Man of Concrete - Herb McCourtie's Park
In 1924 William Herbert Lee “Herb” McCourtie began to transform his family’s 42-acre farm into a gracious summer home fit for a gentleman and his both illustrious and somewhat shady friends. It was in Somerset Center, and he called it “Aiden’s Lair.” The cost for the renovation and expansion of a simple farmstead into a rich man’s hideaway exceeded $500,000, an impressive amount in those days.
The rather awe-inspiring personal worth of Herb McCourtie was partly driven by his own initiative and partly by his taking advantage of fortuitous circumstances. He learned first hand that he had no interest in the back-breaking work involved in running a farm and decided he’d rather be a lawyer. He graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1894, eventually ending up in Dallas, Texas in the early 1900s where he used his law degree to write oil and gas leases. Intrigued by the quick money to be made in “black gold,” McCourtie daringly decided to speculate in oil. His success started him on the path that would lead to the amassing of a personal fortune. However, his involvement with the less glamorous undertaking of the manufacturing of cement provided a more stable income. That venture resulted from a chance encounter he had in Chesaning, MI. While there, he overheard a man talking about the money to be made in the creation of cement. As the conversation progressed McCourtie realized that one of the key ingredients in cement, marl, might be what he’d seen on his uncle’s farm in Somerset Center. He had soil from the farm tested—finding, indeed, marl. He was on his way to becoming a cement magnate.
Inconclusive but still strong evidence indicates that in 1898 McCourtie was involved with the Peninsular Portland Cement Company in Cement City, a short distance from the Somerset Center farm. His partner in the venture was William Foster Cowham, a cement plant designer and engineer. As well as being a part owner, McCourtie was (probably) president of the company. Assisted by the profitable cement-making business, his personal fortune grew and he moved his family to a mansion in Jackson.
But the old family home in Somerset Center beckoned. It had been bequeathed to McCourtie’s oldest sister, Blanche, but she willingly sold it to him. While his wife firmly stayed in their Jackson home, Herb McCourtie transformed the simple farm into a rich man’s summer place. His additions to the house included a 26 x 42-foot ballroom, above which was his bedroom, a bath and a guest room …with ten beds arranged dormitory-style. Cement brought from nearby Peninsular Portland Cement played a major role in the renovation. Beyond the more conventional swimming pool and trout pond, cement creations included seventeen bridges, two bird houses intended for purple marlins and two chimneys above underground rooms, all made in the style of trabajo rustico, the use of cement to create wood-like sculptures.
It was probably when McCourtie worked in Texas that he became aware of the Mexican folk art of trabajo rustico. Artisans of this craft George Cardosa and Ralph Corona were invited to Somerset Center to create a cement wonderland that endures to this day. Seeking to attract purple marlins, McCoutie requested two bird houses. Like his farmhouse-turned-mansion, one bird house went way beyond utilitarian. With various avian “apartments” in one, it cost $2,200 … and we need to remember that this was in the late 1920s!
McCourtie entered into the stuff of legends during the era of Prohibition when his property was reportedly used for more daring purposes than a summer retreat. It was an underground room that gave rise to rumors that are unconfirmed, but still fun to contemplate. Into the side of the hill that faces Goose Creek and out of sight of the traffic on US-12 or casual passers-by, McCourtie placed a building. It was referred to as a “rathskeller,” meaning a beer hall that was underground. It was fabulous! Inside was a fully functional English-style bar, with brass foot rails, hand hewn ceiling beams, leaded windows and dark oak-paneled walls adorned with swords, spears and shields. A swinging door led to a card room that was rumored to be the site of all-night poker parties, one reportedly attended by Henry Ford.
So far this sounds like no more than a luxurious masculine retreat. But the fact that it was Prohibition and the presence of a ten-foot square vault one passed through in order to get to the rathskeller made it hard not to let your mind run wild with the illegal possibilities. This vault had a 300-pound door with a combination lock and an inner grilled, brass door locked by a key. It hardly seems likely that this was a room for home-canned goods! To add to suspicions, there was a hidden opening above the underground building. With a trap door opening to steps that led into the vault, this would have been an ideal liquor drop spot. Patrons of McCourtie’s (alleged) upper-class speakeasy—who may have included such underworld legends as Al Capone—could park unseen from US-12 in an underground garage.
Except for the explosion, the cause leading to the following story may or may not be true. It happened a year prior to Aiden’s Lair becoming a spot for the Black Hand Gang to take a break and quench their thirst as they went about the business of collecting money, but it has the ring of historical accuracy. Members of the Black Hand Gang, or La Mano Nera, exhorted protection money from Italian shop keepers. One of their routes was from Detroit to Chicago and back again, traveling along US-12. Hillsdale County, of course, was along the US-12 route, and several Italians had businesses in Hillsdale. Pete Cascarelli, who owned a fruit store on Broad Street, was one of them. The “protection” shop owners paid insurance for was actually protection from an attack by the gang, and Pete refused to bow to their pressure. Around three o’clock in the morning of Sunday, June 24, 1923, a violent explosion rocked the downtown area. It was Pete’s store, now with boxes, barrels and shattered glass strewn up to 100 feet from the building. The day before, strange men had been spotted talking to Pete and then leaving. After the explosion Pete, who had been completely dressed and holding a gun when the sheriff arrived from the jail on Courthouse Square, professed not know anything about the cause of the attack. A wise move on his part.
Herb McCourtie may have enjoyed the company of gangsters, but he was far from being one himself. From reports of people who knew him, Herb was a generous man who threw lavish parties and unselfishly shared his lovely estate with the people of Somerset Center. Unfortunately he died after a long illness at the relatively young age of 61 at the Battle Creek Sanitarium. A series of owners of Aiden’s Lair were unable to keep up the large estate, and in 1987 Somerset Township purchased the property. The house eventually had to be razed, but an army of volunteers cleaned the area of brush and debris and eventually restored the grounds to their former glory. In 1991 McCourtie Park was listed in the State of Michigan Register of Historic Places and then listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In 1999 Melinda LoPresto, who had been working with the cement sculptures at St. Joseph’s shrine, down the road on US-12, was hired to renovate the cement sculptures at McCourtie Park. Today, thanks to volunteers, it has become a unique tourist attraction.
JoAnne P. Miller