By Al Parker
It might seem out of place, and it certainly lives under the radar of tourists and locals alike, but Grayling’s W.J. Beal Tree Plantation might be the oldest documented experimental tree plantation in North America.
Situated inside the city’s industrial park and surrounded by the daily bustle of commerce, this placid, historic green space, on many days, is seen only by delivery truck drivers and workers who rumble along Industrial Park Road, unaware of the significance of the towering pine trees they pass.
“This site might be the only one in the country where reforestation has been so well documented and preserved over more than 100 years,” wrote Frank Telewski, a Michigan State University professor of plant biology, at the site’s dedication in 1997.
Once 80 acres, the site is now only about 5 acres, but it’s filled with towering pine trees that stand as testament to the foresight of William James Beal, a bearded, burly, and bold visionary who taught botany and horticulture at the Michigan Agricultural College (MAC), now Michigan State University, from 1871 to 1910. A pioneer of what came to be called “The New Botany,” Beal extolled independent learning through observation.
“In the 1800s we did not know how to grow and plant trees,” said Susan Thiel, a now-retired Department of Natural Resources Forest Manager who managed the Beal Tree Plantation. “Professor Beal did vast experimentation across several different sites to learn how to collect seed, plant and germinate it, and grow trees of different varieties. This site helped develop the science of growing and regenerating trees and reforesting sites as we know it today.”
Beal’s Grayling Agricultural Experiment Station offered unique promise: Its 80 acres came courtesy of the Michigan Central Railroad Company, which had donated the “wild land” to MAC — land that had been cut and exposed to fire, which left a scattering of random jack pines and oak root sprouts. The Grayling location became the “base substation,” wrote Beal “because the area’s climate and conditions would represent the average — neither the best nor the poorest of the sterile land.”
Moving quickly, Beal supervised the cleaning and preparation of the ground. A barbed wire-and-board fence was built to keep cattle and animals away, while a 5-foot strip of ground was plowed along both sides of the fence to deter fires from entering the property.
By May of 1888, Beal had directed the planting of 2,145 seedlings, which came from W.W. Johnson of Antrim County. The seeds were planted in 14 rows, each row precisely four feet apart. Along the north side and south sides, 20 acres each were designated for agricultural experiments.
Beal would not have long to watch his seedling and saplings grow; in 1891, Beal was relieved of his work at the plantation and was replaced the following year by Dr. O. Palmer.
In 1997, an inventory was taken; it showed that of the 41 species started as seedlings or seeds in 1888 and 1889, no hardwoods survived. But original stems from seven of nine conifers endured, mostly red pine and white pine. They stand there still today, silently and majestically greeting visitors to the Beal Tree Plantation.
The plantation is open to the public, free to enter, and features a handicap-accessible path for visitors to explore. There are a few weathered signs that offer information, a couple of benches along the needle-strewn path, and limited parking. Find a map at www.michigan.org/property/wj-beal-tree-plantation.