Kalkaska — This northern Michigan town burned to the ground not once but twice in the early 1900s.
Now it’s threatening to happen a third time, residents say.
An elected leader’s refusal to disavow incendiary remarks about Muslims, blacks and transgender people continues to inflame people in and outside the village.
It has fueled dueling demonstrations and contentious meetings. Some stores have been boycotted for supporting the leader, while others are snubbed for opposing him. A Kalkaska Village Council meeting last week drew militias bearing enough arms to equip a small army.
The longer the conflagration lasts, the more damage it does to the already struggling town, merchants said. It also threatens to leave a stigma that will last long after the furor has died down.
With many residents and council members continuing to support Village President Jeff Sieting, a resident worried Kalkaska would be compared to the Ku Klux Klan.
“It’s bad enough we have three K’s in Kalkaska,” said Crystal Spencer, 33. “I can’t believe people are standing by him. It’s a right or wrong issue, pure and simple.”
The controversy shows few signs of going away. The two sides have hunkered down, forming organizations and preparing for a possible recall of the village president.
As the issue spreads beyond the town, extremists have joined the fray. Vanguard America, a white nationalist group, posted fliers on Sieting’s hotel two weeks ago.
“This land is ours!” one read. “Stop the Islamization of America,” read another.
It was an echo of a Facebook post Sieting shared last year that called for the death of every Muslim. In his own posts, he described transgender people as “sick twisted mental patients” and, referring to Black Lives Matter, said it was time to “thin the herd.”
Kalkaska, which is 20 miles east of Traverse City, is surrounded by farms and trout-laden rivers. Several weeks after July 4, some of the 2,000 residents continue to display flags from their mailboxes.
The town has struggled since oil and gas explorers left 30 years ago, residents said. Motorists on their way to Traverse City or nearby cottages rarely stop as they drive along a highway that doubles as the main street of Kalkaska.
Merchants fled downtown, leaving empty storefronts and low-end shops in rundown brick buildings: a dollar store, a consignment shop, a cash advance place, a medical marijuana dispensary. Two more closed this week. When enough businesses left, the chamber of commerce followed.
One of four children lives in poverty, according to the census. Kalkaska County ranked 77th of the state’s 83 counties in child well-being, according to the 2017 survey by Kids Count in Michigan.
“This community is so economically challenged,” said Bob Burgin, a real estate broker who serves on the Kalkaska Downtown Development Authority. “We’ve needed leadership for a long time.”
Controversy as opportunity
The cowboy boot-wearing Sieting, 55, who has been village president for seven years, owns a business that installs and repairs garage doors.
On his Facebook page, he describes himself as a white Christian conservative who believes in conspiracy theories like Pizzagate — a disproved notion that a pedophilia ring operated out of a Hillary Clinton-linked pizzeria in Washington, D.C.
In a far-ranging interview with The Detroit News, Sieting sees the furor he unleashed as an opportunity. He said the country needs to have a full-throated debate about what he called the dangers of Islam.
Churches and national politicians are too politically correct to engage in such a dialogue, he said. If it takes a self-described redneck from a cow town to get people talking, so be it, he said.
Sieting said he is proud to carry the banner. He said he has received hundreds of calls and letters of support from around the country.
“I don’t mind fighting this fight. I make a good lightning rod,” he said. “I won’t stay quiet. We’ve been quiet too long.”
As for the fallout, and turning Kalkaska into a battleground, Sieting said it isn’t his fault. The Facebook posts weren’t an issue for seven months until someone publicized them. He described the posts as grenades that weren’t damaging until the other person pulled the pin.
As the shrapnel has rained on his hometown, Sieting has shown little interest in diffusing the controversy, critics said. He seems intent on winning the battle, exhorting supporters to attend meetings and rallies, and vote in a local newspaper poll about the issue.
“This is a big fight my friends,” he wrote in a Facebook post later revealed by his critics. “Support is desperately needed. 1 guy cannot succeed against many individuals & media outlets.”
This is not how the elected leader of a town should behave, said residents. He should be bringing people together, not driving them further apart.
Corey Rigoni said Sieting fails to realize or doesn’t care that, as village president, his actions have ramifications far beyond him.
“The problem seems to be that Jeff is about Jeff and what’s important to him,” she said. “The fact he’s hurting the town should be a problem for him.”
Public vs. private
The Kalkaska kerfuffle began with a sign.
After the November election, Sieting removed several campaign signs from a former downtown hotel he owns. But he kept an 8-foot banner that hung from a second-floor wooden deck railing.
“For new birth of freedom please vote TRUMP,” it read.
When a resident complained that it violated a local ordinance, Sieting replaced “vote” with “pray 4.” His critics weren’t mollified.
The debate continued into June, when an unknown person found the controversial Facebook posts, which Sieting had written or shared shortly before or after the November election.
The anti-Muslim post, written by a North Carolina blog called NC Renegade, called Islam a death cult and compared it to a flesh-eating disease.
“We need to stop worrying about hurting people’s feelings,” Sieting told the News. “Nobody wants to know they’re ugly. We need to accept reality and find a way to fix it.”
Sieting’s supporters defended his right to post the material, saying his personal Facebook page has nothing to do with his public job.
In interviews and meetings, they praised him as a good Christian who has been a tireless advocate for the town, trying to attract new businesses and promoting local events.
They have distributed T-shirts and bumper stickers supporting the village president. “Praying for our presidents Sieting and Trump,” reads a T-shirt.
“He’s a good man. He’s done a lot for us,” Mickey Miller said to applause at a June council meeting.
Only one of seven council members have spoken out against Sieting and when the member tried to hold a council meeting to discuss the controversy last month only three members showed up.
In response to the Facebook posts, a liberal activist from Kewadin organized a “no hate” rally in downtown Kalkaska in June.
About 100 people gathered around this small burg’s claim to fame, a 17-foot, fiberglass replica of a curled trout bathed by water jets, participants said.
Cindy Anderson, a real estate broker from Traverse City, held a sign reading “Make trout not hate.”
“We’re all the same. We all have the same hopes and dreams,” she said. “We’re stronger together than apart.”
Meanwhile, a larger number of counter-protesters assembled across the street in front of Sieting’s hotel. Most people from both sides were from out of town.
The counter-protest had been organized by a conservative radio show host from Kewadin, which is 15 miles northwest of Kalkaska.
Billing it as a celebration of the 2nd Amendment, radio host Randy Bishop invited bikers and proponents of open-carry, according to the Facebook page for the event.
Some of the protesters, who were indeed openly carrying, wore hats and T-shirts proclaiming “Make America great again.”
“His personal Facebook page has absolutely nothing to do with this village,” resident Mitch Sutton said about Sieting’s posts.
Among the chanting, revving of motorcycles and traffic rushing past, the two demonstrations created quite a din, participants said.
It got louder when some of the counter-protesters crossed the street and jawed with their opponents face to face.
Both sides carried American flags. When the counter-protesters began chanting “USA,” the no-haters joined them.
For three fiery council meetings, residents have asked Sieting to apologize for his comments. For three meetings, he has demurred.
The audiences, ranging from 35-70 people, filled the meeting room and spilled into the hallways of the small village hall. Photos of a 1908 blaze, “The Big Fire,” the first to level the town, hung from the wall.
During the June 26 meeting, resident Carol Phillips asked whether Sieting could say something to bring the fractured community together.
“How many people in this room know me personally?” Sieting asked as half the crowd raised their hands. “Have I ever committed an act of aggression against anyone?”
“That’s not an answer,” said a woman. “We need to have a conversation, to reunite the town. How can we do that?”
“Be a better world,” said Sieting.
While some speakers criticized the village president, others defended him.
Resident Sean McGuinness said he agreed with the Facebook post that all Muslims should be killed. He said he was tired of left-wing extremists telling him how to think.
“I didn’t see anything hateful in what he said,” McGuinness said during a July council meeting. “Maybe you didn’t agree with it, but I do agree and I’m proud to say it.”
During the July 24 meeting, 20 members of four Michigan militias stood outside the village hall. They wore Kevlar vests and carried pistols or assault rifles. One used binoculars to write down license plate numbers, a witness said.
Two militia leaders told the News they were there to keep the peace. They said they came on their own volition and hadn’t been asked by the village.
“We have had several groups showing up harassing the locals at the protests, people who don’t live in that town but want a spotlight for a second,” said Mike Jenkins, commander of the Great Lakes Three Percenters, which is based in Muskegon.
Jenkins was referring to the Redneck Revolt, an armed group that provides security at progressive events.
So while the militias kept an eye on the Redneck Revolt during the July meeting, the progressive group kept an eye on them. And sheriff deputies kept an eye on both of them.
Businesses stay out of it
The fracas comes at a sensitive time for Kalkaska.
The town had shown faint signs of coming back to life, residents said. Demand for homes has inched up. Four commercial buildings were sold last year.
Now businesses get messages like the one left on the Facebook page of Trout Town Tavern and Eatery in July.
“Don’t eat there – poisonous atmosphere,” wrote Jan Jarvis of Seattle. “This town wants to kill all Muslims.”
A group that formed in response to Sieting’s comments contacted merchants to ask how they felt about the remarks. Businesses that opposed Sieting would be given a poster reading “Hate has no business here.”
But the group, Kalkaska For Peace, dropped the campaign after most merchants said they wanted to stay out of the controversy.
Jarrad Novath, owner of Jarrad’s Carpet Direct, said businesses are already struggling without having to take on an additional burden.
“Please leave us businesses alone. If you have a problem with Jeff, talk to Jeff,” he said during the July meeting. “We have had a hard enough time as it is. The last thing we need is negativity.”
Nicole Doom doesn’t have a choice. The owner of Boutique Redoux Consignment, which sells secondhand clothes, is already in the fray.
After she criticized Sieting’s comments, friends turned on her, she said. They’re threatening to put her out of business.
“I have seen so much hate,” she said. “I guess I’ll see where the town lies in the end.”