The Alberta Visitor’s Center

The small community of Alberta in Baraga County was not only a functioning industrial village, it was also an utopian vision manifested in wood and stone. For its creator – Henry Ford – it was the inevitable realization of an industrialist vision of the future. This was a community built, maintained, and nourished by nothing but industry itself. It was a community where its residents had good jobs, affordable housing, good schools for their children, and all the comforts of a modern world at their fingertips – all thanks to the miracle of industrialization.

Thus while its sawmill did produce boards and its homes were occupied by workers; the town more importantly served as a prototype for the type of self-sufficient community Ford envisioned his company could build all over the country. It was more then just a town, it was the future as brought to you by the Ford Motor Company. Like Walt Disney would have his Disneyland,  Henry Ford would have his Alberta.

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Alberta’s more visionary purpose was abundantly clear to those passing by its Mayberry-esque location, an effect that was largely by design. It was no mistake that Ford’s village lay right alongside a major highway and in view of thousands upon thousands of tourists each summer. In fact those tourists were specifically summoned from their travels to stop by and take a look – thanks to the picturesque lake at the town’s front door adorned by the familiar cursive logo of the Ford Motor Company. There’s were also the prominent “welcome” signs lining the highway literally beckoning those passing by to stop in for a look.

This was the real purpose of Ford’s small remote village, not to help build automobiles but more importantly to help build public relations. By embracing Ford and his industrialized revolution customers were helping to build the future of the American small town community – white picket fences, apple pie, and all.

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Alberta’s tourist-centric role was further realized by the inclusion of this quaint little building found right alongside the road. This was the town’s Visitor Center, a building where those passersby harkened by the tranquil lake and the welcome signs could learn more about Ford’s little sawmill village. Not only was information available inside, but visitors could also sign up for tours of the town and its mill.

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Today the old visitor’s center continues to stand guard at the villages’s front gates, but is no longer as welcoming as it once was. Though visitors are still welcome at Alberta, there is no longer a staffed presence here and the building is locked and unavailable to tourists.

The building looks much the same as it did nearly a century ago, save for a new gabled roof on its northern end replacing what was once just a flat room. This is the back side of the building, the side facing the adjacent mill and not the highway. A short sidewalk still makes its way to this back door, its end once capped by a parking area for guests no doubt.

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On the opposite side we find the visitor’s center business end – though today it looks more like a forgotten back porch than tourist-beckoning front facade. Originally this facade was a bit more impressive, featuring a large open portico over the entranceway flanked by a pair of large square columns. At some point later in the building’s history that portico was filled in to become this less inviting looking appendage to the building.

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In addition to housing the community’s visitor center this roadside attraction also served as the town’s water works. While the visitor center took up the south side of the building, the north side housed the main pumps used to supply Alberta’s homes and other public buildings with their running water.

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Those pumps drew that water from this – a small lake sitting across the highway. This is Lake Plumbago, named after the small creek from which it was formed. The lake is man made, the earthen dam that created it now serving as the base to the highway as it passed over its top. The area here was once marsh, and a popular picnic spot before the village’s arrival. In fact it is suggested that it was on such a picnic that Ford himself thought up the idea of a sawmill and village here – not a remote possibility considering Ford owned the entire area.

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In yet another public relations move, those pumps and related machinery were not hidden away deep inside the building’s basement. Instead they were paraded out in full public view, thanks to the banks of windows surrounding the  building’s northern end.

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Those machines can still be spied yet today, sitting as clean and complete as they would have been nearly a century ago.  Today they stand silent, however, as the town’s water supply is no longer dependent on the neighboring lake. Today this equipment sits largely as a museum piece.

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Though a bit hard to tell today, the pumping machinery was not the only show-off feature of the Alberta’s visitor center. A closer look at the building itself reveals a few more interesting architectural features. Items such as the white clapboards, double hung windows in green, and especially the corner pilaster feature complete with a simulated capital.

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Today those details may go unnoticed, as the old visitor’s center hasn’t seen a visitor pass through its doors in some time. After the sawmill closed its doors and the community turned over to Michigan Tech, there wasn’t much left for visitors to gawk at for some time. Finally in 1998 the old sawmill was reopened to the public as a museum piece, and once again tourists had reason to stop and visit. Instead of utilizing the old visitors center, however,  the university utilized a newer structure as their gift shop and visitors center built on the opposite side of the mill. As for the old visitors center, it simply sits silent and empty along the side of the highway.

Discuss…

  1. Looks like Sparty snuck in there and painted that building.

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