Nickels Arcade: The First 100 Years

Author: 
Grace Shackman

It's a mystery why State St. butcher Tom Nickels decided to build an elegant shopping arcade. According to his family he'd never seen an arcade, yet the one he built is breathtakingly beautiful. His descendants still own it, and four generations of family members are convening this month to celebrate its 100th birthday.

Nickels' father, John, had a butcher shop at 326 S. State and an ice business directly behind it, selling ice from Traver Creek. He lived at 334 S. State with his wife, Elizabeth, and their four children.

John Nickels died in 1907 and Elizabeth in 1913. Tom inherited the meat market, ice company, and family home, and bought the land back to Maynard from his siblings. His granddaughter, Elizabeth Herbert Becker, who now owns the arcade with her brother Fred Herbert and cousin Fred Nickels, surmises that he learned about arcades from European magazines and newspapers.

Nickels hired local architect Herman Pipp, who designed the arcade in an elegant beaux arts style with three-story pillars on the State St. side and an ivory-colored terra-cotta facade. Separated by an arch, the rest of the arcade is more modest, two stories high and faced with yellow brick, but with terra-cotta windowsills decorations tie it in with the front.

Nickels didn't build the whole arcade himself: the southeast corner was constructed by the Farmers and Mechanics Bank, which bought the land from him and also gave him a loan. The bank was finished in 1915, but the rest of the arcade wasn't ready for occupancy until 1917 due to shortages of materials during World War I. There were eighteen stores on the first floor, each with a mezzanine and a basement storage area. The second floor was rented to offices or businesses. "It's a little gem box," says Gene Hopkins, an architect who worked on its 1987 restoration. "It's unique. You don't see things like it every day."

Tom's daughter, Theodora Nickels Herbert, recalled the grand opening in a 1974 interview: "There were flowers all around, and it was quite a deal." They came from the Blu Maize Blossom Shop in the arcade. There's still a florist in the arcade, the University Flower Shop. The Arcade Barber Shop now has the spot where barber Myron Baker opened in 1917.

In 1921, Peter Van Boven opened a men's clothing store in the north State St. storefront, opposite the bank. He added a shoe store on the other side of the arcade in 1933. Karen Godfrey, third generation of the Van Boven line and first woman to work in the clothing store, explains its origins: "I understand that my grandpa went into the men's clothing business because he was a dapper fellow and had an interest in men's fashions. Back in the day, the store's emphasis was on selling suits and furnishings. As times changed the store had to adapt." They continue to sell formal clothes but now also have T-shirts, golf attire, Hawaiian shirts (including a Michigan one), and blue jeans.

The Caravan Shop opened in 1927. It was the creation of Frank Karpp, who had worked for Texaco in Africa and the Far East. He used his connections there to procure unique items for his store. It too has been there ever since.

Many other stores that opened in the first decade stayed for years, including a post office substation (until 1998), Bay's Jewelers (until 1992), the Betsy Ross Restaurant (1975), and the Van Buren lingerie shop (in the arcade until 1987, and nearby on State until 1994).

Early second-floor occupants included two prominent doctors, R. Bishop Canfield and Albert Furstenberg. Clarence Fingerle's Arcade Cafeteria, upstairs from the post office, sold reasonably priced food like creamed shredded chicken and dumplings and baked Virginia ham. The late Ted Heusel remembered eating there regularly with his mother.

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When Tom Nickels died in 1933, the business passed on to his two children, Dora Herbert and her brother, James Nickels.

James' son Fred Nickels, now ninety, recalls that during the Depression, some tenants paid part of their rent in kind, including Roy Hoyer, who had his dance studio on the second floor. "I had to take tap dancing lessons for five years before being allowed to quit," he laughs.

Fred Nickels remembers accompanying his mother to the arcade when she got her hair styled at the Blue Bird Salon, and Mr. Karpp at the Caravan Shop warning him not to touch the exotic merchandise. He had a better time hanging out with janitor Zonie Steinke, his maternal uncle, while he closed up for the night, stoking the furnace and filling the coal bin under the Maynard St. entrance.

James died from tuberculosis in 1936. His half of the ownership went to his two sons, Fred and Bob, but since they were still children, a professional management group was hired. In 1965 the family bought the original bank building and now owns the whole arcade.

"You could survive at the arcade with everything you needed," recalls Dora's daughter, Elizabeth Herbert Becker, who was born in 1936. "You had a post office, restaurant, a bank, and ladies' and men's stores. Everything but groceries, and you could get those at White Market" around the corner on William. As a teenager, Elizabeth worked for her aunt, Bee Nickels, who lived in the Nickels house on Maynard (site of the Collegian building) and owned a store that specialized in baby and children's clothing imported from Europe. As a young adult, she worked at Bay's.

Elizabeth's brother, Fred Herbert, born in 1941, recalls how important the arcade was to their mother: "It was a vital, essential part of her life. She patronized it two or three days a week. She was friends with the tenants." His childhood memories include "the aroma of grilled pecan rolls from the Betsy Ross wafting up from a vent into the concourse."

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Van Boven's two stores made it through the Depression and World War II. In 1973 the family hired Robert Frost to manage the shoe store, which he later bought. Frost remembers those as the golden years of the arcade, when Jacobson's department store and then Borders books drew a high-end clientele to the area. "We thought it would never end. We had such pride to be on State St.; it was the place to be."

In 1990, U-M student Rich Bellas started working in the shoe store part time. He stayed on after graduation, and became Frost's partner. In 2014 they sold the store to Roger Pothus, the owner of Renaissance clothing. Bellas still works there, but Frost runs shoe stores in Petoskey and Traverse City.

After the Nickelses and the Van Bovens, the arcade's other great dynasty began in 1963, when Jim and Augusta Edwards opened Maison Edwards. Augusta, from Italy, based the inventory on things in European stores such as leather goods, scarves, perfume, chess sets, and pens. In 1964 the couple bought the store next door and turned it into a tobacco shop. From then on Jim ran the tobacco store and Augusta the original store. In 1965 the Edwardses bought the Van Buren shop, and in 1973 they bought the Caravan Shop from the Karpps.

"When they sold to Jim Edwards, they charged him full price for every item in the store, even some damaged things," recalls Fred Herbert. Even so, as the Karpps were childless, the Edwardses helped them out in their declining years. "When the Karpps died," Herbert adds, "they left them more money than they'd paid for the shop."

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The Edwardses hired Linda Liechty to manage the Van Buren shop and eventually sold it to her. They also helped Liechty's daughter, Rhonda Gilpin, buy the arcade's antique shop when she was just nineteen. She'd asked Jim for advice, and when she couldn't get a bank loan, he lent her the money himself. She opened the Arcadian in 1983, and ten years later, when Edwards was ready to retire, bought the Caravan Shop, too.

Gilpin's children grew up in the arcade, just as she did. "Most kids learn to ride their bikes on the sidewalk in front of their house. I learned riding down the arcade," explains her daughter Bailey, who works with her mother in the Arcadian. Son Steve is working on a master's at U-M but still works with his mother in the summer.

Chuck Ghawi also got involved in the arcade at a young age. As a student at U-M in the 1980s, Ghawi walked into Maison Edwards Tobacconist and asked for a job. He remembers that "three men in three-piece suits all said 'no' at the same time." But he kept coming back, and they finally relented and hired him part time. After graduation Ghawi kept in touch with the Edwardses, and in 1991 they sold him the store. Although he only occasionally smokes a cigar or a pipe, he still loves the business and the chance to visit with customers. "I don't get to travel because I have to be in the store, but the world comes here," he says.

In 1987, when the arcade was seventy years old, it received National Register of Historic Places designation. Architects Four was hired to do a restoration. They repaired or replaced terra-cotta that was cracked or damaged, repaired the skylight, designed consistent signage, moved the AC units, and removed the asphalt tile covering the glass-block floors.

The biggest retail tenant now is Bivouac, which sells outdoor gear and clothing from the former bank and several neighboring State St. storefronts. But owner Ed Davidson says that when he first talked to the arcade's management company about renting space, they turned him down. "They said, 'You look like a bum off the street, and you want to rent a clothes store?'" he recalls.

Davidson argued that the jeans and army surplus he sold were the new trend, but his long hair and brief credit history--he'd only been in business a year and a half--worked against him. So he phoned Dora Herbert to plead his case, offering to put up as many months' rent as she wanted in escrow. To his surprise, she asked only for two months' rent--and came to his grand opening in her wheelchair.

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Today, Nickels Arcade is a mix of new and old stores. Entering the tobacco store is like being in a time warp, while Comet Coffee and Babo provide a hip European look. Many tenants have left the floor bare with the original maroon, gray, and white tiles. Some have also kept the mezzanines, usually for offices. The original bank safe and vault are still in the basement of Bivouac, used for storage.

The arcade does show its age. Tenants note that there are no elevators to the second floor, uncertain heat, and no central air. And as beautiful as it is, it's a landmark mainly to people who spend time on campus. "I have people come in and say they've lived in Ann Arbor for twenty years and never knew this existed," says Rich Bellas.

Still, the overwhelming opinion of the tenants is that they love the arcade. Graphic artist Mike Savitski, who designed the concourse banners announcing the 100th birthday, has had an office upstairs since 1998. He says he especially appreciates the location during Art Fair, when he can work quietly, then walk out to "find the place packed like sardines," and at Christmas, when the arcade becomes "a Dickens-looking scene with greens hanging, lights glowing, troubadours singing, and the cold outside."

Architect Lincoln Poley, a tenant since 1987, loves "the architectural style, the openness of the building, the fenestration, and the decorative elements." Landscape designer Norm Cox (1995) appreciates "the sense of community combined with the cool factor of working in a pedestrian arcade located across the street from the Central Campus and all of its energy."

"I'm an architecture and history buff from way back," Savitski says. "The arcade embodies both these things. To walk through it several times a day is a real treat."

Rights Held By: 
Grace Shackman

West Stadium Blvd. at Ninety

Author: 
Grace Shackman

Once a rural bypass, it's now a motorized Main Street

Stadium Blvd never had horses and buggies travel on it, nor has it ever been much of a pedestrian street. Constructed in 1926, it was a product of the automobile age. Originally named “Boulevard Drive,” it was also known simply as the Cutoff or Bypass. It arced around the city, forking off Washtenaw Ave. to pass south of the city’s existing neighborhoods before turning north and continuing all the way to Jackson Rd. It gave drivers on state highway M-17 a way around the congested center of town, and gave them a direct route to Michigan Stadium, which opened in 1927 and gave the street its lasting name.

When Stadium Blvd. was new, it fronted on farms and was out in the country. As the surrounding areas were developed, subdivisions lined most of the east-west section. The north-south segment from Pauline to Jackson was zoned as a commercial district.

The colorful 2015 Dale Fisher photo at right, taken looking north from Liberty, shows businesses all the way to Maple Rd. and beyond. But it took a while to get there. The 1951 photo above caught the street in transition.

The part closest to Jackson Rd. developed first. In 1935 a gas station and a private home show up along W. Stadium there in the City Directory. In the late 1930s, a few more houses and some other businesses came along — another gas station and some manufacturing firms — a toolmaking company, an electric service, and a monument company.

Aerial View: Stadium

In 1939, Sportsman Park opened at the corner of Stadium and Liberty. Built for fast-pitch softball, it was the brainchild of the two Frey brothers, Christ and Walter, co-owners of a beer distributorship. They sponsored a men’s team, Oldbru, and Pfeiffer, a women’s team. Surrounded by a wooden fence, the park included dressing rooms and showers, a press box, a concession stand, music, and printed programs. “Besides Ferry Field, it was the only one with lights, so we could play at night,” recalls Jack Spaide, who played on his church’s team.

The top teams were in the industrial leagues, which were sponsored by companies. The rules forbade professional players, but some companies let workers practice during the workday or even hired players just so they would qualify for their teams. Dow Chemical in Midland, which had the best team around and even won a national championship, recruited some of Ann Arbor’s best players.

Below the industrial leagues were Class B teams, like the one Spaide played on for St. Paul Lutheran Church in the 1940s. The announcer used to call him Sam Spade (the Maltese Falcon came out in 1941) when he came up to bat. One of Spaide’s friends, who played for Bethlehem Church, called him Sam for the rest of his life. Spaide remembered those days as “fun times” but decided to quit, when, in his words, “someone sliding into base, probably home, broke his ankle. I had a child and another on the way, and I realized if anything happened to me I wouldn’t be able to take care of them.”

Katie Stadel, pitcher for the Pfeiffer team, was the star of the women’s league. She was the first woman inducted into the Michigan Softball Hall of Fame and the first woman to use the windmill pitch here. In a 2002 interview she recalled, “ I saw it used in a Lansing [men’s] game. I practiced all winter and introduced it the next spring.”

Exhibition games were also big draws; one featured boxer Joe Louis, known as the Brown Bomber. Donkey ball was another favorite. It was played with regular softball rules — except that when the batter made a hit, he had to get a donkey to accompany him to first base and stay there once they’d arrived. Most players tried to ride them, but Sandy Schulz Rayment remembers that her Uncle Jack “used to pick the donkey up and run to first base.” Still tickled, she says, “I never laughed so hard. It was a comedy of errors.”

After World War II, development started in earnest. A 1949 Ann Arbor News article heralded W. Stadium as “Ann Arbor’s fastest growing commercial area,” reporting that the value of commercially zoned property had increased 75 percent in five years. An aerial photo showed twenty-eight businesses on or near W. Stadium, although there were still a lot of empty lots. The largest group was vehicle related, including two motorcycle shops, a trailer rental, auto sales, a truck company, and several gas stations. The photo reprinted here was published two years later on March 11, 1951, over a story headlined “Stadium Blvd. Filling Up.

One of the new businesses was the Hannah Building Company owned by Eugene and Edith Hannah. They designed their headquarters at 2310 to look like an elongated Cape Cod house. Eugene Hannah used to say of his early days, “Earl Fingerle had the lumber, I had the ambition, but nobody had the money.”

That changed after the war, when there was plenty of work. Their daughter Nan Hannah Cunningham recalls that they didn’t build in any one style but used “what made sense for the neighborhood, from small ranches to custom designed.” Three streets are named for the Hannah children: Mark Hannah for Cunningham's brother, Kay Pkwy. for one of her sisters, and Virnankay Ct. jointly for Nan, Kay, and their sister Virginia. Edith Hannah ran an interior design studio in the back of the building.

The Hannahs also dealt in real estate. They bought a number of lots on Stadium, which they sold to new businesses, including two drug stores catering to the expanding neighborhoods nearby: Becker Pharmacy at 2424 W. Stadium and Quarry Drugs at 2215.

Although most of the buildings were nondescript utilitarian structures, at least two built after the 1951 photo was taken were designed by local architects working in the Mid-Century Modern style. The Naylor car dealership at 2095, with its tepee-like dome, was the work of Ted Smith, who also did a ski shop on Washtenaw with a similar roof. And Bob Metcalfe, best known for his sixty-eight local homes, designed 2333 for the Fuller-Hodges Travel Agency. His notes at the Bentley Historical Library show how carefully he shaped it for its intended use, with drawings showing exactly where the typewriters, money drawers, account drawers, reference books files, and open racks would be.

Two drive-in restaurants opened in 1948, the A&W and the H&H. The H&H disappeared within a year, but the A&W at 2405 became a town favorite. Ralph Moore was only twenty-two when he opened it with a little assistance from an uncle who had an A&W in Flint. Ralph married Bernice Wright three years later, and the two of them ran it together until 1983. At that time Stadium, although paved, was only two lanes with no curbs or gutters. The concept of staying in your car while a carhop came out and took your order was new to the area, although already popular in California. “People complained. We had to work at getting people to eat in their cars,” recalls Bernice Moore. There was no indoor seating, but there were a few stools outside for the occasional walk-up customer.

The Moores made the root beer every morning, mixing the syrup provided by the company with sugar that they bought locally in large quantities. Along with the drink, they sold hot dogs as required by the franchise. Coney dogs, topped with chili sauce and onions, were a Tuesday-only special; french fries came later. They bought twelve-ounce A&W mugs by the case, since between breakage and people taking them they were always short. Bernice gave a tiny A&W mug to anyone had a baby.

Bernice and Ralph divided the chores, with Bernice hiring and scheduling the help, while Ralph took care of finances. Dorothy Fillinger, who with her husband Jack ran Fillinger Typesetting across the street, remembers that the Moores had loyal employees who stayed for years. The Moores worked just as hard as their employees. Since they were open long hours, they staggered their schedules. The both worked at noon, but Bernice opened in the morning and went home after lunch, while Ralph came at lunch and stayed the rest of the day. The managed to raise two kids with the help of babysitters.

In the early 1950s, the Moores’ competition was a frozen custard shop, Stadium Tavern, and the Forty-Niner Diner. All served snacks or casual food; the age of frequent eating out was far in the future.

Tice’s Tavern on the northwest corner of Liberty and Stadium began as a grocery store attached to a house. Although it got a lot of its business from people attending events at Sportsman Park right next to them, it continued operating for many years after the park closed. Tire’s became a town favorite, remembered not just as a bar, but also for its good food.

Across the street from Tice’s, Joe Ackerly built a small frozen custard stand, selling a rich soft-serve ice cream. Travelers would stop and get a custard and a cup of coffee. Ackerly sold the business to Earl Fowler, who put on so many additions that eventually the original stand was totally hidden. Fowlers’ was the first restaurant on the street with a TV that folks could watch while they ate.

In 1949 Isabel and Paul Jung purchased the Forty-Niner Diner, at 2307, with another couple, who soon dropped out of the business. The food was cooked on a grill while customers sitting at the counter could watch. The place was so small that the heavy pots had to be washed in the basement. The Jungs’ daughter, Beverly Jung Hanselman, still uses her mom’s barbecue sauce recipe. When the Jungs sold the place, they went to work at Sears, since the manager had been one of their customers.

McDonald’s arrived at 2000 W. Stadium (not shown) in 1956, opening with big hoopla as one of the first in Michigan. Townsfolk were delighted with the 15 cent hamburgers and 20 cent milk shakes. The McDonald’s folks had approached Ralph and Bernice Moore about becoming the local franchise, but the price for buy-in didn’t seem worth it. Instead the A&W fought back by adding hamburgers.

In the early days the Moores were busiest during the daytime. They real that their parking lot was filled with trucks. On Sundays there was a steady stream of people coming home to the Detroit area from the lakes to the west. But that traffic bypassed town completely after I-94 opened in the late 1950s. W. Stadium then flipped 180 degrees, from serving travelers to catering to locals. Sunday became the Moores’ slowest day, while evenings changed to their busiest time, as Ann Arborites came by after work. Little League coaches often bought their teams for a treat to celebrate winning games.

In 1959 Everett’s Drive-In opened at 2280. Cunningham remembers that her dad helped get Everett Williams established, backing him and giving him some land. Everett’s became a teenage hangout for young people with cars or access to one. Ann Arbor soon had a raise scene, not as big as in large cities, but kids could go from McDonald’s to Everett’s and then across the street to the A&W to see what was happening. Milk shakes were a popular item at Everett’s, but it was most famous for its namesake hamburger, a deluxe version Everett invented that resembled a Big Boy.

In the 1950s and 1960s there were lots of mom-and-pop businesses, belying the belief that women in the postwar years were all stay-at-home moms. Dorothy and Jack Fillinger did Linotype printing, mainly for local advertising companies and for the University of Michigan. Dorothy Fillinger remembers how interested the college students were in their machine, which used hot lead to set a line of type at a time, “Jack would set their names in metal and show them how it worked. They were fascinated,” she says.

In 1961 Richard and Grace Leslie opened their office supply business at 2231 W. Liberty, one lot west of Stadium. Richard Leslie learned how to repair typewriters in the army and worked for Mayer Schairer downtown for a few years before opening his own store. Their son, Dale Leslie, says his mother was the bookkeeper and office manager, while his dad handled the stock and did the physical work. In 1971 Richard Leslie was one of the funders of the West Stadium Area Business and Professional Association. It later merged with the Jackson Road Business Association that had been founded in 1959, in order to lobby for more exits off I-94. (The exits it won at Jackson and Zeeb helped create another west-side business district on Jackson Rd.)

Stadium Blvd. also attracted businesses that needed more room than they could afford downtown. “less rent for more space,” explains Al Raymond, of Ann Arbor Financial Services, 1829 W. Stadium. The same advantage lay in buying. Wrigleys grocery built a store at 2350 W. Stadium so it would have more shelf room. Vernor’s ginger ale built its warehouse at 2370.

The majority of the stores were owned and operated by people from Ann Arbor. “We knew everyone on Stadium, they were all local,” says Bernice Moore, echoed by Dorothy Fillinger. For instance, Deft Paint at 2381 was owned by Harold and Robert Marquardt, another father-son combo. Botsford Title was owned by Thomas and Harry Botsford — Thomas’s son Don later owned the Gymkhana on Maple, where Top of the Lamp is now. Paul Larned, president of the West Washtenaw Business Association, who came to the area in 1982, remembers that even then “most of the businesses were in someone’s name.”

The 2015 photo finds many more national brands. In the 1990s the Hannah building was demolished (Cunningham remembered crying when it came down) to make way for a bigger McDonald’s with a double drive-thru. Everett’s spot is not a Taco Bell, and the Fillingers’ typesetting shop is a Subway; there’s a Burger King across the street, about where the Forty-Niner Diner stood.

Leslie Office Supply closed in 1997, unable to compete with big-box chains like Staples and OfficeMax. The Becker and Quarry pharmacies are long gone, too. While the independent Stadium Pharmacy survives in West Stadium Shopping Center, it’s eclipsed by big new CVS and Walgreens stores.

And a fan returning from the 1940s to look for Sportsman Park wouldn’t recognize the corner of Stadium and Liberty. In 1986 Tice’s Tavern was torn down to make way for what’s now Key Bank. Across the street, what had been Fowler’s restaurant survived through many incarnations, including a pancake house and La Piñata, a Mexican restaurant, but eventually made way for a spiffy little Bank of Ann Arbor branch. With the Lake Trust Credit Union across Liberty, some people took to calling W. Stadium “Financial Row.”

But while the time-traveling fan wouldn’t see it from the street, the outline of Sportsman Park can still be discerned in the 2015 photo, in the parking lots fanning out behind Gourmet Garden and a closed gas station. And local businesses remain a vital presence.

Becker’s is now the A&L Wine Castle, while Deluxe Drapery has the former Quarry — which Arbor Farms expanded before moving to an even bigger store alongside Ace Barnes Hardware. Nearby, Stadium Hardware has gradually grown to occupy most of the small strip center where it stared after moving from downtown, with Bell’s Diner thriving in the remaining spot. Even the former McDonald’s is now home to a local business, Lewis Jewelers.

The Forty-Niner Diner went though several more owners and by 1974 had changed to a donut shop. The Wrigleys supermarket is now Planet Fitness, while Planned Parenthood has the onetime Vernor’s warehouse. Across the street, the Fuller-Hodges building is now home to Stadium Opticians. Though it’s had additions on both sides, Bob Metcalfe’s distinctive grillwork can still be seen on the front as well as the two outdoor planters he designed.

The opticians are typical of the utilitarian service businesses once anchored downtown, but moved out to take advantage of easier access, better parking, and less expensive real estate. Though many of the early gas stations have closed, auto parts stores and repair shops remain plentiful, including, Stadium Auto Service, on the former A&W site. And while there are no longer any motorcycle shops, two-wheeled transportation is represented by Great Lakes Cycling, in a onetime auto seat cover factory at 2770.

It’s perhaps ironic that Great Lakes nabbed its prime spot after Discount Tire moved to Jackson Rd. But a bike shop is perfectly suited to today’s more inclusive vision of transportation, as the move to “complete streets” add bicycle lanes and pedestrian crossings to Stadium and other streets once ruled by the automobile.

Thanks to Harry Cross for his inspiration and assistance with this article.


[Photo caption]: “Stadium Blvd. Filling Up,” the Ann Arbor News wrote when it published this photo in 1951. Popular destinations included Sportsman Park (1). Ralph and Bernice Moore’s A&W drive-in (3), Tice’s Tavern (4) and Joe Ackerly’s custard stand (5). Eugene and Edith Hannah, who would be instrumental in many buildings that followed, and their office in the Cape Cod-style building (2) where McDonald’s stands today.

CAPTION SECOND PHOTO ON PG 45:
Many of the early businesses on the street catered to motorists taking the pre-freeway “Bypass” around downtown. The peak-roofed Texaco and most other gas stations have long since been replaced by services for nearby resident, but auto care remains a theme — though the Victory Lane oil change at Libery and Stadium shares its corner with no fewer than three banks.

CAPTION THIRD PHOTO ON PG 46:
Wriggles built its supermarket on W. Stadium to get more shelf space. Painted purple, the building is not Planet Fitness.

CAPTION FOURTH PHOTO ON PG 49:
Though national brands are now ubiquitous — this Subway replaced the Fillingers’ printing shop — many local businesses remain.

Rights Held By: 
Grace Shackman

Many Lives of 2390 Winewood

Author: 
Grace Shackman

The History of the Observer's New Home

You wouldn't think a simple 1940s industrial building would have much of a history, but 2390 Winewood, the new home of the Ann Arbor Observer, has a surprisingly diverse past: it has housed a manufacturer of trading stamp gifts, a factory where the first hockey helmets were made, a one-of-a-kind map store, and a remodeler's office.

The address first appears in the 1947 city directory. A motorcycle store was the first tenant, but Automated Products, later known as Kingsware, soon moved in. The company made gift items for Gold Bell trading stamps.

At the time many stores gave trading stamps as incentives to encourage customers to come back--an early version of today's "loyalty" programs. Customers received the stamps based upon the amount they spent; pasted in books, the stamps could be redeemed for gifts at special cash-free "redemption centers." It was quite a business in its heyday: Shelly Byron Hutchinson, founder of S&H Green Stamps, made enough to build the awesome mansion at 600 River St. in Ypsilanti (used today by High Scope).

In an undated aerial photo of W. Stadium, 2390 is visible as a small cement-block building facing Winewood. Presumably, it was Kingsware that added a steel warehouse behind the original structure that connected it to a second cement-block building, with a loading dock, off Maple. John Marchello, co-founder of Danmar Products, recalls that the building had already been expanded to that L shape by the time he first saw it, in the early 1960s.

Marchello says that Kingsware made electric fondue makers, hot plates, and other household appliances. His discussions with Kingsware owner Hugh Garver about painting the ice-hockey helmets that he was developing led to Danmar's moving into the building in 1962. The "Dan" is for Harlan and Josephine Danner, who joined with Marchello to form Danmar, which manufactured safety products for sports and medical uses. Marchello developed the products, and the Danners oversaw their production.

Marchello, a U-M art and design major and a member of the U-M wrestling team starting in 1954, had worked with his coach, Cliff Keen, to develop better ways to protect competitors from the hematomas known as "cauliflower ears." From wrestling headgear, he moved on to develop a plastic ice-hockey helmet; up until then, players' only head protection was a pair of soft pads connected by an elastic strap.

With a $300 loan from Keen, Marchello began manufacturing hockey helmets in his garage in New Hudson. He soon had enough orders to repay Keen's loan. Meanwhile, the Danners had moved back to Ann Arbor from Venezuela in order to rear their children in the United States and were looking for a business to become involved in. Harlan Danmar had also wrestled for the U-M, in the 1930s, and his mother was a landlady who often rented rooms to wrestlers--including, during his college years, Marchello. The sports connection soon led to a business partnership.

It turned out to be a good time to start a helmet business. Besides hockey headgear, Danmar made special helmets for motorcycle riders and police departments. And when bigger competitors took over those markets, Danmar found a new niche in medical safety products.

During Danmar's infancy, Marchello had continued doing freelance design work. One of his customers suggested that he create a helmet to protect the heads of institutionalized people, some of whom are prone to falling. Soon, other customers began asking Danmar for various medical safety products.

"There was a big need not being serviced," explains Marchello. Health care professionals had "been trying to jury-rig things to work. We'd talk on the phone, and they'd send rough drawings." Products for people with special needs included face guards, apparatuses to help hold forks or crayons, headrests, chest and head supports, and wheelchair accessories. Ruth Harris, U-M professor of physical education, contacted Danmar to suggest they build a flotation device that would allow physically handicapped people to play water sports, and thus was launched a line of swim aids.

In 1978 the Danners retired, and Marchello became Danmar's sole owner. Ten years later he sold the business to general manager Karen Lindner, but continued to work for the company. That same year, Danmar moved the company to roomier quarters at 221 Jackson Industrial Dr.

The company now has thirty-three employees, tripled since its Winewood days, and is still making medical safety equipment, much of it one-of-a-kind items. They've also seen a bit of a return to sports equipment; for instance, some teams come to them to make helmets with logos that don't easily peel off, as decals do. At age seventy-six, Marchello still comes into work every day.

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John Roumanis, who was then running the Cottage Inn Pizza delivery chain, bought the building from Marchello to store supplies for his company's commissary, which at the time was located across Winewood. (For Roumanis's latest project, see Marketplace Changes, p. 45.) He rented out the part facing Winewood to Don Wagman for his map store, Geography Ltd. Wagman remembers that Cottage Inn employees stopped by many times a day, to retrieve food stored on pallets in the metal building or to get foods out of the walk-in freezer in the very back, but he says they didn't bother him because they used different doors.

Wagman sold anything having to do with cartography--maps, atlases, globes, even astronomy paraphernalia. His maps were of every kind imaginable and from all over the world--topographical, reproduction antique, road and railroad maps, street plans, and literary maps, to name just a few. When Cottage Inn moved out a few years later, Wagman had the whole building to himself, so he spread out into the unused space. "To call it ramshackle would be being kind," laughs Wagman. His biggest sellers were Michigan topographical maps, used in summer by vacationers, in fall by hunters, and year-round by engineers and environmental consultants. Wagman stayed for fourteen years but closed in 2004, no longer able to compete with online sales and web mapping services.

Contractor Paul LaRoe bought the building in 2006. By then it was in pretty rough shape, but being a remodeler, he knew what to do. "I could see that it had a good structure and was full of possibilities," LaRoe says. He gutted and cleaned the inside and, working with architect Ed Wier, installed new offices, bathrooms, and windows. He says his goal was to make the interior feel "warm and cozy, like a home," a theme echoed by a new facade with hints of a traditional peaked roof.

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Observer owners Patricia Garcia and John Hilton bought the building last summer. LaRoe did such a good job on the front part that it needed only minor changes. The metal building, though, got a complete overhaul that added windows, plumbing, and heating and cooling systems. The Observer is also using part of the back building, but still has some warehouse space on the Maple side that it hopes to rent out.

The Observer spent twenty-one good years in the Marketplace Building near Kerrytown. But when ad sales fell during the recession, the company had to sublet part of its space, and what remained was uncomfortably cramped. The magazine's staff is enjoying having room to spread out again and plenty of parking (rented from Eberbach Corporation across Winewood). They do admit to missing downtown but are pleased to discover how many locally owned businesses are within easy walking distance on the west side. Says publisher Patricia Garcia, "We've traded Zingerman's [Deli] for the Roadhouse."

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This article has been edited since it appeared in the February 2013 Ann Arbor Observer. The spelling of John Marchello's name has been corrected. (end of article)

Rights Held By: 
Grace Shackman

Saline's Plymouth Rock

Author: 
Grace Shackman

Saline's Plymouth Rock
A playful dog rediscovers a long-lost salt spring.

Saline's name and identity are tied up with salt, yet the actual salt springs that once bubbled up along the Saline River south of town hand't been seen since the area was drained for farming in the nineteenth century. But last year, Jim Peters accidentally discovered a slat spring that is still active!

Peters and his dog Bonnie, a gentle but energetic pit bull terrier, were hiking on undeveloped city land near Saline's wastewater treatment plant. Bonnie pulled Peters toward a muddy puddle to get a drink. "As she got close, she sank in up to her chest in muck. Before I could pull her out, she had backed herself, out," he recalls.

Peters washed the grayish mud off Bonnie in the nearby Saline River, then went back to take a closer look at the puddle. “I noticed very few plant varieties growing nearby and that the mud was covered with deer tracks.” That’s when Peters, then a city councilmember, had his “aha” moment: Why were the deer drinking there when they could have used the river? And why was the puddle in a clearing with no trees and substantially less vegetation than anywhere else nearby?

Peters collected some of the watery muck in a plastic bottle he found and took it to the city lab to be tested. “When the report came back that it was as salty as sea water, I was like a kid at Christmas,” recalls Peters. He double-checked these findings using a cleaner bottle and another lab. Again the same results came back.

As soon as his suspicion was confirmed, Peters contacted Saline historian Bob Lane. The two men began working together, Peters researching the salt springs’ prehistory and Lane putting the more recent Saline history in context.

Peters research revealed that Saline’s salt springs are part of an ancient sea bed formed about 600 million years ago, which extended from present-day New Jersey to Wisconsin. (Detroit’s salt mines are part of the same system.) When the Ice Age was over, about 12,000 years ago, animals and people began moving into this area. Prehistoric animals came to drink at the salt springs. Remains of mastodons and mammoths have been found nearby.

Native Americans followed, drawn by the good hunting and also because they too liked the salt. Their remains have also been found. According to the 1881 History of Washtenaw County, Michigan, “Early seekers for relics did not hesitate to open shallow graves and the ground was strewn with the bones of departed warriors.” Lane has identified the location of two Indian burial mounds near the salt springs. One has been leveled for the Crestwood subdivision--people remember finding bones and relics at the time it was being built in the 1960s. A hill west of the DNR Fisheries is believed to be the other. The most recent Indian residents, the Potawatomi, who came to this area in the sixteenth century, used six paths, still there, that converge at the springs. They were known to trade salt with neighboring tribes.

Frend explorers gave the Saline River its name in the 1600s. The first European visitors also appreciated the salt springs. Trappers used the salt to preserve beaver pelts, which were in great demand in Europe for hats. The springs were first pinpointed on a map in 1819 by surveyor Joseph Francis in section 12 of Saline Township.

In 1826, the first permanent settler in Saline Township, Leonard Miller, built his home near the salt springs. Others built nearby. In 1829, F. A. Dewey, a pioneer travelling to Tecumseh, wrote of taking the United States Military Road “west through the Saline River near the salt springs.” This road, the first across the state, ran from Detroit to Chicago following an old Indian trail; it's now Michigan Avenue. In 1832, Orange Risdon, who'd surveyed the road, laid out the town of Saline on high ground north of the salt springs.

The 1881 County History told of an attempt by a group of local men to manufacture salt in 1863. “A building was erected, a derrick put in place, and boring commenced. After three unsuccessful attempts to sink a well, the project was abandoned. There has always existed a doubt in the minds of many whether the contractor engaged to sink the well acted in good faith. The charge is boldly made that he was bought off by rival interests,” they reported.

Evidence of this failed endeavor was found in 1944, when a farmer named Harry Finch was plowing for corn and felt his plow sink down. Investigating, the site he found evidence of the former salt wells. The late Ray Alber, who farmed on land marked as part of the salt springs, once told Lane that he remembered that he and other farmers used to pick up salt clumps that they’d give to their animals.

Lane worked out the wells' location on the west side of Macon Road and has shown it to people as part of historic tours. and has shown it to people as part of historic tours. He has also, with the land owner’s permission, gone over the ground with a metal detector but found nothing left of the would-be salt works.

The 1863 mining attempt is the last reference to active salt springs. When the County History was written eighteen years later, the authors felt the need to offer proof that the salt springs had even existed: “That salt has been made here in years gone by cannot be doubted. Iron kettles have been found which were once doubtless used for this purpose."

So Peters’ delight at his find is easy to understand. The spring presumably escaped discovery for so long because it's in an overgrown area that people rarely visit. Even if another dog had dived in as Bonnie did, only someone well versed in Saline history would have realized what the muddy puddle might be.

Last October, Peters sponsored a bill to create “Salt Spring Park” on the land where he found the active spring. It passed unanimously. “A forgotten parcel of city-owned land in the Saline River valley will now be available for all to enjoy as a unique park dedicated to our local heritage," explains Peters. “It will allow us to provide proper stewardship of our salt springs, enjoy nature and reconnect with Saline’s distant past.” Lane is equally enthusiastic, explaining “There is nothing now in town that explains why we are called ‘Saline.’”

Peters' council term ended last year, but he's continuing to work on the project as a member of the parks commission. His vision is to leave the site as natural as possible but to improve the trail and build an observation deck with signage at the spring, so people won’t get as muddy as Bonnie did. He would like someday to see the spring connected by a walking trail to Curtiss and Millpond parks-- he says that could be “a beautiful, safe, free from car traffic path, much of which is along the river.” He knows all this will take money, which he hopes can be provided with grants. The local Eagle Scouts have already volunteered to clear the overgrown path.

Peters worries that the muddy puddle would underwhelm some people. He compares the spring to Plymouth Rock: “It’s just a brown rock to some – but it’s what it stands for, not what it looks like.” But so far, the reaction fromt he public has been very positive. "People find it fascinating," he reports.

Rights Held By: 
Grace Shackman

Manchester Mill

Author: 
Grace Shackman

The landmark that shaped the village

Perched on the edge of the bridge in the center of Manchester, the Manchester Mill visually defines the town. Historically, the mill is the reason for the village's existence.

In 1826, John Gilbert bought the land that would later become Manchester. He contracted with Emanuel Case and Harry Gilbert to build a mill on the River Raisin in 1832. Since then, there has always been a mill on that site—although the building has burned down twice and the dam has been rebuilt twice.

According to Chapman's 1881 History of Washtenaw County, Case built a gristmill and a sawmill. Those mills, plus one on the east side of town (now the site of a Johnson Controls factory), furnished the power that made Manchester a leading nineteenth-century industrial town, served by two railroad lines. Case also built the first hotel in Manchester and was the village's first justice of the peace, office in his hotel.

Out of the three mills, the grist the only one that has survived—and it has had to be rebuilt repeated mill burned for the first time in 1853.

Though an exact cause was never determined, fires were common in mills because of the high flammability of grain dust. With wooden buildings and low-tech volunteer fire departments, they would spread quickly. The 1853 fire swept half of the downtown, destroying fourteen businesses and one dwelling before being brought under control.

In 1875 and again in 1908. the River Raisin flooded and washed out the dam. After the second flood, a temporary dam washed out again just two months later. It was replaced with sixty-foot-wide poured-cement structure, which has lasted to this day. Don Limpert, present owner of the Manchester Mill, believes the dam one of the oldest poured-cement structures in the state.

The mill burned for the second time in
By the time the night watchman
red the fire and sounded the alarm,
were shooting through the sides of
ding. The mill was rebuilt again,
it opened for business in January of 1926, it no longer ground flour, just feed for livestock.

Although Henry Ford bought most of the mills in the area, including the one on the east side of town and mills in Saline and Dexter, he decided the Manchester Mill, at a price of $6,000, cost too much. The high price probably reflected the fact that the mill was still in use, unlike the abandoned mills he usually purchased.

E. G. Mann and his two sons, Willard and Earl, bought the mill in 1940. E. G. had been in the mill business since 1927, when he bought a feed mill in Bridgewater, which is still run by his descendants. In 1976, Willard's son, Ron Mann, who had been working at the Manchester Mill, took over. Ron remembers that in the 1960s, the mill was open from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and that the workers were grinding all day. But by the time he became the owner, grinding was only about five percent of the business, and more of a service than a moneymaker. The surrounding farmland was being steadily sold off until there were hardly any livestock farmers left. (Today there is only one full-time livestock farmer in Manchester Township.)

In 1981, Mann decided to end the milling part of his business; at the time, it was the oldest operating mill in continuous use on me same site in the entire state. By then, he had expanded into lawn and garden supplies and premixed animal food. He moved this part of the business to the west side of town, where it is still running, under a new owner.

After Don Limpert bought the old building from Mann, he removed the mill equipment, some of which had to be taken out through the roof by a crane. Limpert, who has restored numerous other buildings in Manchester, divided the mill into smaller spaces, starting with an apartment at the top that he calls "Manchester's high-rise." (Bill Farmer, a former member of the Raisin Pickers string band, lives there.) The remainder of the space is rented by stores and businesses. One of the turbines is still in place and could be used to generate electricity if ever needed.

A feeling of the old use still pervades the mill. One of the turbines is used for a coffee table in the Red Mill Cafe, and an original corn-shucking bin empties into the office of the Manchester Chronicle, where editor Kathy Kueffner looks out at the River Raisin while she writes her copy.

—Grace Shackman

Photo Caption: Through fire and flood, Manchester's mill ground grain from 1832 to 1981.

Rights Held By: 
Grace Shackman

Turning the clock ahead in Dexter

Author: 
Grace Shackman

From car showroom to coffee shop

Before car salesrooms and gas stations were relegated to the outskirts of town, Ralph Kingsbury's Ford dealership stood on the corner of Main and Broad streets in Dexter. Today the building is the Clock Works Coffee house.

"It's as different as you can get in the same space," says Elizabeth Kingsbury Davenport, Kingsbury's daughter. The Clock Works, although located in the former dealership's post-Civil War Commercial Italianate building, manages to look very modem and airy with exposed brick walls, scenic watercolors, and generously spaced tables and chairs.

In Davenport's time, when her father's business included the main storefront, a garage on the east, and gas pumps on the west, this same site was anything but open: a single Ford floor model took up most of the showroom, surrounded by vats of car parts, barrels of freebies for the gas station, and cane-bottom chairs for people to sit on while they waited for their cars to be repaired.

Harvey Blanchard opened Dexter's first Ford dealership in 1911. Ten years later he started a bus line between Ann Arbor and Dexter using Fords. In 1926, in the last years of the Model T, Blanchard gave up the car business and Kingsbury took over.

"He always loved cars," recalls Davenport of her father. "He drove a Studebaker, but the Dexter Ford dealership was open and his mother bought it for him."

Kingsbury had graduated in 1912 from the U-M's railroad accounting program, the precursor of today's business school. He had been working for the Pere Marquette Railroad in Detroit when the opportunity arose. He moved to Dexter with his wife, Marian, who became the local piano teacher; their three young children, Elizabeth, Doris, and Stewart; his mother, Loretta Kingsbury; and his mother-in-law, Jennie David. They were later joined by his brother-in-law, William David—"Uncle Will," as Davenport knew him.

The new ownership was celebrated with a grand opening. The building was decorated with red and white flags furnished by the Ford Motor Company, and salami, liverwurst, cheese and crackers, and pop were served inside. According to Davenport, the fanfare was probably a bit "too much" for local residents. "They were used to a quieter approach," she explains. "It was a farming community. There were some prosperous farmers, but it was not a rich community. People lived simply. They played cards on Saturday night; they went to weekly dances or church suppers."

If the opening sparked any resistance among members of the community, it didn't affect the business, which grew big enough to employ three mechanics, two salesmen, and a bookkeeper. Davenport remembers her dad sitting at his Mission-style desk in the back of the store wearing a green visor and cooling himself with a palm-leaf fan. In front of him stood the dark green metal counter. With an old-fashioned cash register and a Philco beehive radio. Uncle Will, a short man who always wore a hat—either a fedora or, in summer, a straw boater—managed the two gas pumps (regular and ethyl), although "whoever was around did the gas. They didn't exactly line up for service," Davenport says. To keep customers coming, premiums were given for buying certain amounts of gas. Davenport remembers Depression Glass dessert plates, cups and saucers, creamers, sugars bowls, and salad plates, later replaced by lacy pressed glass that was a yellow-amber color, a light green, or pink.

The store itself was decorated in "Ford Motor olive drab," recalls Davenport. The company had a standard look for its showrooms and sent out posters of cars, large cardboard cutouts of cars, ad materials, and flyers, things that all Ford dealers were expected to use. The repair area (now a video store) was connected to the salesroom by a side door; it had roll-up garage doors on the street, an oil-change pit (hoists were rare in those days), and a back door large enough for cars to exit to the alley.

In the early days of the dealership, Kingsbury sold one car at a time—after a customer bought the floor model, he would order another. Occasionally a Fordson tractor or an additional car or two would be on display outside near the gas pumps.

Later Ford switched to a quota system, sending a car hauler with Kingsbury's assigned delivery. New models were celebrated at the dealership with blue and white triangular banners, while yellow banners were used for special sales. Davenport still remembers the day in 1927 when the Model A was introduced: "I went to the candy store and told them it went sixty miles an hour. They didn't believe me."

Once a month the Ford road man came and inspected the books, an event that Davenport recalls as "always stressful." Henry Ford's visits were even worse. He and his henchman, Harry Bennett, would park in front and "sit and watch," she remembers. "It was like God watching. We were paralyzed with fear and not allowed anywhere near them."

When the Great Depression hit, it was harder to sell cars. "Dad sold a lot of cars to U-M faculty and to his frat brothers or their friends. The repair work was for Dexter folks," recalls Davenport. Area farmers needed to keep their old trucks and tractors running and would sometimes bring them into the dealership "literally held together with baling wire. Dad had a soft heart and knew you couldn't farm without gas. Some people paid their bills with in-kind goods instead of money, a practice frowned on by Mr. Ford, but we ate very well," she says.

During the depression the car dealership was also the repository for surplus food, which was lined up against the west wall. People came in and signed for the food they took. "I was embarrassed that people had to come in and pick up food. I'd always make myself scarce when I could," recalls Davenport.

Kingsbury moved the dealership twice, each time to bigger quarters—first to the top of Monument Park in the building now home to Cottage Inn pizza, and then to the top of the hill, now an AAA office. In 1941 he sold the business to Al Gross, who had been a salesman with him from the beginning. Kingsbury took a job as bookkeeper at the Buhr Tool Company in Ann Arbor, where he worked until he retired. He died in 1976.

After Kingsbury moved out of the Blanchard building, it stood empty until 1944, when Art Lovell moved his appliance store into it from across the street. Lovell, an excellent mechanic, kept the garage as a car repair place and continued to run the gas station, although he changed it to a Dixie Gas station, supplied by the Staebler Oil Company of Ann Arbor. He used the storefront to sell Frigidaire appliances. As engines improved and cars needed fewer overhauls, he segued into doing more appliance repair.

Kate and Mike Bostic opened the Clock Works Coffee Shop in the building in 1997. They survived the first two years despite heavy construction going on around them. "Fortunately we're serving an addicted population," laughs Kate. In addition to coffee the Bostics serve morning snacks and light lunches. They are obviously filling a community need; people come in on the way to work, parents stop in after dropping their children off at school, and local merchants come in for lunch. In warm weather, people can drink their coffee at tables on the side of the building where the gas pumps once stood.

In one respect the present operation is not as divergent from the car dealership as it seems. Davenport recalls that when her father ran the place people came in throughout the day, some waiting for their cars to be fixed, others stopping in if they were buying gas or just passing by. Although the dealership didn't serve coffee (as many do now), "there were newspapers to read," says Davenport. Or, she adds, people would simply drop by, coming in to "sit and talk"—just as they do at the Clock Works today.

—Grace Shackman

Rights Held By: 
Grace Shackman

Gunther Gardens

Author: 
Grace Shackman

A motionless windmill marked the gardens of a renowned landscape architect

For many years, a huge deserted windmill north of Saline puzzled those who passed by it on Ann Arbor-Saline Road. Neighborhood children said it was haunted.

The windmill never ground grain. It was actually built as a tearoom for the Gunther Gardens, a formal garden and nursery that operated from 1927 to 1939. Developed by Edmund Gunther, a brilliant but eccentric landscape architect, and his hardworking wife, Elsie, the gardens covered 160 acres.

The "windmill" was an inspired piece of recycling: it was built around the remains of an old silo. The tearoom's sixty-five-seat dining room, which occupied an addition around the base, was furnished with Arts-and-Crafts-style handmade furniture and wrought iron lantern-style lamps. The silo itself contained the kitchen, bathrooms, and a stairway that led to a balcony. From the balcony, visitors could see the gardens spread out below them and the vanes of the windmill rising above them.

"It didn't rotate; it was just for looks," explains the Gunthers' son, also named Edmund.

Why did Gunther build it?

"When you live in Europe, you have different ideas," says Gunther's daughter, Viola Hall.

The tearoom was not open to the public but was used for special events. Groups such as garden clubs or university organizations would book special events at the tearoom. They'd come for a catered meal, a talk by Gunther, and a tour of the gardens.

Because of the windmill, many assumed that Gunther was from the Netherlands, but actually he and Elsie were born in Germany. He studied landscaping in Zurich before immigrating to the United States and attending theology school in Rochester, New York, to become a Congregational minister.

"During World War I, he couldn't preach," says Hall. "They thought he was a German spy. So he moved lo East Lansing and got a degree in the [MSU] landscape program." Gunther worked at a botanical station in Florida and then moved to Ann Arbor to work as a landscape architect.

In 1926 the Gunthers bought a dilapidated farm outside Saline and developed their gardens. They filled in a swamp with loads of dirt. Elsie Gunther, who had learned gardening from her father, supervised the crews and selected the plants. Edmund was the dreamer. "His head was always up in the clouds," recalled Elsie in a 1976 interview.

Edmund Gunther's specialty was wild gardens, so his showpiece featured plants native to the area. Artesian wells on the property fed a kidney-shaped pool with a waterfall in front of the teahouse, and an artificial lake behind Gunther's office. He created rock gardens and sunken gardens, to give potential buyers ideas of what could be done with the plants he specialized in. He increased the variety in his designs by changing the temperatures in his greenhouses, forcing plants to bloom early or holding them back. He went to Indiana to collect dogwoods, to the Carolinas for rhododendrons, and to northern Michigan for cedars.

Gunther's unusual designs brought him awards and wealthy customers. He landscaped factory sites, Hillsdale College, a park in Adrian, and residences in most of southeast Michigan's affluent suburbs. In 1927, he won first prize at the North American Garden Show with a wild garden exhibit. He won again the next year, this time with an octagonal garden. He created a ten-acre flowering meadow for Detroit industrialist William Knudson, and a lavish garden to set off a display of new Chryslers. He also worked for Henry Ford—once designing a rose garden for Ford's wife, Clara—and Ford visited periodically to talk about soybean farming.

Gunther Gardens was a critical success, but not a financial one. During the Great Depression, landscape gardening was a luxury few could afford. The Gunthers tried every way they could to keep the business afloat, including renting out some of the land to farmers. The younger Edmund Gunther recalls that at the end, his dad was working with a religious group in Cleveland to re-create the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, trying to develop a synthetic rubber out of milkweed (in anticipation of World War II), and building dormitories behind his house in hopes of offering classes on landscaping.

But the Gunthers couldn't make the payments on their land contract, and their endeavor ended inelegantly. The sheriff's deputy evicted them, throwing all their possessions out on the road.

The Gunthers were devastated. Their marriage ended, and they both went through hard times for a while. Edmund remarried and returned to the ministry at a small church in Gibraltar, south of Detroit. Elsie moved back to Ann Arbor and ran several boardinghouses, with the financial help of Clara Ford. She showed her gratitude by baking Clara coffee cakes.

After the Gunthers left, the gardens became overgrown, but the windmill remained standing until 1965, when it fell over in a storm. About five years ago, Ann Arbor's Guenther Building Company—no relation to the Gunther family—bought the land and developed it into a subdivision. It was also named Gunther Gardens in honor of the family. In a touch that Edmund Gunther himself would surely have appreciated, the company built a faux-historic covered bridge at the entrance.

—Grace Shackman

Rights Held By: 
Grace Shackman

The Aura Inn

Author: 
Grace Shackman

The heart of Fredonia

"I'm surprised at how many people say, 'I met my husband at a dance at your dad's place,' or 'I met my wife at a dance there,'" says Billie Sodt Mann, whose father owned the Pleasant Lake House from 1925 to 1943. A bar and restaurant now known as the Aura Inn, the Pleasant Lake House was the center of Fredonia, a hamlet that in the nineteenth century was large enough to have its own post office. Many people in the area have happy memories of swimming, fishing, picnicking, and dancing there.

Situated on Pleasant Lake, in the middle of Freedom Township, the inn began in a two-story house that was built about 1880 by German immigrant Jacob Lutz. Since Fredonia was a pleasant stopping point between Ann Arbor and Jackson, and the lake an enjoyable place to relax, Lutz turned the front part of his house into a saloon and grocery store and rented upstairs rooms to travelers.

The next owner, David Schneider, added a dance hall upstairs. In the early 1920s, when guests began arriving by automobile, he dismantled the barn and used the wood to build a bigger dance hall, with a high, beamed ceiling, down by the lake. The hall boasted a hardwood floor, a loft where bands played, tall windows to let in light, and two wood stoves in opposite corners for heat.

Manny Sodt bought the inn in 1925 and moved the dance hall next to the house (it took a whole summer, with relatives and volunteers helping) and added electricity and central heating. The spot by the lake became a campground and boat rental; abandoned waiting rooms for the interurban trains, which had recently been discontinued, were moved to the site and made into vacation cabins. A former policeman (he was Ann Arbor's first motorcycle cop), Sodt enforced rules of good conduct. "No one did anything bad. You'd quiet down or you knew where you were going: to jail," recalls Mann.

On weekends the grounds were used for all-day picnics, weddings, or family reunions, with dances in the evenings. "Friday was old-timers' night. They did square dances and waltzes," remembers Mann. "On Saturday it was more modern. The bands didn't have a name; it was 'this guy and that guy.'" The Friday night crowd tended to live nearby; Saturday night dances attracted younger people from farther away. Mann sold tickets while her older sister, Ginnie, helped their mother sell hot dogs and coffee during intermission.

In failing health from a weak heart, her father sold his place in 1943. He died the day the papers were signed. The new owner, Ray Hoener, installed an antique bar—which is still there—in the dance hall. Rich Diamond, the present owner, took over from Vicky and John Weber, who owned the place from 1965 to 1978.

County commissioner Mike DuRussel worked for the last two owners. "I learned my diplomacy cracking heads and pouring drinks," he jokes. The Webers were deeply rooted in the community, and they attracted a crowd of locals with lunch specials and weekly euchre and pool tournaments. They also sponsored a Pleasant Lake Inn baseball team—most of the players drove beer trucks for a living—that won several championships in the Manchester league.

Rich Diamond and three of his friends bought the bar in 1978 and renamed it the Aura Inn ("Aura," he says, is short for "An Unusual Roadside Attraction"). They dispensed with lunch, opened at 4 p.m., and hired loud rock bands. In the early 1980s, DuRussel recalls, the inn was very popular—"There'd be people five deep at the bar"—and too noisy for him to hear customers' orders. "We had to read lips," he says.

With an increased awareness that drinking and driving don't mix, the partygoers have tapered off, and the bar is now more the neighborhood place it once was. The kitchen was closed a lot while Diamond was negotiating a possible sale of the inn. But the deal fell through in May, and Diamond is now reopening the inn as a full restaurant.

—Grace Shackman

Rights Held By: 
Grace Shackman

Goetz Meat Market

Author: 
Grace Shackman

When home was upstairs

In December, the DDA Citizens Advisory Committee hosted a loft tour to get people interested in living upstairs over downtown stores. When Elsa Goetz Ordway was a girl, it was common. From 1905 to 1913, when the Goetz family ran a meat market at 118 West Liberty (now the Bella Ciao restaurant), they were just one of many families who lived downtown where they worked.

Ordway's parents, George and Mathilda Goetz, were born in Wurttemberg, Germany, and came to the United States in 1899. After five years working for a relative who owned a hotel in Niagara Falls, New York, they moved to Detroit, where George Goetz worked as a butcher. A year later they came to Ann Arbor with their sons, Willie and George. They opened the Goetz Meat Market on the street level of the Liberty Street building and moved into the top two stories. Daughter Elsa was born there a year later, with a Dr. Belser in attendance.

The Goetz's family life was intertwined with the store. Mathilda Goetz prepared the family's meals in the workroom behind the shop where her husband made bologna and other meat products. The family's dining room was on the first floor, too, so that they could take care of customers who came in while they were eating. The Goetzes worked long hours—until almost midnight on Saturdays. In those days before refrigeration, people shopped on Saturday night for Sunday dinner. On Sundays the shop was closed, but it was not unusual for a customer to phone and say they were having unexpected company and could they please come over and get some meat?

Ordway's brother Willie, who eventually took over the business, helped his dad make the products then considered standard fare for butcher shops—lard, breakfast sausage, bologna, knockwurst, and frankfurters. Ordway remembers, "My dad would slice the bologna and look at it to see whether it was done right—like a person at a fair looking at cake texture." He made his frankfurters with natural casings, "just so," and was upset when people overcooked them and they burst.

Brother George, in delicate health because of a congenital heart defect (he died at twenty-two), was a photographer. He took pictures of excellent quality despite the slow film and glass negatives then in use. Many of his photos are reproduced today in local histories. He was also knowledgeable about electricity; the family had the first electrically lighted Christmas tree in Ann Arbor. To help his dad, who often carried heavy things up and down the cellar stairs, he wired the cellar lighting to switch on and off when someone stepped on the upper stair tread. When the light began to be on when it should have been off, and vice versa, they finally discovered the culprit: the family cat.

Ordway was too young to work in the store, but she kept busy. She played on the roof of the back room, which was reached from the second-floor living quarters. Her friends in the neighborhood included Bernice Staebler, who lived in her parents' hotel, the American House, now the Earle building, around the corner (Then & Now, May 1993). Riding her tricycle up and down Liberty, Ordway got to know all the store owners, buying penny candy at the grocery store or a ribbon to put around her cat's neck at Mack and Company. She recalls that "an employee of Mack and Company made me a set of large wooden dolls, one of the Ehnises gave me a hand-tooled leather strap for my doll buggy, and Miss Gundert, the principal of Bach School, taught me how to make outline drawings of people and animals when she came to buy meat.

Store owners even knew their customers' pets. Dogs were given free bones, and in those days before leash laws, some came in by themselves to pick them up. Ordway's cat was well known, too - fortunately. As she explains, "One afternoon a customer who worked for the Ann Arbor Railroad came into the store after work and said, 'I see your cat is back.' We hadn't known she'd been away. He told us that he had seen my cat in a boxcar in Toledo and - as that train had been headed for a very distant place - he had carried her over to a boxcar headed [back to] Ann Arbor."

The Goetz family took good care of their customers, too. The meat was never prepackaged, but hung in quarter sections, to be cut to customers' exact specifications. Children who came in with their parents were usually given a slice of bologna. In those days before cars were common, many customers phoned in their orders, which were delivered by the horse-drawn wagons of Merchants Delivery, a company that served the smaller stores that didn't have their own delivery services.

In 1913, wanting a break from the store, the Goetz family moved to a house they had built at 549 South First Street and rented the store out, first to Weinmann Geusendorfer, then to Robert Seeger. They rented the upstairs living quarters to relatives. George Goetz kept a hand in the meat business, filling in at other butcher shops and helping out their owners by making bologna. He also supplied veal to meat markers, traveling around in a horse and buggy to buy the calves from farmers. He died in 1929. Willie, called Bill as an adult, took over the store about 1923. He renamed it Liberty Market and ran it until he retired in 1952. Since then the building has housed restaurants—first Leo Ping's, then Leopold Bloom's, Trattoria Bongiovanni, and now Bella Ciao. The former living quarters are now used as a banquet room (second floor), offices, and storage (third floor).

A return to the practice of living above one's own business will probably not happen in these days of chains, franchises, and large corporations. But the upstairs lofts over downtown businesses can still be made into very desirable apartments. Proponents point out that using downtown's upper stories in this way can keep the area both more vibrant and safer (with more people out and about around the clock). And downtown residents have the advantage of being within easy walking distance of shops, restaurants, and entertainment. Children's author Joan Blos, a member of the DDA advisory council and herself a downtown resident, says of downtown lofts, "Their somewhat eccentric charm appeals to many persons of quite different lifestyles and requirements. Renovated lofts have the potential to provide a useful socioeconomic bridge between the upscale housing of newer buildings and the affordable housing often associated with the downtown area."

—Grace Shackman

Photo Captions:

About 1923, Bill Goetz (far left, next to partner Frank Livernois) took over the former family store and renamed it Liberty Market. He ran it until he retired in 1952; after passin through many uses, the building today is the Bella Ciao restaurant.

Elsa Goetz (later Ordway) about 1910. Born upstairs from the family meat market, she grew up with Liberty Street as her playground. She bought penny candy and ribbons from nearby stores and one of the Ehnises contributed a leather strap for her doll's buggy.

Rights Held By: 
Grace Shackman

The Village Tap

Author: 
Grace Shackman

A local hangout for decades

Eighty years ago you couldn't buy a beer at the Village Tap—then known as Mary's Saloon—because of Prohibition. But in all other respects, the establishment was a bar and a village hangout. Customers would enter through a set of swinging doors, and after passing the candy, tobacco, and ice cream counters in front, they'd find a stand-up bar with a foot rail, surrounded by tables and chairs.

Mary's was named for its owner, Mary Singer. Customers "would sit around kibitzing, smoking a pipe, or chewing tobacco. They'd talk about farming or about old times," recalls Glenn Lehr, who worked there in the 1920s, when he was a teenager. He recalls interesting characters such as Dyke Lehman, who lived three doors north of the bar and hung out there most of the day, going home only to eat meals. Lehman used to tell of the gold rush (Lehr thinks it was probably the one in South Dakota), when he got rich by rolling drunks. "He'd help himself to any cash they had, gold nuggets or coins," says Lehr.

Customers entertained themselves with chugging contests, seeing who could swallow a near beer or a bottle of pop the fastest. (Lehr says he usually won because he had more practice.) They'd play euchre and other card games such as Five Hundred or Pedro. In the winter, people would come in after sledding or ice skating to warm up around the potbellied stove.

The saloon served two brands of near beer, a special brew allowed to ferment only to about 1.3 percent alcohol content; ginger ale, cream soda, and root beer; and soda pop in several flavors like lemon, strawberry, and cherry. Lehr recalls that orange, the most popular flavor, sold more than the rest put together.

Singer sold cheese sandwiches for a nickel and ham or pickled tongue for a dime. Lehr made the last himself, buying tongue from the butcher two doors up, mixing it with wine vinegar, sugar, and onions, and cooking it for four or five hours.

Kids came in after school to buy penny candy and ice cream. Since there were no freezers, the ice cream was delivered in ten-gallon steel containers packed in big wooden buckets filled with ice and salt. It came in three flavors: vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. Lehr made ice cream bars using skewers borrowed from the butcher. He'd stick a paper cap from a milk bottle on the skewer, add the ice cream, and dip it in chocolate.

Wednesday and Saturday nights, when the farmers came to town, were the busiest times. Lehr was supposed to close the saloon at nine o'clock but usually didn't lock up until closer to eleven. The farmers bought a lot of tobacco. "All the farmers chewed," recalls Lehr. "They would buy ten or more packages at a time. Beech Nut was the favorite." Mary's also sold snuff, sweet tobacco, cigarettes, cigars, and pipe tobacco.

The Village Tap has been owned by the Stein family for the last twenty-five years. Today, brothers Chris and Jack manage it while their mother, Jeanette, enjoys semiretirement. Chris grew up in the bar, learning pool and euchre from customers. He's been there long enough to see people who were brought in by their fathers bringing in their own kids.

The menu has expanded greatly since Mary Singer's day. It now includes a roster of daily specials: soups, goulash, knockwurst, and the burgers for which the place is famous. But just as it was eighty years ago, the Village Tap is a local hangout.

Chris Stein says people often come in after softball, bowling, or golf. Lately, he's been organizing special events, such as the recent Oktoberfest held in the parking lot. "Now that Manchester is a bedroom community, people like a chance to meet," he explains. "Times change, but people are the same."

—Grace Shackman

Photo Caption: Chris Stein and Glenn Lehr.

Rights Held By: 
Grace Shackman
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