Reflections on a Return from Reed City

Last Friday, I spent nearly two hours at my hospital’s Reed City location to meet with two of my honored colleagues. The meeting was pleasant, and the trip there was uneventful. Reed City is about 60 miles north of me, and the hospital is a stone’s throw away from the US-131/US-10 interchange.

I took the scenic route home. I drove US-10 from Reed City to Baldwin, a village of about 1,100 people and the seat of Lake County. Baldwin is 17 miles due west of Reed City along US-10, and located in the middle of the Manistee National Forest. At Baldwin, I turned south and followed M-37 all the way back into Grand Rapids, a journey of about 75 miles, meandering through White Cloud, Newaygo, Grant and Sparta before hitting Comstock Park and the northernmost outer-ring suburbs of the Grand Rapids metro area.

The trek from Reed City back to Grand Rapids, on a cool but sunny early-spring day, prompted reflection of the sights I saw along the way. A few highlights stand out.

First, I was pleasantly surprised to see signs advertising the North County National Scenic Trail. The NCT stretches more than 4,000 miles, from eastern New York into North Dakota and passing through Michigan; the NCT’s advocacy association is actually headquartered in nearby Lowell, Mich. I’m going to have to do some exploring this summer.

Second, the visual appeal of mid-Michigan is unparalleled. A simple 100-mile journey included river crossings, drives through pine forests, cruises through grasslands, flat stretches, hilly stretches and enough natural beauty to warm the most frigid of souls.

Third, the ongoing human depopulation is on full display. On US-10 in particular, entire stretches of ramshackle houses were boarded up, abandoned, or with rusty “bank-owned” sale signs out front. A majority of the houses between Reed City and Baldwin stood vacant. Mobile homes with distinct 1960s design characteristics seeded the roadway, accompanied by rusty cars, broken windows, and the long-abandoned stone foundations of large barns.

Fourth, the population development between White Cloud and Sparta is a study in contrasts. Large McMansions pop up at random, in the middle of nowhere; tidy little houses stand betwixt boarded-up farmhouses; towns that no longer exist, with commercial properties that haven’t seen a patron in decades, dot the landscape.

Part of me wonders: What might some of these places been like in their heyday? I drove through Brohman, part of Merrill Township in Newaygo County. Brohman is an “unincorporated community” in a township with a population of less than 600 in the 2000 census and a median income of just over $22,000. Yet Brohman, as run-down as any Nevada ghost town, boasts of a large, vacant-looking two-story brick building with the name “Brohman Town Hall” prominently affixed to its front, with a long-dormant railroad track beside it. What might Brohman have been like 50 years ago? A century ago? Was Brohman a bustling little rural town when the town hall was built at the turn of the 20th century? Did people go to school there, attend church there, and engage in the various accoutrements of local civic pride? What caused the town to die? Will any trace remain 50 years hence?

The big news of the 2010 census is that Michigan is the only state to have lost population. A minuscule percentage, to be sure, and concentrated in the Detroit area. Yet as I drive the rural byways — not just of west-central Michigan, but also along Grand River Drive from Grand Rapids to Lansing — I see signs of decay everywhere. Abandoned homes, mobile homes with plywood and tarps for repair, rusty homes, shuttered businesses.

And I wonder. What where these places like in their prime, and why did they decline?