Efforts are underway to preserve a 142-year-old limestone kiln in Bellevue

BELLEVUE — From its location off Sand Road, half a mile from the town center of the village, Dyer Kiln has been a constant for as long as Harold Messenger can remember.

The limestone and granite structure had been abandoned for almost 40 years when he was born in 1937.

Now nearly a century and a half old, it is one of less than a dozen lime kilns still standing south of the Mackinac Bridge. Messenger, 85, can attest to the structure’s resilience over the past 142 years.

“I don’t think it has changed much,” he said Monday afternoon as he stood a few feet from the fence that surrounds the historic oven. “It was apparently quite well built.”

That’s an understatement, said Eaton County Parks and Recreation Director Travis Keeton.

“From all the research I’ve come across, it’s very well preserved structurally,” he said. “A lot of the ovens in the state, from what I’ve seen, are some kind of rock pile.”

Eaton County has owned the half-acre property since 1975.

Longtime resident Harold Messenger talks about the Dyer Kiln with Pat Tirrell of the Eaton County Historical Commission, Monday, June 27, 2022, in Bellevue.

Today, area historians and park officials are determined to preserve the Dyer Kiln, where Bellevue limestone was burned to make cement, mortar and plaster from 1880 to 1898.

Backing up the structure is expected to cost nearly $250,000, but the aging oven won’t stand without help, said Eaton County Parks Commissioner Pat Tirrell.

It’s worth saving for the sake of the story, she said.

“It was such an important product,” Tirrell said. “It’s contributed to so many things in this state. If we drop it, it’ll never be put back together. We have to decide if it’s worth keeping it up, and I guess I’m one of those who think it’s worth it.”

A historical structure

Thomas Roberts and Charles Dyer began operating the kiln, one of four at Bellevue, known for its limestone outcrop, around 1880.

Jill Jessen Hernandez, 73, didn’t visit the structure until 1997, but she remembers listening to her grandmother, Bessie Beatrice Bishop, tell stories about watching men haul limestone up the ramp to the chimney of the oven to burn it.

The area of ​​the Dyer Kiln where the finished product was collected by workers on Monday June 27, 2022, in Bellevue.

The structure sat on the 80-acre farm of Hernandez’s great-great-great-great-grandmother, Philinda Cherbino Sturdivant.

The work was hard, Tirrell said.

“Workers shoveled out the lime ash while it was still burning,” she said. The heat from the oven, which reached 1,500 to 1,600 degrees, burned their hair and turned their skin red. Wood was shoveled into the kiln from arches at the bottom which are still intact today.

“Inside the upper limestone chimney is a cone of firebricks,” Tirrell said. “It would retain the heat.”

The oven operated for nearly two decades. Ash was used to build the State Capitol and many former Michigan State Colleges (now University) buildings. It was also shipped by rail to Detroit for buildings and surfaces.

Hernandez, a genealogist who lives in California, said she hadn’t anticipated her rustic beauty until her trip to Bellevue 25 years ago.

Eaton County Park Superintendent Travis Keeton, right, and Pat Tirrell with the Eaton County Historical Commission walk around the limestone walls of Dyer's Kiln Monday, June 27, 2022 in Bellevue.

“These stones, I just found them beautiful,” she said. “There’s red and yellow, and they’re still vibrant. It’s just this colorful masterpiece sitting there.”

Tirrell walked past it for years before deciding something had to be done to keep the crumbling structure together.

“This thing is going to fall if we don’t look at it,” she said to herself one day.

Now she’s leading the effort to save him.

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Preservation efforts

This is not the first time locals have tried to save Dyer Kiln.

Research shows similar efforts have been made at least twice before, in 1958 and 1997, Tirrell said, and there is evidence of work being done to support the structure, including adding a roof to the top of the tower. oven chimney.

Limestone walls at the Dyer Kiln on Monday June 27, 2022 in Bellevue.

And the kiln was named a State Historic Site in 1976, but authorities never obtained a sign designating the listing to be posted on the property.

The land is one of 10 properties that are part of the county’s park system, Keeton said.

The work needed to preserve it would cost $248,000, according to an architectural study of the structure carried out more than a decade ago. This would include a new mortar for the stone and the protection of the existing limestone.

County officials could vote to file a request to levy a $0.5 million levy for the parks system in the November ballot later this month. The tax would generate more than $1 million over the next decade, Keeton said.

An arched opening where wood has been added to the Dyer oven pictured Monday June 27, 2022 in Bellevue.

If voters approved it, the funds would pay for the preservation of Dyer Kiln within two years. Keeton said he also plans to apply for a grant.

“It would go a long way and take us in the right direction for sure,” Keeton said.

Hernandez’s family donated $500 for its preservation.

“I think it’s really important,” she said. “That’s a big part of that story.”

Find out more about Dyer Kiln

Learn more about Dyer Kiln online here. Those interested in getting involved in the interest of preserving it can email Tirrell at [email protected]

Contact Rachel Greco at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @GrecoatLSJ.

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