STRANGE GH: Couple refused city’s $16K check

Peter and Zelma Racenis left Latvia after World War II to escape the Communists. After spending some time in a camp in Germany for displaced persons, the married couple came to the United States, in 1950.
Kevin Collier
Oct 8, 2012


Peter, born on Sept 25, 1909; and Zelma, born on July 24, 1910, eventually settled in Grand Haven.

Peter Racenis was forced to retire early from his job with the Gardner-Denver Corp. in Grand Haven due to heart problems. Zelma Racenis kept a meager income as a housekeeper.

In 1972, construction of a sewer plant had begun, and it was said the project called for the Racenises’ home to be cleared away under the eminent domain law. Their small dwelling, likely on Beechtree Street, was estimated to have been built at the turn of the century.

The couple thought the money offered for their home and property was a paltry sum, thus waged a fight with the city. It led to intimidation and “threats of deportation” by the city, they told the press.

Because the couple refused to leave their home, the two spent several days in jail after being physically removed. It was reported that they lost most of their personal possessions, including a Bible they had brought from their native land of Latvia.

The couple’s belongings were actually placed in storage, and the loss of those items was due to their negligence of unpaid fees.

Attempts to find the Racenises a new home failed, and it was reported the husband and wife ended up making their new home in a “migrant shack” on a blueberry farm south of Grand Haven. The experience made them bitter and distrustful of public officials.

Authorities were not as brutal as indicated by the aging couple. A pet rooster that resided in, and was abandoned in their home, was taken in and cared for by the Racenises’ arresting officer. The policeman was said to have provided a home for their pet “for some time” after Peter and Zelma were released from jail and relocated.

Eight years later, the city of Grand Haven was still trying to settle with Peter Racenis for his home and property they had demolished for the sewer plant. In 1980, an Ottawa County Circuit  judge awarded the Racenises a check for $16,966.53.

But Peter Racenis would not accept the check.

“You can’t get justice in Grand Haven,” the then 70-year-old man told a reporter. “They all work together. They put us in jail. Then they rob our home. We was too weak, two old people. They were very powerful.”

“My wife was pulled out of the house without shoes,” he continued. “It was raining. We didn’t have a place to go. I don’t trust them.”

Louis Draeger, treasurer of the Grand Haven-Spring Lake Sewer Authority, attempted to present the check to Peter Racenis, but the man refused to accept it as “a protest,” and just wanted to be left alone.

“He has seen the check,” Draeger told the press. “I’ve been out there three times. But he gets going on the history of the thing and all the bad guys involved and I just lose him. He’s hard to understand.”

Draeger, of Spring Lake, still recalls Peter and Zelma Racenis, and their circumstances more than 30 years later. He never forgot the incident.

“They never did accept the check,” Draeger said. “As far as I know, they never accepted payment and refused all attempts.”

It was said the money eventually went into a city fund for unclaimed money.

“They could have taken the money and moved the house onto a new property and still had plenty of money in the bank,” Draeger added.

He thinks that might have actually been the path of the couple’s home.

“I believe the house wasn’t demolished, but still exists,” Draeger said. “I think it was picked up and moved to a new location.”

Despite their horrific experience, real or imagined, Peter and Zelma Racenis never left Ottawa County. Peter died on July 17, 1991; and Zelma died on March 20, 2005. Both are buried in the Allendale Township Cemetery.



i guess something things never change in a small town. City of Grand Haven is still trying to stick it to their residents.


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