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Manistee Memories

Author's roots inspire research for history book

photo The cover of "Images of America: Manistee County" from Arcadia Publishing.

MANISTEE — Shannon McRae's search for family history prompted her to assemble a book of old photos and history on Manistee County.

"This is a real eye-opener for me,” said McRae, author of "Images of America: Manistee County” (Arcadia Publishing). "I didn't realize how fascinating Michigan history is.”

McRae grew up in Benton Harbor and always knew her mother's side of the family had roots in Manistee. She didn't know much about the people or the place, though, until that branch had a family reunion in Manistee in 2004. She decided after that she wanted to know more.

Last January, she sent a proposal for the book to Arcadia Publishing of Mount Pleasant, S.C. The company, which publishes local and regional history books from all over the country, accepted her proposal and she spent much of her summer in Manistee doing research.

"It was much more than I had bargained for,” she said.

A rope-pull scrow was used to ferry passengers across the Manistee River while the Maple Street bridge was being built in 1906. It was one of the many methods people used to cross the river in the early days.

In addition to finding her own family's photos, she had to locate other pictures and worked with the Manistee Historical Society while also conducting interviews.

"That was a very different mode of research for an academic,” said McRae, who teaches English at State University of New York, Fredonia. "We find most of our information in books.”

For this project, she was interested in "why towns look the way they do and why people do the things they do,” she said.

She learned about her great-great-grandfather Thomas Kenny, who came over from Ireland, orphaned by a fever that spread during the potato famine, worked for a lumber company at age 13 and worked his way to foreman. Later, he owned a grocery store, was a bank president and started a coal company.

"Putting one's family in a historical context is really revealing,” she said.

It also includes stories of several other early movers and shakers, including lawyer Thomas Jefferson Ramsdell, Elihu and Warren Filer, who owned a mill and planned Filer City, and lumberman/railroad owner John Canfield.

In a chapter on women, she includes Fannie Fowler, who campaigned for women's suffrage and helped sponsor a visit by Susan B. Anthony; Cecilia Sorenson, who sat on railroad tracks for one night and one day to protest the building of the tracks within 10 feet of her boardinghouse; and the Women's Christian Temperance Union, which tried to close down every saloon in Manistee.

McRae also puts Manistee, Arcadia, Brethren, Kaleva and other places in the county in a historical context. Through photos and detailed captions, she tells of the lumber camps, log drives down the Manistee River, and the Buckley & Douglass Salt Mine, claimed to have been the largest in the world at the time.

The book also covers a trolley-train crash north of Manistee in 1917 resulting because "schedules were apparently not well coordinated”; and a rope-pull scow that carried passengers across the Manistee River while the Maple Street bridge was being built in 1906.

In addition, there are photos of houses, churches, schools and downtown buildings as they were around the early settlement of Manistee up to about World War II.

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