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Civil defense structure still part of landscape

January 23, 2013 - Brandon Twp.- It's a 10 foot-by-10 foot building in the woods just outside the Village of Ortonville.

But about 50 years ago the small shed located near an elevated area of the township played a critical role in the safety of the community.

Larry Westphal, owner of the property near Oakwood Road, said the small structure was a civil defense lookout building once used in the 1950s.

"The building was here when we purchased our property in the 1970s," said Westphal. "The building was moved about 100 feet from a higher location on the property."

Township resident and military historian Lee Stewart recalls at least two civil defense towers in the area.

"The building on Oakwood Road was used during the Korean War and during the Cold War in the 1950s to look for enemy aircraft," said Stewart, whose father, Charles Stewart, was director of the U.S. Civil Defense in Ortonville during the 1950s. "Another building was near the intersection of South Street and M-15, near the A&W."

Stewart said from the Oakwood building, a civil defense member could see the lights of Mt. Holly and the lights of Bishop Airport in Flint.

"At one time there was a telephone, binoculars and identification charts on Russian or other foreign aircraft in the buildings," Stewart said. "Consider how close the Ortonville area is to Selfridge Air Base."

According to the history of Selfridge from 1947-1970 the base hosted three successive Cold War aircraft units: the 56th Fighter Wing (July 28, 1947-1952), which conducted the first west-to-east jet fighter transatlantic crossing (US to Scotland via Greenland, 1948); the 439th Fighter-Bomber Wing (1952-57); and the 1st Fighter Wing (Air Defense) from 1956-1970.

In addition, the township is between both Flint and Detroit where industry was producing war equipment at one time, added Stewart.

Kris Rzepczynski, an archivist for the Michigan Historical Museum in Lansing, said for several reasons Michigan was a possible target for enemies due to its defense industry and the Great Lakes transportation.

"There are many documents from the state attorney general's office covering 1950-1965 that have plans for nuclear preparedness and maps related to civil defense. Locals were called on to serve as air-raid wardens, enforced blackouts, learned how to spot enemy planes, delivered messages and staffed emergency disaster stations. I'm not certain about the location in Brandon Township, but it seems very likely the same building was used as a lookout."

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