Hunting History at Haven Hill

Haven Hill is a hidden gem in Oakland County, Michigan. When we started our Centennial State Parks Project, I was excited to explore many parks I’d never seen before. But I honestly didn’t expect to learn so much about our state along the way. As a history buff, I’m the geek reading all the informational signs, reviewing dioramas, and spending hours exploring every square inch of historical places.

woman and man at state park signWhich is why, on a recent visit to Highland State Recreation Area, I was floored by the history we found when we stumbled across Haven Hill. It’s unfortunate there wasn’t a word about it on the official Department of Natural Resources Highland Recreation Area website. If there were, we would have planned to spend more time.

The heyday of Haven Hill

In the early 1900s, the rise of the automobile made isolated rural settings more accessible. This new mode of transportation allowed the wealthy to go further into it what was then empty countryside to build enormous lodges and estates.

Edsel Ford created Haven Hill as a retreat for his family to get away from the city. He called it a restful refuge. (If you don’t remember, Edsel was the only child of automotive magnate Henry Ford, a key player in his father’s company, and the longest-serving president of Ford Motor Company.)

Haven Hill lodge before it burned
Haven Hill lodge before it burned

In 1923, Edsel purchased 2,400 acres of land in Oakland County. He built a 6,900 square foot log cabin-style lodge on top of the highest point in the county with spectacular views of the rolling scenery. The property included a swimming pool, tennis courts, and even a motorized tow-return toboggan run for family and guests to enjoy.  

Guests included Charles Lindbergh, Thomas Edison, Admiral Richard Byrd and other famous persons of the time. It never fails to amaze me when I think of all those people living in the same time period and hanging out together. They were some of the smartest people the world has ever known. And they were all here in Michigan for part of their lives.

Other structures

Next to the Haven Hill Lodge was the Carriage House. It ended up becoming a playhouse for the Ford children, instead of the garage and chauffeur’s quarters as originally intended.

We learned the logs for the lodge and carriage house were from the same Michigan timber holdings used for some of the original Model Ts that Ford was producing. And they even used Model Ts to pull the lumber up the hills during the construction of Haven Hill.

The estate also included the Gate House. This entryway to Haven Hill housed the farm administrator’s family and served as security for the estate. Security was heightened during this time due to labor unrest, Prohibition, and the Lindbergh baby kidnapping.

Edsel designed Haven Hill to be a self-sufficient estate, including large gardens, riding stables and a 15,000 square foot barn for sheep and cattle – one of the largest east of the Mississippi. A notable feature of the estate is that they placed the electrical power system underground, preserving the natural appearance of the land.

Misfortune Strikes

Tragedy struck Haven Hill with the unexpected death of Edsel Ford in 1943. He was only 49 years old. Within three years, his wife sold the property to the state of Michigan to be used for parkland. The sale of the estate was facilitated by landscape architect Genevieve Gillette, who had worked for the original Haven Hill estate landscape designer, the legendary Jens Jensen. (Look for a future blog on more of Genevieve’s contributions to the state of Michigan.)

After its purchase, the state used the Haven Hill structures in a variety of ways, including turning the Lodge into a conference center. But state budget cuts in 1980 led to the closure of the buildings. After sitting empty for years, the Lodge was devastatingly lost to a vandalism-related fire in 1999. All that remains is the chimney, fireplace and a few room foundations, which you can walk through. The riding stables also have been lost to fire.

The large cattle barn suffered its own misfortune when more than half of it collapsed during a major windstorm in 2008. Repairs are underway to restore and hopefully reopen the barn.

Haven Hill Today

Since the acquisition of the 2,400 acres of Haven Hill, the state has purchased additional land. The total acreage of what is now Highland State Recreation Area is 5,900 acres. A portion of the park is the Haven Hill Natural Area, which also is designated as a National Natural Landmark.

Visitors to the park can find many trails for hiking, biking or horse riding; bird watching; camping; swimming and boating; and much more. Read more about the Highland State Recreation Area in this blog.

The park is huge and we hardly scratched the surface even though we spent almost 4 hours there. As I mentioned in the beginning, the state doesn’t say a word about the Ford history on the official park website, which is a disservice to visitors. History buffs like me might be tempted to skip this park if you read the description and thought “oh, it’s just another park for hiking and equestrians.” And if you’re a Girl Scout, there’s some fascinating history about a massive GSUSA event that took place in 1956, which is now commemorated at the park.

Overall, I’m very glad to see that efforts are being made to preserve history. Since the state is short on funds, a group called the Friends of Highland Recreation Area is leading the way. Check out their website for more history and to learn how you can help preservation efforts.

We have plenty more adventures to come, so subscribe to this blog and our YouTube channel. (We have a video about Haven Hill Estate published there.) You can follow us on Instagram, our Facebook page, and Twitter. Plus, you can see our progress as we visit each park on this interactive Google Map. You also can keep track of our activities on social media with the hashtags #hikecampgo and #mistateparks100.

1 thought on “Hunting History at Haven Hill”

  1. Wow! So funny to think these city slickers had to go all the way to Oakland County for refuge. haha!

    Damn it Michigan for letting this piece of history go down in flames. Literally. I hope they can restore it and bring this rich MI history back to life!

    Thanks for going into all this detail. So interesting.

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