A VERY Brief History of The McCormick Tract Wilderness Area

McCormick Reaper Business Time line


It all began in 1778 when Robert McCormick emigrated from Ireland and settled in Rockbridge Co. Virginia. His son Cyrus Hall McCormick at the age of 22 studied his fathers records of failed reapers and in 1831, he successfully demonstrated his reaper to a small group of farmers and in 1834 received his first patent on the reaper. He continued working on the design until, in 1847, Cyrus moved to Chicago and opened a reaper factory, which became The McCormick Company.

This main factory was very successful but on October 8th, 1871 it burned with the rest of Chicago. Cyrus took the lead in rebuilding the city and one year later opened the McCormick Place convention center to show the world that Chicago had recovered from the fire. He continued developing the McCormick Co. until his death in 1884.

Cyrus Rice McCormick, the founder of the McCormick Tract was born on May 16th, 1859. As a teenager Cyrus changed his middle name to Hall after his father. At the age of 25, while he was at Princeton, he took over as president of his fathers company immediately after his father's death.

The last 25 years of the 1800's saw many companies develop harvesters and reapers with many lawsuits. Finally in 1902, at the suggestion of JP Morgan, the five largest, John Deere Co., the Deering Co., the Milwaukee Harvester Co., Champion and the McCormick Co., joined together under the name International Harvester Co.. Much of this merger was carried out by a brilliant young attorney, who represented the McCormick Co., Cyrus Bentley. Cyrus H. McCormick at age 36, became President while Charles Deering took over as Chairman of the Board. In 1918, Cyrus became Chairman of the Board with his brother Harold as President.

To summarize,


Robert McCormick came up with the idea of the reaper,

Cyrus H McCormick developed the idea into a marketable invention and began its production, and

His Son, Cyrus Hall McCormick, founder of the McCormick Tract, became the Industrialist.


Discovery and Formation of the McCormick Tract


The history of the McCormick Tract began in 1884. This was the year the eldest Cyrus died and his son Cyrus became President of McCormick Co. and went on his first camping trip. While at Princeton, McCormick met a professor named Dr. William Gray, who was an avid outdoorsman. He had a permanent camp on an island in Bayfield Wi. and had invited many people to be his guests over the years, including the McCormicks, who became great friends with him.

Dr. Gray would often go camping all over the U.S.. He would select the area by looking on a map for a place with two or three head waters close together with streams flowing in opposite directions and many small lakes. These areas usually provided excellent camping areas with abundant game.

One day, in 1884, Dr. Gary invited Cyrus to accompany him on one of his camping trips. Before leaving, he met with Cyrus' mother and had some of Cyrus' personal belongings sent ahead so Cyrus would feel at home. Cyrus, Dr. Gray and another companion traveled north by train to Champion then by Indian guide north up an old Indian trail along the Peshekee river. When they reached the campsite on the edge of a nameless lake, Cyrus was surprised to see a large white tent, beds with sheets and an assortment of his own personal effects.

In the following years, Cyrus and his attorney Cyrus Bentley began to frequent this area. They would come and set up a temporary base camp on a small rocky island in this lake. On one such trip, they were sitting on the island looking at a high rocky bluff and decided it should be named the Fortress. Later they named the lake after this bluff calling it Fortress Lake.

In the late 1800's, Peter White, J.M. Longyear and other Marquette community executives decided to set up an exclusive club in the Huron Mountains. They called it the Huron Mountains Shooting and Fishing Club and promoted membership in Detroit and Chicago. Cyrus Bentley was approached and decided to join in 1902. During the many trips to Fortress Lake, Bentley who was an avid hiker, thought it would be great to build a trail from the Fortress Lake Island to the Huron Mountain Club. McCormick agreed and decided to pursue the purchase of the property. He sent a scout, Edwin McLean, who evaluated the area and thought it could be purchased for about $5/acre. Knowing that the price of the land would be elevated if the seller knew of Mr. McCormick wealth, he asked his secretary, F. A. Stewert, to contact a land agent in Marquette, W.E. Lewis, to act as his real estate agent. Upon approaching the land owners, Mr. Lewis was quoted a firm price of $10/acre. It turned out that the owners land agent, John M. Longyear, had hear that Mr. McCormick was interested in purchasing the land and was not interested in dealing with Mr. Lewis. Therefore he had elevated the land price. McCormick was forced to inform Mr. Longyear that Mr. Lewis was his agent and in September, 1904, McCormick purchased 151.75 acres for $3.16/acre. This covered the west end of Fortress Lake and encompassed the island.

Over the next 16 years 13 separate purchases established the tract at 2933 acres. The first building built was the library cabin on the island in 1904. The majority of the other island buildings date to 1906 or 1907. Around that time an expansion took place onto the lake shore and was well developed in the 1930's.

Mr. Bentley's cabin in the Huron Mountains was completed in 1905. That same year the trail from the rough camp on Fortress Island to the Bentley Cabin on Lake Superior was completed.

Fortress Lake became a very busy place with cabins being built, crews working on trail development including boardwalks along the edges of Fortress and its neighbor Bulldog lake. One of the least liked jobs was dredging the channel between Fortress and Bulldog lakes so boats could easily pass between the two. When the land was purchased by McCormick, there was a large beaver dam at the east end of Fortress Lake followed by swamp creeks and other small beaver dams leading to Bulldog Lake. McCormick's crew built the 1900 foot channel here between 1908 and 1916. They dredged it out then drove in poles and attached wires to these poles. Boats could them be hand pulled through this channel. The poles and wire attachments remain in the channel today.

Another of the many tasks was the development of the trail system around the lakes and of the Bentley trail from Fortress Lake to Mr. Bentley's cabin on Lake Superior.

In November of 1907, Cyrus McCormick decided to officially name the lake White Deer Lake after an albino deer he and other guests had seen frequently.


The Later Years

October 1935 was Cyrus' last visit to the site. He died on June 2, 1936 at the age of 77. The ownership of the settlement went to a son, Gordon McCormick who began a renovation project of all the buildings. This continued into the 40's. 1947 was Gordon's last visit to the settlement. He died in 1967 and willed the settlement to the USDA.


This information is taken exclusively from the following two references:


Superior Heartland A Backwoods History Vol. I Book II by C. Fred Rydholm published privately by C. Fred Rydholm, 221 Lakewood Lane, Marquette MI 49855, 1989.


A History of the McCormick Family's Use of White Deer Lake Camp, McCormick Experimental Forest, Baraga, Marquette Counties, Michigan. Submitted to: USDA Forest Service, Ottawa National Forest, Ironwood, Michigan, 49938. Submitted by: Mid-American Research Center, Loyola University, Chicago, Illinois, 60611. Principle Investigator, Theodore J. Karamanski.

"My thanks to Tom Foye for allowing me space on his fine web site.  He has depicted the McCormick Tract area very well.  If you would like to learn more of the history of this unique place, I have written a book about the origin, life and demise  from 1906 until its procurement by the U.S. Forest Service in 1968.  My father, Ted Tonkin, was the superintendent of the White Deer Lake camp for 38 years; and as a family we spent the summers living there."

An excerpt from Mrs. Cooley's book describing life at White Deer Lake Camp ....

"From the start of freezing weather in late fall, after the level of the lake had been lowered to accommodate the expected spring run-off,  one spot about 200' from shore, just off the boathouse, was kept clear of snow.  This area measured approximately 100' square.  Near the middle of January, it was ice cutting time.  When the ice had accumulated to 20" thick, huge blocks were cut measuring 20" x 18" x 20" and weighing approximately 200 lbs.  The men used a hand-held ice saw to cut the chunks and ice tongs to pull them from the water.  These were loaded on a small sled and pulled to the ice house located some 500' from shore in the south end of the Kitchen building.  If conditions permitted, the tractor was employed to pull the sled up a short, but steep hill.  Otherwise the men had to do it using a hand winch.  A block and tackle hoisted the chunks into the ice house.  Once in place, these blocks were stacked amid piles of sawdust.  In a good winter as many as 300 blocks (or about 26-30 tons of ice) would be stored for use in the iceboxes during the following year."

Reprinted here with permission from Kathleen Cooley. Thanks for writing your excellent book, Kathleen!

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