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,
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.


Hey, were you looking for the Summer Game code? You found it! Enter WASHTENAWLITERACY on your play.aadl.org player page.

The Fountain-Bessac House

Published In:
Community Observer, Summer 2000,
Summer 2000

Author: Grace Shackman

Architectural one-upmanship in Manchester

The Fountain-Bessac house, the majestic residence just west of Manchester's main shopping block at 102 West Main, is a monument to the rivalry between two of the town's earliest leaders.

According to Annetta English, a chronicler of Manchester from the 1930s, rich mill owner Jabez Fountain (1819-1901) built the home's Greek Revival first floor about 1842. Fountain's ambition, English wrote, was to outshine the nearby residence of John Kief, Manchester's first banker.

Kief's home was behind Fountain's, across the street on Madison. "It stands on a rise of ground, with ample grounds around it, and fine old trees, and an exquisite view is afforded to the west and to the north," wrote English. At the time English wrote, the house was still occupied by a Kief descendant and filled with fine old furniture.

The Fountain house was built, and no doubt also designed, by William Carr, who constructed many of Manchester's early houses and commercial buildings. Carr probably used Asher Benjamin's 1830 pattern book The Architect, or Practical House Carpenter. Katherine McKibben, present owner of the house, has noticed in a reprint of Benjamin's book that two of her fireplaces exactly match Benjamin's suggested designs. Although originally just one story high, the Greek Revival design still must have looked impressive, standing back on a deep lot with six Ionic columns across the front. Old photos show a majestic horse chestnut on the front lawn and vines growing up the columns.

In 1850 Fountain sold the house to Dr. William Bessac and moved to an even grander home on the comer of City Road and Furnace. Bessac (1809-1885) added a smaller second floor topped by a third- floor cupola, both designed in the then fashionable Italianate style. The pyramidal outline he created led some to compare the home to a wedding cake or Chinese lantern. Bessac's family moved upstairs, while the first floor became his medical examining rooms and drug dispensary.

According to Bessac's obituary, "He prided himself in mastering not only the principles of science but the minute details of the practice, and a faithfulness in remembering names and faces followed him to his latest days." But his medical practice evidently was insufficient to support his family, because Bessac also ran a general store on the south side of the commercial block, selling drugs, groceries, and dry goods.

The house was threatened but not destroyed by a fire in 1853 that leveled much of downtown Manchester. The fire began at the mill and was spread by the wind to the north side of the main shopping block, where it burned all the wooden buildings in its path until it reached the hotel across the street from the Fountain-Bessac house. The hotel's barn burned, but the people fighting the fire were able to bring it under control before it went farther.

Interestingly, Bessac himself was not home at the time, because he was on a shopping trip with his neighbor—Fountain's old rival, John Kief. An account of the fire reported that "Doctor Bessac and John D. Kief were in the East, purchasing new goods for their stores."

After Bessac's death, the home passed to his daughter, Mary, and her husband, George Haeussler. A pharmacist, George bought the Van Dyne and Calhoun drugstore in 1876. The Haeusslers had one son, Raynor, who followed his father into the business. (After passing through several subsequent owners, their store is now the Manchester Pharmacy.) Raynor married Marjorie Kingsley, and the young couple built a Colonial Revival home behind his parents' house. Mary Haeussler continued to live in the big house after her husband's death, but when climbing stairs became difficult, Raynor and Marjorie added a first-floor bedroom to her house and brought meals over to her every day.

In 1947, after Mary Haeussler had died and the house had been either vacant or rented for some years, Raynor Haeussler sold it to Mary and Tom Walton. A young couple recently married, they had moved to Manchester to be near the onion and potato farm that Tom's family owned. Tom worked on the farm but lived in town. They rented an apartment until, as Mary remembers it, "One day I went in the drugstore, and someone said, 'Why don't you buy the place on the corner? It's run down and no one's living in it.'" The house was over 100 years old and was falling apart when the Waltons moved in. "There was old plumbing, an old steam furnace," recalls Mary Walton. "It was rough."

To restore the house, the Waltons were fortunate to have the help of Emit Lorch, retired dean of the University of Michigan architecture school. Lorch had become acquainted with the house in the 1930s when he headed the Historic American Building Survey Project in Michigan; at that time, the house had been entered in the secretary of the interior's list of important historic structures. The Waltons met Lorch when he asked to include the house in a tour for the Washtenaw County Historical Society.

The Waltons worked with Lorch and an architecture student to create a plan to modernize the house while keeping all the historic features. The Waltons lived in a trailer in the street for the first year of the three-year project. "We were young and could do those things," recalls Mary Walton. They removed the tacked-on first floor bedroom and the back kitchen wing, which they replaced with a breezeway and two-car garage. Inside, they opened up the downstairs—still divided into tiny rooms from Dr. Bessac's time—and relocated the staircase to the center of the house. Outside, they replaced the front columns, which were falling apart, with exact copies. As Lorch explained in a letter to the Waltons, the columns "are the chief features of the front and like our Sunday clothes need to be 'according to Hoyle,' as they say."

The Waltons lived in the house forty-seven years, raising two children and playing an active role in the community, especially in their church and the historical society. Tom served on the village council. Their large, beautifully landscaped front lawn, located so near downtown, was a convenient as well as gracious place to hold community events. By 1988 the home was listed on both the state and national registers of historic places.

Katherine McKibben bought the house from the Waltons in 1990. She has made changes but has been careful, as the Waltons were, to keep its historic character intact. She divided the living room in two and opened up the kitchen to include the space where the Waltons had an office. A portrait of Dr. Bessac hangs in a place of honor in the dining room. The painting had belonged to Raynor Haeussler, Bessac's grandson. Raynor and Marjorie had no children; after they died, their heirs gave the picture to the Waltons. They in turn gave it to McKibben, feeling that it should stay in the house.

In the "contest" that inspired the house, Fountain wins hands down—at least if one considers the test of time. Kief's house, while still standing, had its top floor removed in 1950, and most of its old features are now hidden; one can hardly guess its age or former elegance. Meanwhile, the Fountain-Bessac house is the one that everyone who comes to town notices and admires.

—Grace Shackman

Turning the clock ahead in Dexter

Published In:
Community Observer, Fall 2000,
Fall 2000

Author: Grace Shackman

From car showroom to coffee shop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Grace Shackman

Dexter's Vinkle-Steinbach House

Published In:
Community Observer, 1997,
1997

Author: Grace Shackman

The American Legion Hall was originally the home of an eccentric cabinetmaker

Henry Vinkle, original owner of the historic Vinkle-Steinbach House, is said to have built his own casket, and napped in it every day until he died and was buried in it. His house, built in 1840, is now the headquarters of Dexter's American Legion.

Vinkle, a trained cabinetmaker, set up business sometime before 1832 on the west side of the millpond, near Dexter's two mills and the main shopping area. For his shop, he used a barn that town founder Samuel William Dexter had built in 1826. Like other nineteenth-century cabinetmakers, Vinkle not only made coffins, he also doubled as an undertaker. Prior to the Civil War, funerals were held in homes, and the undertaker's job was to take the casket to the family and lay out the body. Soon Vinkle was handling funerals for miles around Dexter.

By 1840, Vinkle's business was prospering and he built an elegant Greek Revival home. "The house was built back in the time when there were very few nails," said Leon Agan, son-in-law of one of the home's later owners. The builders used "big logs," Agan said, and did the foundation and flooring by hand.

According to Agan, the three pillars in front of the house—which he always found "rather pretentious"—were "the outstanding edifice as far as the people going by were concerned." The year after Vinkle built his house. Judge Dexter built a very similar house not far away—with six pillars.

From the time the Vinkle family lived in the house until the time the American Legion occupied it, the home had only three other owners, all related: first Henry Jones; then his sister Helen Laney and her husband, Zerah Burr; and lastly Helen's daughter Mary Laney and her husband, Henry Steinbach. (Agan was married to the Steinbachs' daughter Frances.) Two weddings took place in the mansion: Adeline Vinkle to William Boston in 1869 and Mary Laney to Henry Steinbach in 1902.

Zerah Burr farmed on land that ran south of the property. His son-in-law, Henry Steinbach, worked as a traveling salesman, selling leather belting and leather supplies, mainly to steel mills in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. Steinbach always traveled by train because he hated car travel. Although the train tracks went right by his house, he had to board the train at the station, four blocks away. (Once, though, the train stopped in front of his house because of an obstruction, and he just got off there.)

The Steinbachs built a swimming pool between the house and Mill Creek. Their children, Frances, Charles, and Burr, all enjoyed it, as did their friends, including the children of the Bates family, who lived just up the road. Harry Bates (now a member of the American Legion) and his sisters, Dorothy Bates and Jeanette Bates Turner, remember Mary Steinbach giving them cookies and milk after school.

The Bateses remember that Henry Steinbach, a small man, "a bantam rooster," liked to relax with a cigar in his leather reclining chair in a nook in the living room. Mary Steinbach and her mother hosted many Methodist church functions, including quilting bees. It was a large enough home to set up the quilting frame and to lay out a potluck lunch inside.

Dexter war veterans organized a chapter of the American Legion in 1948 and bought the Vinkle-Steinbach house for their headquarters the next year. They filled in the pool and tore down the barn, replacing it with a picnic pavilion. Two additions to the house were built: a meeting room to the east in 1957, and an enlargement of the lounge on the west in 1984. The additions are placed far enough from the front house line so as not to obscure the pillars nor alter the majestic look of the house. The inside, however, has been totally remodeled with an open room plan, wood paneling, a new fireplace, a bar, ceiling fans, and three televisions.

Today 290 members enjoy the house, relaxing in the lounge, attending meetings in the hall, and working on a wide variety of service projects for the community and for other veterans. "We're proud of what such a small community can do," says Legion adjutant Larry Stalker. The old Vinkle-Steinbach House not only serves all their needs, but is much more homey and cozy than a new building would be. According to Legion member Harry Bates, "This is about as good as Dexter has to offer."

—Grace Shackman

Photo Caption: Henry Vinkle's colonnaded home aroused the envy of Judge Dexter himself.

The View from the Hill

Published In:
Community Observer, Spring 2001,
Spring 2001

Author: Grace Shackman

Dexter residents want to save Gordon Hall—and its vista.

The University of Michigan plans to sell both historic Gordon Hall and its surrounding seventy-acre estate, which offers a prized and unobstructed view of the village. Built in 1841, the colonnaded mansion on a hill northwest of town is the only surviving residence of village founder Samuel Dexter. Now local residents are banding together to try to save not only the home but its grounds as well. Future generations of Dexter residents "should be able to get the view from the top of the hill that Judge Dexter could see," contends Paul Cousins, former village council member and founder of Cousins Heritage Inn.

The U-M, which announced its decision to sell Gordon Hall last November, has asked the Washtenaw County Historic District Commission to give the mansion a historical designation before the house goes on the market. However, the request applies only to the building itself and a rectangular area around the house extending 250 feet in front, 100 feet in back, and 75 feet on either side - not to the full acreage of the original property. So while the historic home would be legally protected, its prime view of Dexter would not.

Cousins and other community leaders, including former village president Paul Bishop and Dexter Historical Society president Gil Campbell, hope to raise the funds needed to buy the house and its "viewscape" from the U-M, which has owned the building and its surrounding property since 1950. Their goal is to purchase the mansion and the original property, restore the house, and furnish it as it would have been during Judge Dexter's occupancy, gathering back artifacts dispersed to the Dexter Area Historical Museum and the Washtenaw County Historical Society. In addition to its great educational value, the organizers believe, the house could lure history-minded visitors to Dexter. "It could outshine the bakery as a reason to come here," jokes Bishop.

Gordon Hall, named in honor of Samuel Dexter's mother, Catherine Gordon Dexter, is a magnificent example of Greek Revival architecture. "In the eighteen forties it was one of the places to see in Michigan," Campbell says. Moreover, it was almost certainly a stop on the Underground Railroad—Dexter has been identified as a "conductor," and there is a place in the basement where fugitive slaves may have hidden.

The home was sold after Dexter's widow died in 1899, and it fell into disrepair. In the 1930s U-M architecture dean Emil Lorch and U.S. senator Royal Copeland - a Dexter native - persuaded Dexter's granddaughter, Katharine Dexter McCormick, to buy it back (Community Observer, spring 2000). McCormick paid Lorch to repair and restore the mansion, hoping that the Dexter Women's Study Clubs, which used it for meetings, could take it over. But the clubs could not afford the upkeep, so in 1950 McCormick gave it to the university. Much to Lorch's dismay, the university demolished part of the building and divided the rest into apartments—stripping away much of the elegant interior detail in the process.

According to Bishop, "It would be nice if the U of M would give it back to us; we could use the money [raised for the purchase] to undo what they did." But the village's hope that the house might be sold for a minimal amount will apparently go unfulfilled. The university plans to sell Gordon Hall in the usual bid process. "We have a fiduciary responsibility to the public taxpayer," says Jim Kosteva, U-M director of community relations. "We don't have the ability to offer special deals."

This isn't the first time that the village has mobilized to try to save one of its founder's residences. Dexter built his first home in the village on Huron Street in 1826 and moved to another house on Huron when the railroad was built nearby in the 1830s. In 1939, when his second house was about to be torn down, three Dexter women tried to raise $1,000 to save it but failed. Bishop, Campbell, and Cousins - who face a far greater financial challenge - are hoping the same fate won't overtake what Lorch called "in many ways the most important of all Michigan homes."

—Grace Shackman

Dexter Area Museum

Published In:
Community Observer, Summer 1999,
Summer 1999

Author: Grace Shackman

Local artifacts in a century-old church building

Samuel Dexter's bed, clock, and rocking chair; Dr. William Wiley's tum-of-the-century medical instruments; a host of other historic Dexter artifacts—what better place to display them than an equally historic church?

Serendipitously, just as the Dexter Area Historical Society was organizing in the early 1970s and looking for a permanent location, St. Andrew's United Church of Christ decided to leave its 1883 edifice and build a new church. Now both have what they want: St. Andrew's has its modern church on Ann Arbor Street, while the historical society has its museum in the old church, which was moved to the back of the St. Andrew's parking lot, facing Inverness.

In the nineteenth century, many Germans immigrated to western Washtenaw County, mainly from the area around Stuttgart. Twenty-two of those families organized St. Andrew's in 1875 so they could hear the gospel preached in their own language. They held their first services at George Sill Hall, above Sill Hardware (now Hackney Ace Hardware).

After eight years, they built their first church, a simple wooden structure painted white both inside and out, with a tower and green shutters. Germans from congregations in Chelsea, Ann Arbor, and Manchester came to the dedication. They met at Sill Hall, formed a line, and proceeded to the new church, where they held a service, and then returned to the hall for a banquet.

The church added a wooden parish hall in 1927, and a brick one in 1959. A rough basement was dug in 1933 for a new furnace. But by 1971, the congregation was running out of room, and one comer of the church was sagging.

Meanwhile, Norma McAllister, a Dexter native and village history enthusiast, became concerned that a lot of local historical material was being lost. Together with Dexter High School teacher Frank Wilhelme and one of his students, Tom Morcom, she organized the first meeting of the Dexter Area Historical Society—the first local Historical society in Michigan—in July 1971.

"We didn't know how many would come. But they poured in. We had to keep getting more chairs," recalls McAllister. By the end of the evening, seventy-five people had signed up.

The society's main objective was to set up a museum for donated historic artifacts. St. Andrew's agreed to contribute its original church building and the 1927 parish hall. The historical society signed a seventy-five-year lease on the new site for the old church, and then raised money for the move. McAllister recalls that some members lent money to the society and were paid back with some of the profits from Dexter's 1974 sesquicentennial celebration.

St. Andrew's moved the church bell and altar into its new building but left everything else, including stained glass windows added in 1908 in memory of loved ones. The historical society maintains the old church's ambience. The onetime sanctuary now holds permanent and rotating exhibits about the Dexter area. There are historic photos of people, stores, churches, and houses in the vestibule, while the basement is used for farm tools and an electric railroad. The old parish hall is used for a gift shop and meeting space (the historical society meets on the first Thursday of the month). A small room off the larger area, originally a kitchen, is the genealogy room, run by Nancy Van Blaricum, who collects Dexter records—newspapers, census reports, church records, family histories.

"I'm glad the museum lasted," says McAllister. "It's important to keep this stuff."

—Grace Shackman

The Aura Inn

Published In:
Community Observer, Summer 1999,
Summer 1999

Author: Grace Shackman

The heart of Fredonia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Grace Shackman

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