Sunday, June 1, 2008

History Matters: transportation’s influence on Greater West Bloomfield Township

With the sudden increase in the cost of fuel, there is a growing call for some form of a light rail public transportation system in Southeastern Michigan. History has shown that the development of a public transportation system dictates the value of real property and influences one’s choice in residential locations. Ironically the very light rail system we are trying to develop once existed here and directly influenced the people that chose to call the Township their home. To explain the role that transportation has had on our township, I have provided some excerpts from text provided by GWBHS member Catherine Cangany during our recent Apple Island tour weekend.

Native Americans

West Bloomfield’s first inhabitants arrived here 11,000 years ago. The Native Americans who lived here were drawn to the area for the same reasons we are: the lakes, which provided plenty of food and water, but also easy transportation. The watersheds of the three major rivers in our area—the Clinton, the Rouge, and the Huron—converge just southwest of the southern shore of Orchard Lake. This means that the land that would become West Bloomfield Township—and especially Apple Island—made for an easy and well-known meeting spot for travelers on any of the three river systems to find. To navigate the local rivers and lakes, the Native Americans in our area used two forms of canoes: dug-out canoes (made from a single tree trunk, like the one in our museum) and birch-bark canoes (made from a white-cedar frame covered over with birch bark).


By the 1820s, the Native Americans living in our area had been pushed westward by the second group of people to call West Bloomfield home: white farmers. Many of these farmers came from the east coast, and they traveled via the Erie Canal, which opened in 1825. The canal, which stretches from Albany to Buffalo, New York, made it much easier to reach Michigan. As a result, West Bloomfield’s population boomed in the decades after 1825. In this era, canoes were replaced by horses and wagons as more and more roads were built. It took over five hours to travel between West Bloomfield and Detroit on horseback—even longer in a wagon or carriage. The roads were muddy and bumpy, and very uncomfortable to travel on. This all changed in 1844, with the completion of the Detroit and Pontiac Railroad line. It slashed the trip between West Bloomfield and Detroit to just one hour. In time, other railroad lines and electric streetcar lines made this area even more accessible.


This transformation in transportation gave rise to our township’s third group of inhabitants: vacationers. Because it was very easy for residents of Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, and Cleveland to reach West Bloomfield, in the early 1900s, our community became an ideal place to spend the whole summer. With the advent and increasing affordability of the automobile in the 1920s and 1930s, a new type of vacationer came to West Bloomfield: the day-tripper. Instead of spending the whole summer here, tourists would come for a quick trip, often only for a day. To accommodate all the short-term residents, West Bloomfield entrepreneurs built hotels, cottages, camping grounds, and cabins, and West Bloomfield became a resort town.


As automobiles gained horsepower and Michigan gained a system of highways, it became possible for more people who worked in Detroit to live in West Bloomfield. These innovations brought about the fourth group of residents here: us: suburbanites.

About the GWBHS

The Greater West Bloomfield Historical Society (GWBHS) is a non-profit, tax-exempt organization. It serves the Michigan communities of Keego Harbor, Orchard Lake, Sylvan Lake and West Bloomfield. The Society's goal is to provide a vital museum to familiarize residents with our area's history. For more information, please visit

Saturday, March 8, 2008

History Matters: West-Bloomfield inhabitants’ transition from corn-eaters to corn-consumers

We, as suburbanites living in Greater West Bloomfield, are the fourth in a chain of residents living on this land. The three groups that preceded us are Native Americans, farmers, and vacationers. As the Township has transitioned through these four phases of inhabitation, its residents have transitioned from being corn-eaters to being corn-consumers. The Native Americans that came before us grew and consumed the sun’s energy that was harnessed within corn. Today, as suburbanites, we consume proportionately greater amounts of corn—in the forms of processed food and ethanol.


Charles Martinez’s Song of the Heron cites an 1826 report that references Native Americans living on Apple Island and around Orchard Lake: “A pleasant fertile island, containing about fifty acres, on which there is an orchard rises (sic) in the center of Orchard lake, and is cultivated by Indians, who occupy good bark huts in the primitive state, situation adjacent to the lake on the table land isthmus, that separates lakes Orchard and Cass, and commands a view of these extensive sheets of water. . . . Ears of corn mottled with a diversity of colors, and dried fish, were suspended within and around their huts.” Corn’s life-sustaining properties were also recognized by the Pilgrims, who survived their first winter at Plymouth Colony because local Wampanoag Indians shared their harvest.


Corn has become a cheap commodity—so much so that we have become corn-consumers. In his 2006 bestseller The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan persuasively notes the plight of our food choices today: the average supermarket has 45,000 items, more than a quarter of which contain corn. We are spending considerable amounts of fossil-fuel energy processing corn into other foodstuffs, delivered to our dinner tables in vehicles sometimes powered by corn. As consumers we have options. For example, eight months a year, my wife and I have a Saturday morning date at the Oakland County Farmer’s Market in Pontiac. There we have befriended the potato guy, the peach guy and the egg lady, as we affectionately refer to them, who have taught us about the unique characteristics of their farms, farming practices and even their families. As Pollan suggests, it is critical to know what we are eating, where it comes from, how it found its way to our table and what it really costs.

Three-Sisters Garden coming to West Bloomfield

This summer the township will have the opportunity to step back to a time of corn-eaters: when the earliest inhabitants were growing corn and other staples in what is referred to as a three-sisters garden. Michigan native Tony Schad, an expert on Native American lifeways, will prepare such a garden at Shulak Farm on Maple Road, by interplanting Native American corn, beans and squash (the three sisters) in traditional mounds with a perimeter of tobacco plants.

The project will begin on May 7 with a presentation that describes the sources of Native American corn and the processes and techniques used to tend the garden. It will culminate this fall with a harvest of the crops. For more information about this project see, “Three-Sisters Garden” on page 1. We are looking for volunteers to help maintain the garden during the summer. I hope to see you at Schulak Farm!

Charles Martinez’s Song of the Heron: Reflections on the History of West Bloomfield is available at the West Bloomfield libraries and for purchase at the Orchard Lake Museum or at Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma is available at the West Bloomfield Library and in bookstores.

About the GWBHS

The Greater West Bloomfield Historical Society (GWBHS) is a non-profit, tax-exempt organization. It serves the Michigan communities of Keego Harbor, Orchard Lake, Sylvan Lake and West Bloomfield. The Society's goal is to provide a vital museum to familiarize residents with our area's history. For more information, please visit