New state park has local roots

Becky Vargo • Nov 7, 2016 at 10:00 AM

Spring Lake resident Mary Coats says her grandparents would be thrilled to see their former property revert back to a park.

Coats and her daughter, Janet Coats, also of Spring Lake, attended a dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony on Oct. 26 for the new Watkins Lake State Park and County Preserve, located in Jackson and Washtenaw counties.

More than 1,000 acres of land and lake in Jackson County, once owned by L. Whitney and Grace (Alley) Watkins, was joined with more than 400 acres in Washtenaw County, about 2 miles southwest of Manchester, to become Michigan’s 103rd state park.

The park does not include the Whitney home, which remains in private ownership.

The Whitneys were Mary Coats’ maternal grandparents.

Mary and her husband, Dave, were the original owners of the Prospect Point Resort on Spring Lake.

Mary (Bigford) Coats, now 86, grew up in Grand Rapids, but has fond memories of the visits to the farm where her mother, Katherine Elizabeth Watkins Bigford, was raised.

“It was a fascinating place to go to,” she said. “There were servants and riding horses. There were all these barns.”

Mary said she enjoyed waking up to the sounds of the cooing doves.

“We played with the children who lived in the tenant houses,” she said.

Mary described her grandparents as loving and kind, although her grandfather “was all business.”

Whitney Watkins inherited the more than 2,000-acre farm from his father, Lucius Denison (L.D.) Watkins in 1920, but like his father, Whitney was no slacker. As a young man, he helped his father on the cattle farm, but learned to respect and love the land and wildlife as well, according to a term paper written by Mary’s sister, Betty, in 1949.

Whitney, who was born in 1873, enrolled at the Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University) at age 15. He helped establish athletics at the university and was known as the “Father of Athletics,” according to an obituary that was published in the Nov. 15, 1950, edition of “The Record,” the Spartan alumni magazine.

After graduation, he went back to the farm, eventually taking over as Jackson County game warden from his father. At age 23, Whitney became a deputy state game warden. In 1908, he was elected to the state Senate. He ran for governor in 1912 on the National Progressive ticket, but was defeated.

Mary Coats said her grandparents moved into Clinton in the 1940s, leaving a cousin to manage the farm. The property was eventually sold and the furniture and other memorabilia spread out among family members. Mary still has the desk her grandmother used in her bedroom at the farm.

Mary said she didn’t spend much time at her grandparents’ farm, once she entered high school, but the dedication event, which involved many relatives she had never met, helped revive some of the memories.

“Other people remind you that it was a fine family and their contribution was notable,” she said.

DNR officials describe the property as a popular “watchable-wildlife” destination that features beautiful rolling land covered in a mixture of open meadow, mixed hardwoods, low wetland areas, open water and the property's most popular feature, the 144-acre Watkins Lake.

The park also has historical value because Royal and Sally Carpenter Watkins (Whitney’s grandparents), who first farmed the land, played a key role in the Underground Railroad.

On June 16, 2016, the DNR purchased 717 acres of land in Jackson County’s Norvell Township for $2.9 million. Combined with 405 acres of contiguous land owned by the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission in Manchester Township, the 1,122-acre property was jointly created. 

Funding for the $2.9 million DNR purchase came from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund. The fund was created with revenue from the development of state-owned minerals, primarily oil and gas, and is used to help acquire and develop public recreation lands.

The park is slated to offer a wide variety of recreational opportunities, such as hiking, bird watching, upland hunting and mountain biking. It also includes a 4.5-mile former rail corridor that traverses the property from east to west. The trail will link state and county parcels, and has the potential to be developed into a non-motorized, multi-use trail, well-suited for hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians.

The park is now open to the public, but with limited parking. The DNR and Washtenaw County will create multiple public access points once a formal management plan to guide the development of the park is in place, following a series of yet-to-be-scheduled public input meetings. 

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