The County Poor House

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, October 1986,
October 1986

Author: Grace Shackman

It doubled as an insane asylum

The County Farm Park, on the east side between Platt and Medford, is devoted to recreation such as jogging and gardening. But once it was the location of the County Poor House. Homeless people of both sexes and all ages lived there. The Poor House sheltered a diverse group of unfortunates: the insane, alcoholic, feeble, indolent, senile, retarded, handicapped, injured, sick, transient, or just down on their luck. Their common denominator was their poverty. Some stayed only for a short time, but others remained until they died. If no relative claimed the body, it was buried on the premises or given to the U-M medical school. Some human bones found in the 1960s when Washtenaw Avenue was being widened were at first believed to be Indian relics until someone figured out that the road extended over the area used for the poor house cemetery.

County Poor House

The Washtenaw County Poor House, on Washtenaw near Platt, housed a variety of unfortunates, from the insane, handicapped, retarded, and injured, to the just plain down on their luck. An 1830 Michigan law required each county to have a poor house.

Poor farms were the nineteenth century solution to poverty. Reformers such as Dorothea Dix, a pioneer in the movement for specialized treatment of the insane, believed that placing people on working farms could make them into contributing members of society and also relieve the public of paying for their care. Most of the people who lived in poor houses were not able to work, however, or if they could, were not very productive. Income from crops raised at the Washtenaw County Poor House helped defray costs, but except for a few years during the Civil War, it was never enough to cover all expenses.

The land for the Washtenaw County Poor House was purchased by the county in 1836 from Revolutionary War veteran Claudius Britton, to comply with an 1830 Michigan law directing each county to build a poor house. The county hired a keeper, always a local person with a farming background, who lived on the premises with a wife who cooked for the residents (or "inmates," as they were called in the official reports).

The farm included orchards of apples, peaches, and pears; livestock (pigs, cattle, sheep, and chickens); and gardens with vegetables and grains. George Campbell, who grew up on nearby Cobblestone Farm, recalled, "I would often see poor farm residents out in the fields pitching hay, always under supervision. The men worked the farm as long as it was done with horse power, but they couldn't manage farm machinery. The women residents helped in the kitchen, setting the tables or peeling potatoes. During the day they would sew." Campbell also remembered that Platt Road used to be known as "Pauper's Alley" and that "Poor House residents used to sneak away and, using a little money they might have gotten from relatives, buy some tobacco at McMillan's store on Packard, where the Sunoco station is now."

Photograph of Washtenaw County Infirmary,
taken from a high point across the road

An 1830 Michigan law required each county to have a poorhouse. The county infirmary, the successor to the poorhouse, was for poor people who needed continual medical care. Built in 1917, it closed in 1971 and was torn down in 1979.

Poor houses are usually depicted as bleak, terrible places, but Ann Arborites old enough to remember believe this one was not such a bad place. According to lifelong Ann Arbor resident Arthur Rieff, "it was a lot nicer than old age homes are today. Those who could work, did, and there was a nice visiting room. No one minded going there to live." Edith Staebler Kempf agrees it was a pleasant enough place, especially with all the home-grown food, but says there was enough of a social stigma in being there that she was taught in her childhood to refer to it not as the "poor farm" but as the "county home." She adds, "People of means were ostracized if they let their relatives live there."

After the welfare system arose in the 1930s, the farm changed from a home for poor people to a place for people who needed continual medical care but could not afford it. The farm lands were rented to Ralph McCalla, who continued raising cattle and growing crops until 1960. According to McCalla, "Some of the Poor House residents still helped. They would come down to the barn and feed the livestock just to have something to do."

The County Infirmary, as it was known after 1917, was closed in 1971 after county officials decided it would cost too much to modernize. It was torn down in 1979. For a time, St. Joseph's Mercy Hospital seriously considered building on the site, and doctors' offices were built on the eastern side of Platt in anticipation of this move. After St. Joe's decided to locate elsewhere, debate centered on whether the land should be used for new county buildings or for a park.

After the county commissioners decided to keep the county courthouse in downtown Ann Arbor, the County Parks and Recreation Department went to work creating the County Farm Park. Today the 127-acre park includes a parcours (a jogging-exercise trail patterned after European fitness courses), a woodland trail, a perennial garden complete with native shrubs, Project Grow gardens, and an irrigation system powered by a windmill. All that remains of the poor farm is the barn now used to store maintenance equipment.

The Anna Bach Home on West Liberty

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, December 1983,
December 1983

Author: Grace Shackman and Mary Hunt

Looking like a yellow stucco Italian villa of neoclassical design, the Anna Botsford Bach Home stands on the very crest of the long hill Liberty Street climbs on its way from town. Between it and downtown are suburban streets of the 1920's, but after it, Liberty takes on an air that is even today rather rural.

Weinberg's Coliseum

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, February 1983,
February 1983

Author: Grace Shackman

Winter and summer, one of Ann Arbor's livelier recreational attractions seventy years ago was Weinberg's coliseum and swimming pool, down at the end of Fifth Avenue where it intersects with Hill Street. The concrete building that housed the indoor ice rink was erected by masonry contractor Fred Weinberg, probably in 1909. It survives today as the U-M Coliseum, which was the home of Michigan's ice hockey team until 1973.

Weinberg's indoor ice rink, the first in town, boasted a huge Wurlitzer player organ, akin to a player piano, which imitated the sounds of an entire orchestra. Songs like the Skater's Waltz, The Blue Danube Waltz, and the Poet and Peasant Overture were played again and again, so often that a generation of older Ann Arborites who used to patronize the place can still vividly recollect the sound as if it were being played today. The organ was so loud, in fact, that it could be heard all over the neighborhood. Fred Weinberg's son Nate (of the old Nate's Boat Shop) recalls that the music carried clearly over to their house on Mary Street, some four blocks away, whenever the windows were open and the rink was in session, which was frequent. The building had no heat and no refrigeration equipment. To freeze the ice, the windows were simply opened to let in the cold air. New layers of ice were added to build up the surface in case of warm spells. Because conditions at his ice arena were unpredictable, Weinberg arranged with State Street merchants to post flags in front of their stores on days when there was enough ice for skating.

If you came to the rink on Saturdays before noon, you could get in for ten cents and stay all day, a practice that many Ann Arbor children followed. They would either bring a lunch or buy one at the snack bar. The ice rink also had a balcony for roller skating, but roller skaters had to climb down the stairs in their skates and cross over part of the ice to get a snack.

Weinberg's Coliseum supplemented the older outdoor ice rink next to it, which Weinberg had built some twelve years earlier. In fact, the coliseum's doors opened onto the outside ice, which extended all the way to John Street. That rink, which doubled as a swimming pool in summer, was fed by springs on nearby city property, where the Michigan Stadium now stands. At first, the swimming pool was a rather primitive affair. Jonas Otto, Weinberg's nephew, remembers how he earned spending money as a boy by pulling frogs out of the pool. A cement pool bottom was poured about the same time the indoor rink was built.

Skating on Weinberg's original outdoor rink was preferable to skating on the Huron River or other ponds around town because of the live music provided by Weinberg's brother-in-law, Louis Otto, leader of Otto's Band, and seven or eight of his musicians. They would sit and play in a small hut in the middle of the rink, closing the windows periodically so they could warm up.

When it was too warm for ice skating, the Coliseum was often used for circuses, speeches, horse shows, indoor carnivals, dances, roller skating, and other special events.

Weinberg's Coliseum played host to the U-M's first ice hockey game, in 1920, and to over fifty hockey seasons thereafter. Weinberg himself did not live to witness that first in Michigan athletic history, however. He died in 1917, the victim of a collision between his automobile and one of the interurban trains that ran through town along Packard, Main, and Huron. His wife and son, Julius, took over the ice rink and Julius installed an auto paint shop in the rear.

Famed U-M neurosurgeon Edgar Kahn was on the first Michigan ice-hockey team. He remembers that the natural ice caused some problems. Players might be playing in a pool of water by the last period, and occasionally, if the weather were unseasonably mild, a game would be called off, sometimes after the visiting team had traveled a long distance for the contest.

In 1924, a fire starting in the paint shop burned the wooden roof and partitions, but the cement walls survived and still form the building's basic shell. The U-M bought the Coliseum in 1925 and installed artificial ice equipment the following year, thus overcoming the vagaries of weather. But the main problem with the rink as a hockey arena was that there was never enough room for spectators. Even after the 1949 remodeling put seats all around, the building's size necessitated very steep seating, so that anyone sitting on top was unable to see the whole rink.

In 1973, after the ice rink was moved to Yost Field House, which had just been converted to Yost Ice Arena, the building was turned into a gymnasium, now used for women's athletics and an occasional special event like the U-M Artists and Craftsmen's Guild Christmas Art Fair.

[Photo caption from original print edition]: Postcard of Weinberg's Coliseum published by A.S. Lyndon. Folding chairs around the periphery provided very limited seating. The player organ in the balcony was flanked by a bandstand where live music was played on special occasions. (Middle left) Members of Otto's Band inside their hut at the old ice rink. (Middle right) Charlie Swarthout scraping the ice on Weinberg's old outdoor ice rink. (Bottom) Nate Weinberg (fourth from right) was one of the gang of enthusiastic "rink rats" who helped maintain the ice in the Coliseum's middle years in return for skating privileges. The Michigan hockey team played there, and the rink was also open to the public at certain times. 1938 photo, left to right: Marv Olson, Aldin Ratti, Bob Ingold, Bob Flory, Bill Carpenter, Sam Otto, Bill Mast, Phil Brier, Nate Weinberg, Bill Bush, Bill Folske, and Don Wright.


[Photo caption from original print edition]: Views of the huge swimming pool show the adjoining houses, barns, and sheds of South Division as they climb the hill to Packard and Madison.

[Photo caption from original print edition]: Extra decks were added to the primitive diving tower.

[Photo caption from original print edition]: The Coliseum today.

[Photo caption from original print edition]: The Coliseum sometime before 1919, when the swimming pool was still in operation.


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Ann Arbor Central Mills

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, April 1982,
April 1982

Author: Grace Shackman

When the Ann Arbor Central Mills on First Street opened in 1882, the increased use of farm machinery, especially the thresher, made wheat growing so profitable that over a million bushels a year were being grown in Washtenaw County. This mill exported flour to New England, the Midwest, the South, and even abroad. It operated from 1882 to 1927, spanning some of Washtenaw County's best and worst years for agriculture.

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