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Commission on Archives & History

History and Background of the Conference Canes

The year 1904 marked the centennial of the first two visits to Michigan by Methodist preachers - Daniel Freeman and Nathan Bangs. In a flurry of renewed interest in the history of Michigan Methodism, the two Michigan annual conferences - Detroit and Michigan (later known as West Michigan) established or re-established historical societies to preserve their early records.

Both conferences also looked for ways to honor the labors and sacrifices of the retired ministers who had served effectively over the years. Private donors gave canes to each conference to be presented to the minister "who has been in the regular service for the longest period" (Detroit) or "oldest member of the Conference" (Michigan). The intention in both cases was that upon the death of the initial recipients, the cane would be passed on to the next member of the conference who met the criteria.

Who were these laymen who gave the canes? The Detroit Conference received its cane from Ira Tietsort (1835-1903), apparently as a bequest from his estate. Mr Tietsort was an accountant with the Michigan Central Railroad and member of the official board of Preston Methodist Episcopal Church in Detroit. The Michigan Conference received its cane from George G. Whitworth (1850-1925), treasurer of the Berkey & Gay Furniture Company and member of the Division Street Methodist Episcopal Church in Grand Rapids. In subsequent years, Whitworth often attended annual conference and participated in presentation ceremonies for new recipients of the cane.


Ira Tietsort


George G. Whitworth


The Michigan Conference cane was a simple, but elegant, gold-headed one. The Detroit Conference cane was made out of wood from the original Methodist Episcopal church in Adrian (built in 1840), in which the Detroit Annual Conference was organized in 1856. The 1904 annual conference decided that it should be made into a "more historic souvenir" and appointed a committee of three ministers to oversee this work: James E. Jacklin, N. Norton Clark, and Eugene C. Allen. They decided to add a series of inserts of wood from other sources to the body of the cane and number plates to identify each:

  1. This numbered plate stands for the main body of the cane
  2. The second plate identifies an insert of wood from the old log church on the River Rouge, the first Methodist church in Michigan, built in the spring on 1818. It was secured from ont of several canes made in 1851 from the remains of this church.
  3. This insert is from the bookcase of Seth Reed (1823-1924), Michigan Methodism's centenarian. In his early years, Reed was a circuit rider on our frontier; in his later life, he was a leading preacher, presiding elder, and founder of institutions, a man highly honored.
  4. This insert comes from a tree near the resting place of Barbara Heck on the banks of the St. Lawrence River in Canada. She was a fervent Methodist from Ireland who in the 1760s stirred up her cousin, Philip Embury, to do the first Methodist preaching in New York.
  5. This insert is from a former church building in Ann Arbor, where Judson Collins, the first Methodist missionary from America to China, was converted in 1837.
  6. This insert comes from the pulpit of Lovely Lane Meeting House in Baltimore, Maryland. It was used by Robert Strawbridge and was in the building where the Methodist Episcopal Church was organized in 1784.

Although the two conferences made minor adjustments to the specific criteria for the awards over the years, the general thrust remained the same - rewarding long-time conference members for their service. Over the years since 1904, fifty-nine retired ministers have received these cane awards (twenty-eight in West Michigan and thirty-one in Detroit).

The first three recipients of both canes had worked together in the original Michigan Conference, before the state divided into two conferences, serving appointments all over the state. In fact, the first recipient of the Michigan/West Michigan Conference Cane was John H. Pitezel, a founding member of the Michigan Conference when it came into existence in 1836. The first three recipients of the Detroit Conference Cane were all admitted at the same annual conference in 1844 to the original Michigan Conference, so their year of birth determined in which order they became the cane holder.

Due to the advanced age of most cane holders, they did not keep it for more than a few years (and some did so only for a few months). Two major exceptions to this were James H. Potts (21 years) in the Michigan Conference and Seth Reed (19 years) in the Detroit Conference. Potts lived to be age 93 and Reed was nine months past his 100th birthday when he died. Reed answered the rollcall at annual conference for 79 consecutive years, a record unlikely to be matched.

Some cane holders came into the two conferences through mergers with other churches or conferences. Charles Bragg was a onetime President of the Methodist Protestant Conference, and the leader who worked so hard in Michigan for Methodist Union in the 1930s. Alvin Burton spent his entire career in Michigan, but served 22 years in the Lexington Conference (a separate African-American Conference) prior to joining the Detroit Conference.

Henry Voelker began his ministry in the Michigan Conference of the Evangelical Church in 1904; he was a presiding elder of two districts, conference treasurer, and thrice a delegate to the Evangelical General Conference. He became a member of the Detroit Conference through the 1968 merger with the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) Church. Seven other cane holders in the two conferences had roots in the EUB or its predecessor churches, so this accounts for more than 30% of those who received the cane awards since 1968.

Early recipients got to possess the cane throughout the remaining years of their life, but as the decades passed both conferences became concerned about the safety of these artifacts and began awarding small copies or plaques and keeping the original canes in safe locations. The cane awards continued until the merger of the Detroit and West Michigan Conferences in 2019, when the Commission on Archives and History of the new conference decided to retire both existing canes and replace them with a new one.

Recipients of the Michigan Conference Cane, 2020-Present

Recipients of the Detroit Conference Cane, 1904-2020

Recipients of the West Michigan Conference Cane, 1904-2018