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Millington - Arbela Historical Society is faithfully collecting_ saving and honoring the Thumb's local history

Tom Lounsbury

Wed, 11 May 2022 08:51:37 EDT

 


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                                              By Tom Lounsbury
Resting one block south of the stoplight in the village of Millington in Tuscola County is a sturdy building neatly constructed from local fieldstone, and featuring a conspicuous arched front doorway. Built in 1898, it began its start as the local bank, a position it would hold for many years until it eventually closed. It would be then used by various businesses until 1995, when it was obtained by the Millington - Arbela Historical Society (which was first created in 1991) to be developed into a museum, and it is something they have been doing on a steady basis ever since. In fact, they had to build an addition on the back of the stone structure to house steadily increasing matters.
I first visited this museum last summer and was very impressed with the many displays relating to local history, even to way back when. A nice portion is dedicated to the veterans of our Armed Forces, and there is a detailed Native American exhibit which features hand-chipped stone tools and arrowheads, as well as honoring a Michigan icon known as "Indian Dave" who travelled around the Thumb for many years. Born in 1803, he was the son of a Chippewa chief, and was present at the signing of the Treaty of Saginaw with General Lewis Cass on the banks of the Cass River in 1819.
Indian Dave (his anglicized name was David Stocker) was a friendly and well known character the pioneer families all appreciated, and he supported himself by crafting baskets, small furniture and bows and arrows (some of which are on display in the museum), as well as providing fish and game, to sell while he travelled around the Thumb by foot and canoe. He would play an important role per the history of Tuscola County in 1866 when he assisted Peter Bush in travelling by canoe on the Cass River to covertly transport the county records from the old location in Vassar to Caro during a Vassar/Caro dispute over being the county seat.
Indian Dave would pass away in 1909 at the age of 106, and certainly left an indelible mark in the Thumb, while he lived in his own very independent and self-sufficient manner right to the end. He certainly witnessed a whole lot of history and changes featuring the transformation of an immense wilderness becoming cleared and settled along the way!
What is often overlooked is the fact that southern Michigan, including the Thumb, was at one time "elk country". When Europeans started settling in North America, the eastern elk (one of six elk subspecies) roamed east of the Mississippi River, from the Carolinas all the way north to southern Ontario. It was a large animal and a mature bull could weigh over a half ton, stand over 5 feet high at the shoulder, and have antlers reaching 6 feet in length. However, it would quickly fall victim to progress due to a steady loss of critical habitat and unregulated hunting. The Thumb was actually one of its last elk strongholds in Michigan, and it was the area that Oliver Hazard Perry, from Ohio, sought out to elk hunt along the Cass River during the 1850's.
By 1875, elk no longer existed in Michigan and the last known eastern elk was shot in Pennsylvania in 1877. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would declare the eastern elk subspecies as being extinct in 1880. The elk found now in northern Michigan are of the Rocky Mountain subspecies, and started out as transplants brought in from Yellowstone Park during the early 20th Century.
Murphy Lake is located in southwestern Tuscola County, and is very close to Millington. It was created by lumbermen building a log dam at Goodings Creek in order to float logs to reach the Cass River near Vassar. The area's unique topography also entailed several kettle lakes and a large marsh which assisted matters, and Murphy Lake came into being. The log dam would be later replaced with more durable materials in the mid-20th Century.
Ray Plain of Midland used to live near Murphy Lake, and being an avid and well-experienced skin diver (he spent 3 years skin diving and exploring in the Caribbean), he and friends would spend hours exploring the bottom of Murphy Lake looking for artifacts. It was a time-taking process requiring probing through the mud with hands, which stirred up the silt and severely limited visibility. Due to this, performing "night dives" was not uncommon, and was enjoyed by all.
In 1986, a set of elk antlers was discovered by this team of skin divers on the bottom of Murphy Lake, and though partially broken up, the rack was very large in size. More probing revealed elk bones as well. In 1987, a fully intact set of elk antlers was also discovered on the lake bottom. Being later carbon dated by MSU, it was determined the pair of bull elk had met their demise around 1830. How they died remains to be a mystery. Since there wasn't a Murphy Lake in 1830, the elk could have possibly broken though the ice and drowned in one of the kettle lakes, or had been killed by Native American hunters (there weren't that many settlers around during that timeframe).
Ray Plain would take the pair of elk antlers to the Nancarrow Taxidermy Studio in Frankenmuth to be mounted, and then displayed there. The antlers would eventually fall into the possession of taxidermist Matt Hill, of Reese. In February 2022, Matt Hill would graciously loan the pair of mounted elk antlers to the Millington - Arbela Historical Society Museum, where they are on exhibit today. I had a chance to recently visit the museum to review the amazing elk antlers, and meet a whole bunch of very nice folks as well.
The intact elk antlers scored a record 363 Boone and Crockett points, and it is estimated that the other set, had they not been broken up, would have scored much higher. Yep, folks, this was a pair of really big bull elk in their day.
The Millington - Arbela Historical Society Museum is open from April 15 to the end of December, on Fridays from 1 - 4 pm. Starting in June, it will be also open on Saturdays from 1 - 4 pm, and it can also be opened upon request for interested groups.
One thing I discovered right away, is that it is well worth a visit!

   


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