Mill Lake was built by the federal WPA in 1936 as a place for schoolchildren from urban areas, like Detroit, to get out into nature. It was the best place in the recreation area for large groups, offering easy access to hiking trails and the nearby Gerald E. Eddy Discovery Center. But in 1981, with the state in recession, the Department of Natural Resources leased it to the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, and MUCC closed it in 2000. Since then, Mill Lake's lodge, infirmary, classrooms, staff quarters, and dozen cabins have stood like a ghost town in the heart of the Lower Peninsula's largest state park.
In 2007, South Bend native and NASCAR driver Ryan Newman announced plans to restore the center in collaboration with the DNR and Michigan International Speedway. Nothing came of it, but Newman's attention led, indirectly, to the this fall's project: when Patty Janes was looking for a site for Michigan Cares for Tourism's first cleanup, the DNR suggested the group take on Mill Lake.
Michigan Cares recruited tourism professionals from across the state as volunteers. With a $5,000 Pure Michigan grant and support from MIS, Chelsea Milling Co. (Jiffy Mix), and others, they did so much work in two days that park management is optimistic about reopening part of the camp as early as next year.