On my final day in the upper peninsula, I drive 58 miles from Marquette to the village of Alberta, built in the 1930s by Henry Ford, who conceived of a utopian community for his workers. In 1935, he founded such a settlement, centered around a lumber mill, at the southern end of the Keweenaw Peninsula. There the men worked in a mill that supplied lumber for components for Detroit car bodies; Alberta’s women grew fruits and vegetables on two-acre plots. The community included a dozen households, two schools and a reservoir that supplied water to the mill and offered recreation for residents.
Ford claimed he had been motivated to create Alberta—named after the daughter of one of his executives—by nostalgic memories of his own village childhood. But some are skeptical. The Depression years were a time of ideological struggle, with Fascism and Communism sweeping Europe and increasing tensions between management and labor in the United States. “Ford didn’t like unions, and saw the Alberta experiment as an alternative to keep them at bay a bit longer,” says Kari Price, who oversees the museum established at Alberta after the Ford Motor Company transferred the village to nearby Michigan Tech in 1954. Today Alberta is the location of the university’s forestry research center, and its original dozen Cape Cod-style cottages are rented to vacationers and a handful of permanent residents.
The Alberta experiment lasted only 16 years. Demand for automobile lumber ended in 1951 when Ford stopped producing “woody” station wagons, which featured slats of polished wood on the doors. And farming at Alberta turned out to be impractical: the soil was rocky, sandy and acidic; the growing season was short (90 days at best)—and the deer were voracious. Ford’s failure, however, was not without its compensations. He envisioned establishing villages throughout the Upper Peninsula, and likely anticipated increased logging to supply the mills in future settlements. Instead, the region’s sprawling wilderness has remained intact.
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