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Elmwood: Only documented African-American logging camp in the U.P.

MARQUETTE – In 1893, a community called Paint River, after a nearby stream, was established as a fueling and water stop for the Chicago and North Western Transportation Company’s railroad in what is now Stambaugh Township. By 1898, local users were calling the unincorporated community Elmwood instead. Elmwood is now known primarily as the location of the only African-American logging camp in the Upper Peninsula.

During the mid-1920s, Brown-Mitcheson of Marinette, a Wisconsin lumber company, recruited people in the Chicago Defender, a historically African American newspaper, by offering cut-over timber land for farming in exchange for the cut pulp wood. During the Great Migration, at a time when more than a million African Americans were leaving southern states to escape tenant farming, share cropping, peonage, and violence during an agricultural depression, three families, with 32 individuals in all, left Chicago to start homesteads in Elmwood.

This migration may have heightened their interest in coming to the Upper Peninsula. The push factor might have been that some entrenched African American Chicagoans saw the masses of African Americans coming from the south as a threat. Class issues with “native” African Americans along with racism from the White population may have pushed the southern African Americans to pursue opportunities further north. In addition to facing class and race issues, overcrowding could have been a factor.

The families arrived in a three-car caravan in May 1926. John Williams, a former Pullman porter who lived in Florence, Wisconsin, was reported to have set aside some cut-over lands in the vicinity of Elmwood for the arriving families. He reportedly assured his childhood friend, E.C. Keebles, head of one of the families, that “they would have a house to live in when they arrived because there were log cabins habitable without additional work, two on the north side of the river and ‘five like a little country village on the south'”.

In addition to E. C. Keebles who came with his wife and four children (Josephus born 1910, Ethel born 1920, Lorene born 1923, and Linden born 1925), the group also included John Henderson (or Hendrickson), referred to as “the King of the Colony” by local newspapers and his wife and five children (Mary born 1910, Lila born 1912, William born 1914, John born 1918, and Adam born 1919); A. N. Williams with his wife and four children; a married couple, Jerry and Cherry Donaldson; and six other individuals, Bessie (Betsy) Carter, Thomas Thompson, Raymond Mahan, N. W. Williams, P. L. Grooms, and John Williams.

Things did not work out well for the community. The lumber company paid no wages, so there was no money to help convert the cut-over land into arable farmland. In midwinter without wages, some of the African Americans sought county aid. The aid came in the form of one-way train tickets to Chicago.

Then in 1928, the Sheriff’s Department launched a series of raids on the community. The raids were ostensibly to catch moonshiners. Articles in the Diamond Drill, a Crystal Falls Newspaper, reported a systematic removal of the colonists from the territory. In the Jan. 25, 1929 edition, the reporter describes how remaining homesteaders would be arrested, found guilty, paroled, and sent to Chicago. The raids culminated in the shooting of the homesteaders’ horses.

Elmwood was forgotten for a time but caught attention again when road workers were straightening Federal Highway 16. Recovered artifacts prompted adherence to State and Federal rules requiring the preservation of anything considered of historical value. Controversy ensued over the cost of preserving the artifacts from the 1920s African American community because the artifacts were common to the era. What is important, as Paul McAllistair, a Highway Department Staff Archeologist, identified, was ‘its interesting cultural history.” The most significant being that Elmwood is the only known all African American Logging Camp and homestead in the U.P.

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