An early artist’s sketch of the proposed Suburbanette in Pine River Plaza, circa late 1963. The Suburbanette was the vision of Bert Elsley of St. Louis, who owned the St. Louis IGA.
Mrs. Bert Elsley cuts the ribbon for the opening of the new Suburbanette in Pine River Plaza. The first three days brought in large crowds, and sold enough five cent hot dogs and Cokes to feed 5,000 customers.
The February 6, 1964 advertisement for a contest to name the new store. Who was the winner? St. Louis City Clerk-Treasurer Kenneth Barnum. He won $25 for the winning name.
As new entertainment flowed into Pine River Plaza in the early 1960s, a fourth building appeared. Bert Elsley had an idea. Elsely, the owner of Elsley’s IGA in St. Louis, decided to try to place a store next to Gratiot Lanes bowling alley and Leonard’s Outdoor gas station.
It was not a very big location for a store. The building, which Elsely leased, sat sixty feet off the road with a forty feet of store front. Inside, it had only 3,000 square feet of floor space. The Donald A. Wineland Company from Kawkawlin did the construction Still, Elsley said that the parking lot could hold at least 25 cars, and he envisioned having an outdoor summer market. When he first opened, when he needed more room because of all of the customers that came. Elsley’s store stayed open until 11:00 pm each evening, including Sundays. Soon, he operated from 7:30 am to 11:30 pm, seven days a week.
In February 1964, Elsely held a contest to name the location and the person with the best suggestion received $25. People in St. Louis laughed when Elsley announced that the winner was Kenneth Barnum, who was the city clerk and manager. Barnum’s proposal was to name the new store “The Suburbanette.”
When the official opening of the Surbanette took place, Mrs. Elsley cut the ribbon. To encourage business in the first three days, Elsley had 27 door prizes to give to the first customers, including a portable TV set. Customers also indulged in five cent hot dogs and Cokes – to the tune of 5,000 people, according to Elsley.
Unfortunately, Bert Elsley suffered serious health problems in the next year and he was forced to sell the Suburbanette. A couple from Lakeview, Fred and Kathryn Harkens, bought the store and had operating hours of 10:00 am to 10:00 pm daily.
In mid-December 1970, the business changed hands again. This time, Gordon and Audrey Mackenzie bought the store and took it over that month. At the grand opening, Gordon and other community leaders all wore Scottish kilts. Steve and Clark Mackenzie operated the store until February 2021 when Jameson and Sara Evitts bought Mackenzies.
Although the location that was known as the Suburbanette and later Mackenzies, it remains the second oldest operating business that originated in Pine River Plaza since the early 1960s. Not bad for the smallest store at the corner.
A late November 1967 drawing of the anticipated Travelodge in Alma. The hotel would sit on the northeast corner of Pine River Plaza.
The newly constructed Alma Travelodge as it appeared at its appeared in July 1968.
With new bowling alleys, an outdoor center, and new places to eat, the Pine River Plaza at M-46 and Luce Road only lacked one thing – a new motel. In November 1967, newspapers reported that a Travelodge Motel would be constructed east of the Big Boy restaurant.
At the time, this Travelodge was one of 350 motels of that franchise in the United States and Canada. The Pine River Motel Company, owners of the Travelodge, included President Donald Wakely, Secretary Roy Roach, and Treasurer Leon McNeill, Jr. Other board members included Al Fortino, Alfonso Fortino, and Doctors Sylvio and Mario Fortino.
The motel aimed for a summer 1968 opening and would long be recognized for its large A-Frame on the west end. Inside, it had 50 units, with conference rooms and a large banquet hall that could feed 150 people or hold 500 for a meeting. The Travelodge also had a health club and a large indoor year-round pool, along with rooms that had wheelchair units and both single and double rooms. Lila L. Baldwin became the new resident manager after previously owning a ten-unit motel in Holt, Michigan.
In June 1968, the Travelodge officially opened and quickly became a well-known location for swimming, banquets, and meetings. Events ranged from attending one of the first presentations in the area about how to operate a microwave oven or listening to Vice President Gerald Ford talk to members of the Gratiot County Republican Party via telephone conference.
As time passed, the Travelodge represented a place to stay on the southeast corner of the Pine River Plaza. Following the construction of two bowling alleys, a Michigan Outdoors Center, a Suburbanette, and a restaurant, the Travelodge was the last piece of the Pine River Plaza.
An early March 1964 advertisement for the opening of the Alma Big Boy Restaurant in Pine River Plaza.
Contractor Harold Carter of Greenville shows new manager Jack Robbins of Alma around the Big Boy building site. It was June 1963.
The Big Boy himself greeted travelers for decades at the Pine River Plaza. Here he gets a cleaning and repair in July 1979.
On January 3, 1963, news came that the Pine River Plaza would soon have a new restaurant at the corners. This Big Boy Restaurant, one of 45 Elias Brothers restaurants in the United States, was owned by private operators who hoped to open for business that spring.
Harold Carter of Greenville built the Big Boy, which was constructed of brick and stone and had 3,500 square feet. It seated 120 people and had a drive-in with up to 60 Teletype phones for ordering. In addition to the drive-in, a banquet room inside held 40 people.
The Big Boy officially debuted on August 23, 1963, to coincide with the opening of Leonard’s Service Station. Newspapers also announced that the owners planned a golf driving range and miniature golf course east of the restaurant.
The hours of operation (6 am-1 am Sunday through Thursday, 6 am-3 am Friday-Saturday) gave customers a wide range of times to eat. By 1971, the Big Boy stayed open 24 hours a day.
Sometimes unusual things happened, such as when high winds blew the Big Boy off his perch during a wind and snow storm. In another instance, someone stole the Big Boy from his stand.
However, the Alma Big Boy in Pine River Township was a frequent stop to eat for decades for items like the Big Boy sandwich and Hot Fudge Ice Cream cake.
Above: A shot of Leonard’s Michigan Outdoors Center in 1964. The center sat on the southeast corner of Pine River Plaza, north of what is today Mackenzie’s Party Store.
John Wood was the first manager of the Michigan Outdoors Center; Dick Shaver worked as the station manager.
Station attendant Doris Parks helps a driver in 1967. Drivers could stop at Michigan Outdoors Center for coffee, directions, maps and just a break.
Mort Neff was the host of the “Michigan Out Doors” television program that started in the 1950s. Leonard’s Refineries became the show’s leading sponsor in 1956 and Neff made several appearances in Gratiot County during the program’s run.
In the early 1960s, Leonard’s Refineries of Alma had plans for a “Michigan Outdoors” Sales and Service Station. This station was located on the Pine River Plaza’s southeast corner at the corner of Alger Road and M-46.
Leonard’s Michigan Outdoors station was constructed with a large paved parking lot and a display room that could be seen from the road. A gas station and car maintenance center sat next door. When drivers traveling along US-27 needed a break or directions, they could pull into the parking lot to be greeted by a hostess who offered free coffee, directions, and maps. John Wood became Leonard’s first manager, and the station opened on November 1, 1963.
The idea of a Michigan Outdoors station had roots in the 1950s. In 1956, Leonard’s Refineries initiated sponsorship of Mort Neff’s “Michigan Outdoors” television program. Mort Neff was one of Michigan’s leading ecologists and produced one of the largest outdoor shows in Michigan. Eight television stations carried the program on Thursday nights, encouraging Michigan outdoorsmen to think about the upcoming weekend, regardless of the season. One of the show’s highlights was a large Michigan map with a light on the back. If Neff told viewers, “The perch are biting off of the pier at Ludington,” the light would move across the state and rest on that location. The same could be said about hunting pheasants and other outdoor events in Michigan.
Mort Neff knew how to draw people, and it was said that when the map and light came on, another fifty fishermen or hunters from downstate Michigan would appear in the area to hunt or fish – all because of Mort Neff’s program.
When it came to Mid-Michigan, Neff loved to fly his plane into nearby Maple Rapids to hunt or fish. He was also the featured speaker at local high schools. He once appeared for a fundraiser for the Gratiot County Humane Society. Mort packed them in that night, and the fundraiser was a sellout.
Leonard’s gas station is long gone today, but there once was a Michigan Outdoors Center in Pine River Plaza.
One of the first photographs of the completed 300 Bowl on the northwest corner of Pine River Plaza. It was late August 1962.
Above: Opening night, September 4, 1962. Everyone in the 300 Bowl stood for the National Anthem, then a bowler on each lane launched their ball down their respective alley – all at the same time.
Margarette Mettert from Alma cuts the ribbon at Gratiot Lanes on September 24, 1962. Mettert was the secretary of the Central Michigan Women’s Bowling Association. The event marked the beginning of 16-team “Assorted Sixteen” league.
One very happy bowler. Mercer Cook of Alma throws the first 300 Game at Gratiot Lanes on a Saturday afternoon in 1963. Owner Ken Luneack awarded Cook with $100 and 100 free games at Gratiot Lanes.
It was known as the great bowling alley race.
In the spring of 1962, two new bowling alleys were among the first places to be built at the intersection of Alger Road and M-46. This new location, a product of the changes that brought the new US-27 Highway to Gratiot County, first held the 300 Bowl.
The 300 Bowl broke ground on April 26, 1962, and planned to have its alley up and operational by late July. Paul Cameron, the owner of the 300, said the new alley had 34 lanes and would be located on the northwest corner of the intersection.
Strahan Construction Company built the building, measuring 140×160 feet on 7 acres, with five features: a meeting room, tap room, snack bar, pro shop, and playroom for children. This bowling alley also featured Brunswick pinsetters and products. The cost for the 300 would be $600,000, and the lanes turned out to be the longest ever produced by Unit Structures, Incorporated of Peshtigo, Wisconsin. The lanes were so long that a special permit had to be obtained from the Highway Division to deliver them to Alma.
It took 8,000 nails to put each lane together, and each lane bed consisted of 3,200 linear feet of select Pine and Maple, fit tongue and groove, and nailed on each end. The individual lanes sat on a 2×4, 2×10 framework. Each end also had Maple to handle the ball’s impact and the pins. Pine wood with open grain made up the lanes’ middle and held each ball’s spin. Brunswick crews put together all of the lumber.
On September 1, 1962, the 300 Bowl opened. Manager Don Hall and well know bowlers Larry Graham and Rex Nelson also were present. A little over a week later, the action officially started when Alma Products and Alma Businessmen League opened league play. On that night at 7:00 pm, everyone in the alley stopped and stood for the National Anthem. A row of 24 men then threw their balls down their alley to initiate the 300 Bowl.
The public officially used the 300 on October 19, 1962. The alley opened at 10:00 am and remained open until the last person left that night.
However, another bowling alley soon opened across the intersection in the Pine River Plaza on the southeast side. Kenneth R. Luneack announced in April 1962 that he planned to open a 16-lane bowling alley, Gratiot Lanes, which he did on September 13, 1962. Luneack also owned Riviera Lanes on Michigan Avenue in St. Louis.
At Gratiot Lanes, Luneack promoted using AMF lanes, equipment, and sales. He was also the first to offer the AMF Spare maker in his alley. When Gratiot Lanes opened on September 13, 1962, it offered the public three days of open bowling. About two weeks later, Gratiot Lanes officially opened, and Margarette Mettert, secretary of Central Michigan Women’s Bowling Association, cut the ribbon. The “Assorted 16” women’s league was the first league to use the alley.
Gratiot Lanes entered the news in January 1963, when Mercer Cook threw the first 300 game. On that day, everyone in the alley stopped to watch Cook as he moved frame by frame toward finishing his game on his way to a perfect 300. As a result, owner Kenneth Luneack awarded Cook $100 and 100 free games. Cook’s feat was said to be only the second recorded 300 game bowled on an area alley at that time!
As time passed, Alma’s 300 Bowl and Gratiot Lanes were home to many young and old bowlers who participated in league play or just went out for recreation at the alleys.
Above from left: Guy Weller, Ithaca Chamber of Commerce managerial secretary; John Ruskovic, who discovered the mastodon; Claude Hibbard, professor at University of Michigan; Byron Harrell, research assistant. Ruskovic found the remains while on the family farm in Emerson Township.The group sit the spot where the remains were found.
John Ruskovic (left) and his father, Joe, display a few of the mastodon bones found one week earlier on the Ruskovic farm in Emerson Township in October 1954. The large bones each weighed approximately 37 pounds.
Johnny Musser of Alma stands next to bones of the Ruskovic mastodon in 1967. Musser’s grandfather purchased the bones and frequently displayed them at the Strand Theater, where the senior Musser was the owner and manager.
For approximately 9,000 years, it was beneath the surface in a swampy section of a farm in Section 17 of Emerson Township. Until then, it proved to be the most significant archaeological discovery in Gratiot County.
In late September 1954, John Ruskovic was plowing the swampy area of his father Joe’s farm when he hit and uncovered a bone weighing thirty-seven pounds. After contacting the Ithaca Chamber of Commerce for help, someone came to the farm to see what exactly had been found. A geology professor from the University of Michigan, Dr. Clark Hibbard, arrived just after Joe Ruscovic’s granddaughter, Barbara Hennigar, dug up an almost complete jaw. The teeth were three inches square, and they told Dr. Hibbard that the remains belonged to a prehistoric mastodon.
Archaeologists would later conclude that the mastodon became extinct in the late Pleistocene period and lived in open spruce woodlands and spruce forests. In time many of them would be found in former swampy bogs by Michigan farmers while digging ditches or ponds.
Mastodons had been discovered before 1954 in other places in Michigan. This one was unique as it was almost complete, except for its tusks, upper head, and four upper leg bones. Dr. Hibbard worked with the family to keep the remains covered and fenced off as spectators and schoolchildren descended upon the farm. Adding even more exposure to the find, John Ruskovic took some of the bones to a LIFE magazine program that had been previously scheduled at Ithaca High School. A crowd of 640 people sat through the presentation. An artist showed sketches of what the animal initially looked like while the speaker displayed the bones.
“The Ruskovic Mastodon” would go on a journey after its initial discovery. Two weeks afterward, the Strand Theater arranged to have some of the remains placed in its lobby. Keith Musser, the Strand’s manager, invited people and schoolchildren to come and see the mastodon. In the 1960s, Musser purchased the bones from the Ruskovics for $500. On several occasions, Musser advertised that these could be seen at the theater. One picture taken in 1968 shows his grandson, a young John Musser, standing in the lobby next to the large bones. The bones were stored in barrels upstairs in the theater for some time after this. Eventually, Musser donated them to Alma College, where they remained.
Gratiot County would have other encounters with its prehistoric age, although none of the finds would be on this scale. In 1909 specimens were discovered on the William Pitt farm in Seville Township. Another happened not far from the Ruskovic farm in 1938 when farmer Max Burnham found a large lower tooth of a mastodon weighing five pounds. Burnham found it while excavating a mucky spot on his farm. Another important discovery happened in the Riverdale area in 1965 when Louis Thaller of Riverdale was excavating a hillside. Doctor Ronald O. Kapp from Alma College became interested, researched mastodons in the 1960s, and later wrote about these discoveries.
A cartoon appears in the December 16, 1968 issue of the Daily Record-Leader. On that day Central Michigan University announced that the semester would end one week early due to an outbreak on campus of the Hong Kong flu.
Early in December 1968, Gratiot County sounded prepared for the flu season. At Alma’s Wright Avenue School, a small chicken pox epidemic affected the kindergarten class, causing eleven students to stay home. Because many students now took regular flu shots, county schools were not too concerned about flu season. Still, things in the mid-Michigan area soon gave reasons for concern.
News spread across the United States in 1968 that a new type of flu was at work – the Hong Kong flu, which originated in China during the summer and spread across the Pacific. Some medical experts thought this flu came to the United States as men came home from Vietnam. As a result, this flu kept an estimated 300,000 adults and children home in Los Angeles. In New York City, Adelphi University canceled its graduation ceremony. Actress Tallulah Bankhead, age 65, died from pneumonia, which she contracted after suffering from influenza. Hospitals in New York had reduced staff due to contracting the flu, and soon at least thirty states reported outbreaks of this new influenza.
In Detroit, two Catholic schools closed due to flu, with more than ten percent of students absent. Livonia Schools also did so because of the high number of sicknesses they encountered. In the business world, Chrysler Corporation knew that more workers were missing due to the flu, and General Motors noticed the same.
The symptoms of Hong Kong flu sounded familiar, with people suffering chills, fever, headaches, and extreme fatigue. In response, doctors prescribed bed rest as vaccines for this flu strain remained in short supply. Medical experts warned that victims contracted this strain because they had no previous immunity, striking quickly and in large numbers.
Near Gratiot County, things became more serious when Central Michigan University closed the week of December 16 as an average of one of six dormitory students came down with the flu. Classes ended a week earlier than scheduled that semester and would return on January 6. Over at American Coach Company, a DMH, Incorporated division in St. Louis, the factory announced that 21 workers out of 130 failed to come to work on Monday, December 16. Other factories in Alma, such as Alma Products, Lobdell-Emery, and Leonards, had absenteeism due to sickness, but not on the scale of DMH.
After Central Michigan University shut down, concern turned to Gratiot County’s schools, most of which tried to make it to Christmas Break without closing. On December 18, Alma Schools stated that 8 percent of students were sick (60/738); Ithaca had 50/800; Ashley had 30/200 and three teachers out. Breckenridge appeared to suffer the hardest early that week when 70/700 students called in sick. However, that number dropped to 42 students the next day. Despite the growing absenteeism, county schools remained open.
Another surprise in Gratiot County occurred when Gratiot Community Hospital closed its doors to visitors on December 20 and allowed only immediate family members in for visitation. Hospital administrator Douglas Webb commented about the change that “We just wanted to shut the door before the horses get out.”
As December 1968 went on, the effects of the Hong Kong flu stretched across the United States to the moon. President Lyndon B. Johnson went into the hospital on December 19 at Bethesda Naval Hospital with a low fever, cold, stuffy head, running nose, and rasping cough. Vice-President Hubert Humphrey contracted the flu, as did President-Elect Richard Nixon, who suffered from it while attending his daughter’s wedding. Because some schools, universities, and businesses closed early that December, airlines and bus lines expected traffic congestion to spread over the holiday break. Upon Apollo 8, astronauts Frank Borman, James Lowell, Jr., and William Anders experienced the “ping pong effect” of contracting and passing along the Hong Kong flu to each other. All the astronauts relied on Lomotil and Marezine to complete their mission.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the Hong Kong flu killed 100,000 in the United States and at least one million worldwide. The second peak of this strain hit in late 1969 through early 1970.
A year later, this pandemic and its effects were meaningful as my family dealt with pneumonia and flu during the Christmas season of 1969. My brother, only five years old, was hospitalized briefly on Christmas Eve. Doctor Waggoner sounded hesitant to let my brother go home but released him. It was the only time I could remember my paternal grandparents coming over for Christmas Eve when we always went to their house.
While not as deadly as the Influenza Epidemic of 1918, this type of flu continued to affect our lives. Five years later, in 1973, Gratiot County dealt with a new strain and challenge known as the London flu.
Firefighters from Ithaca, Alma and St. Louis work to put out the fire at the Gratiot County Courthouse on the evening of December 12, 1978.
The Gratiot County Courthouse three years later in 1981.
For the better of fifteen years, the Gratiot County courthouse treated county residents to Christmas decorations representing the holiday spirit. However, two weeks before Christmas in 1978, Gratiot County almost lost the then 70-year-old national landmark.
It all started around 10:30 pm on that Tuesday night of December 12 when Sheriff Deputy Jerry Roslund reported for work. Roslund looked up and saw smoke coming out of the courthouse’s second floor. Upon approaching the main doors, he smelled smoke and immediately headed to the dispatch office next door. At 10:50 pm, dispatch called the Ithaca Fire Department, and the race to put out the fire began.
A group of approximately 45 men from three fire departments (Ithaca, Alma, St.Louis) worked with six large pumpers to control the fire. Firefighters worked furiously, fearing that if not quickly contained, a chimney effect would occur, with fire spreading up through the dome and rotunda shape of the building. They were fortunate that the slate roof that covered the building and the addition of recent insulation helped keep the fire from spreading.
The effort of firefighters contained the blaze within an hour. The Alma Fire Department remained on the scene for 4 hours, while Ithaca stayed on duty until 4:30 am. The presence of the fire marshall, use of hose, and cleanup continued on site until noon on December 13. The cause? An overloaded drop cord ran through the Circuit Court Office.
While firefighters saved the courthouse from a devastating fire, there was severe damage and a lot to clean up. Two rooms and the attic suffered the most, along with the circuit court office. Burned books and papers went out of the second-floor windows, and the original woodwork in the rooms suffered damage. The county-owned law library was lost, as was furniture.
As a result of the fire, Probate Court Judge James Harmony moved to the bottom floor. The offices of Clerk, Treasurer, Register of Deeds, Juvenile Office, and Probate Court all moved temporarily to other locations, such as the Ithaca Presbyterian Church. Damages to the courthouse were initially estimated at $150,000 to repair fully. Very soon, the Board of Commissioners applied for a $20,000 grant with the National Register of Historical Places Preservation Grant in Aid. With help from the Michigan History Division, $49,200 became available – if Gratiot County matched the grants, which the county did. Still, the county could only use the $98,400 available for architectural planning, not actual construction. The rebuilding and remodeling eventually started, and the courthouse received the work it needed to represent Gratiot County again.
For many Gratiot County residents of the 1960s, the county courthouse represented the best of the Christmas season. People came from across Gratiot County to observe the many Christmas decorations that adorned our county and national landmark. Looking back at December 12, 1978, it is easy to forget that Gratiot County came very close to losing the courthouse.
The setting out of flags by the Alma Jaycees, weekend of November 23-25, 1963. Gratiot County responded to the death of President Kennedy. View east from Superior Street toward the old water tower.
Front page of the Alma Record, Thursday, November 28, 1963 – one week after the assassination.
A family’s collection of state newspapers from the weekend of events in late November 1963. The events came so fast that the county – and the nation – gasped.
On November 22, 1963, 59 years ago today, Gratiot County opened with cold weather mixed with rain and snow. Overall, it was a dreary Friday as people in the county went to work or shopped. The weekend was coming, and many hoped for quitting time so that they could start their weekend plans.
The holiday season also beckoned to Gratiot County, with Thanksgiving only a week away.
Friday, November 23: An Absolute Shock
A St. Louis woman, pregnant with her second child and already tired from shopping, sat down to rest on the swing next to the Strand Theatre in Alma. It was sometime before 2:00 pm. The swing was known as a place for the local bus stop, and people sometimes went there to watch life on Superior Street. As she sat there that November day, a crowd began forming in front of one set of store windows on the south side of the street. In the 1960s, it was customary for stores to place television sets in the front windows to catch the eyes of would-be shoppers. The crowd in front of this store grew as the minutes passed. As she wondered about the crowd, a passerby told the woman in the swing, “Someone just shot President Kennedy.”
Howard Goodspeed of Breckenridge was busy unloading a load of beans at the Ithaca elevator. The old bean truck still had a working radio, and Goodspeed, who was not an avid radio listener, just happened to have the radio turned on. The broadcast had been interrupted to tell the audience that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas. Howard Goodspeed climbed out of the truck, walked to the back of the elevator worker who oversaw dumping his beans, and told the worker, “They just shot that Kennedy.”
Working at another elevator in Middleton, David McManus of Alma heard similar news from office workers. All the men in his crew then went and got a radio, turned it on, and tried to follow news reports for the rest of the day.
At St. Louis High School, news came in about President Kennedy. Principal Levant Cazatt announced to the school student body over the public address system that President Kennedy had been shot and was dead. One student, Mike Walker, who was only thirteen years old, happened to be looking out the window and saw a janitor lowering the school’s flag to half mast. In another SLHS classroom, teacher Keith Wing taught government to his seniors at the time of the announcement. The group quickly became distracted by the news. In response, Wing kept calm and told his students, “We need to finish the lesson because that is what President Kennedy would want us to do.”
President John F. Kennedy’s death shocked the nation and the world. Although Kennedy was not the first President to be killed in office, it had been the first time in roughly sixty years that a President had been assassinated. The President was young, well-liked, and prepared to seek a second term in office. A column in the Gratiot County Herald reflected Kennedy’s connection with people. “Never, never have Americans had such identity with a president. Utilizing television or radio, President Kennedy was a regular companion in the nation’s living rooms. He was a great advocate of live radio and television broadcasts of his frequent news conferences; it wasn’t unusual to see the President live on TV.”
For many in Gratiot County, as in other parts of the country, Kennedy’s time in office had been the age of Camelot. This young President, his wife, and their two children represented a new generation of Americans. And now, suddenly, Camelot came crashing down. People in Gratiot County on that Friday now asked what had happened in Dallas. Who would kill the President? What was known about the assassin(s), and what should the United States do next?
It was Friday, November 22, 1963. Thanksgiving was only a week away, and Gratiot County was not only preparing for that holiday, but Christmas was around the corner.
The effect of the President’s assassination seemed to stop many in Gratiot County almost in their tracks. Kenneth Foote, President of the Alma Chamber of Commerce, quickly noticed on that Friday many shoppers became quiet when the news came out and also headed home. There seemed to be little desire to shop as a national tragedy occurred.
The Weekend, November 24-25: Gratiot Slows Down
In many places, people called off gatherings. They huddled near their televisions and radios to catch the most recent news in Washington about President Kennedy’s death. Employees brought portable television sets to work in places like Alma, and an “overall quiet” descended as people seemed to curtail only the most necessary functions.
Area Jaycees put up flags in downtown Alma, and then city officials lowered what flags they could to half-mast, and they remained reduced for the next thirty days. The Sunday traffic was the lightest police officers had seen in recent memory, as people did not seem to be traveling very much that weekend. At Sunday services around the county, pastors changed their sermons to talk to their congregations during the crisis. Over at Ithaca, a High Mass occurred at St. Paul’s Catholic Church at 11:00 am. In some areas, special services took place in reaction to Kennedy’s death because of the county’s state of mourning.
Several county residents began to share their views and feelings about what was happening in the wake of President Kennedy’s death. One farmer remarked that weekend that “We call ourselves a civilized society. What a dastardly crime. What a sad day for this country.” Another resident stated, “You hear it and you know it, but you can’t believe it is true. Is this actually happening in America?” Another county resident asked, “How does a person respond to such a tragedy? Grief, surprise, remorse, and bitterness are all mixed together. It is difficult to express yourself on such an occurrence.”
That weekend, everyone seemed to be grasping for answers as to why a young President died the way he did.
The Monday, November 25: A National Day of Mourning
On Monday, November 25, 1963, President Kennedy’s funeral ended with his burial in Arlington National Cemetery. In contrast to Friday, this Monday in Gratiot County was bright and brisk – in some ways, the opposite of the terrible Friday that preceded it.
All schools in Gratiot County closed for the day. The Gratiot County courthouse in Ithaca closed from 11:00 am to 2:00 pm. Postal delivery stopped in the county, and factories closed. Michigan Governor George Romney asked people statewide to pause for one minute at noon to pray for the Kennedys and the nation.
Many businesses in the county closed. In St. Louis, Mayor Max Sias asked all businesses to close between noon and 2:00 pm, but many closed for the day. Sias also asked for the city’s church bells to toll from 12:55 to 1:00 pm. In different places in the county, many churches held services before, during, or after the Kennedy funeral.
After that long Monday, like the rest of the nation, Gratiot County found its way through the Kennedy funeral. However, the memory of the Kennedy assassination remained in Gratiot.
Looking Back, Gratiot County Recalls JFK’s Death
Many residents did not forget that terrible day in Dallas in November 1963. However, as the decades have passed, local memories of the event seemed to fade, according to county newspaper coverage. Over time, the fading of JFK’s death covered two generations: the World War II generation and the aging of the Baby Boomers.
Several people in Gratiot County in 1973 clearly remembered where they were ten years earlier when President Kennedy was killed. Local newspapers covered the anniversary and interviewed several people who were asked to recount where they were and what they were doing at the time. However, starting with the twentieth anniversary in 1983, newspapers seldom covered the event from a county perspective. National columnists and coverage seemed to replace the personal attachment that people in Gratiot County had to Kennedy’s death. The change probably resulted from the passing of the generation(s) that most clearly remembered the tragedy.
I still possess the cardboard box labeled “Kennedy Assassination” that my mother kept that contained LIFE Magazine and newspapers. Like many of her generation who were then younger Americans and identified with JFK, the memories of that time in November 1963 never faded. For many Gratiot County residents, the end of November 1963 and the following Thanksgiving was a terrible time in our nation’s history and a dark time in Gratiot County.
Francis Norris of Ithaca and Roy LaLonde of Alma show off a good morning of pheasant hunting in Gratiot County in October 1957. Pheasant hunting in Gratiot in the 1950s had reached its high point.
Pheasant hunting became an important part of Gratiot County’s economy during the season. Area businesses and restaurants knew that pheasant hunters needed supplies and a good meal during a day of hunting in Gratiot County. Above, Glen’s Sporting Goods sponsored this advertisement in the October 11, 1962 issue of the St. Louis Leader Press – the eve of pheasant season that year.
Above: A sad, but accurate scene that spread across parts of Michigan in the 1960s. Changes in farm practices spelled doom for the pheasant population as fencerows, stubble fields, woodlots, and other cover disappeared as farmers turned these areas into farmland. The picture was taken in 1966 in the Thumb area, the heart of pheasant hunting. Similar changes also happened in Gratiot County.
Note: The following post is an extended version of a piece that recently appeared in the October 27, 2022 issue of the Gratiot County Herald.
In 1920, Elder Rushby wrote a letter to the Gratiot County Herald entitled “Who Killed the Last Deer in Gratiot?” Rushby wanted to know when the last bear, wolf, and passenger pigeon had been seen or killed by Gratiot County residents. His letter confirmed a belief that much of Gratiot County’s wildlife had been decimated by the start of the early twentieth century. It also suggested another question, what could residents now hunt in Gratiot County?
By the time of the Rushby letter, a new and vital chapter in Gratiot County’s hunting history began. In this case, it would be the tale of the Ring-neck pheasant.
Pheasants to America, Gratiot County
Pheasants arrived in North America long before they did in mid-Michigan. Both George Washington and Benjamin Franklin’s families attempted to raise English pheasants on the Eastern Seaboard. The pheasant first came to the West Coast when Consul Owen Denny imported fifteen birds from Shanghai, China, in 1881. He placed them in Portland, Oregon, and a year later, another thirty pheasants arrived under his direction. They ended up in the Willamette Valley. While the flocks initially took off, both were soon prey to hunters and were decimated.
However, an interest in importing pheasants to Gratiot County started. In May 1898, Doctor Scott and George Reed of Ithaca made the news when they traveled to Alma to pick up the first recorded arrival of pheasant eggs. It is unclear what happened afterward, but by 1905 the pheasant was officially a protected bird in the county and deemed “Game owned by the State.” During 1917-1918, the State offered to send pheasant eggs to Gratiot County. Only thirty eggs arrived, a small amount compared to other counties which accepted the challenge of hatching and raising pheasants. In 1920, thirteen pheasants appeared at Alverson and Son’s Store in Ithaca as an exhibit to increase interest to try again and bring pheasants to the county.
As the imports of pheasant types started, four types emerged at the Mason State Game Farm: Mongolian, English Black Neck, Japanese Pheasant, and Eastern Chinese Ringneck. These four breeds eventually merged into what Gratiot County hunters knew as the Ring-neck pheasant.
Growing the Pheasant Population, the 1920s-1930s
As the pheasant came under protection in the 1920s, those breeding and raising pheasants raised the theory of the ten-year cycle. During this period, the bird would naturally rise and decline over ten years if the pheasants reproduced and adapted to mid-Michigan’s habitat. Because of this, hunting in the county was not allowed until 1928, and early on October 28, 1928, the first pheasant season opened in Gratiot County.
While hunting was allowed, groups and methods tried to help increase the pheasant population. In 1931, the Gratiot County Conservation League tried to raise pheasants. Unfortunately, the hatch only produced one-half of the eggs that the League received. Officials attempted other ways to help protect the pheasants during the hay harvest. In June 1939, the State promoted the idea of farmers using flushing bars while in the fields. The bar extended in front and had bells or chains dangling in front of the tractor. As the bar made a noise, it allowed pheasants to fly away rather than being chopped up and killed by machinery. Although it is unclear how many Gratiot farmers used them, calls for farmers to use flushing bars extended well into the 1950s. Shooting pheasants with bands and having to turn in the bands took place well into the early 1950s. Sometimes shooting a bird with an old band became big news. In one instance in Hillsdale County, a farmer shot a five-year-old rooster who had traveled a long distance since its release.
Pheasant hunting during the Depression also presented other challenges. The thefts of hunting dogs, like Setters and Beagles, became a real problem in Gratiot County. In early October 1939, twelve dogs were stolen in ten days, including one from the Clarence Clark estate valued at $150. This decade also saw the emergence of conflicts between farmers and hunters – chiefly because hunters failed to respect farm property. Trampling crops, leaving gates open so animals could get out, and hunting without permission were just some of the issues about which farmers complained. As a result, at least nine hunting co-operatives started in Seville, Pine River, New Haven, Sumner, and North Shade townships. In these instances, any hunter who wished to hunt on farmland had to ask the farmer for a ticket. Farmers hoped the ticket system regulated who and how they hunted for pheasants. However, hunters outside the county (and more and more “outside” hunters appeared) complained that Gratiot farmers only gave tickets to their friends. The result encouraged “outside” hunters to go onto lands without permission. The Horton Trespass Law was passed to deal with the problem of hunters who tried to hunt on farmlands without permission.
One of the last issues pheasant hunters dealt with in Gratiot County in the late 1930s concerned Sunday hunting, which churches opposed. Pastors and congregations in the county actively campaigned for no hunting on Sundays, which lasted a few years but ended during World War II.
The Boom Years, the 1940s – 1950s
In July 1942, over 100 young birds were released in the Gratiot-Saginaw game area. Later that decade, the St. Louis Gun Club released 450 young pheasants, thirty in each township. The war years seemed good for the pheasant as fewer men hunted, shotgun shells were rationed, and finding ammunition could be a real challenge. When a small store in Newark Township had shells, farmers for miles around traveled there to get their ration’s worth. In 1944, the Ithaca Future Farmers hosted a pheasant feed at the high school. Two teams of boys were tasked with each hunting thirty pheasants, rabbits, or squirrels to feed the anticipated crowd. The team that failed to bring in the most game had to clean up after the dinner. Other pheasant dinners in the county had been and would be in the news. In 1937, the St. Louis Future Farmers fed 100 guests at St. Louis High School. In 1952, Breckenridge High School had a dinner that fed 120 people – mainly with pheasants shot that fall.
After the war, pheasant hunting continued to improve in Gratiot County as gas rationing ended. Still, the 1948 hunting season was deemed the low end of the ten-year pheasant cycle. For one of the first times, calls went out for a ban on hunting for at least one year for the pheasant population to grow again. However, everything seemed to have stayed the same.
Interlude: Nimrods and Other Problems
Another part of the Gratiot County pheasant season story involved those individuals who suffered consequences either by choice or by chance. Pauline Sparks of New Haven Township became one of the first recorded victims of hunter carelessness. Sparks’ husband discharged his shotgun, hitting his wife in one leg when he laid his gun down while trying to catch a wounded pheasant in a brush pile.
In 1937, stiff fines found those who broke the game laws. Robert Brown of Emerson Township paid $60.85 for shooting a rooster pheasant before the start of the season. Two men near North Star were found in illegal possession of a pheasant in their car. They were charged $35.85 each and had a week to pay or spend time in Judge Potter’s jail in Ithaca.
Then there were other incidents with pheasants. In October 1941, L.D. Decker of Alma saw several pheasant heads peeking above the weeds near his father’s grocery store and promptly shot at one of them. Young Decker then discovered that the heads, impaled on sticks, had been placed there by several of his buddies. All Decker ended up with was a pheasant head. A pheasant hunter northwest of Ithaca chased a rooster into a cornfield and fired at it as it flew over a boulder. He shot at the bird and hit the boulder, which turned out to be a doe that he killed. The incident became front-page news.
Once a pheasant flew through the window in front of a Middleton home, landed on the living room mantle, then flew out again unharmed. At about the same time in 1941, students Jack Detloff and Duane Morton found a dead pheasant in front of the Compton Shop in downtown Alma. The bird, which broke its neck after flying into the store window, was turned over to the Alma Police. Detloff got to keep the bird.
Melvin Fisk of Ashley found himself in dire straits in early May 1949 when he tried to dodge a flock of pheasants in the middle of the road outside Ashley. Fisk rolled his car three times, but he survived – as did the pheasants.
The 1950s, the Best of Times in Gratiot County
As the 1940s ended, efforts continued to monitor Gratiot County’s pheasant population. During the late spring and early summer of 1949, the State Game Commission continued its “crow counting” program during mating and nesting season in May and June. Usually, the observer traveled a half hour to an hour after sunrise and stopped their car every mile to listen for two minutes for the crow of rooster pheasants. The Commission then used the number of crows heard to estimate how many hens, and rooster pheasants may be in that area. Rural mail carriers also kept records of broods they saw during their mail routes and turned in their findings.
The decade of the 1950s was the high point of success for pheasant hunters in Gratiot County and the State. The 1950 season had a six percent increase in the pheasant population from the previous year, and the season was six days longer. The pheasant population the following year grew another eleven percent. The Conservation department also worked on studying how spring rains and poor temperatures affected hatching by using artificial showers on hen nesting at their facility. The combination of pheasant production, hunting, and the continuation of the pheasant cycle produced ideal conditions for many years in the 1950s.
There were some unusual stories about pheasants during these times. In the winter of 1952, hunters, farmers, and the Conservation department were all stunned by a large number of Ring-neck pheasants killed in an area near Fairgrove, Michigan. Farmers in the area found over fifty birds with broken necks, head wounds, and damaged wings. Some wondered if the birds died when they took off and ran into telephone cables, wires, or poles. After autopsies, authorities agreed that the pheasants died from colliding with something. Because the Thumb had some of the best pheasant hunting in the State, the Fairgrove findings became newsworthy.
Harsh winters during the 1950s also spelled trouble for the pheasants, moving residents to help by providing food. Feeding the pheasants became a priority for many hunters. In March 1959, Bob’s IGA in Alma had a ten-foot-long loaf of bread for a contest. The customers then had to guess how much the loaf weighed. After the contest ended, owner Bob Hornacek donated the bread to feed local pheasants. In Lee Township in Midland County, a conservation officer found a Ring-neck suspended that had been frozen to a bush by its tail feathers. The rooster went into some grape vines to look for food, and the feathers got stuck after a sleet storm. The officer freed the bird and took it home to a station for recuperation. Some of the worst news about pheasants in the challenging 1950’s winters dealt with illegal hunting. Because the pheasants could be seen more quickly in the snow and the food was hard for them to come by, they became easy targets. In January 1954, four young Mexicans from Alma were arrested in Pine River Township for possessing three hens and one rooster pheasant. They were each given thirty days in jail, a $50 fine, and another $9.85 in costs. Sadly, the conservation officer who arrested the men stated that this was only one of many incidents in Gratiot County regarding the illegal hunting of pheasants.
The Decline of Gratiot Pheasants, the 1960s and 1970s
The decline of the Ring-neck pheasant in Gratiot County and Michigan is a sobering story. The 1950s saw the best hunting in the county and positively affected the local economy. Local stores regularly advertised for small game hunters, urging them to stock up on supplies ahead of the season. Restaurants in the county also declared that they would be open during the season for pheasant hunters who needed to take a mid-day break. In 1959, one million pheasants had been hunted – the lowest total in seven years. These numbers may have been the start of the pheasant slide.
In the early 1960s, more signs of pheasant decline started to appear. By 1963, mail carriers saw fewer broods of pheasants during their mail deliveries in the late spring-early summer. “Clean Farming” became a new term that illustrated a change in farm practices that promoted the elimination of fencerows and ditches. A column appeared in the Gratiot County Herald in 1967, which openly called the pheasant situation “The pheasant crisis in Gratiot County.” In addition to farmland changes, the combination of predators (fox and raccoon), chemicals, brutal winters, and the normal cycle of decline all added to the disaster for pheasants. Some again called for a closed season (or two) on pheasants to stave off the fall, but it went nowhere. The best that the State instituted were different hunting zones in Michigan.
As a result of the pheasant decline in the 1970s, other things did happen. In 1970, Gratiot County Commissioners sought to petition the State to allow 4-H members to raise pheasants. A year later, the Lucky Clovers and Beebe Beef Clubs tried to raise pheasant chicks. Herb Baxter of St. Louis was instrumental as a 4-H leader in guiding members of the Lucky Clovers in their first attempts to do so. The St. Louis FFA attempted to raise and release pheasants three years later. Kim Bebow of St. Louis succeeded in raising and releasing 22 of the 25 birds he raised. The other St. Louis students in their projects were less successful.
Another side effect of the decline of the Ring-neck pheasant in the county meant that more county hunters went after other small game, such as ducks and geese. By the late 1970s, it seemed that fewer and fewer high school hunters took off the first day of pheasant season – a tradition that had been in practice for decades. Around 1989-1990, Michigan imported approximately 2,000 Sichuan pheasants to help the pheasant population. The experiment failed partly because the pheasants were pen-raised and unable to handle the harsh Michigan winters. If any Sichuan appeared in Gratiot County, newspapers did not carry the news.
The Last Fifty Years and Looking Back
When did pheasant hunting stop becoming a key event across the county? Today, few of us see hunters and their dogs wandering across clover and hay stubble fields on the first day of pheasant season as Gratiot County once did. One important group in the county that has sought to educate the public about the Ring-neck pheasant and its need for habitat is Pheasants Forever Chapter 90. There most likely are other people, organizations, and conservation efforts in recent years that have attempted to increase the Ring-neck population in Gratiot County. These all should be recognized, listened to, and supported.
To this day, I can clearly remember, as a boy, the first time that I saw my father clean a pheasant. I also have clear images of him carefully walking through a meadow behind our Beagle, waiting for a bird to fly. I also recall hearing and seeing my father dread the night he thought he accidentally shot a hen pheasant while walking beside a cornfield. Luckily on that hunt, he was not the expert shot he had always been, as the hen (if he hit it) got up and ran away.
Just after the Ice Storm of 1976, I was in his truck as he drove under the northbound US -27 overpass near the Cloverleaf Restaurant. He began shouting when he saw a flock of pheasants, primarily roosters, coming out to the edge of State Road near the gas stations to find food. He then drove straight home, gathered a large can of shelled corn, returned to the flock, and proceeded to throw shelled corn out the window at the pheasants while driving up and down State Road. I remember passing the birds several times as one of us sought to feed the pheasants after that brutal ice storm.
Two winters ago, I was looking outside one of our windows at something nesting in our Pine trees. It turned out to be a huge rooster pheasant. Later I placed birdseed and shelled corn beneath the trees.
It was all about respecting the pheasants in Gratiot County.