Department of Natural Resources
With the transfer of Fort Michilimackinac (built by the French on the south shore of the Straits of Mackinac in approximately 1715) and parts of Mackinac Island from the federal government to the state of Michigan in 1885, Michigan became one of the first states in the nation to establish a state park.
On May 31, 1895, the Michigan Legislature created the Mackinac Island State Park Commission and, as a result, Mackinac Island State Park was established. Today, more than 80 percent of Mackinac Island is state park property, and is managed by the Mackinac Island State Park Commission. (Read more about how Mackinac Island was established.)
It wasn’t until the early 1900s, when Michigan’s population exploded along with the growth of the automobile industry, that the need for a state-level system of public recreational areas became clear. (Read more about how the evolving car industry drove state park growth.) When Henry Ford made the automobile affordable for “every man,” urban dwellers were able to drive to the country and lake shores, but there were few public destinations available to enjoy these settings. According to P. J. Hoffmaster, Michigan’s first superintendent of state parks:
“The appearance of ‘No Trespassing’ and ‘Private Property, Keep Out’ signs has been a growing one, all tending toward an approaching era of exclusion of the great mass of our residents and visitors from wonderful recreational advantages offered by the state. Through this, if nothing else, has come the setting aside of tracts of land and water by the people for the use and enjoyment of all.”
Michigan's state parks system was established in 1919 after the passage of Public Act 218, which created the Michigan State Park Commission to acquire lands for state parks.
Most of Michigan’s early state parks were acquired by the state through land donations of private individuals. These include:
D.H. Day State Park was gifted as an early Michigan state park when Michigan State Park Commissioner D.H. Day gifted the land to the Michigan State Park Commission in Leelanau County in the early 1920s. In 1970, Congress established Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and absorbed D.H. Day State Park, which is now a popular National Park Service campground.
In northern Michigan, lumber companies donated land for park development. Most of this land had been extensively timbered, requiring massive planting efforts to restore vegetative cover. Donations of tracts of land from municipalities also were common. Cities and counties, eager to attract tourist dollars, often would donate land to the state for park purposes. In some cases, such as Bewabic, Orchard Beach and Onaway state parks, a park and park structures already existed on the donated property. Other lands came to the state through delinquent taxes, and in a few cases, tracts of lands were purchased. One of the state’s earliest purchases was the site of Interlochen State Park. This land, covered with virgin timber, was purchased in 1917, prior to the formation of the Michigan State Park Commission, but was placed under the authority of the commission in 1920.
By June 1921, 24 sites had been acquired and improvements had begun on 17 of them. To make these sites easily accessible to tourists, most new state parks were established either on or adjacent to state trunk highways.
Michigan was not alone in recognizing the need for quality public recreation. As of 1921, only 17 states (including Michigan) had established state parks.
In 1922, management of Michigan state parks was placed under the newly created Department of Conservation (now the Department of Natural Resources), and P.J. Hoffmaster was named the first state parks superintendent. Hoffmaster proved to be a godsend for the fledgling system. His dedication and passion for parks resulted in strong policies and principles that made the system what it is today. He served as superintendent until 1934, when he was named director of the Department of Conservation, a position he held until his death in 1951.
Hoffmaster often relied on E. Genevieve Gillette, his former classmate in the landscape architecture department of the Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University) for help in finding new state park sites, soliciting donations and encouraging funding for their development. (Read more about how Gillette was a champion for state parks.) Gillette traveled the state assessing potential park sites and was instrumental in locating sites for about 30 state parks. She helped locate and raise public support for the establishment of Ludington, Hartwick Pines and Porcupine Mountains Wilderness state parks.
Michigan’s Department of Conservation policies set forth standards for size, location and physical development of state parks. With funding scarce, early development concentrated on acquiring new land and making existing parks accessible to and comfortable for the public by establishing basics services such as road systems, toilets, tables, grills and drinking water.
Early state park architecture took a page from the romantic and naturalistic gardening style popular in the 1920s, with:
Examples of this early style still can be seen in the stone wall and fireplaces at Bewabic, the stone entry posts at Onaway, and the residences at P.H. Hoeft and Dodge #10.
By 1924, a landscape architect was brought on to help plan state park layout. The relationship between structures and the other uses in the park was termed “good design” and was considered critical in serving park visitors for years to come
By 1930, Michigan boasted more than 50 state parks. Attendance jumped from 220,000 in 1922 to almost 9 million in 1930, with a 19-percent increase in attendance between 1929 and 1930.
However, parks were beginning to feel the pinch, as early improvements were proving inadequate at accommodating the increased use. Fortunately, while the majority of the country was sinking into the Great Depression, a ray of light was forming for state and national parks across the country.
Upon his election, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated massive public works projects to put Americans back to work. Five work-relief agencies, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Civil Works Administration, the Public Works Administration, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and the Works Progress Administration, worked cooperatively with the Michigan Department of Conservation to make improvements at state parks. (Read more about the the CCC were instrumental in early park projects.) These programs had tremendous, positive impact on Michigan’s 15-year-old state parks system.
According to an article in Michigan Conservation magazine (1943), federal relief agencies contributed $4 for every $1 put up by the state for park development. It was estimated that, without the relief efforts, the work completed during this 10-year period (1933-1943) would have taken 25 years if relying on state appropriations alone.
It was the Civilian Conservation Corps – the key program for park development – that left a lasting legacy for the country’s national and state parks. Thousands of Michigan’s young men participated in the CCC program, which established camps throughout the state. The CCC employed men between the ages of 17 and 23 and concentrated efforts on reforestation, natural resources protection and state park improvements. Just three months after Congress established the program in March 1933, two CCC camps – each 200 men strong – had been set up in Ludington and W.J. Hayes state parks. Seven more camps sprang up within the next six months at J.W. Wells, Wilderness, Hartwick Pines and Bay City state parks, as well as in Oakland County (to upgrade the Bloomer and Dodge parks).
Between 1930 and 1940, billions of federal dollars were spent on state park development for engineering to reclaim land and build trails, on landscaping to enhance natural features and vegetation, and on construction of buildings and structures in parks to provide services to park users. The National Park Service worked closely with the states to develop master plans laying out campgrounds, day-use areas, beaches and trails, and landscape plans to tie together different use areas and blend them with the natural landscape. During this period, the service developed an architectural style – “rustic architecture” – specifically for use in national and state park buildings. This style emphasized the use of native materials for building construction, colors and textures that blend with the natural environment; quality materials and good craftsmanship, and vegetation to conceal structures.
The CCC-built stone and log buildings in Michigan state parks are a regional interpretation of a national ideal, a unique addition to the state’s cultural landscape. An important feature of these buildings was that they accommodated several uses into a single structure, reducing intrusions in the natural scenery.
Once the Civilian Conservation Corps state park improvement program was established, the design of park structures and landscapes was turned over to local architects and landscape architects. The National Park Service set up a central design office in Lansing, and a handful of registered architects were responsible for designing most structures built in Michigan state parks. Two notable architects include Ralph B. Herrick and Ernest F. Hartwick, who designed some of Michigan’s best examples of the rustic architecture style.
Herrick’s work includes:
Some of Hartwick’s best work includes:
The federal Works Progress Administration, established in 1935, also was significantly active in park improvements of the late 1930s and early 1940s, funding the restoration and park development projects at Fort Wilkins State Park. The other three agencies, the Civil Works Administration, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and the Public Works Administration, generally worked on short-term projects within state parks.
The reclamation of sub-marginal farmland – land not suitable for profitable farming or cultivation – was another critical facet of Depression-era state park development. The National Park Service created these areas in cooperation with state parks. The land was used for purposes including the development of 1,000- to 2,000-acre recreational areas near urban centers. In Michigan, this led to the creation of Waterloo and Yankee Springs Recreation Areas. The important work of federal relief projects ended with the start of World War II. When the young men of the CCC went off to war and building materials were redirected to the war effort, construction within the state parks virtually stopped by 1942. Just a few projects remained, including work Fort Wilkins Historic State Park, in Keweenaw County, the last of Michigan’s state parks to receive federal relief program dollars.
Attendance at many parks dropped dramatically during the war years, due to gasoline rationing and the concentration on industrial war work. Most people didn’t have the time or means to visit parks in the less populated areas to the north. Many parks were closed, and funding for maintenance and personnel was concentrated on parks in the southern portion of the state easily accessible from urban centers.
In the early 1940s the Michigan Department of Conservation determined that land in southeast Michigan may be desirable for recreational areas. In 1944, the department developed a plan to provide 100,000 acres of recreational land and, as a result, Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park and 10 state recreation areas were established through appropriations by the State Legislature under Public Act 50, including Holly, Brighton, Island Lake, Highland, Pontiac lake, Proud Lake, Bald Mountain, Metamora-Hadley, Ortonville and Pinckney.
Immediately following the war, work in state parks focused on completing CCC or Works Progress Administration projects that had been interrupted and where materials already were on hand. Few new construction projects were started. Throughout 1949 and 1950, the Department of Conservation developed a partnership with the Department of Corrections that enabled Michigan prisoners to assume some of the work formerly done by the CCC. Prison camps were established in some state parks, such as Waterloo near Jackson, and prisoners cleared trails, built furniture and maintained buildings. The program provided job skills to inmates, while generating free labor for the parks. Deemed a great success, the program saw seven prison camps established in state parks over the next two years.
Michigan’s most significant post-war parks development was the establishment of Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in the northwestern Upper Peninsula. In 1944, to counteract a proposal to commercially mine and log the land, the state allocated $1 million for the purchase of 64,000 acres in the Porcupine Mountains. Designated as Michigan’s first wilderness state park, the majority of the park’s interior has been left undeveloped. However, by 1948 an extensive trail system had been created, including 10 trail-side cabins designed by Ernest Hartwick. These are among the last structures designed by Hartwick, who died in 1948. The cabins clearly show the change in design philosophy between the decades before and after the war. No longer were hand-craftsmanship and design the driving factors in the creation of park structures. Following World War II, emphasis turned to quick and inexpensive construction using standard materials that could easily be maintained. (Read more about park expansion after WWII.)
P.J. Hoffmaster died suddenly in 1951, and the Department of Conservation’s focus shifted away from state park development. The parks master plan he had hoped to develop after the war never materialized. Unfortunately, state parks had begun to suffer from neglect during the war years and continued to deteriorate over the next decade.
In 1956, Genevieve Gillette worked to highlight poor conditions at the parks, promoting a report developed by John Rogers that depicted use patterns in parks. Concerned with the effect the decay would have on the state’s tourism, the Michigan chapter of the Automobile Association of America began a publicity campaign about the problems in state parks. Its Motor News magazine ran a series of articles under the heading “Our State Parks are Sick.” In response, a citizens group called the Michigan Parks Association was formed, with the aid of Gillette, in 1959. The group advocated for more state parks funding and a statewide development plan.
Between 1950 and 1960, the number of people using Michigan state park camping facilities increased 200 percent. With money tight, facilities stretched to the maximum, and pressure placed on the Legislature by the Michigan Parks Association and the bad press state parks were receiving, the state passed Public Act 149 of 1960 – the state Motor Vehicle Permit and Bond Authorization Law – and in 1961 implemented Michigan state parks’ first motor vehicle entry fee.
Though this fee resulted in an initial attendance drop, visitation soon increased. By 1963 Michigan led all states in the number of overnight campers in its state parks. Between 1961 and 1963, the number of campers jumped 46 percent, while the number of campsites had increased only 20 percent, resulting in more than 170,000 people being turned away from state parks. This trend in increased attendance continued until 1974.
In 1961, the Michigan Legislature also approved a $5 million bond to help fund state park improvements. Some of the state’s most-visited parks, especially those in the southeast near Detroit, underwent extensive rehabilitations. These renovations were far removed from the principles of rustic architecture of the 1930s CCC movement. Instead, emphasis was placed on streamlined standardization and the use of modern materials and design.
In the 1960s, the Lansing area was one of the few locations in Michigan without lakes and natural areas available for public recreation. In May 1965, the Conservation Commission endorsed plans by the State Department of Conservation (now the Department of Natural Resources) to create two new parks with man-made lakes: Sleepy Hollow State Park and Ionia Recreation Area. This launched an ambitious program to build 50 state lakes in the southern region’s “lakeless” area over the next 10 years.
In recent years, the DNR has used partnership opportunities and innovative ideas to expand Michigan’s state parks system. In 2011, for example, Menominee River State Recreation Area was cooperatively formed in partnership with the state of Wisconsin. Public land spans both states' borders on either side of the Menominee River.
Belle Isle became Michigan’s 102nd state park in February 2014, and is managed by the DNR under a 30-year lease agreement with the city of Detroit. Despite being one of the newest state parks, Belle Isle has been a public park at the core of Detroit life since 1880. The island and 59 structures, sites and objects are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including one of the oldest continuously operating aquariums and conservatories in the country, the James Scott Memorial Fountain and the only marble lighthouse in the country. Many notable designers are associated with the island, including Frederick Law Olmsted, who developed the preliminary plan for the island, and Albert Kahn, who designed the aquarium, conservatory and lighthouse.
The newest state park in the system (the 103rd) is Watkins Lake State Park and County Preserve, a joint venture between the DNR and Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission.
For more about state parks and recreation opportunities available, visit the DNR website at michigan.gov/stateparks.