Aaron Edgel hopped between the heavily graffitied concrete slabs at Sanctuary Woods in Laketown Township on Aug. 26, 2023, and got close to a faded inscription – the only writing he left at the site more than 14 years ago.
He looked closely at the cement-sealed end of what once was a water pipe and read the engravings aloud: “A.A.E. My initials,” he laughed. “T-316. That’s my troop number. And the date – Eight. Eight? Maybe that’s 18? O-Nine for 2009.”
Edgel, now 29, revisited the site in the dunes of his 2009 Eagle Scout project that took about 25 volunteers and more than 400 hours. The current site is a reminder of what individuals can do when they work together.
Volunteers and commitment
As a 15-year-old home-schooled student, he coordinated the removal of a massive metal water tower that had collapsed about 40 years before and sat as a dangerous scar on the landscape, a rusting focus for fires and parties.
“It was like an empty can. Inside was like a cave,” he remembered as he sat atop the slabs that once supported the structure. “We had to cut the thing up.”
Edgel documented the experience on a video at the time. Search YouTube for “Sanctuary Woods Water Tower” to see that 2009 video.
Volunteers carved the metal into more easily handled pieces. Fellow Scouts acted as fire watchers around the worksite to make sure the sparks didn’t ignite the foliage on the dune. Once the metal was cut, it was tied to a utility vehicle and pulled down to a nearby road where a dumpster waited.
Edgel can still see that trail carved by multiple trips with heavy sheets of metal despite years of plant growth.
Four dumpsters were filled with 16 tons of steel, according to the Laketown Township Parks and Recreation Commission minutes from Aug. 19, 2009. It took about five volunteers a day for 12 days working double shifts, the minutes said.
“I never would have been able to remove this huge water tower at the age of 15 if not for the many people who were a part of building me up and encouraging me. Parents, family, pastors, friends, Scout leaders, so many people poured into me in the process leading up to that project and helped me persevere through it. I can also see the invisible hand of God in shaping and protecting me through it all,” Edgel said.
“I am thankful to all of them, and I encourage you all to pour into the youth around you in whatever way you might be able to. Even if you can only reach out to one young person, you don’t know how big an impact your presence would make,” he added.
The water tank
The Holland City News described the water tank in a 1914 article entitled “Macatawa from a worthless sand dune to a million dollar property.” The tank was completed in the autumn of 1913.
The “large steel tank with a capacity of 50,000 gallons has been built on a solid cement base 28 feet high and 7 feet thick. The tank is at an elevation of 110 feet giving the water a pressure of 90 Ibs.,” the paper said.
The tank fed six-inch mains that were buried so they wouldn’t freeze in the winter, wrote Donald L. van Reken in his 1991 book “Macatawa Park: A Chronicle.” The tank was 200 feet above the water level, van Reken said.
The tank collapsed in the 1960s where it sat until 2009.
Edgel reflected on the project as he sat at the site on a warm summer day.
Though the small area about a half mile from the entrance to Sanctuary Woods, 4750 66th St., is now coated with colorful vandalism it is more natural and safer than when that toppled tank sat rusting on the sand, he said.
The tank’s removal stands as a testament to what ordinary residents can do to improve their community, Edgel said.
At the time he did the project, he lived just over the hill on Maksaba Trail. The family no longer resides at the property, but he still remembers the paths back to his former house. He seemed perfectly at home as he climbed over the tower remnants, slid down the paint-slickened facades and pointed out where he and others worked and had some fun as well.
“Each of us has the ability to make our neighborhoods better in some way. Maybe you think it would be lovely if some flowers were planted somewhere. Or maybe you think a bench or a gazebo could go up somewhere. Or maybe you have the skills to install a security system. Or maybe you can take the time to pick up the trash from that corner of the neighborhood that no one else has bothered with,” he said.
“In Macatawa, a lot of the nicer features of the area came about because of residents just stepping up and doing these kinds of things, not just waiting for an official to do it.”
He’s now studying fulltime at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary based in Massachusetts and hopes to become a teacher.
“In my seminary studies, I have been learning that the Kingdom of God is not only concerned with attending to people’s souls, but also with taking care of the physical world we have been entrusted with,” Edgel said. “I would encourage you to pause and ponder if there is some ability or interest you are uniquely gifted with that can make your neighborhood a better place for everyone. That one thing you have been wishing someone would step up and do, perhaps you are the very one to do it!”
How to get there
Want to visit the old water tower site?
From the parking lot of Sanctuary Woods, 4750 66th St., take the trail to the steps. Head to the upper level. At the top of the steps, go left then take an immediate right on the trail. Follow the path as it winds through the park. You’ll pass the scenic outlook marked by a bench where you can see both Lake Macatawa and Lake Michigan through the leaves.
Keep going. Just before the next set of steps you encounter, look for the path on the right. It’s not marked – you’re off the official trails from now on. The way is not well marked nor is it as easy as the other trails in the park. You’ll have to climb some hills, step over roots and go around trees as you ascend the dune. A walking stick can be helpful.
You’ll step up on a small ridge and the bright colors of the concrete will greet you.
Please do not add to the graffiti or litter.