Goats head sloop

Jun 24, 2009 at 12:00 am

Stephen Hume feeds a strip of cloth into an antique sewing machine to demonstrate that it still works. It's one of 15 he has scattered around the room, which is in the cabin of his huge tugboat, docked at a riverside yard filled with scores of sleek little sailboats, yellow school buses, and quaint old bicycles. It all amounts to a magnificent mess of a collection.

The place is known as the Goat Yard, named for the pet goat that used to roam the grounds, back when the lot was still surrounded by stands of trees where pheasants dwelled, back before developers began encroaching and complaining about loud parties here.

It's hidden on the east side near St. Jean and Freud, where long streets pass empty fields  to reach the marinas at the river's edge. There's a vine-swarmed gate and signs forbidding trespass, behind which is a path winding through the rows of boats and stacks of machinery. Rising above it all are remnants of a brick-making factory that closed years ago, now little more than a debris-filled steel frame and an old shack with a workshop inside.

It's all part of the Detroit Boat Works, Hume's boat storage company that also sells used sailboats and their parts, particularly Crescent sloops, which are fiberglass boats invented in Dearborn in the 1950s by a Ford engineer. The boats are narrow and low to the water, offering a wet, splashy ride for their small crews. 

Detroit Sail Club members — also based here — race a couple times a week on the river, then come back to drink and celebrate. Sometimes they jam in the School Bus of Rock, an old bus painted green, powered with electricity, and outfitted with electric guitars and bass, drums and microphones. Other times they party on the tugboat, which once was a restaurant and still has a full bar inside.

At the center of it all is Hume — sailboat enthusiast, former political side-thorn and affable eccentric. He's 57, has graying hair and a clean shave where a while ago was a beard so long he could tuck it in his pants. Most days he can be found in the yard, fixing something or other, or on the river in one of his beloved boats.

"There were only 27 Crescents ever built," Hume says, noting that 24 are here at the club. He is clearly a dedicated admirer. "The Crescent is the most valuable object in the universe!" he says with glee. 

He first got the yard to store sailboats he was buying and repairing. The property was originally the dumping grounds for a nearby wood pallet manufacturer. "There were stacks of pallets as high as that building," Hume says, pointing two stories up. "I burned those for a whole year. There was a loading dock where the boats are and we just kept throwing them in that loading dock. We borrowed a forklift to move big stacks over and dump them in there, and we never had to relight the fire for a year." 

Hume acquired the goat only after he couldn't get a horse for his longtime girlfriend, Sue McDonald, a fellow sailor. "I had it all lined up with the cops to give me one of their old retired cop horses, and I was going to have it running around here," he says. "We had this guy we used to sail with, he's the guy who designed the little horse on the Mustang car and the little horse on the Pinto, and he said I couldn't get her a horse 'cause of the yard and all of the rocks, and that he would personally prevent me from owning a horse at the boatyard."  

So he settled for goats. Originally there were two of them; one drowned soon after coming here, the other, named Nemo, was a pet for years and became the icon of the property.

"He'd jump on every nice car that came in the yard," laughs Hume's brother Chris, 53, one of six siblings, several of whom often sail here too.

"We had a lot more trees around here, and if you'd park your car under a tree for shade, he'd stand on your car so he could eat all the leaves," Hume says. "He did it to Don. Don poured a pop on his head. He ran by everybody's car and jumped up and down on Don's Porsche and that's what Don got for pouring a pop on his head. That goat knew exactly what he was doing. They had a war going. The goat loved to poop on his boat, and he would always fuck with the goat."

The goat lived here for years until he was killed a few years ago by wild dogs that used to run in packs on riverfront land. "They got him out on the ice there," Hume says, pointing to the canal that runs through the yard. "There was ice here in the canal, and he didn't have very good traction out on the ice." Its head is now stuffed and mounted near the bar in the tugboat. 

Besides the boats and rusty bicycles and banged-up lawnmowers, the lot has a red, full-size Detroit Fire Department truck with a 150-foot hydraulic ladder. Weeds poke through the fender of a 1940 Dodge truck. Several old school buses are parked at one end of the yard; one of them is packed full of old wheelchairs. "I've been buying 'em cheap. It's just a matter of time until we're all going to be using wheelchairs, so I'm stocking up," he says wryly. He once converted an old Dodge Ram into the Aqua-Car, a working boat ("We drove it around in the river"), and made a bike powered by a remote-control airplane engine.

These curiosities pale, though, compared to his past political antics. During the '70s and '80s, he was a nuisance to Detroit politicians, most famously Mayor Coleman Young. "He used to say, 'If you don't like it, run against me,'" he says. "I ran against him every [election] year." He was the "Beer-a-cratic" candidate, whose slogan was, "We'll bring our case to the people." He took part in candidates nights, which Young never attended, and would taunt the mayor with statements like, "I want to do like Mr. Young  — I want to have sex with my appointees," which were dutifully reported the next day in the papers. "I used to terrorize the shit out of him," he says. He usually drew a few hundred votes. 

In the early '80s Hume bid on a neighboring city-owned marina, won as the low bidder, then the city canceled the sale without clear explanation. Hume sued, the city settled. He took the money, bought video cameras and started a company called Public Eye Video, a one-man operation that taped all council meetings after he found crazy statements made by council members never made it into the meeting minutes. "I videotaped their asses, so at least somebody would have a record of what the fuck they're saying," he says.

It drove them nuts. They tried to shut him down, but learned they couldn't because it was a public meeting and he had a right to record it. Then they tried to cut off his use of their electricity, but he found a way to buy it directly from the City-County Building authorities instead. At one point council member Kay Everett lost it in front of his camera, shouting at Hume, "You're very close to getting this thing rammed down your throat!"

He became notorious for impish political pranks. One year he took out a classified newspaper ad claiming a millionaire was leaving town and needed to quickly sell off "rare guns, gold coins, fully appointed limousines, state-of-the-art security system," references to some of the scandals associated with Young's administration. The ad featured the mayor's  address at the Manoogian Mansion, but not his name.  "People were backed up all the way down the street," Hume says with a grin. "Chief Knox said he's gonna get down to the bottom of this and they're gonna pay!" 

He once bought a used bulldozer and two forklifts for $300 at a city auction, and when asked by a curious city official why he wanted them, he replied that he was going to lasso the mayor's home and drag it down neighboring Fiske Street. The next day the city called off the deal without bothering to return his deposit.

Eventually he fashioned a huge, streaming banner that read "Retire Young," which he would fly from his sailboat as it passed downtown and Young's offices in the City-County Building, and during boat races, the Grand Prix, and the fireworks. An infuriated Young sent the police out several times to ticket Hume for minor offenses, sometimes seizing the boat. The banner now spans the ceiling of the Boat Works office.

He also ran for City Council, city clerk, county clerk, state rep and U.S. rep as a fringe, protest candidate and clever troublemaker, an irritant to the political elite. 

Hume lives a quieter life now, "just going out and sailing and racing," he says. He still hosts the Sail Club and its 50 or so members here, some of whom are currently making a film about Hume and the yard. "Everybody's friends, everybody has fun," he says. "A lot of times I see these guys come back [to other clubs] and hold a grudge about who won and stuff. It's not like that here."

He lives in nearby Indian Village with McDonald, 57, a former Grosse Pointe News editor who met Hume after assigning a reporter to write a feature on the Grosse Pointe bike shop he ran nearly three decades ago. They fixed up and moved into an old house together, repair and race boats together, and shop at garage sales together for odds and ends that often wind up as part of the visual cacophony here.

The yard is not without hassles — from a city that forbids improvements to the buildings, a developer who whines about the wildness here, and a landlord looking to sell the lot. All would prefer that this prime spot of land were used as something other than a ragtag boatyard and hangout for oddballs.

"Anybody else would be just totally frustrated, but he just took lemons and made lemonade," McDonald says of Hume, as he and others work nearby on boats on a sunny afternoon. "He worked around it, doesn't let it bother him, makes a little bit of money and a lot of people have a lot of fun."

Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]