Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 15, 2013

Historian fills niches of local history

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — History is where you find it.

Local historian Richard Fidler sees it everywhere – in the woods, along the bay, on a manhole cover in the downtown alley behind Vortruba’s or the prismatic glass of a local jeweler’s front window.

The retired Traverse City junior high biology teacher turned local historian published his fourth soft-cover book this year — “Traverse City, Michigan: A Historical Narrative, 1850-2013.”

He wrote it because he saw a need for an updated look at local history that brings readers to the present, he said. The last book that did that, he said, was “Queen City of the North,” written in 1988 by the late Larry Wakefield and published by Horizon Books.

“When I write, I look for a niche in local history that hasn’t been filled,” he said.

He has found enough nooks and crannies in Traverse City’s past to fill his three previous books: “Glimpses of Grand Traverse Past: Reflections on a Local History” in 2008, “Who We Were, What We Did” in 2009,” and “Gateways to Grand Traverse Past in 2011.”

Each chapter in the first three books are individual essays that focus on one area of local history. Several focused on the poor, women, labor, dissent and pollution in the Boardman River along the city’s waterfront during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Others reflected Fidler’s background in science, his lifelong reading habit, sense of humor, insatiable curiosity about diverse subjects — botany, natural history, social justice, community values, art and architecture, artesian wells and social changes wrought by technology.

He’s written about Traverse City’s great flood in 1898 when Kids Creek overflowed after loggers cut hillside forests on the city’s west side, the coming of electricity, street lights and automobiles.

Tongue in cheek, he pokes fun at eccentricities of Traverse City’s past, for instance, local campaigns to eradicate rats, sparrows, poplars and ragweed.

His new book builds on those essays, adds more recent history and tells it in narrative form.

Fidler has bachelor degrees in biology and Chinese, a master’s degree in biology and a doctorate in education. He retired in 2003 from a 31-year career teaching Traverse City junior high students. He credits those students with teaching him how to engage people: Keep it simple and get right to the point. His love for reading, he said, taught him how to write well.

Fidler said he has disliked academic history because it too often seems like a dull recitation of accurate facts.

For him, interpretation, supported by accurate research of events and social concerns, is also important.

“To me, history is a description of what happened. The end,” he said. “Maybe it’s my science training that makes me think this. In science you make an argument and support that interpretation with descriptive facts of why it is that way.”

His research has led him and research friends on field trips downstate and around the region, exploring everything from old records to artesian wells and remnants of the area’s forest primeval.

Among his finds in state archives are a Grand Traverse Jail record book that listed all inmates and charges against them from 1870s to 1905, an 1857-1859 Hannah-Lay ledger that recorded customers and their purchases during those years, and 1850s survey records that listed the types of trees leading from what is today Meijer to West Grand Traverse Bay.

Fidler said his retirement leap from biology to history is not that big.

“History and natural history go together,” he said. “I’ve always been serious botanist.”

History has led him back to the classroom, too. He teaches local history in extended education classes at Northwestern Michigan College.

“I’ve had a wonderful education, and it would be a shame not to use it,” he said.

“Traverse City, Michigan: A Historical Narrative, 1850-2013” sells for $18.95 and is available at Horizon Books, History Center of Traverse City and Thompson Pharmacy.