The Story of Our Community

Main Street Cheboygan 1919

There are few things better in life than the feeling of being surrounded by close family and good friends.  A place becomes home not when it is simply a place to hang your hat at the end of the day, but a place where you feel welcome, comfortable, and contented.  But a building cannot provide those feelings – only people can.  Living in a community that is filled with good people can make even the toughest of days less of a burden to bear, knowing that you are surrounded by people who truly care about you, even if you do not even know them.  Cheboygan is just such a place.

From its start as a lumbering community in 1844, Cheboygan has attracted and given rise to a wide variety of people.  Early in its history it resembled the towns of the Wild West, with dirt streets, wooden sidewalks, and young men in search of work.  The work they did find was often in the area’s vast expanses of white pine, with the men as rough as the bark on the trees they felled.  When they came back into town with their hard-earned wages, they refreshed their spirits at local watering holes and worked out their differences with weather-beaten fists.

Of course these romantic visions, though accurate, were the exception rather than the rule.  While Cheboygan was full of men who worked in the woods and the lumber mills, there were thousands of others who also came to the area.  People came from New England, Canada, Poland, and Sweden.  They came as doctors, butchers, and undertakers.  They came as bankers, teachers, and shopkeepers, people like Dr. A.M. Gerow, Cheboygan’s first physician, and Harriet McLeod, the first teacher.  In the countryside, farmers settled the land and turned empty pastures and forests into flourishing farms.  They came by boat, by rail, and by stagecoach.  As the community grew, so too did demand for countless other products and services, bringing people from throughout the expanding United States to the relatively isolated tip of Northern Michigan’s lower peninsula.

Cheboygan became a boom town in light of the nation’s insatiable appetite for lumber.  Lumber barons like Thompson Smith and Millard D. Olds made the equivalent of millions of dollars via the woods, shipping their lumber across the Great Lakes and into the country’s growing cities.  And Cheboygan went along for the ride, growing just like the rest of the nation.

As the lumber began to run out at the beginning of the 20th century, many people ran out as well.  Population rapidly declined, but those who stayed were determined to make a name for themselves in whatever way they could.  But it was not about notoriety – it was about living.  It was quality of life over money in the bank.  While the booming automobile industry lured many away from the region, many also stayed because they did not want to become just another cog in the American industrial machine.  They valued a tight-knit community, hard work, and perseverance.  These are traits that are still palpable here.

The new century meant a new time for Cheboygan.  With more people able to drive their personal automobiles, the area became especially noted as a vacation destination.  While resorting in the area had been popular almost from the community’s earliest days, the pursuit of pleasure and relaxation became an industry unto itself.  Nearly everyone benefited from these out-of-town dollars flowing into the area.

During the dark days of the Great Depression, things grew particularly bleak.  Tourism dollars faded, and manufacturing was producing little.  By the mid-1930s, however, things were looking better.  The shuttered paper mill reopened in 1936, and with the onset of World War II a few years later, more industry returned.  The war itself produced locals of special note, men like Ed Stempky and Jim Muschell.

Since the war, Cheboygan has remained a mixed economy of professional, manufacturing, and service sector jobs.  Tourism boomed after the war and continues to provide a substantial number of jobs for the area’s residents.  Industry became more important in the1950s, when Procter and Gamble took over the paper plant and employed hundreds of workers.  Medical and educational fields were the bread and butter for many more, with women like Doris Reid leaving a lasting impression on the community.  The arrival of the first box store in the 1970s was a harbinger of things to come, but Cheboygan, just like every other place, was changing with the times.  Today, the area is as varied as ever when it comes to employment, but for so many people, it is not a matter of where they work, but rather where they live.

The people who live here are the ones who truly give this community its flavor.  Cheboygan is a place that has seen more than its fair share of trials and tribulations, yet it perseveres – a strong testament, perhaps, to the indelible mark its history has made on its people.

Matthew J. Friday
The Introduction to his book “Legendary Locals of Cheboygan”