Telling stories has been part of local author Barb Pert Templeton’s repertoire since she was a fourth-grader rounding up neighborhood kids to listen to her tales while playing school in her backyard.
As a freelance writer and reporter in Macomb County over the last three decades, deciding to write a book about interesting people from the county’s past seemed a normal segue for this storyteller.
“Historic Tales of Macomb County” was published on Nov. 2, 2020, and includes 14 chapters, titled with the names of municipalities in the county and featuring the personal stories of more than 30 historic trailblazers.
There’s the story of big-hearted former Detroit Tiger Vic Wertz in the Mount Clemens chapter, the Sterling Heights chapter has a section on beloved longtime Mayor Richard Notte, and the Warren chapter featuring Gov. Alexander Groesbeck whose campaign slogan in the 1920s was “Take Michigan out of the Mud” in a quest to pave all dirt roads in the state.
It’s a leisurely 142 page read hosting a variety of entertaining subjects accompanied by more than 65 historic photos.
Here’s an excerpt from the Shelby Township Chapter with the section on Heavyweight Boxing Champ Joe Louis.
Boxer Turned Horse Enthusiast
While heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis was known for his talents with his meaty fists in the ring, he also had a lighter side. He loved horses: breeding them, riding and training them and then showing them off at exclusive events. In 1938, this unusual hobby led Louis to Shelby Township, where he purchased five hundred acres at Spring Hill Farms for $100,000.
To appreciate the uniqueness of a world-famous boxer landing in Macomb County, one must take a look back at his history. Born in Alabama in 1914, Louis, whose given name was Joseph Barron, moved to Detroit as a child, and his mother, hoping to keep him out of trouble, insisted he take violin lessons. Joe had other plans, using the money for lessons at the local recreation center, where he was taught to box.
Once he began fighting in the ring, he changed his name to Joe Louis so his mother wouldn’t catch on to what he was up to. He started his amateur career when he was twenty years old and took his share of knockdowns before rising up to become the hardest hitter the sport had yet to see. He went on to reign as the world heavyweight boxing champion from 1937 to 1949, with a brief hiatus from wearing the gloves professionally, when he joined the army in 1942. Still, he didn’t stray far from the ring, participating in ninety-six bouts, including many charity exhibitions, earning donations for the Army Fund and Navy Reserve. In the U.S. Army, Louis attained the rank of sergeant and also the love of the people for his good nature.
A story in a local paper in 1946 after Louis defeated two opponents noted that experts felt he wasn’t as good as he’d been before serving in the military, but if some contenders didn’t materialize, he would remain the champion forever.
The land in Shelby Township that Louis decided to invest in also has its own remarkable history. Originally called Spring Hill Farm, the property was owned by Peter Lerich, and the farmhouse was marked by a massive cedar known as the “Beacon Tree.” In the pre–Civil War era, Lerich was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and he and some neighbors dug a huge hole, deep enough to hold several people, and hauled the tree in place on top of it.
Runaway slaves arrived at the tree, walked along a fence line, and slid down a pole, where they were hidden underground from slave catchers while receiving food and shelter from the Lerich family. Moving only at night, they would soon resume their journey north to Canada and freedom.
After Louis purchased the farm, a story came about with roots that traveled right back to the Lerich family. In a 1940 column sports columnist for the New York Journal Bill Corum praised the modest prizefighter. It seems as a new property owner, Louis was riding a horse and surveying his land when he came across a rickety old wooden shanty with smoke coming from the chimney. Stopping at the site, Louis observed an elderly couple coming out of the shack and asked them if it was their home. When they replied it was, he asked, “Doesn’t it get pretty cold at night?”
The couple told him indeed it did, but it was the only home the farm had now and they hoped the new owner wouldn’t make them leave. Louis quickly told them there was no chance of that and invited them to move to the main house up the hill, telling them it would be warm and dry and they could get other things they might need. A good deed, but the story didn’t end there. It turned out the older man in the squatter’s cabin was Peter Lerich’s grandson Wig Lerich and his wife. The tenant house they were moving into had been built by their own grandfather one hundred years before.
‘Historic Tales of Macomb County’ is now available for purchase at local booksellers or online at Amazon.com.