Lost village of Bell lovingly protected
PRESQUE ISLE — You wouldn’t know by looking that there were ghosts in the forest.
Tumbled trunks, soft with moss, nestle in the quiet woods of the Besser Bell Natural Area on the bank of False Presque Isle Harbor, north of Alpena.
Once, the forest was home to the village of Bell — a lumber town that supplied wood to sailing vessels in need of fuel as they rounded the curve of Northeast Michigan shortly before the turn of the 20th century.
Bell — home to about 100 souls — is now not much more than a portion of propped-up wall, some walking paths, and a patch of lily of the valley.
In the minds of some, though, the residents of the small town still glide among the trees, living, working, eking out a northern Michigan existence.
“I know more about their families than I do my own,” said Judy Kimball, a local historian who literally wrote the book on Bell’s history.
Curious about the tiny town since her girlhood, Kimball turned a collection of gathered postcards into a book telling the story of the small town and its inhabitants.
First to the area were the American Indians who used a sandy dip among protective evergreens as a campground and — according to stories told by people who once lived nearby — a burial ground.
The foresight of several historians in the 1960s preserved the recorded voices of former residents of Bell in a collection now kept safe by the Alpena County Library.
A small patch of non-native perennial flowers curves around one bend of the footpath that was once a two-track, conveying horse and wagon.
Mr. Bolton planted those flowers in front of his house a century and half ago, Kimball said, making introductions for residents of Bell, whose spirits still linger in a three-ring binder she packs with news clippings, funeral bulletins, and black-and-white photos telling the little town’s story.
The house, along with most of the rest of the town, was knocked down in the mid-1900s when efforts to raise enough money to save the village’s abandoned buildings failed.
Gazing into the trees, Kimball can still see the bed, dishes, and framed photographs left behind in one abandoned home, like its residents of decades past had simply closed the door and walked away.
Around the bend, a few thick slats of nailed-together wood were once the wall of the town store.
“Every time I come it’s sadder and sadder,” said Kimball, examining the wall’s precarious angle.
Someone propped it up with a few stray boards since the last time she was in the neighborhood.
They won’t last long, Kimball said. When humans move out, the forest quickly reclaims its own.
Several once-sturdy beams — all that’s left of the building’s floor — still nestle in the dirt near the tipped wall. The remnants of a metal counter lurk behind a fallen tree, several bedsprings underneath giving evidence that the shopkeeper must have lived among his goods.
In another once-upon-a-time corner of the former store, a thick-walled safe splays open, its inner sanctum empty. The few coins inside were removed when Mr. Smith’s wife talked Mr. Rabiteau into opening it, Kimball narrated, eyes scanning the remains of the building like they were looking for an old friend.
Up the path, a stone fireplace and chimney slides toward the sky. A nearby wooden sign, partly chewed by porcupines, says the structure is one of the remnants of Bell.
The sign is wrong, Kimball said.
She’s done the research and has photos to back her version of the story. The chimney wasn’t built until the 1920s, to warm the toes of the campers at Kamp Kairphree — a retreat for well-to-do girls who came to swim, write journal entries, put on plays in the woods, and watch young sailors run lifeboat drills at nearby Middle Island.
The stories of the residents of Bell end at the local cemetery.
There, distant from the village, at the end of an unmarked path, a faded stone marks the short life of little Mary Clark, her headstone now protected by a simple picket fence.
Nearby, Mr. and Mrs. Charboneau share space under a two-heart-shaped stone, their etched names testifying that they once walked and breathed and cried and sang in the woods of northern Michigan.
Other monuments dot the simple clearing in the woods, and several crosses, too, placed by Kimball and others who keep an eye on the area.
They could be in the wrong spots, Kimball admitted. She’s not sure who is where. She talks to the cemetery’s residents sometimes — and, she said, they told her they don’t mind if their headstone isn’t placed just right.
The cemetery is haunted, she’s been told. Some have reported spooky sightings in the trees, and not everyone would be comfortable making a visit to the spot at night.
“I can come here any time,” said Kimball, looking about the little cemetery at the well-worn names. “They all know who I am.”
Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jriddleX.