Remembering Bob Wilhelm

Robert Wilhelm, noted local historian, pictured in front of a Traverse City carriage house.
Robert Wilhelm, noted local historian, pictured in front of a Traverse City carriage house.

Robert David Wilhelm, 76, of Traverse City, passed away on Thursday, June 5, 2014 at Grand Traverse Pavilions. Robert was born on February 25, 1938 in Traverse City, the son of Lyle and Martha Wilhelm. An avid Historian, Bob leaves us with his historic family legacy. His great grandparents arrived in Traverse City from Bohemia in 1854, two years after Perry Hannah came to the area. The Wilhelm family was involved in a variety of local businesses, trades, and community activities for the next 150 years.

A.J. Wilhelm's Department Store on Union and 8th Streets, Traverse City.
A.J. Wilhelm’s Department Store on Union and 8th Streets, Traverse City.

His grandfather opened the A.J. Wilhelm Department Store, and in 1996 it became a Centennial Business. Later, the building and business were also designated State Historic Sites, largely due to Bob’s perseverance and efforts. Bob majored in American History and spent many years researching and teaching Michigan history. After retiring from the Howell Public Schools, he returned to his native Traverse City. Some highlights of Bob’s community stewardship include: sitting on the Committee to Save Building 50, working with the State of Michigan Sesquicentennial Committee, and actively contributing to the Michigan History Museum in developing curriculum programs related to the state’s history. Not many days went by, without visiting the History Center of Traverse City where Bob enjoyed researching & telling the stories of the area. Many thanks go to everyone who sent wishes of good cheer and encouragement to Bob during his recent illness. Bob expressed his gratitude on many occasions and found great comfort knowing his friends were nearby. A memorial gathering celebrating Bob’s life was held on Sunday, June 15, 2014 at 2 pm at the History Center of Traverse City, 322 Sixth Street, Traverse City.

Thank you to Laura Wilson of the History Center of Traverse City for permitting the reprint of Bob’s obituary in the first issue of the “Grand Traverse Journal,” which is dedicated to his memory.

The Forest that is Traverse City

The Forest That Is Traverse City

In summer, preparing to land in Traverse City, it is hard to see the houses below through the airplane window.  A vast forest spreads out there, obscuring houses and streets alike.  It is a forest of a sort, yet it resembles no forest growing wild nearby.   Local forests do not have sycamores, tulip trees, Japanese lilac, Norway maples, and Gingko.   Nor do they have Colorado Blue Spruce and Norway Spruce.  All of those trees are exotics, having been planted by individuals or by the City Parks Department to provide shade as well as grace and beauty to the city landscape.  They are native to other lands, some as close as Southern Michigan and others as distant as Tibet.  Whatever their lineage, they have found homes along the streets of Traverse City.

The mixture of white pines, red pines and oak at the NMC campus represent the forest of most of Traverse City before white settlement.
The mixture of white pines, red pines and oak at the NMC campus represent the forest of most of Traverse City before white settlement.

Before there was Traverse City, there was forest.  Most of the city was built upon level, gravelly lake bottom, its sand still visible whenever sewer projects require excavation.  The great White Pines grew there, along with a scattering of Red Pine and White and Red Oaks, a mixture still in evidence on the Northern Michigan College campus.  The pines were the first to be taken by the Hannah Lay Logging Company, while the oaks were generally left alone.  Some of them remain today in the back yards along the streets of both the east and the west sides of town.  Oakwood Cemetery is home to many.

The far west side of town provided different habitats for trees.  Along Kids Creek, from Meijer’s to the Boardman River, a vast swamp covered the land.  Street names like “Spruce” and “Cedar” were named after the trees that grew nearby.  Early in the city’s history, the Creek was dammed to make a mill pond at a location near the Kids Creek viaduct under Division Street.  Valued by young potters even now, the clayey soil of the area still can be seen along the stream banks.

Relic huge beech trees on Monroe Street occupy sites on the West side of town. They prefer the richer soils of moraines.
Relic huge beech trees on Monroe Street occupy sites on the West side of town. They prefer the richer soils of moraines.

Finally, ascending the hills that border the west side of town from the Commons to Hickory Hills, the forest changes again.  Giant beech trees inhabit this area, some admirably cared for by homeowners who apparently do not mind the beechnuts, hollow trunks, and occasional breaking of dying branches under winter snow.  Hard maples–sugar maples–grow along with them, the two species forming most of the canopy of a beech-maple forest.  Soils here are richer than those of the city’s flatlands: Glaciers deposited more clay, enabling higher soil moisture and faster growth during dry summers.  The large trees of Ashton Park near Willow Hill School are examples of the virgin hardwoods that occupied this forest of glacial moraines.  Repetitions of these beech-maple forests can be seen throughout the hilly regions of the Grand Traverse area.

Most trees growing along streets are not relics of the primeval forest that city founder Perry Hannah knew.  They have been planted by the City and by townspeople in an effort to make the barren landscape more hospitable to early residents.  Early photographs show an empty landscape from the Bay to the hills surrounding the city.  The sun burned hot in summer and a heavy rain would send streams out of their banks without the trees to hold back run-off.  It was only natural people would try to restore what loggers had taken from them.

James Decker Munson started the arboretum in front of Building 50 at the Commons. Plaques describing tree species still remain.
James Decker Munson started the arboretum in front of Building 50 at the Commons. Plaques describing tree species still remain.

Centered in large cities like Chicago, the City Beautiful Movement began in the early twentieth century as a response to industrial pollution and environmental neglect.  It promoted the segregation of railroads and factories from residential spaces, city parks, sidewalks, and the planting of trees along broad, paved streets.  Influenced by the movement, Traverse City set about making its streets beautiful.  It laid out Hannah Park at the present location of the Carnegie library (now, the History Center) on Sixth Street and began planting trees, sugar maples by the hundreds.  Early photographs of the library show rows of thin saplings bordering the street.  Most have disappeared to be replaced by other—perhaps more fashionable—trees.

According to Rob Britten, City Parks and Recreation supervisor, the city chooses its trees carefully, attempting to harmonize diversity with resistance to the abuses of city living, all the time paying attention to rate of growth, sturdiness, and the attraction of flowers, fruit, and colorful leaves in autumn.  It is not an easy job.

No longer emphasizing sugar maples, the City plants a wide variety of species: Japanese silk trees, Ginkgos, Hackberry, Autumn Blaze (a cross between sugar and red maples)—even Chinese pears, downtown and elsewhere.  The harmful consequence of depending too heavily on one tree species is visible in the demise of ash trees through the depredation of the Emerald Ash Borer.  Healthy ashes along city streets are doomed to an early death due to the insect.

Even without attacks by insects, life is hard for trees in the City.  First, there is the broiling sun in summer.  On sunny days black asphalt heats the air above it, raising temperatures far higher than those experienced by nearby trees in the forest.  Winter salt dehydrates roots, conifer needles, and buds.  Add to that the confinement of roots by paved surfaces and it is a wonder they survive at all.  But they do and we are grateful.

The white oak trail-marking tree on Washington St. near the Courthouse reflects the forest of 165 years ago.
The white oak trail-marking tree on Washington St. near the Courthouse reflects the forest of 165 years ago.

Trees enrich our lives in so many ways.  They cast shade and cool our houses.  They turn colors in autumn, bringing us joy even as we contemplate the return of winter.  They make fruit of many kinds, enjoyed by animals that normally spend their lives in wilderness.  They provide homes for birds, squirrels, and other mammals, thereby giving us a glimpse into their lives.  Most important of all, they connect us city dwellers to the rhythms, textures, and beauty of Nature, a perspective that comes easy to the farmer but not to us.  Leaves and twigs, roots in sewer pipes, pollen in spring, a downed tree in a wind storm—it is all worth it.  Imagine the barrenness if they were not there.

The Real Issue

This editorial was taken from Traverse City’s socialist newspaper, Honest Opinion, June 5, 1919:

Do you believe that less than five per cent of the people of the United States should be given the privilege of preying on the other ninety five per cent?  Do you believe that those who do all the necessary work of the United States and every other country in the world should live within a week of starvation while those who do not labor at all should wallow in wealth to the extent that they are obliged to invent new devices and inventions of the mind, more or less immoral, in order to get rid of their ill gotten gains?  Do you believe that more than sixty per cent of the people should be constantly menaced with violent death so that three per cent can become millionaires?  Do you know that one millionaire means ten thousand wage slaves?  Do you know that most of these wage slaves have innocent little children and these little children are the greatest sufferers from this abominable situation?  If you do, you stand for capitalism.  If you do not, you have no business on that side.  The voice of reason should reach you.  Let not the prostitutes of plutocracy blind you to the fact that there is only one issue for you and for them and that is whether or not you are going to get decent food, decent clothing, and decent shelter for yourself and your children.  Any other issue is a mere camouflage and made to rob you of your birthright as guaranteed you by the constitution the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Don’t let them make that document a scrap of paper.

Despite its exaggerations, occasional error (the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution, is quoted), and run-on sentences, it reminds us of the modern “We are the 99%” Occupy Movement in its insistence that our nation belongs to all of us, not just the wealthy few.  Socialist and later supporter of FDR, local activist Thomas H. Coxe authored the piece.  He died in 1936.

The Traverse Area District Library Woodmere branch has several issues of Honest Opinion stored on microfilm.

Welcome from the Editors


We greet you!  After a long vacation, we resume the composing stick and quill, a calling in which we have spent the happiest and best portion of a life now past its meridian.  We present you to-day the first number of the GRAND TRAVERSE HERALD.  It is modest and unpretending in size,–perhaps some may think too much so,–but remember it is only one day old!  It will have time enough to grow, and will expand its dimensions just in proportion to the nourishment it receives.  In typographical appearance, we think it will compare favorably with any paper in the State.  At all events, we have consulted our own taste in that matter, and are satisfied with the result.

So begins Morgan Bates’ first editorial for the Traverse area’s first newspaper.  Not holding composing stick and quill, we struggle with hardware and software, though perhaps not as Bates would have imagined those things in 1858.  Whatever the differences in composition and production, we do share his enthusiasm and his high expectations that something interesting and new is in the offing—for us, THE GRAND TRAVERSE JOURNAL (GTJ).

GTJ tells of Nature and History, always with an emphasis on the Grand Traverse region.   Every month we will support that focus through regular department features, photographs, and articles written not just by us, but by you–our readers–who will share your experiences, articles, and photographs with hundreds of your fellow citizens.  Alas, we cannot pay you for your trouble—after all, we are supported by two nonprofits, the Traverse Area District Library and the History Center of Traverse City—but we can inform an entire community about who you are, what you are interested in, and what projects you are involved in.  Please look at the Submissions Guidelines, which spells out what we are looking for.  As Morgan Bates said, our magazine will expand (and improve!) just in proportion to the nourishment it receives.  You, the readers and soon-to-be writers, will supply the nourishment required for the Grand Traverse Journal to grow.

The Grand Traverse Journal may be viewed at  In addition, paper copies may be obtained at the Reference Desk of the Traverse Area District Library and at the Archives of the History Center of Traverse City.  Readers may make copies of articles for the cost of reproduction.

Enjoy this first issue of the Grand Traverse Journal.  Spread the word among your friends about our new magazine and send us your thoughts about how we can make it better.  Our email address is

Amy Barritt and Richard Fidler, editors

Grape Ferns and the Art of Becoming Invisible

Botrychium matricarifolium photographed in Leelanau County
Botrychium matricarifolium photographed in Leelanau County

In late spring, when the morel hunters and spring wildflower admirers have disappeared from the woods, I go out in search of grape ferns, the Botrychiums. They are not good to eat, they do not possess colorful leaves, and they lack flowers altogether. Still, they have their strong points: for one thing, reputedly they can make the collector invisible. So far, I have been unable to demonstrate their potency in this regard, but given the antiquity of the claim, I will check it out one more time—the herbalists of old can’t have been totally wrong on this one—or can they?

The Botrychiums (Greek for “grape”) stand no more than a few inches high. Named for the cluster of spore-producing bodies (sporangia), they remind us of bunches of tiny grapes held above a single green leaf. I have always found the most common species, Botrychium matricariodes, among young maple saplings on bare ground swept clear of last year’s leaves. As with morel hunting, you go along without seeing them for a time—and then, suddenly, you see the first and then another and another. They occupy a large area: dozens can be found at one place.

Botrychiums mostly spend their lives underground. First, spores must land at in an appropriate habitat. Upon arriving there, they grow underground, feeding upon nutrients produced by other plants by taking advantage of soil fungi that interconnect with their roots. After several years of growth–providing the above ground vegetation has progressed from weeds to young trees–grape ferns first appear above ground, finally shedding their spores to the wind. Thereafter, they sporadically appear every year—usually in late May and June—with some years better than others. After as long as 50 years, the habitat becomes unsuitable for them as trees age and the leaf litter becomes too thick for them to emerge above ground. They are not found in mature hardwoods.

Besides “grape ferns”, Botrychiums are called “moonworts”, after a species that produced leaflets reminiscent of half moons. This species alone confers invisibility to its bearer. In order for the spell to work, “fern seeds” must be gathered at midnight on June 23rd, St. John’s Eve, the shortest night of the year. Here we must pause: What are “fern seeds”? Hundreds of years ago people thought all green plants produced seed and were puzzled by the apparent absence of seeds in ferns. According to the ancient “doctrine of signatures,” characters demonstrated by plants pointed to their use in medicine. If the seeds were invisible, then invisibility might be transferred to humans by the presence of the plant. (Of course, everything is wrong with this idea: the doctrine of signatures has no validity and ferns reproduce by nearly invisible spores, not seeds.)

In order to catch invisible fern seed a seeker needed to stack twelve pewter plates, placing the fern frond on the top one. The invisible seeds would drop through the stack, finally resting at the bottom-most plate. Of course, there were other necessary behaviors: he must go bare-footed, wear a shirt, and be in a religious state of mind. Even observing all of these conditions, he might suffer failure if wandering fairies steal the fern seed.

It is clear why my efforts to attain invisibility will likely fail: no pewter plates, no desire to walk barefoot through the woods, and the ever-present possibility of thievish fairies. In fact, no fern seed at all. Most likely moonworts will not unshoe horses that step on them, loosen iron nails, or break chains by their touch. Nor will they empower woodpeckers to peck holes through iron if rubbed upon their beaks (a feat rather difficult to accomplish!). No, grape ferns only bring joy to their discoverers in the month of June. They bestow no particular virtues—no invisibility, no uncanny ability to penetrate iron. Still, they please us by their mere presence—much as the returning songbirds do. Look for them in June on bare hillsides wherever young trees grow.

History Center Visitors show Local History Makes a Difference

The History Center of Traverse City is a collaborator of the Grand Traverse Journal. Located in the former Carnegie Library on Sixth Street in Traverse City, the HCTC has a wealth of resources available for research on the history of people and communities around the Grand Traverse Region. Visit their website and digital archives:

Harts Camp in 1910, a logging site in southern Grand Traverse County.
Harts Camp in 1910, a logging site in southern Grand Traverse County.

Recently something happened at the HCTC Archives that should remind us all as to why what local historians do is important.  I was privileged to witness a wonderful transformation.  A young woman came into the History Center Archives with her grandfather.  They wanted to see anything we had on their home town, which is situated a few miles outside of Traverse City.  I was able to show them 20 – 30 historic photographs, a file of clippings and articles, and a small book on the town’s history,  written by a high school class in the 1950s.

When he first came in, the grandfather had seemed disinterested, disengaged, and frankly, not very focussed.  But not for long! As he and his granddaughter spent time in the Research Room, a wonderful transformation occurred.  As he pointed out things in the photos he began to smile.  As he read parts of the town’s history out loud, and added his own memories to the story, they both began to laugh. By the end of their visit the grandfather was excited, happy and they were both obviously having a very good time.

Farm in southern Grand Traverse County, turn of the previous century. Image donated to HCTC.
Farm in southern Grand Traverse County, turn of the previous century. Image donated to HCTC.

And the story doesn’t end there.  A couple of weeks later they came back, this time with three more family members. The grandfather asked me to pull the same materials as the last time, and the family spent nearly two hours sharing and reminiscing.  Not only that, but they brought in over 20 photos, scans of which are now part of the HCTC archives.

At its best, this is what local history does.  It ties our families to their past., and together.  It creates community bonds and shows us how we must work together to move successfully into the future.

Peg Siciliano is the archivist at the History Center of Traverse City; she has worked as an archivist through various incarnations of the HCTC since the 1980s. To see more of Peg’s work, visit her at the HCTC archives, or view the digital archives online:

Kingsley Branch Library Celebrates 100 Years

A wonderful library is the crowning jewel of any town. Just ask the residents of Kingsley, the bustling village located in Paradise Township in southern Grand Traverse County. The Kingsley Branch Library (KBL) is celebrating 100 years of service to the community in 2014, and they will be doing it in style!

Join the Kingsley librarians for period costumes and candy at the Kingsley Heritage Days Parade on Saturday, July 19th. Then, visit the KBL on July 31st at 3:00pm for the Local History and Genealogy Room Grand Opening! In addition to viewing an exhibit on the history of the KBL, a talk on the development of the local history room will be given and refreshments served. If you have items, photographs or papers that you think add to the history of Kingsley and need to be preserved, please come to this event and hear more about donating to the local history room!

The First State Bank of Kingsley, the short building in the middle of the block of downtown pictured here, became the Kingsley Library in 1939.
The First State Bank of Kingsley, the short building in the middle of the block of downtown pictured here, became the Kingsley Library in 1939.

How do you start a library with no room, budget or experience? It helps to have a group of civic-minded women around, if you look at the history of the KBL.

In the summer of 1913, a lyceum was invited to speak to the residents of Kingsley by a group of prominent men from the community. Lyceums were very popular in this region in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; these were organizations that sponsored public programs and entertainments. If you had been in Kalkaska in 1920, the Chautauqua Lyceum would have treated you to a rendition of the famous comic opera, “Chimes of the Normandie,” as well as a lecture by Roland A. Nichols on “A Man Worth While”.

As lyceums were scheduled well in advance, the men who invited the lyceum plum forgot it, and nothing was prepared when the cast arrived. Fortunately for those men, their wives took up the challenge, and before the train pulled in with the cast in residence, those women had whipped the meeting space into shape, and the residents into a frenzy of anticipation.

The women so enjoyed the camaraderie and opportunity to perform a civic duty that they began meeting regularly, and in 1914 the Kingsley Woman’s Civic Club (KWCC) was founded. Their first order of duty: to develop and make a library available to the public.

Eunice Stinson (standing left) acted as the Kingsley Librarian from 1914 to 1939. Pictured here with her husband, Postmaster Ambrose Burnside Stinson (standing right), children Harold, Rhea and Bernice Stinson, with friend Floyd McDonald on bottom.
Eunice Stinson (standing left) acted as the Kingsley Librarian from 1914 to 1939. Pictured here with her husband, Postmaster Ambrose Burnside Stinson (standing right), children Harold, Rhea and Bernice Stinson, with friend Floyd McDonald on bottom.

Headed by Mrs. Eunice Stinson , “this group of women, 15 strong,” as they were later described in an article celebrating the KWCC’s fortieth anniversary, took to the project immediately. The “unnamed” men who failed to organize for the lyceum likely found their home libraries ransacked, as funds in the club were limited to yearly dues.

Using an all-volunteer staff, the library of fifty books was open for four hours on both Friday and Saturday, and although the collection and open hours would fluctuate over the years, the librarian stayed the same. Eunice Stinson remained librarian from 1914 to 1939; her daughter-in-law Nell Stinson took up the post and remained librarian until the mid-1960s. The switch from Stinson to Stinson came at the same time the KWCC purchased the former First State Bank of Kingsley building, which they used as both club rooms and library.

Want to know more? See you at the Grand Opening July 31st at 3:00pm!

All sources for this article are available at many branches in the Traverse Area District Library for your reading pleasure:
Kalkaska Genealogical Society. “Big Trout Black Gold”. ed. Dawn Triplett, 2002.
Kingsley Woman’s Civic Club Records, 1910s-1987 (only at KBL).
Images courtesy of Traverse Area District Library:

The Kingsley Branch Library, yesterday and today.
The Kingsley Branch Library, yesterday and today.


When Lumber and the Railroad Built Kingsley

The property next to the railroad tracks in Kingsley, in 1910 and 2014.
The property next to the railroad tracks in Kingsley, in 1910 and 2014.

When the Brownson’s gifted the parkland near downtown Kingsley to the village in the 1960s, now Brownson Memorial Park, Jay J. and Effie Brownson had been holders of one of the oldest land deeds in the township. The property was originally purchased by Myron S. Brownson in the late 1800s. He wisely leased the property to various lumber-production companies; since the property lay on both sides of the railroad tracks, it was certainly an attractive option for those trying to maximize their use of capital. Lumber dealer Wesley Dunn and his son Howard were leasing the property in 1914, around the same time the Kingsley Library was created by the Kingsley Woman’s Civic Club.

Despite the detritus industry left on the property, the Brownsons were able to reform it at the end of the lumber era. A brick firehouse was erected at some point in the 1910s; devastating fires in 1894 and 1900 ensured that all future building in the downtown area was done in brick, not lumber. The firehouse remained standing until the mid-2000s; after many years of vacancy, the structure was removed to make way for new village offices and the Kingsley Branch Library.

After a vigorous and highly successful fundraising campaign by the Friends of the Kingsley Branch Library, the new library building, pictured above left, opened its doors to the public in February 2009.