The Alberta Village

Situated deep in the wilderness of Baraga County far removed from civilization lies an upper peninsula peculiarity. Its very existence defies convention, as no copper, iron, slate, or even sandstone resides within its proximity. It stands not on any navigable body of water and no rail line passes by its door. There seems to be no reason to it exist at all, yet there it stands shimmering in the forest like a mirage in the desert. Yet it is not an oasis that this hallucination presents to us, but instead a full-fledged town complete with all the trimmings of the modern world. Petite houses stand at attention along tree lines streets, with a spiderweb of concrete sidewalks and pathways traveling from house to house, from back door to front door, from street to street. Street lights line the wide avenues while a well trimmed public square features a pair of one-room schoolhouses flanking a central flagpole where old glory waves in the breeze. To the visitor it all seems like something straight out of an old Twilight Zone episode, where space travelers discover a earth-like town on a planet where an earth town should not be, yet there it stands in all its museum-like wonder.

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Yet this is no alien planet, and the little town is no mirage in the desert. This is Alberta, a small community of worker housing found several miles outside of L’Anse. It’s existence was no accident as its idyllic nature was wholly intentional. That was because this was a planned community designed from the ground up to be a worker’s haven – an proletariat garden of Eden bestowed upon them by their bourgeoisie overseers. It was an experiment in social engineering perpetrated by one of the nation’s most prolific industrialists – Henry Ford.

The idea of such a planned community wasn’t new, as Copper Country mines have been attempting the same thing for decades before Henry Ford even arrived to the scene. At its core the idea is to create a community that is above all else affordable to live, if not downright cheap. The companies would build the houses so they could keep housing prices low. They provided the residents with low cost (or even free) heating supplies, electricity, and running water. They often provided garden space to provide free or cheap food. Such generosity was not just charity, as the real benefit of a lower cost of living for its workforce was so that companies could pay their workforce less. Of course the real proverbial apple in this paradise tale was the constant threat of unionization. For those tempted to take a bit they could have easily and quickly been banished from garden, and be forced to abandon all the low cost and high quality living the mine’s had provided up to that point.

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Alberta’s paternalistic master was not a mining company but a car company and its residents did not work underground but instead toiled away inside the small sawmill that sat at the head of the town’s main street (seen above). Unlike the mines at the heart of other paternalistic communities, however, the sawmill at Alberta was not integral to the Ford Motor Company’s success. In fact there was already a far larger and more capable Ford saw mill located just up the road in Pequaming. In many ways Alberta was less an industrial community as it was a social experiment.

Thats because in many ways Ford saw himself as a progressive figure, looking to elevate the working man’s condition through the wonders of industrialization. It was a noble goal, especially at the height of the Great Depression when Alberta was initially established. Thus the mill at Alberta really didn’t serve any integral purpose to his company’s bottom line, but was instead an attempt at showing the world how properly applied industry can help create a modern middle-class lifestyle to any American no matter where they happened to live. Alberta was nothing more then a model town in Ford’s own image designed as a show piece of what could be in a world clamoring for something better.

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Alberta first came to life in 1936, at which time its sole employer – the sawmill – was erected along the banks of the neighboring Plumbego Creek. Once its machinery was installed the mill went straight to work creating the lumber which would be used to build the town itself. The town was to be built in two phases, the first to be completed along with the mill itself and a second to be completed years down the road when the town eventually grew.  Phase one consisted of an original 12 homes to house the mill’s diminutive workforce, complimented by a pair of one-room schools for the education of the children and a community / service building to maintain the property. Additionally the small creak was impounded to create a reservoir large enough to provide for all the town’s water and fire fighting needs and a steam-powered pump house was erected alongside to deliver that water. Finally a small public visitors center was constructed from which all the wonders of Ford’s vision could be communicated to those passing by.

Unfortunately that utopian vision never came to pass. Instead of hiring more workers to provide the mill with its lumber, Ford instead elected to use contracted labor from neighboring cities and towns. Because of this the town would never get the opportunity to grow past its original dozen homes, and Ford’s ambitious plans for an additional homes and public buildings – including a church,  store, and a post office – never came to fruition.

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Though never getting the chance to become all it could be, the small mill community was still something unique and ambitious for its time. This was not your normal mine or mill town of the type you expect to find across the Copper Country. The most notable difference was in the homes themselves. Gone were the lines of identical homes all built from the same cookie-cutter designs. At Alberta its homes were all unique, built from scratch and featuring a variety of styles, and floor plans. Also missing were the obvious separating of manager and worker, as both lived just doors down from each other on the same tree-lined streets.

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These homes were also of a slightly more modern design then those once provided by mine companies. The homes featured maple floors, electric lighting, central heat whose boilers were fueled by wood scraps from the mill, and indoor bathrooms complete with running water also supplied by the company.

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Most of those homes could be found lining both sides of the communities Main Street, a wide avenue which was anchored at its north end by the Ford Mill and on its southern end by a small public square.

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Framing both sides of the street are lines of mature trees whose lush canopies shade the adjacent concrete sidewalks which also run alongside the roadway.

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In addition to the sidewalks, paved walkways can also be found (some with steps like above), making their way up to each of the street’s houses.

sidewalk

Interestingly there was one thing missing from this rather suburban streetscape, a curious omission considering the proprietors of this particular establishment. That omission would be garages for automobiles, and the driveways that often go with them. In stark difference to what we have come to expect along tree lined streets like these, Ford chose to hide his garages from view along a neighboring alleyway. But instead of giving each home its own stand-alone garage, Ford choose a slightly different approach.

garages

That different approach involved placing the garages under one roof, resulting in the odd structure seen above. Like a straightened out round house for locomotives, the lengthy structure featured 8 individual automobile “stalls” – one for each house found along the Main Street. Interestingly this approach would not be duplicated for the last remaining four homes in the community – those homes would end up receiving their own individual garages.

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In addition to their garages, the residents of Alberta also received complimentary plots of land for gardening. As part as Ford’s vision for Alberta to be completely self-sufficient these gardens were crucial, yet the realities of the region’s northern climate quickly made that vision unattainable. The region was good for growing trees but not so good for vegetables. Thus the gardens were largely abandoned, and left to become just overgrown patches of grass. One of those community gardens can be seen above in the form of this long wide depression set between the Main Street homes and a second group of homes found on the town’s periphery. Old maps mark this spot as the “gardens” but nothing but grass grows here now.

schools

Near those abandoned gardens stands the community’s public square, a plat of land that is home to Alberta’s public structures. Besides garden plots, running water and wood-fired heat, the residents of Alberta were also provided with  another essential service – public schooling. That’s because Ford wasn’t looking for single young men to reside within his model town, Ford wanted stable, mature, married men with families to call Alberta home. Towards that end Ford erected a pair of one-room schoolhouses within the town’s public square – the two complimenting structures seen above. One would serve children up to the 4th grade while the second would continue on up to the 8th grade. After that, however,  Alberta’s children were then tasked with a long daily commute to the Pequaming High School some 17 miles away.

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These one room school houses were built in the same manner as the rest of the homes in Alberta. Set upon rubble-rock foundations they featured a front cloak room, a main classroom, and a back room. They were provided with their own wood-fired heating plant. I believe this one was for the older kids, a building which had a kitchen in its basement.

school2

Next door stands the second school, one that I believe housed the younger kids. If that is the case, this building would have housed a mechanical shop in its basement. In addition to a standard type curriculum, these schools also emphasized the instruction of more technical skills, the types of skills future industrial workers may need. This was very similar to how the paternal communities of Copper Country mining towns also viewed their public schools – vessels to not just educated but to mold then next generation of technically skilled workers.

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Here’s a closer look at the schoolhouses’s entrance – which has seen a little wear and tear during its tenure. Today both schools no longer serve area youth, both having closed their doors along with the mill itself in the 1950s.

community

Joining the two schools was a third building that is generally referred to as a “service building” – whatever that means. The pair of front entrances and the centralized stone chimney would suggest that this was also used as some sort of communal building. It almost looks like some sort of rustic bathroom.

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Taking a step back from the schools we look out across the before-mentioned public square. In reality the square is nothing more then an open space outlined by a pair of sidewalks once used to ferry children from the homes up to the school’s front door. The sidewalk to the right connected the schools to the Main Street homes, while the radial walk to the left connected the area to the group of four additional homes found alongside the old gardens. In the center of it all – and not seen here – stood a single flagpole.

Also seen here is an additional structure sitting off to the backside of the square. This is not an original building to Ford’s model town and in fact was a later addition erected by the town’s modern proprietors – Michigan Tech.

Turns out Ford’s model town would never live up to the hype, as it was hardly self-sustaining and its small sawmill never became an important enough part of the Ford empire to warrant any further expansion. By the middle of the 1950s the town and its mill had become nothing much more then just a hobby pet project, its limited output of wood hardly integral to the motor company’s modern operation. After Ford’s death there were no longer any proponents of the town’s existence, and in 1954 Ford Motor Company officially shut down its mill and evicted its remaining residents. Instead of selling its aged property, however, the company elected instead to donate the town, mill, and the surrounding timber lands to Michigan Technological University for use  in its growing Forestry program. The Ford Forestry Center was born, and Alberta was brought back from the dead to serve a new purpose.

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Above we can see Alberta soon after its transformation into its new role. Towards that end the university erected a large collection of buildings around the old worker community’s periphery – structures that served as dorm rooms, classrooms, laboratories, and service buildings. The town had become a mini-college of its own, capable of housing and instructing dozens of students at a time.

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Here’s just one of those dozens of new buildings the university built in the town after its acquisition. According to the sign on its face this particular building was used to store lumber.

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While Tech may have added structures to the old worker’s village, it did not remove or otherwise alter the village’s original structures. Instead it elected to utilize some of those original buildings in service of the town’s new purpose. It converted a school into a mess hall, one of the houses into administrative offices, and a second as a laboratory. This was quite the change from what seemed to be standard Michigan Tech procedure when it came to its own heritage (aka, tear down the old to make way for the new) – a result probably more to do with the conditions of the donation then any change of policy on the college’s part. Today homes not used directly by Tech for instruction are rented out to local residents on a yearly basis. Thus nearly a century since its original conception, the old town of Alberta continues to house workers of the region.

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Thanks to Michigan Tech’s tenure, Ford’s model industrial village has survived into the modern age completely intact and in continued use. While it may no longer produce thousands of board feet of lumber each year, it continues to produce new generations of workers versed in forest management and environmental stewardship. What was once suppose to represent the future in industrialization has instead ushered in a new era of collaboration between man and the natural world which surrounds him. Though the vision may have changed, the old village continues to be a model of what a community could look like and does look like in the modern age.

 

Discuss…

  1. Thanks for the memories! I was lucky enough to stay up there for a few days about 20 years ago.

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