OWOSSO — Throughout his life, Phil Hathaway has held many titles, including college professor, county planning director and community development director.
After eight months of research, writing, editing and revising, Hathaway can now add author to the list, as he recently finished crafting his first book, “History of the Shiawassee River,” which details the many events and experiences that have occurred along the 123-mile waterway since its first contact with Native Americans in the late 1700s.
Hathaway was approached with the idea of writing the book in April 2019 by the Friends of the Shiawassee River, after he conducted a series of speeches on the river’s history and environmental aspects during the Shiawassee Arts Center’s Smithsonian Institute exhibit on water.
“As a (founding) member of the Friends of the Shiawassee River, I saw that there was a little bit of a void on something substantial to brand the river and the organization,” Hathaway said. “It was intimidating…To write a cohesive novel, nonfiction in this case, was a new experience (for me).”
Originally from Connecticut, Hathaway came to Shiawassee County in 1979 as the county planning director, having been drawn to the area while earning his master’s degree in geography and resource development at Michigan State University.
After about five years with the county, Hathaway became the Community Development Director for the city of Owosso, and in 1996, he helped found the Friends of the Shiawassee River, a nonprofit committed to maintaining and improving the health of the Shiawassee River.
“Phil has been an inspiration to us all in so many ways,” Lorraine Austin, executive director of the Friends said. “His employment history with the city of Owosso and experience with a variety of county and state initiatives gives him a networking circle beyond reproach. If he’s not able to provide an answer to a question the Friends may have, he will know where to go to find out, and often does the legwork himself…He is just a genuinely giving human being who has been instrumental in helping our organization grow and flourish, to benefit with Shiawassee watershed as a whole.”
For the book, Hathaway focused on four key areas: the history and formation of the river, Native American occupancy and interaction with early pioneers, settlements based on water use and the transition from environmental degradation to water quality progress in recent years.
“As a Midwest stream, it’s not a major waterway,” Hathaway said, “but what made it major for historical reasons was it was navigable and the resources — primarily for survival — along the river were plentiful.”
More than 100 sources, from the first-hand accounts of early settlers to The Argus-Press, were used to piece together the river’s history, according to Hathaway, as he provides text, maps and photographs throughout the 200-page work.
Hathaway said one of the unique topics covered in the book is the emergence and prevalence of “paper towns” along the river, i.e. places that were mapped with streets and lots but did not survive to become one of today’s riverside settlements.
“The river’s history is known in blurbs everywhere, whether it’s a Facebook post or it’s a sesquicentennial book that has about paragraph or two on the history,” Hathaway said. “You can get blurbs about it, but what I think I was able to do is to put it all in one comprehensible volume.”
The “History of the Shiawassee River” is available for purchase online at shiawasseeriver.org. The cost is $32, including shipping, according to Austin, who added there may be shipping delays due to the current coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.
“We are truly just selling them at cost,” Austin said. “The benefit to the Friends long-term will not be so much financial as it will be to have the rich history of the Shiawassee documented and shared with the public. I can guarantee anyone who obtains a copy will learn so much, not just about the Shiawassee River, but about our area’s general history and the people (and their personal stories) who settled here.”
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