417 Detroit St.

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, January 1990,
January 1990

Author: Grace Shackman

The Ecology Center was once an apple-packing plant

The Ecology Center's pre-Civil War building at 417 Detroit is a model of recycling: it was a workshop, store, and factory before becoming an office. The Italianate two-story brick building lies on the triangular block between Detroit Street and Fifth Avenue, its front and back walls parallel to the streets they face rather than to each other. It isn't shown on the 1853 birdseye map of the city, but is found on the 1866 map. It was probably built closer to the earlier date, since Moses Rogers, when he bought the building in 1871, referred to it as "the old and well-known apple-packing house of David Henning."

David Henning started his fruit packing business about 1851. After immigrating from Ireland as a teenager, he learned the cooper's trade (barrel-making) in Detroit and then moved to Ann Arbor to set up. One season he made more barrels than he could sell, and he came up with the idea of filling them with apples in order to sell them off. His scheme worked so well that he soon expanded his operation, selling barrels of apples at outlets all along the Michigan Central railroad line.

Henning's original factory was probably a simple wooden building, which he replaced when he began making money with the brick structure that remains today. Henning later branched out into other businesses, including gas companies located all over the Midwest. When he died in 1901, he was reputed to be one of the wealthiest men in Ann Arbor.

The next owner of the Detroit Street building, Moses Rogers, was also a self-made man. Rogers came from New York State at age twenty-one and first worked as a teamster, driving between Detroit and Ann Arbor. (This was in 1831; the railroad did not come to town until 1839.) He found employment in Chapin's farm implement store and in 1843 started his own implement store on Washington Street (where the Washington Street Station restaurant is now). He did so well that in 1860 he was able to move to much more spacious quarters on Catherine, to what was long known as the White Swan building and is now being remodeled as Market Place. The next year, he bought his family a home at 121 North Division, which is today part of the Division Street Historic District.

In 1866 Rogers sold his building and stock and soon joined in a partnership with John Treadwell and the two bought an old hotel, the Monitor, on the corner of Huron and Second Street and converted it into an implement store. According to an article in the March 8, 1867, Ann Arbor Argus, the plan was for Treadwell to be the proprietor and "avail himself of the aid and experience of Mr. Rogers." Rogers must have thought that after thirty-six years of hard work he could step down to an advisory position, but it was not to be. On April 15, 1870, a fire destroyed a group of neighboring downtown businesses. One casualty was the three-year-old implement business, which was uninsured.

Thus when Rogers bought Henning's building on Detroit Street in 1871, it was to start business anew at an age (sixty-one) when most people are thinking of retirement. Rogers had several advantages in this late-life endeavor, including a great knowledge of the implement business, a good reputation (Beakes's 1906 county history says, "He won an honorable name through the exercise of business principles that neither sought nor required disguise"), and a choice business location. Old Fourth Ward historian Susan Wineberg points out that Detroit Street would have been an excellent site for his business, located as it was on the main route between the railroad station and the downtown area, which in those days clustered around the County Courthouse at Huron and Main.

Moses Rogers lived seventeen years after founding his third business, and he managed to regain his former financial status. His obituary in 1883 described him as "one of the most prosperous merchants of the city."

After Rogers's death, his daughter, Katie, gave up her successful portrait painting career to take over the business, running it successfully for seven years. Katie Rogers had been a dutiful daughter all her life. Trained at the Chicago Academy of Design, where she graduated at the top of her class, she had returned home to set up a studio in her parents' home. She continued her art career, painting portraits of many local dignitaries, including her uncle, Randolph Rogers, a sculptor with an international reputation, and Judge James Kingsley. Her Kingsley portrait hung in the County Courthouse for many years.

Katie sold the implement business to Hurd-Holmes in 1895, enjoying what she could of retirement--by then she was an invalid--until her death in 1901. The business died before she did: the building is listed as vacant in the 1900 city directory.

For a short while (1905-1909) the building was used as a creamery. Then Luick Lumber, located across the street in what is today Kerrytown, started using it for a warehouse. In 1915 a machine shop moved in, and this use continued, under several owners, until 1963.

In 1963, Travis and Demaris Cash, who had started the Treasure Mart in 1960, were looking for a place to expand their inventory to include used clothing. They took a long-term lease on both 417 Detroit and a one-story building next door at 419 that had been built in 1921 as an auto repair shop. They remodeled both buildings, adding shutters, brackets, and window boxes found at the Treasure Mart. The wrought iron fence that today graces both buildings came from Marie Rominger's house, which was torn down to make room for the public library parking lot. The Cashes used the smaller building for the Tree, their second-hand clothes store. They considered turning 417 into a restaurant, possibly with an eating area on the Tree's roof. According to Elaine Johns, their daughter, they were dissuaded by the general opinion that "no one would come down to this area to eat."

For the rest of the 1960's the Cashes sublet the building at 417, first to the Lantern Gallery and then to a used-fur company. When the fur company moved out, they moved the Tree's men's and boys' department into the back half of the first floor of 417.

In 1970, a fledgling activist group, the Ecology Center, was organized to continue working on the issues raised by the first Earth Day on April 22,1970. When it wasn't able to find a storefront in the downtown area, the group decided that the Detroit Street location met its primary objectives of being accessible to the general public and far enough from the U-M to establish it as a community group. "We almost didn't start it here," reminisced Doug Fulton, retired outdoor editor of the Ann Arbor News and first president of the Ecology Center board, in 1985. "There was a lot of work to be done. We had clean-up parties and so forth. It was essentially mostly an old storeroom."

Despite the unpromising start, the Detroit Street site has served the Ecology Center well, as first Kerrytown and then Zingerman's brought increasing numbers of people to the area. But the center's increased activities have far outgrown the available space. "It has a lot of charm, but not enough space for the growing environmental needs of our community," says Nancy Stone, a longtime Ecology Center employee now serving as newsletter editor.

The Ecology Center now functions out of several other locations: the Leslie Science Center, Legal Services, the landfill, and the recycle drop-off station. But Detroit Street, although crowded, still houses the offices of administration, issues development, newsletter, membership, events coordination, and recycling education. Twelve employees plus varying numbers of work study students and volunteers use the space to its maximum.