted by the kiln process into charcoal, the company was forced to close down.

The village, which consisted of a large hotel, store, town hall, dwelling houses, docks and furnaces, was valued at more than a quarter million dollars when Fayette was in its glory. It was sold in l920 for $l0,000. Even in its decadent stage, Fayette was charming. There is a natural harbor known to sailors as Snail Shell Harbor because of its peculiar shape. Many a ship, buffeted by heavy gales on Lake Michigan, sought refuge there. In 1883, the steamer Lady Washington put up in the harbor and saved Fayette from burning down.

There was always the danger of fire in the town. Kenneth LaFayette, in his book “Flaming Brands” wrote about a fire on the evening of May l2, l883, that started in the stock house and nearly destroyed the entire iron-making concern:

“The warehouse clerk was the first to notice the flames at the corner of the building nearest the bay and he gave the alarm. Soon, every able-bodied person was fighting the wind-driven fire. The fire engine was placed near the buildings and while … men, women and children … worked with all their strength … pumping the hand engine … ,the inadequate stream of water was fed to the flames. Those not pumping the engine carried pails of water from nearby Lake Michigan and threw them uselessly on the fire. It was thought that the whole town was doomed. Then, the steamer “Lady Washington” moved from her moorings and … started her pumps. In a short time, the fire was extinguished as it was beginning to threaten the second casting house.

Michigan Historical Museum photo
A tiny locomotive works the iron foundry complex in this photo taken around 1880.

      “The first flames spotted by the clerk had spread rapidly inside the stock house where the timbers and beams were coated with charcoal dust collected over the years. The dust acted like fast fuses and sent trails of fire in all directions. Sixty-five thousand bushels of charcoal stored there caught fire and destroyed the building. The engine house, top house and other builldings were also destroyed, amounting to a $40,000 loss. The Lady Washington aided in saving the two bare stacks, the engines, one casting house and the hot blasts and boilers. The steamer also saved the coal kilns near the bay, a large supply of cord wood, and the lower docks.”

Fire was not the only danger.

Church records report that “Joseph Gardippe froze to death at age 52 in 1882 on the way home from his job. Three-year-old William Gratham was killed when he tumbled off one of the high limestone cliffs near the smelting furnaces.”

Fayette had its colorful personalities. There was “Pig Iron” Fred Hink, a husky man who handled the 100- to 150-pound iron pigs with perfect ease for long hours without showing any sign of fatigue.

Another character was Harry Merry, son of the superintendent of Jackson Iron Company, who managed to inject a wild and woolly western atmosphere into the peaceful community. He had spent a couple of years on a ranch in the West and took great delight in doing things in Western style. He was fond of riding bucking broncos. Sometimes he would dress up like a cow puncher, shoot with his two guns at some friend’s feet to make him dance, or rope someone with his lariat.

Michigan Historical Museum photo
A furnace crew poses proudly in front of the blast furnaces at Fayette.

      Kenneth LaFayette tells this story: One day while Merry was in an Escanaba saloon, “a big fellow walked in and started pushing the barkeeper around for some past grievance and threatening everyone in the place. Merry, not used to this type of abuse, calmly drew his pistol and shot the troublemaker in the foot, putting him out of commission for a few days and restoring order …. He was applauded for his community spirit.”

The city also had its bootlegger. During the 1870s, Michigan was experimenting with prohibition under a state Dry Act. About two miles from the town was the Hole in the Ground saloon, operated by Alph Berlanquette. It was patronized by furnace employees, particularly on weekends and paydays. The Jackson Iron Company made an earnest effort to enforce the state prohibition law in the township, but without much success.

Berlanquette’s saloon was on the shore of Sand Bay and rum runners were as active bringing liquor from Green Bay, Wis., as later bootleggers were bringing the wet stuff across the Detroit River in the 1930s.

A tourist walks down the main street of Fayette, now a state park.

      There were floating saloons, too. Usually on paydays or festive occasions, a well-stocked liquor boat would anchor off Fayette and small boats were sent ashore to collect customers. One stormy night, three Fayette men drowned when their small craft capsized while they were returning from a floating saloon.

Berlanquette died, and the Hole in the Ground saloon was taken over by Jim Summers, a notorious character, who soon converted the place into an infamous resort. It lasted until the respectable residents of the town were aroused by the story of a girl who had been lured there from Milwaukee. She escaped, and when Summers tried to force her to return, a mob descended on the brothel. Summers was beaten and the building burned. Summers left Fayette in a hurry.

Fayette and the surrounding countryside have been the scene of many feverish treasure hunts. There are several stories of buried gold, some of them legendary and others more plausible. The one in which more credence is placed, however, is the tale of the hoarded money of saloon owner Berlanquette.

Berlanquette’s profits were believed to be immense. He spent little and never dealt with a bank, but when he died he left his widow penniless. The supposition was that he had cached his money as he did his liquor, in a cave. After his death, all the caverns in the region were explored, and much digging was done. There is a rumor that the treasure was found around 1910, but it was never substantiated.

A huge oak tree frames this view of a one-time ghost town.

      A brochure from the Fayette State Park tells us that Fayette was a “company” town. The Jackson Iron Co. built and owned the homes of the employees – the hotel and the boarding house for single men, as well as frame dwellings and log cabins for married employees. It also built the general store, butcher’s shop and barber shop. The employee accounts were kept in the company office, and boarding costs, food and other purchases, as well as company doctor fees were deducted from paychecks. The store was an example of the benevolent paternalism practiced by the company.

Most of the workers were semi- or unskilled and worked long hours. They made $l-$l.50 a day, decent wages for the time. There were the inevitable periods of unemployment. Some stretched their food budgets with gardening and fishing or took in boarders. Ladies’ coats were $6, skirts and corsets $l.25. Men’s suits were $l7. Shirts 85 cents to $4.50; trousers $4 and suspenders 40 cents. Toys were 50 cents for a doll, a dish set went for 31 cents, marbles 65 cents, toy cart 80 cents.

For recreation and entertainment, there was the Town Hall, also called the “Opera House,” a two-story structure that housed shops on the main floor and featured stage plays and social gatherings upstairs. Horse races and baseball game were popular entertainment. When the town’s baseball club traveled for an away game, a steamer was often chartered to carry along the Fayette cornet band and spectators. The winter months were brightened by parties, dances, and masquerades held in the hall. Music was often provided by the Fayette Cornet Band

This furnace still stands, unused for more than 100 years.

      The town changed hands several times before it was purchased in 1959 by the state. A Detroit News article by James Kerwin in October 1979, told of the restoration of Fayette:

“Only experts can tell that any restoration work has been accomplished; most tourists believe the dwellings are perfectly preserved.

“… the carpentry crew is painstakingly authentic in making things look old. For instance, white pine from state timber camps is cut to the dimensions of lumber used a century ago. It is bleached and treated with a wire brush to give it a weathered look and make it blend into the existing material. Old-time square nails made by a Virgnia firm are used to secure the boards.

“The same routine is used to replace doors and windows destroyed by dry rot. All the lumber is treated with a preservative to prevent decay. Crumbling masonry is replaced and treated with a sealant to keep water from causing more damage by expanding cracks and crevices. In addition, special paints are mixed to match the types used during the l870s and l880s.”

Every year, the ancient rite of the Blessing of the Fleet takes place in Fayette’s beautiful Snail Shell Harbor. The ceremony was described in a Detroit News article Aug. 1, 1962:

“The ancient rite of the Blessing of the Fleet will be solemnized next Sunday. Priests from St. Peter the Fisherman parish, in existence since 1876 when Fayette was the center of a bustling iron smelting industry, will march in procession from the church to the bay for the ceremony. All craft in the harbor will be blessed after a memorial service in which 17-year-old Sally Pelletier, of Garden, this year’s Queen of the Fleet, will toss flowers on the water for men of the parish who died on the Great Lakes. Although the Blessing of the Fleet has been solemnized here since 1949, this is the first year the ceremony will be held in the Fayette State Park. Boats come from miles along the shore of northern Lake Michigan, from harbors in the Lower Peninsula and even from Lake Superior.”

The ceremony continues to this day.

The Fayette Historic Townsite is open to visitors from mid-May through mid-October, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Call 906-644-2603 for information.

Compiled from articles in Detroit News and other sources.

Fishing boats, pleasure boats and other craft from all over the Great Lakes gather in Fayette’s harbor for the traditional Blessing of the Fleet.

By Kay Houston / The Detroit News