Somerset Center in southern Michigan is home to an estate once called “Aidan Lair.” The house is now gone, but the grounds have become a public park filled with whimsical “wooden” bridges made from concrete, an old rathskeller that hosted parties during the Jazz Age, and maybe a ghost from the Underground Railroad.
W.H.L. McCourtie was a successful business man who first made a fortune in oil. He invested in black gold while living in Dallas, but as his career and fortune expanded, the tug of his Michigan home beckoned, and in the 1920s he returned to his family’s summer house in Somerset Center. He may have made his first fortune in oil, but he eventually turned to harder stuff – namely, concrete. He founded three major concrete companies during his career, and after settling back in Michigan he made good use of his commodity. McCourtie hired two expert artisans who excelled in the Mexican folk art known as trabejo rustico, or rough art. Trabejo rustico is a variation on a 19th century French craft known as faux bois, both methods using wet cement to mimic real wood in the creation of furniture and small landscape structures.
Pouring and sculpting extensively on the grounds, McCourtie’s artisans – George Cardosa and Ralph Corona – created 17 small bridges, two cement lakes (one for swimming and one for fishing), two large birdhouses (with scores of little bird chambers inside) and two life-size trees that acted as chimneys for McCourtie’s underground garage and rathskeller.
As lovely as the grounds and bridges are, it’s McCourtie’s underground world at Aidan Lair (now McCourtie Park) that has sparked the most rumors about the place. It’s true that he built the rathskeller (an underground lodge that is still there today), but the rumor is that he hosted not only other Midwestern business luminaries like Henry Ford, but that it was run as a speakeasy, hosting bootleggers and gangsters like Al Capone. Any truly interesting estate needs at least one ghost, and McCourtie Park is no exception. It has its “Lady in Blue,” a woman sometimes seen wandering in mid-19th century dress, who is thought by some to be the ghost of a runaway slave who had used the rumored tunnels under the estate as part of the Underground Railroad. The underground garage is there, but if there was a complex of tunnels at one time, they aren’t there today.
The trabejo rustico pieces were all sculpted from about 1930 to 1933, and since Aidan Lair was torn down after major fire damage, they are the centerpieces of McCourtie Park today. 1933 was also the year that McCourtie died at the age of 61. He lived only long enough to see the sculptures completed, but not long enough to enjoy them. He left that privilege to the people of Somerset Center.
Only some of the cement bridges are immediately apparent and situated on maintained land, if you continue to wander the faint narrow footpaths up the edge of the stream, through the dense woodland of Black Willow and Carolina Buckthorn trees, you will find several forgotten bridges hidden in the thick growth waiting to be found.
Know Before You Go
Two miles west of US Hwy 127, on the north side of US Hwy 12 at Jackson Road