Outdoors North: U.P. location was site of first roadside park in US

“Bring a song and a smile for the banjo, better get while the gettin’s good. Hitch a ride to the end of the highway, where the neons turn to wood.” — John Fogerty

Sitting among the maples, birches, beech trees and ash in south Iron County, is a place called Stager Lake, not found on Michigan’s state highway map.

Pike and walleye anglers might know this 112-acre lake that sits about a mile north of the Wisconsin border, roughly 10 miles south of Crystal Falls.

It was here, roughly a century ago, that an idea was born, an idea that swept across this country and others — a notion that resulted from a frustrating day in Wisconsin.

But more about that day a bit later.

Years earlier, a Chicago native had moved north to Crystal Falls in Iron County with his family. The youth graduated from high school there before returning to Illinois and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor for his college education.

A year after graduation, Herbert F. Larson took a job with the Iron County Road Commission. Three years later, he would be appointed as the road agency’s engineer-manager, a job he would hold for decades.

With the onset of World War I, after the woodsman’s axe had felled and cleared Michigan’s mighty pine forests, Larson feared the same would happen, in faster fashion, to the northern hardwood forests in the Upper Peninsula.

“Larson was unique — one of the few enlightened county level planners in Michigan who understood the need for forest regeneration,” the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office said in a document prepared in 2015.

He set out to preserve some stands of northern hardwoods for posterity.

Larson began with a half-section of virgin timber he identified to be purchased by the county road commission in 1918 from the Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Co.

He next selected a pair of 200-foot-wide strips of forested right-of-way situated along either side of U.S.-2, then called the Cloverland Trail.

Later, this idea of preserving large, 400-foot highway and county road rights-of-way would become an established practice across Michigan.

In 1923, on Larson’s recommendation, Iron County purchased 120 acres from a preacher who had used the land as a farmstead. Half this acreage was shaded by virgin northern hardwoods.

A year later, the site of a former Ojibwa village along the southern tip of Chicagon Lake was purchased at Larson’s direction to preserve an American Indian burial ground and offer a tribute to its residents.

Later, this location would be developed into present-day Pentoga Park.

“Enjoy the natural environment and view the wooden burial structures that have endured time to protect and mark the graves of the ancient Ojibwa bands that made this spot their permanent area headquarters in the 1800’s,” states a Pure Michigan website entry on the site. “The park offers swimming, fishing, boating, 135 campsites and more.”

Meanwhile, county officials thought they would turn a large house on the preacher’s farmstead into a clubhouse for a 9-hole golf course, but later changed their plans, using the structure instead as a caretaker’s house.

The old farmstead was located along the shoreline of the first in the beautiful chain of Fortune Lakes. A swimming beach was created there. The land also sat adjacent to the Cloverland Trail.

A decade or so later, this place would be developed with the aid of federal work-relief program during the New Deal of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

With another nod from Larson to the local native people, this place was called Be-Wa-Bic Park, for the Ojibwe word meaning “iron.” The metal was discovered in the area in 1896 by the Mastadon Mining Co. of Crystal Falls.

In 1966, the State of Michigan purchased Bewabic State Park, which today, the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office describes as “a unique blend of park landscape history combining features and ideas that span almost a century of park design and development.”

Bewabic has held the distinction of being the only state park in Michigan with tennis courts.

So back, to that frustrating day in Wisconsin in 1919.

That day, a Sunday afternoon picnicking party that included Larson was turned away by several caretakers of popular northern Wisconsin lake resorts who didn’t allow traveling picnickers on the grounds.

Larson would later decide that creating a picnic area, within a roadside right-of-way, could prevent Upper Peninsula motorists from one day potentially losing their places to picnic.

The year before, in 1918, the county road commission had purchased 320 acres of roadside virgin timber in Iron County to be set aside as a forest preserve, which included Stager Lake.

There at Stager Lake, along the Cloverland Trail, picnic tables were installed in 1919, simultaneously creating Michigan’s first roadside park in Iron County and what is believed to be the first roadside park built in America.

If you’ve never been to Stager Lake, you ought to go.

Editor’s note: Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.