Sign of the times
Sunday, September 7, 2003
THE SAGINAW NEWS
Picture the Tittabawassee River plugged with fresh-cut logs that roll and bob in floating heaps toward Imerman Park.
Envision Ojibwa Indians paddling downstream in birch bark canoes, leaving behind a village of dome-shaped wigwams crafted from bent saplings and animal hides.
Visualize a flat-bottom skiff navigating the 22-mile stretch of river highway between Midland and Saginaw, carrying commercial goods for the fledgling mid-Michigan community.
Ron Thurlow, a Freeland native, has done just that.
He has painted in words the evolution of the Tittabawassee River from an American Indian highway to a commercial corridor for the settlers' earliest paddle-wheel steamboats.
The story is told on a wood-plank sign that was planted last month in Tittabawassee Township Memorial Park. The monument stands near an overlook to the river.
"It's a nice overlook," Thurlow said. "But what do you know from standing and looking at the river? I thought a sign should be put up with some history to let people know what they are looking at."
Thurlow's vision materialized in the form of 2,500 words and a handful of black-and-white photographs. Tittabawassee Township paid $2,000 to have the text mounted in sign form by Thomas Township-based Sign Image.
Embedded in the text are phrases such as "Believe it or not," "Imagine the sound" and "Think of the effort" that Thurlow hopes will captivate younger readers. He called it the "gee-whiz" approach.
"I tried to write this to be informative and to spur some interest," he said. "I wanted something that people, and especially kids, would look at and say, 'Gee, I didn't know that. That's really interesting.' "
In the text, Thurlow describes the whistle of the steamboat Belle Seymour as it chugged up the river to Midland. The fare was just 75 cents for an all-day voyage. Then again, male passengers were expected to pitch in as deck hands.
He describes early settlers cutting ice blocks from the river, dragging them up the riverbank on horse-drawn sleds and using them to chill their ice boxes. They sheared the ice with long crosscut saws and heaved the chunks out of the water with pointed tongs. Using a thick layer of sawdust as insulation, settlers could keep the blocks frozen through the summer.
Thurlow's history digs deeper into the township's roots, depicting an era before Anglo-development appeared on the riverbank.
He tells of the Ojibwa Indians who named the river Tetabawasink -- meaning "river that follows the shoreline" of Saginaw Bay. They built villages, farmed the flatlands with corn and squash, and fished a river known to run black with spawning walleye.
Thurlow's intrigue with the river began as a school boy. He remembers fishing behind Rodeitcher's Hotel, skipping rocks and floating downstream Huckleberry Finn-style.
Those were the memories that fueled a year of research for the project.
"Basically, this project came from a lifetime of being around that river," Thurlow said.
Thurlow bought more than 20 books during his research, spoke with the community's old-time residents and pored over literature at regional libraries. He heard stories of perch fishing along the river, of residents stumbling up the steep riverbank with chunks of ice for their ice boxes and of Ojibwa Indians mingling with early settlers.
With the help of friends, relatives and members of the Tittabawassee Township Historical Society, Thurlow converted that history to text. The challenge was fitting it all on one sign.
"Hats off to Ron," said Parks Committee Chairman and Board of Trustees member Rick Hayes. "It's tough to sum up 300 years of history in a 5-by-8-foot sign, but he did a great job." t
Jeremiah Stettler is a staff writer for The Saginaw News. You may reach him at 776-9685.
© 2003 Saginaw News.
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