Dexter Area Museum

Published In:
Community Observer, Summer 1999,
Summer 1999

Author: Grace Shackman

Local artifacts in a century-old church building

Samuel Dexter's bed, clock, and rocking chair; Dr. William Wiley's tum-of-the-century medical instruments; a host of other historic Dexter artifacts—what better place to display them than an equally historic church?

Serendipitously, just as the Dexter Area Historical Society was organizing in the early 1970s and looking for a permanent location, St. Andrew's United Church of Christ decided to leave its 1883 edifice and build a new church. Now both have what they want: St. Andrew's has its modern church on Ann Arbor Street, while the historical society has its museum in the old church, which was moved to the back of the St. Andrew's parking lot, facing Inverness.

In the nineteenth century, many Germans immigrated to western Washtenaw County, mainly from the area around Stuttgart. Twenty-two of those families organized St. Andrew's in 1875 so they could hear the gospel preached in their own language. They held their first services at George Sill Hall, above Sill Hardware (now Hackney Ace Hardware).

After eight years, they built their first church, a simple wooden structure painted white both inside and out, with a tower and green shutters. Germans from congregations in Chelsea, Ann Arbor, and Manchester came to the dedication. They met at Sill Hall, formed a line, and proceeded to the new church, where they held a service, and then returned to the hall for a banquet.

The church added a wooden parish hall in 1927, and a brick one in 1959. A rough basement was dug in 1933 for a new furnace. But by 1971, the congregation was running out of room, and one comer of the church was sagging.

Meanwhile, Norma McAllister, a Dexter native and village history enthusiast, became concerned that a lot of local historical material was being lost. Together with Dexter High School teacher Frank Wilhelme and one of his students, Tom Morcom, she organized the first meeting of the Dexter Area Historical Society—the first local Historical society in Michigan—in July 1971.

"We didn't know how many would come. But they poured in. We had to keep getting more chairs," recalls McAllister. By the end of the evening, seventy-five people had signed up.

The society's main objective was to set up a museum for donated historic artifacts. St. Andrew's agreed to contribute its original church building and the 1927 parish hall. The historical society signed a seventy-five-year lease on the new site for the old church, and then raised money for the move. McAllister recalls that some members lent money to the society and were paid back with some of the profits from Dexter's 1974 sesquicentennial celebration.

St. Andrew's moved the church bell and altar into its new building but left everything else, including stained glass windows added in 1908 in memory of loved ones. The historical society maintains the old church's ambience. The onetime sanctuary now holds permanent and rotating exhibits about the Dexter area. There are historic photos of people, stores, churches, and houses in the vestibule, while the basement is used for farm tools and an electric railroad. The old parish hall is used for a gift shop and meeting space (the historical society meets on the first Thursday of the month). A small room off the larger area, originally a kitchen, is the genealogy room, run by Nancy Van Blaricum, who collects Dexter records—newspapers, census reports, church records, family histories.

"I'm glad the museum lasted," says McAllister. "It's important to keep this stuff."

—Grace Shackman