By Sterling McGinn
The late Joseph Patrick Rahilly, one of Newberry’s most honored and well-respected citizens, is usually remembered for his genial customer service in his role as a local grocer.
Not only was he a longtime businessman, Rahilly loved Michigan, the outdoors, and Newberry. He was always giving back.
In addition to his entrepreneurship, Rahilly dedicated 27 years of uninterrupted service to the Michigan Department of Conservation Commission serving as a commissioner and chairperson—longer that anybody with the commission. His record was also believed to be unsurpassed by anyone in the country.
During his years of service, Rahilly was known nationwide for his efforts in promoting and preserving the natural resources of the State of Michigan and making the state’s natural wonders more accessible to visitors and residents.
In his tenure, Rahilly was a guiding light in the development of commission polices and affairs making Michigan’s commission one of the finest in the United States.
If you have ever visited Tahquamenon Falls, Porcupine Mountains, and VanRiper State Parks, Rahilly and his fellow commissioners were prime movers in the creation of those iconic Michigan State Parks.
At the time of his retirement, Rahilly was dubbed the “Dean of Conservationists.” He was known for holding his composure during the heat of arguments and violent conversations that sometimes occurred regarding touchy conservation matters.
Being a conservation commissioner required a lot of time and dedication. Frequent trips to Lansing were expected and made for some long trips, especially in winter months. At least one trip was prolonged due to the ferry not being able to cross due to ice build ups. Rahilly then had to drive to Manistique to catch a ferry to Frankfort which was also delayed. A 7-hour trip turned into 23 hours and commissioners received no pay for their efforts.
His leadership was often recognized by many magazine and newspaper writers, who frequently noted his passion for anything, and everything related to the welfare of Michigan.
Originally from Sands, Michigan, Rahilly was born October 9, 1893, to Daniel and Johanna Rahilly. He graduated from Michigamme High School in a class of 13 in 1910.
His first job was with the Duluth South Shore and Atlantic Railroad. He served as a “peanut butcher” or news agent for the passenger service during a period of three years. The trains ran between Mackinaw City and Calumet and at each stop, Rahilly sold newspapers, magazines peanuts, fruit, sandwiches, and candy to passengers.
His affable and friendly service caught the eye of an executive with the Lake Superior Iron and Chemical Company, who was riding on a train that Rahilly was working on. He was promptly offered a job at one of the company’s logging camps.
Rahilly went to work as a timekeeper at Camp 8, south of McMillan. After a year at that camp, he was transferred to Camp 7, north of Newberry. He operated the camp store and kept the records of more than 200 employees.
It was at Camp 7 that Rahilly met his future wife, the former Mary Chenard, who served as the camp schoolteacher. The couple were married in Newberry on October 24, 1916. Their first child, Joseph Louis, was born at Camp 7 on December 13, 1917.
The Rahillys moved to Newberry in 1919, where they had five more children: Peter, Robert, Mary Lou, Margaret, and Betty Ann were born. Betty Ann died at 14 months old.
In November of 1919, Rahilly and Harvey Gormely formed a partnership, and purchased the Brown and Turnbull Grocery Store located on the first floor of the Masonic Lodge. In 1926, Rahilly purchased Gormely’s interest.
Following graduations from high school, college courses and military service, two of Rahilly’s sons, Joe and Peter, returned to Newberry to become partners in the family businesses. The William Carmody Ford garage was purchased by Rahilly and his sons in 1950, and it became Rahilly Motor Company.
Rahilly took a keen interest in civic affairs. He was a charter member of the Newberry Lions Club and Newberry Country Club, a lifetime member of the Tahquamenon Sportsman’s Club, a member of the Newberry Elks Lodge and Knights of Columbus and St. Gregory’s Catholic Church.
He was vice president and director of the Newberry State Bank, a member of the Helen Newberry Joy Hospital board and auxiliary, director of Our Own Bakeries in Marquette and was chairman of the Luce County Draft Board in 1941.
In recognition of his selfless dedication to the community, state, and nation, Rahilly was proclaimed Newberry Lions “Man of the Year” in 1962.
Along with operating the grocery and automobile businesses and his devotion to many local volunteer and service positions, conservation affairs were a top priority for Rahilly.
During his 27 years, Rahilly attended 10 to 12 meetings a year along with delegations, visits to various sportsman’s clubs, and visits from conservationists and outdoorsman to his place of business and residence.
He was appointed to fill the vacant position on the Michigan Department of Conservation Commission created by the death of George Fowler. Rahilly was appointed on November 7, 1934, by Governor Comstock.
When his terms were up for re-appointment, Rahilly continued to be reappointed by both Republican and Democratic governors because his services were valued and respected.
Some of the highlights during Rahilly’s 27 years on the commission included the creation of three state parks, the public fishing site program, and the cooperation with the Tahquamenon Sportsman’s Club in the development of a kid’s only fishing spot on the Teaspoon Creek.
Rahilly officially retired from the commission on November 7, 1961—exactly 27 years since he was first appointed.
His retirement, though well-deserved, was received with mixed emotions throughout the state. Many articles were written at the time of his retirement, proclaiming that his service would be greatly missed.
Newberry News Editor and Publisher Merle Fretz opined “It hasn’t been an easy life. Controversies and criticisms have been many, and the worldly rewards for his services have been nil, since he consistently refused to turn in an expense account for his services.”
To commemorate a job well done, a testimonial dinner was held in Lansing on the eve of his retirement. The dinner was attended by more than 70 people, including members of the Department of Conservation, former commissioners, outdoor writers, and Governor John Swainson.
Joseph Rahilly died on July 31, 1976. He was 82 years old.
Today, The Michigan Department of Natural Resources Committee is a seven-member public body with members being appointed by the governor.
The commission has exclusive authority to regulate the taking of game and sportfish and is authorized to designate game species.