FERRYSBURG, Mich. (WOOD) — The city of Ferrysburg paid tribute to an early area settler with its first Michigan Historic Site marker on Friday.
Mayor Rebecca Hopp stood in front of a small crowd at the north end of Smith’s Bridge to unveil a historical plaque for Hezekiah Smith. Both the bridge and the bayou it spans are named for him.
“Just putting a name and a face and a history and a story behind how these two items were named and who this person was and it’s so long overdue,” Hopp said.
Smith was a free Black man who moved from Ohio to the Ferrysburg area in the mid-1800s. He went on to become an award-winning farmer growing cereal crops, peaches and apples. He purchased his first 40-acre plot on Aug. 13, 1849. Local historians say at one point, Smith owned 503 acres of land.
“He actually had writeups in various state agricultural society papers where they were saying ‘You have to check out Hezekiah’s fruit trees! He has these crazy cucumbers!’ and all of this different stuff,” said Kate Crosby, who is the exhibits curator for the Tri-Cities Historical Museum.
Crosby was one of the key researchers who helped find and verify information for the historical marker.
“It’s been incredible to be a part of this process and to get help to tell stories the way that they should be told so that we have a rich, diverse picture of the tri-cities and all that it has to offer,” she said.
She said Smith was also a fierce advocate for equal rights.
“Hezekiah Smith participated in several equal rights conferences, including one in 1894, like two years before he died,” Crosby said. “So he was 78 going to this conference, advocating for equal rights and equal suffrage.”
The historical marker notes Smith and his family were one of 19 African American families in the Grand Haven, Spring Lake and Ferrysburg area. In the fall of 1860, Smith was elected by his community to represent it at the Colored People’s Convention in Battle Creek to advance the condition of African Americans.
Local historians say Smith raised multiple children, some adopted. He also married three times, outliving two of his wives.
While Smith leaves behind a colorful story, Crosby says there are no known images of him.
“We have a decent collection of photos and we have photos of many of the Black families in the tri-cities in the 19th century, just not Hezekiah,” she said. “So it’s a little bit of a puzzle to me. We may have some photos that he’s not identified in.”
Despite not being able to see what Smith looks like, lakeshore residents say they’re happy generations to come will be able to interact with this piece of history.
“I’ve been through here a hundred times, whether it was Smith’s Bridge or Smith’s Bayou, I didn’t know the significance of it,” said Dewey Russ, who drove from Muskegon to watch the unveiling ceremony. “It means a lot but what it should mean is kids can come here now and park their bus and come up and touch the sign.”
The city and historians behind the marker say they’re not sure if Smith has relatives still living in West Michigan because records were lost when his third wife moved to Grand Rapids following his death. They say they hope to be connected if there are surviving relatives.