Police Department History Unearthed

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A Grand Ledge Police Department patrol car from the 1950s.

A Grand Ledge Police Department patrol car from the 1950s.

On Tuesday at the Grand Ledge Opera House, retired Grand Ledge Police Lt. Don McGillis told the public the stories and history that shaped their city’s police department.

“During my whole career, I wondered what the early history was like,” McGillis said. “Prior to 1950, there was no information, no pictures, just a wall.”

The idea to compile a history of the 100-year-old department came from his cousin, St. Ignace, Mich., Mayor Paul Grondin, who researched similar histories for St. Ignace.

When McGillis approached retirement in January after 33 years of service with the Grand Ledge Police Department, he spoke with the Grand Ledge Historical Society about presenting the idea as his retirement project.

Beginning around April, McGillis and his wife Joanna spent six months sifting through 110 years of city council minutes and archives, book after book.

They believe they have identified every police chief to serve Grand Ledge.

Handwritten Trouble

“We did it day by day,” Joanna McGillis said. “You could only look at the book for an hour or two.”

The city clerks handwrote all council minutes until about 1922, when Grand Ledge bought its first typewriter. It took the McGillis’ months to search through the handwritten minutes and only weeks for the typed material.

“Not only were we reading all the stuff we didn’t want, we had trouble reading it at all,” Don McGillis said. “We would each have a book and would have to turn to each other and say, ‘What’s this word?’”

Early Drag Racing

He said one of the most interesting facts they unearthed was a short-lived law passed in 1913 that turned the more than half-mile stretch of Scott Street into a drag strip Monday through Saturday, 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., so long as every intersection was manned by a lookout.

“We were reading, and she started laughing,” Don McGillis said. “The roads had to be dirt back then. I have never heard of that.”

Changing Times

Retired Grand Ledge Police Chief David Burtch attended the event and reminisced on his time in law enforcement. Burtch was a policeman in Lansing before becoming the Grand Ledge police chief in 1978.

In the 1950s, he walked his beat in Lansing alone, without radio. At that time, blinking call lights in the town alerted officers of citizens in need.

“When I went on, there were three police cars in the whole city,” Burtch said. “There was a bright blue light in an amber-laid cast-iron holder. I remember walking out of the alleys and looking for that flash … flash … flash.”

Burtch’s time in Lansing taught him the necessity of communication between officers and community, and as the Grand Ledge police chief, he furthered that lesson.

“It’s not like TV — running and banging and shooting and collisions,” he said. “My favorite memories are the little things that some people might not think is important. I remember some children were pulling up flowers at the home of two elderly sisters.

“The sisters called me, and I explained to the children what they did and told them to say sorry. After that, I became friends with the children of that neighborhood and often had coffee with the sisters. Now they call it neighborhood policing.”

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