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Iron sculptures bring pride to small, northern city: this week on The Green Room

Fewer than 900 people live in the city of Onaway, Michigan. But every year, thousands of people flock to the city's annual Fourth of July parade.

And many of the residents say Tom Moran is the reason why. 

Tom Moran is owner of Moran Iron Works, a company that specializes in large scale fabrication. Huge things like ferry boats and turbines. As a hobby, Moran has been making iron sculptures for the Onaway 4th of July parade since 1989. Everything from a huge pickaxe, to a replica of USS Bunker Hill. He even made a large scale bust of Abe Lincoln. 

He says he makes them because it keeps him out of the bars– but mostly because he wants something his community can be proud of.

Putting Onaway on the map

The city is located in the northeast corner of lower Michigan, about 30 miles from Cheboygan. It's well-known for holding a sturgeon hunt every winter, where fish are speared through the ice on Black Lake.

Holly Beavers is the bartender at Havel's Northland Bar in Onaway. She says Moran’s iron sculptures give Onaway another identity.

“I think it’s put us on the map a little bit," she says. "We’re known as the Sturgeon capital of Michigan of course, but I believe that he has put us on the map as far as a small community, small town.”

City officials couldn’t quite give the exact number of people, but did confirm it’s safe to say thousands turn out for the parade every year. 

And Erik Lalond, the owner of Red Oak Gunsmithing says the last float in the parade is the reason why. 

"Whatever Tom makes every year is the biggest attraction," he says.  "I mean that’s what everyone comes for."

Tom Moran was born in 1960, and has lived in Onaway his entire life. He says growing up in the 60s, there was a real sense of community pride. People got behind local events like the Fourth of July parade. But as he got older, he says he saw that pride wane along with the city’s population. 

“There was a time in the 70s and the 80s where there wasn’t much of a parade here, there wasn’t much of a desire to move forward," Tom explains.

Tom Moran had a desire to move his city forward anyway he could, and what he could do was weld.

“You know, I think we all exercise what our skills are, and that was the only way that I could participate," Tom says. "And it was also a lasting way to participate.”

Not entirely secret

He doesn’t swear anybody to secrecy. He says keeping the sculpture secret until the parade is more just a matter of tradition and necessity. That's because he doesn’t know exactly how each sculpture will turn out in the end.

"I’m not going to say anything because George Washington when he gets done, we might just call him Marlon Brando if he starts looking really strange," he explains. 

Now, spoiler alert– if you’re going to the Onaway parade on Monday, and want to be surprised, don't read any farther. 

This year's parade entry is a ten-ton replica of a Lobdell-Emery #4 locomotive. A train that was used in northeastern Michigan to haul logs to milling areas.

Moran says work started on the locomotive in January. The train will have a bell, a steam whistle, and some lights, and will be pulled by a tractor. 

After the parade it will go in a sculpture garden he’s designing in Onaway. The train will join a few other sculptures already there.

Every year, Tom Moran creates a float for the Onaway Fourth of July parade. He says it's important to invest in his small community in whatever way he can.
Credit Dan Wanschura
Every year, Tom Moran creates a float for the Onaway Fourth of July parade. He says it's important to invest in his small community in whatever way he can.

Dan Wanschura is the Host and Executive Producer of Points North.