Tucked in the limestone bluffs of the Upper Peninsula’s coast are the crumbling vestiges of an abandoned smelting town, Fayette. We go in search of the heartbeat of the past.
Featured in the July 2003 issue of Traverse Magazine. Subscribe.
We’re trying to make it to the U.P’s Garden Peninsula before nightfall, to a B&B near the ghost town of Fayette—a post-Civil War smelting boomtown that supported 500 people before going bust in the 1890s. Staff photographer Todd Zawistowski and I are on the last stretch, an 80-mile reach of U.S. 2 running west from the Mackinac Bridge. Though the scenery is a splendid mix of sandy Lake Michigan shore and dense U.P. forest, we’re tired, and to me it feels like the longest road in America. At the Garden Corners junction, where we’ll turn south down the Garden Peninsula’s flank, we spot a warning: “Last Gas Until State Park.” We fill our tank at Foxy’s Den, go in to pay and admire the mounted Sasquatch head on the wall.
The moment we turn and head down the Garden Peninsula, along the east shore of Big Bay de Noc, green spaces open up everywhere. Locals call this lush curl of land the Banana Belt because winters are mild and just about anything will grow here, including the rare dwarf lake iris.
We’re booked at Summer House B&B in the little village of Garden, a few miles north of the ghost town. Our hosts show us our rooms and then leave on a late-night fishing trip. Later, we’ll sleep in tall turned-wood beds until morning church bells break the quiet. But first: food. We head across the street to D&J’s on the Bay, a classic U.P. diner with Formica tables, senior-high portraits of local kids and fresh, ultra-crisp whitefish with cinnamon in the breading. We eat up. Then we turn our thoughts to tomorrow and our first chance to explore Fayette.
The Fayette of my imagination is a forgotten town, made of crumbling ruins and creaking houses where no one dares venture.
The real Fayette is a tourist haven—the abandoned town became a state park in 1959, and Fayette remains one of the nation’s best-preserved industrial-era town sites. What 76,000 visitors a year find here are 20 remaining historic buildings, with exhibits explaining the human investment that made this industrial town possible—displays like the old barbershop, with a chair and razors lined up at the marble counter. Fayette is not a dusty diorama; visitors step in the diorama. Still, there are buildings that are off-limits, with roped-off rooms and locked doors. Through them, I’m hoping to discover the more raw and unstaged Fayette.
As far as Fayette’s founder, Fayette Brown, was concerned, this piece of Lake Michigan coast was anything but something to just look at. Six years after the Civil War ended, Brown, an agent for the Jackson Iron Co., discovered this natural environment and prized it not for its beauty, but for the way it would help him make iron, and money. He believed it was destined to become a smelting town. Dolomite in the limestone cliffs that define the harbor was a necessary ingredient in purifying iron ore.
His plan was to harvest the dolomite by chiseling away at the bluff, then to fell the surrounding forests, and burn the wood into charcoal to fuel furnaces that would melt ore into iron. The only thing missing was the iron ore, and that would come south on the Peninsula Railroad from mines in Negaunee, near Marquette, and then float across Big Bay de Noc to Fayette. Brown bought the land from farmer Hiram Squires and immediately built a blast furnace, docks and charcoal kilns, and then slapped together some houses for a little village. Men arrived from Belgium, Canada and Great Britain to work.
It wasn’t easy labor. Charcoal makers stacked wood 10 feet higher than their heads inside bee-hive-shaped kilns, then lit and tended fires to char it. Other men hacked away at the coast’s cream-colored bluffs looking for dolomite. Some stooped over bellows all day, pumping blasts of air to fuel the furnace fire. Perhaps the worst job was in the dizzying heat of the casting house forging bars of the final product, pig iron. Workers who poured the molten iron into sand casts said the iron reached for the molds like a suckling pig to a sow.
As with so many boomtowns, Fayette’s financial apocalypse was inevitable. In 24 years the larder of resources was depleted. The trees, gone. Then a more efficient smelting process was developed out East, driving down the price of iron and rendering the Fayette operation costly and obsolete. The company closed in 1891, leaving behind two hulking furnaces, an empty hotel, hundreds of houses and displaced families. Some moved to other parts of the Garden Peninsula to farm or fish. Others left altogether. Meanwhile, the wild began to return, turning the site of the grubby town green again.
Soft grass now carpets the floor of the old company store in the middle of town, nourished by sun that pours in where the roof long ago vanished. All the window glass has long since been punched out, and the open rectangles frame pictures of the summer scenery—sailboat masts, blue water, white limestone bluffs. Chunks of white mortar have calved away to expose scraps of red brick. It looks like an ancient Roman bathhouse.
As romantic as it looks now, this three-story warehouse was built for business. This was where the townspeople bought tobacco, molasses, cheese, kettles, axes, corsets and buttons that came by boat from Detroit, Chicago and Milwaukee. Workers’ tabs were taken directly out of their paychecks.
This was all part of the grand plan: Fayette Brown designed Fayette to be a contained, autonomous society whose sole purpose was to make iron.
All men lined up once a month in the superintendent’s office to collect their wages, or what was left of them after the company exacted its fees. A copy of the old Jackson Iron Co. payrolls shows that coal-forker Trout Dooghe made $44.80 for 28 days. He took home $18.28, the rest going to pay off his store debt and his doctor’s fees.
The company instated a no-alcohol law—a drunken man was not a productive one. Fayette even had its own doctor, Curtis Bellows, a Civil War vet and a staunch Republican who, when not setting broken limbs and doling out ointments and liniments, raced horses on the Fayette track, raised exotic chickens and studied electricity.
Danger was real in Fayette. One man nearly fell into the furnace, but was caught by his coworker at the last second. Fred Hinks became famous in town as the one who could do the work of two men, lifting two bars of pig iron at one time. He crippled himself in the effort and left the smelter to open a saloon down the road. If one of the furnaces was shut down or an employee was hurt, there was no workers compensation, no unemployment check to collect. But Hinks was lucky to only have been crippled. Other young lives were snuffed out entirely.
Melanie Cabocel came to Fayette from Belgium with her parents and married her husband when she was 16. He earned $1.80 a day. He died in Fayette and she began work as a washer-woman for sailors aboard the tug Joe Harris. She made $1.50 every two weeks and made it stretch to feed her children. Fayette was a town of survivors.
As I wander the village and feel the sense of those who’ve come before, I’m instinctively drawn to the site of what put Fayette on the map—the smelting operation. I stand near two giant white furnaces looming near shore like aging fossils. I feel puny in front of them, not just because they’re huge but because they remind me of where I am in the so-called line of progress—after all, this is a place that once reigned supreme over inhabitants’ lives, faltered and was abandoned. Drill bits from drills used to extract the dolomite for the smelting process can still be seen broken off in the sharp, square face of the cliffs near the furnaces. It makes these cliffs look somehow synthetic compared to the wind-and-water-worn cliffs a few hundred yards down the coast.
A sign posted in front of the furnaces says they were built in a hurry, at the end of the 1800s, and during their lifetime unleashed enough heat to melt 229,288 tons of ore into pure iron. Signs everywhere explain the structures of Fayette, but still, I wonder about the lives lived here.
NORTHERN TRAVELER TIP
Fayette Historic State Park
Tour the town: The ghost town of Fayette is just the spot for a a fascinating learning vacation. Experience the beauty of the Garden Peninsula juxtaposed with the abandoned remains of what was one of the Upper Peninsula’s most productive iron-smelting town. There’s boating, picnicking, swimming and guided walking tours available, plus 80 rustic campsites. Admission is with a state park recreation passport ($16 at state parks, $11 at time of annual license plate renewal via the Secretary of State). To get to Fayette from U.S. 2, head 17 miles south on M-183. Call the park at 906-644-2603.
I meet Brenda Laakso my second day here. She is the Fayette Historic State Park historian, has a master’s degree in historic preservation from Eastern Michigan University and rents a house south of Fayette year round so she can work at the town site. She’s warm and approachable, with a quiet mirth and a gentle intelligence. She’s wearing brown hiking boots with her pressed khaki uniform and carries a Coach purse that holds keys to locked rooms and off-limits buildings.
Our tour starts on Furnace Hill, where 35 company-owned log cabins were assembled so cheaply that all that is left are subtle depressions in the ground. This was the working-class warren, closest to the noise, smoke and ash of the furnaces. The log homes were flush with the street, and hogs rolled in the mud right outside front doors. Laakso says archaeologists found meat bones covered in rat-gnaw marks. A parasitic soil analysis revealed that most children suffered from whipworm, because of poor hygiene and contamination.
The state park carpenter is re-creating a cabin where it once stood. Inside the replica, I have a frustrating urge to turn on a light, but there is none: the carpenter has built the cabin authentically, down to a small hole in the floor that served as a root cellar. It seems impossible that an entire family lived in a house this tiny and dark. Then Laakso tells me that to afford rent, most families also took on single men to live with them. In 1880, single boarders made up at least half of Fayette’s workforce. Women living on Furnace Hill, meanwhile, spent entire days in dark houses, mending clothes or simmering stews made with low-grade meats. But certainly, Laakso reminds me, they lived better than some of their laboring-class counterparts in cities like Detroit, Cleveland or Chicago. Instead of living in the dark, cramped city slums, Fayette’s laborers had forests to hunt, earth to grow vegetables, and the lake to swim in.
Back in the bright daylight, Laakso shows me the path to the beach, just steps from the cabin door. It’s so close, but a day spent playing at the shore seems far, far away from the 1880 reality of Furnace Hill.
I clamber over the rocks on Fayette’s beach and watch the cold, clean water lap over the crumbling slag, the waste product of the blast furnaces, and tiny stones covered in rust. I am really on an industrial dumpsite, but it sure doesn’t feel like it. The view is glorious: A sailboat on the lake takes advantage of the windy day and raises its crimson spinnaker.
Off the narrow, dirt-packed beach path is another trail that leads around the back of the thin arc of land that forms the harbor. Wild rhubarb pokes through gnarled cedar roots and ferns, and brittle stacks of exposed rock look like piles of stale broken cookies. On one side of the trail are trim little New England saltbox houses that belonged to carpenters, blacksmiths and masons: Fayette’s middle class.
The homes’ wood exteriors have weathered to an odd green. There are boards on the windows. The porch steps have long ago disintegrated so that anyone leaving through the front door would step into thin air.
The trail empties out at what Fayette residents called “The White House,” the enormous porched dwelling of the superintendent, a place whose interior was likely never seen by laborers, except maybe by some Furnace Hill girls who worked as servants. The White House had no running water, Laakso says, but the privy was wallpapered. Near it, archaeologists found perfume bottles, hair tonics, expensive dinnerware and whole canning jars. Some hardships did cross social strata. Just like on Furnace Hill, archaeologists found an abundance of lice combs here.
Out front, a little boy picks up a crabapple and throws it at his sister’s head. His father shouts a reprimand, then says the people living in The White House may come out and yell at him, too. “But, I thought you said they were dead,” the boy says.
The truth is, most of the occupants of The White House didn’t live out their lives here. Most superintendents bolted after three years, a fact that I suspect may have something to do with their wives’ happiness, or lack thereof.
But despite the hardships endured by all classes at Fayette, there are clues of joy everywhere. I wander up the stairs in the town hall and find a giant meeting room with a stage framed with red-white-and-blue sashes. Here, town folk held masquerades, spelling bees and concerts featuring Fayette’s own all-male brass Cornet Band.
Behind the stage, I find a wall where traveling performers scrawled their signatures: Antonio de Columbo Great Italian fresco painter, wizard and fortune teller; Prof. Ole Follo the one-eyed man from Ireland; the bigfoot man from Germany.
At dusk, I explore the rest of Garden Peninsula. Seagulls peck at grain in an abandoned baseball field, herds of fat deer linger in thistle. I pass a house with a horse tied on a long rope to a tree, eating grass in the front yard. It is desolate here in the friendliest way: a painted red nose on the deer crossing sign, a cribbage board for sale at the end of a driveway, lawn ornaments in the shape of moose. I pass boys making their all-terrain vehicles bounce and spin like lunar landing buggies. Later, I stop behind two pickups blocking the road while their drivers chat.
The land runs out at the commercial fishing village of Fairport, at the peninsula’s tip. There are heaps of fishing nets in tangles on shore and fishing boats in the water.
Back at the B&B, our hosts have left a note saying they’ve gone fishing again.
“Sit anywhere,” the waitress at Sherry’s Port Bar calls. It’s noon. Brenda Laakso and I are meeting for lunch in the empty non-smoking section, next to a wishing well draped in fake ivy. We both order beef pasties, no gravy.
“You’re going easy on the cook,” the waitress tells us.
Today is the day I’ve been waiting for. I get to see parts of Fayette that are closed to visitors, sections that aren’t stable enough for the weight of too many footsteps. The Shelton House hotel was where Fayette Brown had his own luxury suite, and the top floor was reserved for boarders. The upstairs rooms are untouched, except by time. We climb up the old steps and Laakso unlocks the door at the top. We step into a waft of must and dust. The past is in our noses.
Down a long pale-white hallway, our shoes scrape over nails and fallen paint chips and dirt. Laakso opens doors to room after room with low thresholds, low ceilings and just enough space for a bed and a washtub. The air is humid. The door at end of the hall is closed and I’m spooked when Brenda says we can’t open it. The second-story outhouse it led to has long since vanished.
In Fayette Brown’s suite, two layers of peeling wallpaper are exposed, one with an Asian motif, the other a fussy Victorian print. There’s a mahogany archway and large windows looking out over his small iron empire.
It’s nice and dark in the stairwell to the third floor. It opens to a dank boarding room crammed with beds. Tiny windows let light in between the between tiny closet doors. Here is the raw past—the thing itself. On the other floors, all the furniture has long since been removed or destroyed. These beds pressed so tightly together move me. I can really see exhausted, dirty men curling up in these beds after a long day of labor, these men who made the iron that built our railroads.
I spend my final hours paying homage to the ghosts on Furnace Hill, reading a book on the new grass growing over century-old trash and meat bones. Ants climb busily up over my ankle, back and forth to their little houses. There’s a new crop of hardwoods on top of the white cliffs, and moss and grass are bursting through the stone and wood walls of the town, growing as if letting it be known that, if the peninsula has its way, Fayette will be green once again.
Explore St. Peter’s Church Cemetery
South of the Fayette townsite proper, on a sandy cliff high over Lake Michigan, is one of the most beautiful historic cemeteries in Northern Michigan. Leaning fences envelop unmarked crosses, black-eyed Susans sprout next to shaded stones covered with lounging daddy-long-legs, and the sound of Lake Michigan crashes in your ears. Many of Fayette’s Catholic laborers and their descendants are buried here (Protestants had a separate cemetery on the north side of Fayette). Look for the Thill family plot on the south side of the St. Peter’s cemetery—there’s some local lore about the patriarch of this tribe.
Nicholas Thill found work in Fayette as a plasterer in the hotel. When the job was done he took his wages to go to Germany to bring back his wife Julia. He made it as far as the train depot in Chicago when he was mugged. He returned to Fayette penniless and heartbroken. Unbeknownst to Thill, his neighbors raised the money for Julia’s passage. One evening they invited Thill to a big party. As the story goes, he walked around the room saying hello to everyone then stood in front of Julia in disbelief and uttered, “Why, I think that’s my wife.”
Head south from the Fayette townsite and follow the signs for the state park picnic area. A trail through the woods leading to St. Peter’s cemetery is at the south side of the park. Find an alternative path through the beach grass across from Sherry’s Port Bar, 4424 II Road.