Vanishing Villages

Gusts of cool wind from Lake Superior buffet the car as I drive along Wisconsin Highway 2, approaching the Michigan line. Turning inland towards my vacation destination, it seems I am embarking on a journey into my past. Driving through a cluster of small mining towns near the northern border of the U.S. takes me back to my childhood 1,200 miles to the south in an Alabama mill village. The neat, quiet streets are lined with cloned white clapboard houses gleaming in the late August sun, now “snow country” skiing and vacation homes, similar to the brown creosoted mill houses that nourished me through my childhood. Upon arrival at the restored miner’s cottage, the regression into the past continues to unfold as my wife, her sister and I will spend a week in a mining company house built more than a hundred years ago. Hastily unpacking, I am now eager to dig into the story of this once bustling industrial center.

Around 1880, James Wood accepted the challenge to supervise the operation of a new iron ore mine just a few miles inland from Lake Superior. News of the ore discovery spread abroad attracting experienced miners from Cornwall (England), Germany, Finland, Ireland and Wales. As the population increased, Mr. Wood built enough houses to form a small town in the westernmost area of the new state of Michigan. By 1887, this town’s population of “red devils” (a nickname for the miners as they emerged from the mine covered with ore dust) approached 10,000, a setting for possible chaos without some form of structure and organization. Therefore, Frederick Rhinelander, the mine’s owner, incorporated this new village of European immigrants. By this time the iron-fisted, tireless James Wood had earned the nickname “Iron” and the admiration of his boss who, in turn, named the town Ironwood.

Although the iron ore mines closed down more than 30 years ago, many of the houses once occupied by miners now serve as rental cottages for winter sports enthusiasts and tourists. Ironwood, Michigan, and the nearby Wisconsin villages of Hurley, Montreal and Gile, are examples of 19th-century industrial towns that outgrew their usefulness toward the end of the 20th century. Similar villages that began as company housing are found in almost every state in the union, but many have faded into various states of disuse and abandonment.

Like the depleted mines of Lake Superior’s south shore, most southern states’ textile mills are now closed and have moved their operations off shore, leaving behind remnants of once-thriving industrial villages that have become opportunities unlimited for local history buffs. Most mill owners sold company houses and demolished others. One major effort to preserve and restore former cotton mills and villages is led by visionaries Jim and Lynn Rumley at the Textile Heritage Center in Cooleemee, North Carolina.

I write this blog from one of the more than 80 well-preserved former miners’ houses in Montreal, Wisconsin, a village near Ironwood dotted with cones of reddish mine tailings rising above the forest. As the winter season opens this month, every house will be rented, a creative approach to village preservation. Spending a week’s vacation in this unique place invigorates my interest in the history of company-owned housing; a fascination generated by the early years I spent enjoying a kid’s paradise in an Alabama cotton mill village. If I had the resources of Frederick Rhinelander and the determination of James “Iron” Wood, I could do more towards restoring an industrial village for the edification of future generations.