When I was a young boy growing up – about seven or eight – a friend of my parents worked at the old Clark Equipment plant in Jackson off of Page Avenue. Everyone’s parents, it seemed, worked at Goodyear Tire or Clark Equipment – both plants sadly long gone now. But my parents friend, a production foreman, invited us to a Saturday picnic at a baseball diamond far off in the east side of the property. Because baseball was more important to me than anything else in the world at that age, it sounded fun. And when he said Tiger outfielder Ron LeFlore was going to be there, that pushed me over the edge.
Now, it never occurred to me that Ron LeFlore, that great Tiger centerfielder couldn’t possibly be at this picnic because it was during baseball season. The concept of a joke or someone kidding simply didn’t register, so I went with my parents and I watched the adults play softball and I kept score in my head, and I looked for the Tiger’s all-star. I didn’t know why he’d come to a Saturday picnic at a factory in Jackson, and I didn’t really care. I just hoped to catch a glimpse of him.
But I didn’t, of course. I’m not sure where he was that day – possibly Boston or Kansas City or Milwaukee… He certainly wasn’t in Jackson. But a lot of other people were at that picnic, and they didn’t seem to care if my hero was going to be there or not. They seemed content to get out of the shop for a day, but yet spend time with each other. People laughed and hung out, they ate hot dogs and hamburgers and chips and they made fun of each other for every swing and miss and they howled at each big hit.
I visited that ball field recently on a Sunday in March – the weather still crisp and cool, the sky clear and bright. When the factory closed two decades ago, there was no further use for that little baseball field, and they left it.
So there it remains – overgrown and silent, rusted and discarded, with nothing but old memories running the base paths now. Memories of a summer picnic, of a favorite ballplayer who was never there, and of a kid who didn’t seem to care.
There is nothing as mysterious, legendary and often sinister as what lies at the bottom of a lake. In Jackson County alone we have the story of the bulldozer and crane in Lime Lake, the un-recovered coin bags from a 1920 bank robbery in Wolf Lake and the automobiles at the bottom of Pleasant Lake. These are fantastic stories! At the end of the day, however, stories most of them remain.
And yet no area lake contains the alluring mystery of legend quite like Vandercook Lake.
In the early 1900’s, a Cedar Point style amusement park – Hague Park – was nestled along the lake shore. A Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article from July of 1912 estimated over 40,000 people visited the park the previous day.
Legend has it that upon the park’s closing in the late 1930’s, long after a fire destroyed many of the attractions, everything that couldn’t be salvaged was dumped in the lake. Google it sometime. Research a web site and see the list and the comments. If you believe the stories you’ll hear that the Jack Rabbit roller coaster and all of its’ cars are in there. The bumper cars were dumped in there, along with bowling balls and pins from the bowling alley. I discovered an internet blip while researching a book a few years back, that said the old Ferris wheel had been lowered into the lake and that, over time, it had partially righted itself at the lake bottom.
I once had a conversation with a man who used to fly hot air balloons over the lake and he maintained that, on clear summer days, you could see the old R.E Emmons (the park’s paddle boat) nestled near a sand bar after it had been scuttled.
My imagination raced away with the possibilities! It was these stories which spawned my interest in the park and the lake, and resulted in the creation of my book ‘Hague Park Flyers.’
And yet reality has a rather sobering way of dealing with legends. Truth can be disappointing and painfully blunt. When I told a couple divers from JCC who’d been to the lake bottom many times, they laughed. One of them said ‘that’s a bunch of B-S, buddy.’ He went on to say there were some wooden beams down there, but not much else.
I was told of paint cans and a couple of ice fishing shanties and a car door and a bunch of old tires and rims.
No Ferris wheel, no scuttled paddle boat, no bumper cars…
But as the legend of what people have heard might be down there lives on, I can choose to let go and ride along with it. After all, the only solid piece of evidence remaining that the park was there at all – except for old photographs and post cards – is the massive concrete foot post upon which a leg of the roller coaster once stood. That’s all that I can see and touch.
But as long as I let my imagination go, and as long as I choose to believe the legends, then so shall they be. And that magnificent old park, long gone and mostly forgotten, will remain open for business.
Hi everyone! Hey, I would like to add a bit of a disclaimer here, if I could. Someone sent me an e-mail comment, quite harshly worded, about my Cement City piece. It’s not true, I don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ve made it all up, I’ve never visited the place, I’m a liar… It was quite descriptive and, dare I say, not very nice. So, while I’m happy people read my stuff, that one was a little strange. In the end, it’s the Urban Legend Experience – MY experience. It’s what I experienced upon MY visit. If anything I post is more rumor than fact, I’m okay with that. Onward and upward…
They worshiped the devil here. They sacrificed animals and drank the blood in rituals dedicated to the dark arts. Satanic cults gathered in the tunnels beneath the old factory and communicated with the spirits of darkness.
Such were the rumors growing up of the happenings at the old Portland Peninsular Cement Factory on the shore of Little Goose Lake in the tiny village of Cement City, Michigan – A factory that remained abandoned but standing, a ghostly whisper of its old self, before being demolished in the early 1990’s.
And on a warm summer night shortly after I’d graduated from high school, my friends and I summoned up our courage and decided to investigate this piece of urban lore.
What we found WAS disturbing.
There were upside down crosses scrawled into the walls and demonic faces painted everywhere and a huge pentagram etched into the floor of the main building. There were discarded candles and beer cans (always beer cans.) There was even the carcass of an animal of some sort, although it might have just stumbled into the building and died of natural causes. Maybe… But there were no hooded figures and there was no eerie chanting, although the wind sounded spooky as it whispered through the broken panes of glass in the old windows.
There were tunnels beneath the facility, though, and these were the strangest yet. Tunnels supported by creaky wooden planks and lined with light sockets and lanterns lost in cobwebs.
I remember thinking that the tunnels could collapse, and if I got lost down there no one would find me. My friends would think I’d gone home and I would be left there and the rumor would take on a life of its own. In time the story would evolve that I had stumbled across devil-worshipers down in the darkness and they had sacrificed ME to the Lord of the Underworld. I would become as much a part of the Cement City story as the pentagram on the floor above me.
In the spring of 2012 I returned to the Portland Peninsular Cement Factory site, and I stood on the old train bridge and looked out over a campus that had seemed so much larger on that summer night so many years ago. The tunnels had caved in, leaving nowhere to roam and hide. The pentagram and the upside down crosses and the eerie pictures were long gone, as was the goofy looking teenager who’d gone searching for them.
The open field didn’t speak to me, and only piles of cement and steel remained. I had my nine year old son with me on this day, and as we stood there surveying the landscape, he said ‘there isn’t much to see here, is there, dad?’
And he was right, of course. There wasn’t much to see there. In the end, maybe there never really was.
____________________ ARCHIVES _____________________
THE JACKSON DRIVE-IN —
I have only been scared while watching a movie two times in my life.
Now, there have been some films that have left me disturbed and afraid to look under the bed – The Grudge and The Ring, to name two recent flicks, as well as some old classics: the Amityville Horror, The Thing and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the originals, not the remakes.)
But only two films have actually scared me. One is The Exorcist, and the other is the low-budget, Michigan-made horror fest, The Evil Dead (circa 1981.)
So imagine my joy when a friend’s mother told me that her ‘urban legend’ offering was about the old Jackson Drive-In on West Michigan Avenue. According to her, a family member that worked nights at the factory next door claimed to hear music from the old drive-in movie, long after it had been torn down and taken away. This family member said the music was ‘tinny’, as if coming through the speakers that used to be in rows facing to the north.
So with a little time on my hands I set out to walk the grounds of the old drive-in. And then I realized that it was at this drive-in back in 1981, that I sat in a lawn chair and attempted to watch The Evil Dead. And it was at this drive-in back in 1981 when I left the lawn chair behind before the movie even ended. I was THAT freaked out.
So I stood on top of one of the dirt mounds where the speakers used to be, and I faced north to where the big screen had once been erected. And I tried to imagine a goofy looking teenager with big glasses, unruly hair and a Chevy 4×4… And I tried to imagine that kid watching a movie and getting so freaked out by it that he’d risk his mom’s ire by leaving her lawn chair behind. I tried to become that kid again – a kid that would hide his unease with laughter, then blow out of the parking lot with a roar of glass-pack mufflers because he wanted to look and sound cool, not scared. I tried to touch base with that young man, mostly because I miss him. Mostly because the man he grew to become has learned there are things in real life much more frightening than anything put on a drive-in screen.
So I stood there in that open field, all remains of the drive-in hauled away and its existence wiped clear save for a few concrete slabs. I searched the nearby woods for tinny speakers, for metal poles, for ticket stubs, for popcorn boxes… I found nothing.
I DID find a makeshift shelter made by a homeless man who seems to have taken refuge there. And in his little camp area, mixed in with the bottles and the wrappers and the dirty clothes, was an old metal lawn chair. Just like the one I’d left behind in the summer of 1981.
So although I didn’t hear tinny music, and I didn’t hear voices from movies played on that site for so many years, I DID hear the sound of a teenager laughing and jumping into his truck and hightailing it out of there. Hightailing it out of there because what he saw on screen scared the hell out of him, into a world that would scare the hell out of him even more.
I can rent a copy of the original Evil Dead movie (subtitle: they woke up on the wrong side of the grave) but I can never revisit the feeling I had that night. A feeling I wish I could recapture – just once.
This time when I left the old drive-in I wasn’t scared at all. This time I didn’t need to rev my engine or hide my fear with laughter or tear out of the parking lot in a cloud of gravel and dust. This time I simply walked back to my car and drove away.
(Archive- Little Mary’s Grave)
She was buried alive, or so the legend says,
and her mother awakened after a nightmare in which her daughter was calling out to her. And only as the nightmare returned again and again did the mother voice her concerns to the authorities, who promptly dug up the grave – only to find scratch marks on the inside of the coffin where the little girl tried in vain to scratch her way out.
Now, we don’t know if that happened. We don’t know if Little Mary suffered that horrible fate, or if her tale was something constructed over time, built upon and fed by our fears and thirst for excitement and hunger for the macabre.
We DO know that there was a Mary McNaughton. We DO know that she was a little girl when she passed away and we DO know where she is buried.
What we DON’T know is if she comes out at night to dance beneath the stars – basking in the freedom from the grave that eluded her in those last precious moments of life. What we DON’T know is if her spirit rests peacefully, or if she is somehow angry at her perceived fate.
So on a crisp winter afternoon, for the second time in my life, I set out to find Little Mary’s grave. I remembered where I had parked my car on Halloween night in 1986 when I first visited her, and I set out.
She was not hard to find.
I remembered the paths and I remembered the hill and I remembered the eerie tower that marked the spot. The leaves and twigs and branches and dirt that should surely cover her marker had all been freshly brushed aside, leaving the single word – ‘M A R Y’ – surprisingly pristine. There were a pair of girls pink sunglasses there, a sign that even today kids still set out to find her. Yet I wondered if some high school kids had cleared the marker, or if Mary had done it herself the night before when she slipped from her grave to dance once more. Nothing moved in the trees above me – no shadows crept about and I never felt any unseen eyes watching my every move. In the distance the roar of the highway provided a checkpoint back to my car. So I knelt over her grave and I wondered just what to say to her. I wondered if she remembered me somehow: ”I know who you are. I saw you once, one Halloween night so many years ago. It’s nice that you have come back.”
All I could think to do was place my fingertips on her headstone and pause for a moment.
I said ‘I don’t know if you’re there. Mostly I hope that you’re long gone. And I’m sorry that people still visit you, people like me, to feel some sense of excitement or fear or understanding. But you are known, Mary. Somehow, you are known.”
And as I looked around at the other grave markers, some of them entangled in branches and leaves and covered in moss and dirt and mostly forgotten, I thought that perhaps being known wasn’t such a bad thing.
So maybe she was there with me. After all, I had returned to see her 25 years after my first visit. Maybe she was there, and maybe she smiled somewhere and as I touched her grave marker she touched it from the other side. And maybe as I walked away in the cool air with the leaves crunching underfoot, she whispered ‘see – I knew you’d come back. Everyone comes back. And that’s why I’m here. That’s why I’m always here. And that’s why, in the end, I will never truly die.’
Maybe she whispered that. Or maybe it was just the wind.