Big Willy, as he was known, was a 300-pound black man, over six feet tall, with a face like hardened concrete. Hed walk across the street in Beulah just to shake your hand and was nearly always pleasant to the white people he knew. But he had big fists, too, and could menace even county deputies with his raw intensity. From the time he moved there in 1967 until he died in 1986, rumors swirled around his heavy footsteps.
I always used to say there were four utilities in Benzie County: water, electric, heat, and Willy Branch, said John Daughtery, a retired attorney, who handled Branchs legal matters. Willy supplied the migrant labor for this area. He housed them, fed them, he did it all.
Branch picked up poor, broken-down black men from downstate cities and promised them big money picking cherries, asparagus, and other crops. But the cash was rarely forthcoming unless the worker had his wits about him. Big Willy provided the men and migrant families with a place to sleep, three meals a day, and a nightly flow of booze, highly marked-up. If the men drank up their earnings, they ended up owing him. Life was a bitter swill of hard work, brutal beatings, and a world of hurt where the days often ended with gambling, booze and waving guns.
Big Willy gave the poorest of the poor jobs and supplied the orchards in Benzie and Manistee counties with steady workers before cherry picking was mechanized. But rumor was that he beat the men who picked too slow and he sometimes went too far. The suspicion is that he killed at least one man and buried him on the property.
I first heard about Willy Branch from a friend and a former coworker, Alicia Harrison, while we were eating lunch along the beautiful shoreline of Crystal Lake. Alicia, a beautiful Hispanic woman, now 40, still trembles at the mention of Willy Branch, even though hes dead and gone.
She and her family moved to Benzie County from Texas in 1968 when she was five years old. They first settled into a migrant camp at Smeltzers orchard in Manistee County, but after a few days, Alicias dad got drunk one night and suddenly decided to move, said Alicias mother, Alicia Lopez Scott.
John Lopez packed up their few belongings and wouldnt tell his wife where he was headed. It was a humid, hot night, and he drove down King Road, a gravel road, outside of Benzonia. A big man named Willy walked out of the house and greeted them, showing them to a chicken coop type of building with a kerosene stove and no bathroom. Scott had to stoop as she walked around inside. She was afraid.
We were so close to the woods with a door that didnt latch. It was really scary. Willy was pleasant with us, for the most part, but his workers were scared of him.
And so was Alicia Harrison.
Her parents left to pick crops at the crack of dawn, then her brother boarded the Head Start van a bit later. Alicia and her younger sister were left alone with Alberts wife, who she said reeked of alcohol. Alicia watched the van pull away and could only think of running after it. She remembers the screaming in the house that went on all day long and retreating into a corner of the small living room. But it was a dark, eerie place that smelled of danger.
One day, she was hanging around the backyard with a few of the Branch kids and they stood on a fence to make themselves a little taller. One of them lifted his arm and pointed into the distance. He told her there was a dead body buried back there.
I sit here and try to remember and I can tell Im not supposed to. And probably for good reason, she said.
OUTSIDERS IN A WHITE WORLD
Alicia said the move from San Antonio, Texas to Northern Michigan was wrenching. In Texas, she was surrounded by close relatives, Mexican food, music and Spanish-speaking friends. She even watched her dad perform music on TV every weekend.
Then we moved North, removed from the love and safety of my grandmother, and becoming completely displaced. I didnt know what discrimination was until we moved to Benzie County, and I got to learn it firsthand. It was an awful rude awakening that no child should ever have to discover. Then, living in a chicken coop, and, of all things, being among one of the very few black families in Benzie who should have been more compassionate to people of color only to experience with them, something more dreadful than discrimination. Fear, real fear.
Alicias mother said store clerks hovered over her, assuming she would steal something. The black workers seemed to instill fear in Benzie County; people would call each other when theyd see black men come into town, and lock their doors.
I guess they thought they were kind of like animals, she said.
Willy Branch was born in 1917 and lived in Caruthersville, Missouri, where he married Lulu and had his first child, Albert, in 1942. Lulu and Willy parted ways and Branch fell in love with Mary Evelyn Porch, a slim black woman who went by her middle name. They began living together in 1960, had two children, and legally tied the knot in 1968, according to their divorce record filed just one year after their marriage.
Willy and Evelyn started coming up in summers in the early 1960s and moved to Benzonia permanently in 1967, when they set up their homestead. Albert was in his 20s then, a father himself. He and his wife, Doris, lived with Willy at what was known as the Branch Ranch. He remembers those years as good times: gambling and parties at night, his dad keeping order, but never striking anyone except maybe once.
Albert, who is built big like his dad, fell on hard luck later in his life, getting hit in the head with a steel pipe on the job - his eyes never looked in the same direction after that and a later stroke makes his speech difficult to understand. He spent years in prison for brutally assaulting his wife and selling marijuana, but spends his days now sitting on a soft couch in his trailer located next door to the Branch Ranch. The big house has since burnt down, and now theres a handful of mobile homes on the property.
Albert said the old days were good even if the work was hard. He remembers holding the flashlight at night for workers when the crops ripened and needed to come off the vine right now. His dad used a retired school bus to pick up the migrants.
Once, they drove to a Catholic church in Detroit to find workers. He was asleep and Willy came out and told him to wake up -he told Albert the food line inside was just like a restaurant. Willy talked to the men and persuaded several to come north.
Willy always brought home three times the men he needed because so many couldnt cut it and snuck out during the dead of night. The single men slept upstairs on mattresses, while migrant families stayed in the cabins, using an outhouse way in the back. If the men lasted until the end of the season and had some earnings left, Willy would buy them a bus ticket home. Otherwise they had to walk, and home could be in Detroit, as far as 250 miles away, Albert said.
WORKERS AS SLAVES
Clyde Deer, a neighbor and orchard owner who didnt want his real name used, doesnt think the times were so good. He said Branch used the workers as slaves. There were usually about a dozen or so men, but during peak season, up to 35.
They was just a lost bunch of people. They werent allowed to call home. Most were zapped out of their minds. After work, they could have drinks and thats how he kept them in line, he said.
But Deer said Big Willy was good to him. Every winter morning, hed plow out his driveway and never take a dime for it. And he was unfailingly polite.
Bobby Nix was one of the workers back then and said he was never beaten. When things got wild at night, he recalls that Willy struck em, but they asked for it. If youre trying to control 35 people, it doesnt leave you much of a choice.
These men werent victims, he said. They chose to be victims.
If someone is overcharging you for beer or vodka, its up to you to buy it, Nix said. Willy bought booze every Saturday, the day the men got their paychecks. Their money problems started when they borrowed from Willy for booze during the week.
But even Nix despaired of Willys behavior. One night in 1969, Willy Branch shot his wife, Mary Evelyn, in the head, wounding her. She told people that the gun discharged while he was cleaning it. May Evelyn played mind games, leaving for months and cheating on Willy, but she didnt desrve to be shot, Doris Branch said.
Mary Evelyn left Willy soon afterward, taking a bus south (although she returned later to help raise the kids). Meanwhile, Albert was beating Doris and life was ugly. Both Doris and Mary Evelyn were Bobbys sisters.
It was hard to accept that he shot my sister. I just left, Nix said.
Scott said most of the men were illiterate and cowed. They were often cheated out of their money, and it almost happened to her. As she and her husband picked cherries, shed tally the lugs. But when payday came, they were shorted. She was angry, but her husband begged her not to say anything because he was afraid Willy would get mad.
I told him, This is our sweat, our work, Im going to get paid for it. I was so hot under the collar. I went and told Willy, You miscalculated. If you added up these lugs, it doesnt add up to what you paid us. He didnt flinch, he didnt say anything. He sat behind his big desk, and paid me what hed shorted us.
Im sure he did that to a lot of people. A lot were alcoholics and probably some of them were uneducated, some were illiterate, and they never knew.
One older man from Florida, a black man named Mr. Sharp, wasnt like the rest. He didnt drink and wasnt homeless; he just thought he could make a lot of money picking crops. Deer wanted to hire him to pick up brush on Sunday, but knew that Willy didnt allow his men to work on weekends or to get paid directly. But Deer talked him into it.
Mr. Sharp took his opportunity of freedom and asked Deer, Will you mail this letter for me? If Willy saw me put it in the mailbox, hed beat me. My wife doesnt even know where Im at.
Deer knew it could get bad with Willy. He once had some workers picking cherries at his Dry Hill orchard. One man wasnt filling the lugs to the top, and Willy was steamed. He pulled out a homemade weapon -- a fan belt attached to a wooden handle--and started hitting the mans back, drawing blood with each stroke.
Dont do that Willy, Deer commanded Willy. Cherries aint that valuable to me. Thats rough.
Deer decided to help Mr. Sharp and mailed the letter to his wife in Florida. At the end of the next week, Mrs. Sharp drove up with her son-in-law, a big man, to rescue her husband. They asked for directions to Branchs house and went on their way. Their gratitude was immense and the Sharps sent Deer cards and oranges for years afterward.
Willy was known for using a strong hand with his workers, but he had a tough crew to manage, said Russ Smeltzer, who owned R Orchards.
You almost had to be that way. Otherwise you couldnt manage them. These people would get into trouble in town, and he put a stop to that. Let Willy alone and hed take care of it, he said.
A CLOSED SOCIETY
Ted Rineer worked at a bowling alley in the late 1960s and cant recall ever seeing Willys workers there. Hed often see Willy, though. Hed drive into town in a 1965 convertible, the length of the house, wearing overalls. His crew never stayed in town, and never built homes; no one knew how they ever got home. The Branch Ranch was a closed society that no one penetrated. But the word on the street was, if there was ever trouble, call Willy and not the cops, he said.
Rineer joined the sheriffs department in 1971, and recalls making an arrest in 1975 that aroused his suspicion. Willys wallet was three inches thick and filled with ID cards, social security cards, clinic cards, public assistance cards. They must have belonged to 40 different people.
I didnt remember seeing any of those people. They wouldnt have been people who had lives. They were street people and we had no way of verifying it one way or another, he said.
It was nothing to see Willy walk around with hundreds of dollars wrapped together with a rubber band, said Warren Bailey, a former county deputy and now tribal police chief for the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.
One day Willy called the sheriffs department to report that one of his men stole his watch and money from him.
Youd better do something before I do something to him, he told Bailey.
Bailey went out and talked to the guy while Willy looked on.
Youd better tell the man youve done me wrong, Willy commanded.
No Willy, I havent done you wrong, he said.
Over and over again, Willy accused the man, and he denied it.
Finally Willy said, Ill get the truth out of him. Ill pick up the stove wood and hit him up the side of the head. Ill get it from him.
I said, No, no Willy, you cant do that, but the man wouldnt admit to anything, so I finally left. About an hour later, Willy called and said, I got everything from him, my watch, my money. I went out there and he wasnt injured. So Willy did it in his own way, the man saved face in front of me, and I let it drop.
If the workers had it bad, the women had it even worse, said Scott. The Branch Ranch was often violent and shed shut her door to the nightly yelling and drinking outside.
The one thing that I never forgot was how they would beat on the women, and they just took their beatings in stride, she said. Once I saw Willys son, Albert, and he and his wife both had too much to drink. They were outside in the driveway and I dont know what she did or told him. Maybe as she was trying to walk away, he went and grabbed her, picked her up and flipped her over his back. She landed really hard. But she wouldnt ever call the cops. She said, Hell just beat me again for putting him in jail.
The deputies were afraid of Willy. One night when John came home and had too much to drink, he was threatening me. The guys back then beat their women.
Scott went to the house and asked to borrow the phone. She explained to Doris that her husband was drunk and threatened to beat her. She told me, It aint going to do you any good. They wont come out here. Theyre afraid of Willy.
And they never came, she said.
Deputies interviewed for the story said they did respond to calls, but domestic violence laws back then tied their hands, and the phone calls rarely came , anyway.
We had no domestic violence laws; it would have taken an act of Congress for a wife to testify against her husband except in cases of aggravated assault. That was only 20 years ago, said Ted Rineer, who is now a sergeant with the Benzie County Sheriffs Department.
A BOY & A KNIFE
Women werent the only ones who were beaten. Deer remembers a story about Mike Branch, Alberts son, who was later murdered in 1991. Deer drove the school bus back then and Mike got on the bus with a hunting knife.
You bring that knife on the bus and youre off, Deer told Mike.
Nobody takes my knife, Mike retorted.
Then out the door you go. You walk home if I dont get the knife.
Will I get it back? Mike asked.
Yes, but give it to me now, Deer ordered.
Deer drove Mike the rest of the way home and let him off. As he was stepping off the bus, Mike said, You know, I could have took you.
Then lets do it right now, Deer said. Mike backed off and stomped up the driveway. Later that night, Deer called Willy and told him what happened. He asked, Did you take the knife? Yes, but I gave it back to him. You didnt snap the blade off? No I didnt.
Mike didnt get on the bus for three days, Deer said, and when he did, he sat down real easy. Mike begged Deer to never call his grandpa again.
If you do, hell just about kill me, he said.
Willie Branch gave work to drunkards and street people, but some couldnt escape his place fast enough. He shot his wife in the head and passed on his violent ways to his son, Albert, who mellowed in his later years.
Did he have regrets?
Bobby Nix thinks so. He turned around in the last 10 years. He could just burst out in tears over nothing. I guess it was things eating away at him.
In his later years, Big Willy suffered heart attacks and was arrested a few times for drunk driving and carrying a concealed weapon.
He achieved some redemption at the end of his life, helping a loner named Dan Tody, a slim, tall white man who was about half his age. Tody had finished out his prison time for murdering his uncle and was in the Benzie County jail on a minor charge by the time Willy met him. Tody pleaded with him to get him out and hed reward him with his blood and sweat.
He was so misused when he was coming up my dad worked his ass off, Albert said. Dan stopped all the raw talkusing the hard words. He learned how to use the washing machine, learned how to drive, kept himself clean.
He began drinking wine out of a glass, not a bottle, and he could sip like a gentleman, sitting at the table with Willy. If you saw one at the store, you always saw the other, Nix said.
THE DEATH OF WILLY & DAN
In late June in 1986, Willy was fishing for bass with Tody on the Manistee flats. He told Tody that he had a pain in his chest and stumbled over to a picnic table and laid down on his back.
Willy died later that morning at 11 a.m. Tody was numb with grief and couldnt shake it. A short time after Willys deathit isnt clear whether it was the same day or a few days laterhe drove to Alberts trailer, where visitors had collected in the backyard, drinking and talking.
Albert, what are we going to do? Tody asked.
Well, we are going to keep on living, thats what we gotta do, Albert told him.
Tody was quiet and steadily drank down a six-pack of beer. He then picked up a bottle of vodka and walked next door to Willys house. He went to Willys bedroom, sat by his bed, and cried and drank and cried. Albert went to check on him at 3:30 p.m. and found him dead, his head cradled in his arms and the vodka bottle empty on the floor. Albert called Benzie County Sheriff Deputy Joe Barone (now the undersheriff) to come to the house. Tody, he said, had a monstrous blood alcohol level. He had drunk himself to death.
The story of Willy Branch begs more questions than it answers. What ever caused Willy to treat his own people like he did, and why didnt anyone intervene? How did the workers who escaped ever get home? Are there really dead bodies buried on the property?
Rineer and Bailey both said they couldnt investigate the rumors of the buried men because it was all hearsay with no solid evidence. Albert himself brought up the subject of the bodies without any prompting, but he said it was a joke, a rumor that got out of hand.
You could take a sand loader and move the hill. They wont find anything. That was white people, that was cops making it all up.
His ex-wife, Doris, agrees: Not everything you hear about Willy is true.