Harold Titus has been one of my favorite Traverse City historical characters since I read "Timber," his 1922 novel, last year. He intrigues me for many reasons.
Part of his mystery is that he is virtually unknown today. He is "new" local history.
He was a writer in the golden age for writers before TV and radio. He had an activist heart and cared deeply about this region. He was on the local school board. He helped build up the state's forest fire division on his unpaid time on the Michigan Conservation Commission. He was curious man, a thinker, and had the ability to transform complex issues into simple images and everyday speech.
He appealed to me on a personal level, too. His father died when he was an infant. He liked trout fishing, as did my dad. He was born the same year as my grandfather, and researching his times gave me a new window into the most influential person in my life.
I liked the book's quirky link to the State Theatre, home of the Traverse City Film Festival, where the Lyric Theater once stood. "Hearts Aflame," a silent movie based on "Timber," was the first movie to play at the grandly rebuilt Lyric when it reopened in late 1923 after a devastating fire.
I liked the look and feel of "Timber"'s forest-green cover and yellowing pages. It reminded me of books I found as a kid in my grandfather's bookcase or on vacation in a rented summer cottage up north. Titus' vivid descriptions of the bleak, gaunt timber cutover lands captured my imagination. I liked the fact that "Timber" helped mold public opinion on the importance of reforestation.
Titus wasn't a total stranger when I started researching local and newspaper history in late 2007. I first ran across his name in 2001 when I reviewed David Dempsey's environmental history, "Ruin & Recovery: Michigan's Rise as a Conservation Leader."
As research began, I expected to hit a mother lode of information on Titus. I found only tidbits, however, until this year when I discovered James Kates' book "Planning a Wilderness: Regeneration the Great Lakes Cutover Region." It's a thorough, well-written history on the conservation movements of the early 1900s. Kates devoted a whole chapter to Titus and "Timber."
Titus' significance today is this: His conservation activism and stewardship are part of our legacy. He provides a local role model of how to tackle important problems.
He exemplifies the importance of knowing our local history. He grew up in the timber cutover lands. That landscape, that environmental devastation, seared his mind and heart. It helped shape him, his thinking, his writing, his destiny and northern Michigan's.
I don't think we've heard the last of him.