Caseville: Big Industry and Summer Destination
Brenda Ruppal

Growing up a Michigander, one only needs to look at the traffic headed North on I-75 late Friday evenings to see the masses heading to their Northern vacation destinations. What has just recently grown in popularity, especially among the Detroit area middle class, is the town of Caseville. Thousands flock to this paradise by the bay for its popular celebrations, its sandy white beaches and water fun. Only a short fifty-minute drive along M-25 straight east out of Bay City, carloads of families, campers and boaters flood the town from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon. With its "Cheese Burger in Paradise" and two-week long Jimmy Buffet celebration, the parrot-heads, grass skirts and flowing Margaritas bring out the Marti-gras type atmosphere. As a youth growing up I also spent many weekends visiting the lakeshore and beaches. It was a fast get away for my friends to escape, to let our hair down and have some fun. As an adult I have continued the tradition for my children by purchasing a lakefront home nestled in the Cass City Summer Home Club, just South of Caseville. Learning the rich century-old history of our association, stories about the great Thumb fire that burnt down Port Elizabeth, and listening to stories and debate from the locals to change Caseville's name back to Port Elizabeth, I wanted to learn more about this "rich man's" town. This beautiful village by the bay, Caseville, has sustained its residents financially and has been able to flourish by utilizing its natural resources for over 150 years.

Early History

Historical documents of Caseville point out that in 1836 the first European settlers to arrive were Ruben Dodge, a hunter and trapper from Maine. Dodge brought his wife and three young daughters and settled along the banks of the Pigeon River, for they found themselves a paradise of game, fish, wild fruit, and berries. The only neighbors were the Indians from the Chippewa Tribe, and they called this land where they lived "The Mouth" because the Pigeon Rivers opens its banks to Lake Huron at this location. The Indians were friendly toward the white family and traded meat and honey for food the whites had. On July 24, 1840, Ruben Dodge Jr. was the first white child born in Caseville. Early surveying reports of the tip of the Thumb talked of great stands of white pine, red maple and oak, also sandy beaches and the ten to twelve foot water in the deep river. It did not take long for the lumbar barons and timber wolves to invade this naturally rich land in search of their own wealth (Langley 1).

Big Industry and Big Money

The first lumbar baron was Leonard Case of Cleveland, Ohio. He sent his agent William Rattle to purchase 20,000 acres and put up the first sawmill in 1852; it was located on the north bank near the mouth of the Pigeon River. Mr. Rattle named the town Port Elizabeth in honor of his wife. Only two years later Francis Crawford, also from Cleveland, and whose wife was related to Leonard Case, purchased Case's 20,000 acres of land and his mill. As sole owner of the whole area, he mapped out plans and built the entire town. Crawford was in the shipping business, so everything he needed to erect his town was shipped into port. It was at this time in 1854 that he renamed the town again for the third and last time to Caseville, in honor of his wife's maiden name Case (Langley 2).

Mr. Crawford was the richest man in town, so he built a twenty-room mansion that was erected on the banks of the Pigeon River near the mouth, and this mansion was moved in 2001, preserved, and now serves as the town's funeral home. Besides the lumbar mill, which produced three million feet of lumber annually, Mr. Crawford owned salt wells, a gristmill, general supply store, hardware store, and he built the Methodist Church in 1874.

In The History of Caseville video is a witness report that states: "Mr. Crawford was asked
by the Reverend if he wanted to join the Methodist church?" He responded by stating: "Do you mean . . . do I want to join the church that I own?" With the best harbor in the Thumb, and two docks to accommodate lake steamers and sailing vessels, Crawford's Caseville soon became a boomtown with a population of 2000 souls.

In 1873, William McKinley Sr. owned and operated an iron works in Caseville, and his son, later to become President McKinley, was a regular visitor to Caseville (Hey 33).

Caseville Salt Works was the first salt well opened by James Curran of Saginaw in the spring of 1871. Two years later the Pigeon River Salt and Iron Works was founded by Edison, Crawford and Sanford, and this company, at an average dept of 1,700 feet, sank four wells. The wells at Caseville produced 50,000 barrels annually. They were discontinued when the iron smelting was abandoned. Iron was shipped from Marquette and Escanaba. The furnace ran only a few years because the cost of fuel was too high for profit and salt alone was not profitable (Hey 16).

Farming Community

The late 1880s found the supply of trees dwindling too much for the mill to keep operating. As the big lumber company was selling out and going out of business, the farmers were next to occupy the cleared land and make a profitable living from their hard-working families. The two great fires of 1871 and 1881 that burned the entire Thumb helped make the farmland rich and heavy for sugar beets and navy beans (Langley 4). I also learned from The History of Caseville video, contrary to rumor, that the fires did not touch the town of Caseville.

Now that farming was the fastest growing business opportunity, The Creamery, which was owned and operated by a farmers association, became a huge boom company. It employed twenty men and was an outlet for their dairy products. Butter buyers from several big candy factories, including New York Candy, used Caseville's select sweet and clean butter to make their specialty candies. It was shipped in 50-pound wooden firkins by train from the Pontiac, Oxford and Northern, the P. O. & N. train was named the Poly Ann (Langley 10).

Finally, by the 1890s, Caseville had become an agricultural center. In The History of Caseville, Mary Cobb Langley explains how the farmer, his wife and the whole family dressed up on Saturday night, climbed into the buckboard and came to town. Ma traded her butter and eggs for tea and Pa traded crop talk with the other men. The kids ran up and down the boardwalks eating stick candy and broken off chunks from a ring of bologna. Today the wooden boardwalks have been replaced with cement side walks, but that same joyful, child-like fun I was able to see on the face of my daughter at age two still exists. Purchasing her a large lollipop at the local La Blanc's dime store, I watched her play with her treasured treat all day while at the beach. Dipping it in the sand, rinsing it off in Lake Huron, and then holding it up toward the heavens she would squeal... "Lollipop" and then make a loud pop with her lips.

Another crop also harvested out of Caseville were the fish from the Saginaw Bay. The Saginaw Bay Fish Company operated out of the harbor, along with several other fishing boats that were docked on the Pigeon River through the 1930s.

James Reeves Sr. caught the largest recorded sturgeon ever netted on the Saginaw Bay, with a length of seven foot and a girth of forty-four inches. (Huron County Historical Society 45). Today the fisheries have dwindled along with the fish supply. No longer can you catch huge seven foot sturgeon... only walleye, perch, salmon and bass are caught, and usually by individual sport fisherman. Our family has spent many hours on Lake Huron for over twenty years, catching fish. I am the lucky one that gets to drive all the time, being the only person that can keep the boat straight even when the waves build to three to five foot. Our freezer has always had a supply of walleye.

Vacation Destination

In addition to the farmer's success, the early 1890's found Caseville's white sandy beaches and the crystal clear waters of Saginaw Bay a huge draw to the people emerging from Thumb Area towns. Bert Smalley, who hailed from Pontiac, and worked on the Poly Ann, became friendly with some residents of Cass City. Mr. Smalley owned 23 acres of waterfront property next to the old cemetery. He originated the idea of forming an

association that would own the land, and each member would pay an equal amount. Mary Cobb Langley comments that "At first sight of this strip of smooth sandy beach, shallow water to the first sandbar, shaded by a wooded bank, juniper runners and climbing greenery, they fell head over heels in love with it" (Langley 21). The many ancestral oaks that grew atop the banks gave the place its name, "Oak Bluff." The Cass City Summer Home Club was founded on Sept. 15, 1894 (Caseville Centennial 54).

Besides the Association's beach, on October 27, 1919, a notary public signed a quitclaim document, which turned over a parcel of land to Huron County. This section of land was where the lumber mill uses to operate; payment for this property was one dollar. That parcel of land became known as the Caseville County Park and was to be used as a public park, beach and playground. Organized adult baseball leagues, involving teams from surrounding villages, were a popular pastime in the 1930's and 1940's (Caseville Centennial 38). In the video The History of Caseville they explain that in the late 1940's a large water slide was built, but after only a few years it was disassembled when the water level went down.

Caseville Today

From the late 1800s to present, Caseville has sustained its residents financially, for it has been able to flourish through the years by utilizing its natural resources. Changes throughout the many years may show differences in business opportunities, swimsuit coverage and the make and models of transportation. However, on hot summer days, thousands continue to head for the water to partake in its many recreational water activities and also to relax and enjoy Caseville's natural beauty.

Presently, of the three marinas operating out of the harbor, one has changed its name to Port Elizabeth Marina in honor of the town's original name. There are no large industries sustaining Caseville's local economy. Farming continues to be a way of life for several local families, including one original that now opperates the Leipprant Orchards. Businesses continue to cater to the tourists that flock to town, just as seasonal as the migration of geese and swan. Business owners also continue to be very successful, even though the bulk of their income must be earned between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day. Winters here can seem endless, but the Holly Berry Festival in November for the ladies and Shanty Days Weekend--with the ever-popular polar bear dip in February, help the locals entertain themselves. I personally would recommend the "Cheese Burger in Paradise" celebration that takes place the second and third weeks of August. How about it? The next time you don't want to fight the traffic heading north on
I-75, take a trip to the Thumb . . . and in fifty minutes or so, you can find yourself in paradise.


Works Cited

  • Caseville Centennial History Book Committee. Caseville Centennial 1898-1998. Caseville, MI: 1998.
  • Hey, Chester Andrew. Huron County Centennial History 1859-1959. Huron County Historical Society. Huron County, MI.
  • Langley, Mary Cob. History of Caseville. History of Caseville. Dir. Al and David Eicher. Videocassette. International Production.
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