Rock bluffs at the Durrell or Mill Creek Quarry, circa 1915

The Untold Story of the Mill Creek Quarry

Originally established by Robert Campbell about 1790, the sawmill, gristmill and farming activities at Mill Creek remained active for about half a century. Known as Private Claim #334, the site was bought by wealthy Mackinac Island merchant Michael Dousman in 1819. Sawmill operations ran until about 1839, and after Dousman died in 1854, his heirs sold the property for just $400. When the township was resurveyed in 1856, updated maps showed no trace of buildings on Campbell’s original 640-acre claim. Local lore states that William Myers removed gristmill stones from the abandoned site about 1860 to use at his mills near Cheboygan.

A 1917 photo of Lime Kiln ruins on Mackinac Island

Lime Kiln ruins on Mackinac Island, 1917

 About 1864, a new resource was tapped for the first time along the rocky bluffs of Mill Creek – limestone. People have quarried and processed limestone at the Straits of Mackinac since the construction of Fort Mackinac from 1779-1781. For many years, the old lime kiln on Mackinac Island was a tourist destination, and Lime Kiln Trail can still be enjoyed by visitors today. By the summer of 1827, a kiln was also in operation near the northwest shore of nearby Bois Blanc Island.

 Limestone in Michigan was formed millions of years ago, being composed of sediments at the bottom of ancient salty seas, filled with billions of fragments of corals and shelled creatures. Limestone is high in calcium carbonate, and when burned in a kiln, crushed, or pulverized, is valuable for making cement, concrete, mortar, and many other uses. Larger pieces of quarried stone were used to make roads, the stone walls of Fort Mackinac, its blockhouses, and officer’s stone quarters.

 Lime was first processed at Mill Creek about 1864 by a man with the last name of Young who stayed for a couple of years. The next record of limestone quarrying at the site can be found in a Cheboygan Democrat article, dated April 12, 1883. It reads, “Parties have begun to work preparatory to burning lime extensively at Mill Creek. They say that have orders for forty bushels per day during the season.” This record corresponds closely with the Michigan Central Railroad running tracks through the site in November 1881, making it easy to ship finished products to market.

 The first and only large quarrying operation at Mill Creek was operated by Willis G. Durrell, of Cincinnati, Ohio, from 1914-1923. Before organizing his company, Mr. Durrell began taking summer vacations in the vicinity of Burt Lake, Michigan. While there he learned of the Mill Creek site, which a local paper noted, “most of the county people know as a vast deposit of very pure lime rock, and which efforts have been made in the past to get capital to develop.” As his Cheboygan Limestone Products Company was being organized in 1913, an article in the Chicago publication Rock Products, detailed Mr. Durrell’s plans and described the site, noting, “It is known as the ‘Old Dausman tract.’”

 Mr. Durrell, assisted by his son Lawrence, was busy throughout 1914, hiring workers, purchasing and installing equipment, constructing kilns, and adding a railroad spur off the main line for easy hauling of finished products. Products included three grades of stone for road construction and “agricultural limestone” which was sold throughout lower Michigan.

Rock bluff at the Durrell or Mill Creek Quarry, circa 1915
Rock bluffs at the Durrell or Mill Creek Quarry, circa 1915

Rock bluffs at the Durrell/Mill Creek Quarry c.1915

The November 13, 1914 issue of the Cheboygan Democrat described the growing operation as follows:

A photo of Willis G. Durrell

Willis G. Durrell, 1856-1942

“Mr. Durrell, president of the Cheboygan Limestone Products Co., located near Mackinaw City was in the city Monday and he informs the Democrat that they are installing at the plant new machinery for pulverizing limestone rock for agricultural purposes and as soon as it is in shape they will turn out two car loads of this product a day. It is taking the place of land plaster and vast quantities of it is new being used by farmers. It is especially needed in southern Michigan where they have vast tracts of sour lands and pulverized limestone is being used to bring the land value back… The pulverized limestone will be sold at the quarry at $1.25 per ton, which is reasonable, and already many farmers of this county are preparing to make a test of it on their lands. The company is also engaged in crushing rock for roads and other purposes. They have fifteen men at work now and will gradually increase their force.”

 To maximize production, Durrell purchased a Jeffrey Swing Hammer Pulverizer for use at the quarry. Installed in late 1914, this new technology crushed limestone to a fine powder, eliminating the need for burning lime in kilns. It also produced material for other uses such as top-dressing roads, fluxing stone for glass factories and steel plants, and concrete for cement walks.

 The Durrell, or Mill Creek Quarry, boasted an exceptionally pure product, being 98.71 percent calcium carbonate. Their advertisements in southern Michigan newspapers asked readers, “Why use low grade when pure stuff costs no more?” To verify its composition, 40 samples of Mill Creek limestone were taken in 1915 and examined by scientists at nine laboratories, including the Michigan Geological Survey, University of Michigan, and Emery Institute of Cincinnati.Vintage ad for limestone at Mill Creek Quarry

A vintage ad for the Mill Creek Quarry
A vintage ad for limestone at the Mill Creek Quarry

Advertisements from various Michigan newspapers, 1914-1915

 Eclipsed by larger operations at Afton (near Indian River) and Rogers City, the Mill Creek Quarry ended operations after the 1923 season. From the 1930s through the 1950s, the abandoned quarry pits were featured stops for students to examine limestone strata during field excursions of the Michigan Academy of Science Arts and Letters and the Michigan Basin Geological Society. During this time, the greater portion of Private Claim #334 reverted to State ownership and was incorporated into the Hardwood State Forest, under the jurisdiction of the Department of Natural Resources.

Limestone rocks along Mill Pond Trail Located near today’s grassy picnic area, west of the mill pond, the old quarry pits were filled in before Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park opened in 1984. Archaeologists speculate that footings of the original sawmill may have been obliterated by quarry operations along the stream bed. The fact that other historic remains, including footings of the dam itself, were not destroyed is a fortunate footnote of history. Today, only a pile of rocky rubble remains along the Mill Pond Trail as evidence of a once thriving operation which remains an important part of the Mill Creek story.

Porcupines of the North Woods

Porcupine quillwork on a birch bark container, depicting a beaver.

  For thousands of years, Native Americans of the Great Lakes region spent the cold, dark months of winter engaged in hunting and trapping, ice fishing, mending snowshoes, and making things around the hearth fire. Before glass trade beads became available, women perfected the art of decorating clothing, baskets, bags, and other items with dyed porcupine quills. Quillwork takes patience, skill and practice, and has been taught by parents to their children for many generations.

A porcupine curls into a ball before taking a nap at the tip of a branch, high up in a tree.

  Winter is also a traditional season for storytelling. In the Ojibwe culture, certain stories are only meant to be shared when there is snow on the ground. One of these tells the tale of how a clever porcupine, originally covered by just a coat of thick fur, outsmarted a hungry black bear. After placing hawthorn branches with sharp thorns on his back, porcupine rolled into a ball just as bear sprang upon him, offering a spiky surprise. When Nanabozho learned of this clever trick, he took some branches from a hawthorn tree and peeled off the bark until their spines were white. After putting clay all over porcupine’s back, Nanabozho stuck in the thorns, one by one, until it was completely covered. He then made this a permanent part of porcupine’s skin so he and his descendants would always be protected from their enemies.

  Most visitors to Mackinac State Historic Parks learn a great deal about beavers. Beaver pelts fueled the fur trade for centuries, providing jobs for Native Americans, voyageurs, merchants, soldiers and civilians. Guests at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park can even hike the trails to search for fresh signs of beaver activity and look for their dam built across Mill Creek. Only humans alter the landscape more dramatically than this industrious mammal, the largest rodent of North America.

Porcupines usually rest during the day. Activity is mostly nocturnal (at night) or crepuscular (during twilight hours).

  Few people realize that Mill Creek is also home to the second largest rodent on the continent, the North American Porcupine. Growing up to 30 pounds and more than two feet long, a porcupine can live up to 10 years. Porcupines are slow, secretive, and solitary, usually seen sleeping at the top of a tree or walking warily across a road.

  A porcupine is truly amazing in many ways, particularly due to its needle-sharp, barbed quills, which are actually modified hairs. A fully-grown porcupine has more than 30,000 quills, which are loosely attached to muscles just beneath the skin. Despite a popular myth, porcupines cannot throw or shoot their quills. When threatened, they turn their back to an attacker and quickly flick their tail, driving quills into the toughest flesh. As quill tips are barbed like a fishhook, they are very painful and difficult to remove.

  Porcupines can be found many places in the woods of Michigan. As you hike, watch for signs such as chewed tree trunks or branches, as inner bark is especially sought after in the winter months as a source of food. Porcupines even chew on buildings and trail signs looking for salt, glue or paint, and will even seek out sweat residue left on wooden tool handles. Because they are rodents, a porcupine’s teeth continually grow, just like a mouse or beaver’s do. With binoculars or a camera, look closely to see if you can spot the orange coating on their teeth, which is an iron-rich coating of enamel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  Visitors to Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park can learn about porcupines and other animals of the north woods during naturalist programs throughout the season, which begins on May 7. To get a treetop view, also join us on an Adventure Tour and climb the steps of the Treetop Discovery Tower. Who knows, you might even see eye-to-eye with a porcupine! Tickets can be purchased here.

Campbell’s Will Helps Outline History at Mill Creek

Campbell’s Will Helps Outline History at Mill Creek

Archaeological work at Historic Mill Creek began in 1972, allowing historians, naturalists, and visitors to understand what life was like at the site of Michigan’s first water-powered saw mill. While archaeological discoveries like structural remains, military items, and mechanical parts help uncover what daily life may have been like, documentary evidence shows the importance of the saw mill as both a family business and a valuable part of the Michilmackinac community. One such document is the will of Robert Campbell, original owner of the mill. (more…)