The Detroit News Hiking Club

More than 1,600 Detroiters turned out in October 1936 for the first Detroit News nature hike.

In 1936, long before it was “in” to be physically  fit,  Albert Stoll Jr., Conservation Editor of The Detroit News, wrote  “We need to be dragged out of our sedentary habits.”  Stoll was proposing a  Sunday hike in Detroit’s Rouge Park to get his readers out into the fresh air.

In a series of articles promoting the hike, he got an official endorsement from the city’s health department, delcaring “The organized walk is a stimulant to our nervous as well as our physical mechanism … “.

The route of the first nature hike through Rouge Park.

The motor car, he wrote, instead of preventing walking, will promote it by getting people to places where the hiking trails are. “Watch this new movement grow,” he trumpeted. He suggested practical clothing for the hike, which included “knickers” for women participants.

The first hike was scheduled for Oct. 25, and when the day came the city’s Department of Street Railways put on extra streetcars. It was a good thing, too — more than 1,600 people showed up.

Detroit News writer George Stark wrote about that first walk: “They found soothing remedy for all the troubles that beset mankind … Nature in her lovely autumnal costume, air that was tonic with the elixir of October … sermons in stones, books in running brooks; universal religion in the gorgeous pattern of the woods, great mystery of the sky and earth … they worshipped at stout trunks of oak and elm … ”

That was the beginning of The Detroit News Hiking Club, whose slogan was “Hiking for Health.” Within nine years, the club boasted 8,000 members divided into 61 separate units, each with its own leaders and each with its own nature study interests.

There were no dues, no constitution, no by-laws. Club leaders received no pay — they did it for the love of hiking and of nature study. The units were led by botanists, naturalists and informed amateurs who were always in demand. Among them were some Detroit News personnel, including Stoll himself, librarian Miriam Lyne, Garden Editor Ruth Mosher Place, and Random Shots Editor Elmer Adams.

Hiking club members on a woodlands trail.

The hiking club continued into the 1950s and branched out into areas such as fishing, canoeing, sleigh rides, camping, weinie roasts, sing-alongs, horeseback riding, hay rides, cycling and barn dances. There were nearly as many different activities as there were hikers.

The hikes were not short on romance. In 1938, Jean Murray and Henry Gonyeau from Unit 13 announced their engagement after a hike. A party followed.

In a Detroit News article George Stark wote that it was obvious for some time to the members that these two “seemed to be more interested in each other than the mysterious manifestations of nature.

“People get acquainted without being formal about it. It isn’t at all like meeting folks in the drawing room or even the cocktail bar.”

Paul Kavieff of Royal Oak tells how his father, Melvin Kavieff, now 82, was looking for a wife who loved the outdoors and who didn’t wear glasses. He met Blanche Perlove on a Detroit News hike and thought she fit the bill. Blanche, who came to the hikes without glasses, was impressed with Melvin and professed a love of the outdoors. It wasn’t until after they were married that Melvin discovered her eyesight wasn’t that good and her love of the outdoors had been a exaggeration.

In the beginning hikers had to be 18 or older to participate in the club, but by December 1936 junior groups were being formed. The first was Unit 22 for those 15-17 years old. Their first outing was a skating expedition at Palmer Park that ended with a songfest. “Somebody thought to carry along a portable organ and the youngsters gave an open-air concert that was a revelation to people taking their Sunday stroll through the park.”

Some groups branched out into winter sprts. In 1937 a chartered train took hikers to Grayling for skiing, skating and tobogganing at a cost of $2.95 per person. A snow train to Portland in 1938 gave hikers the opportunity to spend the day in the snow or enjoy a roast beef dinner for 50 cents and watch a movie with Walter Winchell called “Love and Hisses.”

News hikers took the Snow Train for skiing at Ogemaw Hills in 1948.

      The clubs even had their celebrities. In 1951, a snow queen, Mavis Fitzpatrick of Detroit was picked to reign along with Ogemaw Hills Snow Queen Rosaline Sappington.

Some involved themselves in community service. In 1946, the Wolverine Hiking Club helped plant 5,000 nut and fruit trees for the Waterloo recreational project near Chelsea.

Then there was the story of Sylvia Carlen, a dedicated member of the Detroit News Hikers, who in 1941, at age 72, walked from Port Huron to her home in Detroit in 10 hours, a distance of 57 miles. “I could have made better time,” she said, “if people hadn’t stopped me all along the way to offer me rides.”

She was walking so quickly that a police officer stopped her and pretended to write her a ticket for speeding. Her husband was unconcerned. On two previous occasions, she had walked to Mt. Clemens and back.

Some hikers got more adventure than they had bargained for in 1947. A group of about 80 had gotten lost trying to return to the Pleasant Valley Ranch about five miles from Brighton. They wandered about in Livingston County until a farmer suggested that they follow the Pere Marquette train tracks back to the ranch. They came to a railroad bridge that crossed the Huron River, but as the last group reached the middle of the bridge someone yelled “Get off the bridge!” A train was coming.

The Pere Marquette Railroad bridge where hikers were trapped trying to cross the Huron River.

      Georgia Mitchell, 19, jumped into the river as others lay down on the edge of the bridge or dangled by their hands from the stringers as the train roared above them. Two women were knocked from the bridge. Irma Bees, 28, suffered cuts on her leg and Grace Hansen, 20, sustained a broken arm and leg. Many suffered minor injuries and were treated at a nearby hospital and released, all except Hanson who was in serious condition.

Mitchell related her experience: “We followed the track a little way and then we came to the trestle. It looked high and scary and we didn’t much want to cross it, but there wasn’t any other way to get to the ranch without doing a lot more wandering around. A lot of the men went across and so about eight of us girls started out. We were in the middle when we heard someone on the far side yell, “Here comes a train. Get off that bridge.” So I did. The water was cold and I lost my purse but I didn’t get hit.” The train, bound for Detroit, did not stop. The crew later said they saw no one on the bridge.

World War II took its toll on the Detroit News Hiking Club and membership began to decline, pretty much dying out by 1956.

Georgia Mitchell, left, jumped off a railroad bridge and was unhurt. Grace Hansen, right, suffered a broken arm and leg when the train knocked her from the bridge.

      In 1971 there was one unit left, the Wolverine Hiking Club. Ted Lentsch, the group leader, wrote The News: “We’re old hikers but we welcome anyone who cares to join us. There are about eight of us still active.”

In June 1994, 58 of the hikers from “The Trailblazers” unit met for a reunion at the Botsford Inn. Edward Barnard, who joined the group in 1940, told how he met his wife, Dorothy, during one of the hikes when he threw a football that bent the radio antenna of her car. Romance bloomed once she got over being annoyed with him. Another couple, Bob and Henrietta Aylsworth, drove all the way from Florida for the reunion. Bob said he hadn’t seen the group since he went off to war.

Today most people rely on health clubs to stay fit, but there still are many healthy Detroiters around who will never forget the Detroit News Hiking for Health Club. Or the people they met there.

This view of the bridge shows how far the women had to jump to safety. The river is at left.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files from The Detroit News Library.)

By Kay Houston / The Detroit News