Geology is Destiny - An introduction to the science, history & Myth of Michigan's Irish Hills Area
Written By: Bob Kellum

In an era long ago, when time was measured in tens of thousands of years, giant scouring ice flows, several thousand feet thick, covered Michigan and shaped its landscape. Between lobes of ice, melt water deposited glacial debris and formed interlobate regions characterized by high gravel hills and out wash plains. The so-called Jackson interlobate extends along the axis of Michigan’s thumb and is the origin of ten river systems that drain both east and west. Early accounts of the aboriginal homeland describe park-like settings of grasses, wildflowers, and scattered trees known as oak openings. The large number of parks and park systems in the Jackson interlobate region attest to the value placed on its variable topography and the unique natural communities found there. Ecologists today consider the prairies and savannas once common in southern Michigan among the most endangered ecosystems on earth.

Jackson interlobate extends along the axis of Michigan’s thumb and is the origin of ten river systems that drain both east & west.

Near the region’s southern extent are the headwaters of the River Raisin, renowned for their varied and high quality ecosystems and home to the amorphous Irish Hills area. Although modest on a scale of the world’s great wonders, the Irish Hills have long courted human habitation and are treasured for the unique character they add to the Midwestern landscape. Of particular note are the prominent hills and knobs that punctuate the area’s terrain and history.

Early accounts of Prospect Hill, located in Woodstock Township, tell of Native American encampments there. Other accounts describe a picturesque grove at its summit frequented by picnic parties. The hill’s celebrity was such that on July 4, 1846, long before transportation could be taken for granted, a grand community celebration at the remote hilltop drew celebrants from Tecumseh and Adrian and inspired the erection of a rustic observation tower to enhance the view.

Cedar Hill, high above the shoreline of Wamplers Lake, was another local landmark and viewing destination. In the early 1900s it served as a local park associated with the city of Adrian. In 1920, Michigan’s embryonic State Park system adopted Cedar Hill and its adjacent shoreline to form a state park bearing that name. It would later be renamed Walter J. Hayes State Park and provide respite to thousands of patrons from the greater Detroit and Toledo areas.

View from Cedar Hill, Michigan State Park near Adrian, Michigan

In 1924, with the growing popularity of the automobile and the anticipated paving of the Chicago Road, an observation tower was built on Bundy Hill, west of Somerset, on perhaps the highest point in Southern Michigan. The similar Irish Hills Towers were soon erected on Brighton Hill in Cambridge Township. On one Sunday in July of 1926, fueled by regular bus service between Detroit and Chicago, some 2,320 patrons reportedly visited the “Original” Irish Hills Observatory complex. Auto tourism would dominate the Irish Hills economy for decades to come.

Scene from top of Twin Towers, Irish Hills, Michigan

As with the automobile itself, the Irish Hills reached a zenith in the 1950s. However, the opening of I-94 in the early 1960’s diverted considerable traffic from US-12. Also about this time, tourism began a qualitative change. Reaching ones destination became more important than taking in the sights. The fast food stop supplanted the more leisurely roadside picnic. A golden age begins its descent. Tourism in Irish Hills has trended downward, as have sightings of the resident little people.

Like many places in Michigan today, the Irish Hills struggles to adapt its identity to changing tastes, shifting demographics and unforgiving economics. The same glacial kames that once inspired settlers and continue to enchant visitors are no less valued for their mineral resources. Bundy and other hills have been mined off the map and similar fates threaten other gravel moraines. At a 1926 occasion marking the Chicago Roads 100th anniversary and celebrating its newly completed paving, it was claimed that construction material used in the project would fill a train 144 miles long. The implications of progress become real when it asks our hills in return. Under our watch, the only known Michigan habitat of the Irish Leprechaun is threatened.

In an era measured in hours it is sometimes difficult to find time for the natural beauty and solitude that once inspired us to seek great heights. What ever its malaise, the Irish Hills’ core identity can still be found in its far-distant views and ten thousand year perspective. With this sense of place, we can appreciate the swaying prairie grasses, colorful wildflowers and stately oaks that once adorned its slopes and assuaged the hearts of homesick Irish settlers. Only then will we be equipped to steward the diverse ecosystems, incomparable beauty and mythic heritage entrusted to us.

Do they matter ω Does anyone care ω This time like no other begs our questions. If not these questions, what questions does the reader pose to help us find meaning and purpose commensurate with our unique time in this special place ω

Bob Kellum is the President of O'These Irish Hills & Stewardship Council Member of MotorCities National Heritage Area.

Brooklyn Michigan Chamber of Commerce