Logging operations helped shape county
WEBBER TWP. — As one of the biggest employers in Lake County during the first-half of the 20th Century, the logging operations by the Merrill family helped shape Lake County.
Bill Merrill, 86, a life long resident of Webber Township and the last surviving family member of his generation, remembers the heyday of the logging operations — when the Merrill brothers ran seven sawmills and employed many men in the area. The family even had a road named for them — Merrillville Road.
The Merrill family lived in Mason County before moving to Lake County in 1917. Merrill’s grandfather, Charles Merrill, began the logging company which started out cutting railroad ties and his sons, Jim, Charles (Chuff), Ray and Louis ran the business. His son Herb Merrill had his mill operation and ran the Camfield and Merrill Store in Webber Township.
One of the seven mills was located in Peacock Township; one in Wellston; one in Irons; one behind the Marathon gas station on M-37 north of Baldwin; one on Carrs Road where there still is a big mound of sawdust; and two on Merrillville Road.
Merrill remembered many men working for the company, but count wasn’t taken until social security went into effect.
“When social security went into effect we were required to keep track of all the employees. My mother, Hilda Merrill, started keeping a ledger of all the workers,” he said.
Merrill recalled during World War II, the company lost 45 truck drivers who went overseas.
“During the war, my dad built a jammer to help load logs,” he said.
They hauled ties to a processing plant in Reed City.
“We cut a lot of elm, too,” he said. “During the war, the English used elm from Lake County to bolt under mine sweepers because elm bends easy. They sweeped the English Channel before D-Day. An English commander was here a couple months getting everything in line. My uncles would take him out for dinner and he stuffed himself. He didn’t get much food over in wartime England. Typical meals for him were soup made of potato peelings,” Merrill said, adding how he himself served in post-war Germany and his brother Bing Merrill served in the Korean War.
Cutting ties for railroads dwindled down after the war, but the Merrill brothers kept logging and pulpwood operations going. He remembers getting $2 or $3 per truck load (about two-chords of wood.)
“We kept logging right along through World War II, but after the war, we got out of the tie business. Price of ties went down,” Merrill explained. “My grandmother, Anna, could scale timber and it would be exactly the amount on the loads. She only had an eighth-grade education.”
Merrill remembered his uncles not only cutting logs, but also constructing buildings.
“Uncle Ray and Chuff built more than 100 log cabins along local lakes such as Big Star Lake, and L-Lakes out of pine and white oak. They also put up material for Shrine of the Pines and constructed the Shrine of the Pines cabin which is now used for a museum. Ray Overholzer, founder of Shrine of the Pines, relied on local loggers to construct the building,” Merrill said. “My uncles also constructed white oak cabins around Webber Township.”
Webber Township Supervisor Ernie Wogatzke, nephew to Merrill, said he believes the Merrills constructed the old Camfield and Merrill store. His father, Ernie Wogatzke Sr., built the new store and the original store building was used for a feed store.
“My uncle Herb and his cousin Robert Camfield made an honest living at the store and took pride in not selling alcoholic beverages,” Wogatzke said. “A number of roads in the area were cleared by my uncles, such as 24th Street through the Baldwin-Luther Swamp to Kings Highway during the Depression days. They also logged the U.S. Forestry land and state lands between the pipeline and Jenks Road where the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps were. They also cut near Putnam Lake and Lincoln Lake, which is now called Nugent Lake.”
The Merrill brothers also invented their own equipment, according to Merrill.
“Uncle Chuff was beat out of a patent,” he said. “He had a model-A with skis on front and a track on the back to skid logs out of the woods in the winter,” he said.
Wogatzke remembered Lou Merrill invented a press to bend steel and Chuff Merrill made a fuel source out of wood chips and sold it for barbecues.
“In those days, they had to get creative and build their own equipment,” he said.
After his uncles retired, Merrill, along with his brother Bing, took over the business as a two-man logging crew. Wogatzke would help with the business during the summers along with Bing’s son, Randy Merrill.
Some sections of woods they would cut three or four times, Wogatzke said.
“We hauled a lot of wood near Kings Sports Shop, south of town. We hauled a lot of wood to Jerome Miller’s mill and to Alberta Mills,” Merrill said. “We also sold logs to Dejoung’s Sawmill at Wold Lake. We would sometimes cut logs and at other times we cut pulpwood. We would haul three loads of wood a day and worked from daylight to dark. We would cut a load in the evening to haul in the morning.”
They also contracted with private land owners such as the Shinn family on Kings Highway and on Hawkins Road.
When business was slow, the Merrill’s worked for Wogatzke’s dad in construction in the late 60s and early 70s and helped build a bunch of houses while waiting for the logging to pick back up. They built houses in Big Rapids including all houses on Cozy Curve on the north-end of town and around Central Michigan University campus in Mount Pleasant, Merrill recalled.
“We cleared land by hauling stumps out of Hollister Park. We volunteered our resources and time. We also cleared land where FiveCAP and the VFW Hall now stand. We created roads which are now used for hunting roads near the Baldwin Luther Swamp and Twin Creek Road,” Merrill said.