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Published: Thursday, 10/7/2004

Custer Week has supporters and detractors

BY GEORGE J. TANBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

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 Bighorn.

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 more needed to be done, so he started Custer Week.

"I did it because I believe 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 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 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 - said the general's reputation has been tarnished by 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?"

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. The message: Bury the past and move forward in a brotherly manner.

Mr. Gronda has heard the message but can't accept it. "I don't think it's right to promote someone as a hero who practiced genocide," he said.

Contact George J. Tanber at:

gtanber@theblade.com

or 734-241-3610.



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