McCourtie Park has a rich history that began in 1924 when Herbert Lee “Herb” McCourtie bought the 42-acre farm in Somerset Center that had been in his family for years.
After growing up on the farm, Herb knew that manual labor didn’t suit him. Instead, he graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1894. He wound up moving down to Dallas, Texas to write oil and gas leases. When he realized he could make some quick cash, he began to speculate in oil and amassed a great deal of money. But he made most of his vast fortune when he moved back to Michigan in the 1920s and got into the cement business.
One of the key components to cement is marl, a carbonate-rich mud or mudstone. When Herb had the soil on the family farm tested, he found out there was an abundance of marl — exactly what was needed to become a cement magnate.
Even though Herb and his wife lived in a grand mansion in Jackson, Michigan, Herb envisioned turning his family farmstead into a lavish summer house. His sister sold it to him in 1924, and Herb began to build his dream.
He renovated the house and added a large ballroom and a spacious master bedroom. He also used cement to construct a swimming pool and trout pond. Then, he hired two Mexican artists, George Cardoso and Ralph Corona to build seventeen bridges and two purple martin houses. These were no ordinary bird houses — one cost over $2,000.
The bridges were made in the style of trabajo rustico, which uses cement to mimic the appearance of wood. It took the two artists ten years to create the bridges appeared to be made of rope and wood, simulating bark patterns of different trees, such as oak, walnut, and cherry. The artists included intricate details such as insect holes, moss, and lichen. They also made two life-size and life-like trees that were used as chimneys for Herb’s rathskeller.
The rathskeller, or underground speakeasy, sparked rumors, especially during Prohibition times. After all, there was a 300-pound door secured with a combination lock. Once you passed through that, there was an inner brass door with a key lock. Inside, there was an English-style bar with a brass foot railing and the paneled walls were decorated with swords and shields. A room separated by a swinging door was where Herb would host all-night poker games. It is said, Henry Ford, the auto baron from Detroit, sat in for many of the card games.
Al Capone was allegedly another frequent visitor as well as members of the Black Hand Gang. The Black Hand Gang made their way back and forth from Detroit to Chicago along US-12 extorting “protection money” from shopkeepers.
There was an underground garage available for those who wanted to hide their vehicles from prying eyes traveling along US-12.
While some of Herb’s acquaintances were of questionable reputation, he also held a summer “homecoming” event every year for those in the community. He generously shared his estate with thousands of guests and hired stunt flyers, organized baseball games, brought in entertainment from area musicians, and provided the refreshments. There is no doubt — Herb knew how to throw a party!
Adding to the park’s folklore is “The Lady in Blue,” an alleged ghost that roams the park. Most of the sightings have been at dusk. She is seen walking around in a Victorian-era blue dress and then she vanishes into thin air. Some believe she is an escaped slave, while others are simply puzzled.
Herb McCourtie died at the age of 61 in 1933. His estate was sold several times, and in 1987, it was purchased by Somerset Township. The house has been torn down, but the beautiful cement bridges remain. Thanks to volunteers, the grounds have been restored to their former glory.
Today, McCourtie Park is a place for weddings, family gatherings, playing tennis or disk golf, and enjoying nature. There are a lot of improvements happening right now, including restoration of some of the bridges and riverbanks, as well as a new baseball field. Also, this year there is McCourtie Market, where vendors sell their wares Saturdays from 9 AM — 1 PM. McCourtie Market began May 1st and will run through October 2nd. You can expect to find a variety of things for sale, such as baked goods, honey, in-season produce, and crafts.
McCourtie Park is located at 10426 S. Jackson Road, Somerset Center, Michigan. It's a great place for the whole family!