MCRA Canoer’s Memorial Monument has a long history in Oscoda Township | Entertainment
This story originally appeared in the February 8, 2006 edition of Oscoda Press. There has been much controversy over the years over the Canoeist’s Monument. Almost every aspect – from its inspiration, to who chose the location, to ownership of the site, to who built it – even its name has been debated. The only undisputed issue is the respect canoe racers have for the monument and the pride families feel when the name of a loved one is added to its bronze plaque. The following account is based on documents, photographs and interviews. Special thanks to Ron Raynak, Sylvia Curley-Harmon, Consumers Energy, and the US Forest Service for their collective assistance in researching this article. — Jason Ogden, editor of Oscoda Press
OSCODA — The history of the canoe racer monument begins in 1953, shortly after the death of 17-year-old Jerry Curley, a canoe racer from Oscoda.
An AuSable business owner, John Sawyer, is credited with the idea. He wanted to erect a memorial to Jerry and other runners who died.
The idea faded after it failed to attract interest from the community or the new Michigan Canoe Racers Association (MCRA), founded in 1955.
It was raised again at the MCRA annual meeting in 1967. Someone suggested that funds be allocated for a monument honoring those who had run the AuSable River Marathon and had passed away. The motion was approved and $500 was donated to a monument committee.
It is not known why the monument was located in Oscoda. Sylvia Curley-Harmon, Oscoda, suggests that her father, Harry Curley, proposed it.
According to one story, Harry spoke with a superintendent of Consumers Energy (then Consumers Power), who agreed that it might be located somewhere between Iargo Springs and Lumberman’s Monument, on the bank overlooking the AuSable River.
Former marathon champion Ron Raynak of AuSable remembers choosing the site to lay the foundation.
He said he and Robert Gillings walked the target area between Iargo Springs and the Lumberjack Monument and picked the spot with the most notable view.
Legend has it that there was a handshake agreement for use of the property and uncertainty as to whether the land belonged to consumers or the US Forest Service.
Work has started. In the May 1968 MCRA newsletter, an update states:
“The monument committee reports that the footings are all laid for the monument. Harry Curley has the stone and will contact someone to do the brickwork, which will likely take whatever money is left in the pot. Thanks to Al Widing, Bob Gillings, Stan Hall and Ron Raynak for laying the foundation. They dug the foundations and mixed and poured cement for the job.
Jerry Wagner, Oscoda and Harry Curley built the memorial with materials donated by Roy Stewart, then director of the Huron Building Supply Company.
Completed, the monument was dedicated as the “Michigan Canoe Race Association Memorial Monument” on July 28, 1968. Four deceased paddlers were honored and listed on the plaque: Jerry Curley, Henry Feldhauser, Arthur Furtaw Jr., and Jerry Lauwers.
Research indicates a troubled past for the monument was to follow. The neglect of the site prompted Harry Curley to take responsibility – physically and financially – for upkeep. Providing brick repairs, viewing platforms, lawn mowing and flower beds has become a labor of love.
On July 22, 1982, an automobile and a drunk driver demolished the monument. The crash happened before River Road was moved away from the river, after the road was designated as a scenic drive.
No fatalities were reported in the accident and Curley was quoted in 1983: “If the monument hadn’t been there they probably would have gone over the cliff, out there in the woods and probably nobody never would have found them, not for a long time.”
Harry Curley and Jerry Wagner rebuilt the monument with insurance money received from the accident claim.
Curley-Harmon recalls installing a new brass plate, replacing the original white metal one, which had disappeared. Shortly after, the brass plate was stolen.
Harry Curley replaced it with a wooden plaque renaming the monument “The Jerry Curley Memorial Canoe Race Monument.” The stolen brass plaque was later returned by Sylvia’s nephew, Kevin Curley, without ever revealing who gave it to him.
In addition to generating a new monument, the auto accident also prompted a Consumers Power investigation into the ownership of the site. This determined that the monument was mostly on Consumers Energy property, with 15 feet of the property belonging to the US Forest Service.
In the fall of 1982, Harry Curley was publicly concerned about who would take over custody of the monument.
“I’m 72 and I can’t deal with this forever,” he said in an Oct. 21 newspaper article.
Curley asked Losco County to provide for future maintenance of the monument and grounds. He and Wagner later withdrew the request when the name of the monument could not be agreed upon.
In March 1984, Oscoda took the monument under its wing as part of the Oscoda Park System, under an agreement with Consumers.
Then, in 1986, the US Forest Service acquired ownership of the utility company.
Forest Service District Ranger Calvin Norton wrote to Wagner in April 1989, proposing that the monument be moved closer to the finish line of the AuSable River International Canoe Marathon.
Norton wrote, “…the memorial simply does not fit the theme that might be developed along this corridor in the future”, referring to the scenic route.
The statement sparked an outcry in the community and elsewhere in the state. The protests were numerous and vehement.
An emotional reunion took place in June 1989, when Norton relented.
Today, there is no dispute as to its existence or ownership, according to current district ranger Charles Andrina. The U.S. Forest Service owns and manages the land on which the monument sits, and Oscoda Township has a special use permit for the maintenance of the structure.
Andrina adds that the US Forest Service has a continuing interest in being a partner with the MCRA for future improvements to the monument site.
The Michigan Canoe Racing Association Memorial is dedicated to former paddlers who competed in the AuSable River Marathon and continues to preserve the memory of those who participated in canoe racing.
Nineteen names of former runners are engraved on the monument, thanks to the efforts of many people who volunteered to create and maintain the monument over the years.
There is another name on the monument, that of Harry Curley. Not a runner, he was honored as an avid promoter of AuSable racing by the MCRA, according to a 1994 dedication program.
Last March, the MCRA formed a 15-member committee dedicated to the preservation of monuments. New guidelines for name submissions were discussed and implemented, adapting the old guidelines.
To be inducted onto the monument, MCRA requirements require a person to have entered the AuSable River Marathon and completed the race. Honorees must also be deceased.
A form has been developed to help people submit the names of others who meet the criteria, Raynak said.
Raynak hopes to put up to 10 more names on the monument this summer. Induction nominations are due by March 15.
Another goal of the committee is to raise funds to add future names.
“Each nameplate costs at least $75,” Treasurer Curley-Harmon revealed. A fundraiser, called A Bake less Bake Sale MCRA, will begin soon.
The Michigan Canoe Racers Association accepts donations for the monument year-round.