My dad often brought spent grinding wheels home from the shop to use as planters or flower bed borders when I was a kid, so Michigan's Grindstone City and the large grindstones decorating the yards of homes there always held a certain fascination for me.
Grindstone City's heyday as supplier of grindstones for customers around the world may be long gone, but there is still of evidence of the once flourishing industry in this tiny town at the tip of Michigan's Thumb.
A nice history of Grindstone City and the industry compiled for a geology class at Michigan State University quotes a newspaper as saying that most Michigan natives know about Grindstone City's historical importance and place in the grindstone industry. I'm not sure I agree with that assessment as few people I know seem to be aware of the town, let alone visit it or be aware of its history.
Today, Grindstone City is primarily a small collection of homes and a few businesses clustered around a crescent-shaped harbor a bit off of the beaten path of M-25 as it traces its way around Michigan's Thumb. Check out Grindstone City's Facebook page to see a couple of nice aerial photos of the harbor.
This natural harbor drew Captain Aaron Peer to Grindstone City in 1834 when his schooner, the Rip Van Winkle, found safe harbor here during a storm on Lake Huron. The ship's crew went ashore to explore the wooded wilderness and found some unusual flat stones along the waterfront.
Peer took stone samples to Detroit where officials found it superior to Ohio flagstone they originally planned to use to pave a small section of Jefferson and Woodward Avenues. Detroit ordered enough rock for the paving from Peer.
Peer's sailors rigged up one of the stones to use for sharpening their tools, and Peer decided the stones would make excellent grindstones.
In 1836, he purchased 400 acres of land, becoming the first person to locate land in Huron County, to establish a grindstone quarrying and manufacturing operation.
The outcropping of Marshall Sandstone that Peer discovered was an abrasive stone with a very fine grit unique to Grindstone City and perfect for grindstones, scythe stones and hones. Worldwide demand soon earned the town the nickname of Grindstone Capital of the World.
The town became largely a company-built town, with homes, a grist mill, wharfs, and a booming industry with two quarries. A salt mining operation produced 125 barrels of salt each day during the 1870s, and the first railroad built into Grindstone City began transporting the stones by rail in the 1890s.
About 80 men worked at the quarries by 1870. By 1888, the Cleveland Stone Company bought property owned by other companies to become the sole quarry and grindstone company in town, employing about 150 men and manufacturing 35 to 40 tons of grindstones each day.
Grindstones varied from about 2-1/2 pounds to behemoths weighing more than two tons, ranging from about 6 inches in diameter to diameters as long as 6 feet. The largest grindstone turned at Grindstone City weighed more than 6,660 pounds.
Quarrying and manufacturing grindstones was extremely labor-intensive. Much of the work involved hand tools, and perhaps a few steam operated engines, derricks or horse-drawn vehicles.
Sharpening materials like carborundum became popular during World War I. Natural grindstones produced a finer edge, but inexpensive carborundum ultimately replaced the natural stones.
The grindstone industry at Grindstone City died in 1929. The town platted the area and sold the property mostly for summer or retirement homes.
Today, the few traces left of the grindstone industry here are some of the large grindstones used as decor for private homes or piled, seeming nonchalantly, at places like the town's free public lake access and boat launch park.
We checked out a few of the grindstones scattered around town on a rainy day this past summer as we drove the narrow roads snaking past vacation trailer communities and small homes on the way to the harbor.
There are a few charter fishing businesses and a bar at the harbor, and I hear a nearby general store is the place to go for oversized ice cream cones. The ice cream sounds like a good reason to stop by Grindstone City when I'm up that way this summer!
See my story about this nearby attraction, Point aux Barques Lighthouse stands tall at the tip of Michigan's Thumb on Lake Huron.
Want to learn more? Check out Huron County Michigan by the Huron County Historical Society.
© Dominique King 2011 All rights reserved