NOTE: Every county has a unique story to tell, and each will face challenges in sharing the history of local agriculture. In the name of learning from and sharing with each other, Farm Gate will dig into some of the challenges counties may face. We begin Up North…
By Jeremy C. Nagel
CHEBOYGAN — The first meeting of Cheboygan County Farm Bureau’s Local History Team took place June 19 at the town’s Big Boy. Just so happens it was county president Greg Whittaker’s birthday, so we did the only civil thing and treated the man to a nice chocolate sundae. His teammate, Harold Borowicz, opted for the strawberry pie. Can’t go wrong with the classics.
We went over the fundamentals of the Local History program and both Greg and Harold were clearly enthused about digging into local resources with which to share the history of the area’s farming community. It was smooth sailing until Mr. Whittaker—the county president, remember—ground things to a halt with this simple, blunt question: “What if there’s no agriculture left?”
He was chuckling when he said it and we all knew he was exaggerating—there’s great farming going on in Cheboygan County these days—but it’s still worth addressing, because agriculture has not been an entirely enduring, prosperous enterprise on every square inch of Michigan soil. Especially in parts of the northern Lower Peninsula and the U.P., a number of factors have limited farming’s viability.
By the turn of the 20th century, the great lumbering era had almost completely denuded Michigan of its forests, so the next natural thing to do was to try and make a go of it farming. But north of the 44th parallel (roughly US-10), those forests were mostly pine trees, and the soils they’d formed over time weren’t as fertile as those underneath hardwoods or grasslands. Fewer crops prosper in the relatively thin nutrient profile, and what nutrients are present are quickly exhausted.
And the brief growing season doesn’t help matters much.
So farming followed logging, but in many northern places it’s wasn’t long-term sustainable; the gap between deforestation and reforestation was sometimes brief. But in Cheboygan County’s case, a quick internet search betrays an era of giddy optimism for farming’s prospects during that gap.
An 1876 history of Cheboygan County cited then-recent census figures tallying 201 farms in the county totaling 72,196 acres. (Fast-forward a century and the 2012 Ag Census counted 313 farms in the county, totaling 45,567 acres.)
About 20 years later the Cheboygan Democrat newspaper published a booster-rific community profile titled Cheboygan Up-to-Date that, in the overcooked verbosity so typical of the era, bragged up the region as a veritable Eden for agriculture:
…No section of the Union has so many cheap and fertile lands within so easy reach of good markets as Cheboygan county. In addition to our home market which consumes all the settler can raise or make on his farm, we have the benefit of both rail and water communication with the leading markets. Cheboygan county is becoming a great fruit county.
After that comes an exhaustive description of a particularly successful orchard operation managed by a local doctor. Near Mullet Lake, Dr. A.M. Gerow apparently had some 7,700 apple, plum and cherry trees prospering in 120 acres originally thought to be “worthless.”
“Cheboygan is bound to become the greatest fruit raising county in Northeastern Michigan,” enthused the Democrat, citing that a Mr. Matt King of Indian River was rearing fine peaches, and that a Mr. James Fenlon—“one of the best farmers in the county”—insisted that the region “cannot be surpassed for the quality or quantity of its hay or oats.”
“Plums are plentiful and apples in quality and quantity are second to none,” the boasting continued. “Pears can be successfully raised, also peaches and grapes, and the quality of our vegetables is unrivaled.”
Maybe so, but there’s little evidence that level of agricultural prosperity was widespread in the early decades of the 20th century.
By the late 1800s, the northern Lower Peninsula was already embracing its potential as a tourist destination, and as early as 1903, Michigan was defining its first state forests in the region. Many more state lands were set aside during the Great Depression, which weeded marginal farms from the landscape nationwide.
I share all this to illustrate that, even if ag in your area isn’t what it once was, there is still a legacy worth celebrating and sharing. Regardless of where you are, the agricultural landscape has changed dramatically over the past 100+ years.
Also, the references above predate Farm Bureau by decades, and that’s okay. Particularly in areas where farming has declined, it’s still our obligation and honor to at least preserve its memory and how it has shaped our communities from the earliest decades of Michigan’s statehood.