Review by Tyler Tichelaar
In Digging Up the Truth and Other Big Bay Stories, Faye Bowers, a native of Big Bay, Michigan and longtime professional journalist, shares stories informed by her quest to set straight the historical record. The result is a series of stories that shed light into some dark crevices of the past, revealing the truth about events that may have seemed murky or lost in legend. Some stories dig into family history while others focus on the village of Big Bay’s larger history, and in the process, Bowers, whose family has lived in Big Bay for more than a century, reveals how deeply entwined her family was with that history. Other stories reveal that Big Bay, in a remote corner of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, had far-reaching connections to other parts of the country through entrepreneurs like Henry Ford who was involved in local industry to her own great-uncle who traveled to Alaska in 1923 in a Model T Ford.
The title story, “Digging Up the Truth,” takes place when Bowers is still a child. She overhears her aunt and father talking one night as they try to piece together the mystery of a brother who died. While her aunt back then had her own way of digging up the truth, including recruiting a local nun to perform a somewhat supernatural ritual, Bowers as an adult puts her investigative journalism to good use by digging up records and interviewing family members and locals to learn what truly happened to her uncle and how it affected her family.
The second story delves into the history of the intermarried LeClaire and Burns families. The LeClaires were Ojibwa and French and came from the L’Anse/Baraga area to Big Bay at the end of the nineteenth century. Although they were the first settlers in Big Bay, they did not buy up land and today are overshadowed by Charles Burns, the first white man who settled in the area. Burns would marry into the LeClaire family—more than once. Digging up the truth was not easy for Bowers when it required trying to untangle the complicated Burns/LeClaire family tree. Some of Bowers’ own relatives married into the Burns family, so she had some fortunate help from relatives. The history provided here is valuable for our understanding of white American and Native American relations in the Upper Peninsula at the turn of the last century. We also get glimpses of how the area grew, such as how forestry magnate John M. Longyear influenced the area, including cofounding the nearby Huron Mountain Club. His interactions with the LeClaires are recorded, as are many other interesting details for lovers of U.P. lore.
My favorite story was “Old Lady Lucy and Her Twenty-Five-Cent Moonshine.” It opens with the teenage Bowers and her cousin trying to steal apples from Old Lady Lucy’s orchard and recalling how almost everyone, especially the kids, were scared of Old Lady Lucy up until her death in the 1960s. Now older and curious, Bowers decided to investigate just who Old Lady Lucy was. It turns out Rose Anna Lucy was a female entrepreneur, running her own moonshine operation during Prohibition. She had quite the business going and managed to evade the law on multiple occasions, but in the end, she was arrested and sent to Alderson Federal Women’s Penitentiary with a sentence that would have been lighter for many men. In the end, I felt a great deal of sympathy for Old Lady Lucy. She was a tough woman and I might not have liked her, but I have to admire her strength.
Two more stories more specifically about Big Bay follow, one on the role of the Civilian Conservation Corps in Big Bay. Bowers’ father was one of those who worked for the CCC. The other story is about the first eighth-grade class trip made by the Powell Township School in 1947, a trip that Bowers’ older brother was part of. I particularly enjoyed this story because the trip was funded by Henry Ford, so no surprise, it was a trip to Detroit, including the Henry Ford Museum. Bowers interviewed several local residents and the now-grown children who were on the trip. The result was a depiction of true generosity on the part of Henry Ford and what it must have been like to see the bigger world as a fourteen-year-old from Big Bay.
The final story, “Big Bay, Beyond, and Back,” details the 1923 trip to Alaska of Bowers’ great-uncle, Pete Raymen, in his Model T. Pete went to Alaska to acquire blue foxes to breed. On the way, he stopped in Shelby, Montana to witness the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship between Jack Dempsey and Tommy Gibbons. Aided by her great-uncle’s journal of the trip, Bowers delved into history to learn all the trip’s details from the mechanical workings of a Model T to how the businessmen of Shelby promoted the boxing match to put their small city on the map. Pete Raymen had quite the adventure, then returned to Big Bay to become superintendent of maintenance for four of Henry Ford’s mills. Numerous interviews with family members and friends who knew Bowers’ great-uncle reveal that he was an innovative man who took care of his family, was tight with his money, and knew how to follow his dreams.
Overall, Digging Up the Truth and Other Big Bay Stories is an entertaining, introspective, and revealing look at what it means to live in and be from Big Bay, Michigan, and perhaps any small town in the early twentieth century. It is an important addition to Upper Michigan history. Bowers has captured the past and preserved it for future generations through her investigative journalism and dedication to get at the truth behind some U.P. stories. In addition, she has hunted down dozens of historical photographs that help the past come alive for the reader. Anyone familiar with Big Bay will enjoy this book. Anyone from the Upper Peninsula will be pleasantly surprised by how relevant it is to the area’s broader history.
— Tyler R. Tichelaar, PhD and award-winning author of My Marquette, When Teddy Came to Town, and Kawbawgam: The Chief, The Legend, The Man
Digging Up the Truth and Other Big Bay Stories
Faye Bowers (2023)