Dr. Chase's Successors

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

Author: Grace Shackman

Dobson-McOmber returns to the Steam Printing House

By Christmas the Dobson-McOmber Insurance Company plans to move into new offices in the former Dr. Chase's Steam Printing House at the corner of Miller and Main. One of Ann Arbor's landmark buildings, it was immodestly described by its original owner, Alvin Wood Chase, as "without question the finest printing office in the West."

Schlanderer's on Main Street

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, October 1993,
Ocrober 1993

Author: Grace Shackman

Four generations of selling watches and jewelry

In four generations of selling watches, jewelry, and silver, the Schlanderer family has seen jewelry sales go up, silver sales go down, and watch sales remain steady. The need to know the time evidently remains a constant in most people's lives, regardless of economics or fashion.

Pilar Celaya

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

Author: Grace Shackman

From El Salvador to Ann Arbor with hope and good cooking

For immigrants, it's a bittersweet experience seeing their children embrace a new culture. Pilar Celaya says this first hit her when she was at the Pioneer High graduation of her two oldest kids. "When they started playing the national anthem, [the American] not the El Salvadoran one, I started crying--thinking I was only supposed to stay here one year and now my children are graduating in another country."

Rentschler Photographers

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

Author: Grace Shackman

When studio photography was king

Today, when the slightest family occasion is recorded with simple pocket-size cameras, and major events bring out the camcorder, it's easy to forget that just yesterday major life events were commemorated in the photographer's studio. Births, confirmations, graduations, team membership, army enlistments, marriages--all, if the family could afford it, were recorded for posterity at the local studio.

Studio photographers, masters of the bulky, tripod-mounted cameras and fragile glass negatives of the day, were the unoffiocial portraitists of the city. From 1890 to 1971, Fred Rentschler and his son and successor, Edwin Rentschler, took pictures of mayors, businessmen, service organization officers, and ministers. Their Rentschler Photographers, primarily at 319 East Huron, had almost a monopoly on U-M subjects: they memorialized every U-M president from James Angell on, photographed the leading professors, and took all the major team pictures.

Fred Rentschler was born in Ann Arbor on June 3, 1868, a few years after his parents immigrated from Wurttemberg, Germany. The 1906 Past and Present of Washtenaw County described the family as "prominent in social circles of the city"--connections that no doubt helped Fred get customers.

After a two-year apprenticeship in photography with the firm of Lewis and Gibson, Rentschler established his own studio in 1890 at the corner of Main and Huron, on the second floor of Brown's Drugstore. His darkroom was across the alley, reached through a covered catwalk. He would take a picture in his studio, run across the alley to develop the glass negative before it faded, then return to take the next shot.

In 1904, when the drugstore was about to be demolished to make way for the Glazier Building, Rentschler bought an old house at 319 East Huron, on land now part of City Hall, to use as his studio. To capture as much natural light for sittings as possible, he built a room on the back of the house with a two-story glass wall. Next door Rentschler built a house for his family. He had married Jessie Doane, a schoolteacher from Dexter, in 1898, and the couple had three children.

Fred Rentschler's grandson, Jeff Rentschler, a recent retiree from the Ann Arbor Fire Department, was a small boy when his grandfather died. He heard from those who knew Fred that he was friendly and outgoing, but also that he ran the studio with an iron hand. At his death the Ann Arbor News wrote, "He had a great deal of patience . . . and thus was able to wait for that fleeting twist of the mouth, or that expression of eyes that delighted his heart when he squeezed the bulb to flash the human countenance onto a film."

Edwin Rentschler, born in 1900, was trained from an early age to be his dad's successor. He officially entered the photography business in 1926, after graduating from the U-M with a business degree. (Jeff wonders if his dad resented going right into the business and if that is why he, in turn, wasn't encouraged to take it over.) The same year Edwin Rentschler joined the business, he married Lois Gates, the daughter of Dr. Neil Gates. As his father's health declined, Edwin handled more and more of the business, taking over completely a few years before Fred died in 1940.

Edwin retained the customers and used the same technology as his fa≠ther had. Jeff Rentschler remembers him standing behind the big camera or hurrying to bring out props--chairs, stools of various sizes, tables. Like his father, he was a perfectionist and a careful craftsman, good with details and very patient. Jeff remembers him as a sterner man than his grandfather; but he could also be very charming. Even with children, who can be a real challenge for a photographer, he would talk and wisecrack until they relaxed and he could get good pictures.

Jeff describes his father as a workaholic who perfected the system of photography he had been taught and changed nothing unless absolutely necessary. Long after good-quality 35-mm film cameras appeared--including the Ann Arbor-made Argus--Edwin Rentschler stayed with glass negatives and a large view camera so heavy it could be moved around the room only on casters.

Because the equipment was so heavy, all work was done in the studio, never on-site. Weeks before their weddings, brides would come to the studio to pose in their gowns. Whole crowds would arrive for group pictures. Even the athletic teams came. Jeff remembers it was a tradition for the U-M football team to come at the end of each season and pose for a group picture. Then they would elect the next year's captain and his picture would be taken, too. (Rentschler didn't charge teams for the pictures, but made money selling them to others.)

Edwin Rentschler's studio was a one-man operation; he even made frames himself. The only help he had was a receptionist and a college student who got a room in exchange for chores such as light cleaning and snow shoveling. During World War II, though, he had to hire extra help to take care of all the servicemen who wanted their pictures taken before they left, possibly forever.

As the studio era waned, Rentschler could have stayed busy by moving about, doing weddings or photographing industrial sites. But he preferred the studio. For the last ten years of his career, he shared space in the Talbot Studio on Main Street and continued taking formal portraits. The only time he ventured from the studio was for the football team pictures. He was willing to take those on-site because, when he moved out of his Huron Street studio, the athletic department had taken all his staging to Yost and would set it up for him every year. Rentschler retired in 1969 and died two years later.

Rentschler took home movies of his own family, but never casual photographs. Asked when he retired if he would take pictures of his family, he replied, "My wife takes candids. I'm strictly a studio man."

[Photo caption from the original print edition]: For decades, mayors, U-M presidents, ministers, and even the entire U-M football team made pilgrimages to Rentschler Photographers (above left) to have their pictures taken for posterity. It was undoubtedly founder Fred Rentschler who photographed his son Edwin and bride Lois Gates in 1926. The Rentschler studio and home on Huron were demolished in the 1960's to make room for City Hall.

[Photo caption from the original print edition]: Long after good-quality 35-mm film cameras appeared--including the Ann Arbor-made Argus--Edwin Rentschler stayed with glass negatives and a large view camera so heavy it could be moved around the room only on casters.

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Eighty-nine Years at the Corner of Main and Stadium

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, October 1992,
Ocrober 1992

Author: Grace Shackman

Schneiders' corner has been a fruit farm, a gas station, and a haven for hungry police officers

In 1903, blacksmith John Schneider sold his shop on Washington Street near Ashley and bought a fruit farm and a farmhouse on South Main Street. The family remained in business on the corner continuously until last summer.

Ehnis and Son

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, May 1992,
May 1992

Author: Grace Shackman

From harness making to work clothes

Soon after Herman Ehnis opened his harness shop at 116 West Liberty, he realized he had gone into a dying field. But by adroitly shifting his focus from horses to the workmen who cared for them, Ehnis created a business that is still here eighty-two years later.

The Band Master

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

Author: Grace Shackman

Demanding and inspirational, Bill Revelli struck awe into generations of U-M students. Playing under him "was a love-hate relationship," says former regent Tom Roach. "More love than hate."

"A legend in his own time" is a phrase reserved for individuals who have clearly dominated an entire generation in their chosen profession. Football has its Vince Lombardi, Symphony Orchestra has its Toscanini, the film industry its John Wayne. The bigger than life figure in the history of 1he American Band movement is clearly, Dr. William D. Revelli.

The Tuomy Farm

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

Author: Grace Shackman

How Cornelius Tuomy's farm became his children's subdivision

The Italianate house at 2117 Washtenaw, an anachronism of an old farmhouse on a busy thoroughfare, is now the headquarters of the Historical Society of Michigan. The Tuomy family lived there for nearly a hundred years, from 1874 to 1966.

Books and Learning at the Corner of Fifth and William

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

Author: Grace Shackman

The Beal mansion had a lot in common with the public library

For about a hundred years, a fifteen-room Italianate house stood on the corner of William and Fifth Avenue, where the Ann Arbor Public Library is now. The house, described in Samuel Beakes's 1906 Past and Present of Washtenaw County as "the center of true social life and hospitality," was home to the prominent Beal family. Rice Beal took over Dr. Chase's publishing ventures in 1869, and his son, Junius, was the longest-serving U-M regent. Though the mansion was torn down in 1957, the same ambience prevails at the public library that replaced it: the love of books and the encouragement of education in a place where all segments of society meet.

The Ann Arbor School Board bought the house in 1953 from Loretta Beal Jacobs, daughter of Junius and Ella Beal, who had inherited the house in 1944 after her mother died. (Her father had died two years earlier.) Mrs. Jacobs and her family lived in the house only part-time, usually summers; her husband, Albert, had a distinguished academic career, ending up as president of Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Bob Warner, now dean of the U-M School of Information and Library Studies, lived nearby on William as a graduate student. He remembers the Beal house as "decorated with Victorian furniture and filled with papers and books." Mrs. Jacobs, he says, was "an intelligent lady who liked to talk."

From 1948 to 1950, U-M student Joe Roberts lived in the house during the months the Jacobses were away. (He now works at the library.) His upstairs bedroom, furnished with a cherry-wood four-poster bed, a marble fireplace, and a marble basin, looked out onto the garden's magnolia tree. When it bloomed in the spring, he says, it "made it almost impossible to study." Although the garden was pretty overgrown during Roberts's occupancy, Junius Beal's granddaughter, Loretta Edwards, remembers that in its prime it contained a wildflower area near the carriage house, a rock garden, and many unusual plantings, including an Osage orange tree and an elm grown from a scion of a tree planted by George Washington on the Capitol grounds.

The Beal house was built in the 1860's by W. H. Mallory. Rice Beal moved into it in 1865, planning to enjoy retirement in Ann Arbor after earning his fortune in a number of business enterprises in Dexter. Born in 1823, the child of immigrants from New York State, he was raised on a farm in Livingston County and received only a basic education (elementary school and one year at Albion Academy in New York). He taught school for a year, then used his savings to buy a stock of notions and fancy goods, which he traveled around selling until he had enough money to set up a store, first in Pinckney, then Howell and Plainfield. He ended up in Dexter, then an important station on the Michigan Central line, where his many enterprises included a general store, four mills, a lumberyard, and a bank.

Rice Beal's "retirement" in Ann Arbor lasted less than four years. In 1869, he could not resist the opportunity to buy Dr. Chase's printing business at the corner of Main and Miller, which included the publication of Dr. Chase's book of home remedies and a weekly newspaper, the Peninsular Courier and Family Visitant. Beal enjoyed using the paper's editorial page to explain his outspoken positions in numerous controversies, including a long-running quarrel with Dr. Chase after the former owner broke a pledge not to return to the publishing business. A Republican since the Civil War, Beal was active in the party, serving as a delegate to the conventions that nominated U. S. Grant and Rutherford Hayes. In 1880 he came close to being nominated as his party's candidate for governor.

When Rice's son, Junius, graduated from the U-M in 1882, Rice decided to give retirement another try. He turned over the publishing business to his son, and started out on a trip around the country with his wife, Phoebe. He died just a year later, in 1883, while visiting Iowa Falls, Iowa.

Junius Beal, born in 1860 in Port Huron, was actually Rice's nephew, but had been adopted by Rice at eleven months of age, when his mother died. Thanks to his father's extensive holdings, Junius could afford to spend much of his time with civic concerns, concentrating on education and on promoting modern infrastructure. He was one of the founders of the interurban streetcar line, lobbied for better roads, and owned the first telephone in town. An active Republican like his father, he served a term in the state house (1904), twenty years on the Ann Arbor School Board (1884-1904), and thirty-two years as a U-M regent (1907-1939), the longest anyone has ever served. He took part in the selection of four presidents, insisted that Hill Auditorium be built large enough to hold 5,000, and defended the building of the huge Michigan Stadium, arguing that the profit could help other students.

When Beal's friend and fellow regent, William Clements, set up the Clements library in 1923 to house his collection of early American historical material, Beal donated some of his own collection of 2,000 rare antique books. More of his books were donated by his heirs, as was the Beal house's book-shaped carriage step, which now sits on the front lawn of the Clements.

Because of Junius Beal's many connections with both the university and the town, the Beal house was a natural place for the two to meet. Loretta Edwards remembers that her grandparents entertained a variety of people, ranging from the Methodist minister (who came every Wednesday morning), business acquaintances, university benefactors such as William Cook and Charles Baird, and dignitaries who were receiving honorary degrees from the university.

The Beal house was in limbo for three years after its sale in 1953, while the city and the school system tussled over whether the site should be used for a library or a new city hall. During the interim, in 1954, the newly formed Friends of the Library held their first sale in the remains of the Beal garden, selling books, records, picture frames, baked goods, and flowers. As an added attraction, they displayed the old electric car that many older residents remembered Mrs. Ella Beal driving around town. It had for many years been stored on blocks in the carriage house.

The new library was designed by Alden Dow (also the architect of City Hall and the home of his sister and brother-in-law, Margaret and Harry Towsley) and opened for business on October 24, 1957. An addition was built in 1974. A second addition, which will add 43,000 square feet, and a renovation of the existing 53,000 square feet are in progress and will be done about Labor Day, 1991.

[Photo caption from original print edition]: (Left) Ella and Junius Beal posed in their carriage with son Travis and their coachman. (Top) Junius Beal in 1938. (Above) The same corner today.

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512 South Main

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, December 1990,
December 1990

Author: Grace Shackman

From simple farmhouse to elegant urban hair salon

For more than a century, 512 South Main has mirrored downtown's changes. Originally a small brick house in a residential neighborhood, it was absorbed into the growing Main Street business district as Claude Brown's secondhand store and pawn shop in the 1930's. It's since grown and evolved - under a succession of owners - into a printing firm in the 1950's, an antiques shop in the 1970's, and an elegant hair salon today.

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