Note: Bill Field was a remarkable man. I had the good fortune to work with him many years ago when I was still a cub journalist. This is the story of his challenge to save an abandoned rail corridor so it could be developed into a public trail. –HM–
By Howard Meyerson
Ross Field is reminded of his father almost every day. His office in the Shelby train station sits next to the William Field Memorial Hart-Montague State Park Trail – the popular 22-mile rail-trail named after his father. Hundreds of cyclists annually ride the old railroad corridor. He may see them when they roll by his office, or when they stop at the Brown Bear, a local eatery known for its burgers.
The trail wouldn’t exist if not for the late-Bill Field, who purchased the abandoned Chesapeake & Ohio rail corridor for $175,000 in 1984 so it could be preserved. He then donated it to the state in 1987 so a public recreation trail could be built. Field could have sold the land for a half-million dollars, or more, according to son, Ross. But he chose only to recoup his investment by selling off lease lands along its route.
It was an unprecedented move by a native son, a produce harvester from Shelby that many call a visionary, though others once called him a fool.
“Very few in politics here in Oceana County wanted to touch that thing,” Ross recalls of the bitter dispute that divided the community and railed on for years about the prospective trail. His father, a county commissioner, had attempted in 1982 to gain approval for its purchase by Oceana County. The county parks and recreation commission supported the idea, but it got only wavering support from the county board of commissioners who eventually rejected the notion as too costly and complicated. Farmers along the trail feared cyclists and other prospective users. They worried about vandalism, crop losses, indecent behavior – and worse. Other private individuals along the trail also hoped to buy a piece for themselves.
“Putting a bicycle trail through the countryside on the old railroad tracks was like trying to sell something to Martians, Ross explains. “Very few understood what it could become. Many were on the fence. Politicians were afraid of not getting reelected. A lot of farmers were against it.”
Bill Field, however, was not to be deterred. While laughed at by peers, even as the chairman of the county board of commissioners, his vision, tenacity and legacy are lauded today. The Hart-Montague Trail, as many commonly called it, became the first paved rail-trail in Michigan. It was dedicated in 1989 and drew 59,000 visitors in 1992, according to Michigan state park officials. That influx of tourists to once-sleepy communities along its route inspired a new generation of trail-side businesses, from bike rentals to restaurants.
“Bill was a pioneer. He had the vision to put this together. People thought he was crazy,” observes Paul Yauk, land program manager for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources parks and recreation division, which manages the trail as a state park. “But the trail changed the landscape. For some of these communities, like New Era and Shelby, it’s the lifeblood. People now have a reason to stop and buy things, or bring their friends. It’s a great rural orchard and farming ride in west Michigan.”
William “Bill” Field was born in Shelby in 1927, son of a crop sprayer and one of seven children. He grew up in a farm family and developed a strong work ethic as a young boy. His younger sister, Marge Peterson, now 85-years-old and living in Hart, remembers how he rode the local milk truck each morning, delivering milk to homes as a 12-year-old boy, before going to school. Young Field also worked at the local meat market to earn extra money.
“He was too smart, and he was spoiled rotten,” Peterson said playfully. “He was always working. He was the class vice president in high school and went on to officer training school. He was a second lieutenant in the army. While in Germany he was referred to as ‘the big American.’ He had a big personality and he was very responsible.”
As a boy growing up in a rural community, Field was like a lot of other boys. He played sports and spent time with friends. His 1946 Shelby High School year book, Tiger’s Tale, characterizes him as “care free.” He would wander down to the railroad tracks and watch the trains – and try to coax a ride.
Marge Peterson’s eyes sparkle recalling those days. “He knew where the hobos were south of town (along the track). Bill knew that there was a huge tree they stayed under,” she said. “Girls liked him. Boys liked him. He was everybody’s friend.”
Remembering the railroad
Field’s love for the rail corridor developed at an early age and never abated. An ardent history buff and member of the Oceana County Historical Society, Field appreciated the railroad’s role in opening the region to commerce. The rail line stretched from the city of Hart south to Montague. It was abandoned in 1972 after fostering 100 years of regional economic development. Field dedicated the trail to the pioneers that built the tracks. He also celebrated their accomplishment by riding the trail regularly with two older friends who would meet and bicycle north to Mears for breakfast and enjoy a leisurely ride home.
“I got a tear in my eye when I thought it might be sold,” Field confided during a 1994 interview for a story published in Michigan Natural Resources Magazine. “…As kids we lived with and for the train,” he said. “It’s always been a fascination.”
Returning to Shelby from Europe after the military, Field married his wife, Elizabeth, and began a family. He worked nine years for the Whitehall Tannery while managing his grandfather’s Shelby farm. He eventually left both preferring to work for himself, and purchased a local cherry farm. He developed a contract cherry harvesting business and turned also to growing asparagus. Oceana County prides itself on being the “Asparagus Capital of the World.”
“Dad was a real innovator and an early adopter of innovations,” Ross shares. “My brother Bob and I grew up on the farm. He had some of the first mechanical harvesters around here. We had the cherry harvest business and shook orchards in the Jackson area, and up on the Old Mission Peninsula.
“Dad was larger than life. Even back then he was politically active and very conservative. He ran the Goldwater campaign in Oceana County. He had a much larger world view than you might expect from a farmer in a little town in Oceana County. But, he was involved with scouts and became a scoutmaster. He was big on family. I’m thankful I grew up the way I did. I hope to give my girls the same opportunities and life choices – being shown how to do things and think outside of the box.”
A world traveler who visited Europe, Israel and Egypt, Field also toured the U.S. with his family. He was a voracious reader, a man who loved to sit on the beach and settle into a book. He and his sisters spent many summer days relaxing along the shore at Pentwater.
“You don’t meet too many farmers who are dedicated beach bums,” Ross observes,” but there was nothing he liked better than going out to ‘The Oval’ at Stony Lake with a beach chair, a book, and lifelong friends.”
A resolute man
Bill Field was known to be determined. When he couldn’t work out a satisfactory agreement with C&O real estate managers to buy the trail, he called the railroad chairman directly. His offer was accepted. He put $2,000 down and bought the 22-mile rail corridor on a land contract.
“He didn’t let anything stand in his way,” recalls Joel Mikkelsen, former chairman of the Oceana Parks and Recreation Commission during those critical years. He remains on the commission today. “Bill took the (Board of Commissioners) rejection hard, but he recognized that if you own the land, you have a lot to say about issues. So, he bought it – and people really started to listen. It wasn’t going to be ‘Field’s Folly,’ (as some chided).
Mikkelsen, Field, and Barney Steen, another local advocate, approached the Michigan Department of Natural Resources in 1986 with an offer to donate the trail to the state. They met with Jack Butterfield, then chief of Michigan State Parks. The men promised the trail would be developed as much as possible first, using a $506,000 grant from the Kammer Recreational Land Trust Fund grant (later renamed Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund) that was awarded to Oceana County Parks initially. The grant was later transferred to the city of Hart because the Oceana County Board of Commissioners decided to reject it.
County commissioners had “approved the grant application thinking they wouldn’t actually get it,” Mikkelsen explains. “Then they were faced with a (difficult) moment.”
The meeting with Butterfield went very smoothly. “Within 15 minutes it was determined that it would be state park,” Mikkelsen said. “Jack was very gracious.”
Good for business
Floyd “Jake” Whelpley is glad the old rail corridor has become a state park. He owns The Wood Shed Bike Shop, just south of Mears along the trail, where he’s rented and repaired bicycles for 24 years. The business grew because of the trail. Over the years, he also got to know Bill Field.
“Everyone (at first) thought he was an idiot and didn’t know what he was talking about,” Whelpley said about Field’s early efforts to secure the trail. “But, he took the bull by the horns. It was an extremely tough fight. Bill loved Oceana County; it was his heart and soul. He was as tenacious as they come.
“Our business here gets bigger every year. More people are into bikes, and our rental business is prospering. If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have this bike trail.”
Ross Field often hears similar comments from others. Tall like his dad, he bears a strong resemblance. Being a real estate appraiser, he encounters many in the course of his work who knew his father.
“I am reminded of him every day as I am out and about in Oceana County,” Ross exclaims. “Someone will say ‘You’re a Field, from Shelby – You Bill’s son?’ Then they bring up the trail and often say ‘your dad was a good guy.’
“People came from all over the state when dad passed away. One of the condolence cards was from a farmer who opposed the trail. He didn’t talk about the controversy. He spoke of how he’d look forward to seeing dad ride the trail with his friends – and meeting with him and how pleasant it was.”
The 22-mile Hart-Montague Linear State Park Trail was renamed the William Field Memorial Hart-Montague State Park Trail in 2013, and dedicated in William Field’s honor.
To download a free map of the trail see: William Field Memorial Hart-Montague Trail.
This story appears in Michigan Trails Magazine.