“My great strength is knowing who I am and where I come from — my island.”
— Oscar de la Renta
This latest interview gives us an insight into the life of 82-year-old Grosse Ile resident, Pete Coan.
How long have you been a resident of Grosse Ile?
I have lived on Grosse Ile since 1937. My parents built a house on Parke Lane at the north end of the Island, and we moved here from Wyandotte when I was 2 years old.
What is your first memory of living on the Island?
The thing I remember most is how sublimely quiet it is on Grosse Ile. At the time I moved to the Island, there were not more than 1,500-2,000 people living here. I am still cognizant of it today — once you cross one of the bridges to the Island you hear the sounds of nature, and not much else.
What was the Island like when you first came here?
Grosse Ile definitely had more of a rural feeling. There was much more area that was heavily wooded and larger roads like Horsemill were still unpaved. It was not until big subdivisions like Potawatomie Woods started to appear that activity increased and a more suburban feeling began to develop.
Have you ever lived anywhere else?
I spent the first two years of my life in Wyandotte, attended college at Tulane and Michigan State, and spent some time at boot camp in the Marines Reserves. However, the vast majority of my 82 years has been spent living on Grosse Ile.
What are some of your memories of living on Grosse Ile?
While Grosse Ile School District did not meet the definition of a “little red school house,” the student population was still much smaller than most students in other communities would recognize. When I first began to attend school all students from Kindergarten through 12th grade rode the school buses together. Everyone got to know each other pretty well. When I completed high school, I graduated with only 35 other students.
What also made my school experience unique was that I was able to attend classes with kids from all over the country. These kids were the sons and daughters of navy and marine parents who were stationed at the old Naval Air Base. Most of these kids attended school for only a few years until their parents were transferred. However, a few kids from what was called “station keeper families” were able to stay at Grosse Ile Schools for their entire primary and secondary education because their parents were stationed at the Base for a much longer time.
What are the biggest changes or events that you have seen happen on the Island?
Of course, the closing of the Naval Air Base was a huge change for Grosse Ile. For many years the military personnel at the Base were important members of our community. The military facilities were also something that became important in our lives. I especially enjoyed using the Olympic-sized pool at the Base.
The rapid growth in housing that occurred in the 1950s also had a tremendous effect on the community. Forested areas disappeared and Grosse Ile transformed from a very rural area to a community that had more of a suburban feeling. This was also the period of a rapid growth of population on the Island. By 1960, the population was up to 6,300.
Tell us a little more about your life and experiences?
I have had the chance to experience many important events in our history, either directly or indirectly through other family members. I was born to parents who were much older than the parents of most of my peers. My dad was 44 and my mom 39 when I was born. My dad was a medical officer with the 16th Engineers Company in France during World War I. He was at Verdun where the largest and longest battle on the Western Front had been fought earlier between the German and French armies. He did not see any direct combat, but he did have an artillery shell fall in the vicinity of his tent.
I also had an indirect connection with Prohibition and bootleggers. My dad was on staff at his hospital when an infamous Downriver bootlegger nicknamed “Curly” was brought in, riddled with bullets — compliments of a rival gang from Detroit. Unfortunately, Curly was too far gone, and my dad pronounced him deceased. Curly also had something of a connection with my late wife Penny’s family, the Schroeders. Her family once remarked to Curly that some items had been stolen from their house. Curly made sure that all of their items were returned, and they even received a few extra items in the bargain.
I have vivid memories of the World War II years. I was 6 years old when the call came to the house alerting the family that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. I remember the Air Raid Wardens traveling around the Island on bicycles making sure that we were following the blackout protocols. I recall the rationing of gasoline, sugar, coffee, meat, cheese, fats, and oils and how we were fortunate to be living across from Canada where we could still obtain steaks on occasion. I remember my mom saving cooking fat and turning it in for the war effort. The cooking fat was used to make glycerin which is a crucial ingredient in the manufacture of explosives such as nitroglycerin. It was also needed for other military uses — as a lubricant, in protective paint for planes and tanks, in hydraulics, in the production of food wrappers, and in dyes for uniforms.
I was one of the many young people who would visit the Island legend, Din Rooney. Din was a kindly eccentric who lived a somewhat primitive lifestyle. He loved to entertain the youth with his books and pictures of Grosse Ile, and he was the consummate storyteller.
My life took many twists and turns after I graduated from high school. I attended Tulane for a short time pursuing a medical degree and then switched to Michigan State University to study Speech and English. Upon graduation, I enlisted in the Marine Reserves and spent time at Parris Island and Camp Lejeune. This was during that short time period between the end of the Korean War and the start of the Vietnam War. After I returned to Michigan, I taught at Grosse Ile High School for two years, worked for Detroit Bank & Trust at several branch locations for four years, sold steel for two years, and worked for the Ford Motor Co. for 17 years. During some of that time, I had the great satisfaction of serving on the school board for Grosse Ile Township Schools.
It was also during that time that I courted the love of my life, Penny. We married in 1959, and together we raised our two sons, Peter and Paul.
Any final comments about living on Grosse Ile?
After nearly 80 years, I continue to have a great love for my Island home. I imagine I will live out the rest of my life here — and that suits me just fine.