By Lake City Area Chamber
Missaukee County is located in the north central portion of the lower peninsula of Michigan between the Manistee River to the northwest and the Muskegon to the east. It was largely only populated by Native American hunting camps. No record of permanent Indian habitation exists in the county other than several circle mounds in Aetna Township – the purpose of which is not known. The county was first surveyed in 1840 but had no year-round residents until after the Civil War. Old growth forests covered much of the county at that time, with extensive swampland in the south and east and hilly highlands in the central and northern townships. In the late 1860’s, settlers began moving into the county brought by government land grants, the continuing need for homestead sites for the European immigrants and the northward sweep of timber cutting across Michigan.
The first areas of settlement were on the east side of Lake Missaukee, in present day Lake City, and in the south-central part of the country near Vogel Center and Falmouth. Dutch farm families settled in the fertile southern part of the county. There they cleared the land and established dairy farms, many of which are still worked by the descendants of the original families.
Logging camps spread throughout the county’s forests. Valuable white pine trees were logged off first, then the old oak, maple, beech and other hardwoods. Lumber was cut into boards, broom handles, shingles and bowls. Wood scraps were distilled to fuel a thriving chemical industry.
The largest lumber mill in Missaukee County – The Mitchell Brothers Lumber Co. – was in Jennings. For 30 years, Mitchell Brothers was the largest employer in the county, and Jennings was a bustling company town. Experts predicted the supply of standing trees in Michigan was inexhaustible, and the local timber industry boomed.
But the end of the timber industry was already in site by the turn of the century. Lumber camps had clear-cut much of the county. Mills closed or moved on to follow the remaining standing timber. In the 1920’s, after most local logging had already closed, Mitchell Brothers finally moved their operation to Cadillac. Hundreds of employees’ houses were also moved. and the town of Jennings virtually disappeared overnight. Other logging towns around the county actually did disappear.
But wood-based firms have remained a part of the local economy. Several sawmills operate in the county. One manufacturer produces Wolmanized utility poles. Another burns wood scrap to generate electricity.
With the crash of the local lumber industry in the early 20th century, Missaukee County settled into an agricultural economy. Where the land was good, farmers thrived, but many just eked out a living. Much of Missaukee County’s soil is sandy and poor, not well suited for pasturing livestock.
But the growth of the auto industry downstate had an unexpected side effect on Missaukee’s economy. Assembly line workers and their families began to head northward for vacation and recreation time in Missaukee’s still wild lands, lakes and rivers. Tourism eventually became a strong element of the local economy, especially in the decades after World War II. Many vacationers bought summer cottages here and later winterized them into retirement homes.
Forestry, dairy farming, tourism and…Christmas trees. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Missaukee County’s sandy soil was to be a perfect medium for growing many varieties of Christmas trees, and another leg of the local economy was born. Missaukee is now in the heart of Michigan’s Christmas tree-growing district producing millions of trees every year.
As industry has taken a more prominent role in Missaukee’s economy, two industrial parks have opened – one near McBain and one north of Lake City. Much of Missaukee’s industry is based on wood and lumber, but not all. Several manufacturers supply the auto industry. Others specialize in pre-fab home construction, archery supplies and electrical generation.