Shiawassee Arts Center Executive Director Piper Brewer, born and raised in Owosso, has published her first book: “A Step Back In Time: A Pictorial History of Owosso, Michigan, 1836-1966.” The beautifully crafted, bound, historic compilation is both aesthetically beautiful and incredibly interesting: representing the first known-about book incorporating Owosso history in a unified pictorial source.
Brewer, who resides in Owosso, recently shared the source of inspiration for her book started with the pandemic. The arts center she has been the director of since 2000, was closed for three months, so Brewer started writing short Facebook posts on Owosso history, which garnered considerable public feedback. After reading the posts, Bill Graham, a local accountant/bookkeeper, offered to sponsor a history column in the Argus Press, the local daily, and she took up his offer, though the column was reduced to publishing once monthly due to her commitment to the ongoing 50th anniversary celebration of the arts center in 2022. Between the posts, her column and the 50th anniversary celebration, Brewer decided to write her book.
“There has never been a pictorial book,” she shared. “Many of the pictures that are in the previous histories are either of poor reproduction or too small for you to really see. So my goal was to make the photos primary to the story.”
The book is broken into a number of chapters highlighting stories starting with the Williams Brothers founding of “Big Rapids,” which was to become Owosso, through the Gould Family and race relations to the history of the Shiawassee Arts Center. Sections include information and large photos on hotels, Westown, early industry, disasters, schools and so much more.
Regarding race relations, Brewer offered, “It was hard not to get carried away with stories such as race relations because there aren’t a lot of photos for that, but the story is lengthy and had never been pulled together.” Brewer had to follow through on researching numerous leads to accurately source the necessary material.
“I don’t recall that it was actually written prior that the Exchange Building had actually been the state headquarters of the KKK, which just blew me away. The second floor was the state offices … and the Grand Dragon was actually from Owosso.” The Exchange Building is located in downtown Owosso. At one point, Shiawassee County had as many as 5,000 recognized KKK members.
Race relations is a complex and often shameful part of Shiawassee County history, though along with stories about the KKK in Owosso, there are also stories connected to citizens helping with the Underground Railroad and Alexander Johnson, a popular and respected Black barber who lived in Owosso from 1870 to 1907. Johnson is buried at Oak Hill Cemetery. In 2021, the city honored his service as a veteran of the Civil War, acknowledging a time in history when Blacks had not been welcome in Owosso. One educationally eye-opening photo in Brewer’s book shows an enormous KKK parade that happened on Oct. 18, 1924 as crowds of onlookers watched hundreds of costumed KKK members parade down Main and Washington streets.
Brewer has had a longtime passion for Owosso history, serving on the board of the Owosso Historical Commission for 25 years. Seventeen of those years, she was the chairperson. Her dedication to the community, its history and arts, is well known and highly commendable. Her book, “A Step Back in Time,” is a definite labor of love. Another positive consideration, is her complete dedication to being as exact and accurate as possible, though she humbly admits mistakes are possible even after following up with so many historic threads. Nearly anyone in the area who has had a discussion with Brewer on local history, would acknowledge her comprehension of the dynamics of Owosso and commitment to serving the community.
Brewer’s book will become available at the Shiawassee Arts Center mid-September. The book will be $50 for members and $60 for non-members. She plans on offering at least one book signing, which will be announced later.
Brewer included special acknowledgements in her book, thanking her board of directors, staff, major SAC 50th celebration supporters and others.
“This book is also very personal to me,” she states on page 7. “My great-great-grandparents, both maternal and paternal, came from New York state to this area in the 1840s. It was a wilderness then and they, along with other hardy souls, helped to create a city, in its time, that was uniquely special. I am a Baby Boomer and was fortunate to grow up during one of Owosso’s greatest periods of growth and prosperity. The Shiawassee River and the “Big Island” served as my backyard playground.”
The Shiawassee Arts Center has had its Historical Exhibit of Owosso running, which ties into the book. The upcoming SAC 25th Anniversary Annual Members Show will begin Sept. 7 and continue through to Oct. 30.
The Shiawassee Arts Center is located at 206 Curwood Castle Dr., Owosso. The arts center is open Monday through Friday from noon to 5 p.m. and weekends from noon to 4 p.m. For more information, call (989) 723-8354.