Pristine lakes, heavy industry, and the surprises of history

Posted on August 12, 2009

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Nothing can tell you as much about this land as the story of how we have used it. Few families in the region have been so intertwined in that story as the Malpasses of East Jordan.

W.E. and Alice Ann Malpass came to the thriving town on the shore of Lake Charlevoix in 1883. They prospered. They raised thirteen children, whose children and grandchildren also prospered. They became patrons of the arts and reliable benefactors of local charities. They created nature preserves, helped to build the Jordan Valley Watershed Center, supported the Jordan River Arts Council and Raven Hill Discovery Center. 

Take a walk in Sportsman’s Park, where the Jordan River flows into the South Arm of Lake Charlevoix. The Malpass family stamp is everywhere, from the boardwalk:

In appreciation - F. Bruce Malpass

To the Watershed Center:

Jordan River Watershed Center

To the picnic grounds with views of the Jordan River estuary, nesting platforms for ospreys and eagles, the bridge over the river, and the East Jordan Iron Works foundry that overlooks it all:

East Jordan Iron Works viewed from Sportsmans Park

The foundry, the heaviest of heavy industries, is the source of the Malpass wealth.  It dominates the shoreline along the lake.  The whuffing noise of its processing echoes through the town and across the river to the Watershed Center.  One of the products it makes is a storm grating inscribed with a fish and the reminder to “Dump no waste–Drains to Waterways.”

Irony piles on irony, as it so often does in the north country. 

In 2008 EJIW celebrated its 125th anniversary with a company picnic and a commemorative booklet inserted in the Record-Eagle.  Right about the same time the handsome booklet slid out of my morning paper onto my lap, headlines announced that the foundry had laid off more than a fifth of its workforce.  After the wave of sadness over all those jobs lost came another wave of pity for the managers who had to pass out the layoff notices.  Iron Works managers live in East Jordan, and they know the people who work there.  They see them at the market and at church and at the library.  They have to look them in the eye. 

Tad Malpass, Executive Vice President of East Jordan Iron Works, and Norton Bretz, organizer of the Wilkinson Summer Speaker SeriesLast week the Wilkinson Homestead Historical Society welcomed Tad Malpass, Executive Vice President of East Jordan Iron Works, as the third presenter in the Summer Speaker Series.  Tad is part of the fourth generation of Malpasses to run the family-owned company.  What I learned, listening to him, was not what I expected to learn.

  • The company’s greatest advances came during challenging economic times.  Foundries are extremely capital intensive operations, and it takes nerve to make big changes.  The Malpass family could make those kinds of decisions without shareholders looking over their shoulders.  Time after time, they were rewarded for taking risks.  Now they’re doing it again, with a new moulding line that allows the foundry to make very large castings.  Workers have been called back this summer, and Tad Malpass is cautiously optimistic.  “If we had stayed the way we were in the early 1980s,” he said, “we’d have been out of business now.”   
  • East Jordan Iron Works is a major recycler, but not because it recycles its office paper.  That kind of recycling, Tad Malpass pointed out—the kind his family does at home, the kind I do at the Writing Studio and Bait Shop—isn’t really recycling.  It’s gathering.  Real recycling happens when gathered materials are turned into something else. 
    • EJIW turns scrap metal into manhole covers and fire hydrants and a host of other useful products.  It melts 40-50 tons per hour.  That is one heckuva lot of scrap metal.
    • Sand used in the casting process is reclaimed and reused. 
    • Heat produced during operations is captured and reused in the melting process. 
    • The company turns discarded tires into a nifty product that is sort of a gasket for storm sewer covers. 

Malpass packed so much into his talk that I can’t possibly recap it for you in one post.  You can learn a lot more about the company, its history, and its present operations at the EJIW website linked above.  You can also head over to the new historical visitor center on Main Street next to Busy Bridge Gifts and Antiques. 

As for me, I have some thinking to do about investing in something you believe in, and about real recycling.  And I thought you ought to have these poems by Bob Hicok, who grew up in Michigan and became a poet and moved away and so far as I know will always be a poet, but it’s up in the air as to whether he will always be from Michigan, as he was, definitely, when he wrote Dropping the euphemism and Calling him back from layoff.