McKune Memorial Library

Author: 
Grace Shackman

Elisha Congdon's mansion has been at the center of life in Chelsea for 137 years

McKune Memorial Library isn't as famous as Chelsea's clock tower, but historically it may be even more significant. Built in 1860 in a commanding position atop a hill on the town's main thoroughfare, the Italianate mansion was the last home of Chelsea's founder, Elisha Congdon. Congdon served as Chelsea's first postmaster, as village president, and as its representative in the state legislature.

Congdon came to the area in 1832 and purchased 160 acres on the east side of what would become Chelsea's Main Street. His brother, James Congdon, bought 300 acres on the west side of the street. Elisha Congdon built a log house for his family, which his daughter Emily Congdon Ames later remembered as "just a shanty." When it burned down in 1849, he built a larger frame house on the site.

In 1850, Congdon offered the Michigan Central Railroad free land to build a railroad station on his property. The railroad accepted his offer, and soon farmers and tradesmen from the surrounding areas started coming to Chelsea to make deliveries, pick up purchases, and get their mail at Congdon's post office. The Congdon brothers platted their farmland into village lots, and before long, businesses in the nearby settlements moved to Chelsea.

McKune Hotel

Elisha Congdon died just seven years after building his mansion. By the time this drawing was made in 1874, Timothy McKune had turned it into a hotel.

With that stroke, Elisha Congdon assured Chelsea's future—and his own. In 1860, he moved the frame house to make way for his mansion. Unnerved by the fire that had destroyed his first home, he said that this brick house should be as "strong as a fortress and immune to devastation."

Said to be a copy of the Martha Washington house in Ann Arbor, Congdon's new home featured all the fancy accoutrements one would expect in an elegant house of that era: a parlor with a fireplace, carved woodwork, and a back staircase for servants. Congdon lived there until he died in 1867 at the age of sixty-seven.

In 1870, Timothy McKune, an Irish immigrant, farmer, and businessman, bought the Congdon house and converted it to a fashionable inn called the McKune House. Just two blocks from the railroad station, it served train passengers as well as stagecoach travelers.

When McKune died in 1909, his son, Edward, took over the inn. But the business had passed its peak by then: with the growing popularity of automobiles, people could travel farther in a day and still make it home by evening. The hotel served fewer overnight guests and became something closer to a rooming house. Carol Kempf remembers passing by the McKune House in the 1930s and seeing men who looked like bums hanging out on the long front porch that the McKunes had added.

Meanwhile, in 1932, the Chelsea Child Study Club had founded a village library, starting off with 22 donated books and 100 borrowed from the state library. Originally run by volunteers, the library hired staff after the passage of a 1938 millage, but it still lacked a permanent home. In its first fifteen years, the library moved four times—from one donated space downtown to another—ending up in 1946 on the second floor of the municipal building.

When the Friends of the Chelsea Library were organized in 1949, one of their first objectives was to find a better location. Their search ended in 1956, when Edward McKune's widow, Katherine Staffan McKune, offered to bequeath the house to the organization in memory of her family. Childless and with strong ties to Chelsea (her family founded the Staffan Funeral Parlor), she wanted to leave the house for the village's use.

The house was run-down when the organization received it in 1958—some said it needed more work than it was worth. But with various organizations and hundreds of people donating money, materials, and labor, the house was ready for occupancy by 1959.

Other than the east wing, which was added in 1961, the exterior looks much like it did during Congdon's occupancy. The McKunes' long porch has been removed and replaced by a porch more like the original. Inside, the basic room layout remains the same, although shelves and tables have replaced the nineteenth-century family furniture.

In addition to Chelsea, the McKune Library serves residents of Dexter and Sylvan townships, and the library district may expand to include Lima and Lyndon townships. New challenges include making the library handicapped accessible, increasing parking, and creating more space, either by adding to the building or constructing a new one. Those concerned about retaining Chelsea's heritage hope that any additions do not obscure the original house—and that an equally suitable use can be found for the building if the library moves elsewhere.


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Rights Held By: 
Grace Shackman

Chelsea Private Hospital

Author: 
Grace Shackman

The owners lived downstairs

Sixty years ago, patients at the Chelsea Private Hospital could give birth, undergo surgery, and recuperate from illnesses in a homelike setting while still enjoying the benefits of modern medicine.

The hospital occupied three upstairs bedrooms in an old house at 318 East Middle Street. Two of the rooms had patient beds; the third served as the operating and delivery room. An adjoining alcove was made into a nursery.

Home hospitals were found all over the country between 1870 and 1945. Also called "proprietary hospitals," they formed a bridge between doctors making house calls and the giant institutional hospitals of today.

The Chelsea Private Hospital was owned by Nellie Notten and her husband Ehlert, a well-established dairy farmer. The Nottens opened the hospital in 1926 in a house on Main Street, then relocated ten years later when the federal government wanted the original location for a post office.

The Middle Street house was built about 1885 for Dr. George Palmer and his family. (George's son, Leigh, started the Palmer Ford dealership, which is still in operation.) While Nellie looked after the patients upstairs, Ehlert commuted from the house to his farm. They lived on the buildings first floor and sold some of Ehlert's dairy products from the back door.

The Chelsea Private Hospital served the patients of Drs. Malcolm Sibbald and Joseph Fisher, who had their offices above Schneider's Grocery (now Chelsea Market). John Keusch, whose office was behind theirs, recalls that Sibbald and Fisher performed tonsillectomies and appendectomies at the hospital. Several Chelsea residents remember the care their parents received during their last illnesses at the Nottens' hospital. The two doctors, who were general practitioners, sent more complicated cases to larger hospitals or called on the services of a Jackson surgeon.

Anna Laban, who gave birth to her son Larry in the Middle Street hospital, recalls that Nellie Notten stayed with her in the delivery room, calling Sibbald when she thought the baby was about to be born. "It didn't take him two minutes to get there from his office," Laban says. She remembers Notten as "kinda heavy, middle stocky." Sibbald, she says, was a "feisty guy, quick-tempered, very outspoken—but he was always good to me."

Myrtle Smith, who lived in Dexter, chose to give birth in the Nottens' hospital at the recommendation of her sister-in-law, who lived in Chelsea. Fisher delivered Smith's daughter Bonnie and later gave her checkups in the back room at the Dexter Rexall drugstore.

New mothers were put in one of the two patient rooms and were usually the hospital's only patients. They stayed in bed ten days, not even getting up to go to the bathroom. "I'm telling you, when I was allowed to get up my knees were wobbly," recalls Laban. But all the mothers interviewed have very warm memories of the hospital, remembering that they received good food and good care.

Ann Wood, who had her son Don there, recalls that when Sibbald was nearing retirement age. Fisher handled most of the births, on the assumption that he would be the doctor caring for the babies as they grew up. However, World War II intervened, and Fisher left town in 1942 to serve in the military. (He returned after the war and practiced medicine until his retirement.) Larry Schrader, born on September 29, 1942, was Fisher's last delivery before leaving.

When Fisher went to war, the Nottens closed the hospital. After that, patients wanting to go to a home hospital were referred to one in Stockbridge, though it was considered to be not as well run.

Nellie Notten's health declined, and she died four years after closing the hospital. Ehlert remarried and sold the house. It was used for apartments and for a chiropractic clinic until 1991, when Jackie and John Frank bought it.

The Franks have been meticulously restoring the house to the one-family status and elegant look it must have had when the Palmers built it. But, in remembrance of the house's years as a hospital, the Franks have kept the sink in the former delivery room, which is now their exercise area.

On Labor Day 1998, they organized a well-attended potluck for people born in the hospital. "People were really moved to see where they were born, where their mother was," Jackie Frank says.

—Grace Shackman

Rights Held By: 
Grace Shackman

Thriving on the Railroad

Author: 
Grace Shackman

Most Washtenaw County towns were founded because of the potential water power nearby. Chelsea, in contrast, owes its existence to the early arrival of the Michigan Central Railroad.

When the Michigan Central passed through Sylvan Township in 1841 on its way from Detroit to Chicago, the present site of Chelsea consisted of four small hamlets, each of which had been started in the 1830's. The largest one was Pierceville, founded by Nathan Pierce at the current intersection of M-52 and Old US-12. (Pierce's house can still be seen at 14300 Old US-12.) On the north side of present-day Chelsea, in Lima Township, Nathan's brother Darius had started a town he called Kedron, after a river in Jerusalem. Meanwhile, two other brothers, Elisha and James Congdon, had settled on plots facing each other on either side of the present Main Street. The Congdons, who hailed from Chelsea Landing, Connecticut, called their settlement Chelsea and eventually convinced Darius Pierce to adopt the name for his hamlet, too.

In 1848 the railroad built a small station about a mile west of what is now downtown Chelsea. When this station burned down, the Congdons offered free land to the railroad for a new station. In 1850 Michigan Central took them up on their offer, a decision that guaranteed Chelsea's primacy. The same year, Chelsea became a post office, its first store opened, and the Congdons' land was platted. The businesses in the other settlements soon moved into what is now downtown Chelsea.

Thanks to the railroad, Chelsea grew and thrived. By 1881, according to Chapman's county history, Chelsea was the largest produce market in the county, shipping grain, apples, stock, and meat, and the largest wool shipper in the state. "With the exception of a day of exceedingly dubious weather. Main and Middle Streets are thronged with farmers' teams," Chapman wrote, "and the stores of these thorough-fares crowded with customers."

In 1891, Frank Glazier, son of Chelsea banker George Glazier, started manufacturing oil heating and cooking stoves in two buildings on Main Street. After a disastrous fire, he rebuilt on land north of the railroad station. He built on a grand scale, and the stove works' red-brick clock tower remains Chelsea's best-known landmark. Also active in politics, Glazier rose to become state treasurer, but was forced to resign in 1907, when it was revealed that he had deposited state money in his own bank and had pledged the same stove company stock as collateral for loans all over the state. His company went bankrupt, and Glazier served two years in prison for misusing state funds before returning to Chelsea to live out his life on Cavanaugh Lake.

Until ten years ago, Chelsea still had a small-town feel, with the stores on Main Street serving residents' everyday needs. But with the opening of a shopping center at M-52 and Old US-12, downtown stores started moving there, returning full circle to the original site of Pierceville. Almost overnight, downtown Chelsea became a more upscale regional shopping and entertainment area: The Common Grill restaurant replaced Dancer's, the quintessential small-town clothing store, and local son Jeff Daniels opened his excellent new theater, the Purple Rose.


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Rights Held By: 
Grace Shackman

Chelsea Savings Bank

Author: 
Grace Shackman

It was Frank Glazier's memorial to his father

"It would be a notable building in many a city of much larger size," wrote Samuel Beakes in 1906 of the Chelsea Savings Bank building. Constructed in 1901 by Frank Glazier, the building on the corner of Main and South streets is now the District 14-A Courthouse.

Glazier built the impressive fieldstone temple as a memorial to his father, George, from whom he inherited the bank. Frank Glazier left a wonderful architectural heritage in Chelsea, including the bank, the red-brick stove factory with its clock tower, the employee welfare building next door (until recently home of the Chelsea Standard), and the First United Methodist Church.

His enterprises collapsed abruptly during the depression of 1907. The Farmers and Mechanics Bank was organized the next year to fill the void, and in 1927, the new bank moved into Glazier's building, which in the interval had housed the local offices of the Portland Cement Company.

During the Great Depression, the Farmers and Mechanics Bank merged with the Kempf Bank to form Chelsea State Bank, which remained in the Glazier building. Renovations covered up many of the original elegant details, and the ceiling was lowered to cut heating expenses.

The bank used only the building's first floor. There were storerooms upstairs, where township treasurers sometimes set up temporary collection offices at tax time. The basement was completely unfinished—just a dirt floor covered with planks.

"There was an opening in front of the bank for night deposits," recalls long-time bank employee Margaret O'Dell. The money went down to the basement. In the morning, the men would go down to get it. It was too creepy in the basement for us."

In 1968, the Chelsea State Bank moved to a modern facility at Main and Orchard, which had more room and a drive-up window. The bank donated its old building to the county to use as a courthouse.

At first, the court, too, used just the first floor. But by the late 1980s, the building was overcrowded, and the county needed to make a change. Chelsea residents wanted the court to slay in the historic bank, and although county officials agreed, they said they could afford only to modernize the building, not restore it.

Chelsea's citizens made up the difference. The Historic Courthouse Group raised money from lawyers, judges, court employees, governmental units, and interested citizens. For a year, while the restoration was in progress, the court met nearby at the Sylvan Township Hall. "Everybody put themselves out," recalls Diana Newman, who was active in the endeavor.

The restoration work revealed the original interior: marble walls and floors, carved burr oak woodwork, leaded glass, and ornate plaster work. Taking down the ceiling tiles, restorers discovered a dome that poured light into the middle room.

"We had to push up and down, we had to make all three floors useable," says Tom Freeman, director of facilities for the county. Workers dug out the basement to provide more headroom and poured cement floors. Offices replaced the former storerooms upstairs.

Meanwhile, the Chelsea State Bank continues to flourish. In an age when most small banks are swallowed up by larger ones, Chelsea is lucky to still have a locally based financial institution. "We have been a successful bank and see no reason to sell," explains bank president John Mann. "Our board of directors [is] committed to remaining an independent community bank."

The bank's headquarters are now on the corner of Old US-12 and M-52; the in-town bank building serves as a branch. Keeping its history in mind, the bank has converted the branch building into a modern version of the courthouse—complete with pillars and a red tile roof.

—Grace Shackman

Photo Caption: The Chelsea Savings Bank failed abruptly in 1907.

Rights Held By: 
Grace Shackman

The Choice Of Orange Risdon

Author: 
Grace Shackman

A surveyor found his own town site on the Chicago Road

In the mid-nineteenth century, surveyor Orange Risdon mapped thousands of square miles of Michigan wilderness for the federal government. He picked the site of Saline to start his own town.

Risdon first saw his future town site in 1824, while surveying for the road that would link Detroit and Chicago. In addition to its location on the Chicago Road—today US-12—the spot was surrounded by prime agricultural land and had the Saline River to provide water power.

Risdon bought 160 acres the same year the road survey came through. In 1829, he built a house on a hill overlooking the river. Now converted to apartments, the house still stands on Henry Street, where it was moved in 1948 to make room for an expansion of the Oakwood Cemetery.

Risdon was appointed Saline's first postmaster and the first justice of the peace. In the early years, his home served not only as the town's post office but also as its polling place, a hotel for passing travelers, and even a general store—Risdon rented his parlor to storekeeper Silas Finch until Finch was able to complete his own building at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Ann Arbor Street.

Risdon continued to develop Saline until his death in 1876 at age eighty-nine. For the most part, the town's economy in his day was based on supplying and servicing the surrounding farm community. When a spur of the Detroit, Hillsdale, and Indiana railroad reached town in 1870, Saline became an important shipping point for grain and livestock. The original 1870 railroad station, recently restored by the Saline Area Historical Society, is now being used as a museum and meeting place. When the town began to thrive, thanks to the railroad, William Davenport, who owned the general store, organized the Citizens Bank of Saline. In 1876, the prosperous banker bought an entire block in the center of town and built a mansion that still stands at 300 E. Michigan.

Saline's pioneer era ended in about 1880, according to local historian Wayne Clements. For the next eighty years, the town hardly grew at all, he says. "There were infrastructure problems, and although Saline had a railroad, so did Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti." The hiatus helped preserve Saline's small-town character.

Saline's economic resurgence began in 1937, when Henry Ford bought and restored the old Schuyler Mill and started a soybean processing plant there. (Today the old mill is Weller's banquet facility.) In the 1940's, R & B Machine Tool and Universal Die Casting built factories, and in 1966 Ford Motor Company returned to Saline, building a huge instrument and plastics plant.

Surrounded by fast-growing residential areas. Saline today is no longer the self-sufficient small town of a few decades ago. Many residents now commute to jobs outside the community. And though 1-94 has replaced it as the main route to Chicago, US-12 still generates a lot of traffic. Downtown Saline, which once catered exclusively to local farmers, now draws customers from around the region with its antiques stores, gift shops, and destination restaurants.

—Grace Shackman

Rights Held By: 
Grace Shackman

Bridgewater

Author: 
Grace Shackman

A farmer's mecca

For all of its life, the hamlet of Bridgewater has served the needs of local farmers. "It still does—what's left of them," says Glenn Mann, co-owner of the E. G. Mann feed mill and grain elevator.

Located in farm country, halfway between Saline and Manchester, Bridgewater at its height had a blacksmith shop, a farm-implement company, a lumberyard, and a farm co-op, which marketed the livestock, timber, flour, and feed produced by its members. The hamlet also included a barbershop, an ice-cream parlor, a bank, a tavern, and a general store complete with a smokehouse and an icehouse.

Although most of the early settlers of the area were from the East (Bridgewater takes its name from a town in New York), the hamlet of Bridgewater was largely built by German immigrants. By 1854 there were enough Germans in the area to start their own church, St. John's Lutheran. Organized by Pastor Frederich Schmid, who started German churches all over southeast Michigan, St. John's ran a German school for a time and continued to hold German-language services into the twentieth century. Former Bridgewater resident Jack Livingstone remembers that when his family moved to the area in 1937, many people still spoke with a German accent.

The Detroit, Hillsdale, and Northern Indiana railroad reached Bridgewater in 1870, making a beeline from Saline to Manchester. The station is still there, now used as a storage shed by Bridgewater Lumber. Businesses around the station catered to farmers shipping their crops to market; there were livestock pens, warehouses for wool and potatoes, and a dairy to process milk.

David Ernst, whose parents ran the ice-cream parlor and blacksmith shop, earned extra money as a schoolboy by helping around the railroad station. He sacked the wool fleeces and put bedding in cars for the livestock. "The train car was divided into two decks, about four feet high. So I'd go in and spread hay about eight or ten inches thick," he recalls.

At the center of Bridgewater's social life was its "opera house," above the implement company's storehouse. "It was called the opera house because it had a piano," explains Livingstone. Dorothy Armbruster, whose dad ran the car repair shop, remembers the dances there. "Dad played in the band every Saturday night, big band music," she recalls, "They put us kids to sleep on stage behind the piano."

On weeknights, locals and farmers often played cards in the Ernst family's ice-cream parlor. On weekends, they'd go to one another's houses for potlucks and play euchre or shoot the moon.

During the summers of the late 1940s and early 1950s, merchants sponsored outdoor movies every Tuesday in a lot between the general store and the railroad station. "There was a serial, a cartoon, and movie—like going to the theater," remembers Margie Wurster. They'd set up a projector on a truck and a big screen at the back of the lot. Families came and settled down on blankets and folding chairs or parked their cars across the road on the mill property.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, Bridgewater was home to one of the biggest chicken hatcheries in the state, owned by Luther and Irwin Klager. (Luther founded the Manchester Chicken Broil.) But as the number of farm families has declined, so have some of the businesses the hatchery once supported.

Train service to Bridgewater ended in 1961, and the general store closed in the mid-1970s, unable to compete with big chains. But the Bridgewater Lumber Company and the E. G. Mann Mill—both in their respective families since 1938—are still thriving. The former general store is now Bridgewater Tire, specializing in big tires for farm vehicles. The bank, a victim of the Depression, is now the Bridgewater Bank Tavern, with historic pictures on the walls.

—Grace Shackman

Rights Held By: 
Grace Shackman

Dexter Cider Mill

Author: 
Grace Shackman

A little bit of Americana

On the northern edge of Dexter, where the Huron River flows into town, stands the oldest cider mill in continuous use in the state, and one of the few still using wooden presses.

"We still have the original washer, grinder, and crusher," says Richard Koziski, who owns the Dexter Cider Mill with his wife, Katherine. "People from the Henry Ford Museum have been here to observe. We share stories back and forth."

The site has been used since 1836, when Peninsula Mills started grinding flour here. In 1838 a sawmill and wool plant were added. The plant made yarn for stockings and blankets.

In 1886, William Van Ettan and a Mr. Tuttle built the two-story red-painted wooden cider mill. Apples were delivered to the second floor, where they were washed and ground into a mash called "pomace" that fed the press on the first floor. The river provided water for the twelve-horsepower steam engine and also helped keep the finished product cool. An early record reports that the mill "ran day and night in 1887 and produced 100 barrels in 10 hours." The owners shipped the cider, along with jelly they also produced at the mill, to markets by railroad.

Michigan was, and still is, a good state to grow apples. "Known as the 'Variety State,' Michigan is fortunate to have the type of climate that provides cool nights to build flavor, sunlight for color, and rain to swell the apple," Katherine Koziski writes in the introduction to The Dexter Cider Mill Apple Cookbook.

Besides making cider to sell at market, the mill also pressed farmers' apples for their own use. Longtime Dexter residents remember seeing long lines of horse-drawn wagons (and later trucks) filled with apples as farmers waited their turn outside the mill.

"Cider was a substitute for water," says Richard Koziski. "Wells at the turn of the century were often shallow and became polluted." Farmers could also let their cider turn to vinegar for preserving or cleaning, or to hard cider for recreational drinking.

In 1900, John Wagner bought the mill. It stayed in the family for three generations, as his son Otto took over, followed by Otto's son Frederick. It was the Wagners who, in 1953, installed modem bottling equipment. Middle-aged people in Dexter remember earning extra money as schoolkids washing one-gallon glass bottles for a penny apiece. The mill also used to make pasteurized apple juice and grape juice, using grapes from the Paw Paw area.

After Frederick Wagner died in 1981, his widow, Katherine, continued to run the mill with help from her children until the Koziskis purchased it in 1987. The new owners have tried to keep the mill as historically authentic as possible. The only major change is an addition, built in the style of the mill, where the Koziskis' son-in-law, Roger Black, runs an upscale produce market.

The cider mill is open from mid-August to mid-November. The Koziskis buy their apples from small family-run farms, and the whole family pitches in to help—including Katherine Koziski's mother, who makes pies.

Fall is usually a frantically busy time—but it's also a lot of fun, says Richard Koziski. "It's a little bit of Americana," he says.

—Grace Shackman

Rights Held By: 
Grace Shackman

Wayne Clements

Author: 
Grace Shackman

A hands-on historian

Wayne Clements, president of the Saline Area Historical Society, has mobilized the community to save Orange Risdon's livery barn, open the Depot Museum and acquire a caboose for it, and buy and restore the Rentschler farm. It's quite a series of accomplishments for a quiet, unassuming man who in his younger years did not even seem interested in history.

Recently, at Clements's fifty-year high school reunion, his old homeroom teacher pointed out that irony. But for Clements, history comes alive when it's about the community around him instead of the faraway and long ago. "I didn't know King George, but I know Alberta Rogers and the Brassows," he says.

Clements still lives in the Textile Road farmhouse where he grew up. He attended the Lodi Plains one-room school and graduated as salutatorian from Saline Union School. He went to Michigan State University, where he majored in agricultural engineering. Saline Township supervisor Bob Cook was his roommate.

"Even his family kept old things," Cook recalls. "Wayne had a little old twenty-two [rifle] that went back to his grandfather."

At MSU Clements met his wife, Jane, from Grosse Pointe Woods. (They have one grown daughter, Penny.) For nineteen years, he was away from Saline. He served a stint in the army, including a year in Korea; worked as a research engineer in Ford's agricultural division in Birmingham; and later moved to South Bend, Indiana, to work for Wheelabrator. He returned to Saline twenty-five years ago to be nearer his aging parents. He found work with an industrial cleaning franchise, Captain Clean, which he now owns.

In 1987 Alberta Rogers, then president of the historical society, recruited Clements to join. "He was involved from the word go," she recalls. He started out with mechanical work, putting a donated, Saline-made windmill back together. More hands-on jobs followed: two showcase homes that needed considerable work. He also found and mapped all the former one-room school sites in the Saline school district. He became the historical society's president in 1990.

When a livery barn that had been owned by Saline founder Orange Risdon was about to be torn down, Clements organized the society to save the structure. He launched an ongoing partnership between historic preservationists and the city government, getting permission to relocate the livery near the old railroad depot. That led to the project of turning the depot into a museum. The partnership with the city continues today with the purchase and historic restoration of the Rentschler farm.

Clements has worked to make it as easy as possible for people to get involved in the historical society's projects. He cut back on boring business meetings, replaced the traditional slate of officers with a team, and doesn't insist that volunteers join the society. He says he has no patience with groups that just sit around and talk. "It attracts people when we have things to do," he says.

Clements's leadership style impresses former mayor Rick Kuss.

"He listens," Kuss says. "He takes everybody's ideas and tries to bring his ideas and everyone else's together so we can move forward. And he doesn't get involved in politics.

"Saline is a mixture of new, been-here-awhile, and old-timers," says Kuss. "Wayne bridges that gap." •

That seems to be one of Clements's main goals. History is "a common thread that keeps us together," he says, adding that a hands-on project "gets people interested who do not have roots in Saline."

Clements is excited about his current project: he and Saline High history teacher Jim Cameron are developing a curriculum of local history classes that will be held at the Depot Museum and the Rentschler Farm Museum.

"I like to tell the kids, 'Someday you'll take my place, or be mayor or superintendent of schools, and you need to understand how we got there.'"

—Grace Shackman

Rights Held By: 
Grace Shackman

The Calico Cat

Author: 
Grace Shackman

From Methodist church to Saline gift shop

A gift shop and a place of worship may seem to be totally opposite functions for a building. Yet the Calico Cat, located in Saline's former Methodist church, manages to an amazing extent to incorporate the church's atmosphere into a retail establishment. Light streams in through the stained glass windows, the original woodwork and sconces are found throughout, display shelves are made from the wood of old pocket doors and railings, and owner Marcia Duncan's office is in the mezzanine that once held the organ pipes.

The Calico Cat building was actually the fourth church built by the Saline Methodists, who trace their roots back to 1833. Their first two churches did not fare well. The original log structure on the corner of Henry and Lewis, built on land donated by Saline's founder, Orange Risdon, was hit by lightning during a service. Two parishioners were killed, and the church burned to the ground. The second church was built with ill-fired bricks that crumbled so badly it was called the "old mud church." After nine years, the members decided it was unsafe and had it torn down. Finally, in 1858, local carpenter Edwin Ford, who also built churches in Mooreville and Dixboro, built the Methodists a church on Ann Arbor Street just south of Michigan Avenue. This church, a white New England-style edifice with a tall spire, served the congregation until they outgrew it at the end of the century.

On June 13,1899, the Methodists laid the cornerstone for their fourth church on the same site. The congregation met in the opera house next door while the new building, designed by dark and Munger of Bay City, was under construction. The church was completed in November. Not even standing room remained for the first service.

William Davenport, the Saline banker who headed the building committee, lured organist Fannie Unterkircher from the Presbyterian church by offering to buy a new organ. The two went into Detroit, where Davenport bought a Vocalion for $1,200. Unterkircher served as the church's organist and choir director for the next thirty-four years.

Hollis Carr, in a paper presented to the church in 1988, remembered the organ, which had to be pumped by hand: "There was a large screen to the right of the organ behind which the man sat who did the pumping. During his idle moments he would peek around the edge of the screen, and other children and I in the pews would squirm to the outer end of the pews to get a glimpse of him." In 1929 the organ was replaced with a more modem, electric-powered one.

Carr's wife, Virginia, who joined the church in 1938 as a young bride and later became the church secretary, fondly remembered the study group she and Hollis were in with other young married couples. The group held monthly potlucks, she recalled in the paper, and one time there were six pots of baked beans and one cake. "We always closed the gathering by forming a circle, joining hands and singing 'Blest Be the Tie That Binds,'" she wrote. "To this day whenever I hear the hymn, I can close my eyes and see the group standing in a circle, most of whom are no longer with us except in memory."

When Virginia Carr joined the congregation, the church "was less than forty years old, but it appeared like an old church to me, and quite small." The congregation fought the space problem for the next fifty-some years, digging out more of the basement in 1949 and adding an education-fellowship hall in 1975. In the mid-1980s, the space crisis was again debated. Although some argued that the old church could be modernized and the overcrowding problem solved by holding two worship services, the majority opted to move. In 1990 the congregation took the church's 1,500-pound bell and two of the stained glass windows—the most religious ones, which wouldn't be appropriate in a building with a secular use—to a new building on the corner of Ann Arbor Street and Woodland Drive.

The city of Saline purchased the old church, planning to use it as a court facility. But the voters turned down a bond issue, and the city had to sell the building. Marcia Duncan, who had been in the gift shop business for fifteen years, saw the possibilities in the building and moved the Calico Cat there from its previous location on Michigan Avenue. Her family teases her about saying in the beginning that the place "just needs a little touch-up." Instead, renovation took nine months: solving a water problem in the basement, bracing the walls, tuck-pointing the brick, putting new floors in the basement and first level (where the floor slanted down to the altar), and installing new furnaces, wiring, air conditioning, and drywall.

"She kept the best parts," church historian Jack Livingstone says. "Someone familiar with the old church can walk in and recognize it."

—Grace Shackman

Photo Caption: The 1899 church served Saline's Methodists well for ninety-one years.

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Grace Shackman

Hubert Beach

Author: 
Grace Shackman

Saline's eccentric ex-mayor

Hubert Beach, mayor of Saline from 1971 to 1974, lives in a house on McKay Street that has also been the home of three other mayors. But among all the mayors Saline has elected in its years as a city, Beach may well qualify as the most eccentric. For instance. Beach takes periodic trips to solar eclipse sites, from Acapulco to Nova Scotia, to "slay the cosmic dragon." He wears a mask, brandishes a sword, and beats a drum—his way, he says, of making sure the sun returns.

Beach also qualifies as the most hands-on mayor Saline has ever seen. While he was in office, the city and the state fought over whether to close Michigan Avenue, a U.S. highway, for the Memorial Day parade. Beach got in front of traffic and closed the street himself.

Beach was for years the city's one-man volunteer public works office. People remember Beach driving around town in "The Beast," an old school bus he converted into a mobile workshop. He was often pictured in the Saline Reporter scaling heights to do upper-story work, such as moving the bell from the old Methodist church to its new location and painting the flagpole in front of the post office. His motto: "If it's out of reach, call Beach."

"I've always loved climbing," he explains. "As a kid I climbed every tree I could, up to the tiniest branches."

He installed a sound system at the cemetery for the Memorial Day program, strung Christmas lights across the main intersection, and put in the finishing line banners for races. He designed and built a panel that lit up Yes or No to show how council members voted. When there was a blockage in the storm sewer, he looked down a manhole to see what was wrong, and discovered that a contractor had thrown old boards down the hole to get rid of them.

Mary Hess, who served her first term on city council when Beach was mayor, recalls that his expertise on TV systems, which he acquired from putting up antennas, came in handy when the city negotiated its first cable TV contract. And his knowledge of construction was very useful when the building code was amended.

Beach also worked as a tax preparer, and he used his accounting skills to develop clear budgets. "He wanted to make sure that the people we served understood where their money went," explains Hess. Bob Harrison, a friend of Beach's, remembers that Beach caught a major error while discussing adding sewage capacity with representatives of Ford Motor and a civil engineering firm. "Hubert's mind was sharper with numbers than if he was standing there with a calculator," says Harrison.

Growing up on a farm near Clinton, Beach learned to be practical and thrifty. He was born in 1923 and attended a one-room school. His dad died when he was nine, and he helped his mother run the farm. At age fifteen he started hauling milk from area farms. He moved to Saline in 1948, after marrying Catherine (Katie) Sliker.

Never one to sit still, he started his contracting business because he finished his milk route in midafternoon. He did almost anything—electrical work, carpentry, servicing fire extinguishers, installing security and sound systems. His specialty was height work: aerials, eaves troughs, flagpoles, lightning rods, church towers. To keep busy in the winter, he ran a tax business out of his house.

Beach first ran for public office because he was concerned about the fate of the dam at Wellers' that had washed out in the 1968 flood. The narrowing of the millpond had created a wetland, and there was talk of putting a trailer park there. After one term on city council, Beach ran for mayor. During his two terms, he saw the dam restored and the millpond dredged and restocked with fish.

Beach went through a period of political eclipse when he ran unsuccessfully for county commissioner twice in the 1970s and for mayor three times in the 1980s. In 1987, he won a seat on city council. He kept it until 1996; he resigned after an automobile accident and has still not totally recovered from his injuries.

Beach warned colleagues, "If you don't want the truth, don't ask me." His straightforward style and eccentric behavior earned him both admirers and enemies— which may explain why he lost elections despite his popularity.

"People either loved or hated him," says his daughter, April Pronk.

"Sometimes it's hard to change a first impression," explains Hess. "There was never any question where he was coming from. Compromise was not one of his strong points; he was firm in his convictions."

Beach describes his politics as populist, motivated by a concern for the underdog. "I always said garbagemen should make as much as administrators," he says. In his first race for county commission, he ran as a Democrat. In the next race, he ran as a Republican, since the Republicans are the dominant party in the Saline area. Although he counted both liberals and conservatives as political allies, he says he's a Democrat at heart "Republicans are too stuffy," he explains.

People appreciated Beach's accessibility. A regular for years among the friendly crowd at Benny's Bakery, Beach enjoyed debating and listening to others' opinions.

"He loved the city as no one I know," says Hess. Saline plans to honor him by naming a street in the new industrial park Beach Drive.

—Grace Shackman

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Grace Shackman
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