Old Mission Historical past: Mrs. Wilson, Billboards and a Chance Encounter in Washington D.C.
(Editor’s Note: Barb Wunsch, Tim Carroll and Helen Vogel reflect on a pillar of our community, Margaret Menauch Wilson. She was also known as Mrs. William Fremont Wilson, and Tim Carroll’s family knew her as “Helen” Wilson, as well. According to Ancestry.com, she was born in Scotland on May 29, 1879, immigrated to the United States in 1881, and married William Fremont Wilson in 1895. They had four children: Margaret G. Wilson, Isabel M. Wilson, Willard F. Wilson and James G. Wilson. Margaret died on March 18, 1970, and is buried at Oakwood Cemetery in Traverse City. Read on for their notes, starting with Barb… -jb)
As the weather changes, I am reminded of my many Fall seasons on the Old Mission Peninsula. I have close family members that are in the process of moving to the Peninsula, and I am excited by all of the new folks who are joining our community. But I am also reminded of many community pillars who are no longer with us.
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I grew up on the north end of the Peninsula, in Ogdensburg. When I was growing up, the Old Mission Peninsula was largely a matriarchy, and many of the farms were owned by older women who played an important role in the community. Helen Pratt was north of us, my grandmother Rosa Dohm owned what is now Twin Maples Farm, and Hazel and Hilda Ladd lived across the road from us. They had a small farm and were influential in the community.
The Wilson Farm, which my son Isaiah bought in 2018, is on the south end in the microcosm known as Stoney Beach. This area was presided over by Margaret Wilson, who has been described as a public-spirited citizen who worked on various kinds of community activities that were very important to how Old Mission was developed. Her main claim to fame was her fight to keep billboards off the Peninsula. Have you ever noticed that every community on the outskirts of Traverse City has very large, bold signage? Yes, every community, with one exception – Peninsula Township.
Margaret’s granddaughter, Helen Vogel, relays this memorable story about her grandmother and billboards…
A local businessman put up a billboard on Center Road. Margaret and her colleagues in the local women’s club did not appreciate the new large sign. Margaret visited that local businessman and pointed out to him that Center Road (M37) was a dead end road, the local people on the Peninsula already knew about his business, and if the sign did not get moved to a more appropriate place, the people of the Peninsula would boycott his business.
Her reasoning made an impact on the businessman, and the sign was moved. I understand she had to repeat this performance several times before local businesses gave up trying to put up billboards on the Peninsula.
Over time, the Peninsula Township Zoning Ordinance refined the guidelines to be followed for signage on the Peninsula.
William and Margaret Wilson | Wilson Archives PhotoHelen Vogel, right, with Jane’s dear friend Ruthanne Bohrer, who is related to the Wilsons on her mother’s side; photo taken at Helen’s farm on Montague Road | Jane Boursaw Photo
Tim Carroll, our go-to historian here on the Peninsula, wrote this piece about Margaret Wilson (whom his family referred to as “Helen Wilson”).
The Remarkable Helen Wilson
by Tim Carroll
In the years between 1944 and 1954, I went from Kindergarten through 7th grade at Mapleton School, and was in the 10th grade at St. Francis in Traverse City.
As my 16th birthday approached, I began a blitzkrieg aimed at my long-suffering parents. It went something like this: that someone already in high school should, really, have a trip to Washington D.C. to better understand the workings of our government. I had a leg up in this endeavor because “Civics,” as it was called then, was a school subject as weighted as History, Chemistry and Math. And which, among a long list of other subjects, was often talked about around our kitchen table. Certain, that vocal meal, known to us as “supper,” was where a hint emerged that such a trip might even be plausible. So I, as we now say, “Leaned In,” and plans soon began to take form.
During my years in grade school, I had been exposed to a collection of Peninsula women who were known to be the untitled leaders in their communities. Helen Altenburg was recognized around around our table, as “the shaker and doer” in the Old Mission District. Seth Tompkins’ wife, Rebecca, was a leading voice in the Odgensburg District. And Margaret Kroupa Dohm (married to Ray, the elected Treasurer of the Peninsula), lived in the Mapleton District and was where one went for answers.
But, leading the pack for the Peninsula as a whole was Mrs. Helen Wilson. She lived in the Stoney Beach District and was, on the one hand, a typical cherry farmer’s wife of the era, assisting with farm work.
Margaret “Helen” Menauch Wilson and William Fremont Wilson | Helen Vogel Archives
But, she was also a well-read, issue-oriented, charming lady, always ready to share her views. I was intrigued by her every time we were in the same room. She would be ready to discuss the topic of the day with an awkward teenager, and assumed I was going to keep up with her. And her love of our communithy was apparent.
I need to add that politics were not the rancorous affair they are today. Elections were not questioned. Indeed, as I learned, volunteering to help on a few Election Days at the Peninsula Town Hall, the ladies who ran the polls therein were towers of knowledge on the exact lawful procedures for casting your vote and woe be he, or she, who dared to wander one inch from the rigid rules, set in concrete, by the Stalwart Minders of our Democratic Republic. It was understood by all that you won some and you lost some. No one would have considered to think otherwise.
So, it came to pass that not only would my parents drive me to Washington to celebrate my 16th birthday, but my neighbor and friend, Judy Freundl, nee Lardie, could come along, as well. “Never leave home until all the seats in the car are taken” was a motto of my father’s. (Sadly, Judy died earlier this year.)
So off we went, over what must have been Easter Break. The nuns frowned on missed school days, even for the lofty excursion for which I had pressed. We spent an overnight going each way. Going east, on the newly opened Pennsylvania Turnpike, the concept of a four-lane highway through the mountains thrilled us. We stayed in one of the new Howard Johnson Hotels our first night, the latest concept in modern travel.
Dad (and it must be noted: a New Deal Democrat) had arranged with someone on the staff of our District’s State Representative in Washington for the tickets needed for us to enter the Gallery above the House of Representatives while it was in session. We checked into the Ambassador Hotel, supposedly interested in guests from Michigan for our stay. After dinner our first night, Dad gave me a $5 bill and told me to take Judy, go down to the front desk, get a taxi and ask the driver to take us around to see the monuments by night. I was certain that this was the beginning of adulthood for a 16-year-old.
And, luck of the Irish, it unfolded exactly like that. Our driver was a black man, the first in my life with whom I had a conversation. He treated us, I’m sure, to far more than the $5 worth and explained each on The Mall, from the Lincoln Memorial up to the Capitol and returned us blinded by the beauty of it all on a moonlit night in springtime. There was also an indoor swimming pool in the hotel, and one could rent a suit and go swimming in March! But that was our second night’s thrill.
After breakfast in the hotel, Dad went out on the street and hailed a cab, a concept I thought more sophisticated even than a swimming pool in the basement. We were dropped at one of the House Office Buildings, walked in (there was no security in those ancient times), and took the elevator to the Congressman’s office. The staff could not have been more pleasant or accommodating. I can’t remember this clearly, but surely it was a Republican seat, yet we were from his district and treated with great enthusiasm (nine years later, I would be on such a staff).
So, with tickets in hand, we were led to the Capitol Building, underground from the House Office Buildings to the House side of the building, an experience which seemed historic to me. Finally, at the top of a handful of staircases, we arrived at the section where our tickets were examined, rules given (NO TALKING), and escorted to our seats.
The House was in full session, debating a bill regarding some complex tax issue. It made very little sense to me, rather like examining a single cell of the human body. But we “leaned in” and worked on understanding how the debating was handled. Then, somewhere in the middle of this, my mother nudged my father and, to my horror, actually begin to whisper to my father, even pointing. I was very much an obedient youngster so I couldn’t imagine what was going on, but considered the possibility that we might be ejected from our seats. Only then did I realize they were pointing at another guest of The House somewhat across the Gallery from our own seats. Had they lost their minds???
Try as I might, I can’t remember what happened exactly after that, but at the end of the Session, we hustled out of the chamber and around to the other side and were suddenly facing no one less than Mrs. Helen Wilson. What were the odds?
She had her notebooks and her briefcase (rather daring for a woman in those long ago years), and was giving my folks hugs and kisses and delight. Neither had been in touch with the other. It was an incredible act of coincidence, but it happily cemented a friendship, which I cherished in the years that followed.
Helen Wilson, as I recall, had a married daughter living in the Washington area, and it had been Mrs. Wilson’s routine to come to the House on days when the debate might have been crucial to our community in Michigan. She did this because she understood the value of bringing what she learned directly back to her friends and neighbors, and found joy in the process.
She immediately engaged my father in what he should be doing to help make an upcoming Bill into a reality. And it just as suddenly opened up a whole new understanding of the government “of, for and by The People” in my simple brain. That anyone who paid attention, did their homework, and was a serious citizen could do this work. It was simply a citizen’s right, privilege, and duty to be a Mrs. Wilson.
In the years that followed, I would visit her on Wilson Road. I remember a time when my Grandmother Carroll needed to be dropped off at her house (Yes, I had my driver’s license shortly after the trip to Washington, an event of importance only second to our trip). If you drive on Wilson Road today, you will see on the right as you are traveling west, a traditional farmhouse and just beyond, nearer the road, a Michigan stone bungalow. It had been the habit of the Wilson family, I believe, that the working family would live in the farmhouse, and as the son would take over, the older couple would move into the stone cottage. It fitted Mrs. Wilson, I thought.
While she thought nationally and state-wide, she was also involved locally. Among other projects, she was the driving force behind that little triangular bit of flower garden at “The Forks,” as it was known in my youth (where Peninsula Drive separates from Center Road just north of Traverse City).
Indeed, if you would like to “meet” a remarkable woman who so dramatically stood front and center in the molding of this young farm boy’s concept of how this democracy worked and by whom, there is a stone memorial to her there today.
May she rest in peace and glory.
Plaque for Margaret Wilson at “The Forks”; intersection of Center Road and Peninsula Drive north of Traverse City, Michigan | Jane Boursaw Photo
(And in closing from Barb Wunsch… -jb)
As I get older, I appreciate more and more the people from our community. Tim Carroll’s tale makes me think about those impressionable years and how the close-knit neighbors of the Old Mission Peninsula lent a hand in guiding me, as well. Mrs. Wilson was a force and played through a phrase that my very dearest often recited: “Just because everybody is doing something, does not make it the right thing to do.”
It is interesting to reflect on an individual who made such a profound difference in the details of the landscape that is easily taken for granted. As I drive up and down the roads on the Peninsula, I take pride in our small signs and the history behind them.
Margaret Wilson, left | Helen Vogel ArchivesWilliam Fremont Wilson (Margaret’s husband) | Helen Vogel ArchivesWilliam Wilson (Margaret’s husband) harvesting raspberries on the Wilson Farm | Helen Vogel ArchivesWilson Family; Old Mission Peninsula | Helen Vogel ArchivesWilson Family (Margaret Wilson, right) | Helen Vogel ArchivesStoney Beach School; Old Mission Peninsula | Helen Vogel ArchivesWilson Farm Aerial Photo; Date Unknown | Helen Vogel Archives
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