Milligan Highway: How to Preserve a Home and a History

Bill Milligan, a teacher in Escanaba, shares the story of the one-bedroom house that has been in his family for nearly a century, and his efforts to maintain both the property and his family’s narrative.

The more I age, the more I frantically reach back and grab anything that helps bridge my family’s past to its present: pictures, old tools, knickknacks, stories.

But when young, I fled to the excitement of my peers and away from the quiet and the history. And I suppose that is a story of many: we spend our minutes when young as if the supply is inexhaustible—both for others and ourselves.

I came to own the small one-bedroom home of my grandparents near Onaway shortly after my father died in 2007. The home is located on a dirt road named Milligan Highway, a name embedded with local humor on just what does and doesn’t qualify as a “highway” in the Great North.

My grandfather bought the home in 1925 with $250 he made selling fox pelts. For the next 72 years he, Guy Milligan, and she, Flossie his wife, lived together in the small home until death did them part. At the funeral my father made the comment that one comes to believe that parents will always be there because they’ve always been there—proof that such sentiments aren’t reserved solely for the young.

My father lived only another 10 years after making that statement. I suppose his death was the catalyst for me really embarking on a vigorous path of preservation of family heritage. I started visiting aunts and uncles I hadn’t seen much in my adult life, gathering and guarding anecdotes and stories. The time my grandfather did this, the time my father did that. The time. The time.

Not that I completely missed out on connecting with my grandparents when I was young—but like many I wish I had the same urgency then that I do now in getting to know them. And I have many fond memories of fishing and hunting with my father. The Black River—which dissects Milligan Highway—runs through our family history like the blood through the family veins, and each spring I still fish with my father’s ghost and we exchange “remember when” stories, the stream and its banks showing the effects of time like we all do: holes that once were are now not, newer vibrant runs slice through once-dry flats, a flowered meadow flourishes where once an ancient beaver dam had made a pond.

And a dirt highway runs over the Black. And aside that dirt highway sits a tiny house. And the stories belong to us, the Milligans, and I feel a panicked sense of responsibility that my two young sons—only five years old and six months old when my father died—will know even less than I did and do.

Early steps have been taken to remedy that, and those actions have reinforced the notion the property shouldn’t be a shrine. My oldest son, Bradley, confiscated Flossie’s old spice jars to house grasshoppers, and I have already had the attached 20 acres select cut. The home has received a necessary facelift: a new roof, drywall, and flooring. Guy and Flossie would find it strange that the satellite dish brings in 150 television channels—and even more bizarre that I can teach an online writing class from a desk in the living room where Guy used to sit in a rocking chair and read the newspaper.

So, I suppose that no matter how much we try to cling to the past, we must make our own way into the future. That way for me seems uncertain, now newly divorced. I envision being buried solo in Hillcrest Cemetery near Onaway, next to my parents, who are buried next to my grandparents, who are buried not far from great-grandparents. The last act of me connecting my past to my future.

If I were looking for a piece of property to buy, the house on Milligan Highway wouldn’t be my first choice. Probably not my second, either. In fact I wouldn’t look at it at all. What it is isn’t what’s important—but what it was compels me to care for it. The home is a money pit—but I have committed myself to keeping it upright and to the preservationist attitude that there should be a flesh-and-blood Milligan on Milligan Highway. I don’t know why this idea is so important to me, but it is. Perhaps it is homage to past wasted time, perhaps a tangible way to stay connected with the family ghosts. Perhaps someday my children will own it and, I hope, understand.

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