A passion for history leads to a local group’s quest to preserve Bay County’s heritage

Since 2005, a group of a couple dozen people has quietly worked to preserve local history.

The Wenona 1437 Questers Chapter formed here in 2005 and is connected to national and state Questers organizations dedicated to learning about and preserving history.

“Questers are a group that basically loves all things preservation, restoration, history, antiques,” says Shelley Whitehead, Past President of the Wenona chapter.

About nine times a year, 20 or so members gather in private homes to learn about history and choose projects that help the public learn more about our heritage.

“We pick projects around our community that we want to help fund or sponsor,” says Whitehead, adding some projects are more visible than others.

While the Questers group may not be well known, you can find evidence of their passion for history throughout the community. This bench in Battery Park was donated by the organization.“At the Historical Pine Ridge Cemetery, we know we have Civil War soldiers buried there, but we don’t have the exact grave-site locations,” she explains.

To solve the problem, the Questers worked with the Friends of the Pine Ridge Cemetery to help fund a bronze sign memorializing the soldiers. Pine Ridge Cemetery, 198 Ridge Road. Inside the cemetery is the Soldiers Rest section and a bronze plaque that lists each soldier’s name. The plaque honors their memories and acknowledges their service.

The Wenona Questers have a keen interest in architecture, such as the distinctive styles found inside Bay City's City Hall.Whitehead says the group doesn’t fund projects for private individuals or homes, but they helped get a Questers’ state grant to defray the cost of historical signs for the Center Avenue homes. The grant plus money from the Center Avenue Neighborhood Association helps offset the price of the signs.

“Those signs cost roughly $1,500 each, but with the money we kicked in and with what the Center Avenue group raised, the homeowners only have to pay about $300,” she says.

The Questers wanted to help make it more affordable to recognize the history of the area and, “it’s not about the people who live here now.”

Most recently the group helped the Bay County Historical Society with a preservation project along the Bay City Riverwalk.

“We helped replace the staircase at the Trombley House (901 John F. Kennedy Drive). It wasn’t safe for people to climb to the second floor,” she says. But with help from the Questers, the staircase was saved.

The Questers raise funds for these projects through lunch and learn events called “Appetite for Antiques.” They haven’t hosted any since large gatherings are discouraged during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Whitehead says she hopes they’re able to get back to the lunch and learns soon.  

Fundraising and preservation projects aren’t their only aim. Whitehead says the group enjoys getting together and learning new things too. Next month, the Bay City and Saginaw Questers will get together and host the annual Fall State Days. Whitehead says the event will draw over 150 people to the DoubleTree Hotel, 1 Wenonah Park Place.

“Our theme this year is ‘Kit Homes – From Catalogue to Curb’.”

The Aladdin Home Company, based in Bay City, created kit homes that were distributed through catalogs. Bay City was also home to Liberty Homes and Sterling Homes, which Whitehead says “are all an offshoot of the rich lumbering history that we have in Bay City.”

Dig a bit deeper and you’ll find a connection between the area’s maritime heritage and the famous kit homes. Whitehead explains that manufacturers created kit boats first. People used pre-cut and pre-measured items from the kits to build their own boats.

“The Sovereign brothers from Aladdin Homes said, ‘If you can do it for boats, we can do it for homes,’ and later both Sears and Montgomery Ward started selling them in their catalogs.”

To join the Questers, you simply have to have a passion for restoration, preservation, history, and antiques.A couple now living in a kit home in Royal Oak is speaking at the statewide convention, Whitehead says. Convention-goers also may tour Bay City homes.

“Every year we get together, brainstorm ideas about different things our group might be interested in,” she says.

Some of those topics take the form of monthly meetings.

“We’re not just a lunch group of gals that get together and talk. We like to get together and learn something.”

This month, they’re taking a field trip to Midland to the John Pratt Mosaic House, located on M-20 west of Midland.

The house, which is a preservation project maintained by Midland-based Creative 360, is covered in mosaic murals. Pratt was an artist who used the outside walls of his childhood home in the woods as a canvas, creating murals out of shards of pottery, broken china, and mirrored tiles. In the end, he created images that represent his mental illness and recovery.

Also in the plans for this year is a visit from a fellow Michigan Quester who helped conduct the research for “Goodtime Girls: Prostitution in the Old West.”

 “You know we had that going on here in Bay City, too, during the lumbering days,” Whitehead says.

Other topics scheduled for meetings in 2021-22 include African missionary life, the history of tiaras, book collecting, and unique art.

The annual state convention is not open to the public, but the monthly meetings are open. To learn more, contact Whitehead at (989) 892-0719 or visit the local Facebook page. Information also is available on the statewide website michiganquesters.org.