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River of Time Links Actual History Since it Occurs on James Birney's Farm

New Feature: Freedom Singers Depict the Way Slaves Communicated

September 29, 2003       Leave a Comment
By: Dave Rogers

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"Abe Lincoln" re-enactor address the crowd during Civil War Presentation during River of Time Festival in Bay City's Veterans' Park
A River of Time re-enactor carves a walking stick during the 2003 Festival held in Bay City

It is altogether fitting and proper, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, that the River of Time living history exhibition is held on the grounds of Veterans Memorial Park on the west bank of the Saginaw River in Bay City.

For these are historic grounds, a fact probably unknown to the thousands of visitors and hundreds of re-enactors involved in the 13th annual event, just concluded on Sunday, Sept. 28.

The folks who trod the park grounds to experience a little of life in past centuries need to know that this land was the farm of James Gillespie Birney, the first anti-slavery candidate for the Presidency.

Birney bought 116 acres comprising Government Lots 2 and 3 in 1842. His son, David Bell Birney, 17, drove a herd of cattle about 300 miles from Ohio to begin stock-raising here. David would later achieve a measure of fame as a major general in the Union Army, commanding a corps of 15,000 men, perhaps a third of the entire northern force, at the Battle of Gettysburg, according to historian Gerald Pergande, a Bay City attorney.

In 1845, after a second losing campaign for President, Birney fell from a horse on the farm and was partially paralyzed, ending his political career. The farm was sold after Birney's death in 1857 to Henry Sage, who operated the world's largest lumber mill and platted the Village of Wenona on Birney's original purchase. The village became West Bay City and in 1903 merged to be part of Bay City.

It is no less appropriate that a new group, the Freedom Singers, from Second Baptist Church of Bay City, performed all weekend at the River of Time. And that Rev. Seth Doyle, pastor of Second Baptist, delivered a reading of one of the speeches of Frederick Douglass, a prominent black abolitionist. Birney and Douglass collaborated in many aspects of the early struggle against slavery.

In the first re-enactment of slavery of the River of Time, the singers depicted slaves who used song to communicate as they escaped the South, personified by Harriet Tubman who conducted many groups at great peril in that era.

Bay City has a connection to the Underground Railroad, as the escape route was called. One old house on the West Side has positively been identified as a station used by escaping slaves and there may be others. Birney's friends included a man from Schoolcraft who operated a station and may have helped slaves reach Bay City, and then Canada by boat. Recent Michigan history books show Bay City on the UGRR route, but more research is needed to verify and amplify the facts.

The crowds were not as numerous as in past years, perhaps because of the weather, and the heralded appearance of journalists from the Smithsonian Magazine didn't happen, but the important thing was that the "show went on." The River of Time continues as one of Bay City's outstanding attractions for educational as well as tourism purposes. History through the ages has an undying appeal since it shows us how our ancestors lived.

At opening ceremonies on Saturday morning, Don Marquardt, of Sanford, a leader of the Sanford Brigade of voyageur re-enactors, presented awards to longtime participants from his group. The awards included long red feathers and medals depicting golden beavers, symbolizing the animals that provided a lucrative incentive for the early travelers to this region.

Highlight of the morning ceremony was presentation of the Birney Sword by committee chairman Tony Dearing to Ron Bloomfield and Judy Jeffers of the Bay County Historical Society. The sword was protected all weekend by an honor guard comprised of re-enactors Len McInerney and Ken Martin, who did yeoman duty in the effort.

For More River of Time Photos . . . Click Here has covered the River of Time since 2003.
Take any of these links for prior year coverage:

2018.a, 2018.b
2017.a, 2017.b, 2017.c,
2015, 2014, 2013,
2012, 2011, 2010, 2009,
2008, 2008, 2008, 2008,
2007, 2007,
2006, 2006,
2005, 2005, 2005,
2004, 2003,

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Dave Rogers

Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
respected journalist/writer in and around Bay City.
(Contact Dave Via Email at

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