Frank Schoebel, riparian representative on the Lake Improvement Board for Clarkston Mill Ponds, explains some of the history of the upper and lower ponds. Photo by Phil Custodio
BY PHIL CUSTODIO
Clarkston News Editor
“Clarkston grew around the mill pond that was created to harness the power of water,” according to the historical sign posted at the water’s edge off Washington Street.
Residents around the pond are asking the community to return the favor, as they debate how to restore and preserve the downtown water feature.
“The City of the Village of Clarkston benefits by having the mill pond there,” said Main Street resident Steve Hargis at a meeting of the Lake Improvement Board for Clarkston Mill Ponds, Aug. 13. “When people visit, they walk by it and around it. Business owners derive benefit from it being there. It’s an attraction for the community.”
The board is in charge of the lower mill pond, created by the old mill dam under Washinton Street, and the upper mill pond, located to the north across Miller Road.
The upper pond has been shrinking over the past several years and becoming overgrown with algae.
“The upper mill pond reverting back to a river is inevitable unless major dredging occurs,” said Holcomb Road resident Marc Moses. “Odds are that’s not going to happen. The lower pond residents have a nice body of water. We get more lawn.”
Dredging or other pond work, or bring the dam up to current standards would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, said Jacy Garrison, board member and environmental planner with the Oakland County Drain Commission.
According to the Clarkston Area Historical Society, Butler Holcomb sold the mill and water rights to the pond to brothers Jeremiah and Nelson W. Clark in 1838. The Clark brothers built the original, 200-foot-long dam on the Clinton River to create a 22-foot-deep mill pond, powering their grist and saw mill. Washington Street was built on top of the dam.
In 1941, Henry Ford rebuilt the dam to provide more power for his new Village Industry upholstery factory at Clarkston Mill. In April of 1941, mill pond waters from heavy rains burst through the new dam’s construction site. The Clarkston News’ April 25, 1941 edition showed the mill pond emptying out through the gap in the dam. Ford returned to construction and completed the new dam later that year.
The upper pond was dredged out to create lakefront property about 40 years ago, said Frank Schoebel, riparian representative on the board.
“Mother Nature is taking it back to its natural state, a stream,” Schoebel said. “North of Bluegrass is the natural stream fed by tributaries north of here.”
Bob Roth, who now owns the dam along with his brother, Ed Adler, asked the board to review Springfield Township’s partnership with Oakland County Parks and Recreation regarding its own mill pond dam.
“We’ve tried to give it away. No one wants it,” Roth said. “There are 100 questions about what will happen when it breaks someday – we should be prepared for an emergency situation.”
Davisburg’s sawmill and dam on the Shiawassee River were built by Cornelius Davis in 1836, according to a Springfield Township study. The dam was repaired and a new grist mill built in 1854, but it fell into disuse by the 1940s. Springfield Township and Oakland County Parks and Recreation department signed an interlocal agreement in 2015 to manage the dam, with the county paying 55 percent of the costs and the township responsible for 45 percent.
Ownership of Clarkston’s mill pond is more complicated, with Roth and Adler owning the dam and easements along the spillway leading to M-15, along with the bottom land under the pond.
Residents around the pond own to the water’s edge, and the pond water itself is owned by everyone in the state.
The bottomland-ownership arrangement goes back to Henry Ford’s mill 70 years ago.
“It’s a historical anomaly,” Schoebel said. “Roth and Adler are doing their best guess (opening and closing the dam to manage the pond water level). It’s an antique system. The problem if the homeowners take it over, is it’s liable to fail.”
The dam also affects how much water flows through the mill race in Depot Park, he said.
The Mill Ponds Improvement Board should develop and apply a more equitable formula for assessment that more fairly considers property ownership and liability in setting fees and taxes, said upper pond resident Mike Fetzer in a letter to the board.
“It seems inequitable that the owner of an entire pond bottom who controls the water levels contained within that pond would have the same parcel assessment liability as homeowners whose property merely abuts that pond, or for homeowners whose property includes only a small portion of a pond bottom,” Fetzer said. “It seems that a property owner, and not his/her merely adjacent neighbors, would be responsible for the expense of maintaining his own property, above and below water.”
Hargis said upper and lower pond residents need to work together, because the ponds are linked and affect each other.
“I think we need to dig into this deeper,” he said. “Those of us who live on the lake are not the only ones to benefit from it. Maybe we’re not the only ones who should be considered as payers. Maybe we should think about getting funding spread around a bit.”
“I think it should be a community solution project,” Schoebel said. “We’re in this together. That’s how we solve it.”
Board member Rachel Loughrin, also Independence Township treasurer, said they have researched grant opportunities, but haven’t been able to find anything applicable.
“Public monies are not available for dredging projects,” Garrison said. “They might be for dams in catastrophic failure mode, typically for dam removal.”
Board member Eric Haven, also Clarkston mayor, said they can look into making it a ballot issue.
“I get the holistic nature of this,” Haven said.
The ponds extend north into Independence Township, so the city would have to work with the township, said City Manager Jonathan Smith.
“It would be complicated – we would have to get the village and township to approve it,” Smith said.
The lake board voted unanimously at the meeting to approve a budget of $10,695 for maintenance and permits next year, charged equally to the 65 property owners around the ponds.
Residents at the meeting signed up to form a subcommittee to look into hiring an engineer, as well as options regarding the dam and other projects.
“We hope to come up with 3-4 options to save the pond,” Schoebel said.