Re-creating the Rentschler Farm

Published In:
Community Observer, Date Unknown,
Unknown

Author: Grace Shackman

Setting the clock back a century

Enthusiastic and knowledgeable volunteers are transforming the Rentschler farm on the edge of Saline into a teaching tool. They're restoring the house to show how a farm family lived at the beginning of the century, bringing in livestock to demonstrate the working of the farm, and re-creating a kitchen garden to teach children how to grow plants—all with the unusual advantage of having the last owner of the farm nearby to answer questions.

The farm is on Michigan Avenue, just east of the Ford plant. It was built in 1906 by Matthew Rentschler on 216 acres that his brother, Emanuel, had bought two years earlier. The land would eventually be farmed by three generations of Rentschlers.

The last was Warren Rentschler, who lived on the farm almost all his life. "We had sheep and chickens, sold eggs at the door, had pigs; we grew corn, hay, wheat, oats," Rentschler says. "We sold hay to the horse trade."

As the city of Saline crept up to the farm, Rentschler gradually split parcels off and sold them, starting with a field for the Ford plant in the 1960s. A few years ago, then-mayor Rick Kuss heard that Rentschler was about to sell the last of his farm to Farmer Jack for a shopping center. Kuss talked to him about selling the house and outbuildings to the city instead.

Rentschler was delighted with the idea. In spring 1998 the city of Saline bought Rentschler's property at a discount, and the Saline Area Historical Society went to work at the farm right away.

The restoration of the house's interior is being organized by Janet Swope, antiques dealer, teacher of antiques classes, organizer of the Saline Antiques Fair, and former owner of the Pineapple House. Swope's plan is to restore the home to the way it looked between 1900 and 1930. "We may have some older things," she says. "People inherit things. But we'll have nothing newer than 1930."

Her goal is to "restore it to what a farmhouse would be like—not real affluent, middle class, but nice." This winter she hopes to finish the downstairs rooms: the master bedroom, dining room, and parlor. If time allows, she and her fellow volunteers will also work on the hired man's room upstairs. The master bedroom will be decorated with a historic Saline wallpaper design, found in the Bondie house on Maple, that's being reproduced by the Thibaut wallpaper company. Next spring, Saline resident and former county clerk Bob Harrison plans to re-create the front porch, using a 1910 photo for guidance.

Cathy Andrews, master gardener and historic furniture restorer, created a kitchen garden with help from area schoolkids. She laid out the beds in long, narrow rows, as the Rentschlers would have in the 1930s, and planted vegetable and flower species common for that period, such as a tasty, pinkish beefsteak tomato and a very red variety developed at Rutgers University that was considered good for canning. She kept the rhubarb and horseradish she found at the farm.

Rick Kuss and Jeff Hess, among others, are tending the animals already housed in the outbuildings. Roosters, ducks, and pigeons were donated from Animal Rescue, while Domino's Farms provided two miniature goats. A local farmer gave two piglets, which have since grown big enough to knock Kuss down. "I liked them better when they were babies," he jokes.

Wayne Clements, president of the historical society, bought two lambs for the farm at the 4-H fair. Others followed his example and began donating their prize lambs to the farm to save them from slaughter.

Today, Warren Rentschler lives on the north side of Saline. What does he think of what's happening at his old farm?

"I like it fine," he says. "They'll preserve it. Who wouldn't want that? My granddad and dad worked so hard to keep it up, and I spent a bit of time too."

—Grace Shackman

Photo Caption: Elizabeth and Emanuel Rentschler with their children. Alma, Alvin, & Herman, in front of their farmhouse around 1910.

Schuyler's Mill

Published In:
Community Observer, Winter 1998,
Winter 1998

Author: Grace Shackman

Weller's guests dine where Henry Ford once dabbled

"When I was working the midnight shift, many times Henry Ford would visit unannounced," recalls Kenny Rogers, who was employed at the Ford Soybean Mill in Saline in the 1940s, when he was a teenager. During Ford's last years, the auto tycoon bought up old mills all over southeast Michigan and used them to pursue his sometimes eccentric personal interests. At the Saline mill, workers extracted oil from soybeans, oil that Ford used to make enamel paint and plastic for automotive steering wheels, switches, and knobs.

When Ford bought the Saline mill in 1935, it was already ninety years old. Schuyler Haywood had built the gristmill in 1845, and it soon became the center of an independent town as Haywood's relatives and other businesses settled nearby. Haywood named the town Barnegat, after his hometown in New Jersey. "Barnegat was a booming town and Saline a bedroom community," explains Saline historian Alberta Rogers. "They had barrel making, a slaughterhouse, even a house of ill repute." Barnegat was annexed to the village of Saline in 1848.

Barnegat and downtown Saline, about a half mile apart, were separated by a big hill, as high as the hill where the American Legion sits now. Ford flattened the hill when he bought Schuyler's Mill. He also moved the mill building farther from the road and built a factory behind it, in a Greek Revival style compatible with the mill.

A farm boy who became the world's most famous industrialist. Ford was intrigued by the notion of making car parts from crops. He provided soybean seeds to many area farmers, who delivered their harvests to the old mill building. A chute dropped the beans from their third-floor storage bin to a conveyor belt, which carried them to the new factory. There, oil was extracted from the beans with steam and a solvent. The oil was stored in a tank in the adjoining pump house until it could be trucked to Ford's River Rouge plant, where it was used to make plastics and paints. The leftover soybean meal was dried, toasted, and sold as animal feed. A water-powered generator in the mill produced most of the operation's electricity. Soy-based paints were tested in a lab on the second floor.

The plant operated around the clock except on Sunday. Only five or six people worked on each shift, since it was mostly automated. Rogers remembers they spent a lot of time cleaning in anticipation of Ford's surprise visits.

"We kept it immaculate; we'd polish the brass valves, wax the floors," Rogers recalls. Ford usually came accompanied by friends. "They'd be all dressed up in suits and ties as if they'd been out to dinner, and Ford said, 'I'll take you out and show you.' The mills were his toys."

After Ford's death, the mill was sold to a soybean processing company, but the machinery soon became obsolete. Barbara Hamel, daughter of the new owner, re-named Ford's factory the "carriage house" and started a summer theater there (the actors slept in the mill building next door). WAAM radio host Ted Heusel remembers directing plays there. One of Heusel's apprentices at the playhouse was Martha Henry; now one of Canada's most prominent actresses, she recently starred in Much Ado about Nothing at the Stratford Festival.

In 1964, Carl and Micki Weller purchased the buildings and grounds, and they have steadily worked at restoring and landscaping them ever since. Once an antique shop, then a cafe, the buildings now house a banquet facility, run by Carl and Micki's daughter, Wendy Weller. There's room for three events at the same time—in the carriage house and on two floors of the mill. The old pump house is now Weller's office.

Traces of the old operation add flavor to events at Weller's. Pathways are paved with old firebricks, and the old steam boiler is now used as a bar. The carriage house although not air-conditioned, is surprisingly cool in the heat of summer, thanks to windows and vents designed to draw out air from the factory. Carl Weller, who has come to understand the soybean extraction operation well after years of renovation work, explains, "The steam made it so hot [that] even in winter, they could work in their undershirts."

—Grace Shackman

Memories of the One-Room Schoolhouse

Published In:
Community Observer, Summer 2001,
Summer 2001

Author: Grace Shackman

Reading, writing, and getting along.

The idea of the rustic one-room schoolhouse looms large in the American imagination, calling up images of kids with cowlicks seated in rows at sturdy wooden desks, all eyes front on the teacher whose homespun brand of tough love taught them everything from penmanship to good posture. But for almost everyone who lived on a farm in Washtenaw County before World War II, the one-room schoolhouse is not a romantic legend but a centerpiece of their personal history. Many residents still remember fondly the experience of attending one of the roughly 150 one-room schools in the area.

Graduates of one-room schools tend to forget or gloss over their limitations, which to modern sensibilities were considerable: walking long distances, enrollments so small that a student might be the only one in a grade, lack of supplies, and no electricity, running water, or telephones. Instead, they remember what is arguably more important—the personal benefits of learning how to work together and the lifetime friendships such schooling fosters. Says Taylor Jacobsen (Lodi Plains, 1946-1950), "Anything I lost out on I gained in other ways—the camaraderie of the kids, a way of listening, doing chores, being part of that thing." Marge Hepburn, who attended Canfield (1938-1939), liked school so much that she insisted on going even in terrible weather. "I had wonderful times at school," she recalls. "One bad winter day, the teacher didn't come, but the kids all showed up." It was so cold that day that Hepburn remembers having to stop at a neighbor's house to warm up before making it all the way home. Another former student, Billie Sodt Mann (Pleasant Lake, 1922-1931), puts it succinctly: "All I can say is I loved it."

The one-room schools operated under an 1869 state law that mandated free education for all, paid for by taxes. (Previously, parents had paid tuition based on the number of days their children attended school.) A 1915 county map shows 140 one-room schools; the number evidently grew slightly after that date, to about 153 schools between 1926 and 1939. School districts were small enough that students would not have to walk more than a few miles to school, and were adjusted periodically to equalize the number of students.

Most one-room schools enrolled fewer than twenty students, sometimes all from just a few large families. Rarely were there more than two or three in a grade, and some grade levels might not be represented. Marge Hepburn, for example, was the only student in her seventh- and eighth- grade classes at Canfield, while Jean Eisenbeiser Schmidt was one of three (the two others were boys) in her fifth- and sixth-grade classes there. (Before Canfield, Schmidt also attended North Lake,1934-1936.) Similarly, Billie Sodt Mann was the only one in her grade at Pleasant Lake, while Lenora Haas Parr and Ruth Weidmayer Kuebler were the only two in their grades there from 1924 to 1933.

Schools were built near the center of the district, on land that was given or lent by farmers. Residents elected a school board that ran the school, seeing to its construction and maintenance and providing materials. (The first schools were usually wood-frame buildings, but they often were replaced with brick schoolhouses when the community became more established.) The school would typically be named after the site's donor in a symbolic gesture of thanks; if the farming community went by a particular name, such as Pleasant Lake or Lodi Plains, that became part of the school name as well.

Women of many talents

School boards were also responsible for hiring the teachers and setting their salaries. Indeed, the success of one-room schools depended largely on the teachers, mostly women, who were called on to do everything from tap dance to stage manage to umpire, creating a safe and supportive home-away-from-home for countless children whose parents were hard at work in the fertile fields of the county.

Generally, the rural schools could not afford to pay salaries as high as those at the town schools (the school board's appropriation was based on the number of students), and the qualifications to teach were not as high. Jane Schairer, who taught at Freer School in Lima Township from 1944 to 1947, was hired after completing two years at Michigan State Normal College (now EMU) with a limited certificate qualifying her to teach in rural schools. In the early days of one-room schools, salaries were so low that teachers often had to board at their students' homes, like Laura Ingalls Wilder in These Happy Golden Years. By the twentieth century they were paid enough that they could live on their own. Young teachers often got their start in one-room schools, before moving to a more remunerative assignment or leaving to get married.

But others made a career out of teaching at a particular school, perhaps because they themselves were from the area or just because they loved the work. Although rural teachers needed less training than their urban counterparts, they had to be well versed in every subject, play the piano, keep a diverse group in order, and be able to juggle many assignments at once. Even with all the material a rural teacher had to cover, the classes were small enough that she or he (although way out-numbered, male teachers did exist) could tailor the curriculum to make sure mat no one got left behind and that quicker students could move ahead.

Jean Schmidt, for example, started kindergarten with two boys who were not as interested in reading as she was, so her teacher let her do the first-grade work, and the next year she moved into second grade. George Brassow (Lodi Plains, 1934-1943) was the only one in his eighth-grade class, so he moved at his own speed and finished all the work by February. (He stayed home the rest of the term, working on his family's farm.)

If a teacher had special interests or talents, she could share them with her students. Brassow and Mary Anne Groeb Hanselman (1933-1943) recall with appreciation one Lodi Plains teacher, Gertrude Kromer, whose skills included writing school plays and tap dancing. Although gym wasn't part of the curriculum, she used to lead the class in exercises. "She had a great disposition. She never came unglued," recalls Hanselman. Barbara Wing (Peatt 1932-1935, Arnold 1937-1941) had a Mrs. Engle, who was very good at teaching reading. She later became a reading specialist in the Dexter schools.

Taylor Jacobsen had a teacher named Phoebe Summerhill. "She noticed I had a flair for art, so she would get out the chalk and have me draw. She wasn't an art teacher, but she did what she could," says Jacobsen, who recently retired after nearly forty years as a high school art teacher. Summerhill also convinced her landlord, Art Miller, to help teach shop and also to ump for softball games. In quiet moments she would regale the class with stories of the copper country in the Upper Peninsula. "I thought she was a terrible woman, strict—she made us do our lessons. But as I got older, I understood how wonderful she was," muses Jacobsen.

Although many teachers were wonderful, some weren't. "I heard of a few teachers who didn't do much," says Jacobsen, while Schairer admits, "If the teacher was not good at music or art, it was unfortunate."

Making the grade

Preview and review were the cornerstone of the rural schools' educational philosophy. Students were called up grade by grade to recite their lessons while the rest of the children sat at their desks working. "You sat in the same room with classes of different grades—you heard what was coming up," recalls Parr. "If you didn't get it that time, you got it another time," explains Hanselman.

The curriculum included basic subjects such as history, geography, reading, and math, as well as those - penmanship, for example - no longer emphazised. "If you didn't learn anything else, you learned penmanship and spelling," says Hanselman. Kuebler recalls that her teacher set aside a time, maybe once a week, to observe all the students' penmanship. "She'd walk around as we were writing and told us how to sit, how our postures should be."

Reading instruction included recitation. "Everyone teamed to read out loud. You couldn't use your finger—you had to do it with your eyes," recalls Hanselman. Spelling was made more fun by periodic spelling bees. Several of the winners report that they still own the dictionaries that the Detroit News awarded to them. Brassow recalls similar special events related to math.

Although science was not listed on the 1935 report card, a subject called "agriculture/nature study" was. Several students remember that agriculture, taught in seventh and eighth grade, included how to grow crops such as wheat, corn, and oats. Informal opportunities for nature study abounded. "As we walked to school, we heard the bobolink and meadowlarks from cow pastures," recalls Jacobsen. "Walking to and from school we'd notice nature much more than [we would have] in a bus," adds Hepbum, remembering how in the spring she and other students would scoop up frog eggs in a marsh behind the school.

Students and teachers alike went beyond the boundaries of their schoolroom in other ways, too, driven by necessity and invention. There was no such thing as a school janitor, for example, so the teacher, or sometimes a school board member who lived nearby, came early to feed the wood-burning stove. Older kids helped keep it going and banked it at night. Students hauled water from a neighbor's pump. At the end of the day, students cleaned the blackboard, pounded the erasers, and swept the school.

And just as everyone worked together, the students all played together, too. All ages and sexes were welcome to join recess games, since everyone was needed to make up teams. They played games that needed little or no equipment, such as fox-and-hounds, blindman's buff, hide-and-seek, and Annie-over, a game that involved throwing the ball over the schoolhouse, essentially using it as a net.

Girls played softball. George Brassow recalls, "It wasn't known as coeducation. We just said, 'We've got five girls on our team—they're pretty good.' " At Pleasant Lake, even the teacher joined in.

Students also came together for special events. Every school had a Christmas program involving all the children in recitations, songs, and pageants. For performances, most schools improvised to create a stage within the schoolroom. Pleasant Lake, however, had a real stage, complete with curtain and dressing area: Mann's father, Manny Sodt, was proprietor of the Pleasant Lake House tavern and let the students use his place. Other events varied from school to school. For instance, when Schmidt was a student at North Lake, the students had a pet show. "I rode my pony to school. Everyone brought pets," she recalls, noting that were a few dogfights as a result.

For the kids themselves, however, discipline was rarely a problem. "We were all good kids—we didn't have anything to get in trouble with," recalls Mann, although she admits a couple of boys liked playing tricks such as sticking their feet out in the aisle to make girls trip. Schmidt recalled a boy bringing in a blue racer snake that he had killed on the playground and putting it around a girl's neck, causing her to scream. Hanselman recalls that one Halloween students balanced the teeter-totter boards on the roof of the school.

In spite of such minor diversionary incidents, students attending the one-room schools did well overall academically. An elected county commissioner of schools oversaw the rural schools, trying to maintain high standards so that all students received a good education. Cora Haas, Washtenaw's commissioner of schools from 1926 to 1939, supervised all the teachers, making unannounced visits to each school twice a year. Her assistant, Mildred Robinson, also made frequent visits to assist teachers.

At the end of the school year, schools administered the same sealed tests across the county. Rural seventh- and eighth-graders went into Ann Arbor to take more comprehensive tests and then enrolled in high school if their parents could afford it. (During the Depression years, some children were needed to work on the farm and had to quit school after eighth grade to help support their families.)

The county's attention to maintaining standards paid off. Those who attended one-room schools report having no trouble academically when they moved on to city or village high schools. It was not unusual for valedictorians and salutatorians to be country school graduates. But it was often hard to make the social adjustment. "It was scary," admits Mann, who had limited contacted with the world outside her immediate community before starting high school in Manchester. "If we got into town it was a miracle. My folks had a store, so we never had to go shopping."

Rural schools were communities within themselves; for most of the year they were quite isolated. In the spring they might sometimes go a little farther afield by challenging nearby schools to baseball games. "It would be another nation—the school four miles down the road," recalls Jacobsen. Joyce Boyce (Arnold 1935) remembers that one year there were only nine students in her school, all girls, but they still challenged nearby Spiegelberg School to a baseball game. "We didn't do so well—we were all girls—but it was good to get acquainted," she says. Brassow remembers having track meets with Dold, the school just north of Lodi Plains.

The village schools were much bigger by comparison (though still small by today's standards). Boyce recalls there were twenty-one in her Dexter High graduating class. Jacobsen found the biggest challenge was in athletics. "The city kids played basketball in junior high. I was like a boat out of water."

Postwar consolidation

After World War II the country schools began consolidating with those in the closest villages. Their populations were decreasing as people left farming, but consolidation efforts were usually set off when a village high school became over-crowded and village residents wanted a larger tax base to build a new school. Consolidation was decided by elections in each country school district and was often hotly contested. Parents feared loss of local control, higher taxes, and long, tiring bus rides for their children. On the other hand, larger schools could offer many more amenities such as gyms, shops, science labs, and home economics rooms, plus more highly trained teachers.

After consolidation it often took years to untangle the legal status of the abandoned buildings and the land they stood on—to determine whether the site had been formally given to the school district or just used by tradition. In the former case, the building was sold, with the money going to the consolidated school district. In the latter, it reverted to the family of the farmer who had lent the property.

Today, most of the schoolhouses have been torn down or converted to homes. Surviving buildings have often changed so completely that it is hard to recognize their original use. Canfield (Lyndon Township at Waterloo and M-52), Pleasant Lake (Freedom Township on Pleasant Lake Road), and Lodi Plains (Lodi Township on Ann Arbor Saline Road at Brassow) have all been torn down. North Lake (Dexter Township at Hankerd and North Lake roads) was used for a while as a Boy Scout lodge, and Peatt (Webster Township on Gregory at the end of Vaughn) was used as a pigpen, but both have also been torn down. Arnold (Dexter Township, Island Lake Road) and Dold (Lodi Township, 3481 Ellsworth) have both been converted to homes. Other uses include church offices (Webster Church on Webster Church Road) and nursery schools (Beach on Chelsea-Dexter Road and Stone School on Packard in Ann Arbor).

Washtenaw County has two school museums and will someday have at least one more. The 1895 Town Hall School was moved to the EMU campus from the corner of Morgan and Thomas roads in Pittsfield Township. Podunk School, circa 1850, originally on Walsh Road, has been moved by the Webster Historical Society to Webster Church Road, near the society's other historic structures. The Saline Area Historical Society plans to move Blaess School on Gensley Road after it completes other projects. These three surviving structures together stand as a symbol of the kind of education whose lessons last a lifetime—an educational experience that alumnus Taylor Jacobsen describes simply as "a gem."

Educate us!
Our local history expert, Grace Shackman, tells us there are many more former one-room schoolhouses out there than the five she describes in this article. "Some of them have probably been converted to houses or moved.'' she explains. We're inviting our readers to help us find them. It you know about any old one-room schoolhouses in the area served by the Chelsea, Dexter, Manchester, and Saline post offices, let us know at Schoolhouse Contest, Community Observer, 201 Catherine Street, Ann Arbor. Michigan 48104 (fax: (734) 769-3375; e-mail: mike@aaobserver.com). Whoever finds the most and can offer some proof of each building's former status as a schoolhouse will receive a $25 gift certificate to any business advertising in this issue. (In the case of a tie, there will be a random drawing.) We'll publish a complete list in our fall issue. So take some leisurely drives out in the country this summer - you've got till August 24 to tell us what you find.

Photo Captions:

Mclntee School in Lyndon Township, built 1888. Older students helped teachers tend wood-burning stoves like the one in this 1900 photo.

The Dexter Co-op

Published In:
Community Observer, Winter 2004,
Winter 2004

Author: Grace Shackman

The rise and fall of a radical idea

In 1919 a group of Dexter-area farmers did something radical. One story says they did it because a Detroit buyer bragged about how much money he was making off them. Another story says that Hoey and Sons Lumber and Coal Company brought it on by charging too much for necessities like feed, grain, and hardware. "Farmers were at a disadvantage dealing one-on-one with packing companies, grain dealers," says Carl Lesser.

In November of that year, about fifty farmers, including Lessor's grandfather, met at the Dexter Opera House and agreed to put in $50 apiece—a tidy sum in those days—to start the Dexter Agriculture Association. Each also pledged an additional $50. "It was just a group of farmers who decided they should be able to buy cheaper and sell for a better price," says Bob Mast, a second-generation member.

In those days, co-ops were relatively new and controversial. The large companies that served as middlemen between farmers and consumers had tried to invoke the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act to have co-ops declared illegal, even though the act was passed to prevent business monopolies. A 1914 law, the Clayton Act, legalized co-ops but did not define their powers. In 1922 Congress finally spelled out, in the Capper-Volstead Act, that farmers could lawfully unite to collectively process, handle, and market their products.

The Dexter group bought an old house and five lots on a triangle of land bounded by Central Street, Third Street, and the Michigan Central Railroad tracks. It was an excellent location: at the time, the railroad was the main way to ship farm produce and get farm supplies. The co-op opened for business on January 1, 1920. Within two months it had ninety-four members.

The association, renamed the Dexter Co-op in 1927, sold supplies to members at low markups and helped them sell their own products. The co-op converted the old house into a feed production area, mainly for pigs, chickens, and cows. The farmers brought in grain they'd grown, such as oats or corn; ground it in the basement; and then took it upstairs to be mixed with a concentrate. Also upstairs, co-op employees shelled corn. These services were so much in demand at harvest time that farmers lined up from dawn to dark waiting.

The co-op bought a large scale (for a time the only one in the area) and placed it near the house, protecting it with a drive-through shelter. Lesser remembers accompanying his father in a horse-drawn wagon when he brought in loads of hay. "The building was so small it was hard to get the hay in," he recalls. "We had to push it in. We must have lost a lot." The co-op's bookkeeper had only to look out the window of the attached office to record the weight.

To store and ship cash crops, the co-op leased a grain elevator, freight house, and loading dock from the railroad. All of them were flush with the tracks for easy loading. (Wheat was then the biggest cash crop, and most of it was sold to flour mills in the area.) When carloads of incoming supplies such as lumber and coal arrived, they were stored until unloaded on a spur of track in the co-op grounds. As the co-op became more successful, it offered an expanding range of items, from flour and salt to Portland cement, fencing, and twine.

The secret of its success, according to Lesser, was its ability to buy products so cheaply that it could sell competitively and still make enough to cover its operating costs. Buying from other co-ops and from organizations such as the National Farmers Group and the State Farm Bureau allowed the co-op to obtain cattle feed and fertilizer at very low prices. For a few years the Dexter Co-op even sold farm machinery produced by a co-op in Lansing.

The board of directors hired a manager for day-to-day operations. The membership of the co-op met yearly at a big dinner, usually held at either the Masonic Temple or St. Andrew's Church. The meeting included a financial report, election of board members and officers, and a speaker on an agricultural topic.

The people who originally bought shares in the co-op were common stockholders. Common shares, .much in demand because they earned more than bank accounts did, were rarely available. Anyone could be a "preferred stockholder" just by doing business with the co-op. At the end of the year, the customers shared in the year's profits according to how much they bought.

The co-op did well during the Depression and outgrew its facilities. In 1940 it broke ground for a new vitrified-tile building, which the Dexter Mill still uses. To celebrate the building's grand opening on March 8, 1941, the co-op cooked up 100 pounds of free hot dogs and gave away door prizes—knives, pencils, baby chicks. The co-op now had room to stock more agricultural supplies and add new products, such as building materials, hardware, dishes, and kitchen cabinets.

In 1949 a big fire destroyed the wooden grain elevator. The co-op built a new, fire-resistant elevator and a new feed mill where the old house had stood. But the new setup couldn't save the co-op from a decline in family agriculture and a dwindling commitment to the co-op concept. "It was loyalty that kept it going," says Lesser. "The first generation knew the reason for the organization." Later generations were less loyal and more mobile: as farmers got big trucks, they could travel farther and do business for-profit companies that, because of greater volume, could offer lower prices than the co-op did. As the co-op's business declined, it had to buy in smaller volumes, and its prices rose.

In 1969 the co-op board sold the business to Washtenaw Farm and Garden Center, which was leaving its Ann Arbor store in what is now Kerrytown. On March 22, 1980, after the Farm and Garden Center finished paying off its land contract, the co-op held its last meeting to pay off stockholders and close the books. With the help of his wife, Thelma, Bob Mast, who was the last treasurer, was able to find a large number of the original stockholders or their heirs. The co-op made enough from the sale, plus the accumulated interest, to pay $10 a share—the original face value of the stock. "Very few co-ops could do that," says Mast.

John Cares, an agriculture graduate of Michigan State, now runs the Dexter Mill in the old co-op buildings. Cares provides many of the same services the co-op did, making feed, and sells many of the same supplies, such as fertilizer. As full-time farming continues to decline, more of his customers these days are gentlemen farmers or suburbanites with small gardens.

Every now and then people come into the Dexter Mill with old co-op stock certificates, maybe found in Grandpa's attic, and try to redeem them. Cares refers those customers to Mast, who says, "There's not much I can do about it. I tell them to put it on the wall and look at it."

—Grace Shackman

Photo Caption:

Today, the Dexter Mill provides many of the same products and services that the Dexter Co-op did through the 1960s.

The Lodi Cemetery

Published In:
Community Observer, Spring 2008,
Spring 2008

Author: Grace Shackman

Setting history right

When Gerald O'Connor, physician for the University of Michigan football team, died in 2004, his wife, Margaret, buried him in the Lodi Township Cemetery, near their farm. Never one to do anything halfway, she special-ordered a casket from Texas with a horse design.

Dr. O'Connor's good friend Don Canham, U-M athletic director from 1968 to 1988, also lived in Lodi Township. One day, driving by the graveyard at the corner of Ann Arbor-Saline and Textile roads, he mentioned to his wife, Peg, that he too would like to be buried there. He died the next year and was laid to rest near his friend in the newest section at the back of the cemetery.

On her visits, Peg Canham often looked at the older headstones. She saw that a lot of children under twelve died in the 1840s and 1850s. She also noticed that men often outlived several wives, who probably died in childbirth. "I began to wonder who they were," she says.

Margaret O'Connor noticed Canham's frequent visits to the cemetery and burgeoning interest in history. The two women knew each other through their husbands but had not been particularly close. "Our husbands were like rock stars," explains Canham. O'Connor adds, "They did all the talking. They were bigger than life."

O'Connor, however, had her own list of accomplishments. She had served as a Lodi Township trustee, county commissioner, and state representative. A few years before her husband died, someone asked O'Connor a question about township history that she couldn't answer. Research yielded little. "I went to the township board and they didn't have any information either," she says. "They said, 'You have a job.'"

O'Connor began poring over old township minutes and budgets, plat maps, and other records. She discovered that Lodi Township was named after an area near New York's Finger Lakes and was established in 1834, three years before Michigan became a state. She learned that Ann Arbor-Saline Road was originally a plank road and charged a toll of a penny per horse.

O'Connor enlisted Canham to join her history project. She took her to the deserted 1867 Lodi Township Hall on Pleasant Lake Road near Zeeb. The third-oldest township hall in the state, it had been abandoned in 1986 for a new hall farther east on Pleasant Lake Road.

In the back of the hall is the dais where the township officials met, behind a railing and in front of an American flag. Five polling booths line the west side of the hall, each with a writing desk that pulls down. The potbellied stove has been sold, but you can still see where the chimney was. According to the deed, which O'Connor had come across in her research, the township paid $40 for the eighth-of-an-acre parcel. The restroom was an outhouse in back. The hall didn't even have electricity until the 1930s, this modernization having been voted down several times.

O'Connor and Canham organized an architectural charrette to brainstorm ideas on future uses of the hall. They invited anyone who might he interested, including Lodi Township's board and planning commission and Eastern Michigan University historic preservation students and their professors. The volunteer advisors came up with plenty of suggestions for new uses: flower museum, wedding hall, even a place to leach government.

The EMU students estimated it would cost about $60,000 to restore the hall. The biggest expense would be shoring up the buckling back wall. Space for parking would be a problem if the building were redesigned for public use.

Shortly after the two women began working on the old Township Hall, O'Connor suggested they also work on the cemetery. The fence was about to fall down, many of the stones were tipped over, moles had taken over sections, and weeds were everywhere.

The Lodi graveyard predates the hall by forty years. According to the Chapman publishing company's 1881 History of Washtenaw County, "The first deaths recorded are those of Miss Betsy Howe, daughter of Orrin, who died in 1827. About the same time, Mr. Howe's hired man was consigned to mother earth. Their graves formed the nucleus of Lodi Plains cemetery." (Old maps show the "plains" in the southeast section.)

The Howe family were among the first settlers in Lodi in 1825. They purchased land in sections 23 and 24, and buried their dead in the back of section 24. It became a community graveyard in 1831 with the burial of Bazzila Goodrich. Today, anyone who has been a township resident can be buried there.

The Howe family graves are in the southwest corner of the cemetery, in a roped-off area with a big stele in the middle. Orrin Howe was the first township postmaster and justice of the peace. He was a state legislator and a member of the state constitutional convention. Other early township settlers buried near the Howe plot include Gilbert Alien, who, according to the Chapman history, was me "first temperance apostle in the town," and two of the first elders of the Presbyterian church, Mather Marvin and Horace Booth.

Professor Rufus Nutting, who in 1847 started an academy across the road from the cemetery, is also buried there. His school's main aim was to prepare students for the University of Michigan. "It was one of the best schools of its type anywhere in the Midwest," says Robert Lane, a Saline historian. "It was also unusual in that it was about forty percent women."

Also in the cemetery is Captain John Lowry, whose farm was just north of it. Lowry, like Howe, was a state legislator. A strong abolitionist, he was involved in the Underground Railroad. As the Chapman history reported, "The oppressed bloodhound-hunted children of our common father often found rest and comfort in Capt. L.'s well-stored house, where much money and clothing were given to supply the wants of the escaped slaves."

The gravestones in the older part of the cemetery are sandstone. Most of these markers are inscribed with the complete dates of birth and death, age of the deceased in years and months, and other things such as birthplace, spouses' names, Bible verses, poems, or short sayings such as "Asleep in Jesus" or "Not dead but sleepeth." Many stones have carved images, the most common being weeping willows but also Bibles, fingers pointing to heaven, or clasped hands.

The early settlers chose sandstone because it was easy to carve—but it also easily weathered, and over time the markings have eroded. The lightweight stones also fall over easily, and can end up covered and hidden by grass.

Markers on the newer graves, north and east of the oldest part, are mostly made of granite. These heavier stones last longer, but they're more expensive to carve and usually have less written on them. An unmarked area along the north fence is believed to have been the potter's field, where poor people who couldn't afford markers were buried.

The main path leads to a grass-covered stone mausoleum built in 1875. Mausoleums, common in old cemeteries, were used to store bodies while the ground was frozen. They were usually built into hills, but because Lodi Cemetery is on flat land, a hill had to be formed and concrete poured around it as a base for the stones. Canham and O'Connor started the cemetery project by working on weekends to clean up brush and debris. Vines covering headstones had to be carefully removed by hand. They soon found a third volunteer—Wayne Clements, president of the Saline Area Historical Society, whose wife, Jane, is buried in the cemetery. Working with Clements, the two women formed the tax-exempt Lodi Township Historic Preservation Group, a subsidiary of the Saline society. They're working through the group to raise money for fixing up the cemetery and eventually restoring the old Township Hall.

The fence was the first priority, since it's what everyone driving by sees. They were told that replacing it would cost $60,000, but O'Connor found a man who would sandblast off the rust and repaint it for $22,000, saving the original fence. The two widows each put in $1,000, as did longtime Lodi resident Margaret Brusher, and the township paid the rest.

Canham got Clements to help her work on the smaller gravestones, digging up fallen ones and putting them upright. The larger ones needed professional attention. The preservation group has raised money to pay for cleaning and raising some of these stones and for repairing the mausoleum, now used to store the sexton's tools.

The work of Canham, O'Connor, and Clements is making the cemetery a pleasanter place. As soon as Canham began visiting the cemetery regularly, she began doing things to improve its looks, like painting the water pump, planting flowers in front, and putting in benches. There's talk about eventually putting up a gazebo or picnic table. Picnicking in a graveyard was common in the nineteenth century, when cemeteries functioned more like public parks. Thanks to the volunteers, Lodi's cemetery is once again becoming a retreat for the living.

—Grace Shackman

Photo Captions:

After their well-known husbands died. Peg Canham and Margaret O'Connor decided to spruce up their burial grounds.

Ann Arbor's Kit Homes

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, January 1991,
January 1991

Author: Grace Shackman and Rob Schweitzer

Linda Feldt knew she wanted to buy her house on Keppler Court the moment she saw it six years ago. It's strong and well made, she says—even the original plaster is holding up well for a house built in the 1920's. She works at home as a holistic health practitioner, and she says, "Every time I walk up to my house, I just love it."

The one thing Feldt didn't like about her house's layout was the way the refrigerator was placed in a little dead-end hallway off the kitchen. A handy, practical woman, she decided to incorporate the hallway into the kitchen. Getting ready to move the doorway, she recalls, "I took off the baseboards—and it said on the back, 'Montgomery Ward.' "

Feldt had just discovered that her dream house was a kit home. In about 1927, Albert Jedele (his name was on the baseboard, too) and his wife, Elsa, picked the house out of a Ward's catalog. Ward's shipped everything needed to build the Norwood, as the model was called, to Ann Arbor by rail: lumber already cut to size, roofing, flooring, plaster, even nails and paint. The Jedeles, too, seem to have been delighted with their house: the 1928 "Wardway Homes" catalog includes this testimonial from Mrs. Jedele: "We saved $1000 and got better materials by buying a WARDWAY home from you. We have lived in it for three years, and we like it better every day."

The catalog also explained the mystery of the refrigerator in the hallway. The house was built before the days of electric refrigerators, and the catalog boasted that the Norwood's floor plan allowed deliveries to the icebox without having the ice man track through the kitchen.

The kit home industry flourished between 1906 (when the Aladdin Company started making home kits in Bay City, Michigan) and World War II. An important but, until recently, overlooked part of America's architectural history, it is only now beginning to get serious attention. Many companies, including Ward's and Sears, the best-known kit home seller, no longer have their records, and can only estimate how many homes they actually sold. A conservative guess puts the number at over half a million across the country.

Ann Arbor was an ideal market for kit houses: it had a growing population, good shipping access via two rail lines, and a location near the industry's center in Bay City. In addition to Sears and Ward's, there were four large manufacturers of kit homes. One of the four, Gordon-Van Tine, was in Davenport, Iowa. But the other three manufacturers—Aladdin and two later competitors, Sterling and Lewis—were based in Bay City.

The son of Aladdin's founder, W. F. Sovereign, thinks that his father got the idea for kit houses from a Bay City company that made precut kits for wooden boats. Whatever the inspiration, Bay City early in this century was the ideal place for the industry to spring up: its boat-building industry used mechanized wood-cutting technology that could be adapted for homes, and it had all the facilities needed to ship lumber, a legacy of Michigan's late-nineteenth-century timber boom.

In 1906, when Aladdin was founded, it was just becoming possible to sell and ship products in large volume nationwide. New national magazines made it easy to advertise all over the country, and the 1893 Rural Free Delivery Act made it possible to mail catalogs everywhere. At the same time, the nearly universal spread of railroads put most towns on a line for easy shipping.

Home builders of the era, however, still worked entirely with hand tools. By taking advantage of the efficiencies of mechanized mass production, kit house makers were able to offer fancy detailing—for instance, porches with elaborate pillars, and overhanging eaves with knee brackets—while undercutting the prices local carpenters had to charge to cover all that labor. Some firms built entire company towns of kit houses. Kits were shipped to every state in the union, to Canada, and even to England.

Construction of kit homes in Ann Arbor peaked in the 1920's with the growth of the university and the expansion of the city's industrial base. It slowed during the Depression and stopped completely during World War II when materials were needed for war production.

Kit houses can be found all around the city, but are concentrated in neighborhoods developed during the early years of this century: the outer edges of the Old West Side, lower Burns Park, and East Ann Arbor. They are found in all the predominant styles of the time—bungalow, semi-bungalow, craftsman, Tudor, box (four-square), Dutch colonial, and Georgian. Most are modest homes of less than 1,200 square feet, but some elegant models were built, too. The best known is former Ann Arbor News publisher Tim White's southern mansion at 2030 Hill. The founder of American Broach, Francis LaPointe, lived in an elegant Sears home (since torn down) at 4158 Washtenaw, so big it included a ballroom in which Henry Ford once danced.

We have identified Ann Arbor area kit houses through reminiscences of people involved in the building or buying of them, from physical evidence found in the houses themselves, or from information gleaned from the sellers' original catalogs. So far, we have positively identified thirty-one homes as kit houses; twenty-five others are strong possibilities, while countless others are suspected.

Collier's, Better Homes & Gardens, and the Saturday Evening Post all carried kit home ads. Interested readers could send in a coupon to receive the company's latest catalog. The catalogs changed yearly and included about seventy models. Each model had a name, often one intended to evoke the aura of a style or an era—Hathaway or Birmingham for Tudor-style models, Rembrandt or Amsterdam for Dutch colonials, San Jose for a Spanish-style house, Magnolia for a southern mansion. Other models were named after contemporary heroes, including actress Mary Pickford and General John J. Pershing.

The catalogs had pictures and floor plans of each model, along with a "bill of materials" and forms for ordering the house or requesting further information. The catalogs also included details about such optional extras as lighting fixtures, wallpapers, furniture, and even window screens.

The Aladdin Company proudly advertised that its catalog was its only salesman. Both Sears and Ward's, on the other hand, had local agents in many areas. In 1930, Sears had kit house sales offices in seven Michigan cities, including Ann Arbor, Detroit, Jackson, and Port Huron, and in Toledo, Ohio. A 1928 Sears catalog lists an office in the Washtenaw Heights subdivision between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. The agent could help buyers decide on design options, such as roof variations or different sidings. He could also direct buyers to similar models already built in town.

To compete with the local agents, Aladdin sent its customers lists of Aladdin homes built in their area and paid these home owners a dollar for each potential customer they allowed to tour their houses. This method proved quite effective; testimonial letters show that some new Aladdin home owners made several hundred dollars within a year from the tours. No such list has yet surfaced for southeast Michigan, but we know of ones from Ohio and Pennsylvania.

If the testimonials in the 1926 Gordon Van Tine catalog can be trusted, the average kit house cost 30 percent less than a similar conventionally built house. According to Ann Arborites who built them, other attractions of kit houses included easy financing, style, convenience, and the challenge of building one's own home.

Financing was the lure for the late Frank Braatz, a trained carpenter who could just as easily have built a house from scratch. "My credit was no good," he recalled in 1988. "I was just a kid. I didn't want to work for someone else, so I borrowed from Sears." In 1922 Sears gave him a $500 advance plus the lumber to build the Rodessa model, a small two-bedroom bungalow. He lived there for several years, sold it, then used the profit to build another house. "After I built enough, I could go ahead on my own."

Cost was the major factor in Reuben Rose's decision to build a Sears house at 1472 South Boulevard. "In 1927 money was scarce," he recalls. "I was an apprentice electrician not making much money, but I only needed two hundred dollars down to build a Sears house."

Rose and his wife, Ruth, remember looking through the catalog at the office of a Sears agent. They chose a California style bungalow called the Somers to match the other one-story homes in their neighborhood. Now, sixty-three years later, Rose is glad of that—he doesn't have to go up and down stairs in his retirement years.

Charles Winfeld Good, a professor of mechanical engineering at the U-M, built a Sears Rembrandt model at 622 South Seventh in 1925. "He was a young man with little income and a lot of energy," says his eldest daughter, Martha Good Vibrans. "This was the only way he could get a house for his family."

Style and convenience were also strong selling points. Each maker's catalog offered scores of choices every year, and included catchy innovations like the Norwood's icebox hallway. The Burkhardts in Chelsea, according to their daughter, Olive Burkhardt Wiseman, saw a house in Ann Arbor that they liked. On learning that it was a Kit house, they ordered the same one, hiring local barn builder Chris Koch and his son Roy to build it. The house still stands at 12345 Jackson Road near Stivers.

Esther Schwartz, who still lives in a Ward Kenwood model on Eighth Street, remembers that she and Elmer, her husband-to-be, selected that particular model from the catalog because it had a bedroom and bathroom on the first floor. (Two-story houses traditionally had the bathroom and all the bedrooms on the second floor.)

Kit houses were shipped by rail. Frank Braatz received a postcard from the Ann Arbor Railroad notifying him when his Rodessa arrived at the station on Ashley. The boxcar containing the materials was put on a side track until Braatz could arrange with Si Elsifor's trucking firm to unload it and bring it to the site at 802 South First Street, where he had already dug a basement.

The kit contained blueprints, a building instructions booklet, and everything needed to construct the house, including numbered precut lumber, plaster, a furnace, radiators, nails, stair pieces, white paint, gutters, downspouts, and storm windows. Sears first shipped the items needed to frame in the house; a second shipment had the finishing materials, such as casings, finish floors, windows, and doors. The Rodessa wasn't a top-of-the-line model; the kit included neither kitchen cabinets nor a fireplace. Fancier plans had these extras and more. For instance, Tim White's Hill Street house came with glass paned French doors and elaborate porch pieces already made up.

After he lived in his house for two years, Frank Braatz built a larger Sears house at 812 Miner, a Dutch colonial model called the Puritan. (Another Puritan, owned by Polly Varhol, can be found at 3055 Lakewood.) Braatz later built several more houses, but they weren't kit houses. Once he could afford to borrow on his own, he chose to build from scratch, with more freedom to make changes in a design.

The late Roy Koch remembered his work on the Burkhardt home in a 1987 interview. Each piece of lumber had a code number on it that tied it to the blueprints and assembly instructions. Koch complained that it was more trouble to keep track of the numbered lumber than just to go straight to work.

Frank Braatz solved that problem by laying out the materials in order of use. "The wood came with perfect cuts, tied with steel straps. The main thing was to keep the piles separate." At first, Braatz laid the piles out on the ground. Later, when the roof was in place, he brought the remaining material inside for protection.

Reuben Rose, who hired Godfrey Moving to haul his kit house from the railroad station, was lucky that his parents lived around the corner on Packard. He stored the materials for his home in his father's barn, where they stayed safe and dry until he was ready to use them.

Testimonial letters to the Gordon-Van Tine Company in Iowa tell of numerous farmers and their hired hands completing kit houses unaided. But even though Ann Arbor buyers of kit houses were often handymen or jacks-of-all-trades, they usually hired a trained carpenter to help them build the house. Kit houses saved their owners the trouble of buying each individual part and of sawing the wood into the right sizes, but they still took considerable skill to erect.

Rose's house was built mainly by his carpenter uncle, although he and his father helped. Esther Schwartz's house was built by a carpenter named Otto Tony, who lived across the street, with help from her husband. Clarence Steffey, who lives in a 1929 Sears Westly model at 602 Soule, reports that his dad, retired farmer Frank Steffey, built it, working side-by-side with a carpenter from Stockbridge named Whit Holmes. Bob Truby, who grew up in a Sears Clyde bungalow at 905 South Fifth Street, remembers that his father, ice cream manufacturer Harold Truby, hired a contractor to build their house. The Good children remember that a large group of people—neighbors, friends, relatives, colleagues—all helped with their Seventh Street house.

The Ann Arbor area homes we know of took about six months to build. Guila Baries, whose husband, Fred, and father-in-law, Jacob, built a Sears Wilmore model at 3101 Dexter Road (an identical house is at 2625 Dexter), remembers that they started work in the spring of 1937 and were finished in time to celebrate Thanksgiving in their new home.

Both Steffey and Rose report that their houses took longer to complete than they'd expected, forcing the families to live temporarily in their garages. Steffey's father had rented a house on Eighth Street to live in while the new house was being built. But that lease ran out in the fall of 1929 while the new house was still unfinished, and the family was forced to move into the garage. They lived there about a month, where, Steffey remembers, "it got kinda cold."

Reuben Rose remembers that, tiring of garage living, he and his wife decided to move into their house, although it meant having the bed in the kitchen for awhile.

Sears and Ward's financed the houses they sold, often on better terms than buyers could get from local banks. That backfired in the Depression, when, like every other financial institution, they were forced to foreclose some of the mortgages and suffered bad publicity as a result. Rose recalls, though, that Sears helped him to hold on to his house. When he was short of money during the Depression, he wrote Sears and asked if he could pay just the interest on his loan for awhile. The company agreed, and Rose continued to do that until World War II, when he got a good job at the Willow Run bomber plant and was able to pay off his mortgage.

Sears' policy of helping owners to retain their houses if at all possible is confirmed by commercial broker Peter Alien. His grandfather, Amiriah Alien, worked for Sears in Chicago, buying homes that were due to be foreclosed and then selling them back to the owners with longer-term loans. Even so, it was probably adverse publicity about foreclosures that led Sears to abandon the kit house business in 1940.

The next year, World War II shut down almost all residential building. Though some of the kit companies revived afterward (Aladdin survived into the early 1980's), they were never again the force they had been before the Depression. Probably the big reason was the postwar introduction of affordable portable power tools that, along with panelized building materials like plywood and drywall, drastically cut down the labor needed to build a house from scratch. Rather than kit homes, postwar efforts at mass housing production instead focused on prefabricated structures like the winsome, all-steel Lustron (Then & Now, March 1989).

All of the kit house owners we talked to reported that their homes have held up well, requiring repairs because of age but not because of poor quality or bad workmanship. In fact, the high standards of the ready-cut housing companies probably raised the all-around quality of lumber throughout the nation. (Aladdin offered to pay a dollar for any knot found in its siding materials. Ward's offered to replace free of charge any piece the customer was dissatisfied with.)

When kit houses changed hands, the new buyers didn't necessarily know that they were buying a kit house, since they were built in the styles of the day and constructed so that assembly markings didn't show. Current owners who do know the origin of their houses, like Linda Feldt, frequently made the discovery while working on their houses. Turalee and Dudley Barlow, who live in a Sears Dover, a Tudor-style cottage, at 1316 South Seventh (very similar to Esther Schwartz's Kenwood), first learned that they had a Sears house while removing insulation from the attic. They found Sears labels on their attic beams and "Sears" stamped on the floorboards. Gretchen Preston and Greg Meisner found Sears labels glued to the back of their living room baseboards when they removed them to install wall-to-wall carpeting. Their home at 1706 Jackson Road proved to be a Sears colonial bungalow, the Columbine. Bob and Katherine Vernon, on hearing from former owners that their home at 814 Third was a Sears house, searched for marks, which they found on beams in the attic and in the basement.

The Vernons then identified their house as a Hathaway model by looking through a book called Houses by Mail: A Guide to Houses from Sears, Roebuck and Company, published by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The book pictures many of the homes once offered by Sears but gives little additional information about the ready-cut house industry itself or Sears' involvement in it. Another aid for people wanting to identify a kit house is Aladdin Homes, 1918-1919, a reprint of an Aladdin catalog, published by American Life Books (Box 349, Watkins Glen N. Y. 14891); it describes a hundred homes offered by the pioneer Bay City company.

Even with these two books, there are still hundreds of Sears and Aladdin models, plus homes from all the other companies, which the general public has no way of identifying. Author Schweitzer has been collecting kit house catalogs from around the country, and now has about 55 percent of pre-World War II catalogs of the six major companies. He and Michael Davis have co-authored a book, America's Favorite Homes: Mail Order Catalogs as a Guide to Popular Early 20th Century Homes, based primarily on research from his collection. It's possible to identify many kit houses just by being familiar with the catalog illustrations. Driving by one day, Schweitzer spotted a Lewis kit house, the Lancaster, at 1113 South State. He has been able to confirm many suspected kit homes by looking through his extensive catalog collection to find a match.

It was with his catalogs that Schweitzer was also able to correctly identify Tim White's house at 2030 Hill as a Sterling Vernon model. An Associated Press article on kit homes, which appeared in the Ann Arbor News in 1982, showed a house identical to White's in Aurora, N.Y. (now used as a funeral home), which it identified as a Sears Magnolia. Local history buffs accepted this designation until Schweitzer examined White's original blueprints. They were labeled "International Mill and Timber," Sterling's early name. A tour of the house confirmed its origins—blue chalk markings were found on the beams in the attic, and the floor plan and French doors matched the Sterling Vernon catalog entry.

The Jedele-Feldt house on Keppler Court is one of two local houses that can be identified through testimonials in Ward's catalogs. The other, a Tudor revival Devonshire model at 1601 Pontiac Trail, belongs to Anne Marie and Don Coleman (she's a city councilwoman, and they're both ministers at Guild House). In a 1931 Ward's catalog, "Mrs. Wm. A. Parker" wrote to say how pleased she and her husband were at owning their new Wardway home, which she said lowered their monthly house payment from $75 to $43.89. (According to the 1929 city directory, William and Martha Parker owned the Broadway Pharmacy.)

Not all identifications are so easy. Besides the fact that assembly marks are hidden, there were countless models, not all yet documented, and some houses were significantly altered during construction or in the years since. For instance, Fran Steffey reports that his father enclosed half of the front porch as part of the dining room. Reuben Rose changed the windows on his. Others reversed floor plans or altered porches.

Historic kit homes seem to be attracting more public interest lately. The Coldwell Banker real estate agency illustrated its 1990 calendar with reprints from Sears' first kit house catalog. A scale model of the 1908 Sears Home Number 102, designed for model railroad layouts, is available at Rider's Hobby Shops. Real estate companies in recent years have become more likely to mention kit house status as a plus in their advertising. Melissa and Edward Van Dam's house at 401 Berkley, which was on the market last fall, was advertised as an "original Sears home." A visit confirmed it to be a Barrington. (The Van Dams knew it was a Sears house because the original plans had been passed on to them by a former owner.)

Once you become aware of these homes, they seem to show up everywhere. Both authors' families have become adept at spotting them. Schweitzer's ten-year-old daughter recognized a Gordon-Van Tine Brentwood on Wells Street after seeing it on the cover of the company's 1928 catalog. Shackman's teenage daughter has become very good at spotting Dovers and their look-alikes. After Ann Arbor News reporter Tom Rogers wrote up America's Favorite Homes, he too began to see kit houses on every corner. Even Rogers's own Dutch colonial at 111 Kenwood, he noticed, was close to a Liberty-Lewis Victoria pictured in the book. Subsequent comparison with the floor plan provided by Schweitzer showed it was "slightly different, but too close to be a coincidence," says Rogers. "My guess is that it is either a kit house or is modeled after one."

Owners are often able to find houses identical to their own. Clarence and Lucille Steffey know of two Westlys in Saline. The Vernons have identified several other Hathaways, including 1334 Hutchins, 117 West Hoover, and 112 Collingwood. Sears colonial bungalow Crescent models have been spotted at 709 West Stadium, 2504 Hawks, and 431 Parkwood, while additional cottage-Tudor Dovers (or similar models) can be seen at 2006 Dexter, 916 Hutchins, 510 Potter, and 407 Pauline.

Although many of the original purchasers and builders of kit homes are no longer alive, and many of the missing catalogs are probably permanently lost, it is still possible to identify a large number of these houses using available clues. If anyone knows of any kit houses in the area, or has plans, blueprints, or catalogs, please let us know. (Write us in care of the Observer.) With the exception of company towns that were built entirely of kit homes, Ann Arbor may soon have the most extensive list of identified kit houses in the country.

Photo captions:

A lot of the city's coziest houses were ordered out of a catalog early in this century. Sears was the best-known seller, but the industry's real center was in nearby Bay City.

"Every time I walk up to my house, I just love it," says Linda Feldt, with her Wardway Norwood and (inset) its original catalog listing. Feldt discovered she had a kit home when she removed a baseboard and found a Ward's label—and shipping information to original owner Albert Jedele.

Greg Meisner, Gretchen Preston, and their Sears Columbine. Elaborate porch treatments like this were an attractive feature of kit houses—the highly mechanized manufacturers could produce them much more cheaply than local carpenters working with hand tools.

Christmas Past: Holiday Displays Downtown

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, December 1997,
December 1997

Author: Grace Shackman

As recently as the 1950s, the imposing line of storefronts along South Main Street was relieved by a peaceful patch of lawn and a handsome Greek Revival house. It was the home of shopkeeper Bertha Muehlig, and the site of a fondly remembered holiday display. Every year, Muehlig, owner of Muehlig's dry goods, worked with the Chamber of Commerce to set up a Nativity scene in her front yard.

Muehlig's home and creche are often mentioned when longtime Ann Arborites recall Christmas shopping downtown in the pre-mall era. Fay Muehlig, Bertha Muehlig's niece by marriage, remembers "a baby in a little crib with Mary and Joseph, two or three feet high." After Bertha died in 1955, the Nativity scene was put up in front of the courthouse on the comer of Huron and Main for a few years—until concerns about the separation of church and state ended religious displays on public property.

For most of this century. Main Street was lined with department stores that mounted special window displays to entertain holiday shoppers. Old-timers recall being especially enthralled by the moving displays: a revolving tree in Mack and Company's window, a Shirley Temple doll playing the organ at Goody ear's, and an electric train going around and around in the window of Muehlig and Lanphear's hardware store (co-owner Edward Muehlig was Bertha Muehlig's brother).

Mack and Company, on the comer of Liberty and Main, was the premier department store in Ann Arbor before the Depression. Former employee Mabel Sager remembers that the store's buyers would "go to New York and Chicago and buy real nice stuff for Christmas." The late Edith Staebler Kempft remembered in a 1982 interview that the store always had a live Christmas tree. 'They had a large music box imported from Germany," she said. "They put the tree in the middle. When the music was on, the tree moved. You could see it from the Liberty Street entrance." Helen Schmid remembers a Santa who roamed around the store, talking to children about what they wanted for Christmas.

On the other side of Main Street, Muehlig and Lanphear's hardware store would set up its electric train. "Kids would have their noses up to the window," Marian Zwinch remembers. "Trains were out of the range of most people's pocketbooks." Fay Muehlig agrees, remembering that it wasn't unusual to get "an engine one Christmas and a passenger car or freight car the next."

Goodyear's, located in the next block of Main between Washington and Huron, eventually replaced Mack and Company as the most prominent downtown department store. In the 1950s, it was the first store to introduce free gift wrapping at
Christmas. "We hired young girls who sang carols as they wrapped," former Goodyear's manager Donna Moran recalls. "They were from the high school a cappella choir and wore cute little outfits." Their performance was a big hit, with long
lines, but after a few years they discontinued the singing because "it interfered with the wrapping," Moran recalls. "It was hard to sing and listen to what kind of paper the customer wanted."

On Kids Night, former Goodyear's employee Jean Brumley remembers, "We set up the cafeteria with different items, all low prices that the kids could buy for their parents. The mothers would bring them in and then go off."

For years, a highlight of the holiday season was seeing and hearing the doll in Goodyear's window "play" Christmas music on a pipe organ. "We always watched to see when they would put it in," Fay Muehlig remembers. "It was a fixture of Christmas." Speakers piped the music outside for passersby.

—Grace Shackman

"Watch out! Here I come!"

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

Author: Grace Shackman

When kids could sled down city streets all winter long

Sledding down the middle of city streets? No parents in their right mind would let their children do that today, but in the 1920s and 1930s it was done with the blessing of the city. Every neighborhood had at least one steep street blocked off for sledding, and often there were several within walking distance.

"Oh, it was fun, really fun," recalls Walter Metzger, who sledded on three such streets: Koch from Third to Main, Division from Packard to Hill, and Eighth from Washington to Liberty. "The city blocked the streets with a big long [saw] horse. They also blocked the side streets, but they'd leave room for the residents to drive through. It was very safe. I never remember anybody having an accident with a car."

Al Gallup, who sledded down Highland and Awixa, recalls that the city brought out a sawhorse at the beginning of the season and left it at the side of the road except when the kids were actually sledding. Hills on Broadway and Felch were popular spots. Bob Ryan, who lived on Longshore, used to sled from the top of his street clear down to Argo Pond and, if possible, right out onto the frozen water. "There was no traffic," he recalls. "The only house was Mr. Saunders's of the canoe livery, and he knew to be careful [when driving]."

If there were no sawhorses, one of the kids would stand guard at potentially dangerous intersections, warning sledders when they needed to stop. Braking was done by dragging feet, swerving onto lawns, or, if all else failed, jumping off just before a collision. Harlan Otto, who used to slide down Koch Street, remembers they didn't necessarily stop even at Main. "We'd have someone at the bottom [of Koch] to look out. One time we went down and around the comer on Main all the way to Madison."

Flexible Flyers were the sleds of choice because "you could steer them," explains Coleman Jewett. "Others you had to lean on to guide." Brad Stevens recalls that Flexible Flyers came in different lengths: "The longer it was, the more prestigious." John Hathaway recalls that his Flexible Flyer (which he still has hanging in his garage) was purchased at Hertler's, and that as a special deal the Hertler brothers cut him a piece of rope to tie on the front.

"Not many had sleds," recalls Otto, so "we used to ride double. The bigger kids would get on the bottom and the little on top." Kids sometimes went down a hill on a number of sleds chained together, sticking their toes between the opening where the sled was steered. Occasional mishaps occurred, but the victims all lived to tell the tale.

Larger groups of kids rode on toboggans and bobsleds, the latter often homemade. Hathaway recalls that the bobsleds went a lot faster and could be dangerous if you left a limb dangling. Jewett says that a family in his neighborhood, the Bakers, had a toboggan that held twelve or fourteen kids. "It was fun. Just don't sit in front or back," he warns.

Sometimes kids would enhance their sledding routes by pouring water in the tracks. Metzger recalls that "Bob Muehlig used to take buckets of water and pour it on the curb to make runs for a bobsled." Ryan remembers pouring water on Longshore in new snow so toboggan tracks would freeze at night. "We'd go like the gun the next morning," he recalls.

The kids would come home sopping wet after sledding. "We all had coal furnaces with registers on the floor. We'd take off our clothes to dry off," Metzger recalls. "The adults hated the cold and snow, but kids loved it," says Jewett. That part is probably the same today.

—Grace Shackman

Photo Caption: John Hathaway still has the Flexible Flyer his parents bought at Hertler's.

Gifts From The Past

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

Author: Grace Shackman

Depression-era Christmas presents were few and practical

In the years of the Great Depression before World War II, gift giving did not dominate Ann Arbor Christmases as it does today. "You were lucky if you got one present," recalls Bob Ryan of his childhood. "I'd get an orange in my stocking or sometimes an apple. One year I got a sled."

"Presents were primarily clothes," recalls Lois Uhlendorf McLean. "We'd get practical things: school clothes, a sweater, what we needed." Though parents bought necessities, sometimes other relatives would give toys like dolls or trucks. She also recalls that sometimes her dad would buy a new Christmas tree ornament and say it was a gift from the family to the tree.

Harlan Otto remembers looking forward to the hard candy that came in a special box every year from St. Paul's Church. He also recalls many handmade gifts, such as mittens and socks. "Grandma Zill, it seemed like she could do it in twenty minutes. She'd say, 'Oh, you don't have any mittens.' Zoom, zoom, zoom, she'd make them."

Some parents put a great deal of creativity and resourcefulness into making presents. Otto remembers receiving toys made out of old spools from thread, while Coleman Jewett recalls receiving scooters made out of old skates.

Maybe because presents were such a rarity, people now in their seventies and eighties seem to have remarkable memories of the ones they did get. Otto recalls two very clearly: a flashlight he got from a neighbor, and a steam shovel that his godfather gave him and that he "played with forever."

Rosemarion Blake recalls a life-changing present: "Mrs. Blackburn—she worked at Barbour Gym—thought it necessary for kids to read, so she always gave me a stack of books." As a result of this yearly gift, Blake became an avid reader.

Both Coleman Jewett and John Hathaway recall "little big books," which had pictures on the borders so that when you riffled the pages you saw the figures move. Inexpensive hardcover books, such as adventure stories for boys and Nancy
Drew for girls, were other popular presents. A favorite gift with Mary Stevens Hathaway and her siblings was a yearly subscription to Life magazine, given by an aunt and uncle.

Back then toys were powered by imagination, not batteries. Pat Murphy remembers getting a doll in the pre-Barbie days that came with material for miniature clothes that she had to make herself, using a sewing kit that was also included. Jewett remembers getting art supplies, such as watercolor sets or a compass to draw circles.

Erector sets and their cheaper cousin, Meccano sets, were a big hit with boys; they could add to their collections each year, as they did with painted tin soldiers. With the days of political correctness still in the future, boys also got more macho presents, such as high-top boots with a slit on the side for a jackknife. Jewett remembers getting cap guns to play cowboys and Indians with; when he was about eleven years old, he got a Red Ryder BB gun, made in Plymouth. Bob Kuhn remembers receiving boxing gloves complete with a punching bag. In contrast, all of the women interviewed remember getting dolls.

Al Gallup gets the prize for the most unusual present—a puppy. "One year I got a Manchester terrier we named Boots," he remembers. Boots went on to claim fame after his picture was featured on Scott lawn products distributed nationwide, according to Gallup. Why was Boots so special? "Because he dug dandelions," Galiup says. "He pulled the roots out but didn't eat them. We never knew why."

Photo Captions:

Grace Stevens TerMaat, Brad Stevens, and Mary Stevens Hathaway, Christmas 1937.

Coleman Jewett, junior commando, 1943.

Brad Stevens plays with his new train set, 1931.

5 Rms, Riv Vu

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

A barn next to the Broadway Bridge is being turned into luxury apartments.

!n the past few years apartments or condos have been built in an old department store on Main, a battered National Guard armory on Ann, and even a former church on Fourth Avenue. But the most remarkable tribute to Ann Arborites' sudden desire to live downtown may be Mike Kessler's project to build apartments in a barn on the comer of Depot and Beakes—just a few feet away from the constant traffic of the Broadway Bridge.

The barn was built by the Ann Arbor Gas Light Company to house its delivery wagons and horses, probably in 1907. (The wagons hauled coke, a coal gasification by-product that the company sold as a home heating fuel.) After the first natural gas pipeline reached the city in 1937, the barn was used for maintenance operations. James 0. Morrison, who worked in the barn in the 1950s, recalls that he and his coworkers unofficially dubbed it the "Ditch Digging Department," since their main job was to hand-dig ditches for gas lines and gas mains. "It was home away from home," Morrison recalls. "We were paid there. We reported there. If it rained we stood in there."

In the mid-1950s the maintenance crews moved out, and the building was used for storage. In 1969 it was sold to activist Charles Thomas, whose Black Economic Development League (BEDL) had been raising money from churches by demanding reparations for past injustices against blacks. He used the money to offer courses for black youths in such upcoming technologies as computers, TV and radio production, solar heating, and photography. In 1973 architect David Byrd and his students built a modem cinder-block building to serve as BEDL's headquarters; the barn was again used for storage.

BEDL's programs petered out as Thomas's health failed. When he died in 1994 both the BEDL building and the barn went to his heirs, who rented and then sold the property to Realtor Thomas Stachler. Stachler found evidences of Thomas's paranoia about government spying, including wire-laced security windows and lead-lined walls. Last March he sold the property to Mark Pfaff, a sales rep for Allied Enterprises, which makes electromechanical and electronic components.

Pfaff has moved his sales office into the front of the new building and has rented the rest of the space to several other businesses. He sold the barn to Mike Kessler, a carpenter, who has also worked as a teacher and in sales. Although Pfaff had inquiries about the barn from people wanting to set up a wine bar, an art studio, or a flower shop, he says he chose to sell it to Kessler because "I didn't want to lose the barn-ness." Says Kessler, "I want to maintain the rustic feel of it all."

Working with architect J. D. Phillips, Kessler is carving out three apartments. Two will be mirror images, using the first floor for a bedroom, studio, and bath and the second floor for a living room, kitchen, bedroom, and bath. Kessler is leaving the beams exposed and keeping the original wood to "keep the feel of the barn."

The urban barn is just a stone's throw from two heavily traveled streets and the busy Norfolk & Southern railroad tracks, not to mention a bridge that's about to be torn down and rebuilt. But all that doesn't scare Kessler and his wife, Serena—they plan to make their own home in an efficiency apartment in the former barn loft. "You can see the river valley, " he says of
the view. "You can see the train making a curve at Main Street."

Photo Captions:

Home on the range: the former gas company barn on Depot in midconversion.

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