On the northern edge of downtown Pontiac, an old, red brick house sits on a grassy lot surrounded by large, shady trees. One step inside the stately manor is a step back in time.
Welcome to Pine Grove, the original estate of Moses Wisner. In 1845, Wisner and his family came from New York to this spot on what used to be the Saginaw Trail. It’s now Cesar E. Chavez Avenue. Wisner became a farmer and a lawyer, and eventually ran for office. He was elected Michigan’s 12th governor and served one term from 1859 to 1861. There was no governor’s mansion in Lansing at the time, so this is where he conducted a lot of state business. Today, the Oakland County Pioneer and Historical Society maintains the house and the surrounding 4.5 acres. Members offer tours of the Wisner estate, often in period costumes. Bill Grandstaff portrays the governor himself.
“He helped to eliminate a lot of corruption in the government,” Grandstaff says. During the Civil War, Moses Wisner raised a regiment to fight for the Union Army, the 22nd Michigan Infantry.
“He got men from the Pontiac area, all of Oakland County, into Macomb County and took the regiment down to Knoxville, and unfortunately he got sick and passed away before they ever got into battle,” Grandstaff says.
Passing down a legacy
After his death in 1863, Wisner’s widow, Angeolina, took care of Pine Grove and passed it on to her descendants. In 1945, her granddaughter sold the property to the Oakland County Pioneer and Historical Society, which turned the house into a museum. Society President Charlotte Cooper says volunteers take meticulous care of the home.
“And all this is a labor of love. We maintain this with our own money, our own time, our own talents, our own energy.”—Charlotte Cooper, Oakland Co. Pioneer and Historical Society
The house is one of several buildings the historical society maintains on the property. There’s a summer kitchen, a one-room schoolhouse, a root cellar, a smokehouse, and a “privy”—a more polite term for “outhouse”. Society board member Rodger Zeller says the “three-holer” is one of the more curious attractions.
“We sometimes have to tell kids when they look in that it hasn’t been used for a long time, because in their mind, they think it’s going to smell,” Zeller says.
The privy is one of Pine Grove’s original structures. The nearby carriage house is not. It was built on the foundation of the old barn that burned down many years ago. The carriage house serves as the historical society’s meeting hall and research library. It contains photos and documents dating back to the early settlers of Oakland County, collectively known as the Pioneers. Those families founded the historical society in 1874. Board member Barbara Frye says their librarians will comb the archives for anyone trying to trace their family history.
“We have journals, we have a selection of family geneaologies, we do have maps,” Frye says. “We have scrapbooks, we have photographs, we have a collection of things we’re still finding.”
All in the family
Preserving local history is the society’s main function. Preserving Pine Grove is personal for board member Ann Johnson, a relative of Moses Wisner.
“Moses would have been, I guess the best way to put it, a grand uncle. His sister was a grandmother on my father’s side.”
Johnson says she got involved with Pine Grove after reading letters from the Civil War. She lives in the Upper Peninsula, but comes here to show visitors around and help out when she can.
“It’s a labor of love for me, the property, this house means an awful lot to me,” Johnson says.
The Wisner house and the other buildings could get a new addition soon. A Farmington restaurant owner has donated a 128-year-old carriage barn to the historical society. The group has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise at least $30,000 to move it to Pontiac and reassemble it. Bill Grandstaff says he hopes the project will bring renewed interest in Pine Grove.
“And hopefully we can have people help us maintain this 4.5 acres, and help educate the kids,” Grandstaff says.
“If we lose our history, it will be a loss for our nation.”—Bill Grandstaff
When can you visit?
The Oakland County Pioneer and Historical Society holds its annual ice cream social at Pine Grove from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, July 28, 2018. It’s located at 405 Cesar E. Chavez Avenue, just north of the Woodward Loop in downtown Pontiac.