"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.

A Tale of Two Lakes

Published In:
Community Observer,
2004-current

Author: Grace Shackman

Side by side, separate resorts catered to blacks and whites.

People once came from all over southeastern Michigan to play golf, dance, swim, and fish at two resorts on neighboring lakes north of Chelsea. But the guests rarely mingled, because one group was white and the other was black.

Personal Connections

Author: Grace Shackman

When switchboard operators ran the show

In the days when telephones had human connections, the most feared person in Dexter was Min Daley. As the village’s switchboard operator, she had the goods on everyone. From her perch on the second floor of the Gates Building, Daley kept an eye on everything in town, and she could listen in on anyone’s phone calls. She even slept in a small room behind the switchboard office, and if there was a blaze, she roused the volunteer firefighters.

The Artificial Ice Co.

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

Author: Grace Shackman

Delivering coolness door to door

Before the days of electric refrigerators, people kept perishable foods in ice chests cooled by blocks of ice. For most of Ann Arbor's early history, the ice was harvested from frozen lakes and rivers. But after 1909, natural ice was supplemented, and then totally replaced by, artificial ice, so named because it was manufactured rather than gathered.

Ann Arbor's streetcars

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, November 1995,
November 1995

Author: Grace Shackman

Linking town and campus at the turn of the century

Streetcars and interurbans appear in many photos of old Ann Arbor, moving along tracks down the middle of major streets and powered by overhead wires. The smaller streetcars, called "dinkies" or "Toonerville Trolleys" (after a comic strip) were used within the city limits. The beefier interurbans used streetcar-type tracks to carry passengers and freight between towns.

Ann Arbor's first streetcar track was laid in the summer of 1890. The system was originally designed to be horse-powered, but just a few months before opening it, the developers switched it to electric power. (The first successful electric-powered streetcar system had opened only two years earlier, in Richmond, Virginia.) A year later, in 1891, the state's first interurban began operating, running down Packard between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.

Ann Arbor had two streetcar routes. The Depot Line ran from the Michigan Central Railroad station (now the Gandy Dancer) to downtown, then east on William to State Street. There the line divided to encircle the U-M campus. The north branch went up North University to Washtenaw to Hill, then to the car barn on Lincoln Avenue near Burns Park. The south branch went on Monroe to East University to Hill, then to the car barn. The second route, the Packard-Huron Line, ran from what is today Vets Park to downtown, then southeast on Packard to the city limits (then Brooklyn Street) near Burns Park.

Dr. Karl Malcolm recalled that when he lived at the corner of Cambridge and Martin Place, he could catch either the north or south branch of the Depot Line on Lincoln Avenue when he was headed downtown, since either one would get him there. Malcolm remembers the streetcars being heavily used: when he went shopping with his mother, the cars would often be full, with people standing, especially near five o'clock or in bad weather.

Bertha Welker sometimes took the streetcar to Forest Hill Cemetery, where her family had a burial plot. Elsa Goetz Ordway usually walked from her home on First Street to the high school on State Street (now the Frieze Building), but would catch the streetcar on William in really bad weather. Morrie Dalitz generally relied on his bike for transportation but sometimes caught a streetcar at Hill and Washtenaw, near his home on Vinewood.

The trolley cars were the same on both ends; front and back were defined by the direction they were going. At the end of the line, the motorman would get out and reverse the trolley attached to the overhead wires, then remove the control wrench from the accelerating switch at one end of the car and connect it to the switch at the opposite end. The detachable headlight was moved from one end of the car to the other. Inside, the conductor would walk down the central aisle flipping the seat backs down so they faced the other way. In summer, the trolley companies switched from closed cars to open ones with running boards, which the conductor used to collect fares since there were no aisles on the summer cars.

Photograph of summer trolley car at Main
& Washington, Ann Arbor

An open summer trolley car pauses to pick up a passenger at the corner of Main and Washington early in the century. (The old courthouse tower is in the background.) The large white sign on the front of the car advertises a 10 cent round-trip fare to a baseball game at the county fairgrounds (now Burns Park).

Except in rainy weather, the open cars were more enjoyable. On hot summer nights, the lines offered special 3 cent runs (the usual price was 5 cents) that people would take just to cool off. Malcolm says they were a great treat. "We would beg our parents to take us," he recalls. The special rides also provided a pleasant, inexpensive date.

The first car barn was on Detroit Street between Division and Kingsley. After a fire in 1894 destroyed the building and five of the six cars, the barn was rebuilt at the edge of town, on the corner of Wells and Lincoln across from the county fairgrounds (now Burns Park). The new barn faced Lincoln but ran along Wells, with an empty lot in back where the summer cars were stored. Malcolm remembers the car barn as "just an old shed sort of thing, wooden, open most of the time, with a couple of tracks running into it." The car barn was managed by Theodore Libolt, who lived across the street.

Two of the most famous streetcar employees also lived in the neighborhood: motorman James Love lived on Wells and conductor Marion Darling on Olivia. Milo Ryan, in View of a Universe, wrote, "Everyone enjoyed the joke of [their names], even they. When the car was ready to start up, leaving a switch or whatever, the motorman would sometimes call out, 'Ready, Darling?'
"'Yes, Love.'
"It alone was worth the nickel. But it startled newcomers fresh off the train in this college town."

Carol Spicer remembers Love as a very friendly driver. When his streetcar was forced to wait while another passed in the opposite direction, he would announce a "rest stop" and pass the time entertaining the riders with stories. He was willing to pick up people between official stops or to let them off right in front of their houses as he passed by.

The system reached its full extent by 1900, with six and a half miles of track and ten cars--two on each route and four spares--and covered most of the town that then existed. The depot line was cut back slightly in 1902, when the brakes on one trolley failed going down Detroit Street and it ran into the train station. From then on, the trolleys stopped at High Street, and train passengers had to walk down the hill to the station carrying their luggage. In 1913, to cut costs, the conductors were eliminated. The company bought new cars with only one entrance and a fare box near the driver.

Male U-M students seem to have considered the streetcars fair game. Stories abound about their neglecting to pay, or riding the fenders, or starting fires, or derailing the trolleys by jumping up and down or by lifting them off the tracks. But motormen got their revenge after the trolleys were finally equipped with air brakes: they could stop the car fast enough to send a rider sprawling off.

In early January 1925, a fire destroyed the Lincoln-Wells car barn. Although the trolleys were saved, the fire hastened a civic discussion already in progress about switching to buses. The city was growing, and as more townsfolk acquired cars, streetcar ridership was falling off. Margaret Sias, who lived on a farm on Traver Road, remembers that on the last day the streetcars ran, her mother took her for a ride from downtown to her aunt's house on Hill Street. On January 30, 1925, the streetcars, displaying banners that proclaimed, "Good-bye folks! The scrap heap for me," led a parade that included twelve new buses. In the first bus, a band played funeral dirges.

The interurban stopped running in 1929, but for many years the tracks that the trolleys and the interurbans shared remained. Finally, toward the end of the depression, WPA work crews began removing them. But every now and then, when road work is being done, remnants of the track will be found and puzzle younger workers who don’t know that Ann Arbor ever had a trolley system.

The Farmers’ Market Bounces Back

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, July 1998,
July 1998

Author: Grace Shackman

The city-owned market turns eighty next year. Its future looked bleak a decade ago, but today the biggest problem is competition for space.

“I have been to markets all over the world,” says Al Kierczak, a farmer who’s been coming to the Farmers’ Market since 1927, “and Ann Arbor is the nicest. It has the most variety.” His wife, Florence, confirms that wherever they travel, Kierczak spends part of their vacation taking a busman’s holiday, checking out the local markets in Europe, South America, and Japan.

Kierczak started coming to the Ann Arbor market with his parents when he was eight years old, riding in from their farm near Milan in an open Model T pickup. In those days the market was held around the old courthouse at Main and Huron, which had sweeping lawns on all four sides. Kierczak’s dad and the other farmers would back their trucks up to the sidewalk and set up tables to display their produce. If it was a hot day, they’d put up umbrellas.

The curb market, as it was originally called, was started in May 1919 by the Community Federation, composed of representatives from several women’s organizations. The group believed it could cut food costs by eliminating the middleman. In fact, several grocers, fearing the competition, went to the common council to object to the plan. They were overruled, and the council and the board of public works approved the federation’s request to let the farmers sell from the streets adjacent to the courthouse.

Photograph of farmers' trucks backed
up to the sidewalk to make a market along the sidewalk on North Fourth Ave

The Curb Market on North Fourth Ave.

The original market began with ten farmers on the Main Street side of the courthouse. According to Rudy Weiner, each farmer sold something different: Adolph Weiner, Rudy’s father, sold flowers (he had emigrated from Austria where he was head gardener for Emperor Franz Joseph); Flora Osborne sold celery, Chinese cabbage, and onions; and the Riecherts of Chelsea sold fruit. Many of the farmers came in horse-drawn wagons. They’d leave their wagons at the curb and stable the horses in the dairy barn on the corner of Miller Avenue and First Street. If they had any produce left at the end of the day, they’d hitch up the horses and peddle it around town.

The city’s growth has long since overrun some of the early growers’ farms. The Weiners’ farm was on Packard, near where the Darlington Lutheran Church is now. The Osborne place was near today’s city airport, and the Dickinsons, another early market family, had a farm on Broadway. The market organizers talked of limiting the market to only Washtenaw County farmers, but since one of the early participants was from outside the county, they decided against it. But another rule they made at the time is still rigorously enforced: everything sold at the market must be produced by the vendors themselves.

The early vendors sold everything their farms produced--not just vegetables, fruit, and flowers, but also honey, eggs, dairy products, baked goods, and poultry--chickens were the most common, but turkeys, ducks, and geese also could be found at the market. Esther Kapp remembers that her family sold beef and pork that her father butchered. Several people even remember seeing dressed muskrat for sale.

With so many things for sale, it’s obvious why some of the local merchants were worried about the competition. But, bowing to the inevitable, some began buying market produce--such as seasonal strawberries, or Flora Osborne’s onions--by the crate or bushel to resell in their stores. Not wanting to sell out and disappoint their regular clientele, some of the farmers set aside a certain amount for wholesale or brought in an extra buggy-load for the stores.

As the number of farmers increased, people objected to clogging up Main Street, so the market moved to the Fourth Avenue side of the courthouse, then eventually wrapped around onto Ann Street. The market never used the Huron Street side, since it was too busy a street to block off. (Before expressways, Huron/Washtenaw was the main highway through town.) During the peak of the growing season, there were so many farmers that the market expanded to the far side of Fourth Avenue, in front of what was then the YMCA and is now the county annex. To limit traffic congestion, the farmers who used that space had to move their trucks out of the way after they unloaded. The market was such a success that in 1921 the common council decided to take it over. It has been a city market managed by a council-appointed commission ever since.

Anna Biederman was the city’s first market master. Born in Germany, she moved to Ann Arbor with her husband, John, and raised nine children. “She knew all about growing,” says Warren Staebler, who remembers her as the director of the victory garden he was involved in as a child during World War I, on land between Seventh and Eighth streets. Biederman did the same in World War II, and between the wars directed the children at Bach Elementary School in gardening on their own plots on what is today the school’s playground.

Biederman traveled to other markets around the state and became an authority on how to organize a community market. “Throughout the trying early years and the development into the present large market Mrs. Biederman has been the ruling spirit,” claimed a 1934 Ann Arbor News article. Her grandson, John Biederman, remembers her as “a little, short, chubby woman, very outspoken. When she ran the market, she ran the market.”

John remembers that his family benefited from one of the perks of Biederman’s position. “On market days we would get a call from grandma saying, ‘I’ve got a whole bunch of cabbages, or carrots, or beets. Come get them.’ The farmers would give them to her, and there would be too much for two people to eat.”

As the amount of traffic and the number of sellers increased in the 1920s, the courthouse square became a less satisfactory location for the market. In 1931, Gottlob Luick, a former mayor (1899–1901), solved the problem by donating land for a permanent site between Fourth Avenue and Detroit Street, which had been used by his lumber company. Adolph Weiner worked with Luick to design the market.

It was the midst of the Depression, so the city didn’t have money to develop the site, but the farmers made do, selling their produce from the sidewalk that fronted Detroit Street. They used wooden sheds from the old lumberyard for protection in rain and to keep warm in the winter. They created more space by adding a boardwalk along the northern edge of the property, creating an L-shaped layout. The wooden walkway protected people from the mud and also helped level a sloping piece of land. “It was three feet at the highest and then tapered down,” recalls fruit grower Alex Nemeth, who, like Al Kierczak, started coming to the market with his parents when he was a child. “I’d crawl under it with the other kids, looking for coins that dropped through.”

Photograph of Allen's Creek passing
Dean and Company warehouse

WPA Construction of the Farmers' Market in Kerrytown.

From 1938 to 1940, the present 124-stall market was built by the federal Works Progress Administration, a Depression-era jobs program. WPA workers roofed and paved the market and added another short wing extending west from Detroit Street. A market headquarters, a small tan brick building, was built in the middle, where the parking dynameter is today. Market managers used the back room for an office, while farmers used the lounge in front to get warm and to eat sack lunches.

Shortly after the market was finished, Charles McCalla built a cinder-block building just north of the market for his Washtenaw Farm Bureau store. He used the new building as a store and feed mill, and the old lumber warehouse on the corner of Fifth and Kingsley for storage and parts. (Both buildings are now part of Kerrytown.)

McCalla ground grain into livestock feed and sold prepared feeds, seeds, pet supplies, and penny candy. With such a convenient location, many market farmers bought supplies there. In 1962, McCalla’s son and daughter-in-law, Ray and Shirley McCalla, took over the business and renamed it Washtenaw Farm and Garden Center. In 1969, they sold the buildings to Kerrytown’s developers and moved their operation to Dexter.

Another nearby business that catered to the farmers was a small eatery run by Bill Biederman, Anna’s son. At the time the WPA market was built, there were still four houses along Fourth Avenue west of the market. Bill Biederman lived in one of the houses and ran a modest restaurant in his kitchen, serving breakfasts and light lunches--hamburgers, chili, soup. John Biederman worked as a dishwasher and cook for his uncle when he was a teenager. He remembers there were about nine stools and some little armchairs. When Anna Biederman retired, Bill took over as market manager.

During the food shortages of World War II, the market was busier than ever. Mildred Parker remembers customers lining up five or six stalls back to buy her chickens. “Finally,” she remembers, “I counted how many were left and then came out and said I’d sell one to each and the rest should go home.”

From its inception through the 1960s, market stalls were in great demand. “Quite a few [growers] would stay all night the night before to get a preferred spot,” Alex Nemeth remembers. Bob Dieterle, who still works the family farm near Saline, remembers that his mother used to go at 2 a.m. and park across from the armory to make sure she’d get a stall.

Once they had secured a spot, many stayed up all night, or close to it, getting ready for the market. Dieterle’s wife, Luella, used to spend the night picking flowers, a flashlight under her arm. Esther Kapp remembers harvesting until 1:30 a.m. and then rising again at 4 a.m. for the trip to town. Her three brothers stayed behind on the farm on Northfield Church Road to continue picking; while Kapp and her mother sold, her dad would drive back and forth all day to pick up fresh produce.

Winter was an even more trying time. Bob Dieterle didn’t miss a Saturday for fifty-seven years. “People depended on us to bring eggs,” he says. “Once when there was a big snowstorm, when we still had horses, I knew my dad’s ’34 Ford couldn’t reach the corner [to the main road], so I had the horses pull it there. I met him there with the horses when he returned at three.” Mildred Parker remembers selling eggs on a day when it was nineteen degrees below zero. “I had just the empty containers on the table. When I made a sale, I’d go to the truck, but every carton had at least one cracked egg. I could see they were frozen, so I just went home.” The farmers dressed warmly and rigged up homemade stoves, called “salamanders,” to keep warm.

Over the years, fewer and fewer people were willing to endure such hardships. For one thing, health regulations kept limiting what the farmers could bring to the market. In the 1950s, stricter standards stopped the sale of unrefrigerated dairy products: butter, milk, cottage cheese, buttermilk. Next, the state barred the farmers from selling meat. Kapp recalls, “We always had the meat in ice. It was a Lansing problem, not the meat inspector’s. We went up to Lansing to complain, but they had made up their mind.” In 1977 baked goods were banned unless they were prepared in a separate, licensed commercial kitchen.

The market went through a low point in the 1970s and 1980s. With farmers finding it harder to stay in business and local retailers luring shoppers away with more and better produce, the number of vendors plunged 40 percent between 1976 and 1988. That year, the Observer published an article asking, “Will the market survive to the year 2000?”

To keep the market going, the commission implemented two important changes. Some veteran growers were allowed to spread out, renting three or even four stalls. And for the first time, a dozen booths were permanently rented to craftspeople--woodworker Coleman Jewett’s Adirondack chairs, for instance, are now a fixture at the market’s north end.

Today the market is again full. According to Maxine Rosasco, market manager since 1987, there is even a waiting list: the `54 produce vendors and 144 craftspeople, who currently rent daily as space permits, want to be assigned permanent stalls.

While the turnaround is good news for the market, it also means that the two stopgap changes in the 1980s have become a problem. Pointing to their numbers, the craftspeople are lobbying for more space. “We set up Sunday for an artisans’ market, but they’d rather come on Saturday,” says Rosasco. And there is also friction among the growers themselves.

The waiting list for produce vendors is surprising--after all, farming has only gotten tougher in the last decade, and farms around the city have continued to be gobbled up by new subdivisions. But those losses have been more than made up for by growers coming from farther afield, as far away as Allen and Coldwater. And despite increased competition from supermarkets and produce markets, shoppers have continued to flock to the market for specialties, like Ken King’s organic produce and George Merkle’s Chinese vegetables.

“Buyers are more sophisticated,” says Florence Kierczak. “Years ago we didn’t sell kohlrabi, people didn’t know what it was. Now they do.” The Nemeth family has expanded its variety of fruit, offering customers different tastes, and also gaining a longer harvest. And many growers have responded to shoppers’ demands for bedding plants, especially perennials, as well as for cut flowers and herbs. The downside of the market’s resurgence is growing tension between longtime vendors and newcomers who’d like to get into the market. Some of the growers on the waiting list think that the vendors with four stalls should be made to give one up.

That, of course, isn’t going over well with the veteran growers. Says Mildred Parker, “They think they should get a stall right way. Some of us waited four or five years, or even ten, to get where we wanted.” The growers with multiple stalls say they need the space because they have to sell more now to make up for rising costs--for instance, new state health rules require that farmers making apple cider to have a separate press building with a cement floor. “One stall was adequate for each farm in the early days,” says Alex Nemeth. “Now you need two or three to make a living.”

Physically the market’s layout hasn’t changed much since the WPA finished its work, except for gradual expansions as houses on Fourth Avenue were acquired and demolished or moved. In 1980, city voters turned down a bond proposal to rebuild and winterize the market, apparently feeling the changes would make it too glitzy (although most of the farmers would have appreciated the warmth!). But by saving up vendors’ fees, the market commission was able to replace the roofs and gutters and build a new office at the market’s south end.

Crowds at the market remain strong, especially in midsummer when foot traffic gets so thick shoppers sometimes find it hard to move. The farmers for their part have warm feelings for the market beyond just making a living. Many have been involved for several generations and have become close friends, almost family, with their fellow farmers. Parker first brought her daughter in a playpen. In later years, her daughter became such good friends with the Kapps’ daughter that people didn’t know which kid belonged with which stall. The farmers have also made friends with their customers over the years. Says Olive Conant, “They’d talk to you, tell you things they wouldn’t tell others—they think farmers have a more down-to-earth life.”

Syndicate content