Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Elected officials should ride public transit before making decisions

I am a supporter of an Oakland County (Michigan), county-wide solution for public transportation. Acquaintances have asked for my comments on the Board of Commissioners decision to recommend the status quo on this important legislation. The status quo allows individual communities to opt-out of public transportation causing gaps in service. Having read the newspaper articles in the aftermath of the committee’s tie vote I was struck by some recurring themes in the oppositions comments. For example, Commissioner Long of Commerce Township did not want to support a transit system that was broke. The comment prompted me to ponder the question, “How many of our elected officials making decisions about public transportation have actually travelled on a SMART bus recently?” I wonder, “How many of our elected officials have stopped at a bus stop to ask riders why they take the bus and how important the system is for their daily life?”

I have ridden the bus and interviewed the riders and have found the system works rather well. The system seems to work for the Commerce Township resident I interviewed who drives into West Bloomfield to catch the Orchard Lake Road SMART Express to his job in downtown Detroit. Sure there are improvements that need to be made but the only part of the system I find broken are the gaps in service caused by opt-out communities. The criticism reminds me of the Menendez brothers who murdered their parents then asked the court for leniency because they were orphans.

Apparently the Board of Commission's committee recommended accepting the administration’s position of status quo. County Executive L. Brooks Patterson’s own Deputy Executive Gerald Poisson admitted that the current system would be broke several months after the August 2010 renewal. Commissioners Steven Schwartz (D) and David Potts (R) proposed a county-wide solution that would make SMART financially stable for the proposal’s three year span. How can our Board of Commissioners ask us to accept the status quo legislation that they know is doomed for failure?

I recently met a member of the Oakland County Public Transportation Authority who had never ridden a SMART fixed route bus and did not know the cost of riding a SMART bus. I took him on a field trip. We travelled on the Woodward Avenue SMART bus for coffee in Birmingham. I encourage the Board of Commissioners to do the same before making decisions about the system’s future. I would be more than happy to escort anyone who would like a similar field trip. Incidentally, we cannot launch our trip from the Oakland County Executive Office Building. Our own executive offices are in Waterford Township, an opt-out community and not serviced by public transportation. I will gladly show you the closest park-and-ride.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Making the case for a county-wide mass transit ballot initiative

It is no surprise to one living in the Detroit Urban Area (DUA) that we are seriously lacking adequate public transportation services. The DUA ranks ninth in population in the United States but 25th in terms of public transportation passenger trips.

Functioning Elements

The various elements of public transit available within the DUA actually function rather nicely; especially given the funding available. Collectively however we have a rather dysfunctional system. To date, the DUA has no light or heavy rail commuter system. For our discussion purposes the term public or mass transportation will refer to motor buses and dial-a-ride services only. The DUA is made up of three counties; Macomb, Oakland and Wayne. There are four public transit systems to consider in the DUA; DDOT, SMART, NOTA, and Opt-out.

The Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) services the City of Detroit. The Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) services many, but not all, of the communities within the counties of Macomb, Oakland, and Wayne. SMART buses also travel within the City of Detroit. The North Oakland Transit Authority (NOTA) is a small dial-a-ride system servicing three villages and three townships in northern Oakland County. The fourth option is called opt-out; meaning the community has chosen not to participate in a regional transit system (some communities may offer their own dial-a-ride system).


The county in which I live, Oakland, has a system where each community decides whether it wants to be included in the SMART bus system—thus the use of the term Opt-out. There are approximately 60 communities in Oakland County; each with their own government. To date, about 23 of these communities have chosen to be part of the public transportation system (in terms of population however this represents about 55% of Oakland County serviced by SMART). As you can imagine this leads to a very confusing and “patchwork quilt” image of bus service. The current system is pitting communities against each other and causing a serious disruption of services.

Gaps in Service

Let me give you some examples of gaps in service. Bloomfield Township is an opt-in community. Lying within the township however is the City of Bloomfield Hills. The city is an opt-out community. Unfortunately one of the most travelled routes to Detroit, Woodward Avenue, passes through these two communities. SMART’s Woodward bus from the City of Pontiac to Detroit services Bloomfield Township but must fly right through Bloomfield Hills without stopping. Once the bus passes through Bloomfield Hills it hits the City of Birmingham, an opt-in community, and begins service again. The result is an unfortunate situation of individuals leaving the bus in Bloomfield Township and walking along Woodward Avenue, without sidewalks, to get to jobs in Bloomfield Hills.

A contrasting example involves the city in which I live, Keego Harbor. Surrounding me is the Charter Township of West Bloomfield (population 64,000) an opt-in community and therefore serviced by SMART buses. Lying within West Bloomfield Township are three cities with a total population of less than 7,000 people (Keego Harbor, Orchard Lake, and Sylvan Lake), each of which are opt-out communities. Unfortunately these communities lie along an historic trade route from Lake Huron through Ann Arbor to Chicago (known locally as Pontiac Trail after the famous American Indian Chief Pontiac). This four-mile gap in service keeps SMART from linking the three most travelled north-south bus routes in Oakland County specifically Orchard Lake Road, Telegraph Road, and Woodward Avenue.

A more troubling example is what has occurred with our Detroit Metropolitan Airport. The City of Livonia, lying between the airport and Oakland County, chose to opt-out of public transportation services. The residents of Oakland County then lost its SMART bus service to the airport.

Why would a community opt-out?

I often hear community leaders explain their decision to opt-out is based on the belief that their residents do not want to ride the bus. In some cases this decision is made without polling the community’s residents. In many cases this perception is based on the use of fixed route passenger trips only without considering the curb-to-curb minibus service also provided through SMART. It is amazing to me the number of seniors and disabled residents in opt-in communities who are unaware of this highly successful minibus program. I can only imagine how many seniors and disabled residents of opt-out communities would demand public transportation in their community if they knew this service was included.

A second concern is that dollars raised in one community will be used to benefit another. Due to Federal grants, State grants and other revenue sources, every dollar raised through local SMART contributions in Oakland County has returned over two dollars in the cost of services provided back to Oakland County. Many of the taxes a resident pays go into general funds where it is difficult to see the benefits. Through bus stops added, fixed routes added and the curb-to-curb minibus services, the SMART millage is one example where a resident can see a direct result of their taxes paid.

Finally, there are residents who are against any taxes regardless of the use. I can understand their position given the current economic times. I would point out however that with public transportation an individual can experience a reduction in other expenses by utilizing the bus service provided by the SMART millage. I believe the days are gone where the U.S. economy can support one car for every family member. Where 70% of current SMART users ride the bus to get to work and 20% use the bus to get to an educational institution , a small investment in public transit can significantly improve a family’s ability to balance resources among all family members.

Reasons for a county-wide ballot

In August of 2010 the SMART property tax renewal will appear on ballots. Currently, the only citizens to see the initiative in Oakland County will be those citizens in the 23 opt-in communities. Proponents of a regional public transportation system have two options to expand this opportunity. The first option is to lobby each community to have the initiative placed on the ballot and the second option is to lobby for a county-wide ballot initiative.

Adding the initiative to individual communities is problematic and does not solve the overall problem. The governing structure in these Oakland County communities is a collection of Townships, Cities and Villages. The process for adding a millage initiative to these communities varies considerably based on their charters. More importantly however, this option does not solve the disruption and gaps in service caused by communities that choose to opt-out. How can one community decide to opt-in if they fear their neighboring community will opt-out? Only a county-wide initiative will solve this problem.

Secondly, there are many stakeholders in a community besides the residents themselves that benefit from public transportation. Residents dependent on domestic help or businesses dependent on employees’ timely arrival are directly impacted by the availability of public transportation.

Finally, there are public institutions located in communities that have opted out. The Cranbrook Institute of Science schedules excellent programming for students. It would be convenient for students to take a bus to these events. Cranbrook is located in the City of Bloomfield Hills, an opt-out community. The West Bloomfield School District is fortunate that both middle schools and the high school are located along Orchard Lake Road. This provides a perfect opportunity for students to use the existing SMART bus fixed bus routes to reach these schools outside of the normal school bus schedule. However, the Abbott Middle School is located in the City of Orchard Lake Village, an opt-out community.

In Conclusion

The State of Michigan is struggling with the problem that over 50% of its college graduates are leaving the State—this was before the recent economic downtown. Student surveys reveal that lifestyle is the leading cause of this exodus from the state. Included in lifestyle is an interest in a public transportation system that eliminates the need for a car. Michigan has a long way to go to achieve this level of service but it cannot begin to address these issues without a regional system. We cannot achieve a regional system when one of the region’s largest and most affluent counties does not support a county-wide system itself.

I am in support of a county-wide ballot initiative and urge our Oakland County Board of Commissioners to approve this legislation.

Get Involved

Transportation Riders United (TRU)
Facebook: Support Detroit Transit

Complete paper with sources: Smart Bus County-wide Ballot

Friday, August 21, 2009

Using geocaching and technology to find interesting places wherever you go

Joining the international pastime of geocaching has changed the way I view my surroundings and helped me find things I normally would never have discovered.

The common joke is to describe geocaching as a hobby that uses billion-dollar satellites to find worthless pieces of junk. Actually, practitioners hide small containers and then post the longitude and latitude coordinates of the containers on the www.geocaching.com website for others to find. The real treat is that the locations tend to be very special. The creators of each cache hide their containers in places that are historically significant or offer a particularly special view of nature, or take special pride in crafting a devious camouflage to trick the hunters.

Historic roots

An article on Wikipedia states that, “Geocaching is similar to the 150-year-old game letterboxing, which uses clues and references to landmarks embedded in stories.” Geocaching was imagined shortly after the removal of Selective Availability from GPS on May 1, 2000. The improved accuracy of the system allowed a small container to be specifically placed and located. The first documented placement of a GPS-located cache took place on May 3, 2000, by Dave Ulmer of Beavercreek, Oregon. The location was posted on the Usenet newsgroup sci.geo.satellite-nav. By May 6, 2000, it had been found twice and logged once. According to Dave Ulmer’s message, the original stash was a black plastic bucket buried most of the way in the ground and contained software, videos, books, food, money and a slingshot. Today there are nearly 900,000 active geocaches registered worldwide on the geocaching.com website.

Even the locals don’t know about them

When travelling I have amazed local friends by finding locations they did not know existed in their hometown. The cache titled “Noise out of Place” in the center of Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, is a good example. If I told you more it would give away the cache. (This type of information is known as a “spoiler.”) While caching with a colleague from a small town north of Gothenburg, Sweden, we found a cache, “Rooster on the Run,” hidden in a World War II concrete bunker that my friend did not know existed in a park across the street from his subdivision.

Travel Bugs

One of my favorite parts of geocaching is the Travel Bug. A Travel Bug is a numbered dog tag with an attached object that moves from place to place, picking up stories along the way. Travel Bugs typically have a goal, like reaching Egypt, and the attached object gives the Bug a personality, like a Captain America action figure. For example, “Exploring Ernie” was launched by an Arkansas car dealer in June of 2003. I found Ernie last summer in a cache in Sarnia, Ontario and moved it along to Sweden. To date Ernie has travelled 45,000 kilometers and is in a cache in Australia.

Our museum’s puddingstone cache

Geocaching works two ways – it helps me find things but it can also bring people to us at the Orchard Lake Museum. The Greater West Bloomfield Historical Society (GWBHS) has launched a program to hide geocaches in historically significant locations in the boundaries of the original West Bloomfield Township.

Our first cache is hidden near the puddingstone located next to the museum. The cache is named “Glacial Desserts” on geocaching.com and has the code name GC1TMN7. In mid-August the cache was six weeks old and has had more than 16 visitors from Michigan, Utah, Wisconsin and North Carolina. The cache contains a Travel Bug from Maine. The cache is an example of an outreach program to attract visitors even when the museum is closed. The cache contains an explanation of puddingstones and the story of our stone.

Spontaneous geocaching

The introduction of location-aware mobile devices like the Apple iPhone have dramatically altered how I geocache. No longer do I need to plan my geocaching activities in advance. I can spontaneously launch my iPhone’s geocaching app wherever I am and get a list of caches and their distance from my current location. For example I recently visited the Michigan Transit Museum in Mount Clemens. Upon leaving the museum I looked at my iPhone and found I was literally standing next to a geocache in the museum’s parking lot. The cache was titled “Edison’s Nano” and explained the history of Thomas Edison and his association to the local museum.

My caching statistics

After 2 ½ years of geocaching I have found 98 caches in three countries and nine states. I have moved along 12 Travel Bugs and had my picture taken at two webcam caches.

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

Monday, June 22, 2009

History Matters: why West Bloomfield Township developed without a town center

DeConick's RestaurantMain Street, Cool Cities, Walkable Neighborhoods, Livable Communities. These are buzzwords for the current trends in urban planning and the types of communities that are attracting people today, especially our youth. The phrases refer to a return in city planning that emphasizes thriving town centers. The Charter Township of West Bloomfield has been debating the issue of a development plan that will encourage the creation of a town center beginning at the intersection of Orchard Lake and Maple roads. It is interesting to understand how the township developed without a town center in the first place and the significance of the Orchard Lake and Maple road intersection.

Charles Martinez, author of Song of the Heron: Reflections on the History of West Bloomfield (ISBN: 0-9753764-0-3), identifies five reasons why the township developed without a town center. The first reason was the lack of a major American Indian trail. Although early surveyors identified paths through the township, these were just connectors to larger trails like the Saginaw or Grand River. Secondly, although 20% of the township’s area was covered with water, this resource was never harnessed in such a way as to generate power for a thriving mill operation. The third reason is that the few local sawmills and gristmills that could have been the impetus for a town center quickly failed. At the same time, the mills in Franklin, Pontiac, Farmington, and Commerce had already developed and West Bloomfield farmers were already making use of their goods and services. Finally, the early leaders of West Bloomfield Township were farmers and not merchants or individuals of great political prestige.

We must consider two additional and more contemporary developments that affected the Township’s commercial development. First, the geographic definition of West Bloomfield Township includes the cities of Orchard Lake, Keego Harbor, and Sylvan Lake as well as the Charter Township of West Bloomfield. In this context, Keego Harbor could arguably be considered the closest semblance to a town center within the boundaries of the township. However, beginning with Orchard Lake in 1928, the residents of the northeast corner of the township split to create their own city governments including separate police and fire departments.

The second contemporary change was the unfortunate demise of the Interurban rail line running along Orchard lake Road. The web of public transportation that is so prevalent in thriving cities today could have been carried out by this small trolley connecting the Township to larger rail lines in Pontiac. Eleanor Pekkala, writing her memoirs for the Township’s Michigan Sesquicentennial committee, mentioned the impact of the Interurban and the development of the Maple Road stop, "The area called 'St. John's Crossing' by the interurban people is now becoming the commercial center of the township. St. John's Crossing was the Maple Road stop which was so named because six farms adjoining this area were all owned by Johns: John Watt, John Case, John Beattie, John Voorheis, and John DeConick."

When making decisions for moving forward it matters to have an understanding of the past. Our planning for town centers must consider the roles that location and transportation played in the development of existing pockets of commercial development. These existing pockets must be fertilized with the elements of growth that the general public is expecting to find in its choice for residency.

Song of the Heron and Eleanor Pekkala's Early Development of West Bloomfield - An Overview, are available through the Greater West Bloomfield Historical Society (GWBHS). The Society 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

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

History Matters: What do I need to live on Apple Island?

I am fortunate to live within the boundaries of a Michigan public school district that owns an island! The island has become a valuable tool for facilitating a discussion about sustainability in an historical context.

Which island is older?

One of the annual services performed by our local historical society is to conduct tours of Apple Island for 2nd-grade students in the West Bloomfield School District, the island’s owner. As an introduction I enjoy showing the students two black and white aerial photographs of Apple Island in the center of Orchard Lake. I ask the question, “Which photograph is older?” Students scan the first photograph and see an undeveloped island full of trees. They study the second photograph showing an island in which two thirds of the land is cleared, houses are standing and even a fruit orchard can be seen. Of course they assume the latter is the most recent. I have in fact tricked them. The first photograph is actually a Google satellite photo converted to grey scales (otherwise they assume color translates to new). The second photograph was taken sometime in the 1920s.

Invariably their curiosity leads to ask, “What happened?” How could the island sustain a vibrant and livable vacation community one hundred years ago but today exist as an uninhabited densely forested nature preserve? For a 10-year old student, the island has become a fascinating study in sustainability. To them just the name, Apple Island, conjures up a whimsical image. In order to study what happened, we pose an over-arching question, “What would you need to live on Apple Island?” The question returns answers that include water, shelter, heat, fire, food, transportation, etc. To discuss sustainability in an historical context we introduce the four life styles that have existed in the Township’s history and on the island as well. On the ensuing hike around the island we explore how each of those life styles addressed their sustainability requirements.

Four Life Styles

Our Township, West Bloomfield, has witnessed four distinct life styles during its recorded history. The first inhabitants were American Indians arriving as early as 11,000 years ago. They were drawn here by the prevalence of water; lakes as well as rivers. The American Indians were displaced by European farmers arriving in great numbers after the completion of the Erie Canal. This transition was facilitated by the outcome of the French and Indian War that played such a significant role in the history of Michigan. With improved methods of public transportation, the draw of water made the Township a preferred destination for vacationers. Some lakefront property was purchased or converted into hotels, inns, cabins and resorts. As public transportation was replaced by the personal automobile, people were able to live permanently in the Township and commute to their work in distant cities like Detroit. The transition from farmers and vacationers lead to our current style that we call suburbanites.

Providing Resources

Each of these life styles existed on Apple Island in some form and solved their sustainability requirements utilizing different methods. Let’s look at water for example. The American Indians undoubtedly got their water from the surrounding lakes. Traces on the island teach us that early farmers built stone-walled wells to retrieve ground water. The vacationing Campbell Family built a cistern in the late 1800s to catch rain water running off the roof of their island home. Today, runoff from fertilized lawns and other forms of contamination make the lake water unusable for drinking purposes. We suburbanites rely on water bottles carried on and off the island for this valuable resource.

Heat and light offer another interesting requirement to study. Fire obviously served as a solution for the early inhabitants. Artifacts have been uncovered that suggest later residents used oil or kerosene lamps for light. One island resident, Willis Ward, added an electric generator house in the 1920s to power his two-story brick home on the island. Today, local ordinances eliminate fire as an option. For our annual Michigan Week public tours of the island we recently had a Fur Trade-era reenactor camped on the island. Special permission was required from three governing entities, the city, fire department and school district, to have a small fire just for “effect.”

A final example of our island sustainability discussion is transportation. Apple Island is located at the convergence of three river watersheds; the Clinton, Huron, and River Rouge. American Indians traveling by birch bark and dugout canoes were naturally brought to this location. The vacationing Campbell Family and friends required more hauling capacity. Island homes were furnished with sofas, organs and imported Italian wallpaper. Food requirements exceeded the island’s ability to support multiple vacationing families. A scow, large enough to carry a horse-drawn wagon, was acquired to haul building materials, groceries and serve as a swim platform. Vacationers staying at local hotels and cabins required a more “cushy” excursion and Orchard Lake saw as many as three steam boats for lake tours. Today, visiting 2nd-graders arrive in district-owned pontoon boats. Prudence and insurance risk require trained boat drivers, a parent for every three of four students, everyone to wear life jackets en route and remain seated until docked.

Lessons Learned

Students depart the island with a better understanding that our life style choices provide a level of health and safety that may not have been a concern in an earlier time. They see that the term sustainability meant different things to residents in earlier time periods. To the casual eye the island appears to be just another densely forested plot of land. For the 2nd-grade students of the West Bloomfield School District, they learn to see traces left from earlier residents and the significance of those traces to our understanding of sustainability.

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

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

History Matters: West Acres Subdivision and Federal Stimulus Programs

Westacres, West Bloomfield’s innovative residential development on Commerce Road begun during the Depression, brings together two seemingly disparate subjects -- Federal stimulus programs and the slow foods movement that encourages people to grow and raise their own foods and consume seasonal foods from nearby. Both topics were as important in the 1930s as they are once again today.

The following excerpt from an unpublished chapter written by Pam Powell for Song of the Heron – Reflections on the History of West Bloomfield explains West Bloomfield’s critical role in a Federal stimulus program of the 1930s.

Next, I have cited Midwestern Landscape Architecture by William H. Tishler in explaining the important role of self-sufficiency in agriculture – as well as other areas – in the innovative landscape design of Westacres.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal

As FDR’s plans for pulling America out of the Great Depression got underway in 1933, one program in particular probably had the most impact on West Bloomfield Township: the Federal Emergency Relief Acts of 1933 which proposed, in part, the construction of affordable housing for low-income families. Indeed, the New Deal’s revitalization programs led directly to the development of the township’s Westacres housing project.

Westacres – the forerunner of modern suburban developments

The Westacres subdivision of West Bloomfield Township is often recognized as the forerunner of modern suburbanization and residential development, not just for the township but countywide. A revolutionary concept in neighborhood design, the Westacres development was intended to provide affordable housing for factory-wage families and to boost a sagging economy as part of FDR’s New Deal.

Land in other areas of Oakland County had been subdivided prior to 1936, but mainly by land speculators who anticipated future building. Senator James Couzens and the New Dealers paved the way for modern residential development, but “Westacres was the first in which one company designed, platted, built and sold the properties.”

The self-sufficient, weekend farmer

Clearly, the Westacres subdivision brought about the township’s first intensive residential development project and also gave rise to a new phenomenon that would prove popular, successful, and long-lasting in the Oakland County community: the weekend farmer.

Oakland Housing, Inc., was formed in 1935 as the development’s real estate agent. The nonprofit benevolent corporation would carry out four related purposes: “To construct well-built, low-cost houses for industrial workmen within the annual income range of $1,200 to $1,800, who are subject to seasonal unemployment; provide a large enough lot for each house so that the owner may grow a sufficient quantity of vegetables to supply his own family; encourage with loans the residents of the project to engage in enterprises developed upon the corporation’s property which will enable them to make supplemental earnings during periods of unemployment or after hours; and, to assist the residents in a sound and satisfying development of their communal life.”

According to an original brochure provided to prospective buyers and obtained from original Westacres resident Hugh H. Benninger, the realty agents specifically sought out potential buyers who could and would cultivate the soil to produce adequate vegetables to supply the families year-round, and also provide supplemental income to the factory workers.

Still, the whole Westacres project may have never been launched if Michigan’s U.S. Senator James J. Couzens had not pledged his support—and his $550,000. Many of President Roosevelt’s New Deal projects did not sit well with Couzens; he viewed them more as mere social welfare programs rather than as economic development programs. However, the subsistence homestead projects of the New Deal housing program did intrigue Couzens, primarily because of their similarity to a housing plan he had previously considered, along with Henry Ford, for the Dearborn area.

Thrift gardens at each homesite

Emma Genevieve Gillette, a famous Midwestern landscape architect, was recruited by President Roosevelt and Senator Couzens to implement the plan for the 874- acre site. Gillette was intrigued with its platted , rectilinear street plan, featuring two rolls of widely spaced houses at the front of long, narrow lots. She saw the possibility for each homeowner to enjoy a large backyard and additional room for a thrift garden in the back. Each family had enough land to raise fruits, vegetables and poultry for its own consumption.

Also in her design was room for recreation areas, a school, community building and stores. Gillette and R.D Baker, project engineer, worked together to make the engineering and landscape development compatible, including the dredging of the nearby lake, where the rich muck was spread over the poor soil. She chose a variety of tree plantings, selected and placed plantings for the thrift gardens in the rear of each lot, and even established a cooperative on-site nursery. So many people wanted to see the progress of the project that a chain link fence had to be erected to prevent vandalism.

Westacres a success

The Westacres development was clearly a success. By 1937, the community had 84 school-age children attending the local Union Lake School, while the neighbors banded together to form a civic association that held as its chief concern the beautification of Westacres. In its early years, Westacres residents worked together to make the development a nearly self-sufficient community. Local organizations included the fire department, Boy Scouts, a cooperative store, the Westacres Credit Union, Blue Birds, Camp Fire Girls, Westacres Community Association, Child Study Clubs I and II, the Westacres branch of the public library, Sunday School classes, and a sewing club, most of which merged in 1943 to become Westacres Activities Association, with Harold Welch serving as president, with dues of fifty cents per month. The community also supported its own newspaper, The Westacres Weekly.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

History Matters — Montgomery Ward Chairman removed from office in 1944 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Much has been discussed about President Barack Obama’s removal of General Motors CEO Rick Wagner as if this has not been done before. My first thought upon hearing of Wagner’s removal was of a famous photo I found while helping author Brian Bohnett research the background for his book, Them Was the Days.

Removed from Office

In the 1944 photo, Montgomery Ward Chairman Sewell Avery was sitting in his wood executive’s chair on a street in downtown Chicago while being held by two members of what I believe to be the Illinois National Guard; complete with uniforms and helmets. Avery was removed because of his opposition to FDR’s New Deal program. The dilemma in 1944 was best expressed in a Time magazine article titled: Seizure. “But the over whelming issue at stake was whether or not the President had authority to take over an industry that seemed to the U.S. public patently civilian. How far does Federal power extend? Attorney General Biddle tried manfully to class Montgomery Ward as a war industry, pointing out that one of its subsidiaries manufactures airplane parts. But he hastily sought refuge under the Constitution's broad mandate to the President ‘to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.’" Seizure, Time magazine, Monday, May 8, 1944.

Michigan Military Academy

My interest in Avery is of a local nature. Avery was born in Saginaw, Michigan and attended the Michigan Military Academy (MMA) in Orchard Lake. While at the MMA Avery's bio reads: Sergeant, Company “A” 1890; Captain, Company “A” 1892; Senior Class Prophet 1892; Football (Right Half) 1892; Prize Contest in Declamation May 27, 1892 (2nd Prize: Chariot Race, from “Ben Hur”); MMA Minstrels Performance at Pontiac Opera House May 7, 1892; 2nd Sergeant, "Crack" Company, 1891 and a member of the 1892 graduating class.

Nine of the original MMA buildings are still in use by The Orchard Lake Schools. The MMA Academy Building houses the administrative offices and some classrooms of the Orchard Lake St. Mary’s Preparatory School.

FDR Confiscates Avery’s Yacht

The story does not begin in the streets of Chicago. Two years earlier, FDR, incensed by Avery’s refusal to comply with New Deal legislation, confiscated Avery’s yacht Lenore (view photos & source material). The vessel was of 94 tons displacement, length 92 feet, beam 16 feet and draft of 5 feet. The boat was built in 1931 for Sewell Avery, then Chairman of Montgomery Ward by the Defoe Boat Works of Bay City, Michigan. The boat was originally christened the Lenore after Lenore Avery, Sewell's second daughter who died at age 4. The yacht Lenore was originally used to cruise the waters of Lake Michigan near Avery's private estate at Iron Mountain. Serious disagreements between Montgomery Ward and the goverment over Roosevelt's NRA wage and price provisions led to the seizure of the boat by the goverment in 1942.

Renamed the Lenore II, she was used as a training ship for submarine crews in Portsmouth New Hampshire and later as an escort for the Presidential Yacht Williamsburg. The Lenore frequently carried the secret service agents who accompanied the President while he was aboard the 255 foot Williamsburg.

In 1953, President Eisenhower retired the splendid but costly Williamsburg from active service and authorized the refurnishing and overhauling of Lenora II at a cost of $200,000 and rechristened Barbara Ann in honor of his granddaughter. The Barbara Ann was used for occasional cruises and in the summers of 1957 and 1958 she sailed to Newport, Rhode Island where she conveyed the president to and from his golfing excursions.

With the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, the yacht was refitted and on March 7, 1961 was renamed the Honey Fitz, honoring JFK's maternal grandfather (Former Mayor of Boston, and member of the House of Representatives, John Francis Fitzgerald.

President Johnson did not rename the Honey Fitz and prefered it to the larger Sequoia which was still at the Washington Naval Yard. President Nixion renamed the Honey Fitz to Tricia after his daughter and had the vessel auctioned off in December 1971 after a brief tour of duty providing cruises for hospitalized Vietnam veterans. The boat was purchased by Joe Keating who named it the Presidents.

The yacht was completly restored and refitted as it was during Kennedys term and was used for charters based in New York city. She was sold to unknown buyers at the Kennedy Memorabilia Auctions in 1998, for $5,942,500. When the boat left overhaul the painted transom was once again embellished with Honey Fitz in gold leaf.

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