Fayette, Michigan – Another Era

Iron – the backbone of industry –  was in increasing demand in the late 19th century, following the U.S. Civil War. Steel mills began appearing in the lower Great Lakes and in Pennsylvania to feed the Industrial Revolution. The Upper Peninsula (U.P.) of Michigan, known for it’s copper deposits, was also rich in iron ore.  In those days, getting the iron to the mills was not as easy as it is today.  The giant ore freighters that ply the Great Lakes didn’t exist back then.  Transporting the ore to the mills prior to extracting the pure iron wasn’t economically feasible.

Enter the Jackson Iron Company. Formed by businessmen in Jackson, Michigan in 1845, this company hoped to mine copper in the western U.P.  Iron was discovered the year before in the central U.P. by surveyors when their compasses began fluctuating.  When the Jackson team arrived and heard of this discovery, their focus switched from copper to iron. By the late 1860’s, the need for a smelting operation became evident, so that pure iron could be shipped south to the mills in Chicago.

An agent for the Jackson Iron Company, Fayette Brown, was sent to scout a location for a smelting blast furnace.  An ample supply of limestone and timber was needed to produce charcoal to fire the furnaces, along with a deep harbor to bring in the sailing schooners that were to carry the iron south. The small natural bay known as Snail Shell Harbor on Lake Michigan’s Big Bay de Noc was chosen, as it met all three requirements. The townsite was named Fayette in honor of Mr. Brown. 

Fayette became a town of some 500 residents.  Churches, a school, hotel, town hall and store all were constructed.  It was the true definition of a ‘company town’, existing solely for the purpose of supporting the smelting operation.  Jackson Iron remained here until 1891, when the local timber reserves were exhausted.  After that, the town became a resort and fishing village, until the State of Michigan acquired it in 1959 to feature it as a state historical park.

  
Our visit to Fayette (our second) was late afternoon on August 7.  The weather was not cooperating, but we are not ones to let that stand in our way.  Our rain gear served us well. However, after viewing our somewhat drab photos, we decided to try to go the ‘historic’ route and convert them to sepia tone.  We hope you enjoy them!

  
 
From inside the blast furnace building, the limestone cliffs on the northern shore of Snail Shell Harbor can be seen.  The pilings from the docks are still protruding from the water, all these years later.

  
The slag at the base of the furnaces remains where it was left in 1891.  These furnaces produced 229,288 tons of pure iron in the 24 years they were in operation.

  
Across the harbor, the superintendent’s house sits high on the hill.  This offered the head of the operation a commanding view of the furnace and the surrounding town.

  
Across from the furnace sat the company store.  In those days, this was your Walmart, Home Depot and Costco…all in one building.  The company owned it, and they were the only retailer for many miles around.  When the furnace was down, lines of credit were extended to the workers until they could work off their debt at a later date.  The term “owe my soul to the company store” comes from these lines of credit that were extended to workers in these towns all across America.

  
The hotel was quite large and opulent for it’s day and location, and it featured a two story outhouse off the back of the building.  Our preference would be a second story room please, as we prefer a better view.  🙂

  
From left to right:  the school, a middle class home, and the town hall.  The second floor has a large performance hall, complete with a raised stage and set curtains.

  
Pretty decent acoustics I might add, as Diana sang “The Sound of Music” just for fun.  🙂

  
Adjacent to the furnace was the machine shop.  I would imagine that this was a place of great importance in Fayette.

  
The barbershop became a popular place, as styles changed from beards to clean shaven.

  
Central to it all was the blast furnace complex.  The building was comprised of two furnaces to produce the iron, along with several kilns to produce the charcoal needed to fire the furnaces.  The State of Michigan has covered the open tops with steel roofing to preserve the walls from moisture.  They have been good stewards of the town, and are maintaining this important piece of history.

If you are traveling along U.S. 2 in Michigan’s U.P., take the detour south to this  piece of the area’s past.  We feel it is worth the effort.  For those interested, the state park also maintains a campground at the location.

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