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Group tours Monroe County to tout big 200th anniversary shindigs

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    Andy Clark, chief of the Monroe County Historical Museum, holds the document that established the county in 1811.

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    The Monroe County Courthouse, where a proposed statue of James Monroe would be placed.

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    A proposed statue of James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States and the county’s namesake, would stand in front of the Monroe County Courthouse.

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MONROE — The bevy of Monroe County residents at last year’s fair who were unable to identify how their county got its name won’t have any excuses after a yearlong celebration ends.

The second-oldest county in Michigan turns 200 in July, and plans for bicentennial events, dedications, and other activities are beginning to take shape.

Members of the Monroe County Bicentennial Alliance have made the rounds to meetings at area city and township halls to raise awareness for the big year.

Bicentennial Alliance member Sue Donovan spoke at a recent Bedford Township Board meeting, where only one person in the audience of about 30 knew about the milestone.

“A lot of people [at the fair] said Monroe Shocks, Monroe this, Monroe that,” she said. “Even Marilyn Monroe. So obviously, there is a gap here in education.”

Making Monroe Co.

Lewis Cass was governor of the Michigan Territory from 1813-1831, and issued a proclamation July 14, 1817, establishing Monroe as a county. The decree split up Wayne County, which included all of southeast Michigan.

Mr. Cass named the county after President James Monroe, and the area included all of present day Lenawee County and parts of Washtenaw and Wayne counties.

Gerry Wykes of the Monroe County Historical Museum said Monroe County has more ties to the fifth U.S. president than most counties named in his honor.

“During and immediately after the War of 1812, this whole area was pretty much devastated by the war,” Mr. Wykes said. “People hadn’t had a chance to plant crops, and a lot of what they had in storage was already pillaged by the natives and the British. Even their fences and planks from their houses were used as firewood.”

The first European settlers were French Canadians who arrived in the 1780s from Detroit. Mr. Wykes said they practically begged the administration of James Madison for help after the war. James Monroe was his secretary of state and secretary of war, and communicated directly with Governor Cass.

In 1815, the U.S. government awarded a $1,500 grant to provide relief for the territory’s main community of Frenchtown.

“Monroe actually was instrumental in awarding that money to the community,” Mr. Wykes said. “There are a lot of letters between Monroe and Cass directly. Monroe was very aware of this area in terms of what was going on.”

President Monroe never set foot inside present day Monroe County, but he came close in the summer of 1817. During a trip to military installations in the northeast and Midwest, then-Secretary Monroe arrived in Detroit.

Mr. Wykes said Mr. Monroe could have traveled another 20 miles south to get across the county line, but he cut his trip short.

Monroe County was mostly French Canadian and Roman Catholic; Mr. Monroe was English and Protestant.

“It’s one of the reasons why nobody really cared this area was called Monroe,” Mr. Wykes said. “The local French really didn’t have anything to do with the East Coast government. Even though they were technically Americans, they couldn’t have cared less this area was named for anybody, let alone James Monroe, who was an English-speaking East Coaster.”

Celebrating 200 years

The Monroe County Bicentennial Alliance formed in January, 2016, and is asking communities to get involved in the yearlong celebration.

“We’re asking them if they do any kind of event on an annual basis to just tag it in 2017 as a Monroe County Bicentennial event,” said alliance chairman Chris Kull. “When the bicentennial alliance was created, it was sort of just to facilitate and make people aware.”

The Village of Maybee’s annual Maybee Day festival in May will be named after the bicentennial. The alliance is planning a beard-and-mustache contest for October and has discussed having a bicentennial day at this year’s Monroe County Fair — pending board member approval.

Ms. Donovan is also part of the Legacy 200 Committee, which is raising funds for a statue of President Monroe to be dedicated July 14. The 9-foot-tall bronze structure would stand outside the county courthouse.

The committee also intends to hold a fall presidential ball, bringing in a President Monroe re-enactor from Fredericksburg, Va.

“I have met the gentleman, and he’s very interested and very excited to come in July when the statue is dedicated,” Ms. Donovan said.

The museum is collecting 200 artifacts that each tell a story about the county’s history. The exhibit will start July 14.

Director Andy Clark is hoping to secure part of a mastodon tooth found in the county years ago.

“A lot of times people just reflect on the human history, and not necessarily the whole history of the land beneath them,” he said. “It’s a pretty big ‘wow factor’ when people realize things the size of elephants used to roam this part of Michigan.”

Organizations and communities interested in a bicentennial event may call Ms. Kull at 734-652-1192. The next alliance meeting is 5:30 p.m. Feb. 15 at the Monroe County Historical Museum, 126 S. Monroe St., Monroe.

Contact Jay Skebba at: jskebba@theblade.com, 419-376-9414, or on Twitter @JaySkebbaBlade.

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