If you have visited River Bends Park in Shelby Township, you have set foot upon land that has quite a history. It was used by the federal government as a defensive weapons launch facility in the ’50s, and prior to that, it was owned by Joe Louis, the famous boxer, who set up a restaurant and night club on the property. But well before Joe Louis purchased the property, it was owned by Peter and Sarah Lerrich, who settled there around 1835.
They named the property Spring Hill Farm, in tribute to the spring that was located on the land. The spring served as a source of water and also as a primitive method of refrigeration. But it served another, and somewhat riskier, purpose – it was a station along the Underground Railroad.
Despite the legal and financial consequences that were imposed upon individuals who aided and abetted escaped slaves, Peter Lerrich, along with some sympathetic neighbors, dug out the hill behind the spring and used it as a hiding place for escaped slaves who were headed to Canada. The dugout could hold up to 16 people, provided everyone was standing upright.
In order to help the escapees locate the dugout, the Lerriches and their neighbors planted a massive cedar tree, which could be seen from a long distance. The tree later became known as the Beacon Tree.
During their brief stops on the way to Canada and freedom, the escapees received prayers for a safe journey as well as food and water prepared by Sarah, sometimes with the help of her children. In 1923, Liberta Lerrich Green, daughter of Peter and Sarah, documented her memories regarding the Beacon Tree, and in 1973, those memories were published in a small booklet by the Macomb County Historical Society.
Unfortunately, there is little left of Spring Hill Farm today, and the enormous Beacon Tree was cut down by a subsequent owner who used the wood for fencing along the property. Eventually, the property fell into general disrepair.
In the early ’80s, much of the Spring Hill Farm property became Shelby Township’s River Bends Park. However, in an effort to maintain the memory, the state of Michigan erected a historical marker in the park. The park is accessible from the east side of Ryan Road, just south of 22 Mile Road, in Shelby Township.