housed in walls
of historic depot
July 16, 2008
Editor's note: It is with great pleasure that we print this column submitted by Doug Hunter, lifelong member of the Capac area to help celebrate Capac Days this weekend. Doug wrote a series of popular columns under the 'Capac Journal' header to commemorate Capac's 150th anniversary last year. Doug also did so out of a promise to his father to keep the family tradition of journalism and the history of the Capac Journal, which was founded by his great-grandfather 1887.
The year was 1865 and the Civil War had ended. Industrialization had taken hold and the nation would forever be changed.
The large urban areas needed lumber. The forests and swamps surrounding 'the city in the woods' held the timber the new era demanded. To bring the hard and soft woods to the market, net transportation methods had to be used. The ox trail could not meet the demand for lumber needed.
Soon plans were being made to connect Capac to the vast lumber markets of the east and west and the great demand by the reconstruction of the South by rail. The right of way was secured, the giant oaks cut into ties, the ballast and ties ordered. Construction had begun.
In 1869 the rail line was complete and Capac was connected to the world by the railroad. The train depot immediately became the center of business in the village. Many Civil War veterans and immigrants from Europe soon arrived in Capac and it became a mecca of commerce. Some of those early settlers are names still heard today: Matteson, Waltz, Prober, Warn, Ross, Rickford, McGurk, Baade, Lewis, Millspaugh, Hewitt, Brooker, Bottomley, Martin, Soults, Stoddard, Eastman, Hartwig, Stoffer, Dickey, McNaught, Miller, Kohns, Schoneman, Stroup, Meyer, Churchill, McKoy, Petz, Veitch and many others.
The custom of the time was to place a swinging sign at the two ends of each depot with the name of the city or stop in bold letters. The swinging signs were the first thing travelers looked for as they rode the rails. Over the years, Capac has had three depots. The first burned down on Feb. 27, 1880. The second also burned, on Jan. 9, 1914. Many depots at that time did burn due to the close proximity of the early coal and wood fired locomotives. The heavy smoke was often full of sparks and fires were common.
The third and last depot, now Capac's Historical Museum, was in its heyday, the lifeblood of Capac from 1914 until the early 1970s. At that time the doors were locked and the railroad agent sent to Port Huron.
For more than 50 years the depot nurtured Capac and helped it prosper. There are many memories and stories sealed within its walls. Soon after its dedication with the paint barely dry, the "War to End All Wars" began. The conflict called World War I would call for the descendants of the early settlers to leave the safety of their homes and farms and fight for the good of their country. The young men and women of Capac answered the call and departed from our depot, some to never return.
The folks back home made the depot their connection to the trenches in Europe. The daily mail and telegraph lines were the only source of news.
The railroad which once only carried lumber was now pressed into service hauling produce, grains and livestock to support the war effort. Capac had evolved from a rough and tumble wilderness whose only asset was lumber to an agricultural society from the rich soils that lie hidden in the shade of the mossy forests and swamps.
Once the war ended, good times prevailed as the 'roaring 20s' took hold. For ten years many roads were built for new technological advances. The horseless carriage was being mass-produced and was finally affordable to the common folks. The International Harvester dealership operated by the Lang family since 1896 began selling tractors powered first by steam and then by the internal combustion engine.
The early factories of the era were being retooled for the new economy. Plastics replaced wood. This transition started slowly but steadily expanded over the entire American economy.
Agriculture also took hold as a new crop started to be planted in the now-drained swamps. Sugar beets fed the growing demand for sugar and Capac, with the siding and depot soon became one of the premier shippers of this commodity. The Franklin Sugar Company began shipping sugar beets to its processing plant in Mt. Clemens. Thousands of bills of lading found in the depot show gondola cars consisting of 40,000 pounds per car were loaded mechanically from the recently created drop yard next to the railroad siding.
The 1930s brought the thrilling economy of the 'city in the woods' to a standstill. The factories closed or downsized. The farms still produced but the prices for the crops plummeted. The depot remained open during the '30s, but commerce declined.
Nearing the end of the 1930s, business started to pick up. The government in Washington, D.C. under President Franklin Roosevelt realized that war was inevitable and programs were put into place to improve the stagnant economy. Shuttered factories and depressed agriculture prices were placed under mandated government controls. Defense department contracts were issued and commodity production was encouraged to feed the war ravaged countries of Europe and Asia.
Once again, war called the patriotic citizens of Capac and they responded. With the depot manned and ready, it once again served as transportation for the troops once the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941. Crowds formed daily at the depot to see their loved ones leave for war torn areas of Europe and the Pacific Theaters. The oldest generation and those too young to fight manned the local factories producing helmet liners, aircraft parts and a host of other products needed in the war effort. And once again people waited at the depot for the mail drop for word from their loved ones far away.
The war ended in 1945 in victory due to the resolve of the American spirit and the U.S. had the strongest economy in the world. But things were now changing. Oil was cheap and abundant. An economy that was totally dependent on the railroad to move its goods then moved to trucks, which allowed more flexibility and took over the infrastructure of American commerce, a mistake that haunts us today.
On a cool day in the mid 1950s, a doting grandmother realized the importance of the day and bought tickets for herself and grandchildren to take the very last ride on a passenger train to leave the Capac Depot. I remember that day as that was my grandmother Myrtle Hunter. I remember that day, for an era had ended and I am grateful now 50 years later for her insight.
The Capac Depot is now our museum and each time I enter it I wish the walls could talk and tell me the many events it has witnessed. If you have a story to tell about your own experience within the walls of our depot, I will be at the museum on Saturday, July 19 and would love to hear it.
In closing, it's been a year since my last columns on Capac's history have appeared and yet wherever I go someone tells me how much they enjoyed those columns and would like to learn more about Capac's past. I promise you, my loyal readers, to write more often. But time is my enemy, much like yours. God willing some day I will retire and can write on a regular schedule.
A special thanks to Dan Bell, John Grzyb and Capac's Historical Society and to all others who provide me with information. Hope to see you Saturday at the depot.