The Re-Wilding of Waterloo
How Michigan's biggest park was born
As early as 1834, pioneers bought up tracts of government land and began clearing it for farms in what is now the Waterloo Recreation Area. A hundred years later, during the Great Depression, many descendants of these pioneers found it difficult, if not impossible, to continue to make a living on the land. Many farmers left their fields unplanted or abandoned their land altogether. During that tragedy the seeds of a future crop were planted: these days, half a million people visit the Waterloo Recreation Area each year to fish, hunt, swim, hike, and ski.
As part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) began purchasing neglected farmland across the country in 1934. A year later, the FERA was consolidated with other relief organizations into the Resettlement Administration. One division of the newly formed agency focused on converting underutilized and unprofitable lands into forests, game preserves, recreational parks, and organized camping areas. The agency was most interested in large tracts of land, between 5,000 and 20,000 acres, within a half-day's drive of large population centers. Offering inner-city and low-income families opportunities for outdoor activities was central to its mission--along with providing temporary employment for the hundreds of workers who would turn abandoned farms back into woodlands.
By the time the program was transferred to the National Parks Service in 1936, forty-six projects were under way in twenty-four states. Two were in Michigan: the Yankee Springs Recreation Area, between Battle Creek and Grand Rapids in Barry County, and the Waterloo Recreation Area in western Washtenaw and eastern Jackson counties.
The "Waterloo area is steep, sloped, and marginal for farming," says Tom Hodgson, retired Waterloo Recreation Area park interpreter. "The soils were less productive and farms less successful. So, less desirable for farming meant more desirable for a park."
The initial "Waterloo Recreation Demonstration Area" covered nearly 12,000 acres. It's not a single, connected parcel, because some owners chose not to sell. Hodgson doesn't know the details
of how the land was assembled but speculates that many were happy to have a buyer: "Some were going bankrupt, couldn't make a living at the land, and saw it as an opportunity," he says.
Under the direction of the NPS, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and later, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), unemployed workers were sent to Waterloo to build permanent camping and recreational structures and re-naturalize the area.
"Local men were employed, many from Jackson, with the project averaging 322 workers who were paid $62 a month each," says Hodgson, who worked at Waterloo from 1965 to 1980 and still volunteers with the Gerald E. Eddy Discovery Center and sits on the board of the Waterloo Natural History Association.
Early on, CCC workers built Camp Waterloo on Maute Road to house the men who would be working on the project. The second undertaking was the development of the beach and day use area of Portage Lake. Early workers also created fish rearing ponds and roads through the future recreation area.
"Although some power equipment was available, the bulk of the work was done by hand," says Hodgson. "The primary tools were the axe, pick, and shovel. The primary vehicle for transporting materials such as sand and gravel was the wheelbarrow."
The site consisted of mostly open fields of farmland, dotted with fences and homesteads. The CCC and WPA workers "planted thousands of trees to help heal the land from erosion, and areas were allowed to go back to their natural state," says Hodgson. In the early years of the park, the NPS planted more than 350,000 trees covering 1,000 acres. Native shrubs and grasses were planted throughout the property as well. In all, the federal government spent more than $2 million in reclaiming land and repurposing it for recreational use and wildlife refuges.
As an example of the transformation, Hodgson describes the bygone Sylvan Estates Country Club, which catered to the elite on McClure Road before the Great Depression. "The Waterloo Recreation Area Headquarters was once the clubhouse with a manicured golf course surrounding it (there was even a small airport out there at one time), but not anymore--it's mostly woodlands today. The nineteenth hole was once called the 'Pavilion of Seven Lakes' because you could see seven area lakes from it. You can't see any lakes today; it is all forest."
Though much of the restoration work was unskilled, the Waterloo project also employed carpenters, plumbers, engineers, architects, and even professional photographers to document the progress of the job. "All had one thing in common--they were otherwise unemployed as a result of the Great Depression," says Hodgson.
Mill Lake Outdoor Center on Bush Road, the first camping facility, was erected in 1936 by the WPA. There were a total of twenty-eight buildings, including eighteen cabins for sleeping quarters, a dining hall and kitchen, an administration building, a pump house, and a boathouse. The center had capacity for 140 campers. In the fall of 1936, the first group to stay at Mill Lake was a gathering of boys from Detroit public schools.
A second outdoor center, Cassidy Lake Group Camp on Cassidy Road, was developed by the NPS and the National Youth Administration as a year-round vocational school to teach inner-city boys skilled trades. Started in September 1936, it was hurried to completion in 1937 to accommodate its first scheduled group. Students were selected on the basis of economic need and were required to work seventy hours each month in return for a monthly wage of $29.96 and training in their selected vocations, which included electronics, smelting metals, and engine repair.
A third camp, Cedar Lake Outdoor Center on Pierce Road, was constructed by the CCC in 1940. Three camping units gathered around a central administration building had similar amenities to those at the outdoor center at Mill Lake. Slightly smaller, it had capacity for 124 campers.
Waterloo was administered by the NPS until 1943, when the 12,000-acre park was leased indefinitely to the state of Michigan. It was renamed the Waterloo Recreation Area at that time.
An early park brochure enticed visitors with such activities as boating, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, hunting, and winter sports--all of which are still popular today. Over the years the state picked up additional parcels within the park boundary, and today, the Waterloo Recreation Area, operated by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, is the largest state park in the Lower Peninsula, with more than 20,000 acres within its boundaries. It encompasses numerous lakes and acres of forest and wetlands, campgrounds, miles of trails, and swimming and picnic sites, as well as the Eddy Discovery Center and the Michigan Audubon Society's Haehnle sanctuary, where thousands of giant sandhill cranes gather every autumn. Holding true to its original mission, Waterloo continues to provide outdoor recreation and natural settings for area residents as well as visitors from afar.
In 1942, the vocational school at the Cassidy Lake Group Camp was discontinued. The Michigan Department of Corrections took over the facility, which became the first example of MDOC's Special Alternative Incarceration (boot camp) for state prisoners. It continues to operate as a boot camp.
"The outdoor centers were in constant year-round use, both weekdays and weekends, until 1981," says Hodgson. With the state in a severe recession, the DNR closed them to save money.
Only the Cedar Lake Outdoor Center remains in operation, now leased by the state to the Michigan United Conservation Clubs. The MUCC provides school, youth, and church groups with outdoor experiences and education while promoting conservation. The administration building and Unit A of the original structures remain little changed, while other buildings have been removed or altered by renovations.
Fifteen of the original twenty-eight buildings at the Mill Lake Outdoor Center remain today but are deteriorating with disuse. Four years ago, South Bend native and NASCAR driver Ryan Newman's Racing for Wildlife Foundation announced it would partner with Michigan International Speedway on renovating and reopening the Mill Lake center. However, plans have not moved beyond the concept stage since the announcement.
Camp Waterloo, where the CCC and WPA workers lived while building the park, served as a prisoner-of-war camp and a training center for military police officers during World War II. Thereafter, it was used by the MDOC as a minimum security prison until 2001.
Today, Camp Waterloo sits condemned. The MDOC is developing plans to demolish the buildings in the spring of 2013. After they're removed, the site where Waterloo's re-wilding began will also be returned to a natural setting.
[Originally published in December, 2012.]