Nahma mourns loss of landmark

Jordan Beck | Daily Press The collapsed burner in Nahma is shown on April 21. The wood burner stood approximately 130 years before tumbling over on a calm day. It once burned bi-products from milling wood for the Bay de Noquet Lumber Company, which employed 1,200 people in the Nahma area. The sawmill made its last run July 25, 1951, due to the depletion of timber. The 19th century wood burner was the last one in Michigan and was accepted into the National Register of Historical Places in 2011.

NAHMA — Where once stood a strong wood waste burner for a thriving lumber company now lays a pile of bricks intertwined with rusty iron. Over a century old, the Bay de Noquet Lumber Company Waste Burner fell in Nahma on Good Friday, April 19.

“It wasn’t windy, it was a calm day,” said Tee Lynts, secretary to the Historical Society of Nahma. “Maybe the ground was saturated with all the snow we got this year and the ground moved a little bit … and the burner moved. It was a surprise, but yet expected.”

Lynts, like other residents of Nahma, was afraid to look toward the burner after a storm or windy day. She thought if the burner was going to fall, it would be on a windy day not a calm day. According to Lynts, the community is upset and continued to say that day was a sad day.

The 19th century wood burner was the last one to dot the horizon on the coast of Lake Michigan, according to Karen Lindquist, archives chair of the Delta County Historical Society. In 2011 the privately owned burner was entered into the National Register as being significant in the state of Michigan and accepted April 8, 2011, into the National Register of Historical Places.

Built between 1889 and 1893, the wood burner was approximately 100 feet tall with a limestone foundation and walls of iron and brick. The outer dimension of the cylindrical tower was 32 feet. Supports came up from the foundation, five broad horizontal metal bands in the lower portion and four more horizontal cylindrical metal bands toward the top. The burner’s brick lining began one and a half feet thick at the base, eight inches thick above 30 feet and no lining in the top portion. The tower had a cap of metal mesh topped off with a weather vane. The weather vane carried the initials of the Bay de Noquet Company — B. De. N. Co.

“The weather vane was salvaged and is in safe keeping,” Lynts said. “It will be displayed properly and securely.”

The wood burner had rusted and was in jeopardy of crumbling when the township of Nahma created a committee that oversaw the project “Saving the Burner” in 2014. It was led by the Nahma Township recreation coordinator at the time.

“The way it was, it was a hazard,” said Paul Neumeier, who owns a summer home in the area. “It either had to come down, or have major remodeling done to it.”

Neumeier provided a crane and man-bucket to engineers hired by the committee. Engineers reviewed the structure and told the committee it would cost approximately $350,000 to repair it.

“We just couldn’t raise the funds,” said Lynts. “A $350,000 goal would be tough for any small area.”

Some locals thought the owner should have done more to preserve the burner.

“We couldn’t work out negotiations with the property owner,” said Neumeier.

The wood burner is privately owned by Carl Johnson, who grew up in Escanaba and currently lives in the state of Colorado. He loves the Nahma area and bought property in 1997. According to Johnson, his father worked for a time at the sawmill and he has many connections to the area.

Bittner Engineering, Inc., inspected the wood burner structure a few times and decided it was too dangerous to renovate, according to Johnson.

“The bottom was mostly weak due to constant re-firing through the years,” said Johnson. “The son thought about moving it and realized he couldn’t.”

According to Johnson, there are structures in Nahma he has helped restore, understanding how hard it is to see a once bustling company town slowly disappear.

The first sawmill built in Nahma was powered by water, built at the mouth of the Sturgeon River and burned down. Possession of the property changed hands in the 1850s when the sawmill ran by steam. That sawmill burned and the Bay De Noquet Company purchased the mill. The Bay de Noquet Company was organized Aug. 20, 1881, and Nahma became the company’s place of business. The first machinery was shipped to Nahma via a boat from Oconto, Wis. All products were shipped by boat prior to connecting the town with the Soo LIne at Nahma Junction. The sawmill was later destroyed by fire April 15, 1899. Another mill was constructed immediately and the mill’s first log was cut July 4, 1899. The mill operated until it was destroyed by fire in 1923. Later the same year, an electric sawmill was built.

For years the Bay de Noquet Company used the Sturgeon River and its branches to move wood. In addition, a railroad was built to bring hardwood into the area. Trucking eventually took over as the means of transporting wood in 1949.

Bay de Noquet Lumber Company’s land eventually became void of timber and the sawmill closed July 25, 1951.

Shortly after the mill made its last run, it was purchased by a company from Menominee, moving the sawmill west. The same workers who knew the mill as their livelihood were now dismantling it. Dismantling of the sawmill ceased for the winter months and continued June 1952. Charles Good purchased the burner and donated it to Nahma Township for preservation as a memorial to the lumber business.

Charles Good followed his father in managing the mill in Nahma. He knew of families who had three generations working in the mill and started the “Backwoods University” when he foresaw what could happen when lumber failed a community. The school was closed in 1941 due to the start of World War II.

The burner stood long after.

“The wood burner was just peaceful to look at,” said Lynts. “It’s hard to talk about it.”

Not only was the burner a historical landmark, but a guide for fishermen out in the bay. The landscape is forever changed at the south end of River Street in Nahma.

“My property looks directly at that burner and now it’s gone,” said Neumeier. “Fishermen used it, it marked the entrance of the harbor. You had something that was standing there and now it’s gone.”

Johnson is planning to work with the Department of Natural Resources to build a 50 foot tower with a light so fishermen have another way to locate the mouth of the Sturgeon River and a way to honor the wood burner. He also has an idea of installing a plaque with marble at the burner’s location. Later Johnson plans to have remembrance events with music, food and entertainment.

Trespassers have caused problems recently at the wood burner, according to Johnson. He says anyone is welcome to visit the burner by signing in at the office before walking out to the area.

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