The Big Heads….They’re Following Me!

Back in 2012, I wrote a post about Detroit’s Thanksgiving Parade, including a short blurb about the Big Head Corps:

“There’s a number of unique aspects to Detroit’s parade. The Big Head Corp is one. As I mentioned before, these have been part of the parade since the very beginning, as Charles Wendel had seen people wearing giant fake heads in Italy during Carnival and wanted to bring the idea here. The heads were made in a studio in Viareggio, Italy by Alfredo Moreschalchi and staff. The ones used in Detroit are smaller than the ones used in Italy. The heads depict characters, animals and famous Detroiters/Michiganders such as Henry Ford, Joe Louis and this year, Sparky Anderson.”

I’ve always loved the Big Heads. They are such a unique part of the parade, and showcase some of our best local celebrities. So I’ve been thrilled, lately, that I’ve been seeing the Big Heads around the city in other venues. Why should these awesome figures only be seen once a year?

First, I ran into some historic big heads at the Fisher building when I went to go see War Horse at the Fisher Theater in early January. These heads date back to before 1940, and show very different figures than the big heads of today. Instead of famous locals, most of these heads are shaped like animals or generic characters like pirates and clowns. Made in Viareggio and imported to Detroit for the parade, the Italian newsprint used in the papier-mâché construction is still visible on some of the heads (sadly, I have no pictures of that).

How you wear this while walking, I have no idea

How you wear this while walking, I have no idea

The board below these say two roosters, but I'm pretty sure the one on the left is a hippo....

The board below these say two roosters, but I’m pretty sure the one on the left is a hippo….

So what were these big heads doing at the Fisher? Pure Detroit (the same company from my tours of the Fisher and Guardian buildings), worked with The Parade Company to put on the display, called “Big Heads Take the Fisher.” The Parade Company, which is the non-profit that runs the Thanksgiving parade, owns over 300 big heads, ranging from the 20 historic heads on display to the modern ones still seen in the parade (which are now made locally). Although Pure Detroit and The Parade Company organized the display partially to show off the great history of the big heads, there was another goal as well – many of these older heads are in poor condition and in need of restoration. The Parade Company is looking for people to adopt individual figures to help pay for the necessary conservation work so that these antique heads can eventually  be put back in the parade. Wish I had the cash to adopt one – I would love to see more of these historic figures Thanksgiving morning!

Sometimes I get fancy. And pose with creepy pirates.

Sometimes I get fancy. And pose with creepy pirates.

A few weeks later, I went to the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) downtown. Although the main floor just featured cars, the downstairs exhibit room included a few other displays, including one by The Parade Company. The ParadeLand KidZone, as it was called, offered a mini-tour to kids (and adults!) of some of the floats and big heads used in the parade. They also participated in the daily parades through the main floor, although we sadly missed that part. I loved getting a chance to get up close with the big heads and floats, especially when I (once again) wasn’t expecting to see them.

I see Joe Louis and Henry Ford, and I think Aretha Franklin - not sure about the guy in the middle!

I see Joe Louis and Henry Ford, and I think Aretha Franklin – not sure about the guy in the middle!

One of these days, I would love to go on a tour of The Parade Company’s warehouse downtown and see more of the behind the scenes work for the parade. You need a minimum of 10 people for a tour however… I need to find 9 friends who are as crazy as me!

Has anyone else run into any unexpected history lately?


Unexpected History: Up North Edition


Clear Lake from the trail

I think my favorite way of finding new historical spots is when I literally run into them. You may recall that a few months ago, while out jogging in Brighton, I happened to run by an old school house with a historical marker. Well, a few weeks ago it happened again. I was spending the weekend at a friend’s cabin on Clear Lake, which is in the northeastern part of the state about 40 miles east of Gaylord. Clear Lake is a beautiful small lake, with impressively clear water (hence the name), surrounded by private homes as well as a state park which has both camping facilities and a day use area. There are also number of trails around the lake, which make for a much more pleasant run than Detroit’s suburbs do, if you ask me. Sunday morning, while out for an early run, I went through the day use area and discovered that the park had added a new feature this year: a disc golf course. Even better, at the start of each “hole,” there was an interpretive sign with information about the history of the area as well as the animals and plants that live in the park. History as a part of a fun outdoor game? I love it!


Click to enlarge

The course is titled “The Memory,” and many of the signs relate to the nature in the park. I learned, for example, that the lake is stocked with splake, a cross between brook trout and lake trout; that Clear Lake is a sinkhole; and that the endangered Kirtland’s warbler has been spotted in the park. Other signs give bits of history, such as information about the lumbering business in northern Michigan, and the fact that Michigan’s native elk disappeared in the 19th century but have been repopulated with transplants from out west. Most fascinating to me was the first hole, which stated that the park was the site Civilian Conservation Corps Camp V1670 from 1933-1942.  The men at the camp constructed a nearby airport, a campground, several local roads and bridges, planted trees and fought forest fires.


I’ve always found the CCC to be an interesting piece of history. Part of FDR’s New Deal, the Corps provided jobs to millions of young men during the height of the Great Depression. Similar to the WPA, the CCC participated in public works projects, but with a specific focus on the land. It brought men together in remote camps to improve parks with upgrades in shelters and roads as well as conserve the nature itself through combating erosion and forest fires as well as planting new trees. In the beginning, nearby towns objected to the camps, as they feared strangers coming into their communities. Eventually, as their work became known, the CCC became one of the most popular New Deal agencies as it not only provided young men with jobs and a sense of purpose, but also increased awareness of the national treasures found in our parks and ensured the availability of these treasures for years to come.

There is plenty of information about the CCC on the internet, but I haven’t been able to find out much about the particular camp at Clear Lake. The signage itself it confusing – another nearby (and probably older) sign at the park call it “Camp Presque Isle 4612” and gives the years 1933-1939, three years shorter than the disc golf marker. Not only are the numbers different, but Presque Isle is on the shores of Lake Huron, more than 50 miles east of Clear Lake. I was a bit confounded by the whole thing, but after some more research, it the appears the older sign is partially correct – according the CCC Legacy website, V1670 was 19 miles south of Onaway and known as Presque Isle (according to Google Maps, Clear Lake State Park is 17.5 miles south of Onaway – close enough). The number isn’t right, however, as camp 4612 appears to have been in Grand Haven, on Lake Michigan. The years are a mystery as well, as the legacy website only gives the starting date in 1933, but I would lean towards believing the newer sign, which likely had access to better research materials than I.


I was able to find a few pictures of the camp, which show a drab landscape of barracks and other buildings surrounded by pine trees. The park looks very different today, thanks in a large part to the work of the men in the camps – the barracks have been replaced by a lively and clean campground, easily accessible by local roads (I’ve stayed in the campground in the past, it’s great), many more trees, and an extensive trail system. And in the summer time, many, many people, enjoying all that Northern Michigan has to offer – peaceful retreat in the woods as well as fun in and on the water. Without the CCC, this area, and many others throughout the nation, wouldn’t be in as good of condition or be as accessible to to public. And for that I am very grateful.

CCC Camp, 1935. Courtesy of the Forest Historical Society

CCC Camp Presque Isle, 1935.
Courtesy of the Forest Historical Society

The Day Use area today. I swear, it is often packed with people - this photo was just taken at around 8am, so nobody was there yet.

The day use area today. I swear, it is often packed with people – this photo was just taken at around 8am, so nobody was there yet.

Last thought: I really love that the DNR put all of these history and nature facts on disc golf signs. A simple informational marker would not be able to include nearly as much information, and if it did nobody would read all of it (and fewer people would look at it at all). By spreading the information out, and inserting it into a fun game, it feels less like a history or science lesson and more like just learning a few fun facts about the area. I’m sure everybody who plays disc golf on the course won’t read every sign, and some may not ready any at all, but I bet more people come away with at least one fact about the area than would have otherwise. The idea of “edutainment” – entertainment mixed with education – is big right now, but isn’t always done well, and can come off as gimmicky. I think this is a great example of when it is done right. Simple, low-key, just a few facts about the land around you included in a casual game of disc golf. Perfect.

I’d love to hear about other examples of public history being snuck into other activities or locations. What surprising places have you run into history?

CCC Camps Michigan,” CCC Legacy
History of Michigan CCC Camps,” Presque Isle Advance
New Disc Golf Course Open at Clear Lake State Park,” Michigan DNR

Brighton District No. 8 (Lyon School)

Brighton District No. 8 School

Brighton District No. 8 School

I spent this past weekend visiting family in Brighton and came across this lovely old schoolhouse while out for a run Sunday afternoon (side note – I hate that it was warm enough for an outdoor run 3 days ago but today I woke up to snow). Fortunately, I had my phone on me so I stopped to take some pictures and then jumped on a computer to do some research when I got home. I was really excited to come across this building as it is a very out of the way site that I probably wouldn’t have known to visit. Random historical site run-ins are the best!

Here’s the text of the historical marker on the site, which provides some basic information about the school:

“In 1842 pioneer settler Richard Lyons donated land for the first school in Brighton Township’s District No. 8. Area Methodists worshipped in the log school until 1874. In 1885 the log building was replaced with this one-room clapboard structure. Classes were held here until area schools consolidated in 1956. The building then served as the Brighton Township Hall. In 1984 it was restored for use as a museum.”

Further research at the website of The Brighton Area Historical Society and an online version of an 1880 History of Livingston County book told more of the story:

Richard Lyons came to Michigan in 1835 from New York City to buy land for a number of members of his artist’s guild. New York was experiencing a terrible cholera outbreak at the time and people were looking to move west. Lyons traveled to Michigan to make purchases twice, eventually purchasing 20,000 acres of land in the area then known as Upper Green Oak before finally bringing his family out and settling on one parcel in 1837.

The Lyons family traveled in a group of 12 guild members to their new home. When they arrived, they all crowded into one small log cabin built by William Valentine, a guild member who had come west earlier but had given up on making a living in the wilderness and returned to the city. When another two families arrived soon after, the crowd in the cabin swelled to 22. The settlers quickly went to work building more homes and each family had their own house within a year. As they came from the city, these guild members had very little farming experience and struggled initially, but most eventually prospered. A log schoolhouse, built a few years later in 1842, was the first non-residential structure the settlers built. It served as both a schoolhouse and as a general community gathering point for the next 40 years.

As the marker states, in 1885 the current frame structure replaced the original cabin. The one room schoolhouse had a wood stove for heating the building, a well and outhouses outside and oil lamps for lighting the inside. The community was still small and only around 20 students attended the school.

The small schoolhouse continued to be used into the 20th century, finally adding electricity and indoor bathrooms in 1940. However, after WWII, Brighton experienced a rapid increase in population as the construction of freeways made travel to nearby Detroit and Ann Arbor easier. This growth caused the city to outgrow its one room schoolhouses. Additionally, educators around the country pushed for bigger schools, claiming they would provide a more standardized education. The rise of the automobile, which allowed the creation of the school bus to transport students longer distances, also contributed to the decline of one room schoolhouses (source). Nonetheless, this one room schoolhouse lasted longer than most. Although school consolidation in the United States began in the 1920s and 1930s, Brighton schools didn’t consolidated until 1956.

The building was used as the Brighton Township Hall for many years until it became too small for that function as well. According to the Brighton Area Historical Society, it now serves as their headquarters and has been fully restored for use as a museum. However, there is no information about when/if the public can visit the museum, which is a shame as I would love to see the inside. The BAHS does state that it can be used for school field trips and even has a third grade curriculum that can be used to show students what education was like in the early 20th century. So apparently I just need to impersonate a teacher and find a group of random kids to get inside…..bad idea?

What I really like about this schoolhouse is the setting. It is tucked away down a dirt road and largely surrounded by trees. Although there are a number of houses in the area, it still feels fairly rural and thus does a better job of replicating the feel of a 19th/early 20th century schoolhouse than buildings relocated to historic parks, such as in Greenfield Village or Troy Historic Village. The National Register of Historic Places call this relationship between a property and its surroundings “integrity of setting.” I love sites like these because they can really take you back in time mentally. As I stood there, I could imagine schoolchildren walking down the road to get to class, playing in the schoolyard, dipping their feet in the nearby creek after class.

Sadly, that image was quickly blown away by the site of a car driving past, and I was drawn back into the modern world. Nonetheless, it made for a fun historical break on my run. Now if only all my runs took me past unexpected historical sites, I might enjoy running more!

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