The sound of the bells of Belle Isle rises up amid throngs of Canada geese. For more than 75 years, the Nancy Brown Peace Carillon has provided a lovely soundtrack to picnickers and island revelers.
The idea for a peace carillon originated with readers of Detroit News columnist Nancy Brown’s Experience column, which was immensely popular at the time. She wrote with a homey, frank style that was gentle, yet firm and endeared her to her readers. She talked about everything from art to life decisions to love to religion.
Who was Nancy Brown?
The editors of The Detroit News built up her reputation by making her identity a mystery. No one saw her. No one even knew her real name. The Detroit News wrote in December 1935 that the paper had "continued to whet Detroit's curiosity by creating around Nancy Brown's real name as titillating a hocus-pocus as that which made the reputations of The Man in the Iron Mask and radio's Your Lover. At her parties and religious services she mingles anonymously with the crowd. Only a few of her Column Folks have guessed her out."
She was born Annie Louise Brown in Perry, Maine, on Dec. 11, 1870, to Civil War veteran Levi Prescott Brown and Annie R. Lincoln Brown. She graduated from Mt. Holyoke in 1892 and became a teacher in White River Junction, Vt.; Rockville, Conn.; and Mt. Clemens, Mich. She married a newspaperman, James Edward Leslie, a drama critic in Pittsburgh. They did not have any children. When her husband died in 1917, she spent a few months writing for the Pittsburgh Dispatch and then moved to Michigan to live with relatives. In late 1918, she showed up at the offices of the Detroit News on Lafayette Boulevard seeking a job. It just so happened that the News' editor had been looking for a journalist to write a women's column and hired her. On April 19, 1919, her weekly column debuted, though unsigned. Within three months, she was signing the column with the nom de plume Nancy Brown, using her maiden name. She quickly became one of the most popular columnists in town.
In 1934, one of Brown's readers suggested a religious Sunrise Service on Belle Isle. She set it up, and it drew 30,000 people its first year. The next year, the News estimated there were two and a half acres of people, perhaps as much as 50,000.
A monument to peace
The Sunrise Services proved so popular, that in 1936, her readers proposed erecting a tower to commemorate the services. Among the proposal’s early, most enthusiastic backers was Detroit Common Council member John C. Lodge, a former mayor.
The plan was to pay for it solely with contributions and at no expense to the city. Bazaars and fund-raisers also were held to raise cash, and sales of Brown’s books went toward the tower. In all, more than 60,000 people gave money to the cause. The 85-foot Neo-Gothic carillon cost nearly $59,000 (about $925,000 today). The carillon was a decidedly Detroit News affair: The columnist’s tower was designed by Clarence E. Day, brother-in-law of James E. Scripps, the publisher of the Detroit News. The builder was Harlow A. Amsbary.
The Detroit Common Council signed off on the plan on July 28, 1936, unanimously passing a resolution declaring: "The tower will be a real inspiration to the City of Detroit and a source of enjoyment to a great number of people." The site in a grove of willows that was originally selected for the carillon was shot down because Nancy Brown wouldn't consent to knocking down the mighty trees. An area to the west of the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory was selected, and an island in the lagoon was removed "so that the tower will have the full glory of a complete reflection in the water," the News wrote in October 1939.
In December 1937, the City of Windsor, Ontario, received a letter asking Detroit's Canadian neighbors to pitch half the cost of the carillon. After all, letter writer Flora Wilson of Detroit wrote, the people of Windsor would get to hear the tower's tunes, too. Windsor's government rejected the request.
The opening ring
On an overcast day on Oct. 30, 1939, a small group of men and women gathered at 11 a.m. for the tower's groundbreaking. "The occasion was an entirely informal one, and only the trustees of the carillon fund and a few others who have been close to the momentous project of Nancy Brown's Experience Column family in The Detroit News had advance notice," the Detroit News wrote the day of the event.
William E. Scripps, president of the News, brought a special spade for the event. Also attending were Day; Henry W. Busch of the Department of Parks and Boulevards; Rabbi Leon Fram of Temple Beth El, Dr. Edgar DeWitt Jones of the Central Woodward Christian Church and others.
The cornerstone was laid Dec. 13, 1939, in a simple ceremony, and Jones blessed the hunk of stone. Nancy Brown wielded a trowel, which was nickel-plated. A copper box 13 inches square and 3 inches deep was sealed into the cornerstone containing news articles on the column and photos of the site before work began on the tower. The cornerstone reads: “Dedicated to peace in honor of Nancy Brown by readers of her Experience Column in The Detroit News. A.D. 1939.”
The tower was dedicated at the seventh annual Sunrise Service on June 16, 1940, before a crowd of 50,000. Legendary Detroit News reporter George W. Stark wrote the following day that the carillon was "a voice for peace in a war-weary world." He said the crowd for the dedication was "gathered in such numbers that even the practiced eyes of the police traffic experts were unequal to a computation."
One of the big moments came during the unveiling of the tower's bronze doors. Nancy Brown II, the grandniece of the carillon's namesake, drew aside a large American flag to reveal them. The columnist was surprised to find her likeness in one of the bas reliefs in the center of the door. The doors were a gift from the Detroit News.
The carillon wasn't the only thing making its first appearance that day. For the first 21 years of writing her column, Brown had never revealed herself to her fans. Brown thanked her fans, with whom she had gone "shoulder to shoulder down the road of life." She also spoke of the work, sacrifice and effort that went into making the tower a reality. It was "a triumph woven of dreams and struggle and tears, making it more than a monument of steel and stone," Stark wrote. She was a white-haired, small, plump woman and soft-spoken.
The 98-foot tower of Indiana limestone was built at a cost of about $45,000, the equivalent of about $960,000 in 2022 dollars.
The first concert
The first tower concert was held July 4, 1940, and was attended by tens of thousands of picnickers and Fourth of July revelers. The program opened with “The Star-Spangled Banner” to honor the holiday and played more of Uncle Sam’s greatest hits: “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “America the Beautiful,” as well as ditties like “Finlandia,” “The Bells of St. Mary’s” and “The Old Rugged Cross.” The tune "When Day is Done" wrapped up the performance.
“When the strains of Liebestraum filled the air, a few young couples were noticed holding hands,” the News wrote the following day. “As the crowd continued to grow on the lawn, canoes paddled up the lagoon and gathered around the foot of the tower. Pleasure craft in the river enjoyed the concert and a big D&C steamer tooted a salute as it passed by, passengers waving to the crowd on the island. …
"Little children crowded around the moat which circles the tower, watching the graceful, white swans glide effortlessly through the water. And the children's parents hummed softly to the music."
Tough times for the tower
By December 1941, it was announced sufficient money had been raised to knock out the project’s debt. Brown retired from the News the following year. In her farewell column on Jan. 8, 1942, Brown wrote that after nearly 23 years, "I find that I am no longer able to fulfill my share of the work. The years have taken their toll. I must lay down the burden. It has been a difficult decision for me to make. It makes oh so great a change in my life -– so great I can scarcely yet realize it. The choke of emotion is so insistent I can scarcely continue the dictation of this letter, but I have considered the question from all sides and think it is the only way. …
"The News did not want me to go, my folks, but when they understood it was a question of my health, they did everything one could wish to be done to make the change pleasant and easy for me."
Her last day was Feb. 1. She would die in Detroit on Oct. 7, 1948, six years later. She was 77 years old. She is interred at Oakview Cemetery in Royal Oak, Mich. Her tombstone reads Annie L. Leslie. After her retirement, other News staff writers penned the column under the pen name Jane Lee until 1985.
In 1970, the bells of the majestic tower went quiet because of an unusual tag team of ne'er-do-wells. Nesting pigeons and vandals -- who also knocked out stained-glass windows at the top of the tower -- destroyed the mechanism that played the songs. The city was facing a $22.5 million deficit at the time and while it was “such a pleasure to so many people,” John May, then-general superintendent of Detroit’s Department of Parks and Recreation told the Detroit News at the time, “we haven’t got the money to repair it.”
In September 1977, a four-octave electronic keyboard was installed in the tower to replace the carillon. The $25,000 instrument recreated the sound of the 49 cast-iron bells that weighed 13 to 5,000 pounds, the Detroit Free Press wrote Sept. 2, 1977. Guest carilloniers played on holidays and special occasions.
Later on, the city found the money and restored the carillon, replacing its original musical machinery with a modern system.
Today, the carillon still chimes, but the cash-strapped city has been unable to keep up the grounds around the tower. The plant life is overgrown. Its moat is filled with trash and algae. Thieves stole one of the bas reliefs from the southern side of the tower. But the carillon plays on, even if the throngs of Canada geese are the only ones around to hear it.