By: H. Anne Thurston, Columnist
Because Michigan was surveyed and its land laid out in mile square increments we have our tidy counties, townships and fence lines running north and south or east and west. At least that seems to have been the plan. Most of this was accomplished by the survey crews during the winter months. Thus swampy land was accessible in its frozen state. Accomplished before the days of snow-mobiles or four-wheelers this was accomplished on snowshoes. [private]
Two circumstances interfered with this systematic theory of land division. First is the curvature of the earth. This was solved by the surveyors simply making a correction at regular intervals. Thus one can be driving east to west or vice versa through the countryside and suddenly, for no apparent reason the road does a large, beautiful ‘S’ curve and continues on in a straight, though often hilly manner.
Much more difficult to work with were the hundreds of lakes our state is salt and peppered with from top to bottom and with them the many streams which flow from one to another; and also Michigan is wrapped on all sides and across its top by the waters of the Great Lakes. Many of the state’s counties and townships would have been neat and tidy geometrically shapes but instead present strange forms which look as if something has taken a large bite out of them or at least nibbled away at their edges. Check out the shapes of Antrim, Emmet, Cheboygan and Antrim counties and discover what I am referring to.
The original inhabitants of Michigan took its country side, as they found it; a beautiful mass of plains, hills, rivers and lakes. The various tribes defined their portions with terms based on their needs, not on projected income or business possibilities. If an overlapping happened sovereign rights were usually solved by force. For as long as man has recorded his history it has been evident that brute force as well as cunning has brought the right to own. The ownership of land, unlike our improvements in the area of plumbing and farming, remains unchanged to this day, at least among governments, groups and even individuals.
I understand that even in Boyne City neighbors in one part are being sued by one among them over a property issue. Granted the verbal discussion of the law might be considered a step forward in solving property issues as bloodshed is unlikely to result. However, when learning of the issue being taken to court I had to wonder why in the world the legal profession is called upon so frequently to solve such simple problems. I remember an expression I heard as a child. “Don’t go and make a mountain out of this thing – stop and think.”
The natives established trails in their wanderings. Often they followed the paths of the animals which lived alongside them. When I lived in the country there was such a deer trail crossing our farm. The wild creatures faithfully followed it from the woods behind us across the farm to the spring they knew of in its northeast corner. It fascinated me that our dog, Tippy, would honor their right to do this; but if they were to wander off their path he would run, barking at their error. They all understood her message. In was a well defined right-of-way definition between the animals. No human had negotiated the pact.
In the 80’s I served on the Evangeline Township board with Betty Pinney, its treasurer. She told me her grandparents had moved up into Antrim County by horse and wagon in the 1880’s and settled on the Jordan River – thus the Pinney Bridge that crosses the great little river today. I have to wonder what sandy road was followed as that family and so many others adventured forth to settle in this portion of Michigan. And what was the road called by those adventuresome families? Certainly not State Route 11 or 121; or any other unexplainable number.
Today as one drives through the country side surrounding Boyne City the road signs often are the same name as that of the family who first arrived to build their home and farm on the land the road accesses. On the road beyond Alanson and the drive to Mackinac City one such cross road changes name as it crosses the highway. To the west it has a sturdy German name and to the east an obvious Dutch name.
This system is not unique to our area but is found throughout the country. It was just so simple to refer to a road as Jones’s road because it lead to the Jones’s home. — thus others came to know the road as Jones Road. The name remains today long after the death or departure of the original settler.
Villages, towns and cities often set about naming their streets after well known people, trees, places etc. Invariably the center street in a municipality was named ‘Main’. Somehow this common practice managed to get itself turned about in Boyne as our main street is Water and the street paralleling it to the south is Main. I have always wondered if during its founding if what is now Main
Street was truly the street the city fathers looked upon as the city’s main street.
Trees were commonly used as street names – we have a Pine. Presidents are found in many of our country’s cities as well as other towns and countries. Citizens of note also have had their names tacked onto street signs. For instance, the Mitchell family of Cadillac, early lumber barons, has had their name used not only in that city but in Petoskey as well. Colors, directions of the compass and seasons of the year can be found on street signs. Does your street name fit into any of these categories? Mine, Silver Street, certainly does. Roads often bear the name or names of the towns they connect. An example is the Old Charlevoix-Boyne City Road. And across the lake there is Ferry Road which takes traffic to the ferry at Ironton.
All such local and regional roads are historical documents which we have come to accept without much thought. The state roads are an entirely different matter. In fact, as far as I can determine no one ever sat down within the Michigan Department of Highways or MDOT as it is now called and laid out a system for numbering its state-wide system of highways. For a while I subscribed to the bit of information which told me all state roads running east-west were numbered with even numbers while those running north-south had odd numbers. Then I became aware of Highway 55 which runs east/west to terminate in Lake City.
After making a number of trips south on both routes 31 and 131 I began to question what nut had bestowed two such confusing numbers to roads that parallel each other relatively close along the western edge of our state. Then someone apparently decided to tweak the puzzle by running a road between them numbered 113. It was then I unfolded my state map and began to try to find some kind of reasoning for the numbering of the roads we drive. The more I studied the map the more unanswerable the dilemma appeared. Route 27, one of the older north/south roads is almost central in the state yet both routes 25 and 26 border the Lake Huron shoreline. In an effort to find an answer I called a MDOT employee from Cadillac my son-in-law knows.
Laughingly Jim assured me that as far as he knew there had never been a plan devised for the numbering of state roads and he often wondered how such a mess had been allowed to develop. Certainly our roads don’t just happen overnight. I suspect years go into the conception of a need, engineering studies, right-of-way acquisitions, construction drawings, ecological impact studies and the search for bids and then the actual construction of the proposed road – whether a mile or 300 miles in length.
Granted, many of our roads have developed from original two-tracks with little change in path, but certainly in its modernization to include what is often taken for granted. I refer to their widening into what is considered a two lane road. Even that can be expanded to include shoulders, surface striping, passing lanes, turning lanes, ‘vision clear’ intersections, signing and lighting. In other instances such as the appearance of I-75 the state road which more or less replaced old route 27 both roads serve the motorist today. The older serving the more local driver; the newer those who are endeavoring to cover distances in the quickest manner possible short of flying or boarding a train.
It seems once numbered a road in Michigan is to remain known for its lifetime by that name no matter how odd or confusing the specified number may seem. Whether titled by the head of MDOT or his secretary during a coffee break or more formally at a meeting of all the heads of departments involved it is written in permanent ink which by now has been stashed away in the archives of some web site.
Then the recent renaming of what had been called the East Jordan-Boyne City Road came to mind. Good reasons for doing so; reasons that might save lives prevailed despite objections from some of the property owners on its long stretch. Immediately I realized the state roads in Michigan are destined to remain the memory challenge that they now are for generations of drivers to come; another part of our state’s uniqueness. Safe and adventuresome driving to all of you. [/private]
Anne Thurston is a weekly columnist for The Boyne City Gazette. Thurston lives in Boyne City, and her published works include “E-Males” and “The Book of Anne.” More information on her work can be found at http://www.hathurston.com