When talking with Gary Fisher, the subject of history is bound to come up. It’s something he lives for and his depth of knowledge of the Flint area is immense. “Have you heard of Clarence ‘Kelly’ Johnson?” he asks with enthusiasm.
“He’s a Flint guy and he revolutionized the aviation industry. How about the Honolulu Conservatory of Music? It used to sit right on Saginaw St.” He sits forward in his chair, akin to a runner leaning forward listening to the starting pistol. “We were at one time known as the Nashville of the North,” he continues, ready to run away with it. The stories keep coming and it’s all interesting. One look around the room is all you need to know about his passion. His walls are adorned with photos of Flint industrial titans such as Charles Stewart Mott, Walter Chrysler, Louis Chevrolet and of course, his favorite, Billy Durant.
“We strive to tell the real history of Genesee County and get the facts right. We don’t play politics and we don’t sugarcoat anything. Accuracy is important.”
Gary Fisher, President
Fisher spends nearly all of his free time immersed in history and telling its stories. He hosts a radio show, “Fish and the Flint Chronicles,” broadcast on WFNT 1470 on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, when he interviews notable Flint history-makers. Each episode, once finished, is freely donated to another organization with which he is directly involved: The Genesee County Historical Society (GCHS), for which Fisher also acts as president. Each show is available for listening at geneseehistory.org.
“At GCHS, we see ourselves as the storytellers,” he states, “and there are so many stories. We strive to get it right, to tell the real history of Genesee County and to get the facts right. We don’t play politics and we don’t sugarcoat anything. Accuracy is important.”
The earliest reference to the Genesee County Historical Society is in 1915 and the year has become the semi-official birthdate of the society that was organized by big area players including C. S. Mott and Walter P. Chrysler. Through the years, the GCHS has worn different hats as proprietors of historic documents and goods, as well as educators and preservationists. “The GCHS helped create the Sloan Museum,” adds Fisher. “We donated our holdings to them and that essentially made the museum. Here’s another little-known fact: we are responsible for maintaining the famous Flint arches. Twenty-two years or so ago, there was an idea to bring the arches back, but the emergency manager at the time turned it down. So, GCHS stepped in.” The Society raised funds to preserve its current home, the Durant-Dort Carriage Company landmark, helps support Crossroads Village, the Whaley House, the Vernors Mural (in collaboration with GFAC) and oversaw the Downtown Façade Program with funding from the Ruth Mott Foundation and Community Foundation of Greater Flint. The GCHS also provided a helping hand in the creation of the Flushing, Fenton and Grand Blanc Historical Societies. “We have good relationships with our neighboring societies and it is a future goal to continue to strengthen those relationships,” adds Fisher. The society also partners with other area organizations such as Back to the Bricks and has a presence at the event.
The GCHS has expanded their operations to include preservation workshops and educational lectures such as their current “House Mysteries – House Histories” series at the Flint Public Library. The GCHS is also embracing area history through events both member-exclusive and open to the public. “We are having a celebration of the Flint Coney Culture at Koegel’s in April and we are very excited for it,” Fisher exclaims. “It’s open to everyone. I am doing a three-part series on the radio leading up to it when we finally reveal the secret recipe!” Upcoming this summer, a salute to the Corvette is planned and on December 7, they will celebrate Billy Durant’s birthday. “It’s going to be big this year,” says Fisher. “We are going to have some surprise guests.” Visit the GCHS Facebook page for more information and daily stories. “Joel Rash runs our social media and he does a fantastic job,” adds Fisher.
If you are interested in becoming a storyteller or just want to support the preservation and advancement of area history, becoming a member is the first step. “Members receive our e-newsletter, our bi-annual magazine, The Historian, and more,” says Fisher, “but by joining the Durant Club, you can really make a difference for us.” A standard membership fee is $30; couples memberships are $50 and a family membership (all household members) is $100. If you would like to have a single membership and provide additional support, $100 gives you Patron status. For $250, you can be a member of the exclusive Durant Club. “Supporting the Durant Club allows us to do more and comes with perks not available to other members,” says Fisher. Area residents can also provide support through monetary donations or purchases from the Historical Society store, either online or in-person at their headquarters. The store is graciously run by Society Director, Derek Dohrman.
For those who really want to become part of the fabric of the county and its history, the GCHS has openings for volunteers and advisory board members. “We need help running our events and we are always looking for people to be engaged,” Fisher explains. “The advisory board will be the first people called whenever we need help. That can include helping to park cars, stuffing envelopes, etc.”
Genesee County has a rich history of innovation, advancement of civil rights, diversity, and changing the world – complete with colorful characters from all nationalities and walks of life. “We have an outsized role in history. We really do,” says Fisher. “No city of this size has ever made a bigger impact. World War II would not have gone the way it had if not for us. We were a big part of the ‘arsenal of democracy’. We were the first to pass a fair housing ordinance, the first to have a Black mayor, etc. There’s so much that we have done besides the auto industry. Don’t talk to me about Ford – Billy Durant and General Motors did much more. I truly believe that.”
For Fisher, Genesee County and Flint have no equal in the nation when it comes to impact. He could talk all day and in each statement comes something new. Help him and the others in the organization spread the knowledge and the stories. Become a member of the Genesee County Historical Society and keep the legend going. “We all have something to share,” says Fisher. “Tell the story.”
If you would like to become a member of the Durant Club or a regular member, visit geneseehistory.org and click “Become A Member.” To become a volunteer or advisory board member, visit geneseehistory.org or call 810.410.4605. For event info and daily stories, visit Facebook.com/geneseehistory. The GCHS is located at the Durant-Dort Carriage Company Headquarters, 316 W. Water St., Flint.
Photos provided by Gary Fisher and GCHS