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Photo provided by Wayne Abba Historian Keith Whitman speaks to about 140 people Wednesday about Henry Ford’s connections to the Upper Peninsula. The public also learned about a community group’s plans to restore the Alberta sawmill and potentially reopen it as a historic site.

ALBERTA – Efforts to preserve Alberta’s sawmill and pump house building are gaining momentum.

A community group mobilized earlier this year in response to Michigan Technological University’s tentative plans to demolish the sawmill building and pump house. Tech is now working with the group to find ways to preserve the building and restore it as a historical exhibit.

The civic group now operates as a subcommittee of the Baraga County Historical Society.

Michigan Tech has provided strong support, said Wayne Abba, a member of the subcommittee. Tech’s forestry department submitted an assessment of the condition of the sawmill several years ago.

“That gives us a basis for figuring out what the priorities are and what needs to be done.” he said.

Mark Bevins, an engineer on the subcommittee, will survey the site to provide an update that will help create a master plan for restoration work.

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Tech’s history department has also been given the green light to work with the subcommittee, Abba said.

“They want to assign students in their industrial archeology class to undertake projects that would benefit the mill.” he said.

The sawmill opened in 1936 as part of Henry Ford’s proposed community in Alberta to publicly showcase Ford’s woodwork.

It was in service until 1954. Ford Motor Company funded renovations to turn the site into a museum, according to Michigan Tech’s website.

The museum was open to the public from 1996 until it closed about five years ago. Tech’s website identified several safety concerns, including electrical systems, walkways, and lighting.

On Friday, the group met with the chairman of the L’Anse Municipal Council to discuss a possible integration of the sawmill into the municipal system. The group plans to be on the agenda of a future community board meeting, Abba said.

Previously, the subcommittee scheduled a conference call with Michigan’s State Historic Preservation Office, tentatively scheduled for mid-October. SHPO could give the subcommittee options to designate the site as a historic landmark. The subcommittee members could be joined by members of the historical society and Michigan Tech, Abba said.

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“We’re not exactly sure what the best route is or the criteria for the different designations,” he said. “If it turns out to be a good idea to do this together with a local council, we can go from there.”

Help may also come through the Henry Ford Heritage Association, an 800-strong group with ties to organizations like Ford Motor Company and the Ford Foundation. The group has shown interest in the conservation effort, and its treasurer and chief operating officer plans to visit the Upper Peninsula to tour the sawmill, Abba said.

“He’s been to UP before, but he’s never done a specific sawmill tour.” he said. “We’re so excited to see where this affiliation could take us in the future.”

On Wednesday, the group hosted a lecture by historian Keith Whitman on Henry Ford’s developments in northern Michigan. Whitman also brought with him a Ford fire truck that he owns and was designed in part by Henry Ford.

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“The fire truck was in Pequaming when the mill was open, and when Henry came into town he used it to entertain the kids.” said Abba. “He would take it to the store and buy candy for her.”

About 140 people came out to hear the talk, which took place at the Whirl-I gig, a dance hall built in 1933 between L’Anse and Pequaming during their boom days as Ford logging towns, Abba said. Most of the participants, including Abba, had roots in the area dating back to the Ford days. Many of them spotted their parents or grandparents in historical photos presented by Whitman.

“It’s really great when someone listens to a historical presentation,” he said. “For me, this is proof of how important it is that a sawmill is preserved.”

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