Michigan’s first recreational trail created from an abandoned railroad exists because of William Field.
Thanks, Uncle Bill.
I began thinking about this in February, when I attended my first family funeral as Gina. My Dad’s sister, Betty, helped to assure me, after two wonderful phone conversations, that all would be fine for me to attend. Their boys, my cousins Ross and Bob, had been very kind to me through these past months. I had a nice reunion with all of them at the funeral.
But not with Uncle Bill. He was taken by death in 2005.
I mentioned to Aunt Betty my interest in writing about the rail trail. A few weeks after the funeral, Bob informed me that she had something for me to read. Two weeks ago, I spent a few days in my hometown of Montague. Before landing in Montague, I drove north another twenty minutes and directly to Shelby, to see Aunt Betty.
I commented to her that this was the first significant conversation I’d ever had with her. I never had a need for anything more than the usual hi-and-bye stuff that a kid does with an aunt, and then I moved away to be a pastor and hadn’t seen her in, well, I couldn’t even remember.
I certainly never had a significant conversation with Uncle Bill. The man scared the living daylights out of me. When I was a kid, I was positive that he was nine feet tall. Compared to his voice, God’s surely sounds like a squeaky teenager’s. All Uncle Bill had to do was look at me and I was prepared to choke out a “yes sir.”
Two specific memories of him are all I have. Both occurred at their farm in Shelby, where I knew Uncle Bill for his cherry orchards, only one of many things to which the man applied himself with gusto.
One Sunday afternoon, when I was perhaps twelve, we were visiting. I was outside with Ross (my age) and Bob ( a couple of years younger and full of, um, let’s call it creativity). Bob pointed out how one of the panes of glass in their garage door was broken and challenged me to see if I could throw a stone through it. Dumb me, I took the challenge, never considering all of the other, unbroken panes of glass in the door. Sure enough, first throw, I broke one. Soon, this was Uncle Bill’s reaction: “That will be $5.00, young man.” “Yes sir.”
Two years earlier, when my mom was in the hospital, I stayed at their house. I saw that Uncle Bill was a regular human. At breakfast, I marveled at how he ate an entire spoon of jam with every bite of toast. And he got away with it with Aunt Betty right there watching. My new hero!
Two weeks ago, Aunt Betty treated me to all sorts of stories, each one, it seemed, based on which of the nine houses—or was it ten, or more? She could not count them all—in which they were living at the time. After more than two hours of a wonderful visit, I departed Aunt Betty’s with plenty of fodder for a story about her, but my mission was to get the dope on Uncle Bill and the rail trail.
The rest of the story comes from the nifty article in the 2015 issue of Michigan Trails, pictures were grabbed from various trail websites, then some of my own reflections round out the events which began in the mid-1980s.
The rail line from Montague to Hart, with Uncle Bill’s lifelong home in Shelby mid-route, had been abandoned. He wanted his county to purchase it. Cousin Ross is quoted, “Very few in politics here in Oceana County wanted to touch that thing.” His father, with a keen entrepreneurial spirit, took it into his own hands. For $175,000, he purchased it.
Uncle Bill was a Field of dreams. He envisioned a gorgeous bike and hiking trail, as the rail bed runs through lush woods, along fruit orchards and into open expanses, passing in and out of quaint villages. No way, said the farmers whose land abuts it. They were concerned that trail users would vandalize their property, steal their fruit, create a nuisance. I was a young adult in those days, and I recall the talk: Uncle Bill finally bit off more than he could chew. In some eyes, he went from respected businessman to town clown.
Not so fast. In 1986, Uncle Bill and two others approached the Michigan Department of Natural Resources with an offer to donate the land to the state and a plan to develop it. They bit. After all of the machinations that you can imagine and working on the twenty-two mile stretch in stages, they finally saw the entire route paved from Hart’s Gurney Park, which is only a few blocks from where we Eilers lived from 1964-68, to my hometown Montague’s riverside stretch.
That was 1989. By 1992, the trail saw 59,000 visitors. The tiny villages which line it, including Rothbury and New Era, saw a return of tourists to recoup some of what they lost when US 31 bypassed them about twenty years earlier. Bike shops and cafes provide economically, and tourists are served properly.
And the fruit orchards are not being vandalized.
And the trail users are seen as the benefit to the area that Uncle Bill always knew they would be.
And now not a discouraging word is heard about what some were sure was going to be Field’s Fruitless Foible.
Not bad for the town clown.
My youngest brother, Mark, lives between Montague and Rothbury. His back yard butts up against the rail trail. When visiting him in nice weather, one sees constant activity on the trail. Shoot, even Mark gets onto it several times a year on his bike, then calls to exuberantly tell me about his day.
The capper is that after Uncle Bill’s pioneering play, the state of Michigan is now littered with rail trails.
Appropriately, in 2013 the rail trail was renamed in honor of its founder. Now, thousands burn some calories and enjoy the beauty of West Michigan on the William Field Memorial Hart-Montague Trail State Park.
The name might be a bit of a mouthful, but it tastes as sweet as jam on toast—a spoonful at a time.