By Kurt J. Kolka
(Originally Posted: Friday, June 27, 2014)
Like a lot of people, I thought history was boring.
Back in elementary school, history was about memorizing a list of facts dealing with wars and government documents, which children can hardly begin to relate to. It seemed so distant and sterile. There was nothing to bring it home.
Then, our high school did a unique experiment. It offered a two-day series of mini classes. These were simply fun, non-graded classes offered in the spring each year. I decided to take one called Crawford County ghost towns, which was essentially two days of field trips. Without a doubt, the word "ghost" played a role in my interest back then. There were even rumors of hauntings at some ghost towns which I had heard about from other kids talking over the years. The class was led by Mr. McClain, an English teacher, and Mr. Kinkerter, a business teacher.
We visited several ghost towns on two those days, but the one which really caught my eye was Deward. (For those who don't know, Deward is located in northwest Crawford County, just south of the Otsego County line and even figures into some history here.) What I liked most about Deward were all the foundations and evidence of the town which could still be seen.
That day, we walked around down where the old railroad scales were. We could touch the base of the company store's bank vault. And we climbed on the cement mounts which once held the boiler for the steam engine of the great saw mill there. When I arrived home, I couldn't wait until I could get my hands on my parents' copy of "The First Hundred Years," the history book on Crawford County. I needed to see what those buildings looked like when the town was still going.
And later on, when I needed to write a paper for one of Mr. Woodland's English classes, I chose to do one on the history of Deward. My father took me to speak with his cousin Ray Brown of Frederic, who knew about Deward and even informed me some of my ancestors had worked there. He, in turn, put us in touch with Carl Olson, whose family had lived in Deward. Later, I wrote a short story using the town as the setting for another English project. All this time, I saw this as just an English project. I didn't realize it but I was really learning about history.
Going on to college at Concordia University in Ann Arbor, I took Old Testament classes from Dr. P.G. Meyers. Meyers had been to the Holy Land and used slides in his classes to show where the events in the Bible occurred and the artifacts which showed us how they lived. Through his teachings and those of other professors there, the Bible came alive for me. I looked at the people in it in a totally different way after that and found I could identify with them in ways I hadn't before.
Out of college, I took a seasonal job at Hartwick Pines State Park, near Grayling. Under the tutelage of park interpreter Wendell Hoover, I learned more about local history. The old-time loggers and the companies they worked for played an important role in the history of Northern Michigan, especially Grayling and Gaylord. As one of a group of seasonal interpreters, one of my jobs was studying logging history and culture, especially from the year 1893, which was the year we were role-playing down at the logging camp exhibit. The job meant learning how books were kept in the company store, to sharpen an ax on a grinding stone, whittling, using a crosscut saw, what it felt like to sleep on a mattress of straw, the types of magazines and newspapers they would have read (much different than what we read today). Supplies were brought by wagon or train. Many loggers were farmers or farm workers who logged during the winter months for added income. The zipper had not yet been invented. The Ferris wheel was brand new. To talk to park visitors, you had to understand the loggers' world and that meant experiencing as much of it as you could.
Both my wife and I had developed an appreciation for history by the time we met. As years passed, we wanted to pass that down to our daughter. We tried to include some history on all our road trips. A trip out east included visiting a reconstruction of the "Plimoth Plantation" and the Mayflower. How those early colonists survived a trip across the ocean in that small of a boat amazes me. I would have been claustrophobic. That ship was so much smaller than I would have ever imagined. And that group was far less homogeneous than I knew. There were some culture clashes among the people which they had to learn to deal with.
Another time, while following the Mississippi, we visited one of the homes of Daniel Boone and learned about the times he lived in. What a life he had! Just as exciting as the fictional TV show about him I had watched as a kid.
In recent years, I've done some research on family history, because my ancestors' homestead was located in southwest Otsego County, not far from where Deward once stood. My great-grandfather, Frank Kulka, came over from Poznan, Poland, at a time when his area of that country was being taken over by Germany. He lived in Otsego County, married a woman from Vanderbilt and raised his children here. He sold cabbages to people here in Otsego County — produce he raised off his farm to make a living. A creek was named for him. After his death, his children migrated to Grayling and that's where I entered this picture, decades later.
You see, history really isn't about just wars and documents. It's about people and their lives which led to those documents and battles.
It's where we came from, who we came from and how we got here. Few aspects of life are as personal as history.
Take some time this Fourth of July to consider history. Yours. Ours.