Mar 2, 2020

McCormick Lodge

In 1964, after years of wrangling between environmentalists and competing interests, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Wilderness Act. The act created a formal mechanism for designating wilderness, and immediately set aside several million acres of land across dozens of federal land areas to be managed by the new National Wilderness Preservation System.

The entrance to McCormick Wilderness
Under the Wilderness Act, the land is to be restrained from human influences so that ecosystems can change over time in their own way, as much as possible free from human manipulation. As the Act puts it, "the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man."

Today, there are over 750 wilderness areas in portions of our national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and other public lands, managed across various federal agencies, primarily the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They total over 100 million acres across all but a handful of states.

The McCormick Wilderness is one of several wilderness areas in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where I am originally from. But when I was a kid, my aunt and uncle worked at what was then the McCormick Lodge, a lavish, mostly abandoned but perfectly maintained lodge hidden away in one of the most remote areas of the U.P., a land that itself is mostly unknown to the world.

This is the story of the McCormick Lodge, and how it came to be part of the National Wilderness Preservation System, one of America's environmental treasures, and how this allows all of us to forever enjoy one small piece of primeval northern forest.

In 1778, just after the Revolutionary War, Robert McCormick emigrated from Ireland and settled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. McCormick made several models of a reaper but none proved successful.

His son, Cyrus Hall McCormick, studied his father's records of failed reapers and eventually developed a working version of the reaper. In 1834 Cyrus received his first patent on the reaper, a machine which dramatically altered farm production methods.

Cyrus continued working on the design until, in 1847, he moved to Chicago and opened a reaper factory which eventually became The McCormick Harvesting Machine Company. He continued developing the McCormick business until his death in 1884. He died a well-known and very wealthy man.

His son, also Cyrus Hall McCormick, was born in 1859 and at age 25, upon his father's death, took over officially as president of his father's company (although his mother actually controlled the company). In 1902, at the suggestion of JP Morgan, McCormick merged the McCormick business with several other companies that had also developed harvesters and reapers, forming the International Harvester Co.

At age 36, McCormick became the first president of the new company. Cyrus Bentley was a young attorney who represented the McCormicks in this transaction. The Bentley and McCormick families had known each other for years, and the Cyruses had become close friends.

The same year his father died, 1884, McCormick also went on his first camping trip. While at Princeton, he had become close friends with one of his professors, William C. Gray, an avid outdoorsman who often camped throughout the U.S., but especially throughout northern Wisconsin and the U.P.

One day Gray invited McCormick to accompany him on one of his camping trips. They traveled by train to Champion, Michigan, just down the road from where I grew up. They followed the Peshekee River, a river I know well, north to a campsite on the edge of a then unnamed lake.

Yellog Dog Falls
Gray had wanted to visit the Peshekee River area as much for its geological interest as for its abundance of wildlife and rugged scenery. Its lakes and swamps contained the headwaters of four river systems, the Yellow Dog, Dead, Huron and Peshekee, three flowing into Lake Superior and the Peshekee flowing south to Lake Michigan via the Michigamme and Menominee Rivers.

In the following years, McCormick and his attorney, Bentley, began to frequent this area. They would set up a temporary base camp on a small rocky island in this lake which they eventually named White Deer Lake.

Separately, along Lake Superior miles northeast of this island, community executives from the local county seat, Marquette, set up an exclusive club in the Huron Mountains, which still exists today as the Huron Mountain Club. It is a large tract of land along Lake Superior comprising thousands of acres, including several inland lakes.

In 1902, Bentley accepted an offer to join the Huron Mountain Club. Bentley was an avid hiker, and often hiked to White Deer Lake from the Huron Mountain Club. He had an idea to build a trail along the same route.

McCormick, who also was a member of the Huron Mountain Club, liked his friend’s idea, and together in 1903 he and Bentley purchased nearly 160 acres for less than $500 that included the island they camped at so often, and the west end of White Deer Lake.

Through nearly a dozen additional purchases, they established a tract of several thousand acres. In 1904 McCormick started building on the property, beginning with several cabins on the island. Soon they moved construction to the main shore.

Eventually, there were seventeen massive log lodges, boathouses and outbuildings scattered across the island and the surrounding woods, built of log and chinking, with verandas and balconies. But they still referred to this place as the “Rough Camp."

At the same time, Bentley completed his cabin at the Huron Mountain Club on Lake Superior at the mouth of the Pine River, along with his trail to White Deer Lake. This trail, and various other trails along a similar route, were referred to as the Bentley Trail.

The Bentley Trail developed into an elaborate trail system built between 1904 and 1920 by Bentley and many hired men. Most of it was made to be walked by anyone, even women in dresses with their parasols. The trail was about thirty-eight miles, the last ten miles covered by boat and wagon.

For years, the two Cyruses, their families and many hired men built trails and cabins, lodges and dams, and even a dredged channel in the area of White Deer Lake. By the 1920s, well maintained trails led to lakes and waterways, where boathouses sheltered light, swift Rushton rowboats. Some of the pathways around the main lake became level boulevards three feet wide, with hewn log walks at the water’s edge equipped with pole railings.

Cabins and more amenities were followed by sailboats, rowboats and canoes. They sank well points for water, imported a generator and installed telephones. Electricity and plumbing were installed. An entire staff of chefs, wagon drivers, butlers, cleaners and errand boys were hired to keep the lodge operating smoothly. The camp acquired a fleet of motorcars, including a Model T coupe.

Friends and business associates of both families, young and old, visited McCormick's Lodge year round. Guests often arrived in formal attire, ill prepared for the camp life of fishing and hiking. They were furnished with a trail map in a folded leather case with their initials embossed in gold on the cover. A supply of rain coats, hats, boots and other clothing, fishing equipment and other gear were kept on hand.

Chimney Cabin
Guests hiked, fished, swam and picnicked on lakes and rivers throughout the area. They drank whiskey and fine French wines. In the evenings, they would clamber into boats and canoes, sitting on the water listening to classical and popular music pouring out from one of the cabins. The lavishness of the entire McCormick Tract can hardly be overstated.

Life at White Deer Lake now was comfortable for both families, although Bentley still preferred the less stoic life of the Huron Mountain Club. The McCormicks dropped their club membership in 1920, but the Bentleys spent more and more time there.

Cyrus McCormick eventually retired from International Harvester so he could spend more time at the McCormick Lodge. Later, a rift developed between Bentley and him. Their partnership was dissolved and McCormick became the sole owner. Shortly after, Bentley’s health failed and he died in 1930.

By the 1930s, McCormick's sons, Cyrus and Gordon, made much more use of the property, including boating, swimming, ping pong and tennis on a clay court. October 1935 was Cyrus McCormick's last visit to the site. He died the next year at the age of 77. Ownership to the McCormick Tract went to his son, Gordon McCormick.

Gordon, an architect, began a renovation project of all the buildings that continued into the 40s. They built a new boathouse. Central heating was installed, roof beams were raised, chimneys rebuilt, stories added, plumbing modernized, interiors repanelled, roofs and porches extended, and balconies moved from here to there and back again.

Fanciful bridges and rustic gazebos crowned stream crossings and scenic spots. Curiosities included gnarled furniture, a floating tennis court and a driving range where guests hit floating golf balls onto the lake.

During the forties, Gordon spent little time at the lodge. He visited briefly in 1947 and never returned. For the last twenty years of his life, he would plan visits. Supplies would be ordered, and everything made ready. Then, invariably, he would fail to appear.

For years the camp ran pretty much as always, under the direction of a hired superintendent and several men. The camp stood as a beautiful museum of northwoods craftsmanship and culture, year after year, its forest untouched, the trails, bridges and walkways kept in perfect shape for the man who never used them.

In the 1960s, my aunt and uncle, Ina and Leo Wuorenmaa accepted positions as caretakers of the McCormick Lodge. Aunt Ina was responsible for feeding the workhands. My uncle had what he described as the best possible job, living and working in the woods he dearly loved. He and the other workers maintained the trails, land and lodge.

Because of our relationship, we could visit McCormick's. The old Native American trail along the Peshekee River that Cyrus McCormick first traveled was now a paved road along an abandoned railroad bed. At the turnoff to the McCormick Lodge was a narrow one-lane road that wound through the woods, ending at the lodge at White Deer Lake.

Our uncle showed us the beautiful buildings, the boat house, the hand-drawn ferry to the island, and the lodges and accommodations. He showed us drawers full of new, fine clothing - shirts, pants, underwear, sweaters - anything Gordon would have wanted on a visit.

As years went by, competing parties, recognizing the value of the McCormick Tract, and realizing the health issues with Gordon, worked on plans to assume ownership of the McCormick Tract. The state of Michigan worked with the McCormick estate to make it into a state park. About a half-dozen other groups had plans for the property, including the Nature Society, several universities, the Boy Scouts of America and the Nature Conservancy.

But Gordon had his own ideas. He considered the nature groups and strongly wanted the area to remain a wilderness. He decided, though, that it would have more protection in the hands of a government agency.

White Deer Lake
Gordon died in 1967. Knowing his health was failing, just days before his death he transferred ownership of the entire McCormick Tract to the U. S. Department of Agriculture, to be added to the U.S. Forest Service. This was his best bet that the land would be preserved much as his father had found it.

It worked. A year later, the Forest Service auctioned off the entire contents of the buildings, an event I attended. Eventually, most of the buildings were removed or destroyed, and the entire 17,000 acres that Cyrus McCormick had purchased were established as a wilderness area in the Ottawa National Forest, renamed the McCormick Wilderness.

Today, the McCormick Wilderness has returned to about how it was two centuries back when Cyrus McCormick was first tent camping there. There are very few people, but lots of wildlife, including bear, moose, otter, mink, fox, deer, pine martens, beaver, fisher, bobcat, coyote and wolves. And very rarely a lynx or cougar. Roaming through the land, you can occasionally find remains to the dozens of buildings once on the property.

The glacier-scoured hills of McCormick Wilderness were last logged in the early 1900s. There remain small patches of huge virgin white pine scattered among rugged rock outcrops. The land remains the pristine headwaters of four river systems. Its mostly rocky and hilly terrain with cliffs and outcrops contains eighteen lakes plus numerous swamps and muskegs. The few people who journey onto this land get to experience one of the country's great pieces of primeval forest.

Trails Today in the McCormick Wilderness
The Bentley Trail to the Huron Mountain Club is gone, but in place are several new rustic trails, including several miles of the North Country Trail, a 4600 mile footpath that when completed will take you west to North Dakota and east to Vermont.

There are a few ways to access the McCormick Wilderness. The most common is County Road 607 (Huron Bay Grade), 3 miles west of Champion, Michigan, along U.S. 41, just a couple of hundred feet west of the Peshekee River bridge. Go north 9 miles and the entrance is on your right. One trail follows the original road to White Bear Lake. The North Country Trail also cuts through from this same point.

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