Jesse Mayo examines documents that survived an 1879 fire at the courthouse in Monroe as he does research in the Monroe County Historical Museum. He is to speak at 7 p.m. Oct. 7 at Bedford library.
THE BLADE/ANDY MORRISON
TEMPERANCE — For amateur historian Jesse Mayo, Monroe County is a treasure trove. He enjoys reading and researching its role in the War of 1812 and the life of George Armstrong Custer, who called Monroe his home.
Not that Mr. Mayo considers himself a “historian.” He prefers to call himself “a researcher or detective because of the way I move from subject to subject.”
But he really likes to get his fingers into Monroe County’s lesser known history, such as its part in the Underground Railroad, or the 1879 courthouse fire that destroyed almost all records.
He spends a lot of time sifting through the archives at the Monroe County Historical Museum and the Ellis Library and Reference Center.
At 7 p.m. Oct. 7, he’ll talk about his journeys through the past at the Bedford Branch Library. The occasion will be the regular monthly meeting of the Bedford Historical Society. The public is welcome, the group’s president, Carolynn Newman, said.
“We’re always open to the public,” she explained. “We want people to be aware of our local history.”
Mr. Mayo is acutely aware. He believes he found the burial place of Custer’s horse Dandy, which survived the Battle of the Little Big Horn. The horse was shipped back to Monroe County and given to Custer’s widow, Libbie, who transferred it to Custer’s father.
“It’s buried on farmland in Frenchtown. I stood over the burial place,” Mr. Mayo, 50, said.
At the Bedford Branch, he’ll talk about his experiences and what he has found. The Monroe Township resident even maintains a blog called Monroe County Michigan Lost and Forgotten History.
There’s little glamour in what he does, but he finds a lot of intellectual satisfaction. About the 1879 courthouse file and the files that survived, he said, “I was the first person to look at them in 134 years. They were really dry and compressed because they had been shoved into the folder drawers forever.”
The surviving files are in the Monroe County clerk’s office. To separate the compressed pages, he used tweezers and microspatulas.
“It was a lot of work,” he said. The files, he discovered, were not in order, and the earliest dated to 1849. They were mostly records of court cases. Some had obviously been in a fire.
Another subject he is hotly pursuing is Monroe County’s place in the Underground Railroad, which was used to smuggle black slaves to freedom in Canada before the Civil War.
But he thinks reports of a tunnel connecting to what today is Dorsch Memorial Library to assist fugitive slaves is wide of the mark because the building that now houses Dorsch wasn’t built until 1868.
It’s more likely that the tunnel was dug during Prohibition to assist bootleggers. “Dixie Highway used to be known as ‘Avenue de Booze’ because so much illegal alcohol was transported on it,” he explained.
Ms. Newman said the Bedford Historical Society has 20 to 30 active members, “but it varies with the programs.”
The group meets monthly on the first Monday, with the exception of September, when it meets at the former Banner Oak School, and December, when it has its Colonial Christmas Show at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, 1690 W. Sterns Rd.