February 2, 2010 by Amy Elliott Bragg
Fire and brimstone and Communism at Farmington’s Worker’s Camp
A reader wrote to me a few days ago (a decision I highly encourage!) and asked if I’d ever seen the historical marker at 12 Mile and Halsted. I had to admit that although I knew where it was, I’d never stopped to read it, nor did I have any idea what it was all about, despite having driven by it approximately 100,000 times in my life.
The marker is on the south side of 12 Mile, about a half-mile east of Halsted, right before a drive into one of Farmington’s ubiquitous corporate parks (the drive is sunnily named “Investment,” and it cleaves a near-mile of vacant wooded lots right in half).
It marks the spot where, in the 1930s, a camp for laborers and their families used to be. But the sign doesn’t really tell you the whole ridiculous story. Let’s face it: do you really care that there used to be a summer camp where there are now offices for Alcoa and Daimler Financial? Maybe you do. I don’t know. Better story? It was a Communist summer camp. Allegedly. And their neighbors — and some creepy, violent, be-robed extremists — wanted them out.
You can read the whole weirdo tale in a great (and short!) historical monograph by James Dermody, “‘Communism’ Comes to Farmington: The Worker’s Camp,” published by the Farmington Historical Commission in 1994. The marker leaves off in 1930 with the purchase of the camp by the Workers Educational Association and some subsequent ownership changes. But six months after the WEA bought the camp, things started to heat up.
In August 1930, the Oakland County Sherriff raided the camp, seized some “Communist literature” and arrested some of the campers on charges of “criminal syndicalism” that were later dropped. Two years later, the camp was raided again.
It’s bad enough when the Sherriff suspects you’re up to no good. But a month later, a suspicious grass fire started on the camp grounds that would likely have consumed the entire wooded property if it hadn’t been discovered, by chance, and extinguished. The day before the fire, the camp had received notice that their insurance would be cancelled, indicating that the insurance company had been warned this might happen.
In 1933, arson struck the Worker’s Camp again. This time, two buildings burned to the ground, and the dining hall sustained serious damage. Not to be deterred, the workers built a brand new dining hall. In 1935, that new dining hall was completely destroyed. By a fire. Two months after that, someone tried to explode — with dynamite — the concrete dam the workers had built to make a swimming pool.
How Wile E. Coyote is that? Also why, of all things, would you try to explode … a swimming pool?
Anyway. Early on, the worker’s camp asked the Oakland County Prosecutor to investigate, as recalled by camp member Isaac Smullins:
I called the Oakland County Prosecutor’s office, asking him for an investigation … they informed me that they would let me know. We sent a delegation to Lansing … we were supposed to see the Attorney-General, but we spoke only to his son.
I requested an investigation and protection of the property, and the Assistant Attorney General told us point blank that he had no means to compel the County authorities to act. We asked for the right to arm ourselves to protect the premises, and he informed us that he would refer this matter to the Oakland County authorities. Since then, the camp kept good watch dogs on the premises to prevent further raids.
Shortly after, the dining room was set on fire and was totally destroyed.
So the county’s clocked out, someone keeps trying to turn your whole property to tinder, and to top it all off, your neighbors think you’re creeps. A few months before that fire took place, a local paper “carried a story about the danger to the community which was kept on the camp, and told a story about a horse which was bitten to pieces by our dogs.”
A neighbor eventually confessed to the dam explosion. His motive? He was “annoyed by the noise emanating from the camp at night. He also blamed the loss of fruit, vegetables and chickens from his farm … upon persons in the camp.”
Another neighbor, Floyd Cairns, remembered “placing roofing nails on the roadway to puncture car tires and once throwing a live skunk through one of the building windows.”
Ugh. So, nasty neighbors. Bad cops. And you know who turned out to be setting those fires?
In the fall of 1936, a grand jury decided that the Black Legion — a KKK affiliate — was responsible for all of the Worker’s Camp fires. Is it a stretch to think that if an investigation had been conducted earlier, the murder that ended up busting the whole Legion in May 1936 — and all of the murders, beatings, arsons, bombings and plots in between — might never have happened? (For further reference, Hour Detroit ran an informative piece by Richard Bak last year about the rise and fall of the Black Legion in Michigan.)
I love how much scary, almost cinematic intrigue, crime and drama is tied up in this unassuming plot of land. It’s mixed-use now — part fallow, part corporate park, bisected by 696 and hedged by the strange family homes, foreclosed mansions, empty lots and abandoned barns along unpaved Howard Road.
The monograph and my inquiring reader alike tell me that the swimming pool that disgruntled neighbor tried to blow up still exists, but on my drive today I found three different candidate ponds, all frozen over and dusted with snow.
So which one is it? And am I crazy enough to nose around in someone else’s backyard for signs of a long-gone not-really-Communist worker’s camp? Whose barn is this? Why is it caving in on itself? Should I go inside of it? Why am I so scared of trespassing tickets?
Tune in next time.