This past summer, I did something I have not done since 1986 – I stayed home and spent my entire summer in Gratiot County.
With exceptions of “big trips” to places like Saginaw, Midland, or Mt. Pleasant, my wife and I opted to play it safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Things like movie theaters, archives, and museum trips were all closed. For health and safety reasons, even our local libraries in the county had restrictions on what people could and could not do. Previously, summer had meant a time to travel, even if it meant in-state, out of state, or even out of the United States. However, this year the pandemic meant no travel. What should I do over a long summer with limited choices and a lot of time?
Sometime in late spring, I came up with the idea of trying to travel every main north and south road in Gratiot County. The project became known as “Gratiot North and South,” and I started it in June, beginning with Gratiot East County Line Road. Over time, I decided that if there was a main road that ran from the south end of Gratiot County to the north, then I wanted to travel it.
Many of the roads were familiar by name to me, but some led to Gratiot County areas that I had not seen before. On Wednesday, December 16, I finished the last Gratiot County segment and what had been my way of dealing with the COVID -19 crisis.
There were a lot of things that I tried to do throughout the travels. First, I looked for what seemed to stand out, whether it was a building, the countryside’s contour, or something that someone did to the land. It soon became apparent that I was in a “6-8” problem – I missed about 6-8 shots on a road because I either lost an angle, I was going too fast, or “I just missed that shot.”
However, there were some memorable days on Gratiot County’s roads. I remember a hot July day in northeast Gratiot when long-haired Scottish steers stared me down as I took their pictures. Just down the road, a bunch of alpacas did the same thing. At the end of the journey in early winter, I found a good-sized boulder in Seville Township that someone got off of the ground and had it hanging by a set of chains. How does anybody lift a boulder, put a chain around it, and get it to hang there that long?
I grew up with the image of Gratiot County being a place with straight roads and sharp corners. Placed neatly in the middle of the Mitten, Gratiot County appears on maps a tightly drawn square box. In the 1980s, when I lived in south-central Ohio for one year, I could not fathom why anyone in Ohio had to drive three to four miles east or west in order to go one mile north or south. While Pickaway County was very similar to Gratiot County in many ways, the Ohio roads were not. It was enough to call me back to sanity and return to Gratiot County, which my wife and I eventually did.
Over time I found out that the Gratiot roads did not always fit that “straight and sharp” pattern. If you head to the southeast corner of Gratiot County, you will find that a curve meanders beyond a cemetery before it goes north again, making it impossible to drive a straight line as one thinks it appears on a map. I found out that not every main road in the county runs on straight lines and many have their “jog” in the road. The roads aren’t perfectly drawn or laid out, possibly as a message that none of us in Gratiot County are perfect either.
I also learned that the countryside still contains old barns, many of which are still standing from when they belonged to a time when agriculture was the county’s primary way of life. Some of these barns, which are falling into disrepair, probably were built before World War I.
Old schoolhouses can still be found in Gratiot County; at least schools that operated independently before school consolidation in the 1960s caused them to close. I saw one old schoolhouse in North Shade Township that had been remodeled but appeared to be used for deer camp. Then there are the remains of Gratiot County’s “burgs” – places like Sickles, Beebe (Emerson), Sethton, New Haven, and Newark, among others. Places that had formerly been the center of rural communities are now largely abandoned. At the time, these “burgs” had only an old store, township hall, or school building to mark a time which passed decades ago.
The trips up and down Gratiot’s roads were also reminders of struggles that we still face in Gratiot County. Some may be surprised to learn how much water we actually have. A large stretch of state land to the south of the county fosters the Maple River. Then there are rivers like the Bad and the Pine. There are also several bodies of water in the county, many that are mapped, but they are inaccessible by roads and appear to be on private property. Places that have become known as gravel pits now draw large numbers of people to swim, camp, and fish. Another thing that has grown is the presence of large scale dairy farms that can be found in both the north and the south of Gratiot County. The idea of water, how to use it, and who uses it are still questions and issues that Gratiot County faces in the 21st century.
The trips also taught me that while there are many nice homes, not everyone in Gratiot County lives the same way or can afford the same type of housing. Is there blight in Gratiot County? I would say yes. But it also reminds me that not everyone can build the house or buildings of their dreams – or at least like their neighbors.
Still, it is the only county I have really known: “Gratiot North and South.” And now for an encore?
Writers note: You can see pictures from a collection known as “Gratiot North & South” over on Facebook under “Gratiot County Time Machine.”
Copyright 2021 James M Goodspeed