Prentiss Brown Jr. Recalls Half Century of Progress in St. Ignace
From his vantage point of 50 years as the city's attorney, Prentiss M. "Moie" Brown Jr. looks upon the past half century as one of great progress for St. Ignace. While tracing the population's ebb and flow with the rise and fall of the railroads and the building of the Mackinac Bridge, he points to many improvements that have made life better for residents here over those years, including the planning of the bridge, creation of the county hospital, city acquisition of railroad properties in the early 1980s, and water and sewer upgrades.
"St. Ignace years ago was a substantial lake port, and with the state ferries and rail ferries here employing probably 600 people, it was the center, an economic stronghold," Mr. Brown said of the town in the early 1950s.
It was in this atmosphere that he began his working life following two years of World War II service in the U.S. Navy Air Corps, an education at Newberry College, University of South Carolina, and Albion College, and law school at University of Michigan, from which he was graduated in 1951. The sixth of seven children of Senator Prentiss Marsh Brown and Marion Elizabeth Walker, he is a lifelong St. Ignace resident, like his parents before him.
His father was influential in pushing for construction of the Mackinac Bridge.
"Things got real busy in the early '50s, when the bridge was anticipated," Mr. Brown recalls. "The planning of the bridge was very important here. It excited a lot of people, although some said we didn't need it. It is interesting to note that, in the early '40s, the highway department saw a need for quicker transport between Mackinaw City and St. Ignace and built the causeway on the south side of St. Ignace into the Straits, and anticipated building a dock there. But the war frustrated that construction. That causeway was later developed as almost one mile of the causeway for the bridge.
"The bridge was really on the hot wire in '51 when I returned from school. It proved to be quite a boon for the city of St. Ignace, adding 300 or 400 bridge employees, so that there was a boom in housing. The city saw a remarkable increase in populations of the school, churches, civic functions, and the stores. Not only did employees and their visitors fill the restaurants and schools, they eventually sparked the building of the new high school in the 1950s."
Mr. Brown recalled a big parade May 8, 1954, when the town celebrated the beginning of the bridge construction project. Despite the spring date, a light snow fell on the festivities.
When the state ferries closed down, Mr. Brown worked with his father and Governor G. Mennen "Soapy" Williams to arrange jobs in the state highway department for local ferry employees.
St. Ignace lost some families then, and again in the early 1960s when the rail business lagged.
"It was not a good thing as far as the city was concerned, and by the '80s we had lost all of the rail workers."
In 1968, Mr. Brown, a supporter of city improvement projects, was chosen as the third recipient of the St. Ignace Citizen of the Year Award. He was cited for his work in the American Legion, Kiwanis Club, hospital board, Chamber of Commerce board, St. Ignace Area Development Corporation, golf association, swimming pool committee, Father Marquette Pageant Association, and the Methodist church.
The late 1960s saw a change in government, with St. Ignace bringing in professional city managers, Mr. Brown said, and around the same time, work began to upgrade water and sewer systems from old 1930s standards.
"That was a big improvement in the community," he said. "We bought the water system from Edison Soo, which had taken it over from the city in the teens. It became a public utility and eligible for federal and state funding." The system was upgraded again in the 1980s and 1990s and expanded to include outlying areas in St. Ignace Township and Moran Township, areas for future growth. The downtown streetscape design and boardwalk installation began then, as well.
"Another big improvement was after the railroad left in the early '80s, and the city bought the railroad yards and properties for $185,000," Mr. Brown said. The old railroad roundhouse was located where the lumberyard now stands downtown. Engines came in on the south side of Marquette Street, and box cars were stored where Little Bear East Arena is now. The purchase gave residents access to these parcels within the city.
One project helping to attract people to the town was the establishment of Mackinac Straits Hospital in 1957. Mr. Brown points to this collective effort among the city and surrounding townships as an example of a long history of collaborative projects in St. Ignace. Over the years, city leaders have focused on developing not only its infrastructure, but cooperation with the workforce, the schools, and preserving local history, a trend that continues today with the city's interest in the Fort de Buade collection, Mr. Brown said.
"Preservation of the history here has been a focus of the city, and was promoted by the city through the Michilimackinac Historical Society in the '60s and '70s," he said. "The society, with the help of the city, solicited state and federal funds to memorialize the history of this area, the French and Indian connection. That cooperation is still going on among the city, the historical society, and the tribe."
Plans are being made today to commemorate the history of commercial fishing here. Mr. Brown recalls when the shoreline of Moran Bay was lined with small fishing docks, while across the bay, huge stacks of lumber awaited milling at Maple Block Lumber Company, where butcher blocks were made. That site was later purchased, then torn down, by the Barrett family of Newberry, and is now the location of the Shepler's Ferry operation.
"St. Ignace was one of the biggest fishing ports on the Great Lakes, and our main street on the lake side was filled with fishing docks, warehouses, and little icehouses. It was significant, but the economic impact has faded away from what it was 30 or 40 years ago, although you can still see evidence of these docks when you walk along the boardwalk," Mr. Brown said.
He recalls an even earlier St. Ignace story relayed by his father, regarding the movement of the county seat from Mackinac Island to St. Ignace in the early 1880s.
"The county seat was on Mackinac Island, and because of the development of the lumber business, St. Ignace became more dominant in the county, and people decided St. Ignace would be a more central location," he said. "I got it from my dad, and he would know, that when it was moved over here, Mackinac Island people were upset. The St. Ignace people had a celebration planned for the eighth of August. The Island people didn't like it, and put a curse on that celebration day. One of the worst storms they ever had hit on that day, and it did mess up that celebration a little bit. People joked about that for a long time."
The Brown family has a long history in St. Ignace. Senator Prentiss M. Brown worked as a lawyer in the town around 1914, with his father, attorney James J. Brown, who had come north from the Pontiac/Detroit area in the lumbering days.
Today, Mr. Brown works in the same firm where he began his law career, Brown & Brown attorneys, with his brother, Jim Brown, his son, Charles Brown, and his nephew, Tom Evashevski.
He and his wife, Margaret (nee Dolesi) Brown, who is originally from the Detroit area, have four children who grew up here, Stephen Brown of Grand Rapids, Charles of St. Ignace, Mary Margaret Clement of St. Ignace, and Benjamin of St. Ignace, and 10 grandchildren.
In his free time, Mr. Brown enjoys hunting, fishing, taking drives through the woods, and spending time with his family at a cottage on Marquette Island near Hessel, shared by members of the Prentiss M. Brown family.
"We're extremely happy that a lot of our family still has ties to this beautiful, ancient city," Mr. Brown said. "We enjoy all of the people and activities that are here, and we are happy to assist with civic functions whenever we can. My wife often comments on the great progress this city has made since she came in 1951."