Category Archives: Michigan History

Mysterious Murder in The Thumb

Michigan Murder Mystery

The Thumb Pointed Fingers is a genealogical fiction murder mystery based on actual events that occurred in Sanilac and Huron County Michigan in the early 1900’s. The story is focused on Carrie Sparling’s life on the farm near Tyre. It was a storybook setting for Carrie’s growing and prosperous family until the untimely demise of her husband J.W., and three of her six young adult children. The Sparling’s family doctor, the handsome Dr. Robert MacGregor became ensnared in the mysterious and unexplainable deaths and would live to regret taking on Carrie as a patient.


This is author Jackie Howard’s first book. She, like myself and thousands of others in the Thumb are related to the Sparling family and have heard the tale of the “Dying Sparlings”. The book does a wonderful job of portraying what life was like in the years before the automobile. Living in a small rural area. The need for a large family garden, the constant chores and activity associated with the farm. It notes the crucial role women played in the economic success of rural families. It also points out the lasting effects on those families who survived the 1881 Great Fire and the physiological toll it took on many. It’s a wonderful glimpse of life in an era long past coupled with an murder mystery that to many is still unsolved to this day.



Jenny, Quanicassee’s Beer Drinking Bear

We love old stories about Michigan’s Upper Thumb. We are fascinated by the rapid growth of the region in the late 1800’s such as the shipbuilding in Caseville, the boom town of Port Crescent and the grace and luxury of early hotels and resorts of Bay Port and Pointe Aux Barques.

In the early 1900’s the biggest social changing event was that of the automobile. People could extend their world beyond the harbors and rail lines and no longer had to care and feed horses. While roads were still considered not much more then cart paths in the rural areas, the high wheelbase of early autos meant that folks of means could go just about anywhere.

It was during this time that Frank Vanderbilt came and invested in Quanicassee at the base of the Thumb. The name “Quanicassee” is of Native American origin meaning “lone tree”. The entire area had been a fishing village and the marshes were known for wild rice long before the arrival of white settlers. Frank was a hustler and knew how to take care of himself. He was a winning prize fighter. In a fight in Bay City in 1893 when he was 26 he took the $100 prize and all the gate proceeds for beating a local favorite. As a saloon keeper in Essexville he had been shot during a festival. After a fire of his house and bar he came to the tiny village looking for a fresh start. He knew the trend of road travel was just starting to take off. He became owner of a hotel and saloon.

Jenny Bear3
Frank knew how to draw a crowd. It was during this time of early motor travel that roadside attractions became popular. Small museums, oddity displays, and amusement parks popped up next to gas stations and restaurants. Vanderbilt started collecting wild animals for a roadside zoo. One of his early acquisitions was a female black bear. The cub was supposedly orphaned after a fire in the Clare area. How Frank acquired the young cub is truly unknown but it became part of the saloons attraction. The bear was smart and performed for pieces of bread, milk and meat. Frank named the famed cub Jenny.

In 1909 Jenny became a momma. She had her first and only cub with another captive bear named Billy who Vanderbilt acquired after Jenny. The birth announcement when on to say that the roadside attraction had three bears, 28 racoons and a pond full of hungry carp. It also mentioned that “several Indians survive on his bounty”. (Bay City Tribune, January 28, 1909) It was also noted that Jenny was a “topper” for her ability to remove beer caps before guzzling down a brew.

One account was by the Don Miller who wrote on a post about the topic. “…in the summer of 1911 at 15 he [my dad] moved to Frank Vanderbilt’s Resort to mend nets, do fishing boat chores and care for the “zoo” which Frank had put together. Frank provided him a shack. He cared for Jennie the bear as well as other zoo residents. The bear was famous for the beer drinking from a bottle on week-ends…dad fed her bread and milk before the evenings (Fri & Sat) to fortify her capacity. Cost was Fifty cents to buy her a beer. She was housed in a big concrete bridge drain tube with a straw bed & fitted with bars. When in the tavern she would be on a round section of a huge tree trunk, with chain and collared. Over time she became alcoholic got ornery with a hang-over.”

Jenny bear4
The final chapter of the Beer Drinking Bear Jenny is a bit fuzzy. One account is that due to prohibition the saloon and hotel soon were failing. Unable to care for the large animal Jenny was sold to a hunting club who then proceeded to place the bruin on the menu at a wild game dinner. Another account has the bear was euthanized after attacking a customer’s child. The real story is likely a combination of both. Regardless it was a sad end for the alcoholic bear who was so exploited.

In the end it was said that out of guilt Frank Vanderbilt placed the statue of Jenny as a memorial and tribute. Today it’s a part of the lore at the base of Michigan’s Thumb.



Great Michigan Forest Fires

The great Michigan forest fires of 1881 swept over four counties in three days, destroyed nearly two million dollars’ worth of property, and killed one hundred and twenty-five people. Their extent and irresistible power were largely due to atmospheric conditions. The summer of 1881 was excessively dry, and the drought had done its work nowhere more effectively than in the wide, blunt, tongue of land which lies between Saginaw bay and Lake Huron. At the northern end of this tongue is Huron County.

Like this topic? Click the link below to find out more.

Great Michigan Thumb Fires of 1881


Great Lakes Ship Building

I recently ran across a online resource for Great Lakes Shipping enthusiasts.  The Fr. Edward J. Dowling, S.J. Marine Historical Collection offers an ever expanding data set of ships, shipbuilders and ship names that span back to the 1830’s. 

Steamship Alpena

“The collection also contains 52 notebooks filled with more than 70 years worth of compiled data on virtually every steamship (about 10,000) of more than 100 tons that has navigated the Great Lakes. The data includes the years of which the ships were built, their owners, the ships’ dimensions, type of equipment used on them, final disposition and other data. In addition, the collection has details on almost every fleet navigating the Great Lakes.”

Steamship Interior

I became very interested in ship building in the Thumb when I found that Caseville’s Frances Crawford built a schooner the Frank Crawford on the Pigeon River in 1861. See the post Ship Building in Caseville to find out more.  

Steamship Alpena2

Fr. Edward J. Dowling was a noted Great Lakes historian, an associate professor of engineering graphics at the University of Detroit, and a special lecturer in marine travel and commercial shipping on the Great Lakes. He authored Lakers of World, published by the University of Detroit Press in 1967 and numerous journal article on Great Lakes shipping.

Ships depicted are the City of Alpena from the Dowling Collection.