SOMERSET CENTER -- As dusk approaches and the winds ruffle the autumn leaves, their
shades of gold and red casting a kaleidoscope of colors in the bubbling brook that
winds its way through McCourtie Park, you might catch a glimpse of a woman dressed
in a long blue gown moving quietly across a bridge.
Or is she wearing black? Ghost
hunters disagree on the color of her dress, but the suggestion of a gentle ghostly
presence is just one of the unique features of this roadside park in the tiny hamlet
of Somerset Center, just east of Lenawee County’s Irish Hills.
W.H.L. McCourtie, owner
of the now-defunct Trinity Portland Cement Co., in Cement City, along Highway 127,
had a fondness for concrete and whimsy. His estate, known as Aiden Lair, was the
perfect place to create a fantastical garden. It looks like a fairy tale run amok.
Cement chimneys created to look like tree trunks rise out of an underground rathskeller
built into the side of a hill where McCourtie (known as Herb to his friends) played
poker with such Detroit bigwigs as auto baron Henry Ford.
Local lore says tunnels
ran underground here, perfect for bootleggers to smuggle liquor for those all-night
poker games. A total of 17 cement folk art-style bridges cross the meandering stream
on the 42-acre property.
These unique sculptures, called El Trabejo Rustico, Spanish
for rustic work, were created by Mexican artisans Dionicio Rodriquez and Ralph Corona
of Texas. McCourtie had made it rich as a Texas oil man before returning home to
Somerset. Also known by the French term, faux bois, or fake wood, it's a complex
process of shaping, molding, staining and adding texture to the concrete so it looks
For years almost a forgotten technique, this early- to mid-20th century folk
art is now enjoying a resurgence in interest.
Built in the early 1930s, each bridge
is unique and beckons walkers to cross over and into wooded glades which, in the
fall, are ablaze with color. One bridge, surely a home for hobbits, has the look
of a thatched cottage, albeit a cement one.
A simpler bridge is designed to resemble
an old-fashioned swinging bridge, the cement scored to replicate ropes and wood;
planked seats, also out of cement, invite visitors to stop halfway across and rest.
willows crowd the sides of the stream, dripping long, feathery branches onto the
waters. Secret glens offer seating and elaborate birdhouses, including several tall
purple martin houses that can shelter more than 200 birds.
Interestingly, this place
of enchantment, located just off Highway 127, on historic US 12, now designated as
a Heritage Trail, often is empty, though it is just off the highway. Maybe gnomes
have stolen the signs marking it as a park, so look for street signs. It is on the
northwest corner of US 12 and South Jackson Road. After turning north off of US 12,
take the unmarked road on your left.
There is no admission fee, and, if you're lucky,
you may catch a glimpse of the wandering ghost, referred to, affectionately, as The
Lady in Blue. Jane Ammeson is a freelance writer based in southwestern Michigan Press
News Service - Grand Rapids Press Sunday, September 16, 2007