Recalling the Cyrus Bentley Trail

Elizabeth Bentley and Cyrus Bentley and pictured with Cyrus McCormick, in the background. (Photo courtesy of the McCormick Tract Wilderness Area)

MARQUETTE — At the turn of the last century, wealthy industrialists enjoyed purchasing acres of land and building private hunting and fishing camps.

These grand camps evolved out of a rebellion against the formality and rigidity of society’s social structure. Established in the wilderness, the camps were physically removed from reporters, social climbers, salesmen, extortionists, and social hierarchies.

Chicago residents Cyrus McCormick (descendant of the family that invented the McCormick Reaper, mechanizing the harvesting of grain; later the International Harvester Company) and his lawyer, Cyrus Bentley, purchased over 17,000 acres of land in the central Upper Peninsula, three miles east of the Baraga-Marquette County line and north of the Peshekee River.

There they developed a tent camp they called the “Rough Camp.” It eventually contained 17 log lodges, boathouses and outbuildings and was called the White Deer Lake Camp after a local albino deer. Many friends and family from the Chicago area visited the rustic setting.

Cyrus Bentley also owned property in the Huron Mountain Club and built his cabin there in 1904. With limited rail transportation, he wanted to connect the two properties and began clearing a trail that would bear his name.

Over the years, the trail was changed to avoid private property, ranging from 26 to 30 miles in length. The Arbutus Lodge, also called the Halfway Cabin and Sands Plains Cabin, allowed for a two-day walk though forests, around swamps and waterfalls, over streams and through highland plains.

The trail was constructed and maintained by a crew of laborers, including Nels, Jim, and Christ Andersen, who were immigrant homesteaders on the Yellow Dog Plains. Due to Bentley’s “eccentric perfectionism,” he wanted the trails wide enough so that couples could walk two abreast, with the brush cut back to accommodate a parasol or umbrella.

He also wanted it smooth enough for a bicycle with no rocks or tree roots. Additionally, there were log walks across wetlands that needed constant work.

Bentley in his diary states that he traversed the trail more than100 times between 1905 and 1926. He traveled by foot, with a light pack, often accompanied by a guide and camp cook, and usually stayed one night in the Halfway Cabin.

In October 1926, Bentley and his wife, Mary, set out on the trail heading north to the Huron Mountain Club. They had arranged for a guide from the club to meet them toward evening at the end of the trail, then row them down Mountain Lake and accompany them for the last seven miles to their cabin on the Lake Superior shore.

Despite starting on a sunny fall morning, by mid-afternoon a cold and driving sleet storm took them by surprise.

Because of the weather, the guide assumed the trip had been cancelled and failed to meet them at Mountain Lake. The 66-year-old Bentley, having already walked approximately 28 miles, had to clamber slowly across the exposed and slippery rocks around the edge of the lake.

After working his way three miles to the opposite end of the lake, he found a rowboat and rowed back the length of the lake to pick up his drenched and exhausted wife. He then set out again, in choppy waters and against the wind toward his destination.

The couple finally arrived the next day around noon, in falling snow. Both took to their beds, Bentley for several weeks. The following spring, he sold his share of the partnership to McCormick, and never returned to White Deer Lake. After this misadventure, the trail was abandoned.

Following Cyrus McCormick’s death, the camp was inherited by his son, Gordon McCormick. Gordon made extensive improvements to the main camp including central heating, modernized plumbing, and a tennis court, but the farther-flung trails began to deteriorate from disuse. For the last 20 years of his life, as his health deteriorated, he would plan visits to the camp but would invariably fail to appear.

When Gordon McCormick died in 1967, the U.S. Forest Service assumed control of the property as specified in his will. The land, part of the Ottawa National Forest, is designated as the McCormick Wilderness, a United States Wilderness Area.

In the 1980s, the cabins were disassembled and removed, in accordance with the Forest Service’s legislative mandate to keep designated wilderness areas “forests forever wild.”

C. Fred Rydholm, a local historian and author, had heard stories of the trail and lands while working at the Huron Mountain Club in the 1940s. He purchased the land with the remains of the Arbutus Lodge in 1949.

Over the years, he added more land to the original purchase, eventually totaling 1,000 acres. Fred rediscovered the overgrown trail and traversed it more than 150 times. He used the wilderness as a science laboratory to educate hundreds of interested adults and Boy Scouts.

Following Fred’s death, the Rydholm family donated their land to the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve as the Mudjekewis Wildlife Refuge. The YDWP’s goal is “keeping the land in its natural condition and preserving the historical value.”

Their “objectives as caretakers include reducing fragmentation of larger landscapes, increasing biodiversity of forests on the Plains, and protection of critical freshwater resources for wildlife and ecosystem health.” As for the Bentley trail, major portions of the trail are now overgrown and indistinct.

Only about 8 miles is on public land, and the U.S. Forest Service doesn’t want it maintained as part of their efforts to keep the area wild.


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