Use of the Forest

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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Short history of the founding of Saginaw Forest

Today, Prof. Emeritus Chuck Olson gave me a short history of Saginaw Forest's founding. He has been kind enough to allow me to publish the whole thing here.
Text of a Short Presentation to the Rotary Club of Ann Arbor
on October 29, 1997 by Charles E. Olson, Jr.

This story, like many concerning the University of Michigan, has many beginnings. None, by itself, could yield the whole story. Rather, it is the coming together of several trails which results in something of note.

We pick up one trail when an immigrant German physician, who first settled near Chillicothe, Ohio, saw the light and moved to Ann Arbor in 1860. Although a practicing physician, his real love was geology, and he served as Michigan's State Geologist from 1870 to 1885. Our physician was also a land owner, with properties in at least three townships in Washtenaw County. One of these properties, the W1/2 of the SE1/4 of Sec. 26, T2S, R5E, totaling 80 acres more or less, was purchased on a land contract in 1878, and continued to be farmed by tenant farmers.

The focus of the second trail is a native of Michigan who earned his Civil Engineering degree from the University of Michigan in 1865, headed west and spent a year as a railroad surveyor in Minnesota, after which he returned to his father's lumber business as a "land looker." He prospered in this business and became one of the "lumber barons" who figured prominently in the development of Saginaw, serving as its Mayor for three terms. In 1889, he was one of two appointees to the State Board of Forestry Commissioners.

The third trail relates to another German immigrant who arrived in the United States in 1871, at the age of 13, spent several years in Wisconsin, and then lived the life of a pioneer from Montana to Texas from 1874 to 1882, before returning to Wisconsin to teach school. In 1885 he came to Ann Arbor where he enrolled in the University of Michigan as a freshman, and received his Bachelor of Science degree (in general science) in 1890. He wrote extensively on the forests of Wisconsin and joined the Forestry Division of the General Land Office in 1892, becoming its Chief in 1901.

[At this point, it may be worthwhile to point out that the famous Peshtigo Fire that killed more than 1,500 persons in Wisconsin, the Michigan Fires that burned over 2,500,000 acres, all occurred on the same three days as the "great Chicago Fire" in October 1871. Michigan also experienced catastrophic fire in the Thumb Area in 1881, and the relief effort included the first such activity by the newly formed American Red Cross. Following these catastrophic forest fires, the first University-level course on Forestry was taught at the University of Michigan, in the Department of Political Science.]

How do our three trails converge?

In 1901, our timber baron and Mayor from Saginaw - one Arthur Hill - was appointed to the Board of Regents of the University of Michigan. To strengthen the University's fledgling forestry program, the Board of Regents induced Filibert Roth to leave the Forestry Division of the GLO and come to Michigan in 1903. To provide a place at which forestry could be practiced and demonstrated, Regent Hill approached our physician/geologist, Carl Ludwig Rominger - more commonly known as Charles Rominger - and arranged to purchase a parcel of land - the W1/2 of the SE1/4 of Sec. 26, T2S, R5E, totaling 80 acres more or less - from him. The purchase was completed on December 23, 1903, with the proviso that the tenant farmer could harvest his winter crops the following spring.

Regent Hill offered the parcel to the University and the gift was accepted on January 14, 1904. The deed specified that the property was
"...To be used by the Forestry Department to determine which species of Trees could be used to reforest the worn out farm lands of Michigan."
The deed further specified that the property should be known as The Saginaw Forestry Farm, a title that was subsequently shortened to simply, Saginaw Forest.

The first plantings were made by Forestry students, beginning with a stand of white pine near the northeast corner of the property, planted in the spring of 1904. To reach the property, students took the street car out Jackson Avenue to what is now Stadium Boulevard and then walked the remaining mile-and-a-half to the property, carrying their tools. As evening approached, the students walked back to the end of the line and took the street car back to campus.

Altogether, some 40 species of trees were planted, of which 28 are not native to this part of Michigan, and ten are not native to the United Stated. Professor Roth took such a keen interest in these plantings that he was sometimes observed tending and watering the trees by hand.

The last plantings at Saginaw Forest were completed in 1937, but in the 1960s a natural hybrid birch was discovered near the shore of Third Sister Lake. The hybrid has now been propagated elsewhere and has been named the Murray Birch, after Frank Murray, another "land looker" who was brought to the University in 1935 and served as Properties manager for the School of Forestry & Conservation, the School of Natural Resources, and the School of Natural Resources & Environment. Frank was also a Registered Surveyor and my surveying instructor during my sophomore year at Michigan.

A small stone building was erected near the lake in 1915, as a place to store tools. A well was added to provide water, and the cabin [was] subsequently wired for electricity. This led to other improvements which made it possible for a caretaker, usually a married student, to live on the property. To my knowledge, this is the only University-owned residence which has a "path" rather than an indoor toilet.

The property is presently used as a teaching laboratory in Forest Ecology, Forest Soils and Hydrology, and other courses. There is no other site within 50 miles of Ann Arbor, on either public or private land, which offers a similar diversity of aquatic, wetland and upland ecosystems. This 80-acre tract provides examples of several glacial features, including a portion of the Ft. Wayne end-moraine, a small kame, a kettle lake, and an extensive area of glacial till which once supported a beech-sugar maple forest. No other remnants of the beech-maple forest once found on thousands of acres of this large moraine remain in public ownership except at 20-acre tract owned by the Plymouth, Michigan school system. Thus, Saginaw Forest is one of the last semi-natural tracts remaining on this extensive land form. Successional processes are underway which will, without human action, result in a forest resembling the forests which stood here 300 years ago. This property is on the way to becoming a small urban wilderness of tomorrow.

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