“A Violin, a Church, and 150 Years of Leelanau History” – A Tale of Legacy and Inspiration

by Madonna

In a world where time continually marches forward, three generations stand as a testament to the enduring passage of history. Seated within her Suttons Bay Township home, Ruth Ann Smith is acutely aware of her place in this ongoing narrative, as well as the precious heirlooms that have been entrusted to her.

Her late husband’s family has held this land since the 19th century, and as she shares her story, she proudly points to a violin that her great-grandfather, Tomasz Fleis, carried on his back when he immigrated to America from what is now Poland in 1873. This seemingly humble instrument bears a prestigious name – Stradivarius – and dates back to the year 1640.


This priceless family treasure became Smith’s after her father, Ed Fleis, passed away in 2001. Through a unique family drawing, she emerged as the guardian of the cherished violin. She vividly remembers her father, Ed, playing the instrument late into the evening, and the memory is still vivid in her mind.


Ed continued playing the violin until he passed away at the age of 86. Just before his passing, he handed his daughter a handwritten note that would become the catalyst for a sprawling, illustrated history of two of Leelanau County’s founding families.


Smith believes that her father’s desire was for her to undertake this project. The result of over a decade’s worth of interviews, research, and writing is the book titled “Faith, Family & Music: 150 Years of History & Tales of the Ed and Irene (Lamie) Fleis Family in Leelanau County.” It is not merely a personal account of two families but a rich tapestry of Leelanau County’s history.

These families played significant roles in shaping many of the county’s landmarks, from Holy Rosary Church in Isadore to Cedar Hardware. Woven into the family’s heritage are names that have become legendary in Leelanau County, such as Plamondon, Belanger, Pleva, and more. Smith believes that even if you are not directly related to these families, you likely know someone who is.

Smith and her eleven siblings now revel in the joy of having their own grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She hopes to be around long enough to meet her great-great-grandchildren and believes that there are approximately 300 descendants of her parents.

The Fleis ancestors from Poland settled in what is now Isadore, where the iconic Holy Rosary Church stands tall over the picturesque farmlands. Meanwhile, the French Lamie ancestors established their presence in the area known as Provemont, now known as Lake Leelanau.

The union of these two lineages, one Polish and the other French, was not without challenges. However, the story of this union is an integral part of the book, revealing the love and determination that overcame cultural differences. Smith’s father, Ed, courageously followed his heart to marry her mother, despite the initial resistance from the Polish side of the family.

“Faith, Family & Music” is more than a historical account; it is a testament to the enduring legacy of these families and a tribute to Smith’s parents. Through her work, Smith provides a voice for her parents, whom she deeply misses, and offers an opportunity for future generations to connect with their roots and heritage.

Smith’s sister, Joan Gauthier, played a vital role in the creation of the book, offering unwavering support and dedication. The book also benefited from the contributions of over 90 individuals, including friends of her parents and numerous relatives. Smith believes that the book’s success is a result of these collective voices coming together to share the history of Leelanau County.

The book, published by Mission Point Press, is available in softcover and hardcover editions. All proceeds from the book will be directed to the Ed & Irene Fleis Education Fund, an organization founded by Smith and her siblings. This fund has provided nearly $700,000 in college scholarships to hundreds of students with Leelanau County roots, making it a valuable source of support for the community.

Ruth Ann Smith’s book is not only a reflection of her family’s history but an inspirational call for others to embark on their own journeys of documenting and preserving their heritage. She hopes that her work will motivate others to begin their storytelling journeys sooner and not wait for an opportune moment to start recording their family histories. By documenting our past, we can ensure that it remains a source of inspiration for generations to come.


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