Lost Ann Arbor- The Vanished City of 1900

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, October 1999,
October 1999

Author: Susan Wineberg

The vanished city of 1900

Thanks to the presence of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor consistently enjoys the lowest unemployment rates in the state and has produced an artistic, intellectual, and political environment out of all proportion to its size. But the city has paid a price for its growth and prosperity over the past century, it has lost a great deal of its architectural heritage.

If an Ann Arborite from 1900 could see the city at the turn of the millennium, she would be impressed by its growth—the vast shopping centers along the south side, the office parks lining Plymouth Road, even the tree-lined streets of Bums Park and Ann Arbor Hills would all be new to her. But she surely would be shocked as well to discover how many of downtown's most prominent and beloved landmarks have been demolished.

The city's growth was driven by the university's and nowhere was the destruction greater than on Central Campus (a future article will describe the changes there). The U-M. however, was not the culprit in the demolition of architecturally significant buildings downtown. Many losses reflected the onslaught of the automobile, and the changing patterns of housing, transportation, and work it produced. And of course the normal forces of "progress" also were at work, as brick structures replaced wooden ones, municipal facilities were torn down to make way for larger ones, and "modem" buildings replaced "old-fashioned" ones.

Here's a look at the Lost Ann Arbor of 1900: The local landmarks swept up by the onslaught of the twentieth century.

The 1878 Courthouse
Every city has at least one historic building whose loss is universally regarded as a tragedy. In Ann Arbor, that unhappy distinction surely belongs to the 1878 Washtenaw County Courthouse, shown here on a winter's day in 1916. Foursquare and formidable, capped by a limestone cupola and a soaring clock tower, the courthouse, at the northeast comer of Huron and Main, was downtown's centerpiece. The surrounding Courthouse square, with its grassy lawn and shade trees, served as Ann Arbor's town common. Though its legal functions were taken over by the present modem-style building almost half a century ago, nothing has ever replaced it as the heart of downtown.

The county's first courthouse, an unassuming brick structure built in 1834, played a pivotal role in Michigan history as the site of the "Frostbitten Convention" of 1836, which paved the way for Michigan's admission to the union. But it was outgrown during Ann Arbor's growth spurt after the Civil War, and in October 1877 workmen laid the cornerstone for a courthouse as ostentatious as its predecessor had been modest.

Designed by G. W. Bunting, the courthouse was completed the following year for a total cost of $88,000. The regal structure would preside over downtown for three-quarters of a century. Unfortunately, as architectural fashions changed and the county's legal business grew, it was gradually allowed to deteriorate by civic leaders who considered it outmoded and inadequate.

First, cars were permitted to park on what had been its marvelous lawn. Next came the removal of the clock tower—a hazard, said the building inspector. After World War II, a series of articles in the Ann Arbor News, deploring the horrific working conditions in the building, led to its destruction. In a final indignity, the new courthouse was constructed around old one, filling in three sides of the old courthouse square. In1954, the move complete, the old courthouse was demolished for a parking lot.

A Mayor's Mansion
Already an anachronism by 1900, the Maynard mansion on the northwest comer of Main and William nonetheless survived most of the twentieth century. Built in 1842 by developer and future mayor William S. Maynard, the stately home was once famous for its broad sweep of lawn and beautiful flower garden, which ran down the hill to Allen Creek (the creek now runs underground near the Ann Arbor Railroad tracks). The strutting peacocks on the grounds were a source of wonder and amusement to the townspeople.

Maynard developed most of Ann Arbor's west side and had large landholdings all over town. His memory is perpetuated today by both William and Maynard streets. By the time this postcard was made early in the century, his home had been sold to the Elks Fraternal Order, who used it as their lodge for many years. Remodeled beyond recognition by the Elks and its last owner, the Ann Arbor Civic Theater, the mansion was finally torn down in 1989; today, its site is occupied by the 350 South Main commercial and office block. The only surviving remnants of Maynard's home are the cornice brackets, which were salvaged to restore the cornice at 111 West Liberty.

Grandeur at Fourth and Huron
At the turn of the century, two substantial structures faced each other across the intersection of Huron and Fourth Avenue. The Allenel Hotel, on the southwest comer, was important enough to rate a tinted photographic postcard (undated, but mailed in 1914). Built in 1871 to replace an earlier hotel, the Allenel was remodeled after a 1910 fire and lasted until 1964, when it was replaced by a modem eleven-story building. After decades of intermittent financial trouble, the Ann Arbor Inn closed in 1990; its building is now the Courthouse Square apartments for seniors.

Kitty-comer across the intersection was the Comwell Block. It was built in 1882 by Charles Manley and Joel Hamilton, who had visions of selling it to the federal government as a post office but lost out to a rival site at Main and Ann (see p. 36). By the time this photo was taken in 1910, it was the headquarters of the Comwell Coal Company; signs also reveal the presence of a basement bowling alley and an Odd Fellows lodge. In the 1920s and 1930s, the building was also the last home of Joe Parker's Cafe, a favorite hangout of U-M students and alumni.

The Cornwell Block, like many other ninteenth-century buildings on Huron, fell victim to the automobile: it was demolished in 1936 to be replaced by a gas station. More than sixty years later, the station itself has become an object of historic interest. After the city rejected a recent proposal to tear it down for a parking lot, it's now rented to Vault of Midnight Comix.

The Lost Blocks
Ann Arbor's first "blocks," or groups of storefronts built as a unit by one investor, appeared on Main Street in the 1830s. Fire quickly proved wooden blocks to be impractical, so beginning around the time of the Civil War, they were rapidly replaced with more durable brick buildings. Happily, many of these blocks are still standing—but many are not.

Perhaps the most dramatic loss occurred on North Main directly across from the courthouse (below). Starting at right in this 1892 streetscape, the lineup began with a true architectural gem. Hill's Opera House on the comer of Ann. Constructed in 1871 by G. D. Hill, a local entrepreneur who, among other things, gave his name to Hill Street, it was the center of the city's cultural life in 1900. Renamed the AthensTheater in 1901 and the Whitney Theater and Hotel in 1908, it managed to survive until 1955, despite serious fire code violations that eventually resulted in its demolition. Today this once impressive comer is a surface parking lot.

At the south end of the block, a triangular pediment tops another imposing structure: the Masonic Block, formerly the Gregory House hotel. Later known as the Municipal Building, in the 1950s it was wrapped in blue and white enamel paneling that had already begun to look outdated by the time the building burned in 1972. Most of the block was demolished after the fire. The rest—that last remnant of this once proud lineup—was removed in the mid-1980s to make way for the One North Main office building

A Magnificent Post Office
The lavishly detailed post office on the northeast comer of Main and Ann was a busy social hub when it was built in 1882. At the time, mail still had to be picked up in person—a daily ritual that annoyed many university students but also made the building a respectable meeting spot for the sexes.

In 1886, however, home mail delivery was introduced in Ann Arbor. By the time this photo was taken, around 1892, the post office was no longer such an important meeting place. Replaced after the turn of the century by a new building just to the north (today the Washtenaw County administration building), the 1882 post office and the neighboring Ann Arbor Daily News printing plant were demolished in 1940 to make way for a Kroger supermarket. Subsequently abandoned as Kroger continued its migration to the fringes of town, the new building was a Salvation Army Red Shield store before being bought by the county and demolished in 1989. A five-story county office building is now under construction on thesite—a handsome postmodern design that promises a presence worthy of its Victorian predecessor.

From Church to Newspaper Office
A number of historic downtown churches are still standing, including St. Andrew's, First Baptist, and the First Unitarian Church (now the offices of the architectural firm Hobbs & Black). But others have been lost over the years to growth pressures within downtown, or to the growing needs of their own congregations.

Among the casualties was First Presbyterian, which occupied the southwest corner of Huron and Division for more than a century. In 1829, the congregation built the first church in Ann Arbor on the comer, replacing it in 1860 with this fine red-brick edifice (shown in an undated postcard). But in 1935, as parking became more of an issue and more congregants moved to new residential neighborhoods east of campus, the Presbyterians moved out to their present location on Washtenaw. The Huron Street church was sold to the Ann Arbor News, which tore it down to build an office and printing plant designed by the celebrated Detroit architect Albert Kahn.

A Private Library
At the turn of the century, this homey Romanesque building at 324 East Huron was a privately operated library. It was designed by Irving and Allen Pond, the Ann Arbor-bom architects who would later plan the Michigan Union and Michigan League, and was operated by the Ladies Library Association, which made its collection available to members by subscription.

Ann Arbor's first public library was built in 1906. Financed by a donation from steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, it was on Huron next to the new Ann Arbor High School on State (today the U-M Frieze Building). The ladies held out for a decade before donating their collection to the public library in 1916. Their building served as the local headquarters for the Boy Scouts in the 1930s, but was demolished in 1945 to make way for a Michigan Bell Telephone building and associated parking. A newer Ameritech building occupies the site today.

Perils of Modernity
Two major buildings at the corner of Main and Washington succumbed to the pressures of modernization, but in different ways. The high-ceilinged three-story building on the southwest corner—Hangsterfer's confectionery when the top photo at left was taken in 1869—had by 1900 been acquired by the Kresge national dime store chain. In 1912, both Hangsterfer's and the building next door were demolished to make way for a new, two-story Kresge store (today BD's Mongolian Barbeque and Cafe Felix).

Few living Ann Arborites will recognize the building with the candy-stripe awnings (middle photo), even those who see it every day. Home of the State Savings Bank when this photo was taken in 1910, it later became the local branch of the National Bank of Detroit (now Bank One). The original building is still there, buried under several generations of remodeling.

The Last Homes on Main
A century ago, much of what we now consider the central business district was still a residential area. Streets such as South Fourth and South Fifth avenues and Liberty, Washington, and Maynard streets were filled with houses, many of them quite stylish and boasting large lots with extensive gardens. There were even a few home owners on Main Street.

Two of the last holdouts were the Muehlig houses (bottom photo), which stood side by side at 311 and 315 South Main. An old Ann Arbor business family (Muehlig funeral parlor, B. E. Muehlig dry goods), the Muehligs had homesteaded on the site. They were apparently not sentimental about the property, however—in 1928, they demolished the home on the left to build a brick business block.

Bertha Muehlig's namesake dry goods store occupied the northwest corner of Washington and Main (now the Hooper Hathaway law office) for most of this century. Muehlig walked to work from her Greek Revival home until her death in 1955. In 1962, the house was sold and demolished for a Glidden paint store (the building now shared by M Den, Au Courant opticians, and Collected Works).

Miss Muehlig's generosity to local schoolchildren had made her a popular figure, and the Christmas creche on her lawn was a favorite seasonal landmark. The loss of her home prompted a public outcry. "The whole town grieved, not only at the passing of a beautiful and historic landmark, but at the loss of a visible reminder of the noble and gracious woman who had lived there all her long life," local historian Leia Duff wrote in her 1965 book Ann Arbor Yesterdays.

The loss of the Muehlig home led to creation of the first local historical commission. In 1973, city council took advantage of a new state preservation law to designate Ann Arbor's first historic district, preserving nine scattered buildings from destruction or inappropriate exterior alteration.

Today, most citizens recognize the value of historic buildings and appreciate the character, charm, and sense of historical continuity they provide. Ann Arbor now has fourteen different historic districts, protecting a total of more than 1,600 structures.

[Photo caption from original print edition]: The Cornwell Block in 1910

[Photo caption from original print edition]: North Main between Ann and Huron, 1892.

[Photo caption from original print edition]: Hangsterfer's Hall (above, in 1869) and the State Savings Bank (left, in 1910) sat kitty-corner from one another at the intersection of Main and Washington. One was demolished, the other remodeled beyond recognition. The loss of Bertha Muehlig's Main Street home (right, reflow) helped launch the historical preservation movement).

Manchester Mill

Published In:
Community Observer, Date Unknown,

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.

House Raising

Published In:
Community Observer, Summer 2002,
Summer 2002

Author: Grace Shackman

Dexter citizens aren't waiting for the U-M to decide the fate of Gordon Hall.

The fate of Gordon Hall is on hold as far as its owner, the University of Michigan, is concerned, but not in Dexter, where children and adults are raising money to buy and renovate the house that the town's founder, judge Samuel Dexter, built in 1841. Recently Dexter kindergartners raised almost $900 with bake sales, while second-graders held a contest that brought in about $5,000 in pledges.

Last October the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners designated Gordon Hall and sixty-seven acres around it as a historic district. But those who thought that the vote meant the village can now use the house for a museum were jumping the gun. Historic protection means only that changes to the outside of Gordon Hall or to the grounds have to be approved by the county historic district commission. The commission would certainly reject such egregious changes as condos on the front lawn—but if a new owner wanted to use it as a country estate or a corporate retreat, that would be legal as long as the owners respected the integrity of the property.

No one knows whether the university will try to sell Gordon Hall on the open market or whether it might be willing to give the village favorable sales terms. Diane Brown, a spokesperson for the U-M's office of facilities and operations, says officials have been too busy with other projects. The leases for the four rental apartments in Gordon Hall have expired, so the house is now empty. The university is discussing having someone live there to keep an eye on it and is working to keep up with maintenance, interior painting, and repairing winter damage to the roof.

Village activist Paul Cousins, former owner of Cousins Heritage Inn, met with then-interim U-M president Joe White, whom he knows from catering events at the U-M business school when White was dean. Cousins reports that White listened very sympathetically to his vision of village ownership of Gordon Hall. But the views of new U-M president Mary Coleman about Gordon Hall are unknown.

In 1940 Katharine Dexter McCormick, granddaughter of Samuel Dexter, hired Emil Lorch, dean of the U-M architecture school, to renovate Gordon Hall. But after he had worked on it for ten years, she suddenly gave it to the university, which scooped out the historic interior and divided the building into apartments. No one knows exactly why she made the donation, and it is not clear whether she knew what the U-M was going to do with the building, but the speculation is that she had problems paying estate taxes after her husband died. Connie Osler, Lorch's daughter, recalls, "Dad was devastated when she gave it to the university. He was so mad."

Even if the university were to return the favor and give Gordon Hall to the village, it's not clear how much money would be needed to renovate it for a museum. But Dexter citizens are continuing to work on the project.

—Grace Shackman

Photo Caption: To help save Gordon Hall, Cornerstone Elementary gave the Dexter Historical Society's Gil Campbell nearly $900 in bake sale profits.

Weighing the Price of Progress in Chelsea

Published In:
Community Observer, Spring 2001,
Spring 2001

Author: Grace Shackman

Pressure to meet modern needs endangers three historic landmarks.

Demand for housing and retail and industrial sites in the Chelsea area has exploded in recent years—so a lot more people are mailing letters, checking out library books, and wanting to park their cars downtown. But even as residents put the heat on village leaders to meet these needs, they are also concerned about not just paving over Chelsea's past.

Take the McKune Public Library, for example. Built in 1860, the building has immeasurable historical value as the home of Elisha Congdon, who, with his brother James, founded Chelsea. As a library, on the other hand, it's becoming very cramped and outmoded. But when the board raised the option of tearing it down to build a new, larger library, there was a public outcry. Most villagers also resisted the idea of locating a new library anyplace but downtown, according to Lynn Fox, library board president. "It's [on] a wonderful site, especially if the city moves their offices across the street."

Fox was referring to efforts by Chelsea developer Rene Papo to build and lease a government center on the Palmer Ford lot there. If Papo's successful, his new office center would solve one of Chelsea's long-standing problems. For three years, municipal offices have been temporarily housed in a bank next to the library.

Papo's plan might also solve another problem: the need for a larger post office. Last year the Postal Service declared that Chelsea's current post office is too small and lacks adequate truck access. While villagers have no control over this decision, they are demanding that the postal authorities keep any new post office downtown. Meanwhile the fate of the old building also remains uncertain, and it, too, contains an invaluable piece of Chelsea's history. In 1936 the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) commissioned artist George H. Fisher to paint a mural on its north wall. Villagers treasure the mural, The Way of Life (right), as an important example of original Depression-era art and as a significant part of Chelsea's past.

If and when a new post office is built, the old structure—and its mural—will be offered to other governmental units by rank. If federal, state, or county officials decide they want the building, villagers will have no formal input over the fate of it or the mural.

Meanwhile, the Downtown Development Authority is building a new parking lot on the Staffan-Mitchell Funeral Home property in response to villagers' demands for more downtown parking. But that location puts a circa-1880 home, most recently home to Serendipity Books, in the way of the bulldozers (see Marketplace Changes, p. 59).

Sensitive to the historic value of the building, the DDA has announced that it will sell the house for a nominal sum if the buyer is willing to move it. "We're not trying to make money," says DDA director Ann Feeney.

It's obvious to many people that these three landmarks—the McKune house, the post office's WPA mural, and Serendipity House—are "priceless." But saving them will come at a price, and someone will have to pay it.

So far, no one has stepped forward to save Serendipity House. The library plans to approach outside sources for contributions before going to the voters for approval of a bond issue to pay for planned additions and renovations on the McKune house. At press time, the board had no figures on the estimated cost.

The fate of the WPA mural will probably take the longest to determine. Anyone who tries to remove it, however, will face a lot of angry villagers. "They'd never destroy it," says Feeney. "People would go bananas if that happened."

—Grace Shackman

U-M Deaf to Preservation Appeals

Published In:
Community Observer, Summer 2005,
Summer 2005

Author: Grace Shackman

The asking price is $2 million for a Dexter landmark.

Does anyone want to buy a historic 1843 Greek Revival mansion for $2 million? That's the University of Michigan's asking price for a Dexter landmark that lots of folks would rather see preserved than put on the market.

Gordon Hall needs plenty of interior work, but from the outside it looks much as it did when Samuel Dexter built it on a hill overlooking the town he founded. It has not just sentimental value as a village landmark but historical importance as well. Dexter and his sons were conductors on the Underground Railroad, and there is strong evidence they hid escaping slaves in the basement.

The U-M, though, views the building mainly as a financial asset. The university has owned the home since 1950, when Dexter's granddaughter, Katharine McCormick, donated the house and grounds. She had been working for ten years with Emil Lorch, dean of the U-M's architecture school, to restore the house—yet, puzzlingly, her gift to the U-M included some money to have the inside gutted and turned into four apartments. One of them was subsequently occupied by Alexander Ruthven, retired president of the university.

In November 2000 the U-M regents voted to sell the house. They had asked the county board of commissioners to designate it as historic, preventing any changes to the exterior. But the county went too far for the U-M's taste. Jim Kosteva, the university's director of community relations, lobbied hard but failed to stop the commissioners from including the property's seventy acres in the protected district. The historic designation prevents any development of the surrounding property without permission of the Washtenaw County Historic District Commission.

Kosteva's announcement of the asking price shocked many people at a recent meeting organized by Alice Ralph, a local architect and member of the county historic district commission. Attending were many interested citizens plus representatives from Dexter Village, Scio and Webster townships (the property straddles the boundary between them), the county parks commission, and the Huron-Clinton Metroparks, plus two county commissioners. Kosteva said the university would accept bids from September 1 through November 15. but only cash offers. He held out some slight hope for compromise only by saying the university was not obligated to accept the highest offer.

Ralph is trying to figure a way for the county to acquire Gordon Hall. Paul Cousins, a member of the village council, is hoping that the Dexter Area Historical Society could end up owning it. Both are finding plenty of people who agree with the idea of community ownership, but coming up with the money is a daunting task. The U-M's time frame leaves room for a possible millage vote, but while Cousins says something like 0.1 mills for restoring and maintaining Gordon Hall might pass, he doesn't think it's likely voters would approve a tax measure large enough to buy the building.

What if no one buys the property? Says Cousins, "If the university changes their mind and has a soft spot in their heart and wants to give us Gordon Hall, we'll take it." So far, though, the university has ignored such appeals—despite the widespread interest in saving Gordon Hall and the building's landmark status for Dexter villagers. Joining other community leaders and official bodies in a preservation effort doesn't seem to be on the U-M's agenda.

—Grace Shackman

Photo Caption: Alice Ralph and Paul Cousins are finding support for community ownership of Gordon Hall.

Saline's mansion

Published In:
Community Observer, Spring 2000,
Spring 2000

Author: Grace Shackman

A May fund-raiser offers a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see how the Davenports and Curtisses lived

The Davenport-Curtiss mansion and its grounds take up a full block of land right on Michigan Avenue in downtown Saline. The house is so impressive that someone I know assumed it must be a public building—only when he was rebuffed at the door did he learn to his embarrassment that it is a private residence. Built in 1876, the mansion has served as a home for two presidents of the Citizens Bank of Saline, William Davenport and Carl Curtiss, and is still owned by the Curtiss family.

Davenport (1826-1909), the bank's founder, built the house, hiring prominent Detroit architect William Scott to design it. (Scott, trained in England, also designed the 1882 Ann Arbor fire station—now the Hands-On Museum.) The Curtiss family still has the blueprints, which are written on linen and include the instruction that "only finest materials available will be used."

Scott designed the house in the Second Empire style (named for the reign of the French emperor Napoleon III), with a tower and a mansard roof. It was one of the first homes in the city with indoor plumbing. Quality wood—walnut, maple, tulipwood, and butternut—was used throughout, and Davenport furnished the house with pieces purchased at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, an international trade fair held the year it was built. Outside he built a matching carriage house and stable, and he landscaped the grounds with rare trees.

Davenport had earned his fortune as the owner of Saline's largest general store, which segued into a bank. His father died young, and Davenport began working when he was twelve, starting as a clerk in Caleb Van Husen's store in Saline. He was just twenty-five when he opened his own store in partnership with H. J. Miller, whom he bought out two years later. The business thrived, selling everything from sewing supplies to food to wool, and in 1863 Davenport built a new three-story store on the northwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Ann Arbor Street.

Since Saline's only safe was at the new store, people often asked Davenport to store their cash and other valuables. As the town thrived, especially after the arrival of the train in 1870, Davenport's financial transactions increased. In 1885 he formally organized the bank, which he initially operated out of a comer of his store. Davenport and his wife, Zilpha, were civic leaders. She helped organize the Saline library. He organized the volunteer fire brigade and donated much of its equipment, personally traveling to New York to purchase a hand-pumped fire engine that drew water from cisterns dug under the streets. Davenport "has been prominently identified with all Christian, moral and benevolent movements," a local historian wrote effusively in Charles Chapman's 1881 county history, "and is well noted for his kindness and generosity."

Davenport's son Beveriy (1852-1930) graduated from Detroit Commercial College and succeeded him as bank president after his death in 1909. In 1917, Beverly Davenport remodeled the bank's interior, hiring a New York architect who specialized in financial institutions.

Beverly Davenport died without an heir (his only son, Edward, predeceased him). But luckily there was an employee, Carl Curtiss, who was more than capable of taking over. Curtiss was born in 1883 in Camden, a small town southwest of Hillsdale; he started working at the bank as a teller in 1908, shortly after graduating from Hillsdale College. When William Davenport died, Curtiss was promoted first to assistant cashier and then to secretary of the board and cashier—the posts formerly held by Beverly Davenport. After Beverly's death, Curtiss succeeded him as president of the bank and inherited the Davenport mansion.

When Curtiss moved in, the house had been unoccupied for quite a while and still contained all of its original furnishings. (Beverly had had his own house on Henry Street, just behind his father's.) Curtiss admitted in a 1952 Ann Arbor News interview that he had been tempted to tear the mansion down when he first glimpsed the interior. It was over fifty years old by then, and the plaster was cracked, the fixtures old, and the rooms drab and dirty.

Curtiss's friend Henry Ford convinced him that the house was worth saving, and sent experts from Greenfield Village to help him figure out how to restore the building and furnishings. Curtiss didn't take all of Ford's advice, however—for example, he refused to keep the walnut bathtubs with their copper linings, preferring the convenience of a modem bathroom.

Ford also sent over some of his men to plow up the yard for gardens. In the Curtiss era the house became known for its rows of peonies, hundreds of rose bushes, and thousands of tulips. Curtiss's granddaughter, Mary Curtiss Richards, remembers that the gardeners used to dig up the tulip bulbs every year and dry them on screens for replanting.

While meticulously restoring his house, Curtiss was also earning the respect and gratitude of the community by the way he was running the bank. Though he took over at the beginning of the Great Depression, he dealt with people in a humane way, which also turned out to be good for Saline's future economy. Mary Richards tells how he survived the 1933 bank "holiday," when a panicked run on assets caused many banks to close. "He stood on the steps of the bank, cash in hand, and handed it out," says Richards. "After a few [depositors got their money], they stopped asking to take it out and started putting it back." Some area farmers remember to this day that Curtiss lent them money when their crops failed, and according to Richards, he never foreclosed on any property.

After World War II, loans from Curtiss helped start new businesses, most notably Universal Die Casting, which became Johnson Controls. Curtiss also continued the Davenport tradition of civic involvement. He served on the city council and school board and, during World War II, on the draft board. He donated to countless local projects, including the Saline Community Hospital and the Saline Methodist Church. He paid for high school band uniforms and for much of the land for Curtiss Park. He was a charter member of the Saline Rotary Club.

Curtiss and his wife, Vera, participated in the social life one would expect from a big banker. Richards remembers that they were regular attendees at the musical May Festival in Ann Arbor. "Grandma would get a new dress and dress to the nines," she recalls. "Sometimes she'd get a new piece of jewelry for that, too."

Asked whether it was hard being the granddaughter of the big banker in town, Richards laughs and says, "No, not at all. We were proud of him. We never heard anything bad about him."

Curtiss served on the National Bank Board, and when he went into Detroit for meetings, he and Vera would often take in a play afterward. They sometimes entertained in their house, often in connection with some philanthropic project. Being strict Methodists, they didn't serve anything stronger than ginger ale.

At the time, Richards lived with her parents, Bliss and Vera (her mother had the same name as her grandmother), and her brother Carl in a house her grandparents had built when they first came to Saline. But Richards says she was invited to the Davenport-Curtiss mansion "all the time." Most of her memories of the house are of family events, such as watching movies in the basement (Curtiss had his own projection room, and Richards's family still has some of his movies), or eating her grandmother's waffles on the maid's night out.

Curtiss never retired from the bank; he continued working until his death in 1967 at age eighty-four (Vera had died ten years earlier). In 1964, he oversaw the replacement of William Davenport's original bank building with a new Citizens Bank facility. While in the hospital for his last illness, he was worried that he would spoil his perfect Rotary attendance, so his fellow Rotarians offered to meet in his hospital room. He. died before the time of meeting, leaving his record intact.

Richards's parents moved into the mansion after Carl Curtiss died. A few months later she married, and her parents hosted the reception on the grounds. "It was the last big event [held there]. There was a band, a tent. They went the whole nine yards," says Richards. Her mother kept the house immaculately clean, and even though they regularly hired cleaning help, she insisted on cleaning the Czechoslovakian crystal chandelier herself, still climbing on a stool to do it until she was well into her nineties.

Bliss and Vera Curtiss opened the house to one homes tour in the 1970s. But since then the family has maintained strict privacy, except for letting Saline fourth-grade teacher Audrey Barkel bring students through on tours. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience for those kids to be in there," says Barkel, who has been taking kids through for about twenty-four years.

This spring Bliss and Vera's son Carl, with his sister Mary's help, will open the house to the public again for a very special event: a garden party to benefit Arbor Hospice, which took care of Vera so that she was able to die at home in 1998 (Bliss had died in 1977). The fund-raiser will be held May 21 from 1 to 4 p.m. Docents will explain the history of the home and garden, and refreshments and a booklet about the house will be available. Tickets, limited to 250, will cost $50, and will be available at Arbor Hospice and various Saline merchants, including the Calico Cat. For more information, see Events, p. 53.

—Grace Shackman

The Saline railroad depot

Published In:
Community Observer, Winter 2006,
Winter 2006

Author: Grace Shackman

A hiking trail turns old tracks to good use

In the nineteenth century, the area around the railroad depot was the noisiest, busiest spot in Saline. Steam engines puffed in six times a day to drop off and pick up people and freight. Nearby were a busy grain elevator, two barns, a blacksmith shop, and a lumberyard.

Today the tracks are gone, replaced by a quiet walking trail. On September 24 a ribbon-cutting ceremony marked the official opening of the path that runs along the old railroad bed from Ann Arbor Street to Harris Street past the former depot, now a museum operated by the Saline Area Historical Society. Though the path is less than a quarter mile long, there's hope that it will be the fast leg of a much longer trail.

Saline's first train arrived in 1870 on the Detroit, Hillsdale, and Indiana line (DHI). "Detroit" and "Indiana" were both wishful thinking: the line ran only from Ypsilanti to Bankers, a little town west of Hillsdale. But it connected with the Michigan Central Railroad in Ypsilanti, the Ann Arbor Railroad at Pittsfield Junction south of Ann Arbor, and the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern in Hillsdale.

Although not a major line, the DHI was important to Saline, allowing local farmers to ship wheat, oats, apples, wool, and livestock to larger markets. Saline was the state's busiest shipping point for animals during the nineteenth century, says Saline historian Bob Lane. Livestock were herded down unpaved Bennett Street and held in pens on the south side of the depot. In 1875 the Saline Standard Windmill Company began making windmills and pumps, and the railroad made it a nationwide business.

The barn closer to the station is listed on maps as a hay and fertilizer warehouse. The other was operated by Gay Harris and Willis Fowler, who would buy wool from local sheep raisers and store it until they had enough to send a train car load to wool mills. In mediate nineteenth century Washtenaw County was the nation's leading producer of wool.

A windmill between the station and the first barn pumped water into an underground tank, and from there to a water tower across the tracks. Steam engines filled their tanks from this tower. Around 1900, an electric pump replaced the windmill.

E. W. Ford's lumberyard was west of the station, occupying most of the land from there to the intersection of Ann Arbor and Bennett streets. South of the tracks, Hy Liesemer's grain elevator faced Ann Arbor Street According to an 1888 map, it could hold 10,000 bushels. North of the tracks was Feuerbacher's blacksmith and welding shop, run by John Feuerbacher, who came from Germany in 1870, and his son Edward. The Feuerbachers also bought and sold scrap iron behind the shop, shipping it out by train.

During the twentieth century, rail service declined. The depot saw its last passenger train in 1931; shortly after that, the passenger lobby was removed. Freight operations continued, but in 1961 the depot was closed completely.

Today all that survives is two-thirds of the depot. The wool barn burned down in the 1940s. The hay and fertilizer building has also disappeared, as have the windmill, water tower, lumberyard, grain elevator, and blacksmith shop. There's a small commercial area where the lumberyard stood, and an auto parts store at the blacksmith shop location.

In 1980, after a few years of intermittent use by a couple of businesses, the old, dilapidated depot was given to the Saline Area Historical Society. It looked like a shack, but the society lovingly restored it and made it into a museum.

Today the entrance is through a door that was once the interior entrance to the station agent's office. The bigger room beyond the office, originally the baggage area, is used for displays and meeting space.

The historical society brought in a real caboose, which schoolchildren love. A ten-foot windmill, similar to one that was there originally, was installed as an Eagle Scout project. Across the tracks you can still see traces of the water tower foundation. The society's president. Wayne Clements, would like to move another water tower there or reconstruct one.

Where the hay and fertilizer barn once stood, the historical society has moved a livery barn from 101 North Lewis Street, where Orange Risdon. the founder of Saline, once lived. A real Saline Standard windmill is stored inside.

The idea of a walking path along the old rail bed percolated for years, but it took a while for the society to reach agreement with the Ann Arbor Railroad, which owns the tracks. In November 2005 the society signed a lease with the railroad, and the project quickly gained support; its backers include the health promotion group Pick Up the Pace, Saline!

To cut costs, the organizers abandoned plans for lighting and paving the trail and used some volunteer labor. Washtenaw County Public Health contributed $18,170 from a state grant. Saline CARES (a millage that provides funding for recreational programs) awarded $8,000, while the City of Saline agreed to help cover interim costs.

Heritage Lawn Care, a landscaping firm on Wagner Road, offered a discounted price for installation. The company created a walking trail alongside the tracks by clearing out trees and other obstacles, leveling the ground, installing a landscape fabric, and laying six inches of limestone on top. The finished path is suitable not only for hikers but also for bicycles and wheelchairs.

The area between the rails was also cleared and filled with larger stones. "We thought delineating the tracks would make it more attractive," says David Rhoads, who led the volunteer effort. Hikers can see the challenge the work crews faced by looking at how much vegetation has overgrown the remaining sets of tracks to the north.

The clearing also made it possible to ride the depot's one-person handcar, which train employees used to check the tracks. Rhoads and Clements plan to work on repairing the switch at the Harris Street end of the trail so that the handcar can make a round trip from the depot.

Future plans include adding benches and trash receptacles along the trail. The Saline Garden Club is preparing to plant a perennial garden made up mainly of native plants in a clearing next to the tracks. Other ideas in the talking stage include installing art along the path and putting in bike racks that look like steam engines.

The organizers hope to extend the trail east to the Saline District Library on Maple Road and west to Mill Creek Park. The western end would run near Brecon Village Retirement Community and pass a gorgeous trestle now hidden in the woods. Some neighbors along the route have objected, though, so the plan's future is uncertain.

—Grace Shackman

Christmas Past

Published In:
Community Observer, Date Unknown,

Author: Grace Shackman

Illustrations by Wendy Harless

Early in this century, winter in the country was a time of hard work and isolation. The holidays brought welcome relief with caroling and skating parties, "humbugs," and school plays.

Caroling by sleigh

Katie Chapman remembers Christmas caroling in a horse-drawn sleigh in the late 1910s and early 1920s. All over the Chelsea countryside, people would be singing. The air was filled with song: "It was clear and still, and voices carried. You could hear a mile away," says Chapman.

Chapman's family lived and worked on the Foster estate, south of Sylvan Center. On Christmas Eve, after they'd finished their chores, the whole family would climb into the sleigh and ride to the farms of people they knew. They'd sing carols as they traveled, sometimes singing in their native Hungarian. (Chapman's parents were immigrants from Hungary.) Many other families in the area sang carols in German.

The roads around Chelsea weren't paved until later in the 1920s, and travel was normally slow and bumpy. When conditions were right, though, the sleigh would glide along smoothly. The sleigh itself was nothing fancy, just an open box that could be fitted with runners in the winter or wheels in the summer (it was usually used to carry hay to the barn or gather grain in the fields). To keep warm, the family would wrap up in horsehides. "We'd bundle up so all you could see of our faces were our eyes," Chapman recalls. A piece of soapstone, heated in the stove, served as a foot-warmer. "We felt sorry for the poor horse," says Chapman. "The cold would bother his nose."

When the carolers arrived at a nearby home, the residents would come outside to listen, joining in if they knew the songs. Then they'd invite the singers inside to warm up, and serve them Christmas baked goods and hot cider with cinnamon. "Everyone grew apples," Chapman says, "good ones that you can't get anymore: Greenings, Northern Spy."

When it was time to move on to the next house, their hosts would hitch up their own sleighs and follow behind. By the end of the night, says Chapman, "there was quite a contingent. We'd end up with twenty-five or thirty people." The evening would draw to a close around 10 p.m. Even though it was a holiday, everyone had to be up by 5 a.m. the next day to start the chores.

Dexter 1915-Present

Five generations of Christmas baking

For generations, people have come from miles around to buy German Christmas treats at the Dexter Bakery. The custom dates back to 1915, when Joseph Schnebelt started the business. Through three generations of Schnebelts, and two more owners, the bakery has retained its reputation as the best place in the area to buy such Christmas specialties as Lebkuchen, Schnitzbrot, and Springerle.

Joseph Schnebelt and his new bride, the former Alice Johnson, moved from Battle Creek to open the bakery. One of their daughters. Sister Paraclita, a Catholic nun in the Immaculate Heart of Mary order, still lives in Dexter. As she recalls, her parents chose the town because they liked the community and it needed a bakery.

The Christmas recipes were supplied by Schnebelt's father, Charles, who was born in Baden, Germany. In 1923, Charles Schnebelt bought the Dexter Bakery from his son. Joseph went on to run bakeries in several other towns, but in 1936, when his father was getting too old to handle the bakery alone, he returned to help him. Joseph again took over the Dexter Bakery completely in 1941.

Joseph and Alice's eight children all helped in the bakery. Sister Paraclita and her twin sister worked in the front, clerking. The girls had to be at work when the bakery opened at 7 a.m., but the boys in the family had it much worse—they had to get up in the middle of the night to help with the baking. The whole family pitched in on deliveries. At one time they had extensive routes all over the lakes district.

The Schnebelts would begin baking Christmas cookies right after Thanksgiving. Besides Lebkuchen and Springerle cookies, they made cinnamon stars, sugar cookies with seasonal decorations, almond and coconut macaroons, and Pfeffernuesse. The Lebkuchen was so good, remembers Sister Paraclita, that one of her uncles would buy twenty dozen each season and try to make them last all year: "By July, he'd be cutting it up in small pieces, trying to make it last until Thanksgiving," she says.

Besides cookies, the most famous German Christmas delicacy is Schnitzbrot, a special bread, sometimes compared with fruitcake, but much lighter. Delicious but not too sweet, it goes well with richer holiday fare. As Sister Paraclita recalls, her family made it with whatever dried fruits were available: pears, pineapple, prunes, and candied cherries. They also made three kinds of fudge—chocolate; divinity, made with egg whites; and penuche, made with brown sugar—and two kinds of brittle—peanut and coconut. They also learned to make English Christmas recipes, including mincemeat pie (when it was still made with meat) and fruitcake. They sold the fruitcake and some of the other Christmas goodies by mail to customers all over the country.

The bakery even made its own cough drops—small, menthol-flavored candies called "humbugs." Reverend Father Charles Walsh, of Dexter's St. Joseph Catholic Church, had an old English recipe for the drops. But when he made them in the rectory, the sisters didn't like the mess. Since Joseph Schnebelt was one of his parishioners. Father Walsh asked if he could set up his candy-making equipment in the bakery. After that, every Christmas they made humbugs together. Father Walsh took what he needed, and the rest were sold in the bakery. For years Sister Paraclita sent humbugs to her sister in Texas.

Joseph and Alice's son, Joe Jr., stopped making candy when he took over the bakery in 1956. When he retired in 1972, Joe Jr. sold the business to Jack Owen, an employee for seventeen years. Four years ago, Owen sold the bakery to Cambodia-born immigrants Kim and Saing Yam.

The Yams' only baking experience had been making doughnuts in San Diego, but Owen taught them what he knew before retiring to Stockbridge. He also passed along the Schnebelt Christmas recipes. "We don't change a thing," says Kim Yam. Lifelong Dexter resident Bruce Waggoner agrees. Over the decades he's patronized the bakery. Waggoner says, "they've maintained quality all the way through."

Manchester 1920s

Skating on the Raisin

In the 1920s, Manchester teenagers spent their Christmas Eves skating in a cove on the frozen River Raisin. "There was no entertainment" in town, Glenn Lehr recalls. "We made our own."

Several days before Christmas Eve, people would begin collecting wood for a bonfire. "There were trees up and down the river, lots of dead trees," says Lehr. "We'd just pile up the wood." Then, on Christmas Eve, the teenagers would light the fire and decorate the willow trees that lined the bank with stringed popcorn, candles, and ornaments—"the same sort of thing you put on now, but made with glass, not plastic," he says.

The party would start at dusk, or as soon as the young people could get away from their Christmas Eve dinners at home. There would be about thirty teenagers, Lehr recalls, and sometimes a few adults. But the grown-ups rarely stayed long, getting tired and cold sooner than the teens.

Partygoers would skate around in pairs, crisscrossing hands so they skated in tandem. Some skated with their steady girlfriends or boyfriends. (Lehr says he played the field.) They'd also hold 100-yard and 200-yard races, organized by age, or choose up teams and play hockey with homemade sticks and pucks. Some of Lehr's friends played the flute. "The plaintive notes of the flute floating over the ice were really something," he says.

The skaters wore stocking caps, coats or jackets, sweaters, woolen pants, long Johns, and of course, a scarf, usually knitted by a grandmother. Mackinaw jackets were popular with the boys—hip-length, belted, with two sets of pockets, above and below. Some people brought small bells that they hung around their necks or placed in their pockets; the bells would ring as they skated. The skates themselves were blades clamped onto a pair of high-top boots and tightened with a key that was worn around the neck.

When people got cold or tired, they'd gather around the bonfire to warm up, chat, and roast marshmallows and hot dogs (the homemade kind, bought at one of the local butcher shops: Kiebler, Booth, or Haarer). "You could smell those when you got anywhere near the fire," says Lehr. To make hot cider, they'd heat a poker in the fire, then stick it, sizzling, in a cup. Despite Prohibition, sometimes they'd manage to get hard cider; it cost 50 cents a gallon and was made mostly by Germans in the community, who also made wine.

Occasionally, small groups of skaters would walk to town to Mary Singer's saloon (now the Village Tap), where Lehr worked, to warm up around the potbellied stove. But they always made sure they were back on the ice by midnight, says Lehr. When Christmas officially arrived, they'd "cheer, hug, and smooch a little." After another hour or two of skating, they'd finally call it a night.

Saline 1910s-1940s

Christmas plays in one-room schools

Until the 1950s, many children who lived in the country around Saline were educated in one-room schoolhouses, where a single teacher taught twenty or so students ranging in age from kindergarten through eighth grade. Residents who attended these schools recall with special fondness their annual Christmas plays.

The students would rehearse for weeks for the big event. To create a stage, an old curtain was fastened across the front of the schoolroom. At Lodi Plains School, which once stood on Ann Arbor-Saline Road, bringing the curtain out from the stockroom was a welcome sign that the holiday was near. "It was like setting up the Christmas tree," remembers Wayne Clements. "We were all into the excitement."

Lisle Law attended Judd School on Saline-Milan Road. She remembers Miss Tyce, who lived across the street, coming over to play the piano while the teacher taught Christmas songs. Dorie Bable, also a Judd School alum, recalls another neighbor who recited Christmas poetry.

Christmas pictures, collages, and snowflakes decorated the schoolhouse: "We could make anything—string popcorn, paper chains," says Bable. "We'd use the tinfoil that Salada Tea came in and cut out stars for sparkle." Parents would pitch in as well, sewing elf and angel costumes and building scenery out of boxes.The students made invitations for their parents—the Saline Area Historical Society's archives include a collection of invitations created between 1910 and 1926 by children at the Sutherland School on Textile Road. They also made presents to give to their parents on the night of the performance. Law still has a Christmas gift she constructed for her parents: a picture of a bird that she cut out, colored, then pasted to a piece of glass, with tape around the edges for a frame.

On the day of the performance, the kids would move their desks to the corners of the room so the audience could squeeze in. It was a tight fit, as the room was already very full during the day.

While participants remember the theatrical tradition fondly, memories of the actual plots are hazy. Clements recalls being in a skit about the Wise Men. Law remembers that, as a second grader, she and the two other students in her grade sang "We Three Kings of Orient Are," turningto gaze at the star atop the Christmas tree as the song ended. And she recalls that "the bigger boys would get carried away when singing 'Up on the House Top,' stamping their feet."

Often Santa (presumably someone's father—no one ever questioned him too closely) would visit. "Each kid got a box of candy, like animal crackers come in today, with a cotton handle in the middle," remembers Bable. "It was mostly hard candy, and one piece of chocolate. We'd try to open it at the end with the chocolate. That was the 'prize.'"

Bable remembers that the Judd School parents once turned the tables, putting on their own Christmas play for the children. Although she's forgotten the plot, she recalls it had something to do with a mother with a lot of children who wasn't able to get a Christmas tree. The baby of the family was played by a five-pound bag of sugar wrapped in a blanket.

During the performance, the bag began to leak. Soon everyone was watching the escaping sugar instead of the play. "It ended with an empty bag and sugar all over," Bable laughs.

A Piece of Henry Ford's Dream

Published In:
Community Observer, Spring 2004,
Spring 2004

Author: Grace Shackman

Phoenix Packaging has revamped his one-room Saline schoolhouse.

Henry Ford knew how to run a car company, and he thought he knew how to run the country. In his view, the rural values of his childhood, including education in a one-room schoolhouse, represented America at its best.

In 1935 Ford turned Saline's Schuyler Mill, on Michigan Avenue, into a soybean processing plant. Soon after, he moved a dilapidated old school from Macon Road to a site directly across the street. He intended it for the children of the men who were producing plastics and paints at the restored mill (today Wellers' banquet facility).

Ford spared no expense to restore the school, complete with cloakroom, potbellied stove, and two-person desks. He even installed two outhouses (modernized with real plumbing and heating). On September 7, 1943, Ford attended the opening of the school.

Many of the thirty-five students, who ranged from kindergarten through eighth grade, had tenuous connections to Ford, or none at all. Allen Rentschler's father was farmer, although his uncle, Carl Bredernitz, worked at the soybean factory. Bob Cook's father was a Chevrolet dealer. Thelma Wahl Stremler's dad worked at Bridgewater Lumber.

Like the physical structure, school ac- tivities were a mix of modern and old-fashioned. "We had the latest books, the latest teaching methods," recalls Cook. The older children often served as teacher aides. "I helped the younger ones read, but I felt I was just having fun," remembers Stremler.

Each day started with a chapel service that included recitations by students and hymns led by Stremler on the piano. At recess children of all ages joined in games such as kickball and softball. Ford furnished the school with looms of various sizes.

For students and parents, one attraction of the school was free medical and dental care. Both Rentschler and Stremler got their first eyeglasses thanks to Ford.

The Saline school was one of several Ford built near his small plants. Don Currie, the first teacher, moved on after a year to become principal of Ford High School in Macon. Clare Collins, later a shop teacher at Saline High School, took over from Currie.

The one-room school didn't last long. In 1946, Ford, in failing health, decreed that all his schools would close at the end of the semester. The students returned to public schools; they had little trouble adjusting. Ford died a year later at age eighty-three.

The Saline public schools were not interested in the building, so it was sold to Elizabeth and Bruce Parsons. The Parsonses moved the entrance to the side, added a two-story wing with four bedrooms, and divided the schoolroom into a kitchen, dining room, and living room.

By 2002, when Patricia and Chris Molloy bought the building, a series of owners had let it deteriorate. The Molloys wanted to turn it into an office for their company, Phoenix Packaging. After some negotiations with the city, the Molloys agreed on a historic-preservation easement in exchange for business zoning. In the future, the exteriors of the buildings may not be altered without the city's permission.

The Molloys carefully preserved and restored what was left of the original school, including the hardwood doors, floors, and wainscoting. The first floor is their office; they rent the upstairs to attorney Russell Brown and a separate shed to architect Dan Kohler.

The Molloys have a collection of Ford School pictures on the wall. They acquired an old potbellied stove but then learned that the Saline Area Historical Society has the school's actual stove. The Molloys have agreed to a swap. Now they are keeping their eyes out for one of the old two-seater desks.

—Grace Shackman

Building Bookshelves

Published In:
Community Observer, Summer 2005,
Summer 2005

Author: Grace Shackman

Citizen passion helps libraries grow.

In 1909 the women of Manchester defied their township government and started their own library. In other Washtenaw County towns, women also led volunteer efforts to build and stock local libraries. Long before the era of library boards and dedicated millages, these places became cherished sources of community pride.

For more than a century, local libraries have exemplified the character of the towns they serve. To get them started or keep them going, citizens painted walls, built bookcases, and raised money with card tournaments, puppet shows, and other events. When libraries relocated to larger quarters, members of service groups, from Boy Scouts to Kiwanis clubs, moved the books.

Townspeople also defended their libraries' independence. In the 1930s, Frances Hannum, head of the Ann Arbor library, tried to organize a countywide system but got a cool reception. In the 1960s, when the Washtenaw County Library was established to serve unmet needs, there was again talk of a combined system. But communities preferred to keep their own libraries, even if it meant staying in cramped quarters.

Today, financed by property taxes and run by professionals, local libraries offer materials and services never dreamed of in the era of volunteers. With larger and more modern facilities, the challenge is to give residents access to global resources while preserving tradition and a hometown feel.

In the nineteenth century, readers in western Washtenaw made do with tiny libraries in township halls, schools, or churches. Often these consisted of a single shelf of books. Some local merchants kept lending libraries, from which customers could borrow books for small fees. A drugstore in Dexter had one; so did a Chelsea jewelry store, which carried mostly western novels. As the twentieth century dawned, women started organizing real town libraries. They found space, collected books, ad raised money, often with the help of a benefactor, usually the wife of a prominent local businessman.

That's what happened in Saline in 1900, when a group of civic-minded women formed the Saline Library Association, and the community rallied to help them. The village council provided space in its chambers, the Methodist church provided bookcases, and people donated books. The organizers raised money through lectures and lantern slide shows to operate the library, which originally was open only on Friday afternoons.

By 1907 the Saline library had outgrown the council chambers, and Zilpha Davenport, wife of William Davenport, founder of the Citizens Bank, convinced her husband to house the library in a little building in back of the bank. In 1917, when the bank needed that space, the Davenports paid for construction of a new library at 105 North Ann Arbor Street (now the Drowsy Parrot).

Ken Heininger, who grew up in Saline, recalls that it looked like "an English manor library," with tall bookshelves all the way up to high ceilings. Max Collins remembers the sliding ladder used to reach the higher shelves; he also remembers the mezzanine, where as a young child he would play while his grandmother did her volunteer stint. Neither Heininger nor Collins remembers ever taking out a book. "I don't think they had children's books," says Collins.

As a high school student in the 1940s, Wayne Clements used the library, but he didn't find it a very welcoming place. The strict librarian monitored all activity from her desk in the middle of the room. "She ran a tight ship," Clements recalls. "There was no fooling around. You got the book and left." He doesn't remember there being any tables to sit at. The Saline library remained in the building until 1967.

Manchester's library got an early start: organized in 1838, it was the state's first township-run library. It originally consisted of a row of books on a table in the township office. The township clerk received an extra $25 a year for serving as librarian during its hours of operation, 2 to 4 p.m. on Saturdays.

Early in the twentieth century, the women of the community stepped in. According to a 1926 history written by then-librarian Florence Case, the books in the old library were deteriorating. In 1909 Manchester had four women's study clubs—the Shakespeare Club and the Twentieth Century Club (both of which still exist), the Academy of Forty, and the Saturday Club. Evelyn Spaford, president of the Saturday Club, called a meeting of these groups to form a library association. "They braved the silent disapproval of the township board and installed the library in a room of its own in the Conklin building," an anonymous historian wrote in the library's archives. The women went to work building shelves, gathering books, and raising money.

In 1923 the library moved to upstairs quarters in the Mahrle Building on Adrian Street, opening to the public one evening a week. The late Glenn Lehr recalled in a 1998 interview that the library was in a long, narrow, fairly dark room heated by a potbellied stove. By the time he was fourteen, Lehr said, he had read every book in the collection.

Women also launched the first libraries in Dexter and Chelsea. Dexter's opened in 1927, under the sponsorship of the Dexter Woman's Study Club. Club member Cornelia Copeland's brother, U.S. senator Royal Copeland, let them use a little building he had restored. He kept an office in the back to use when he was in town. Now housing the Cookie MOMster, the building, a former post office, had once been owned by village founder Samuel Dexter. At Senator Copeland's request, the library was named the Alice Frances House, after his mother. It was open mainly on weekends. The librarian, Flora Smith, wrote local history articles for the Dexter Leader and lived across the street in a yellow brick house, since torn down.

Libby Davenport recalls that she and her sister Doris used to go to the library on Saturday afternoons after having cones at Connor's ice cream shop. "We had to show our hands when we came in to the library," she says. "No sticky hands were allowed."

Chelsea's library started as a project of the Child Study Club (now the Woman's Club) in 1932, a few weeks after a speaker from the Michigan Child Study Association gave a talk on libraries. Winifred Palmer, wife of a local doctor, chaired the effort. A store donated a room, and club members dyed sheets maroon to hang as dividers. They painted donated bookcases and tables the same color and opened with twenty-two of their own books and 100 more on loan from the state library. Open three hours twice a week, the library was staffed by pairs of volunteers from the club. Its backers raised money from bake sales, card tournaments, and puppet shows. They also held "give-a-book weeks" to encourage donations. In the next two decades the library moved several times to various rented quarters.

Manchester was the first of the four towns to have a dedicated library building. In 1934 library organizers bought the Lynch House at 202 West Main Street on the village square. The monthly payments to buy the house were lower than the rent for the room in the Mahrle Building.

Once again, the move was a community-wide effort. Local churches put on a benefit play, and volunteers cleaned, painted, and built shelves. The Boy Scouts moved the books. At first the entire collection fit in the home's living room. The upstairs was converted to an apartment for the librarian, Jane Palmer, who planted flowers in the front (some of those plantings remain).

Unlike Manchester's library, which had a history of township funding, the libraries in Saline, Chelsea, and Dexter ran entirely on voluntary contributions. During the Great Depression, though, gifts dwindled and citizens wanted government funding. In 1938, when Senator Copeland died and bequeathed the library building to Dexter, the village agreed to take over financial support. Saline's city government allocated some tax money for the library. In 1940 Chelsea villagers taxed themselves a half mill to support their library, raising the rate the next year to one mill, the legal limit at the time. The libraries also began to receive state aid, mainly from court fees, and sometimes surrounding townships made nominal contributions.

By the 1950s the Chelsea library was looking for more space. Gertrude Daniels, wife of the owner of Chelsea Lumber and a library backer, asked Catherine McKune whether she would will her house to the library. Since 1870, McKune's family had lived at 221 South Main, in a house built in 1860 by Elisha Congdon, who with his brother James had founded Chelsea. McKune agreed, and upon her death in 1958 the library acquired the building.

"There was a lot of overlooked maintenance," remembers Katherine Wagner, Catherine McKune's niece, but the citizens of Chelsea were up to the task. Wagner's bridge club painted the front room; it became the children's area. A caretaker lived in a small apartment upstairs, and another room was furnished by the Woman's Club for its meeting place. Eventually the library expanded to fill the entire house.

In 1963 the Dexter library bought a house at 3173 Baker Road with voluntary contributions from surrounding townships. Katie McKillen ran the library for more than thirty years. "It was said that she knew every book and if it wasn't in, knew who had it out and when it was due back," says longtime board member Marti Davis.

In 1967 the Saline library, having outgrown its 1917 building, moved to 201 South Ann Arbor Street. The building had been built as a church in 1904 and later was used as a private residence, a furniture store, and a hospital.

State legislation passed in 1989 allowed two or more units of government, including a school district, to form a library. The new law was very timely. The libraries in Chelsea, Dexter, and Saline had built additions onto their converted buildings, but all three, as well as Manchester's library, were outgrowing their spaces. They needed bigger tax bases to finance their moves to new buildings.

Saline was the first to take advantage of the law. In 1991 the city and school district asked for a joint millage—0.9 mills for operating expenses and 2.2 mills for a new building. Local architect Michael Pogliano designed a modern glass-filled, open-roomed library, at 555 North Maple Road; it was organized by Leslee Niethammer, the first Saline librarian to have a master's degree in library science. Niethammer also worked with the U-M School of Natural Resources and the Saline Eagle Scouts to create a woodland trail on eleven acres surrounding the library.

In 1994 voters in the Dexter school district approved a half-mill levy for library services. The library hired its first master's-degreed librarian, Paul McCann. Using proceeds from the sales of its Baker Road house, the board bought the former Methodist Church Education Building at 8040 Fourth.

With more space and a larger budget, McCann expanded the library's holdings and programming. Circulation rose from about 20,000 books a year in the old building to 20,000 books a month today. Dexter now has the smallest building and the smallest millage of the four western Washtenaw libraries, but it's very busy. McCann says, "You would be hard pressed to find a library with our circulation with our budget."

Chelsea organized its district library in 1997. In 1999 voters in the school district approved 1.75 mills to run a larger library but rejected a building millage. "They turned it down because there were too many uncertainties," says librarian Metta Lansdale. Most folks wanted the library to stay in McKune House, but the library needed space for parking and expansion. Getting it proved complicated. First, Gloria and George Mitchell agreed to relocate their business, the Staffan-Mitchell Funeral Home, which was across the street from the library. That building was then torn down for a parking lot. Next, a house on Orchard Street was moved so that Frank and Kathryn Staffan could move their house, directly behind the library, onto the Orchard Street lot, giving the library room to expand to the rear.

While this was all being negotiated, the library had to leave the McKune House because it was not handicapped accessible. It relocated to the media center at the old high school on Washington Street.

Biding her time, Lansdale used the operating money to prepare for a bigger library, adding books, training new staff, buying more computers, and organizing programming. In May 2004 voters agreed on a millage that will provide $8.2 million to build an addition behind the McKune House. Ground was broken April 17, and the library plans to move by September 2006.

Manchester was the last of the four towns to form a library district, in 2000. Its service area includes portions of the school district in Manchester, Freedom, and Bridgewater townships.

The old library was centrally located but very crowded—every time it bought a new book, it had to get rid of an old one. The former home also was not handicapped accessible. So when Manchester's village government acquired the old Ford factory on the east side of town in 2000, it agreed to rent space to the library. A 1941 Art Moderne building overlooking the Raisin River, it was originally one of Henry Ford's mills. The library has large windows with light pouring in and beautiful river views. Voters recently renewed the millage for another ten years, and Freedom Township, which was considering leaving the district, voted to stay.

Many residents of each town had mixed feelings about trading in their cozy small-town quarters for more modern facilities. "It's louder, busier - there's more energy, more milling about," says McCann, the Dexter librarian. The four librarians try to keep things personal; all have their desks near the fronts of their libraries. And all offer full schedules of programs.

The libraries share resources and information. Heather Sturm, who started as Manchester librarian this year, uses a planning consultant suggested by the other librarians and a survey form created by Paul McCann. The Washtenaw County Library serves the blind and handicapped of all the districts, and county librarian Mary Udoji holds seminars to acquaint area librarians with county services.

Manchester, Dexter, and Chelsea belong to a library co-op that allows them to borrow from about seventy libraries in southeastern Michigan. Patrons usually have to wait only a few days for the materials they request to be delivered.

A feeling of community ownership remains a key ingredient in the libraries' successes. In 2002, Dexter voters turned down a millage to build a new library on Parker Road because it was too far from town; the board is now suggesting building downtown behind the fire station. In Manchester there is no room to expand. "We may someday need to move to bigger quarters, but I'm not worrying about it now," says Sturm. Saline already is outgrowing its building and will probably go to the voters for an expansion millage in 2006. Growth and change continue, but every library is striving to maintain a strong tie to its community and its long history.

Photo Captions:

When Saline's Drowsy Parrot was the town library, Max Collins used to play on the mezzanine while his grandmother volunteered.

After making do with rented or donated quarters in other buildings, libraries found their own homes: the McKune House in Chelsea, the Lynch House in Manchester, and in Saline (center) a library constructed in 1917 (now the Drowsy Parrot).

Dexter's Paul McCann and Saline's Leslee Niethammer are the first master's-degreed librarians to serve their towns.

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