The Man Who Saved Our Woods
W.J. Beal's 1888 experimental plantation in Grayling might be the only one left in the nation.
By Al Parker | Aug. 31, 2019
It might seem out of place, and it certainly lives under the radar of tourists and locals alike, but Grayling's W.J. Beal Tree Plantation might be the oldest documented experimental tree plantation in North America.
Situated inside the city's industrial park and surrounded by the daily bustle of commerce, this placid, historic green space, on many days, is seen only by delivery truck drivers and workers who rumble along Industrial Park Road, unaware of the significance of the towering pine trees they pass.
“This site might be the only one in the country where reforestation has been so well documented and preserved over more than 100 years,” wrote Frank Telewski, a Michigan State University professor of plant biology, at the site's dedication in 1997.
Once 80 acres, the site is now only about 5 acres, but it’s filled with towering pine trees that stand as testament to the foresight of William James Beal, a bearded, burly, and bold visionary who taught botany and horticulture at the Michigan Agricultural College (MAC), now Michigan State University, from 1871 to 1910. A pioneer of what came to be called "The New Botany,” Beal extolled independent learning through observation.
“In the 1800s we did not know how to grow and plant trees,” said Susan Thiel, a now-retired Department of Natural Resources Forest Manager who managed the Beal Tree Plantation. “Professor Beal did vast experimentation across several different sites to learn how to collect seed, plant and germinate it, and grow trees of different varieties. This site helped develop the science of growing and regenerating trees and reforesting sites as we know it today.”
A SEED OF AN IDEA
During the second half of the 19thcentury, the northern half of the Lower Peninsula was cleared of white and red pine during the first wave of lumbering. By the end of the 1880s, a second wave had taken down the hardwoods. Federal support for forestry programs was in its infancy, but local support was developing in areas affected by the timber industry.
Beal was very concerned about the extensive harvesting of trees and loss of forest lands. He realized the need to plant trees to regenerate the forests that had been lost and began encouraged farmers to plant trees as a potential crop.
“Keep in mind that planting trees for the purpose of reforestation was a new science/concept back then,” said Craig Kasmer, park interpreter at Hartwick Pines State Park. “Prior to that, who needed to plant trees? We have enough of them. So Dr. Beal’s study was, in a sense, revolutionary. How close do we plant trees? What species work best? All of those things were ‘unknowns’ and of course, since trees don’t grow into maturity within one growing season, the experiment needed to be monitored over a long period of time.”
Beal expressed his concerns for the state’s ravaged landscape several times during annual reports he gave before the Michigan State Board of Agriculture.
In his 1876 report, he said “I think this raising of forest trees is a promising field to demand our attention. When these different kinds of trees are well started so people of our State will want to learn how each variety thrives, that they may plant also. Indeed, it does not now seem too soon for some farmers to be starting for profit, a plat of hickories, black walnuts, and white ashes, and perhaps chestnuts, European larches, and others.”
Nevertheless, more than a decade would pass before Beal’s ideas took root.
In the spring of 1888, Beal organized a two-week journey across the state to examine the condition of northern Michigan denuded forests firsthand. His trek took him from Harrisville, on the Lake Huron shore, to Frankfort.
Beal took along two MAC graduates, two prominent botanists, and — with a wise nod to generating publicity for his effort — two Detroit newspaper reporters. The teamster (i.e., wagon driver) and guide for the journey was W.W. Metcalf, of Grayling, a Crawford County deputy sheriff.
In his report on the journey, Beal wrote that the objective was “to find one or more grasses or other forage plants that shall be better adapted to the soil and climate than any heretofore in general use in such places; And to test many kinds of forest trees to learn which are best fitted to plant for timber on the sandy plains.”
After completing the trip, Beal went to work, establishing a series of substations across the sandy plains of Michigan's “Pine Barrens,” including sites at Walton in Grand Traverse County, Baldwin in Lake County, Oscoda in Iosco County, Harrison in Clare County, and Grayling in Crawford County.
AN IDEAL AVERAGE
Beal’s Grayling Agricultural Experiment Station offered unique promise: Its 80 acres came courtesy of the Michigan Central Railroad Company, which had donated the “wild land” to MAC — land that had been cut and exposed to fire, which left a scattering of random jack pines and oak root sprouts. The Grayling location became the “base substation,” wrote Beal “because the area's climate and conditions would represent the average — neither the best nor the poorest of the sterile land.”
Moving quickly, Beal supervised the cleaning and preparation of the ground. A barbed wire-and-board fence was built to keep cattle and animals away, while a 5-foot strip of ground was plowed along both sides of the fence to deter fires from entering the property.
By May of 1888, Beal had directed the planting of 2,145 seedlings, which came from W.W. Johnson of Antrim County. The seeds were planted in 14 rows, each row precisely four feet apart. Along the north side and south sides, 20 acres each were designated for agricultural experiments.
Beal would not have long to watch his seedling and saplings grow; in 1891, Beal was relieved of his work at the plantation and was replaced the following year by Dr. O. Palmer.
A NEW EXPERIMENT
As the decades wore on, Beal’s forest experiments faded from memory. The Grayling site, in particular, fell into disrepair and then shrank in size.
Eventually, it looked again to have promise — just not the kind Beal had envisioned a century before.
“To support the local community, the state sold the land within the industrial park to allow for industrial development,” said Thiel. “The Beal Plantation was identified for sale.”
Luckily, before the sale took place, someone approached Thiel and suggested that the plantation site held more value than the mere price of its land value.
“I was new to the area, so I did some research and learned about its historic significance,” she said.
What Thiel discovered is that Beal’s dogged determination to experiment with so many seeds and species is what ultimately reversed the fortunes of a region ravaged by lumbering. His work, she said, demonstrated that “we have the capability of growing and planting trees, which led to the development of the tree nurseries, which were used to reforest landscapes that were denuded from lumbering, firewood collection, and fire. It is a very important site related to the birth of the conservation era in Michigan and possibly in the U.S.”
Convinced of its unique role, Thiel, the DNR, and other community members acted quickly.
“We removed the parcel [from the sale] so it would not be disposed of and then worked with other local community members and Huron Pines RC&D to establish the trail, develop historical interpretive panels, and worked at getting back some adjacent property to allow for the parking lot.”
Today, the W.J. Beal Plantation is managed by Forest Resources Division (FRD).
“FRD does not have an interpretive budget, hence this site has minimal maintenance, but it is at least preserved,” said Thiel. “There has been discussion to have it transferred over to the parks and recreation Division, but that never came to fruition. So local staff from FRD and Hartwick Pines pitch in to keep the site presentable.”
In 1997, an inventory was taken; it showed that of the 41 species started as seedlings or seeds in 1888 and 1889, no hardwoods survived. But original stems from seven of nine conifers endured, mostly red pine and white pine. They stand there still today, silently and majestically greeting visitors to the Beal Tree Plantation.
See the Trees
The plantation is open to the public, free to enter, and features a handicap-accessible path for visitors to explore. There are a few weathered signs that offer information, a couple of benches along the needle-strewn path, and limited parking. Find a map at www.michigan.org/property/wj-beal-tree-plantation
W.J. Beal's impact didn’t end with Michigan or its forests. The outdoor teaching lab he established at Michigan Agricultural College in 1873 — now the Beal Botanical Garden at Michigan State University — is the oldest continuously operated garden in the nation. And his experimentation with the cross-fertilization of corn led directly to the development of hybrid corn.