CADILLAC — To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the founding of Cadillac, once known as the Village of Clam Lake, we take a brief look at our founding fathers and their descendents, who still visit Cadillac from across the country to remember the legacy of their fathers.
George A. Mitchell
George A. Mitchell first laid eyes on Lake Cadillac, or Little Clam Lake, in 1870, not long after the Civil War. He was here scouting routes for a new railroad.
After the war, Northern Michigan was a gold mine of raw material for the booming building industry. When the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad secured a grant to build the railroad north to the Straights of Mackinaw, everyone knew that the state's interior would open up.
Mitchell, a Civil War veteran, the son of Charles Tennant Mitchell, was about to get into the lumber business.
The original plan was for the railroad to go between the two lakes, Little Clam and Big Clam (Lake Mitchell). Instead, Mitchell wanted it to run to the eastern end of Little Clam, right where he planned to develop a new town. He needed that land between the lakes for the canal he would build to connect the lakes — so logs could be floated across them right up to the railroad.
That was 150 years ago.
George A. Mitchell was a visionary, Cadillac's founder and beloved first mayor. Before the summer of 1871 was over, the Village of Clam Lake had been cleared and the streets laid out with generous lots reserved for parks, churches and schools. In 1872, his 19-year-old nephew, William W. Mitchell, joined him to help grow the town of Cadillac. He too was a visionary. He started Cobbs and Mitchell, one of the largest flooring companies in the world. In addition, he started Mitchell Brothers Co. with his brother Austin, plus Mitchell and Diggins Iron, The Cadillac Handle Company and the Cadillac Chemical Company.
Catching up with the relatives
For the occasion of the 150th anniversary of our founding, I spoke with William W. Mitchell and his son Charles T. Mitchell, who live near Seattle in Kent, Washington.
William is 70, the son William Whittier Mitchell (1917-1979) and the grandson of Charles Tennant Mitchell (1880-1948) and great-grandson of William W. Mitchell.
I asked William, now retired from Boeing where he worked in computer science for 35 years, about the family's legacy in Cadillac.
"You can see how we view this legacy in our family," he said. "I am William Whittier Mitchell, probably the seventh in our family tree. My brother is Charles T. Mitchell and his son is William W. Mitchell and he has a son named Charles T. Mitchell. The family tree, it keeps going, the legacy keeps going. My wife Laura jokes that we can't come up with original names. We're proud of our family, it's pretty cool."
Last summer, William's son Charlie, a high school teacher, cancelled a trip to Cadillac he had planned due to COVID. The 42-year-old was going to show his wife and two young children a bit of the family history in person.
But in 2016, Charlie visited Cadillac with his father, his brother Jesse William, and sister Stacy Beadle.
"My grandfather (William Whittier Mitchell) was the last Mitchell with strong ties to Cadillac," Charlie said. "He grew up back there but moved out west after World War II."
William added that his father was a marine who served in the Pacific. After the war he moved west and worked for Weyerhaeuser (plywood supplier) to continue in the business and he had three children.
"One of them was my dad," Charlie said. "They would often vacation in Cadillac at the Mitchell home. I've always known we had a strong history in the area. But I never knew the impact my relatives had here until I visited."
As Charlie visited the Wexford County Historical Museum and viewed historical plaques around the city, he was impressed.
"It was nice to see how generous our ancestors were to the school and the community, the land donations. It was nice to see your name tied to someone that was successful and also making sure, since I'm a teacher, that they supported the schools and the buildings."
During the trip to Maple Hill Cemetery in 2016, the family visited the large Mitchell Family Monument that features a goddess-like figure watching over the headstones of William W. and Emma Yost Mitchell. The figure was sculpted by Chicago artist Nellie Verne Walker.
By all public accounts, George A. Mitchell was a "public-spirited" man credited with the growth and prosperity of the Village of Clam Lake. He built and operated three large sawmills and became the most successful lumberman in Michigan. He set aside land for public schools, and served on the board of education for a number of terms to ensure that the school system was one of the best in the state.
William W. Mitchell was also highly regarded.
Public accounts describe him as a public-spirited man loyal to Cadillac who lent his support to many worthy projects, including the seven-mile drive around Clam Lake.