Showcasing the DNR: Fading, fallen but not forgotten

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Showcasing the DNR

A collection of antique items is pictured from Lime Island State Recreation Area.

Fading, fallen but not forgotten

Deputy public information officer
Michigan Department of Natural Resources

There’s a field I know that I often drive past on my way to quiet and contemplative places in the surrounding woodlands.

I always look, but there’s rarely anything to see here but what was once a hopeful landscape, from a time that has long since passed away.

There’s no fence around the property and no indications of who might own this land, which slopes gradually over a mile or so. It’s a wide-open space claimed now by the northwesterly winds.

The one thing I always do see at this place is a broken-down farmhouse that stands on a small knoll, the highest point here.

The house is small and probably housed a couple of people or maybe a couple and a child. It looks like it was built in the late 19th or early 20th century. This house that was once a home is nestled among a shelter of old and crippled apple trees.

The trees look as old as the house and are in a relatively similar condition.

At one point in time, this place was likely eyed as productive farmland, a homestead on a piece of ground perched above the river valley.

When I stand at the edge of the dirt road and kneel to take a photograph, I can sense somehow that the dreams of the people who lived here are still present.

There’s a fullness in my heart that saturates me with a feeling of happiness and life, growing and working. The feeling makes me want to lie down in the grass and dream my own dreams in the shadow of this simple house.

The apple trees still fruit, with a collection of yellow-green and pink-blushed leftovers from last autumn’s showing left in haphazard collections in the grass and just off the end of the front porch steps.

When I try to visualize this place when it was alive, it reminds me of the black-and-white farmhouse scenes from “The Wizard of Oz.” It would not surprise me if this place once had a water trough, windmill, fencing, farm animals and a scarecrow.

Today, I am the scarecrow, with my old blue-and-white flannel shirt, blue jeans and black boots, sitting here like I fell off the wooden post that held me up – just daydreaming.

I wonder who these people were, when they left and where did they go? Why is this old house – like so many others across this countryside up north – left to stand to slowly fall apart, one rusted square nail at a time?

A lot of these rundown scenes are “protected” by “No Trespassing” signs, though I don’t suppose they would do much to keep away a determined ghost or two or antique hunters if they were bent on finding something.

No, these signs are less of a deterrent and more of a requirement of lawyers, judges and courts concerned with risks and the personal liability of the property owners.

Those things are far beyond my thoughts in places like this.

I take photographs to keep the places alive for those who once were here. Within the images – especially those in black and white – there appear remnants of unspoken or unexplained truth, simplicity and countless stories left untold.

Collectively, these photographs tell a tale of the development and prosperity of this rugged peninsula, as well as its decline and descent into disrepair pictured across so many pieces of land that are home to fallen and forgotten structures.

There are gas stations in this condition, motels, old stores and whole communities that have been reclaimed by the woods up here.

At another farmhouse, one that is much larger and that remains in better shape but is no less abandoned, a mailbox remains standing at the end of the driveway. A small American flag still folds over in the breeze.

This place, to me, had to have been a large family farm with many hands who worked the property to make a living. I guess when that living died, the people moved on, or maybe they stayed until they died too – long after the prosperous times had dwindled away, if there were any.

Not far down the road from this place is another small and dilapidated house with a faded “Keep Out” sign nailed to an old and gray, rotted fence post.

The post stands where there once must have been a gravel road, but it has since grown back over with pasture grass and wildflowers like white oxeye daisies and orange and yellow hawkweed.

There is also a very stark and sobering feeling of reality, destruction and sadness at these places, perhaps poverty too – a sense that dreams died here as well as lived.

I know another place, more personally connected to me, where an old church still stands along a state highway in a small community I visited frequently as a child.

My grandparents were regular attendees and donors to the church. They lived just a gas station and one house up the road from the little white building with an old cast-iron bell in the belfry.

My grandparents were close enough to walk to services.

Today, the doors to the church are barricaded and the building is fading fast, though the old bell is still up there inside the white confines of the belfry.

I recently had a dream that I was somehow let inside that church in its current condition. I remember that in the dream everything was gone, and the sanctuary was gutted as though it had been burned black.

There were no pews, nothing much that would indicate that it was once a house of worship. Some of the timbers from the roof had fallen in, and there was black grime and mold everywhere.

I guess the church will be left to decay like the farmhouses and other decrepit structures I’ve visited along my travels. If that is indeed the case, I have taken keepsake photographs of the church to keep its memory alive too.

It wasn’t long ago that I was on a road trip along the Lake Superior shoreline and stopped to take a few photos of an old cottage that was situated between the highway and the advancing lakeshore.

The building was probably built in the 1940s or 1950s, but to me it was clear it had been abandoned before its useful life was over.

What a beautiful place to have a cottage, positioned where its inhabitants could sit and watch the sun go down. Whoever stayed there could fall asleep listening to the waves softly lapping up against the shore.

Cars passing by, especially at night, would certainly have been infrequent and would not likely have disturbed anyone who might have been asleep inside.

When I pulled my vehicle off onto the shoulder of the road to stop, it was a cold and cloudy day. The lake’s waves had kicked up and they were loud. What looked like brand-new “No Trespassing” signs were nailed into the trunks of trees.

I imagine the owners as a couple who stayed here during the summertime and perhaps autumn but lived elsewhere, someplace south, during the winter.

Like the birds that migrate back and forth from this place, maybe one springtime they never came back. Relatives who inherited the property, who may have never visited, maybe now hold the deed to the still-valuable lakefront property.

It’s so strange to think that these dwellings and businesses that sat along the backroads and highways used to one time be vibrant and actively used by people every day.

There’s a set of old cabins I know that sits at an intersection of two state highways. Like all these other places, the buildings are abandoned now except for the specters who occupy the rooms for free.

The old windows aren’t broken, and the doors are still hung where they always were, but there’s an uncomfortable silence that’s palpable here – like a crime has occurred, as though this present condition was never supposed to happen.

I can picture carpenters building the cabins and pouring the foundations for what likely was a fine business once upon America in the 1950s.

In those days, travel became very popular, with a new interstate highway system and folks increasingly traveling around seeing and enjoying things after the big war.

Somehow, I became drawn to these forgotten places, intrigued by the memories and stories floating around these crumbling foundations and rotting walls.

There is a peacefulness here, as well as a sadness, resignation and reflection on what was, what might have been and what never can be – like visiting a gravesite or a cemetery.

I think these places like to see visitors – someone who will remember them.

So, when I drive or walk past, I give an acknowledging nod of my head or a wave of my hand. It makes me feel warm inside to do so, like the feeling you get when someone smiles back at you.

If I stop to maybe take a picture or two, I remain respectful of the place. I listen to the birds singing from the trees and close my eyes to take deep breaths of the atmosphere all around me.

I try to hear what my heart and soul are saying to me before I move on along my way.

So long my friends, I’ll see you again one day.

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Note to editors: Contact: John Pepin, Showcasing the DNR series editor, 906-226-1352. An accompanying photo and a text-only version of this story are available below for download. Caption information follows. Credit Michigan Department of Natural Resources, unless otherwise noted.

Text-only version of this story.

Items: A collection of antique items is pictured from Lime Island State Recreation Area.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is committed to the conservation, protection, management, use and enjoyment of the state's natural and cultural resources for current and future generations. For more information, go to