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Published: Wednesday, 10/6/2004

Historical interest fuels Custer Week expansion

BY GEORGE J. TANBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Richard Micka, left, of the Little Bighorn Associates, and John Patterson of the Monroe County Convention & Tourism Bureau stand by a statue of Gen. George Armstrong Custer, who lived in Monroe for 26 years. Custer Week raises interest and some controversy. Richard Micka, left, of the Little Bighorn Associates, and John Patterson of the Monroe County Convention & Tourism Bureau stand by a statue of Gen. George Armstrong Custer, who lived in Monroe for 26 years. Custer Week raises interest and some controversy.
LUKE WARK / THE BLADE Enlarge | Buy This Photo

MONROE - They're celebrating Custer Week in Monroe this week - a tribute to Gen. George Armstrong Custer, one of the country's most controversial historical figures who lived here for 26 years before being killed at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.

Here, General Custer is a mostly beloved figure. A major road and an elementary school are named for him. There's also the Custer Beer Co., Custer Estates, Custer Marathon, and Custer Tool & Manufacturing.

A likeness of the general on horseback sits in the town's center, overlooking the River Raisin. President Howard Taft dedicated the monument during a 1910 ceremony attended by General Custer's widow, Monroe native Elizabeth "Libbie " Bacon.

The Monroe County Historical Museum houses the second largest collection of Custer memorabilia outside of the museum at Little Big Horn.

Still, until 1999, there was only moderate fanfare related to General Custer. That year John Patterson, president of the Monroe County Convention & Tourism Bureau, decided that more needed to be done, so he started Custer Week.

"I did it because I believe that part of my job is promoting Monroe County, and George Custer is one of the most important people to come from Monroe. [He] has given us a brand, and it's a powerful brand," Mr. Patterson said.

Not everyone is thrilled with celebrating the man who was a Civil War hero, but a controversial lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army's 7th Cavalry during the country's Indian wars that cost him his life at age 36.

"Custer, in my eyes, was a coward. He killed women and children. Winners always write history. To me, [this week] is depressing," said Steve Gronda, chief of the Wyandot of Anderdon Nation in Brownstown, Mich.

Nevertheless, the week is growing in stature as Custer buffs, historians, and groups such as the Little Bighorn Associates and The Custer Society converge on the city for meetings, seminars, and workshops. The week concludes with a four-mile run Saturday along a trail that passes most of the local Custer sites.

"The first year, we were pushing local citizens to get involved," Mr. Patterson said. "Now it's grown to the point where people [from all over the country] are calling us."

Posters commemorating the week have become collector's items, Mr. Patterson said. This year, the Downtown Monroe Business network commissioned the design of a coffee cup set bearing the likeness of the general and his wife.

People here, particularly those with interests related to the general, are tired of the Custer-bashing that has become more prevalent since the 1970s with the release of books and movies that portrayed General Custer in a less-favorable manner.

Steve Alexander has been a Custer fan since he was 3 years old. The town's foremost Custer expert - who bears a likeness to the general, lives in his former house, and portrays him at re-enactment events 15 times a year or more - said General Custer's reputation has been tarnished through inaccurate books and movies.

"When he died, he was a national hero," Mr. Alexander said. "He was well-loved by the community and by the nation. Only in the last century, from the 1950s on, have they started making him into a villain. Why would I embrace this guy at a young age if he was a villain?"

Mr. Patterson said people who dispute General Custer's track record during the Indian wars forget he was a soldier following orders.

"He was sent to do the bidding of his country. He did it to the best of his ability," he said.

Still, the general's unpopularity with certain groups, in particular Native Americans, has spurred some Monroe residents to seek reconciliatory measures.

Richard Micka, a retired La-Z-Boy executive and Little Bighorn Associates member, started a movement called Heal All Nations that began with an encounter between Mr. Alexander and a Native American group in California several years ago. The message: Bury the past and move forward in a brotherly, unified manner.

"We feel this is a message not only for Custer people, but all people," Mr. Micka said. "It has worked well."

Mr. Gronda has heard the message, but can't accept it, he said.

"I respect Richard Micka very much. These people have been good to me, and I hate to step on his toes. But I don't think it's right to promote someone as a hero who practiced genocide."

Contact George J. Tanber at:

gtanber@theblade.com

or 734-241-3610.



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