Cobblestone Houses in Washtenaw County

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, September 1989,
September 1989

Author: Grace Shackman

They're a spinoff of the Erie Canal

Cobblestone Farm on Packard Road is one of at last seven cobblestone houses in Washtenaw County. Highly distinctive but incredibly laborious to build, they're examples of a folk art that flourished between the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 and the Civil War.

Cobblestone houses first appeared in western New York State immediately after the canal was completed. Their creation was due to a fortunate combination of circumstances: a labor force of skilled masons looking for work after the canal's completion, an abundance of glacial stones, and a population eager to build new homes with profits from the canal. Most of the known examples (900 in all) are in New York, but as New Yorkers moved west, they took the craft with them and built scattered cobblestone houses in southern Ontario, southern Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin--wherever they found the style's namesake building materials, glacial stones, formed during the Ice Age, small enough to hold in one hand.

Cobblestone Farm

The city-owned property known as Cobblestone Farm, built in 1844 for naval surgeon Benajah Ticknor, is today the site of many community activities.

Even the most informative book on cobblestone architecture, Cobblestone Landmarks of New York State, by Olaf William Shelgren, Jr., Cary Lattin, and Robert W. Frasch, is unable to trace an inventor of the style. The authors assume that most masons did only three or four cobblestone houses and that "they learned the cobblestone technique from each other or by examining finished buildings."

Cobblestone houses' exterior walls were constructed with the stones arranged in neat rows, usually either vertically or horizontally but sometimes in fancier designs, and held together with cement that formed ridges between the layers. The simple lines of the prevalent architectural styles of the period, such as Federal, Classic Revival, and Greek Revival, lent themselves perfectly to this type of construction.

The masons experimented, and the homes became more involved and elaborate as the years went by. But even the simplest style was very labor-intensive, requiring hand placement of each stone. In the earliest homes, the stones were embedded right in the cement, forming an integral part of the outside wall. Later, the stones were more of a veneer, with just an occasional longer stone poked all the way into the cement. Toward the end of the era, the houses became very fancy, with tinier stones used merely for a veneer and arranged in elaborate patterns.

The cobblestone houses in Washtenaw County fit in with what is known about the homes in general: all were built in the 1830's and 1840's; all are in places where western New Yorkers settled; and all are of simple design, either Classic Revival or Greek Revival. Where the building time is documented, it runs from two to seven years, showing how laborious the work was. While two of the homes may have been done by the same mason, the other five seem to have been done by different individuals. All are located either on the Huron River or near streams, where stones were easier to find.

cobblestone closeup

Cobblestone houses, built from stones small enough to hold in one hand, are very labor intensive because the construction process entails putting in the stones one by one.

Cobblestone Farm, built in 1844 at 2781 Packard, is now a city-owned museum. Both the owner and the builder had New York origins. Heman Ticknor, who bought the farm for his brother, Dr. Benajah Ticknor, had farmed in Pittstown, New York, near Troy; the probable builder, Steven Mills, learned to be a mason in Phelps, in western New York.

Ann Arbor's other cobblestone house, at 2940 Fuller Road, across from Huron High, was built in 1836 for Orrin White, the first settler in Ann Arbor Township. White migrated here from Palmyra, in Wayne County, New York, the county with the largest number of recorded cobblestone houses. Present owners Nan and Robert Hodges believe that their house was also built by Steven Mills because it is very similar to the Ticknor-Campbell house: both are Classic Revival, and they have identical herringbone patterns of angled stones and similar interior layouts.

Lima Township's cobblestone house, at 10725 Jerusalem Road, is similar to the Ann Arbor cobblestone houses in size and design. Original owner Lester Jewett, who hailed from Seneca, New York, was, like Benajah Ticknor, a medical doctor. According to stories that have been passed down, the house took seven years to build. Dr. Jewett had two brothers who also settled on Jerusalem Road. They, too, built stone houses, but used larger fieldstones. Family legend is that the stone houses brought them luck.

The Rufus Knight home on Scio Church Road also has a similar look except for smaller upstairs windows. Knight, a miller who arrived in this area in 1826 from Wheatville, New York, was a pathfinder who, according to the 1891 Washtenaw County Portrait and Biographical Album, "ground the first grist which ever went between the stones in this county." He set another record - the first marriage to be entered in the county archives, when he married Sallie Scott in 1827. The 1891 book's description of Knight ends, "The old cobble stone house is still in use and as good as ever although it was erected as long ago as 1849."

Orrin White house from 1874 plat map

The Orrin White house across the street from Huron High School is believed to be built by Steven Mills, the same mason who constructed Cobblestone Farm.

A Greek Revival-style cobblestone is found at 3555 West Delhi Road, just a little to the west of the Delhi settlement. The house was built by Norman Goodale, an important mill owner during Delhi's days of prominence, for his mother, Harriet Church Goodale. Goodale settled in Delhi in 1838, so the house must have been built sometime after that. After the Goodale ownership, it passed through several hands, including Henry Ford's. He used it for a retreat, especially enjoying it when the peach trees on the property were in bloom.

A second Greek Revival in Scio Township (the owner prefers not to reveal its exact location) was the home of farmer Morris Richmond, who hailed from New York and built his house in 1847, taking more than two years to do it. The house was obviously built by someone who knew about architecture, since it features classic Greek Revival attributes: gable entrance, symmetrical windows, and even a raised area under the beams forming a frieze.

The most rustic of the seven Washtenaw County cobblestone homes is probably the only owner-built house in the group. Located on the corner of Baker and Shields just south of Dexter, it was built by Obed Taylor, who, according to information researched by his great-great-grandson, Welton Chamberlain, had been a surveyor and a road builder in Northbridge, Massachusetts, before coming west. After his arrival in Dexter, he was hired by Vrelan Bates to dig out a mill race for the Bates Saw Mill on Mill Creek. Taylor worked for three years, digging with pick and shovel, for which he was rewarded with 40 acres of nearby land.

He used the stones that he dug out to construct his house, burning the larger pieces of limestone for cement and using the smaller stones for the walls. Records indicate that he must have finished his home by 1844 because in that year he was hired by Judge Samuel Dexter to build a fence just like the one around his own home.

People curious about cobblestone houses and willing to travel farther afield can see all the cobblestone houses they could ever desire by going to western New York State and driving along Route 104, built on an old sandbar that parallels the Erie Canal: In Childs, New York, there is a Cobblestone Society, located in a cobblestone church; a cobblestone home and cobblestone one-room school are also on display. A little closer to home, in Paris, Ontario, near Brantford, are Canada's finest examples of cobblestone homes, all built by Levi Broughton, a mason from Normandale, New York.

Right here in Washtenaw County, we are lucky to have the seven we have: all slightly different, all well kept up, and all beautiful. The best time to view cobblestone houses is when the sun shines on them, giving the stones a beautiful three-dimensional look.

[Photo caption from original print edition]: Matching herringbone stonework suggests that Cobblestone Farm and the Orrin White House on Fuller Road (as it appeared in 1891) were built by the same mason.

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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