LAPEER – Lapeer City Commissioner, Melissa Petrie, was sworn into office in the city chambers on Monday with four Lapeer-born generations of her family present, making her a second-generation Lapeer City Commissioner who brings her unique background of nearly 200 years of local family experience and knowledge to her post.
Petrie’s great-great-great grandfather, Martin Stiles, Jr., first came to Lapeer around 1825. His son, Martin O. Stiles, was born in Columbiaville in 1837 and died of typhoid fever in 1863 during the Civil War. He had two sons, Joel and Milo, who became orphans at 12 and 9 years old when their mother, Louisa, died after the war of tuberculosis.
Petrie has not found any record of what became of Joel, but Milo, her great grandfather, ran off to the Great Lakes and boarded a ship. When he was 32, he returned to Lapeer to start a family. He married Hariett Holman and had four sons. He opened Stiles Cafe in Columbiaville in 1898 and moved the cafe to downtown Lapeer on Nepessing St. in 1909.
Milo passed away in 1932 and handed the cafe down to Petrie’s grandfather, Ray Stiles. Stiles Cafe continued to operate under the Stiles name until 1962 and was a fixture in downtown Lapeer for over 50 years. Petrie’s mother, Barbara Stiles, began working in the cafe when she was old enough to carry a tray and spent most of her working life in the cafe. She is 95 years old today.
The building that housed Stiles Cafe, on the south side of Nepessing between Court St. and Saginaw St., burned down in 2021. Seeing the building burn down was especially hard on Petrie’s mother, who spent so much of her life in the building.
Petrie remembers her father, Douglas Henley, who owned Gage’s Department Store on Nepessing St., as a great man and a loving father. He passed away in 1975 when she was 13 of a heart attack while playing basketball downtown with his sons.
She saw it happen, and was obviously traumatized, but she says the experience became a strengthening aspect of her Christian faith, which has continued to strengthen throughout her life.
Petrie’s father, Henley, was himself a Lapeer City Commissioner when he died at just 46 years old.
“It was such a terrible, horrible loss, losing my father,” Petrie said, “he was such a loving man. But God used the experience of my father’s death, as he has used every other experience in my life, to draw me closer to Himself, and I was so lucky to have a loving earthly father who made it easier for me to embrace my heavenly Father.”
Petrie married Nathan Petrie, whose grandfather, Bill Kruth, owned Kruth’s Bakery in downtown Lapeer. “My parents were downtown merchants. My husband’s grandparents were downtown merchants,” Petrie said, “So much of my heart and family history is on Nepessing Street.”
Many people think of their family and the place they live as two separate entities. Not so with Petrie. “I love Lapeer. My family history is Lapeer history,” she said. Lapeer has always been somewhat of a bedroom community [a residential suburb of commuters] where people who worked in Flint or Detroit would live to raise their families, but my family were Lapeer merchants. To my family, Lapeer wasn’t just a bedroom, but was a place to live. It was where we worked, where we built our whole lives.”
Petrie said that her motivation to get involved in city politics came from Dan Ossentoski, a friend of hers who passed away shortly after starting his own campaign for re-election to City Commissioner in 2021. He died the day before the ballot info would be sent to Lansing, so his name was not printed on the ballot. Petrie decided to carry on Ossentoski’s legacy and his work in Lapeer by running for Commission herself.
She ran as a write-in candidate, in the end, she lost, but got about 350 votes, a significant accomplishment for a local write-in candidate. Since that election, she believed that God had put it on her heart to go to every meeting and get involved as a citizen in her city government. “Since then, God has led me to go to every meeting. I often have not wanted to, but I’ve just trusted God and gone. I have prayed at many of the meetings in public and I have done my best to witness and hold accountable our local officials,” said Petrie.
Petrie said her highest priorities are to “change the tone” in the city government. “Over the last two years of going to every meeting, I’ve seen a lot of discord. I’m hoping to bring cohesiveness and unity. I believe everyone is valuable. I want to see Lapeer be a safe place where everyone is proud to live in.
Petrie’s grandson is the seventh generation in her family to be born in Lapeer. When her daughter was pregnant with him, she told Petrie, “I think I’m going to name him Milo.” Petrie was excited, “you mean after my great grandfather?” But her daughter had forgotten that was her ancestor’s name.
“It never ceases to amaze me how God works in all things like that,” Petrie laughed.
Milo was there for his grandmother’s swearing in, a historic event in his family’s life and in the story of Lapeer.