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.

Pulling the Plug on Mill Creek

Published In:
Community Observer, Spring 2001,
Spring 2001

Author: Grace Shackman

The recent decision to remove Dexter's Mill Creek Dam promises an ecological and recreational payoff.

The Dexter Village Council voted in mid-February to accept the recommendation of the Mill Creek Dam Task Force to remove the 175-year-old dam. Still unresolved, however, are two large questions: who owns the dam and who will ultimately pay for its removal.

But even with money at issue and no official timetable established, one thing is certain: the removal of the dam, which has not been used as a power source for more than eighty years, promises a flood of ecological and recreational advantages. Not only will the creek run faster and cleaner without the dam, thus allowing for a healthier and more varied aquatic life, the water will return to its original narrower channel, leaving more dry land at its edge for nature study and recreation.

The first dam on the site, just west of downtown, was built in 1825 .by village founder Samuel Dexter. Dexter had selected the site for his town a year earlier specifically because it was on a creek, just off the Huron River, that could be dammed for power. He harnessed that power to build a sawmill on the west side of the stream, about where Mill Creek Sporting Goods is now. Next he built a gristmill on the opposite side, where the village offices and fire department now stand. The sawmill business did not last long, but the gristmill continued to operate for nearly a century, run by a variety of owners before it closed in 1917.

In 1920 Henry Ford, who was buying up mills all over southeast Michigan to encourage the development of small village industries, bought the gristmill and water rights. He rebuilt the Mill Creek Dam and began work on the mill building, but died before it could be completed. The village-industry project died with Ford, and in 1957 Ford Motor Company sold the old mill and the land to the village.

In 1995 the Fisheries Division of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources issued a report, the Huron River Assessment, that recommended the removal of retired hydroelectric dams. The DNR's arguments for cleaner water and recreational opportunities intrigued the Dexter Village Council. The timing was also right: the replacement of the bridge over the dam is on the Washtenaw County Road Commission's project list, and if the dam is removed, the bridge will span less water and be cheaper to replace.

Part of the delay in removing the dam until now has been determining who owns what part of it. According to John Coy, village president and chair of the task force, the research so far indicates that the village owns the land on the east side of the dam, the county owns the land on the west, and the Ford Motor Company owns the spillway. However, he says, "who owns and who pays" for removal may be two different issues. Since the village can not afford such a big project, it will be applying for grants from sympathetic groups such as fisheries organizations, parks commissions, and state and federal environmental groups.

Huron-Clinton Metroparks officials have recently announced plans that should add to the attractiveness of the project. They plan to build a five-mile bike and hiking trail that would run all the way from Mill Creek to Huron Mills Metropark.

—Grace Shackman

Gunther Gardens

Published In:
Community Observer, Summer 1999,
Summer 1999

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

Building the County Parks

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, November 2008,
November 2008

Author: Grace Shackman

How a political gambit led the way

It is hard to imagine now just how rare parks were in Washtenaw County in 1972. Ann Arbor and other big towns had their own parks, and there were the Metroparks on the river and the state recreation areas at the northwest edge of the county. But the county’s only parks were a few rest areas run by the Washtenaw County Road Commission. Former road commission employee Carl Thayer remembers there wasn’t much to them—just “hand-mowed areas right beside the road with a picnic table and a green trash barrel.”

Things began to change in 1972, when Meri Lou Murray ran for county commissioner—by default. As Third Ward chair for the Ann Arbor Democratic Party, Murray was responsible for finding a candidate for her county board district. But since that district was then considered a Republican stronghold, no Democrat wanted to run. The party told Murray she would have to fill the slot herself.

Figuring they had nothing to lose, she and her campaign committee decided to think big—and came up with the idea of advocating for a county park system.

Murray won in an upset victory that fall and went on to shepherd into existence a county parks department that now has twenty-seven facilities on about 3,400 acres. The county system has thirty-three full-time employees, more than 300 seasonal jobs, and an annual budget that ranges from $6 million to $8 million depending on whether the system is buying land that year. And it’s long since expanded from rural parks to include active-recreation facilities and protected natural areas.

The Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission held its first meeting in August 1973. Initially, all it oversaw was four roadside parks inherited from the road commission. But things began to pick up the following August, when WCPARC hired its first director, Bob Gamble.

Parks commissioner Nelson Meade recalls that the search had come down to two finalists, but one took a job in a bigger community, and the other hesitated to come to a county with no park millage to fund its system. Then, toward the end of the process, Gamble applied.

After reading his resume, which included being director of parks in Nassau County, Long Island, Meade wrote Gamble to say, “You’re out of our league. We can’t afford you.” But Gamble explained that his needs were modest and that he had lost the Nassau County job when the people who hired him were voted out of office. Although employed elsewhere, he was anxious to get back into park work. Meade recalls that at an interview in the county planning department’s conference room, “Bob lolled in his chair, but he charmed us. We hired him instantly.”

The commission still had virtually no budget, but one of the roadside parks, Park Lyndon, was surrounded by 205 undeveloped acres that the state had given to the county in 1960. Gamble got a federal grant to build a parking lot, a picnic pavilion, toilets, and a small cabin, and he recruited federally funded job training employees to lay out trails. Park Lyndon is now one of the jewels of the park system—“one of the premier nature preserves east of the Mississippi,” according to current county parks head Bob Tetens.

Murray recalls that the commissioners themselves helped set up fitness trails, using equipment made by the job trainees in a hangar at the city airport. At the County Service Center at Washtenaw and Hogback, formerly a Roman Catholic seminary, they commandeered the old gym for exercise classes, ignoring the noise from the sheriff’s shooting range in the basement.

Parks commissioner Bob Marans, a U-M professor of architecture and urban planning, arranged for students to survey county residents on their priorities for the new park system. Preserving open space came out on top, followed by a swimming beach and a park in the eastern part of the county. Gamble recommended creating parks at Independence Lake in Webster Township and on a property south of Ypsilanti with a small pond—today’s Rolling Hills County Park.

In August 1976 the county asked voters for a quarter-mill, ten-year park tax. Gamble stayed up all night after the election waiting for the votes to come in. When the final tally was announced, the proposal was 349 votes short of approval. “Bob was devastated,” recalls Nelson Meade. But the very next night the parks commissioners asked the board of commissioners to put the millage back on the fall ballot. They were worried that if they waited two years until the next countywide election, the land would be lost to private developers.

The night of the fall 1976 election, Gamble was so confident he went to bed at his normal time. He awoke the next morning to find that the millage had passed by 5,000 votes. Environmentally minded voters may have turned out in especially large numbers that year because the state’s returnable-bottle law proposal was on the ballot—but the county parks never again lost a millage campaign.

With a steady source of revenue, WCPARC won federal matching grants to buy and develop Independence Lake and Rolling Hills. Murray herself securied another key parcel when, after years of lobbying, she convinced her fellow county commissioners to donate the former county poor farm on Washtenaw to the park system. It’s now County Farm Park.

Bob Gamble retired in 1980. His successor, Roger Shedlock, oversaw the opening of Rolling Hills in 1983, and the historic Parker Mill on Geddes the following year.

The original ten-year millage was due to run out in 1986, but the parks commissioners decided to put the renewal on the ballot in 1984. They were pleasantly surprised when it easily passed on the first try.

In 1985, Shedlock was succeeded by Fred Barkley, a former county and regional planner. In July 1988, Barkley went to a convention in Portland, Oregon, to receive an award for Parker Mill’s trail system. “One day, while walking by the Portland City Hall,” Barkley recalls, “I saw kids playing in water shooting up in a spray.” He decided to add “interactive sprays” at both Independence Lake and Rolling Hills. At Rolling Hills, Barkley also replaced the original swimming pond with an elaborate water park complete with a water slide and a wave pool. According to Barkley, it was Michigan’s first public water park.

By then, most of the original millage was being spent to maintain the existing parks. The commissioners realized that if they wanted to continue to buy land, they would need another millage, and in 1988 voters approved a second quarter mill. Renewals of both the original and new millages easily passed in 1994 and 1998. The county uses one for operations and the other for park acquisitions and major improvements.

An indoor recreation center opened at County Farm Park in 1990. Built in the shape of a barn to honor the site’s history, it includes a swimming pool, a gym, exercise equipment, a walking area, and space for fitness classes. When Meri Lou Murray retired from the county commission in 1996, it was renamed in her honor. The Meri Lou Murray Recreation Center is now the most-used facility in the entire county park system.

Barkley’s last big projects were the golf course on Pierce Lake near Chelsea, more improvements at Rolling Hills and Independence Lake, and the purchase of Sharon Mills County Park near Manchester. Most of these were finished by his successor, Bob Tetens, who took over in 2001. Like Barkley, Tetens is a former planner who exudes enthusiasm for the parks. He seems to carry a mental map of the county in his head: whenever a potential park site is mentioned, he knows its physical properties and whether it is for sale or might be in the future.

Built in the 1830s on the Raisin River, Sharon Mills had been a Ford parts plant, a home, an antique store, and a winery before WCPARC bought it. The county restored the mill building and added handicapped-accessible restrooms, a pergola, terraces, and a pavilion. Plans call for adding walking and mountain bike trails on 119 recently purchased acres across the road.

In 2001 voters approved a new quarter-mill tax to preserve natural areas. At the time the county had just one nature preserve; now there are fourteen, all of them accessible to the public. “People can’t appreciate or understand nature unless they can experience it,” says Tetens.

The other big project since Tetens arrived has been the effort to complete a

border-to-border nonmotorized trail throughout the county. Also called “linear parks,” such trails open large stretches of land to the public. But they also require close collaboration with units of governments, individual landowners, and other park systems. “Some [obstacles] are difficult, some are expensive, but none are insurmountable,” says Tetens. He predicts that when it’s finished, the B2B trail will garner national recognition.

This year the county parks are thirty-five years old. With its second millage up for renewal, WCPARC has again developed a master plan describing what it will do with the money. For instance, since research shows a need for more sports facilities, the commissioners are working on an expansion plan for Rolling Hills that would include more space for disc golf and soccer and a “miracle field” with a rubberized surface that is safer for handicapped children and seniors. Similar improvements are being planned for the other parks. Also on the drawing boards is another indoor recreation center.

Tetens is very excited about the system’s future. “More than any other land use, parks have the ability to transcend time,” he says. “I am confident that the parks and preserves developed today will still be serving the Washtenaw County citizens a hundred years in the future. Parks are forever."

A Tale of Two Lakes

Published In:
Community Observer,
2004-current

Author: Grace Shackman

Side by side, separate resorts catered to blacks and whites.

People once came from all over southeastern Michigan to play golf, dance, swim, and fish at two resorts on neighboring lakes north of Chelsea. But the guests rarely mingled, because one group was white and the other was black.

Mullison's Stables

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, December 1993,
December 1993

Author: Grace Shackman

What went on at the fairgrounds the other fifty-one weeks of the year

For four days each fall from 1922 to 1942, Veterans Park was the site of the Washtenaw County Fair. The forty acres bounded by Jackson, Maple, and Dexter roads were filled with exhibits and events, including music, fireworks, and horse racing. The race horses were stabled near the track on the corner of Dexter and Maple, while show horses were on display in an exhibit barn near Jackson and Longman Lane.

The Rise and Fall of Allen’s Creek

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, June 1993,
June 1993

Author: Grace Shackman

The stream that flows through Ann Arbor’s Old West Side hasn’t been seen above ground since 1926, but you can still see its influence everywhere.

Allen’s Creek, the site of the city’s first settlement, still runs through Ann Arbor’s west side. Named for Ann Arbor’s co-founder John Allen, it has a romantic sound to it, bringing to mind pictures of Potawatomi Indans following its course, settlers camping and picnicking on the banks, livestock drinking from it, and children playing in it. That idyllic picture has some truth in it, but Sam Schlecht, who knew it well in the years before it was put in a pipe below ground in 1926, says the creek was by then more like a “ditch in the road.” Historically, its value to Ann Arbor had more to do with urban development than natural beauty.

The main branch of Allen’s Creek runs northward roughly parallel to the Ann Arbor Railroad tracks, starting at Pioneer High and spilling into the Huron River just below Argo Dam. Three tributaries flow east into it from the Old West Side. Eber White starts on Lutz, crosses Seventh Street, and flows into the main stream at William; Murray-Washington rises at Virginia Park, crosses Slauson Middle School playground, and joins the creek near West Park; and West Park-Miller drains the ravine between MilIer and Huron.

Ann Arborites who were born after 1926 or who came to town after the creek was interred would probably not even know it exists except that it surfaces periodically as a political issue. In 1983, the voters approved a bond issue to repair it. And in recent years it has been part of an ongoing discussion about a possible Greenway that may include opening it up again.

Allen's Creek must have been named immediately after John Allen and Elisha Rumsey founded Ann Arbor in 1824. It is referred to by that name in all the early accounts and shows up on the map of "Ann-Arbour" that they registered in Detroit in May 1824.

Allen and Rumsey arrived here in February, looking for government land to buy as a town site. After returning to Detroit to pay for one square mile of property, they came back and set up camp on what is today the corner of First and Huron, with the creek right behind them as a water source. Rumsey and his wife, Mary Ann, later built a house on the site.

Photograph of Allen's Creek passing Dean
and Company warehouse

Allen’s Creek going by the Dean and Company warehouse near the Ann Arbor Railroad tracks between Liberty and Washington.

As Ann Arbor developed in the 1850s and 1860s, many businesses located along the creek. The creek apparently did not have a current strong enough to furnish real water power—the only industry that used it in that way was the Ward Flour Mill, at the mouth where the creek joined the Huron—but many businesses used its water for processing. Four tanneries on or near the creek used its water to soak cowhides and pelts of wild animals trapped in the surrounding forests. A foundry, Tripp, Ailes, and Price, on Huron Street where the Y is today, used the creek's water for its sand casting. And two breweries, the Western, later called the Michigan Union, on Fourth Street (today Math Reviews) and the City Brewery on First Street (today the Cavern Club), used the creek water to cool their beer.

In 1878, when the Ann Arbor Railroad reached town on its way between Toledo, Ohio, and Michigan's north, its developers chose the land beside Allen Creek to lay their track. Not only was it flat, but it was already the location of many of the industries they wanted to serve. Putting the tracks there guaranteed that the area would remain industrial even after water supply was no longer crucial.

As industry grew, so did the population. In 1846 William Maynard laid out the first section of the Old West Side, from First to Fourth streets. He added more streets in 1858 and 1861. But unlike today's subdivisions, with houses built one after another down each street, the area took shape slowly, with the higher land being built on first. The most desirable streets were Liberty, Huron, and Miller because they were high and dry. The three streets were laid out in a fan shape, rather than parallel, to avoid crossing the creek tributaries that ran between them.

Cross streets going down into the valleys between those main arteries weren't developed until years later. Murray and Mulholland streets, which cross the creek, were not laid out until 1911 and 1916. And some of the lowest parts of the creek bed were never built on at all--today they are West Park, Slauson playground, and the second Bach School playground.

A few west side homeowners took advantage of having the water nearby. David Allmendinger, owner of the downtown organ factory, built a house in 1890 at 719 West Washington, just in front of the creek. He dammed the creek to create a series of ponds, incorporating natural springs that were found on the property. He brought in soil to plant a rose garden and added a rustic bridge across the pond and a gazebo for family gatherings (he had thirteen children).

Allmendinger planted water lilies and stocked the pond with carp, one of which, according to family legend, answered to the name of Billy. But the carp were endangered when the city water pump station next door began drawing more water from the springs: the pond level fell so low that the family cat could catch fish by just reaching in.

Some westsiders used the creek more practically--to water their livestock. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the line between city and country wasn't as sharply drawn as it is now. Many people kept chickens, or even a horse or a cow, on their city lots. (There are still a number of barns around the Old West Side, used today as garages.) Sam Schlecht remembered his grandparents telling him of cows drinking from the creek near their Seventh Street house. Marty Schlenker's family told him that their livestock used to drink from the creek at First Street behind their Liberty Street hardware store.

Although the creek influenced the location of industry, houses, and the railroad, its importance had shrunk to almost nil by the early 1900s. Water was piped indoors after 1885, when the Ann Arbor Water Works Company was set up, so the creek was not necessary for industry, and homes and the railroad tracks had already been established. The only use for the creek was for recreation.

A stream running through a residential neighborhood can be a beauty spot and a play area, as the Allmendingers proved. But people around today who were children before the creek disappeared say that was the exception. Many interviewed said they didn't remember playing in the creek at all, while others remembered it as simply not important.

On hot days, Geraldine Seeback and her sister used to wade in the branch of the creek that ran by the east side of their parents' fluff rug factory on Huron, which replaced the foundry where the Y is today. Asked if her parents worried about her safety, Seeback laughs and says, "It wasn't dangerous." She remembers the water as about four feet wide but only ankle-deep.

Photograph of 1902 Allen's Creek Flood

Allen’s Creek flood in 1902 as it crosses Washington Street.

Karl Horning, who grew up on Third Street around the same time, has similar memories of the creek. He says, "It was nothing of significance; it didn't add anything to the city." He remembers that he and his friends could see the creek running under the Ann Arbor Railroad freight house on William and Ashley. The freight house was built right over the creek: evidently the creek was so small that builders just ignored it. Marty Schlenker remembered that the Feiner glass warehouse across the street from the freight house was also built over the creek.

Perhaps the person still around who is most familiar with the creek back then is Sam Schlecht, an inveterate explorer who lived in several different Old West Side houses as a boy and saw the creek from different vantage points. Between Seventh and Eighth streets, near Slauson Middle School (now Waterworks Park), the creek widened into a little pond. Schlecht and his friends made a burlap swing and attached it to a tree so they could swing out over the pond. If they fell in, they were in no danger of drowning--only of getting very dirty. Schlecht describes the pond as "slop water covered with algae," not deep enough for swimming.

Although the creek was low most of the time, it could overflow in the spring when the snow melted. Horning remembers that it would back up into gardens on First Street. That was a problem, since the water was polluted from outhouses and years of industrial use. In 1921, the city pumping station on Washington Street, which drew water from the springs that fed the Murray-Washington branch of Allen's Creek, was closed because of contamination from surface water.

In 1923, eighty-seven of the 100 property owners along the main branch of the creek petitioned city council to make it into a storm sewer. At a joint meeting that July, the city council and the Ann Arbor Township board agreed to the request. Alderman Herbert Slauson (for whom the school is named) said, "We do hereby determine that said proposed drain is necessary and conductive to the public health, convenience, and welfare."

It took three years to do the engineering and to enclose the main creek in underground cement pipes. The pipes taper from eleven feet in diameter at the mouth to four feet at the head waters near Pioneer High. In 1925, property owners along the West Park-Miller branch petitioned to have it put into a storm drain, and in 1927, residents along the Murray-Washington and Eber White branches followed. The tributary pipes range from four feet to about eighteen inches in diameter. In 1969 the creek and its tributaries were consolidated into the same drain district.

Sam Schlecht remembers when the creek was being put underground. The section near Keppler Court was on the path he followed to walk downtown, and he often stopped to watch the workmen. He remembers that although they had a primitive backhoe, a lot of their work was done by hand. When he got too close, the workmen would shoo him away. At the time, he remembers, Mulholland Street ended at the creek, with a cement wall to stop cars from going farther. After the creek was put into the pipe, Mulholland was extended across and turned north to end at Seventh Street. Later it was moved east to end at Washington.

The main section of the drain was finished in 1926, just after the city celebrated its hundredth anniversary. The Ann Arbor News wrote: "Planned as a part of the city's permanent sewerage to take care of the drainage from the creek's watershed for all time to come, it is probable that the concrete house for John Allen's creek once it is completed, will remain intact on the two hundredth anniversary of the founding of Ann Arbor."

Photograph of junction of Allen's Creek
& Huron River

Invisible for most of its course, Allen's Creek emerges to join the Huron below Argo Dam.

That was optimistic-—it was more like fifty years later that Allen's Creek again needed attention. The Allen Creek drain, as it is now known, flooded in 1947 and 1968. Putting a creek in a drain was no guarantee it would stay there-—the pipes, of course, hold a finite amount of water--and as Ann Arbor continued developing to the west, filling in more land with buildings, houses, and parking lots, the amount of runoff channeled into the drain kept increasing. By the mid-1970's, it became obvious that the Allen’s Creek drain needed a fresh appraisal.

A study commissioned by the city in the early 1980s offered a choice of several solutions. The most effective options--replacing the pipes with larger ones or building a second drain parallel to the first--were rejected as too expensive. Instead it was decided to repair the present system to make it as efficient as possible. Ann Arbor voters approved a $1.1 million bond issue, and in 1983 the city set to work repairing deteriorated culverts, relocating other utilities' pipes that crossed the drain, and resurfacing bottom areas that had eroded.

The bond money covered the most critical work. Since then, the Washtenaw County drain office and the city's engineering department have continued to work together on drain maintenance. The county is responsible for routine upkeep of the main line of the drain, while the city takes care of the tributaries going into neighborhoods. Major projects are financed using the county's full faith and credit and with the city’s storm water utility fees.

In 1993 the last two sections identified as needing work--an area near the Salvation Army headquarters on Arbana and another on Seventh Street near West Park--were completed. Both the city and county agree that Allen Creek drain is, at least for now, in good shape, even if undersized to serve its drainage area. Drain commissioner Janis Bobrin says there are "no visible areas of concern," but that the county "will continue to evaluate and maintain the drain."

Periodically people talk about opening up portions of the drain and returning it to a natural creek. Current discussion is focusing on the potential of creating a Greenway along the creek corridor. Whether Allen's Creek stays underground or not, its importance to the city has, if anything, continued to grow over the years. For instance, when Michigan Stadium was returned to natural turf in 1991, a tributary of the drain that ran right under the fifty-yard line was directed around the field and large pumps were installed to permanently lower the water table. The pumps allowed the U-M to lower the playing field itself by more than three feet--below the level at which it otherwise would have been covered with water. Without Allen’s Creek, Michigan Stadium would be a lake.


[Photo caption from book]: Map of Allen’s Creek. “Courtesy Washtenaw County Drain Commissioner”

Orange Risdon's 1825 Map

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, December 2000,
December 2000

Author: Grace Shackman

Michigan captured in its infancy

The U-M’s Clements Library recently received a very rare 1825 map: one of the few remaining copies of Orange Risdon’s map of southeast Michigan. “It is the first map of Michigan that shows serious surveying and settlement,” explains Brian Leigh Dunnigan, the library’s curator of maps. Risdon, best known in this area as the founder of Saline, is also famous in Michigan history as the chief surveyor of the Detroit-Chicago Road, now US-12.

Though Risdon’s surveys were done under government contract, the map was a private venture. Risdon drew it himself and paid to have it published, planning to sell copies to pioneers trying to pick out places to settle. Unfortunately for him, a former employee came out with a competing map and grabbed most of the market. But though it failed to make its creator rich, Risdon’s map today gives us a wealth of information about what our area looked like just one year after Ann Arbor was founded.

Map of the Surveyed Part of the Territory
of Michigan, 1825

Map of the Surveyed Part of the Territory of Michigan, 1825.

Officially called “Map of the Surveyed Part of the Territory of Michigan,” it measures forty-three by twenty-nine inches. It shows the area from Toledo north to Saginaw Bay and includes Washtenaw County and a corner of Jackson County.

Surveyors hired by the federal government started working in southeast Michigan when it was still a territory in 1818, since precise demarcation was a necessary prelude to selling the land. They divided the state into counties, the counties into six-mile-square townships, and the townships into square-mile (640-acre) sections. The grid allowed buyers, when they went to the land office to buy land, to clearly identify their purchase.

Although a few intrepid settlers came earlier, serious settlement in Washtenaw County did not begin until the 1820s. Ypsilanti was founded in 1823 or 1825, depending on how the city is defined. Ann Arbor, Dexter, and Dixboro were all founded in 1824.

The Risdon map, although strictly a factual document, reveals two historic transitions, one long past at the time it was published, the other still to come. The long, narrow lots Risdon mapped along the rivers in Detroit and Monroe were legacies of the French who were the state’s first white inhabitants. “They all had access to the water,” explains Dunnigan.

Risdon’s map also shows Toledo, then called Port Lawrence, as part of Michigan. Though it was indeed within Michigan Territory as defined by Congress, Ohio made a strong claim, and the issue was further muddied by years of contested surveys. The conflict briefly turned violent in the “Toledo War” of 1835 and would not finally be settled until 1836, when Michigan accepted a federal ultimatum to cede the city to Ohio in exchange for the Upper Peninsula.

The handful of roads shown all lead from Detroit to surrounding towns: one to Saginaw (now Woodward Avenue) and one to Port Huron (now Gratiot Avenue), as well as the road to present-day Chicago. Tepees mark the location of Indian settlements, but there are none in Washtenaw County (the closest ones are in Macon and Wyandotte). Near Detroit, Hamtramck has already been established; Dearborn also is there, but not under that name—Risdon calls it “Bucklin.”

The Washtenaw County shown on the map is larger than it is today, because it includes two townships that are now part of Jackson County. Ann Arbor is spelled “Ann Arbour,” which is how founders John Allen and Elisha Rumsey spelled it when they platted their 640-acre parcel the year before. Dixboro is also spelled the old-fashioned way, “Dixborough.” All of the county’s townships, with the exception of present-day Lyndon Township, are sectioned off, but none is yet named.

The map contains practical information for would-be settlers, such as the location of inns and where to register land purchases. In Washtenaw County, the only inn outside of the towns was labeled Sutton, in today’s Northfield Township. Settlers had to go to Detroit to buy property in Washtenaw County, except for those acquiring land in the southern tier of townships—today’s Manchester, Bridgewater, Saline, York, and Augusta—who were directed to Monroe.

Only five settlements are shown in Washtenaw County: besides Ann Arbour, Dixborough, and Dexter there are Ypsilanti and Woodruff’s Grove. Showing the last two as separate places adds fuel to a continuing debate between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti over which was settled first. It is clear that Ann Arbor was founded in 1824 and Ypsilanti in 1825—but Woodruff’s Grove was founded in 1823, and it was later absorbed by Ypsilanti. Saline is not shown on the map; by the time Risdon drew it he had bought the land for his own settlement, but he would not get around to laying out the town until 1832. The only marking is a salt spring nearby.

Orange Risdon was particularly well qualified to make this map, being both a trained surveyor and an early Michigan settler. Risdon was born in 1786 in Vermont and moved with his family to Saratoga County, in eastern New York, when he was three. He attended local schools until age thirteen. Afterward, according to the 1881 Chapman History of Washtenaw County, Michigan, “he was dependent on his own efforts.”

Risdon studied surveying under a Mr. Rice of Ballston Spa, New York. In 1807, when he was twenty-one, Risdon got a job assisting the noted surveyor Elisha Johnson, who had a contract to survey 100,000 acres in the new counties of Allegany and Genesee. “His duty was to carry the chain, for which he was to receive $16 per month, but scarcely a week had passed when his skill in surveying was discovered, and with the consent of the land agent, the work was divided, and his wages increased to about five times the amount of the first stipulation,” says the county history. Two years later Risdon was hired to assist in laying out the infant cities of Lockport, Brockport, and Buffalo.

During the War of 1812 he worked for the federal government as an assistant surveyor. After the war he met Sally Newland, and the couple married in 1816. Risdon bought land with his earnings, eventually owning 1,000 acres on New York’s Genesee River. Risdon resolved to move to Michigan Territory after suffering losses in the 1817 commercial crisis, but he did not arrive in Michigan until 1823, when he spent a month traveling on foot through Washtenaw and other nearby counties. He returned the next year, this time spending four months on a 2,000-mile exploring trip on horseback with Samuel Dexter. After their trip Dexter bought land on Mill Creek, just off the Huron River, and began the work of establishing the village that bears his name. Risdon bought 160 acres on the Saline River and the Indian trail that would soon become the Detroit-Chicago Road, land that would later be the nucleus of the city of Saline.

How Risdon and Dexter met is lost to history. They could have known each other from New York, since Risdon’s parents still lived in Sarasota County and Dexter resided in Athens, two counties south, or they may have met while traveling.

Their backgrounds were very different: Risdon was six years older and had been supporting himself since he was thirteen, while Dexter had both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Harvard. (Dexter’s father had served in the cabinets of both Adams and Jefferson.) But both have gone down in history as town founders who went well beyond land speculation and worked to improve their towns. They both offered free land to any church wishing to get established, and they were both abolitionists who were rumored to be part of the Underground Railroad. It is easy to imagine that they discussed these issues during their long hours of travel together.

Risdon’s reputation as a surveyor followed him to Michigan, and in the same year he bought his land he was hired to direct a survey for a road connecting Detroit and Pontiac. In fall 1824, when he must have been almost done surveying for the season, he began work on his map. From his two exploring trips, plus his surveying work, Risdon would have known much of the area firsthand, and for the rest he could rely on work done on earlier surveys.

Risdon advertised in the Detroit Gazette on October 1, 1824, seeking advance subscriptions to pay for the cost of producing the map. He promised that “the work will be put into the hands of the engraver as soon as a sufficient number of subscribers is obtained to warrant the expense of publication.”

The ad pitched the map as useful to emigrants and explorers: “The first thing necessary to an immigrant is a general knowledge of the surveyed portion of the territory, of the course of its streams and the relative situation of its different parts. The publisher, having spent some time in exploring that junction of the territory embraced in his map, will be enabled to locate the most important Indian paths, which as they were made by those who were acquainted with every part of the country will be an important guide in the future location of our roads.” Risdon promised that the map also would include Indian reservations and villages and would “embrace the lines of counties, townships, and sections, regularly numbered according to the surveys.”

Although the mapping of Michigan had been going on for six years, settlement had been slow, both because Michigan was off the beaten path (easterners going west overland were more likely to pass through Ohio and Indiana) and because the territory was rumored to be all swamp. The first problem would be solved a year later when the Erie Canal opened, making it easy for easterners to reach Buffalo, where they could board a Lake Erie steamboat for Detroit. Risdon addressed the swamp story head-on in his ad: “The country which was formerly believed to be uninhabitable excepting on the river and lake shores, abounds in lands of the most fertile and healthy description.” Even the climate, he claimed, “is particularly adapted to our eastern constitution.”

The maps were to be “engraved in an elegant style and published on Super Royal paper.” Risdon offered his map in three formats: in two sheets that could be stored flat in a drawer, for $2.50; cut into twenty-four sections and pasted on linen--so that the map could be folded without losing detail--and supplied with a leather carrying case, for $3; or varnished on rollers, perfect for land agents and lawyers who would be consulting it in their offices, also for $3. The Clements Library’s copy is of the last type.

The next year, 1825, Risdon started the job for which he is most famous: chief surveyor for the great military road from Detroit to Chicago, today known as Michigan Avenue or US-12. Work on the survey no doubt showed him features to include on the map but left him little time to work on it. He hired a helper named John Farmer, finished the map, and sent it to Rawdon, Clark, and Company in Albany, New York. On November 13 he paid them $400 for engraving the two copper plates. Five weeks later he paid to have 472 copies printed. After printing, each copy was hand painted. By the time they were ready to deliver, however, winter had shut down shipping on Lake Erie. Risdon’s subscribers had to wait until May 1826 for an announcement in the Detroit Gazette that their copies were ready.

That delay proved fatal to the map’s commercial prospects. Later in the summer of 1826, Farmer published his own rival map. It was basically the same as Risdon’s but with added details that had been learned in the interim. Farmer’s map, being more up to date, overshadowed his employer’s. “It was bad luck that Orange didn’t get the map in time to get it promptly to the subscribers,” says Brian Dunnigan. By examining both maps, Dunnigan can tell that Farmer had probably done most of the hand coloring on Risdon’s map. “John Farmer dominates after this--he becomes ‘the’ Michigan map-maker,” says Dunnigan. “He is probably the best-known Michigan mapmaker of the nineteenth century.”

Risdon moved on from the failure of his map, earning a good living as a surveyor. He surveyed at least seventy-five townships and the city of Saginaw, and he reexamined or resurveyed forty-five more townships. He continued working for the government until 1856, when he was seventy.

By then his own village was well established. In 1829 Risdon had returned to his property south of Ann Arbor and built a twelve-room house on a hill overlooking his Detroit-Chicago Road. He brought his family out from New York and began building up his new town. His house was used as Saline’s first inn, post office, general store, and polling place. Risdon himself served as postmaster and magistrate, officiating at the first marriage in the township. After Michigan became a state in 1837, he was elected to the Michigan House of Representatives.

Risdon’s “advice was often sought in the selection of lands,” the county history records. “Very many miles were traveled by him to point out desirable locations, yet [he was] ever unwilling to receive a reward.” Although there is no evidence that he made any other maps, his contemporaries knew of his pioneering effort. L. D. Norris, in an address to the Washtenaw County Historical Society in 1874, said, “The first general map of the surveyed part of this territory of which I have any knowledge was published in 1825 by Orange Risdon, then and now a pioneer of Washtenaw.”

Risdon died in 1876 at age ninety, a well-regarded member of the community. “He was genial in his disposition, unselfish, benevolent, and liberal almost to a fault,” said the county history. At his funeral, “great numbers of people from neighboring towns and cities were in attendance.” His home passed to his daughter after his death. In 1948 the house was moved to Henry Street to make room for expansion of Oakwood Cemetery. Still standing, it has been divided into apartments.

The Clements copy of Risdon’s map was a gift from the Michigan Map Society, purchased to honor Frank Kerwin, a founding member of the society who recently died. The Michigan Map Society meets at the Clements and works closely with the library, so members knew that although the Clements had a large collection of Great Lakes maps, it was missing this very important one. Since Kerwin, a Grosse Pointe resident and sailor, was himself a collector of Great Lakes maps, the Risdon map, a copy of which had gone on the market, seemed a logical choice. Of the 472 copies originally printed, only thirteen are known to have survived. Kerwin lived long enough to learn of the purchase but died before the formal presentation last May.

The map society has about seventy members; most are from the Ann Arbor and Detroit areas, but some come from more distant places, such as Lansing and Grand Rapids. Although mostly amateurs, they are a very knowledgeable group; many are serious map collectors. Several of them volunteer their expertise to help the Clements staff. They meet four times a year to hear map-related lectures; including a talk by Dunnigan on his book, Frontier Metropolis: Picturing Early Detroit, 1701–1838, before it was published.

Since the Clements is a research library, people cannot just come in and casually look at Risdon’s map. “Serious researchers may study the map once they have completed our reader registration process, which is relatively simple,” explains Dunnigan. The map itself will also be exhibited from time to time, but at the moment, no public exhibition is scheduled.


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Weinberg's Peony Garden

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, June 1984,
June 1984

Author: Grace Shackman

On Ann Arbor's west side, there once flourished an amazing garden which, from 1920 until 1952, was one of the city's notable beauty spots. Weinberg's peony garden, as it was known, also included poppies, irises, and lilacs. Its landscaping included many favorite picturesque features of the 1920s: a sunken garden, a rock garden, and a fish pond with water lilies.

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