Looking Back: St. Clair Shores may not be an old city, but it honors its past

This is the second in an occasional series about preservation in metro Detroit’s historic communities.

 

With a senior center, a dog park, and a bocce ball court, St. Clair Shores has amenities for all ages. But when French settlers first came to the area in the eighteenth century, it was swampland and unfit for much development.

 

The first inhabitants named the place L'anse Creuse which translates to Hollow Cove or Deep Bay. According to Michael Leeson’s History of Macomb County, in 1797, between the mouth of the Huron River and the Milk River, there were only thirty inhabitants.

 

As in Detroit at the time, they established ribbon farms along Lake St. Clair, but the pioneers of the region weren’t concerned about making it a thriving community; the land was primarily used for survival, and though these early settlements were called farms, the inhabitants were more concerned with trapping and fishing. They planted a few fruit trees to test seeds but not much else.

 

The Gazet Tremblé farm at the point of the Milk River was well-known for its chokecherry and black cherry brandy. It was considered one of the finest French farms of those early days. Today a marker, dedicated by the city in 2001, stands in its place near the Lake Shore Drive bridge.

 

The city wasn’t incorporated until 1951, but it takes its history seriously. The city is unique in that it budgets for city historic markers every year.

 

According to Jerry Sielagoski, chairperson of the city’s historical commission, St. Clair Shores is “extremely supportive when it comes to historic preservation and looks forward to marker dedications.” So far, the city has erected five State of Michigan historic markers as well as eight city-issued markers and thirteen small markers on residential and business properties, with more to come.

 

Sielagoski also receives a monthly mailing of all the demolition permits approved in the city, enabling him and his team to document historic structures with photographs and architectural information before they disappear forever.

 

“Once these structures are gone,” he says, “over time you forget because you don’t see them anymore. So, we try to preserve them anyway we can.”

 

In addition to documenting (and saving) structures, the community is encouraged to investigate and nurture its history. Sielagoski points to the local history department located at the St. Clair Shores Library, and the thirty-year-old genealogy group that frequently meets there. The city has established an oral history project where older residents like Theresa Bertolini, who moved to the area in 1956, and Jeanne Srigley, a resident since 1934, can record their personal stories.


Srigley describes what life was like for her during the Great Depression, and how her father, a mail carrier for the area, used to get bottles of booze during prohibition from Purple Gang, because they were on his mail route along Jefferson Avenue.

 

She also relates how, in the evenings, she would sit with her friends on the banks of the canal and listen to the music of great jazz performers of the day floating over from Blossom Heath, the popular speakeasy. And we learn that even into the 1950s, the area was lovingly dubbed ‘Muddy Acres’ by Theresa Bertolini’s father because, until roads were paved and storm sewers constructed, the area maintained the swampy nature of its early days.

 

Sielagoski says he’s lived in St. Clair Shores since the 1990s, and he wouldn’t live anywhere else, adding that the city has something for everyone. He notes that the city does a tremendous job maintaining the parks and the Lake St. Clair shoreline.

 

Cynthia Bieniek, a retired archivist, and librarian of the library says the schools were the big draw for her, and that the area has a great safety record. Not only that, she remarks that St. Clair Shores has been considered a Tree City by the Arbor Day Foundation for thirty-two years.

 

“We plant a lot of trees when we can, and we work hard to preserve the Nautical Mile because it’s one of the boating capitals of the world. We‘re also we’re part of the Lake Circle Tour.” The most pleasant aspect of the area, she adds, is her neighbors, who she says are down-to-earth and friendly. She and Sielagoski comment that the city, although developed, retains a small village feel. The Nine Mile and Mack Avenue area has recently been marked as its official downtown.

 

Among the most notable historic structures in St. Clair Shores is the Blossom Heath Roadhouse, which was the big gambling and drinking venue during prohibition. It went into disrepair, however, and was eventually turned into the community civic center. Then there is the St. Gertrude Roman Catholic Church. After its first location was destroyed by a flood, a new wood-and-stone church along Jefferson was constructed. Now the area is home to a senior living center, but in the front entrance of the new building, the city has placed a marker so that St. Gertrude’s will always be remembered.

St. Gertrude's, 1962. Courtesy St, Clair Shores Historical Commission.

 

When its preserved history is concerned, Sielagoski says the Selinsky-Green House is the area’s best-kept secret. Greenfield Village initially wanted the home, but the city opted to keep it as a living history museum. It was moved from its original spot on Eleven Mile and Grant Road to its current spot behind the public library. Now the city would like to add a small barn to accompany the home and make the property more of an accurate representation of the original.

 

In a more recent oral history interview with seasoned resident and Historical Commission member Jeanne Srigley, she noted that with the little funds the city has, they are doing a fine job preserving history and that the residents seem to like what the commission is doing. Her main concern, however, is that the barn project will be delayed because of the pandemic.

 

“We wanted to build a little barn,” she says, “so that the kids would know what life was like back then, but when the virus hit everything went absolutely still.” only A 2002 fundraiser for the barn raised about a third of what was needed for the project.

 

“Historic preservation is about sharing stories,” Jerry Sielagoski says. “Sharing the recollections of the people who shaped our history; not just the famous people, but the everyday people who had challenges and accomplishments all their own and who were influenced by the times.”

 

Read more articles by Brianne Turczynski.

Brianne Turczynski holds an MA in education from Oakland University with a concentration in History and English. Her work has been published in the poetry anthology, Sixty-Four Best Poets of 2018 (Black Mountain Press), The 3288 Review, Michigan Out-of-Doors Magazine, and others. Her book, Detroit's Lost Poletown: The Little Neighborhood that Touched a Nation was released with the History Press in 2021. Follow her at @booksandloststories.  
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