Project aims to showcase forgotten stories from Bay City, Mid-Michigan, Flint, and the Thumb

Local historian and Route Bay City contributor Sam Fitzpatrick is part of a state-funded effort to capture the history of towns in the Great Lakes Bay Region. The project is modeled on 1930s Works Project Administration (WPA) efforts. Through the project, a website, apps, tours, and photos will work together to showcase the key role this area played in creating Michigan. His contributions to the WPA pilot project have consisted of historical narratives for the cities of Bay City and Saginaw, points of interest for each, and is the author of the Saginaw story map.

Vibrant small towns, strong urban cores, picturesque lakeshores, thick woods, and beautiful agrarian scenery fill the region known as Mid-Michigan or Mideast Michigan, yet the area often is overlooked.

Mary Jo Kietzman (Photo courtesy of Mary Jo Kietzman)A team of over 40 local writers seeks to change that narrative through a series of printed materials, story maps, and an interactive app chock full of information about the region in and around Bay City, Midland, Saginaw, Flint, Owosso, Lapeer, and the Thumb.

Teaming up with the University of Michigan-Flint and through a matching Michigan Humanities Council grant, these writers are creating a series of city narratives, tours, story maps, and photos encompassing stories, histories, and points of interest to be explored by users.

It’s all part of a pilot project drawing inspiration from the 1930s-era state guides put out by the Works Project Administration’s (WPA) Federal Writers Project under the FDR Administration. During the Great Depression, the WPA instituted the Federal Writer’s Project giving stipends to writers.

The acronym ‘WPA’ has been creatively re-imagined as We Poke Along, a website where published story maps as a part of the pilot project have been made public. Currently, there are five story maps available to view focusing on Saginaw’s history, Shay Lake (a historically Black resort in Tuscola County), Owosso’s history, the Eastside of Flint, and a kayaking journey throughout the entirety of the Flint River.
Click here to view each map.

Dr. Mary Jo Kietzman, Associate Professor of English at the University of Michigan-Flint and published author, heads up the WPA project.

Zach Scott (Photo courtesy of Zach Scott)An avid walker, Kietzman focuses her teaching on public and environmental humanities projects.

“This has involved taking students into Flint, walking brownfields to figure out how we’d adapt ‘King Lear’ to the natural and human landscapes of our post-industrial city and taking them on urban pilgrimages: up the Flint River to the shrine painted for the Water Crisis (Mary Mother of Flint), or circumnavigating the biggest scar — the 400-acre Buick City, “she says.

Kietzman adds many of our cities carry the undeserved reputation as dangerous or ugly. Her students discover otherwise on these walking tours.

The North Saginaw Street mural in Flint tells pieces of the community's history. The WPA project will dive into many of the topics depicted here. (Photo courtesy of Mary Jo Kietzman)Through her exploration, Kietzman learned about state guides once put out as a part of the Federal Writer’s Project. After she purchased the 1941 “Michigan: A Guide to the Wolverine State,” she started thinking about a regional guide centered around the Saginaw River watershed.

An interactive app helps people discover new parts of the communities where they live. (Photo courtesy of the We Poke Along project)She plans to produce a printed guide covering part of the Saginaw River watershed including Bay City, Saginaw, Midland, Flint, and the Thumb. Plans for the guide include publishing background studies on regional topics such as migration, race, and the Flint Water Crisis; city profiles that highlight Bay City’s St. Stanislaus Church and Midland's Dow facilities; and a history of the Thumb including indigenous sites in Tuscola County.

The project also includes stories of following in the footsteps of Indian Dave visiting the off-reservation indigenous communities in the region, farming in the Thumb, Muskrat French living along our waterways, Shop Bars in Flint, and Midland’s close call with nuclear power.

Kietzman envisions the printed version as a functional guide that will offer suggestions for things to do, walks to take, bodies of water to paddle, and scenic drives. “It will also be a guide to regional culture, filled with local stories of the land and the lore and the people who stay.”

The Michigan Humanities Council grant paid stipends to young writers in the region to gather information and materials in the spirit of the original Federal Writers Project. UM faculty writers did not receive compensation.

The area now known as Downtown Bay City was once legendary for its saloons, gambling houses, and brothels. (Photo Credit: Ashley Brown)Alongside writers, app developers and GIS professionals have also been recruited. Zach Scott, a Midland native now living in Metro Detroit, is developing the “MIPilgrimage” app to function as an exploratory game for downtown Flint-area tours.

Originally intended to simply guide people to destinations, Scott, using Google Maps in a modified way, wanted the experience to be more fun. App users will tap a button notifying them of something nearby — the catch is it will not disclose any details of what it may be. It will, however, tell you how far away you are. Users will also be able to switch to something closer if they desire. Users will follow a directional arrow to plot the general direction. Scott also says it will only work for foot traffic, encouraging users to forge their own paths.

A printed guide, website, and app will guide people through the past and present of communities include Bay City. (Photo courtesy of Sam Fitzpatrick)Debuting this spring, it will be limited to 40 to 50 destinations in downtown Flint ranging between 2-3 miles. Some examples range from urban farms, Indigenous burial grounds, and the remains of the What Cheer Coal Mine #2, which has Bay City connections.

Zach Scott, a Midland native now living in Metro Detroit, is developing the MIPilgrimage app to function as an exploratory game for downtown Flint-area tours.(Photo courtesy of We Poke Along project)However, Scott would like to see other areas covered in the project including the Tri-Cities and the Thumb, and possibly outside Michigan. It will be available for Apple and Android.

“It’s a way to get people, especially young people, to feel a deeper and more authentic connection to a world that parents have frightened them away from,” Kietzman says, adding the app could be adapted to any city.

Kietzman would like to see other universities and Rustbelt locales collaborate on a broader statewide project.

Elise Sturgeon, a Flint native, joined the project as a GIS technician to work on story maps.

Sturgeon has created story maps through a digital platform provided by Esri and UM’s GIS programs, and hopes the story maps will allow users to explore at home before embarking on foot.

“It's diverse,” she says. “It keeps you on your toes. It's just so amazing — the different tone of all the authors compiled into this project.”

Sturgeon has taken it upon herself to visit these locations, such as Shay Lake. After interacting with locals, Sturgeon wishes she could witness the lake’s heyday as a Black vacation spot.

Gypsy Jack's house 'museum,' on Davison Road is a Flint landmark. (Photo courtesy of Mary Jo Kietzman) “To think of all the changes that the area has gone through into the Black history behind it. That it wouldn't be if not for these people that went there and made it their own vacation spot.”

Sturgeon plans on visiting Saginaw in the spring to coincide with the Saginaw story map.

The Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron connects Michigan to Canada. (Photo courtesy of Mary Jo Kietzman)“Our region gets overlooked,” Kietzman adds. “Flint isn’t even mentioned in those Michigan Under the Radar books. We are under-under the radar. The news for decades, especially about Flint, is all negative. Loss of factory jobs, loss of population, crime, drugs, white flight, water crisis. Saginaw, Flint’s sister city, has suffered in similar ways. Bay City less so. Many think the Thumb towns are boring or dying.

"This guide seeks to put our region where it belongs in the center of the state. Just as the thumb is essential to the mobility of the hand, our region built Detroit and much of the Midwest, provided the lumber, the vehicular power, the ships, the water routes, the manpower. If anything, I want people to appreciate our places and people for what they still are.

“I am interested in the people who stay, and trying to understand what makes them tick, what trips their triggers, and the new ways they are finding to live off the land,” Kietzman says.

“We think of our cities as very different and isolated: Flint, Saginaw, Bay City, Midland. We are on the same river system. There are common themes in our histories.”

Developers are starting work to transform this area, known today as the Buick Brownfield. The WPA project will explain what the auto industry means to Flint's past, present, and future. (Photo courtesy of Mary Jo Kietzman)Kietzman hopes the finished product will bring people into our region’s cities, towns, and rural areas.

“Botanize, document, explore, map, visit, volunteer, plant, bird watch, build, put down roots. Keep. Stay. My wish is for more people to live lightly, pay the bills, but reserve time and freedom to enjoy your chosen location. If you can do it here, then you can do it anywhere. The world is to be pounced on and enjoyed; there is no reason to fixate on a screen or stay in your car, come out and play."

The hope is that the publications and website will guide people through local lore, such as Bay City's ties to Madonna. (Photo courtesy of Sam Fitzpatrick)Those interested in contributing to the project or have an idea they would like to share may reach Dr. Kietzman via email,, or Sam Fitzpatrick at
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