When you think of a desert, what comes to mind?
The Sahara?
Death Valley?
How about one of the four major American deserts: Chihuahuan, Great Basin, Mohave, or Sonoran, all in the southwestern United States?

I’ll betcha Michigan doesn’t come to mind at all when you picture a desert…..but once upon a time, Michigan was home to the United States’ largest desert east of the Mississippi River. It wasn’t a natural desert as the ones out west, but one that was basically an accident…and caused by man.

During the mid 1800s, Michigan’s lumber boom was already depleting the land of its trees. Near White Cloud and the Hardy Dam in Newaygo County is the hamlet of Big Prairie – once a village, now all it has is a church and a house at the intersection that used to be a small business district.

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This area was a lumber hotbed, with trees being cut down and forests quickly becoming depleted. After 1870, this land suffered from erosion, thanks to the loss of tree roots that held the soil together…..and it turned itself into a desert – named by locals as “The Michigan Dust Bowl”. Luckily, this happened in Michigan, where the weather helped replenish the land. Rain, winds blowing seeds thru the air that landed and grew on this desert…and over time Michigan’s desert became a prairie, filled with grass, plants, weeds, saplings…and even some prickly pear cactus.

What to name this land? Big Prairie Township, which soon gave birth to the village of Big Prairie, thanks to an added post office. Thanks to the efforts of many, the white pines are back, leaving hardly a trace of what was once a desert. There may be one or two little sandy patches of land that still exist, but aside from these, you’d never know this area was once home to the largest desert east of the Mississippi.

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