“The Beal Plantation? – Never Heard of It.”
By JIM SMITH
GRAYLING – The 1800’s in Michigan was a time of the creation of great fortunes made from the harvest of the virgin pine and hardwood trees that covered the state. The lumber industry swept northward from the southern borders leaving naked lands of stumps, sawdust and tinder dry slash. Forest fires swept the remains leaving nothing but the naked soil exposed to the elements.
Most of Michigan’s geology is a result of the last glaciers that covered our state more than 10,000 years ago. As the glaciers melted and receded northward, they left great piles of scrapings that were originally pushed down from Northern Ontario, these glacial droppings created both the fertile soil of the Saginaw Valley and the rolling gravel ridges which are today’s ski areas, hunting and recreational lands. At the same time, they created the band of highly acid and sterile soil running across the northern part of our Lower Peninsula called “The Pine Barrens”.
This strip of land would, at best, support second growth of poplar and jack pines with a few scrub pin oaks mixed in. Once the lumbering companies got what they wanted they moved on with no thought for the following generations.
In 1855 the Michigan Legislature formed the Michigan Agricultural College in Lansing. In 1871 William James Beal joined the College as a Professor of Botany.
One of Professor Beal’s passions was reforestation of the cut over timber lands of Northern Michigan. At that time no one had any idea of the best way to restore these lands, what kind of trees would best grow in those sterile soils and how to go about getting it done. In 1888, Beal planted over forty species of trees and shrubs on a five-acre plot near Grayling. Over the next one hundred plus years this planting of trees would continue to contribute to the foundation of knowledge that still guides foresters throughout the world on how to restore destroyed forest lands be it from harvest, fire or disease.
Beal’s research also introduced the concept of trees as a renewable crop that could be managed much as any other farm product. Over 100 years later much of Northern Michigan is devoted to this type of forest management. Just as Beal predicted, trees as a cash crop, today provides work for thousands of “lumber Jacks” and a thriving wood product industry.
From 1888 to 1997 the Beal Plantation rested undisturbed with an occasional visit from an interested researcher to obtain an update on which trees thrived in the hostel environment offered by the testing grounds.
In 1996 Professor Frank Telewski from Michigan State University conducted the first in depth review of the plantation since 1968. Quoting Dr. Telewski, “This site may be the only one in the entire country where reforestation has been so well documented and preserved.”
The Beal Plantation has been under the supervision of Michigan’s Forestry Division of the DNR jointly with Huron Pines for many years.
Quoting from a letter posted to Hillary Pine, DNR State Historian from Susan Theil, shortly after her retirement as DNR Forest Manager in the Grayling unit, “As for this site’s significance, it is one of the only experimental plantations left. In the 1800’s we did not know how to grow and plant trees. Professor Beal did vast experimentation across several sites to learn how to collect seed, plant and germinate it, and grow trees of different varieties. This site helped develop the science of growing and regenerating trees and reforesting sites as we know it today. Beal demonstrated we have the capability of growing and planting trees which led to the tree nurseries which were used to reforest landscapes that were denuded from lumbering, firewood collection and fire. It is a very important site related to the birth of the conservation era in Michigan and possibly in the US.”
By 1999, due in a large part to the work done by Dr. Telewski, the Beal Plantation grew from being a simple experiment in tree growing to being identified as a truly significant historic site representing the longest continuous experiment in forestry research in the United States. In recognition of this new place in history, several local businesses and individuals joined the Department of Natural Resources and Huron Pines, Resource Conservation and Development Area Council to improve the area access for more visitors. A parking lot was built. Over 1,000 feet of handicapped accessible trail were developed. Informational signage and kiosks were installed that allowed for self-tours. Benches were placed at strategic locations.
On Oct. 7, 1999, a dedication ceremony of the Beal Plantation was held to promote and preserve the Plantation as a living laboratory and learning center for students and tourists interested in forestry. In a report that Dr. Telewski submitted to the “Forest History and Conservation” periodical for publication, he identified Beal as the “Father of Michigan Forestry”.
Susan Theil was at the original dedication ceremony in 1999 and held the stewardship of this small piece of ground until her recent retirement. The last 20 years have not been kind to the Beal Plantation. Signage is deteriorating, trails are being overgrown and time has taken its toll.
Susan has been replaced by DNR Forester Tom Barnes. When asked about future to repair and upgrade the Beal Plantation Tom indicated that, while he is still playing “catch up” with his new responsibilities, the Beal Plantation is “on his radar”.
Twenty years ago, the Grayling Community came together to preserve an iconic piece of Michigan history that resides right here in Grayling but has been forgotten over the years. Susan indicated in her letter that there are replacement signs available through Huron Pines. The only requirement to bring the Beal Plantation back to life is a group of interested volunteers to pick up the baton and run with it and once again, W. J. Beal’s vision can be preserved for future generations.
The Crawford County Historical Museum has provided the bulk of the information contained in this story drawn especially from a collection of historical data compiled by long time Grayling resident Fay Bovee. Everyone is invited to stop by the Museum in the Old Train Depot and learn more about the Beal Plantation.