By DAVID GREEN
John Geisler says he’s always had an interest in roads, ever since he was a kid.
“Why does this road go from A to B?”
“Why is Telegraph called Telegraph?”
After the Morenci native retired from teaching at Western Michigan University, he didn’t want to stay at home so he enrolled in a Civl War class at a community college.
“I was in a class with 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds,” Geisler said. “They thought I fought in the Civil War.”
A later class in Michigan history led to the assignment of a research project and Geisler chose state highways. He quickly discovered that he would need to pare down the project to a single road.
“I knew something about an Indian trail that went east and west across Michigan,” he said. “It was known as the Old Sauk Trail.”
That’s the road he chose to study and he figures he’s probably traveled 3,000 miles researching his beloved U.S. 12.
Geisler spoke at Stair Public Library last week and showed slides of attractions found along the road.
For thousands of years, many trails have been used by native populations in what we now know as Michigan. The Sauk people didn’t break the trail named after them, but they frequently traveled its route.
Geisler said the Sauk once lived in the Saginaw Bay area. They moved north and later migrated into Illinois. British troops at Ft. Detroit kept an alliance with the Sauk alive by handing out gifts every year and the Sauk traveled the trail to receive their tribute.
In the 1820s, Father Gabriel Richard pushed for federal money to survey a road from Ft. Detroit to Ft. Dearborn (Chicago). The survey was completed in a surprisingly short time, Geisler said, because crew soon decided that it was silly to create a new road when the old trail was just what was needed.
Starting in downtown Detroit, Geisler headed west during a series of visits to follow U.S. 12 and record a few of the highlights that he found interesting.
His travels led to a series of commemorative plaques and signs that make reference to the Old Sauk Trail, the Chicago Road, the Iron Brigade Memorial Highway, the Pulaski Memorial Highway and others.
U.S. 12 travels by the former Tiger Stadium and the enormous Michigan Central Depot. It takes a Michigan Left Turn in which a driver must first turn right into order to travel left.
It passes the Willow Run bomber plant that produced one new bomber every hour at the height of production during World War II when 42,000 people were employed.
The highway crosses Normal Street in Ypsilanti, a reference to Michigan Normal College (Eastern Michigan University), the oldest teaching college west of the Appalachian Mountains.
The marker in Ypsi mentions the Old Chicago Road, the name commemorated in the majority of communities across the state.
Geisler noted that many communities along U.S. 12 are spaced 12 to 15 miles apart—the distance a stage coach could travel before changing horses.
His slide show moved into Lenawee County where the road was once known as 112. Route 12 traveled through Ann Arbor, but it was decommissioned after I-94 was built. When the highway signs were first changed, state workers simply used white paint to remove the first “1” in 112.
At the once-famous junction of U.S. 12 and M-50, the commemorative plaque, along with the rock on which it was based, was lost for 40 years following a road improvement project.
Geisler traveled past the observation towers in the Irish Hills and visited McCourtie Park near Somerset Center with its unique collection of trees and bridges made of concrete.
In a roadside park near Jonesville, Geisler encountered his third mention of Father Richard. He moved on through Allen, the antiques capital of Michigan, past a Mail Pouch Tobacco sign in Quincy and the Chicago Pike Inn in Coldwater.
There’s a Chicago Street School in Bronson, Halfway Road near Burr Oak (half way to Chicago?), and an operational soda fountain in White Pigeon. There’s also a United States Land Office in White Pigeon that sold land for $1.25 an acre in the 1820s.
Mottville features the world’s longest concrete camelback bridge in the world. Niles is the city of flags. British, French, U.S. and for 24 hours, Spanish flags have all flown over the city. In the early days of stage coach travel, a trip from Detroit to Niles took 13 days. Road improvements later cut travel time to five days.
Three Oaks proved to be Geisler’s favorite town along the route, with the old Featherbone corset company, the Dewey Cannon captured during the Spanish American War and the incomparable Drier’s Meat Market.
The Michigan stretch of U.S. 12 ends near New Buffalo, a town that has joined other communities with the construction of a casino. But looking back in time, Geisler also found what’s listed as the first tourist information center in the United States, ready to serve travelers crossing into Michigan from the Hoosier State.
The Native Americans knew how best to travel, Geisler noted, because their old route is still the shortest one from Chicago to Detroit.
“I’ve fallen in love with this particular road,” Geisler said.
His wife calls it an obsession.