Grand Haven cross history

Marie Havenga • Jul 22, 2015 at 10:50 AM

The cross was the brainchild of Dr. Bill Creason and other community-minded residents who embraced the long-term goal of beautifying the waterfront.

The structure was not City Council- or city-driven. Rather, it was created by an ad hoc committee, according to newspaper accounts.

Back in the early 1960s, the waterfront was a crude conglomeration of factories, pilings and blight. From that was born the Musical Fountain and, later, the boardwalk.

A 1962 Grand Haven Tribune article attributes the cross' creation to Dr. Bill Creason, Larry Bailey, P&V Antenna, George Purcell, Henry Parker, Bernie Boyink and West Michigan Sound Co.

Even in its infancy, the cross had its critics, according to newspaper accounts from the 1960s.

In 1999, the city attorney cautioned city leaders that raising a single religious symbol on city-owned property during a city-sponsored secular event is “constitutionally questionable.”

Creason was a major mover and philanthropist in this community. He served on Grand Haven City Council beginning in 1955 and was elected mayor two years later. Creason dedicated his life to making Grand Haven a better place.

The cross was multi-faceted — it could be turned into an anchor for Coast Guard Festival and a star for the holiday Nativity scene.

During a party more than a half-century ago, Creason and local businessman Al Jacobson sketched ideas for the cross' hydraulic lift on napkins, recalls Jacobson's widow, Mary.

“As I recall, it was Bill Creason's idea that he wanted a cross up on the hill,” Mary Jacobson said. “One night, at a party, he and Al were talking about it. Bill asked Al if there was any way they could erect it so it could be taken down. Al said it's got to be a hydraulic lift.”

Jacobson said she is quite confident the unit was made at her husband's Dake Corp., which manufactured hydraulic lifts.

“Who actually designed it, I don't know,” she said.

Longtime “Voice of the Musical Fountain” Ron Hartsema said he thinks the original cross raised in 1962 was a small version, only 15-20 feet high — “which, incidentally, did not really look too much like the present cross. At least that's my opinion,” he said.

The current 48-foot-tall by 28-foot-wide structure, that was covered in Masonite and coated with reflective paint, may have come into being in December 1964, the inaugural season of the Dewey Hill Nativity scene, according to Hartsema.

In 1999, when the cross came under scrutiny for possible constitutional violations, Creason said that was not the community's intent.

“Organizers simply considered it to be 'good, clean and decent,'” Creason said during an interview that year. “It was not our intent to carry on an evangelistic crusade. We started it with the idea to do something to beautify the waterfront.”

Today, the cross is once again under fire by a group led by two Norton Shores residents who believe its display on public property promotes Christianity and violates the U.S. Constitution.

Here's a timeline of Dewey Hill and the cross:

1844 – Federal government completes first survey of the mouth of the Grand River, showing a towering, 217-foot-tall sand dune that later would become known as Dewey Hill.

July 5, 1900 – Grand Haven residents hold a torchlight parade down Washington Street to the Grand River during a celebration to formally name the dune after Spanish-American War Commodore-turned-Admiral George Dewey.

1923 – A government chart shows wind erosion has shaved Grand Haven's landmark dune to 122 feet high.

Sept. 17, 1923 – The first known cross appears on Dewey Hill, erected and burned by the Ku Klux Klan, according to local historian Dr. Dave Seibold, who estimates there were 60-70 local families involved with the KKK. “You have to understand that it was a political thing back then, more than anti-negro,” Seibold said.

April 19, 1941 – Local residents hold the first “Dewey Hill Day.” More than 500 walk across barges set in place as a temporary bridge across the Grand River to plant 43,000 pine seedlings on the face of the dune. Civilian Conservation Corps members planted 30 tons of beach grass.

Nov. 1962 – The Musical Fountain debuts in a test run.

Dec. 3, 1962 – Community members begin to assemble a cross on Dewey Hill.

Dec. 5, 1962 – On this Wednesday evening, the first Christian cross is raised on Dewey Hill. According to Tribune accounts, the sound and lighting system was in place for the Musical Fountain. The cross was lighted with a 17-inch, 1,500-watt flood lamp that faced the structure.

Dec. 6, 1962 – Wind gusts of 50 mph blow the cross down.

Dec. 8, 1962 – The cross is once again raised for public display, likely with a stronger support system.

Memorial Day 1963 – The Musical Fountain begins its inaugural season.

Dec. 9, 1964 – The Dewey Hill Nativity scene is dedicated.

July 4, 1965 – The tradition begins of raising the cross during the city's Fourth of July celebration, according to local historian Wally Ewing.

1997 – Then-City Manager Ryan Cotton receives a letter from a woman in Chicago “who was concerned about the raising of the cross during the Fourth of July celebration,” Cotton later wrote.

1998 – A Jewish man in the community who worked for the Coast Guard expressed concern to Cotton about the cross display.

March 29, 1999 – Cotton sends a letter to Musical Fountain Committee Chairman George Ver Duin to request that the cross not be included in the July 4 performance. Cotton says his letter does not prevent the cross from being used for Sunday hymn sings. Cotton said a church group rents Waterfront Stadium and the cross for those events. “But there are concerns with using a religious symbol at an event (July 4) partially sponsored by the city,” he noted.

May 10, 1999 – After a request from Cotton for a formal opinion, city attorney Scott Smith indicates that raising a single religious symbol on city-owned property during a city-sponsored secular event is “constitutionally questionable.”

May 27, 1999 – The city's Human Relations Commission reviews the issue and sends a recommendation to City Council that the cross may be insensitive to non-Christians during the celebration of a secular holiday.

June 14, 1999 – City Council unanimously votes to stop raising the cross during Fourth of July festivities. Then-Mayor Gail Ringelberg stated at that time, “That is what we are attempting to do here, that we want to be an inclusive community. We're not an exclusive community.”

Dec. 17, 2012 – Washington, D.C.-based attorneys for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State send a letter to City Manager Pat McGinnis citing numerous legal cases, and requesting that the city remove the cross and Nativity scene from Dewey Hill because they believe the displays violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Feb. 7, 2013 – City Council adopts a public land use policy, which states it will be “content neutral” and provide equal access to Dewey Hill for all display requests, providing they meet environmental, public safety and other conditions.

Feb. 8, 2013 – McGinnis sends a return letter to Americans United, telling the attorneys about the “use of public spaces” policy.

Sept. 4, 2014 – Norton Shores resident Mitch Kahle sends a letter to Mayor Geri McCaleb, requesting that the cross be removed from Dewey Hill because of constitutional violations.

Sept. 30, 2014 – Kahle and partner Holly Huber, through Americans United attorneys, send a letter to McGinnis and McCaleb, requesting that they be allowed to display banners on Dewey Hill promoting such subjects as atheism, pro-choice, gay rights and the winter solstice being “the reason for the season.”

Oct. 15, 2014 – The Grand Haven Tribune hosts a public forum on the controversy with panelists both for and against keeping the cross on Dewey Hill. An overflowing crowd of more than 350 shows up for the event at Loutit District Library.

Oct. 20, 2014 – McGinnis says he is consulting with staff and will soon respond to the Americans United request to seek more details about the proposed displays. At that night’s City Council meeting, Kahle tells council members that it's an “all or nothing” proposal — that if his group isn't allowed to place displays on Dewey Hill, then the cross, Nativity scene and Coast Guard Festival messages shouldn't be allowed.

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