Tall Ships Celebration in Bay City receives statewide honors

Five awards from the Michigan Festivals and Events Association are among the latest recognition for this summer’s Tall Ships Celebration in Bay City.  Bay City’s Tall Ships organization has also received local and national awards, in addition to the most recent statewide honors.

Tall Ships promotional materials, including a print ad, website, poster, and event guide, were recognized at last month’s Festival and Arts Association convention.  Several of the materials were first place in their categories.

Shirley Roberts is the Event Coordinator for the Tall Ships Celebration in Bay City.

“We believe the awards really recognize the strategic investment the Tall Ships Celebration Board of Directors has made consistently in creating a very high-quality and very positive image for the event, and therefore for the community and the region.”

Roberts says the event’s awards will likely make Bay City an attractive host port for Tall Ships Celebration in the future.

“It just more firmly plants our community and our region in the minds of people around the world who are interested in Tall Ships events.  And in particular, I think this means we will have a place in the schedule for the Tall Ships for many years to come.”

According to Roberts, about 100,000 people came to July’s Tall Ships Celebration, spending more than $10.2 million in the Bay City region.


Traverse City vessel represents Michigan at Tall Ship Celebration

The Tall Ships are on the last leg of their journey to Bay City.
They’ll be arriving along the river downtown early this afternoon.
One of the ships, the Schooner Madeline, is based in Traverse City. It’s the pride and joy of the Maritime Heritage Alliance — a volunteer-driven association dedicated to preserving Great Lakes history.
Ken Stepnitz is the boat’s captain for the trip to Bay City.
“This is the Schooner Madeline. It’s a replica of a an 1845 vessel. It was built in Fairport, OH, and this particular vessel was built by Maritime Heritage Alliance volunteers here in Traverse City, using original wood and timbers from the area,” said Stepnitz.
At one time, schooners like the Madeline were common on the Great Lakes. One could say they were the tractor-trailers of the 1800s. 
Stepnitz said they would move goods up and down the lakes, using nothing but the wind.
“It’s a schooner rig, so we have the two masts, and then we have three head sails, and then we have two upper sails so we can have a total of seven sails up at one time,” he said.
“This particular boat was used to go down to the Detroit area, and haul salt up to the Mackinac area,” said Stepnitz. “And then it would offload the salt and load the fish, whitefish, from the area and take it down to Detroit. And that was its primary trade.”
Nobody is really sure what happened to the original Madeline — it disappeared from the lakes years ago. 
So when the Maritime Heritage Alliance decided to build a replica of it in the mid-1980s, the designers had to make an educated guess, said Stepnitz.
“They really didn’t have the actual prints from the original Madeline, so they made a best estimate from various boats of the time, so this is to the best of their knowledge what it would have looked like,” he said.
With a 55 foot deck, and 92 feet of total length, the Madeline stands out at its home port, just north of downtown Traverse City.
The original vessel had ties to Grand Traverse as well.
First mate John Radlicki told us about them, as we cruised north along the west arm of Grand Traverse Bay.
“Right here you see Bowers Harbor,” he explained, pointing to a location on the east side of the bay. “The Madeline spent a winter actually in Bowers Harbor. And there was three fellows that decided that they needed to have some education, and so what they did was they wintered in in Bowers Harbor on this, on the Madeline, and they hired a teacher to come aboard and teach them reading, writing and arithmatic.”
Those three men wintering in Bowers Harbor were the Fitzgerald brothers. One of their descendants was Edmund Fitzgerald — namesake of the ill-fated freighter that went down in Lake Superior 35 years ago.
This year also marks the replica Madeline’s 20th year on the lakes.
Bob Dost, an electrician by trade, helped build the boat.
“About 1988 I got into it,” he said. “My brother was working on it for about five years. And it was supposed to be a two year project. It wound up to be five years. And he said they needed somebody to do some wiring on the boat, so I proceeded to do that and do the rigging.”
Dost remains actively involved with the Madeline — often instructing newer sailors on the finer points of working a schooner.
Of course, sailing requires wind, and the wind doesn’t always cooperate.
So that’s when the crew turned to their old standby — a 90 horsepower Detroit Diesel engine.
“If we were going the other way we’d be sailing. Of course, we gotta be in Bay City by Thursday, so if the wind is with us great. We love that, and we’d love to sail, but if we got to motor, we got to motor.”

Shipwrecks lend history and mystery to Great Lakes lore

News Director / Morning Edition Host, CMU Public Radio

As Bay City welcomes the Tall Ships today and celebrates its maritime legacy, part of that history is tied to tragedy – lives lost in the hundreds of shipwrecks on the Great Lakes.

Rick Mixter is a historian and documentary film maker – much of his work has chronicled the stories and mysteries of the craft and crews that never made it home.

David Nicholas recently spoke with Rick on the banks of the Saginaw River, standing along a slip from the old Davidson ship yard – one of the last remnants of Bay City’s ship building past – he told me about perhaps the most infamous of all Novembers.

Rick will be working with singer/songwriter Dan Hall to present a multimedia concert Friday night at Bay City’s State Theater. Dan’s music will be featured along with excerpts from Rick’s documentaries. Quotes from Rick’s interviews have provided lyrical inspiration to Dan’s songs.

The State Theater is at 913 Washington Avenue, Bay City – the concert begins at 7 PM. For tickets or information, http://www.statetheatrebaycity.com

For more information about Dan Hall, http://www.danhall.com

For more information about Rick Mixter, http://www.airworthy.tv/ or call (989) 498-4550.

Traverse City group combines mentoring, sailing

The Tall Ships are closing in on Bay City.
One of the vessels, the Schooner Madeline, is making its way south on Lake Huron towards the festival.  It is owned by the Maritime Heritage Alliance, a Traverse City non-profit that focuses on preserving Great Lakes history.
The organization currently has 28 vessels in its fleet, but it had much humbler beginnings, said the group’s executive director, Mark Thompson.
“The Maritime Heritage Alliance was founded in 1982. It was a bunch of historic boat buffs that decided it was a piece of history in Michigan that needed to be preserved and shared with the public,” said Thompson.
“So, they set about building a Mackinac Boat, which is sort of the pickup truck of the 1800s,” Thompson explained. “That’s the Mackinac Boat Gracie L., which is still in our fleet. And after they finished that in about a year, they said ‘well jeez, that was a pretty neat project and a lot of fun, maybe we should build something bigger.’ So they set about building the Schooner Madeline.”
Gradually, the MHA fleet grew in size, and so too did its membership.
Some members really like to sail, and others, well, don’t, said Bob Dost, who’s been with the MHA since 1985…
“It isn’t just sailing on the boat, it’s building the boats,” said Dost. “We have a bunch of people that don’t like to sail particularly, but they like to build. So these boats constantly need repair. We’re replacing planks, we’re replacing a lot of the woodwork, because of the deterioration of the wood.”
Dost said working with the MHA has kept him, and many other volunteers, occupied following retirement.
We’ve got some that work every day of the week just about,” said Dost. “When I retired, why, I was so used to getting up in the morning and going to work that I wasn’t about to sit around and deteriorate , so I went to work on these projects.”
As more and more people became involved with the MHA, the decision was made to step up community outreach efforts.
“We’ve got about 10,000 feet of shop space at our facilities here in Traverse City, so we set up a youth mentoring program,” said Thompson. “It’s called the restoration shop, and we bring in wooden boats, sail boats, motor boats, that are donated to us.” 
“We bring high school kids in during the day, in the school year. And they come in and work alongside the MHA volunteers and really learn some hands on boat restoration skills. And we’re just hoping to spark an interest with these kids in old wooden boats and some of that history and stuff.”
Boat restoration isn’t the only focus of the MHA’s outreach efforts. Thompson says the group also runs a special program for at risk youth.
“We piloted a project last summer,” he explained, “It’s called the sail champion program for at risk youth, and we take foster kids or kids maybe from juvenile probation or other agencies and we take four or five of them at a time and we get them out on the water on a cutter named Champion.”
Thompson says a dozen kids participated in the program last year.
This year, it’s expanding to 40.
“We take the kids out sailing, but we have a licenced therapist on the boat with us, and we actually conduct 30 minute individual counseling sessions with the kids while we’re out sailing,” Thompson said.
The kids are more willing to open up to the counselor on the water.
“The counselor is able to work with them and translate some of the lessons they’re learning on the boat,” said Thompson, “like team work, like challenging themselves to do things maybe that they’ve never done before, like steering the boat or adjusting sails, and just help to translate those experiences to their lives ashore. And we found that there seems to be a real sticking power to the changes that they experience on the boat. It lasts beyond just the one week experience.”

Bay City enjoys rich maritime history

News Director / Morning Edition Host, CMU Public Radio

Bay City is very proud of its maritime history… and legacy. Travel on the Great Lakes was made possible, in large part, by the boats built on the Saginaw River.

The gateway is the mouth of the Saginaw River and for years, boats and ships were guided into and out of the channel by a unique “range light” system.

“Supposedly, this was developed by a fourteen-year old boy here in Bay City whose mother and dad were light keepers here,” said Don Comtois, president of the Saginaw River Marine Historical Society.

“There’s some toss up on that, but, we’re laying claim to it here. First for the Great Lakes,” said Comtois.

“This was supposed to have been developed over in Europe, so we’ve been told, but, you know, everybody likes to claim a piece of history. We’re claiming it here for the Great Lakes -out of Bay City.”

Restoration continues on the so-called back light of the range light system. You can tour it when you come to Bay City for the Tall Ships Celebration later this week. As the boats got bigger, the channel was not only deepened, but also straightened – making the front light obsolete.

Don took me through the top floor of the Bay County Historical Society Building. There is a room that tells the story of the boat makers, loggers and industry shippers that put this town on the map. It is here that you learn about three of the most significant boat builders: James Davidson, Frank Wheeler and Harry Defoe.

“Like here we can see the Thomas Crainage,” said Comtois. “Davidson built some of the largest wooden ships ever to sail the Great Lakes – uh, three…like the Crainage here, it’s a steam ship – three hundred and five feet long – a mammoth ship for its size – it would take approximately twenty-eight acres of oak to build one of these vessels.”

And as the ships got bigger, the demand for lumber put a strain on the resource. Davidson stayed with wood, but Wheeler shifted his building to steel and eventually bought out the Davidson operation. Wheeler sold the company in 1900 to the American Ship Building Company who renamed it West Bay City Shipbuilding and then AmShip Bay City. It was closed in 1908.

From then until around 1917 it was operated by Defoe Boat and Motor Works. Defoe’s yard lasted longer because they evolved more than his predecessors – everything from pleasure boats to the torpedo chasers they built with a government contract in WWI. They also built “rum runners,” used during Prohibition and PC Boats during WWII.

Defoe’s best known yacht was built in 1931. Named the Lenore, but later dubbed the Honey Fitz when she became the presidential yacht for John F. Kennedy. The boat has been restored and is privately owned – to date, the price too steep to bring her home to Bay City.

One Defoe that did come home is stored at the Do-All Center – the Marine Historical Society leases space there at the old Bay City Armory.

“Here we have the Defoe launch – it was built in 1913 – it’s an 18 foot launch,” explained Comtois. “It’s been just about completely restored. It has some new frames in it, a new transom, uh, new gunnels but you see the wood is all original. The skin is all original in it…most of the… 90 percent of
all the ribs are original – we do have the engine for this boat.”

While a 1913 boat won’t be, in Don’s words, “running around the Saginaw River”, he thinks when the restoration is done, there might be a trip past the site of the old Defoe yard where she was built before it would be then be put on permanent display to help preserve the history.

In a small room back on the Historical Society’s fourth floor, there are housed thousands of artifacts that Don Comtois says should also have a home.

“The only reason we got the Dafoe boat is the guy that had it – it was going to go to Chicago- the guy was going to paid more money for it – but he said I want it to stay here in Bay City because it belongs here in Bay City,” said Comtois.

“He said if it goes to Chicago, it’s a bragging rite – it isn’t because it has a home where it’s going to be loved. And that’s with all this stuff in here, you know, like this chad-burn there’s enough brass in here, you could go have a nice steak dinner and then some, but you know, people, they get – we get attached to this stuff because it – it’s part of our history – it’s part of our lives.”

“And unfortunately, we are selling our heritage down the drain, and we can’t afford to lose it,” he said. “That’s why it’s important to get a maritime center going here, a research – at least for the research part of it, uh, like I said, you know, we’ve got fifteen thousand pieces of photographs – negatives – slides – and that’s not counting the hundreds of thousands of articles in these scrapbooks – you know – all tell a story. You can’t tell a story without a beginning and the end of the story unfortunately ends up in the

For Don Comtois and others whose passion has been and continues to be the ship building legacy of Bay City, hope remains for the reality of a maritime center – a permanent home to pass on the story that flows through this Great Lakes town.

Bay City development

The balance between developing for the future while preserving historic buildings is one that many communities grapple with.  

It’s an issue that’s front and center in Bay City.  Community leaders are working hard to promote development even as they encourage homeowners and businesses to preserve historic structures.  

In just a matter of days, the city will be welcoming a dramatic and visual symbol of history with it’s Tall Ship Celebration.  

Yesterday we explored some of the historic architecture of Bay City. Today we look at the other side of the coin; development.        

To get a good perspective of Bay City’s future plans, it helps to have a guided tour. Mike Brandow is the Economic Devlopment Project Manager for the city of Bay City.  He shows off the cities abandoned buildings, and talks about the developers who want to bring them back to life, “This is the original Wolverine knitting mill bldg.  Wolverine used to make bathrobes and other types of garment for Sears. and he’s going to do some artist studios on the first floors and live-work artist lofts above”

Brandow says Bay City’s recent renovation boom all started with one building, “We’re looking now at a structure that was once known as the Jenison Steel Warehouse Building and now the same structure is here but it’s one of the most dramatic living space in Bay city”.

Brandow says many of Bay City’s developers make a point to try and preserve historic buildings. –   he says the people who live here value preservation.  Developers respond to market demands.

The changing consumer preference are familiar as well to Bay City Economic Development Marketing Manager Pattie Stowell. She says years ago, people moved away from downtown districts. Today they’re moving back.
Stowell says one of the biggest development trends in Bay City is the development of mixed-use buildings particularly in the downtown area.   There might be a store or restaurant on the ground floor and apartments up above, “It’s not just a new trend for Bay City, it’s been ongoing for a number of years for many communities, but I think it’s just recently taken off.  We’re seeing more and more people that want to live in downtown communities, and this is one of the easiest ways to make that happen is to really restore those upper structures that aren’t being used into living units.  So yes, it’s an ongoing trend, it’s here it’s going to be long term”

Besides downtown preservation, Stowell says  Bay City actively pursues new industry.  GM has announced it’s investing $37-million into the community to produce parts for the Chevrolet Cruze and Volt.  18-and-a-half-million was invested into a new YMCA facility, and more than a-million dollars of improvements were done to Wenonah Park in the downtown.

As for Bay City’s manufacturing  industry, Stowell says it’s long had a knack for diversification, a knack that has positioned them well for the future; even in a tough economy, “For the most part, most of our companies have been holding their ground very firmly here in Bay City, retaining their employees here, and they’re still doing very well.  Many of them have diversified over the years.  At one time many of them were dependent on the auto industry, and I would say 10-15 years ago, many of them realized  it would be very risky to have all their eggs in one basket, and so they diversified and started doing business with non-automotive businesses.  And I think that’s one of the key reasons why they’re doing so well today.”

Bay City leaders say they’ll continue to aggressively pursue development while at the same time actively protecting the city’s historic structures and atmosphere.

Bay City historic architecture

Today we continue our series on Bay City; Michigan’s port of call for the 2010 Tall Ship Celebration.  

The city’s history is steeped in shipping, and while the people of Bay City built some of the biggest ships on the Great Lakes, the ships, in essence, built the city.  The lumber barons and shipping magnates had the means and it seems the motive to build some truly remarkable homes.

There are a lot of beautiful homes to ogle in Bay City. Warren Smith & his wife bought their stately old Victorian house more then a quarter of a century ago. They paid $37,000 for the house in 1973.

Smith says the home was built more than 100 years ago by one of Bay City’s lumber barons.
He calls this one of Bay City’s treasures.  And the house boasts all of  the fascinating features that make these kind of old homes classic.

There’s an ice chest that opens to the outside for easy delivery, beautiful french doors and – you may not expect it, but historic windows.  The house has an astrical windows.  Both the top and bottom window push into the wall, and it becomes a doorway, where you could walk out onto the porch

That porch was rebuilt onto the house just a couple of years ago. Warren says it cost him three-times more than the house itself.

But homes like this demand more than a financial investment.  Think about how much upkeep your home demands. Now imagine it in 100 years – if it’s still standing.  Smith says suffice it to say his home needed some TLC, “We spent 8-years stripping paint off this house before we did anything else.  That staircase there took a year and a half to do.”

And then there were the energy efficiency upgrades.  As you might guess, there was a lot of room for improvement there on a house like this.

Smith says, “I put 2-and-a-quarter tons of cellulose in the walls, and we put 45 storm windows on.”

Smith and other like-minded historic home owners say all the work is worth it to preserve a physical piece of history, “Our heritage of this town, it wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the lumber and the shipbuilding, and these are you know the statues that represent that era when this town came into being.”

These Victorian behemoths aren’t the only memorials to days gone by.  Bay City it seems is more democratic than that.  It’s notable architecture covers a much wider range…

Ron Bloomfield is the Chief Historian of the Bay County Historical Museum calls the city a conglomerate of Venacular which isn’t really a style, all the way to the Gothic city hall,  to the victorian to modern eras which show Frank Lloyd Wright influences.

And among the more recently appreciated architecture; catalog homes.

Bloomfield says “Bay City was the king of Catalog homes.  We had the three biggest companies minus Sears, we had Aladdin, the Lewis and the Sterling Companies.  They came up with a system where they cut out of a single piece of lumber – very little waste & you paid a builder to put up on your site. In fact they even shipped a tool kit along to help you build your house.”

From the do it yourself catalog homes to the fixer-upper Victorians and a Gothic city hall; Bay City’s rich history is reflected in its architecture

Officials say for those who leave the wharves, a walking tour of the city’s homes and buildings will likely compliment the this year’s Tall Ships Celebration