Last week we went to Grosse Pointe City to explore the St. Clair Terraces. Completed in 1928, the terraces were designed by the legendary architect C. Howard Crane and built by John P. Frazer, a noted builder in Detroit. When they formally opened, on October 6, 1929, they were “the hot new thing” in town.
This week we head to the “crown jewel” of Grosse Pointe Farms, Pier Park. Each city in Grosse Pointe has at least one municipal park on the shores of Lake St. Clair. The parks vary in size and amenities, and for many residents’ they are arguably the focal point of the community.
Pier Park in Grosse Pointe Farms is a beautiful space, filled with some of the best facilities in the area. Over the years it has undergone multiple changes, upgrades, and developments to become the center piece of the community it is today.
During the 1940’s the key feature of the park was the pier, it is how the park got its name – Pier Park. The original pier was constructed from wood, large wooden poles were stacked on top of each other – known as piers, driven into the ground by a pile driver. The independent pier stretched into the lake and was a popular destination for many of the communities’ teenagers during the summer, so much so the pier was given a cheeky nickname. The area by the pier was also where the original beach was located. Close to the beach and the pier the city would dredge an area (with a huge steam shovel, located on a barge), to create a shallower area for swimming. The area was then designated by ropes and buoys to create a square space with a concrete pad – home to a high board and a low board. The area with the diving boards was only reachable by stronger swimmers who had to prove to the guards (on duty at the time) they were strong enough to make it out to the area to dive. It was also the era when the observation platform (still in place today) was constructed. At the time this was where the last break wall was located, residents would stand underneath the platform to fish. The 1940’s was also a time when I-94 was being constructed. The excess dirt from the highway was brought to the park and used to fill the area (where the gazebo is located today), to increase the amount of land the park had. Information courtesy of Dickie Graves.
In the early 1950’s the development and transformation of Pier Park began in earnest. It is reported in the Grosse Pointe News (July 1958) that Harry A. Furton, a pioneer resident of the Farms who served for many years as clerk of the village and later as city manager, was largely responsible for planning and developing “the present fine facilities of the Farms Pier Park as it is today”. On July 27, 1958, the late Harry A. Furton (Mr. Furton passed in 1956) was honored with a plaque by local city officials and dignitaries from the Farms and surrounding communities. Photo courtesy of Katie Doelle.
Arguably one of Harry A. Furton’s larger projects as city manager came in 1953, when a proposal was submitted by Grosse Pointe Farms City Council to spend $500,000 (around $5.5m today) for the extensive development of Pier Park. It is reported “the $500,000 would be in the form of general obligation bonds with a life of not more than 25 years”. The proposal, if accepted “would provide Pier Park with separate bathing and boating facilities, better swimming conditions, a new sunbathing and swimming pier, modern bathhouse, a larger beach, parking for 475 cars, a picnic area double the size of the present one, enclosure by sea walls, enlarged boating facilities, roadways and walks, and landscaping”. Source: Detroit Free Press, April 1953. It is not clear how much of the proposal was approved.
In 1954, the new beach area at the park neared completion. It was reported “trucks were filling in the sandy beach as fast as possible”. “White Lake Michigan sand was used to top off the fill that is nearly finished”. The beach site was scheduled to open on July 3, 1954. The sandy beach, at the time of completion, was much larger than it is now; over the years the lake has come up significantly. However, Pier Park remains the only park in Grosse Pointe that has a sandy beach and a dedicated swimming area. Photo courtesy of Katie Doelle.
In October 1964, a further proposal was submitted, again for $500,000 (around $4.8m today) for “acquiring and constructing additional recreational facilities by making necessary improvements to Pier Park, including the construction of a swimming pool, the providing of additional boat mooring facilities and additional picnic and recreational areas”. Source: Grosse Pointe News, 1964.
Aside from the many proposed improvements (over the years) a focal point of Pier Park has always been the concession stand. Since the late 1940’s, the concession stand has undergone numerous changes, had several owners, but has always retained its integral role as part of the day-to-day activities in the park. In 1958, a contract to enlarge the circa-1940’s stand was awarded to Floris DeMeulenaere for $830 (around $8,500 today), which was the low bid. The photo below is of the concession stand in 1979. Photo courtesy of Dickie Graves.
In 1980, Dickie Graves became the new concessionaire. It was a tenure that would last 40 amazing years. Mr. Graves priority was to rebuild the stand, nothing had been done to it since it was enlarged in 1958. “The stand was essentially a wooden garage with unfished walls”. The transformation, as the photos below demonstrate, was incredible. “Thanks to the hard work by Dickie Graves the concession stand underwent a complete remodel, including residing the exterior with finished plywood, putting up walls inside, and placing coach lights next to the door”. “Every year Mr. Graves would take two weeks to repaint the entire stand, keeping it in top condition”. Source: Grosse Pointe News, 2021. Mr. Graves opened the new concession stand on a very hot and sunny Memorial Day weekend in 1980. The photo below was taken on opening day. The other photos show how the stand was transformed. Photos courtesy of Dickie Graves.
During the late 1990’s, the concession stand Dickie Graves had remodeled was demolished as part of ongoing improvements at the park. It is reported “it took only 20 minutes to tear the stand down, which involved attaching chains to the stand and yanking it off its cement foundation”. Dickie Graves confirms, “maintaining the circa-1940’s stand took a lot of work”. “Keeping the stand in ship-shape condition was like taking care of an old wooden boat”. Source: Grosse Pointe News. Photos courtesy of Dickie Graves.
The new brick-built structure opened late spring, 1998. It no longer required annual painting and included a larger deep fryer and grill. Dickie Graves was heavily involved in the design, along with working with the architect to create a more open format with larger windows in order to more welcoming to the community. Photo courtesy of Grosse Pointe News.
Aside from running the concession stand Dickie Graves also became the lead organizer for one of the most popular events at Pier Park, the annual fishing Rodeo. Dickie took over in 1986, from his father. At the time, Dickie’s first fishing rodeo saw around 288 people take part, by 2019, the number had increased substantially to over 1300 participants. Two years later, in 2021, Dickie Graves retired from running the fishing rodeo, and as the concessionaire of Pier-Park, after a 40-year tenure. He was, and is, an incredibly popular figure around the park and has become a firm friend to many residents of Grosse Pointe Farms.
During Mr. Graves time running the concession stand Pier-Park continued to receive numerous improvements. In the late 1990’s a new playscape was installed. In 2004, the new Orten Activity community building was completed (costing around $2m). In 2006, the harbor was expanded and renovated to accommodate more than 300 boats. Two years later, in 2008, basketball courts were added, which now double up as an ice rink during the winter months, along with serval courts for racket sports. Many of these recent improvements were down to Grosse Pointe Farms Mayor James C. Farquhar (2003 – 2017). “Mayor Farquhar worked tirelessly to advance the facilities at Pier Park including the expansion and renovation of the harbor”. Highlighted by the plaque, displayed in the park. Photos courtesy of Katie Doelle.
Today Pier-Park remains the “crown jewel” of Grosse Pointe Farms. It is in essence the pride and joy of the community.
We would like to thank Higbie Maxon Agney Realtor Dickie Graves for his wonderful stories, history, and insights on the history of Pier Park.
*Photos courtesy of the Higbie Maxon Agney archives unless stated.
** Research, information, and data sources are deemed reliable, but accuracy cannot be fully guaranteed.
Written by Katie Doelle
Copyright © 2022 Higbie Maxon Agney & Katie Doelle
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