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  • Kevin Elliott

Leslie Pielack

The development of Birmingham and its connection to Saginaw and Detroit follow the lines of pre-colonial history along what was once known as The Saginaw Trail, which is the subject of Birmingham Museum Director Leslie Pielack's historically significant book, "The Saginaw Trail: From Native American Path to Woodward Avenue."

Pielack, who has spent 37 years as a certified licensed counselor, started a second career in historical preservation more than a decade ago. In 2010, she became director of the city's museum, where a related project sparked her interest in the history of the thoroughfare that ran from Detroit to Pontiac along modern day Woodward Avenue, from Pontiac to Flint along what is currently Dixie Highway, and on to Saginaw by way of what is now M-54.

"I pitched this project to (The History Press), and they were excited," Pielack said about the origins of the book. "The Saginaw Trail is the older route that Woodward follows. It has everything to do with the indigenous people here. ... before there was Woodward Avenue, there was the Saginaw Trail, and all the communities along its route.

"I wanted to find out what preceded our first settlers. Without the Saginaw Trail and its particular route, Birmingham and Pontiac wouldn't have developed where they are, and Oakland County wouldn't have developed the way it did. From the Detroit settlement all the way to the Saginaw area, from Bay City and back and all over Michigan, the Native American trails were numerous and interconnected all over Michigan and the Great Lakes."

Raised in Macomb County before moving to Oakland County for most of her adult life, Pielack earned a master's degree in counseling from Oakland University in 1981, and started her own practice soon after. But an interest in history led her to Eastern Michigan University where she earned a graduate certificate in historic preservation. She later taught as an adjunct professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture, and eventually led to her position at the museum. All along, she has maintained her private counseling practice.

"I just find that the way people derive meaning in their lives, whether through self-examination in counseling or through an examination of your family history, it's really compatible," Pielack said. "Both are about finding meaning in one's place, whether that's in immediate family or society. It's asking, 'what does life mean and how does it fit in with everything else.'"

Pielack uses the same dual approach in her book, in the way she researches and details the everyday people that built and lived along the trail before transitioning into historical details of the area.

"All along the Saginaw Trail, you would see carriage industries in every major town. Those were well positioned to become auto manufacturing centers in the early 20th century," Pielack said. "As they were experimenting with horseless carriages, those were coming from the carriage industry. I don't think the auto industry would have been located in Detroit without the Saginaw Trail having proceeded. All the infrastructure was there before the automobile was even invented."

By giving historical places meaning, artifacts connected to those places gain special historical significance. Take for instance the school bell taken from the former Hill School at Chester and Merrill streets, in Birmingham. Once kept in storage for years, it is now a significant marker at the museum.

"That's it's purpose, to call people together, and it still does that," she said.

Photo: Esme McClear

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