The following is the beginning of a series of stories on the ghost town Pere Cheney and its popular cemetery. Different groups want to save this historical site from vandalism which threatens to destroy it. The problem between the groups is the ideas on how to save it often clash, leaving frustration on both sides.
Pere Cheney cemetery, in southeast Crawford County, has been a popular destination for both historians and researchers of the paranormal for decades now.
Once the county seat, all that is left of the town of Pere Cheny is this cemetery located back in the forest on a two-track trail. And it is a place of mystery to historians and paranormal enthusiasts.
Back in the late 1800s, some type of disease killed off most of the town. There is a legend of a witch living there about the same time. One tombstone had a plate of glass on the front which once held something, now lost to time. As vandalism goes on, more and more pieces to the puzzle are lost.
Back in 1990, when vandalism to the cemetery had become a serious problem, this writer interviewed one of the last residents of the town to learn about what the historical town had been like. This is what he had to share.
BEAVER CREEK TWP. – In 1892, Everett E. Corwin’s grandfather purchased farmland off of Staley Lake Road in Center Plains Township. At the time his grandfather bought the land with $100, borrowed at ten percent interest from Perry Richardson of Pere Cheney.
Much has changed in that time. But for Corwin, now 81, Pere Cheney lives on in his memories as he sits on his ancestral farm not far from the town’s site.
His earliest memories include the store and hotel on Pere Cheney’s main street.
“When I was 3 or 4, my little brother and I would go to the store and get these ‘bon-bons’ little chocolate candies with cream filling. Two sisters ran the store at the time. We nicknamed the sisters, ‘Big Cheney’ and “Little Cheney.’ The one would always put her glasses on the top of her head and forget where she put them. She’d walk around the store looking for them.
“Then, there was the hotel. It had a barn out back. Of course, that’s where travelers would keep their horses. They would hold dances there too. I remember going going to one with my parents when I was very young. As they danced I fell asleep on the bench. Later they picked me up and carried me out to the carriage.”
The road Grayling residents took to Roscommon ran through Pere Cheney. South of the main street, this road crossed the railroad tracks and ran southeast along the railroad track for a short distance. Here the cemetery and two or three sawmills stood, according to Corwin. One had been a shingle mill, but he cannot recall any of the mills still being in operation during his younger years.
“The mail was delivered directly to the Pere Cheney Post Office until about 1912 or 1913. Then, we received mail from Roscommon. Fred Funck was our first mailman from there. He drove his old Jackson or Lambert around the area when there wasn’t any snow. But in the winter he had to ride a horse. To clear the road back then, they used an old army tank to break the crust.”
There had been an actual depot building in Pere Cheney for many years. Corwin believe it was either moved to Gaylord or Waters. Pere Cheney’s depot was replaced by a boxcar set next to the tracks.
“Across from the depot they had this wooden arm they hung bags of outgoing mail from here while the post office was there. As the train went by, a fellow would grab the bag from the arm and toss the bag incoming mail onto the ground.
“Normally the train would not stop unless it had freight to drop off. People could board the train though. They had this wooden flag they would put up if they had passengers waiting to get on.”
Northeast of the hotel, on a road joining the main street with Five Mile Road, sat the town school. Children attended school from first to eighth-grade. Besides getting summers off, Corwin notes children also did not attend school in January and February because heavy snowfalls made traveling difficult.
“They held church at the school on Sundays, but they didn’t have a regular preacher. Instead, traveling preachers would hold services.
“Except for one year, my brother and I were taught at our house. We were the only children in the immediate area. We used an upstairs room for this. For a while, my aunt, Leta Barber, taught us.”
Corwin also remembers some of the families who lived in Pere Cheney over the years. He recalls his father buying hay from the Sewells, one of the prominent families. Johnson was the name of one of the sisters who owned the store when he was very young. Richardson, a man who rented a cabin to the Corwins, was the last owner of the store.
“There was a woman who lived on main street,” says Corwin. “I think her name was Dumphrey. A strange woman. She had married three times and had buried two of her husbands side by side. My mother thought that was terribly immoral. Over the years, she was supposed to have gathered some wealth from these husbands and hid it in her house.
“Most what I remember about her is this lap dog she had, something on the order of a poodle. If it lay still you couldn’t tell which end was its head.
“When she died, she was quite old, 80 or 90. Her house was searched, but the money was missing. No one ever did find it.”
In 1921, the Corwin house burned down. His family spent the year in Pere Cheney, at a cabin on main street. During the summer that year, a fire broke out near town.
“The fire started in the back of the cemetery. Rube Babbit, my father and I fought it as best we could. I was 13 at the time. With just some shovels, we threw dirt into the flames. Then the wind direction changed and blew it toward town. It got so hot everyone had to leave. That was the only time I ever knew Rube Babbit to give up on anything.
“We thought it was the end of the town. The fire was just too much for us to handle. We ran across the tracks to town. People began to gather on main street. We all stood there wondering what to do. Then, all of a sudden it began to sprinkle. And it rained just enough to put out the fire and save Pere Cheney.”
Still the end of Pere Cheney did come. Corwin does not recall when the businesses finally closed and the people all moved on. But to this day, he continues to visit the site.
Spotting the location of old buildings seems quite simple to Corwin. He quickly points out the foundation of the old school, now hidden by tall grass, brush and trees. The main street today has become overgrown with grass and young jack pine. The road which once took people from Grayling to Roscommon has become just another two-track through the woods. Richardson, Johnson, Sewell and Dumphrey are merely names on tombstones. Only the cemetery remains visible.
“I enjoy going to the cemetery,” says Corwin, “but I can’t get there as much as I used to. I really like what the Veterans Of Foreign Wars (V.F.W.) did cleaning the cemetery up last summer. I’ve never seen it look so good.”
Corwin was recently pleased to learn of Beaver Creek Township’s attempt to have the cemetery designated an historical site.
“After everything I’ve seen, I’d really like to see that happen.”
(This article was originally published in the Crawford County Keepsake Edition, July 1990, “Memories of Pere Cheney.” Reprinted with permission. Everett Corwin passed away a couple years after this interview.)