Honoring Ford’s Alberta legacy
ALBERTA – The site that sprang out of Henry Ford’s desire to produce wood for his automobiles continues on as a Michigan Technological University site for forest research.The 60th anniversary of the site’s transfer to MTU was commemorated with a two-day celebration earlier this month at the Ford Center.
Near the facility’s entrance, there was a show of classic Fords dating back to the Model T. People could also tour some of the facilities such as the sawmill and the schoolhouse. Field trips were also given of Tech’s ongoing programs, such as its climate monitoring system and jack pine regeneration site.
The group also heard a keynote speech from Bob Kreipke, historian for the Ford Motor Company.
Henry Ford created Alberta in 1935, building the mill for $1 million. He spotted the site while driving in the Upper Peninsula with Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone. Ford had several mills and 500,000 acres in the Upper Peninsula. The lumber was used for production of Ford’s “Woodie Wagon.”
The site was intended for workers to be self-sustaining, living and growing food on the land as well. Phase I of the site included a small settlement including 12 homes and a school.
“It’s all still here,” said Kari Price, manager of the Alberta site.
The never-built Phase II would have expanded the site to 60 houses, a grocery store, a church and a post office.
After Ford ended production of the “Woodie Wagon” in 1951, it shut down all of its Upper Peninsula properties. In 1954, it donated the village and 1,700 acres to Tech.
Andrew Burton, director of the Ford Center, said the school provides an ideal setting for education, research, ecology and management of forest resources. They’re also making improvements. A National Science Foundation grant allowed it to make a new wet lab, which he said will add to teaching and research capabilities. They’re also applying for another grant to do wood energy for some of the site buildings.
Another plan is to build a communications tower that would provide wireless access to 90 percent of the property.
“We could even teach from campus, showing real-time data of what’s going on in the forest,” Burton said.
Tech primarily uses the center for its fall camp for 50 forestry students, who come out to the site for 14 weeks.
They would also like to get back to using it year-round. Burton said one way will be an undergraduate degree in natural resources and environmental science, which the university will launch in a year.
In some ways, the auto industry is moving back towards Henry Ford’s use of wood elements, said Terry Sharik, dean of forest resources and environmental science. Interior parts of the 2014 Lincoln MKX SUV are being made with tree-based plastic composites.
“I think that we are in the cusp of seeing a major shift in public attitudes towards forestry, and it’s around this business of renewable resources,” he said.
Ralph Bonde of Ely, Minnesota, knew the center well in its early days. He’s a 1964 forestry graduate from Michigan Tech who had been up for alumni weekend.
“It’s a neat place,” said Bonde, who went on the spend 45 years with the U.S. Forest Service. “I always liked it.”