Sunday, April 08, 2007

MARILLA: Doorway to Manistee’s past

Associate Editor

In 1870, Marilla petitioned for and was granted township organization. Relatively unchanged today, this quaint corner of Manistee County has remained untarnished by strip malls, parking lots, and the other blights of urban sprawl since its inception.
The lumbering and trapping days which helped put Marilla on the map have since ebbed, but the area still maintains its charm and sense of history, thanks in large part to the Marilla Historical Society and Museum, along with the museum’s director, Jan Thomas, and the many volunteers who labor year-round to promote the area’s historical landmarks, buildings, and artifacts.
The museum, which is also the Township Hall and community center, has been in operation since the early 1980’s. “It’s a community building; a lot of things happen here,” says Thomas. “We have food bank, there’s a church that meets here every Sunday, TOPS, and our historical board.”
The town hall, like much of Marilla, has been kept true to its historical beginnings. “It’s changed a little, but not a lot,” says Thomas. With the closest major highway (M-115) five miles to the north, Marilla is off of the beaten path. The area wasn’t always so isolated, though.
Now just a raised earthen bed, a railroad track once ran through the area. “How enthused the people felt when the train came,” says Thomas. “Because we’re such an isolated community, and when the train came, that was bringing the world to them, and allowing them to go out into the world.”
This early growth and connection to the rest of the world brought some colorful characters and stories, as Thomas explains. “In the cemetery, there’s a tombstone that says George Lever, and it says ‘shot.’ The story we hear is that he was out hunting, foolishly — he was wearing a fur coat — and he was leaning over his kill, and someone shot him.”
Another early citizen was Nells Johnson. “He had never married, he lived by himself in the woods,” says Thomas. “Nells was an interesting gentleman.”
His re-imagined cabin lives on for the education of visitors on the museum grounds. “This cabin represents that self-sufficiency spirit of the early pioneering people. When he came, he lived in a little dugout in the bank. Then he built something called the ‘bark house.’ And then he built the cabin, himself.”
Johnson had quite an influence on the area’s early inhabitants. “He was a wonderful trapper, and a lot of the young men in the community would come out here and spend time with him in the woods and learn the skill of trapping.” Johnson was also what was called a “road monkey,” whose primary job was to clear manure and debris off of the logging trails for early lumberjacks.
The area holds a wealth of interesting lore about its people, and these are only two of the early Marilla settlers who are the root of a good yarn. “There’s just so many interesting stories I could tell you of the early people who came,” says Thomas.
Luckily, these stories are preserved by the Museum, and the people of Marilla for the enjoyment of visitors and tourists. “What we’re trying to do is interpret the agricultural forestry life,” says Thomas.
Farming, which despite the loss of logging in the area, still goes on, just as it did back when the township incorporated. “Farmers had a connection to the logging people,” explains Thomas. “Furnishing food to the hungry loggers. So they did very well. They prospered. They started out with seven farmers, and in eight to ten years time they were up to almost 80 farms.”
Many of the historical farms, farm buildings, and early businesses are still standing, and they all have their own stories. Because history is so alive in the township, Marilla is the perfect place to see how things were in Manistee County before urbanization and commercialization changed the landscape forever. “Marilla has not changed as much as some townships, and so it still is very very rural, and in a sense we’re still isolated in a way,” says Thomas.
In addition to their recent Sugar Bush Tour and Pancake Supper, which was held in March, the museum also has several other events on its calendar: a Strawberry Social on June 23, an Open House and Antiques Appraisal on Aug. 18, and their Autumn Reflections event on October 13. School trips are always welcome, and a special treat is the Tea and Tour. “When you come to visit, plan on spending two to three hours visiting. A very special part of your visit is being served a delicious dessert plate with cheese and fruit accompanied by a fresh brewed tea in the Pioneer House Kitchen,” boasts the museum brochure.
For additional information on how to sample a piece of Manistee County and Marilla’s history or events at the Museum, contact Jan Thomas: (231) 362-3430.
Cean Burgeson can be reached at:

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