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Henry Ford’s Alberta featured showpiece mill, selective cutting

ALBERTA – When the Forest Stewards Guild recently designated several square miles of Michigan Tech University’s working land as a Model Forest, it wasn’t the first time some of that land had been presented as an example.

When Henry Ford started logging in the vicinity and built the village of Alberta and its sawmill in 1935 and 1936, it was as much a showpiece and social experiment as a working lumber operation, according to Kenneth Vrana, director of the Ford Center and Forest.

“It was not a big production mill,” Vrana said, explaining Ford made much more of the lumber for his “Woodies” and other pre-World War II cars at larger mills in L’Anse, Pequaming, Big Bay and elsewhere.

“The Alberta mill was in essence a smaller version of the early sawmills and provided an opportunity for the public to see one of the mills in action, as well as learn about the Ford Motor Company’s holdings in lands and production,” he said.

The village set up to support the mill was one of Ford’s “industrial villages,” he said, which were communities designed to meet essentially all of workers’ and their families’ needs, with community and social amenities largely provided by the company.

“Originally, two acres per family were provided for a garden,” Vrana said. “To a degree, it represented Ford’s vision for a sustainable community as well as a public outreach center for his forest holdings in the western U.P.”

Ford wasn’t just clear-cutting forests to provide lumber for the Alberta mill, either.

“Henry also looked at Alberta and the forest as an opportunity for forest management,” Vrana said. “He brought selective cutting to this region, and modeled that also.”

In forestry terms, however, Ford’s run in Alberta was short-lived. Less than two decades after founding the village and mill, Ford recognized that wood was out when it came to car construction.

“After WWII, everything went from wood to steel,” said Jim Schmierer, a forester and instructor who manages the school forests.

He donated the village and mill to Michigan Tech, as well as about 1,700 acres of working forest that is now part of the 5,500-acre Ford Forest.

Vrana said the auto industry is again looking to wood fiber for some parts, largely in an effort to increase gas mileage.

“If properly engineered it’s stronger than steel and less weight,” he said.

Tech’s current mission for the property is surprisingly similar to Ford’s, Vrana said. Tech still maintains the mill as a museum and continues scientific cutting on the forest land, along with education and research.

He said it’s goals are “surprisingly similar” to Ford’s original intentions