Perhaps one of the greatest compliments a historian can receive is that their stories about people, places and things make learning about the past actually feel fun.
That has been said of Bailey Sisoy Isgro more times than you can count. A fifth generation Detroiter, Bailey considers herself the luckiest woman alive in that she gets to tell Detroit’s story – and those of her family and friends – via the Detroit History Tours company.
Recently, Bailey opened up her home as well to offer tour participants, newcomers to Detroit and people returning to see its revival a place to sit, hear stories and share tales of their own. The Detroit History Club is a gathering spot for people who love Detroit, who want to see it grow and prosper as well as anyone who believes learning about the past is an important part of making the present better.
Bailey’s home is unique in many ways. First, it is in Highland Park, right by Henry Ford’s massive manufacturing plant nicknamed The Chrystal Palace. Secondly, it is huge. The main floor is about 2,000 square feet, so there is plenty of space for visitors. Third, it used to be a house of ill repute. A home for ladies of the night. You know…
Yup, the home of the Detroit History Club used to be the best little whorehouse in Detroit.
The home’s former owner, Helen McGowan, was Detroit’s most infamous Madame. She ran her home as a business of entertaining people of all ages, races and interests. But what Bailey finds most interesting about Helen is that she was uniquely human. She had her triumphs and her tragedies. She struggled with wealth and with being poor. Helen loved, lost and fought for what she believed in, both personally and professionally.
Thankfully for Bailey, and for us all to be honest, Helen left behind treasures throughout the house. Letters. Photographs. An old condom or two (not kidding at all about that one). She also left words of wisdom, both through her correspondence and a memoir she penned. “Explanations aren’t worth anything. You did right. You did wrong. Just tell me what you are going to do next,” Helen once wrote.
Bailey, like most people who study history, has become fascinated with Helen, her life and her story. Talking about Helen, the house and her tours comes easy. More challenging sometimes is telling Detroit’s story with a dash of her own life in it, Bailey notes. But the first step toward opening up the Detroit History Club was, indeed, opening up about herself.
These days, Bailey adds a bit about her family and friends during the tours she and others give on a regular basis. These bus and walking tours are seasonal; for example, there are Halloween tours that tell about Detroit’s haunted locations and local ghosts. But there also are long-standing tours, such as the Wild Women of Detroit, where Bailey tells her tales with a strong basis in historic fact as well as anecdotes about the people and events that make this city stand out.
Bailey’s story is just as fascinating as Helen’s, although there’s not quite as many racy details. Her great-grandparents come to Detroit from Russia. The initially settled in Hamtramck, but her great-grandmother’s allergies forced them to move to Warrendale. In 1922, they built a house there and Bailey’s family still owns and lives in the house. “My bedroom looks exactly the same as it did when I lived there,” Bailey jokes.
Detroit is Bailey’s home, and learning about it became her pastime. It started with her mother, who encouraged her girls to be inquisitive, to go to the library, to enjoy research. As a result, when people brought new friends to town, they’d ask her to give them a tour. Things snowballed from there. She heard about another fantastic Detroit tour company through the Detroit Bus Company, and she started helping out on tours there as needed. Bailey says she is forever grateful to Mickey Lyons and Andy Didorosi for creating a space where talking about how much you adore Detroit was not only welcomed, it was important. It changed people’s views about the city. It gave them an excuse to come out for the night, try new bars and hear about the past.
Bailey struck out on with friends to form a new business that would focus on pure history tours with a mix of day and night events. Since opening, the Detroit History Tours have been hugely successful; for example, all of the Halloween tours have sold out. That’s amazing, Bailey said, considering she was hoping to do three or four tours a year, not a month. But there are many more tours on her schedule now, and Bailey thanks her lucky stars, her good friends, her supportive family and, in some ways, Helen herself for getting this all started.
“The people are such a mix,” Bailey said. “We get everything form a bus full of Norwegians to one full of visiting Catholic nuns. That has to be my favorite group to date. That tour mixed the nuns with a 21st birthday party. The best part was when the nuns started singing ‘Stol lat’ (the Polish birthday song) to the 21-year-old birthday girl.”
The tours are education plus entertainment. They blend facts and fun. These days, they also include a little bit more about Bailey, her fire-fighting uncles, her knowledgeable grandfather who knew Detroit backward and forward, her aunties who are bartenders at some of Detroit’s oldest and most beloved bars.
“These aren’t just places; they’re moments where amazing things happened,” Bailey said. “What I do and what I love to do so much is that I can put things into context. I tell about Pearl Harbor in Detroit – what happened and where. But I also can point to the bar where my grandfather was sitting when he got up, walked down to the end of the block and signed up to be Marine. Detroit changed the world. Detroit families and Detroiters changed the world.
“It’s so exciting to share their stories that I can look up from doing a tour and five hours are gone,” Bailey laughs. “I’m not an expert at all or in any way shape or form. That’s the truth of it. I am this kid who’s lucky enough by the grace of God to be born in the greatest city in the world to a family that thinks it’s the greatest city in the world. It’s been luck and opportunity that I’ve all these great experiences in Detroit.”