Aaron T. Bliss was another successful and stalwart product of the Saginaw lumber industry.
But he left his greatest mark in history as a Saginawian who was elected governor of Michigan. He served the office with dignity and recognized competence.
Born in Madison County, New York, he came to Saginaw in 1865 at he urging of his brother, Dr. Lyman W. Bliss, a pioneer doctor who told Aaron of the wealth and opportunities which lay in the Saginaw Valley lumber industry.
Shortly after his arrival, Aaron worked in logging camps on the Tobacco River and the next summer in a shingle mill. With his earnings as capital, he formed A. T. Bliss & Company with his brother and J. H. Jerome. In 1868 the Bliss Brothers bought the Jerome lumber mill in Zilwaukee. There were some lean years, and Aaron, as familiar with canthook and peavey as any of the men who worked for him, pitched in to help. His wife, Allaseba, aided the cause by running the mill’s boarding house and stretching every penny. Prosperity finally came and Bliss expanded his holdings. In 1880 Bliss helped organize the Citizen’s National Bank of Saginaw. In 1887, Allaseba was a founder of Saginaw General Hospital.
Bliss had served with gallantry during the Civil War and became a colonel in the Union Army. His record as a soldier won him both social and public acclaim. The interest which veterans were displaying in politics and the favor with which voters looked upon war heroes had long been noted by Bliss. In the 1880s, he decided to get some of the action. An avowed Republican, he rose from alderman to supervisor and then on to the state Senate in 1882. There he pushed through the bill that established a Soldier’s Home in Grand Rapids. Sent to Congress in 1888, he herded along the bill that appropriated $100,000 for a federal building in Saginaw and also one that built the Indian School at Mt. Pleasant.
Bliss was elected governor in 1900 and reelected in 1902. His terms of office followed those of Hazen S. Pingree. The Pingree tenure created years of turmoil because Pingree, a liberal, clashed with the machine and advocated reforms too advanced for the day.
Michigan, a state that was about to make its bid as industrial leader of the nation, wanted an administration in Lansing that would give efficient and unspectacular leadership. It wanted a man heading the state government who would bring the normality that an expanding economy demanded. Governor Bliss proved to be just what the doctor ordered. Tempered by the years and practitioner of the restraint which comes with advancing years, but an industrious and forceful executive, Governor Bliss did a workmanlike job. He saw to it that the now-gone Michigan Employment Institution for the Blind was established in Saginaw.
Even while governor, Bliss preferred to be addressed as “Colonel” Bliss. That also held true during his career in Saginaw as a businessman and public official. Bliss never lost his erect, military bearing. All his adult life he was a friend of veterans. Bliss was the perfect figure of a man of the Civil War era when warfare still had an aura of romance—when high officers led their troops on the battlefield.
In October, 1861, as the Union was girding for its struggle against the South, the 24-year-old Bliss enlisted as a private in the 10th New York Regiment. By the time he first saw combat in the second Battle of Bull Run, he was a lieutenant. After that engagement, he was promoted to captain. For the next 3 years he was in the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. He was captured while on a cavalry raid into the defenses of Richmond. As a prisoner of war he survived the notorious prisoner camp at Andersonville, and was among 600 Union officers subjected to fire from their own artillery at Charleston. In best story-book tradition, he escaped from the stockade at Columbia and reached Sherman’s column just in time to take part in the capture of Savannah.
In 1903, Bliss deeded 13.3 acres of land for the park that bears his name. Bliss died September 15, 1906. By terms of his will, he created a trust fund of $25,000 to be used for “a soldiers’ monument of such design as shall be approved by a committee of three citizens to be appointed by the common council of the City of Saginaw and my executors.” The memorial, which incorporated a fountain and the figure of a Union soldier, was originally placed in Federal Park, a small area between the Castle Post Office and Hoyt Library. When the Castle was enlarged in the 1930s, the monument was moved to Bliss Park. In 1940 it blew over in a storm and the fountain was destroyed. The soldier was mounted on a new base. However, local kids took to pelting it with stones so it was taken down and hasn’t been seen in over 60 years.
He specified also that another $20,000 was to be turned over to the City Park Commission after the death of his brother, Dr. Bliss. These funds were to be invested and the income used to beautify Bliss Park. Dr. Bliss died in 1907. The cash gifts of Aaron T. Bliss for improvement of the park named after him totaled $51,000.
In 1914, a monument marking the camping site of the 29th Regiment, Michigan Volunteer Infantry, was dedicated and unveiled before a crowd, including survivors of that regiment. The monument was at the far end of the park. For many years Bliss Park was the marching-off point for Memorial Day parades.