A History of the Cleary Family in Ypsilanti

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
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Author: Patrick Roger Cleary II

Ypsilanti welcomed a new era on October 8, 1883 when an ambitious and talented twenty-five year old Irish immigrant opened a school of penmanship in Ypsilanti and created an institution that continues to thrive today, 133 years later.

Our story begins in 1858 in the town of Borrisokane, Tipperary County, Ireland. A fifth child was born to Roday and Julia Cleary who they named Patrick Roger. Patrick’s parents were poor. Roday was a stockman on a large farm owned by the Marquise Tuthill, an Englishman. Julia worked in the farmhouse and they lived in a two-room thatch roofed cottage on the farm property.

Patrick’s father and mother died about 6 or 7 years after he was born. The dates and causes of their deaths were never revealed to our family. His older siblings had migrated to the United States earlier and had settled in various places in Michigan. After their parents died, the Tuthills took in Patrick and his younger sister Annie. Since the Tuthills were English, the children were able to continue their education in the English School that was not open to Irish children at that time.

In 1869, when Patrick was eleven, their older siblings sent for him and his sister Annie. They brought them to the United States where they settled in Hubbardston, Michigan. Hubbardston, a hamlet of less than 400 people today, is located in Ionia County not far from Lansing.

Patrick was an astute and industrious young man. He continued his schooling until he was fourteen and then went to work in a shingle mill for two years. He saved the money he earned while working and later returned to school where he completed high school in two years at age nineteen. Patrick Roger preferred being called P.R. or P. Roger rather than his given name due to the anti-Irish sentiment of the times.

After graduating from the Sheridan school, he entered the Northern Indiana Normal College (now Valparaiso, University) where he studied for a year before enrolling in the Spencerian Institute in Cleveland where he received his diploma in penmanship. Although the first typewriters came on the market in 1874, Spencerian script remained the standard in business well into the new century.

From his attendance at these institutions he formed his basic principles of education; learn in the same environment where the individual will be working; provide a rounded education to includeEnglish, mathematics and civics; afford the student a social environment.

Early on he had discovered that he had a wonderful talent in not only penmanship but also in drawing. Possessed of an entrepreneurial spirit and equipped with this talent, he saw that he could make a living by teaching penmanship. Returning to Hubbardston in 1880, he began teaching classes in this valuable skill in many towns in southern Michigan. Towns such as Ovid, Albion, St Johns and Fowlerville saw advertising bills and notices in newspapers citing classes in penmanship to be given by P.R. Cleary. His efforts proved lucrative and he enjoyed teaching.

By 1883 he had decided that Ypsilanti was where he would start a school of penmanship. Ypsilanti at that time was a bustling and prosperous city with 15 factories manufacturing a variety of products and enjoying a cultural environment with an opera house and a conservatory of music.

He opened his school in the second story of the Warden block on the corner of Huron and Congress (soon to become Michigan Avenue) Street. His first students were the three Babbitt sisters, daughters of Judge and Mrs. Babbitt. The October 13, 1883 edition of the Ypsilanti Commercial observed, “such a school was much needed.”

He was precise and demanding of his students. But as he continued to advertise his enrollment increased quickly and he moved his classes to the Union Block on the north side of Michigan Avenue between Washington and Adams Streets. He commenced holding both day and evening classes as well as acquiring a position as professor of penmanship at the Normal College at a salary of $50.00 per month.

In 1887 P.R. realized that his school was growing so rapidly that he must have a new building and purchased land on the northwest corner of Adams and Michigan Avenue for $2,200.

The highlight of 1887 for P.R. was that he met Helen Clarke Jenks, a very pretty twenty-two year old from St. Clair, MI. She was a cousin of Mrs. Scherzer and was visiting in Ypsilanti. P.R. was smitten with this pretty young lady and began a correspondence with her. By 1889, he had proposed to her and she had accepted. They were married in St. Clair in June 1889. The wedding surprised the Ypsilanti residents since they had considered P.R. as a most eligible bachelor and he had given no indication that marriage was imminent. The newlyweds left immediately after the wedding for a month long honeymoon in Europe.

For the next fifty years Helen Cleary was to be P.R.’s confidant, enthusiast and co-worker in the expansion of Cleary College. Her participation would provide great enrichment in the lives of thousands of young men and women who attended the College.

P.R. begin construction of the new building in 1889. Although it was not completed until 1891, he began to hold classes in rooms that had been completed. The building cost $20,000. P.R. received much support from Ypsilanti businessmen and raised over $10,000 in donations. He took out a mortgage for the balance. Carved into the capstone at the entrance to the building were the words “Cleary Business College.”

The next year, P.R. incorporated the college under state law. Earlier he had begun delivering courses in penmanship in Toledo, OH. He found that the man he had hired to deliver these courses was dishonest and had taken money from him. Thus, he was concerned that a lawsuit would impact his family and the way to protect them was to incorporate.

Tragedy struck on Wednesday evening April 12, 1893. The atmosphere was very heavy and humid and there were thunderstorms in the area. P. R. and Helen were sitting in the living room of their home on Forest Avenue holding their two children on their laps when a man banged on the door and said “Mr. Cleary, the college is gone.” P.R. raced out of the house and ran to the college to find that a cyclone had struck and knocked the roof of the turret from the building besides knocking out the east wall.

The next day, after surveying the damage, he posted signs on the wrecked building saying “classes will resume in all branches of work on Monday, April 17th.” This was a demonstration of his courage and determination. The college was soon repaired at a cost of $7,000.

During this period he formed a close relationship with J.L. Hudson of the J.L Hudson Department store in Detroit. Hudson had shown him how to figure profit. Business textbooks at the time taught that profit should be figured on cost. For instance, if a merchant bought an item for $6.00 and wanted to sell it for a gross profit of 33 1/3 %, he was actually making only 25%. Hudson stressed that profit should be figured on sale, not on cost. P.R said, “I had to work to get my teachers to se that profit should be figured on sale, not on cost and also that expense should be figured on sale.”

He established a practice of visiting businesses to help them set up a bookkeeping system which allowed him to keep abreast of business practices, place students in jobs and kept him aware of salaries in the marketplace. With this experience, he published his first book, How to Figure Profit in 1900 which was published by the Huron Press that was owned by the Cleary’s.

P.R. continued to expand his course offerings including accounting, shorthand and typing. In the secretarial studies curriculum, P.R. required all students to take dictation from him before they could graduate.

By the end of the decade, P.R. and Helen had had four children born to them; Charles Brooks Cleary in 1890; Marjory Julia Cleary in 1892, Ruth Marie Cleary in 1894 and Owen Jenks Cleary in 1900. In 1905, P.R. moved his family from the house on Forest Avenue, where all the children had been born, to 7 N. Normal St., a house that had been built in 1848 by the Smith family. It was a large, four-bedroom, Georgian style, house which had an upper front porch with wooden scrollwork forming the railing giving it a “New Orleans” appearance.

In 1912, Cleary College and the Michigan State Normal College formed a joint program where high school business teachers would study education subjects at the Normal College and business subjects at Cleary. He did this in collaboration with Charles McKenny, President of the Normal College. All the Cleary children attended Ypsilanti High School with Charles, the oldest going on to Cleary College and then the University of Michigan. Marjory attended Cleary College, the Michigan State Normal College and the University of Michigan. Ruth followed suit, attending the same institutions. Owen attended the Michigan State Normal College for one year prior to entering the U.S. Army.

When the U.S. entered World War One, all the Cleary children took part in the war effort. In 1917 Charles was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Marjory and Ruth traveled to Washington, DC where they found work at the War Industries Board. In 1918 Owen was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the U. S. Army. He was one of the youngest 2nd Lieutenants in the Army at that time.

Charles saw action in France in 1918, but Owen remained stateside and was stationed at Camp Perry, OH as a small arms instructor. The girls returned to Ypsilanti in early 1919.

Early in the decade of 1920’s Charles Cleary moved to Florida and became engaged in real estate activities. He married May Weaver of St. Petersburg, FL. The couple subsequently had three children, Patricia, Thomas and Anita Joyce. Charles left Florida and returned to Michigan in 1933 where he became Director of Admissions at Cleary College.

Marjory married Arthur McKenny, son of Charles McKenny who was the President of the Michigan State Normal College. Arthur had been awarded a degree in Mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan in 1916 and subsequently entered the Army and saw action in France. He later was an engineer and manager for the Chevrolet Company and the couple lived in Detroit. They had two boys, Charles, born in 1920 and Owen in 1925. Both subsequently served in the U.S. Army during World War II.

Ruth moved to Riverside, IL where she taught business and bookkeeping at Riverside High School where she was also head of the commercial department. In 1958 she retired after 40 years of teaching and returned to Ypsilanti to live out her life.

Owen Cleary was discharged from the Army in 1919 and returned to attend Cleary College until 1920 and then entered the Michigan State Normal College. He received his teachers certificate in 1922 and then attended the University of Michigan. He received his BA degree in 1925. He then entered the University of Detroit Law School and graduated in 1931 being conferred with a Doctor of Jurisprudence degree. Owen J. Cleary married Marie DeWaele in 1929. Catherine Ann Cleary was born in 1930 and Patrick Roger Cleary II was born in 1934.

Cleary College kept on growing and by 1925 the college had 325 students enrolled. It had reached some prominence when it was announced that other Michigan educational institutions were giving credit to their students for courses taken at Cleary. Among those institutions crediting Cleary courses were The University of Michigan and the Normal College.

With the depression in full swing in 1933, Ypsilanti was significantly affected. By now the college was 50 years old and P.R. wanted to ensure that it would continue in perpetuity. Thus all assets were turned over to a Board of Trustees. In late 1933 the Board met and P.R. Cleary was elected president, Helen Cleary was vice president, Irene Hines was secretary and Owen J. Cleary was treasurer.

As P. R. Cleary stated in the 1940’s, “we started with three charter members and the membership of the board has grown with current membership at 18. Prominent among board members were Daniel L. Quirk Sr., Donald M. Silkworth of Ypsilanti and Cecil Billington of Detroit.

In 1938, P. R. took a six-week trip to Ireland and England, the first time he had seen his homeland in 40 years. He had planned to take his wife Helen, but she was in ill health and instead took his daughter Ruth.

In 1938, Owen Cleary was admitted to the University of Michigan hospital with acute stomach ulcers and underwent a partial gastric resection. He incurred a serious infection and almost died, but recovered and was released after spending eleven months in the hospital.

A year later Helen Jenks Cleary passed away in December 1939. She had suffered from heart problems and had been in declining health for several years. P.R. decided to retire in 1940 and the Board of Trustees appointed Owen J. Cleary president of Cleary College.

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, Owen attempted to go on active duty with his National Guard unit but his medical condition prevented him from activating his commission. Governor Harry Kelley then appointed Owen Chief Air raid /Warden for the State and then Major in the newly organized Michigan State Troops, a militia to replace the National Guard. Since Owen was now on active duty, P.R. resumed the Presidency of Cleary College.

Owen was promoted to Colonel and assumed command of the 31st Infantry Regiment, Michigan State Troops at the Brush Street Armory in Detroit where he was stationed until the end of the war. In August 1945, Owen was promoted to Brigadier General and was charged by the governor to reorganize the Michigan National Guard. He officially retired from the Michigan State Troops in January 1947.

Charles Cleary worked at the Ford Willow Run Bomber Plant during the war and following the war moved to La Mesa, CA to re-enter the real estate business. Charles died in 1958. His children continued to live in St. Petersburg, Fl. Patty Cleary married Larry Baynard. Tommy Cleary served in the U.S. Marine Corps in World War II and saw action on Guadalcanal in the south Pacific. His battalion received the Presidential Unit Citation for heroism in battle. He died in 1963. Joyce Cleary lived in Atlanta and passed away shortly after Tommy.

Marjory Cleary McKenny’s son Charles graduated from Albion College in 1942 and served in the Army during WW II. In 1947 he married Mary Louise Whitney of Toledo, OH. She had served in the Navy during WW II as an officer. Both graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1948 and began practicing law in Toledo. They had three children, Thomas born in 1949, Arthur in 1951 and Anne Elizabeth in 1957. Later Anne and her mother would become very involved with Cleary College as substantial donors.

Marjory’s second son, Owen Cleary McKenny, graduated from Michigan State University in 1954 and went on to become an engineer and manager with General Motors. He married June Faber after graduating and the couple had four children; Gail, Gerald, Stephen and Mark. Owen served on the Cleary College Board of Trustees for a number of years and was on the search committee for former president of Cleary College, Tom Sullivan.

By 1946, Owen had resumed the presidency of Cleary College and returned to his law practice. He ran for the office of Lieutenant Governor on the Republican ticket that fall but was unsuccessful. With Owen reassuming the presidency, P.R. Cleary retired again and began work on a history of Cleary College. He remained active until 1948 when just 3 months past his 90th birthday he suffered a stroke and passed away. He is buried next to his wife Helen in Highland cemetery.

Owen was named to the Michigan Liquor Commission in 1947 by then Governor Kim Sigler. One year later assumed the Chairmanship of the Republican Party of Michigan, a position he retained until 1952 when he was elected Secretary of State of Michigan. During this period Owen had named Walter Grieg Vice-President of Cleary College. Walter handled the day-to-day operations of the college.

Following his term as Secretary of State, he returned to his law practice and the College. By this time, Donald M. Silkworth, a long time Trustee and supporter of the College had commenced a fundraising program for a new campus to be located at the northeast corner of Washtenaw and Hewitt Roads.

Tragically In 1956, while in Florida, Owen fell and injured his neck. He endured but was in constant pain and his doctors did not recommend surgery. He continued his work as president of Cleary College as well as pursuing his law practice. His health was waning, but he continued to work toward erecting the new campus and the cornerstone was laid in early 1960. On September 10, 1960, Owen J. Cleary passed away from renal failure and Donald Silkworth was named president. Thus ended the seventy-seven year tradition of a Cleary as president of Cleary College.

With the new building holding classes in 1961, enrollment began increasing and by the mid-1960’s, it was over 1400 and Cleary College was offering 146 classes. But, in 1965, Washtenaw Community College opened and Cleary enrollment began to decline. Because it was a publicly funded institution, tuition at WCC was less than at Cleary and by 1978, enrollment stood at 459.

With college enrollment dropping steeply, in 1978 the Cleary Board of Trustees named Gilbert Bursley President. Bursley, a former state senator and U.S. Congressman increased fund raising, modernized college equipment and opened the Livingston campus in 1979. Under Bursley’s leadership, enrollment began to increase and by 1980, stood at 765.

Following Owen’s death, Marie Cleary, with her characteristic grit and courage, embarked on a mission to complete her teaching degree that she accomplished by 1964. She followed this up by completing her Masters degree the following year and commenced a second career as a guidance counselor at West Junior High School.

In 1973 Marie married Jess Mangas whom she had known since 1941, when he and his then wife Mildred rented an apartment at the house on 7 N. Normal. Jess had worked at the Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn for many years. He and Mildred moved from 7 N. Normal in 1953 to a new home at 1310 W. Cross St. Jess retired from Ford in 1964, and following Mildred’s death, began courting Marie. Shortly thereafter, Marie and Jess moved to Sarasota, FL where Marie had a home that she and Owen has purchased in 1958.

Owen and Marie’s daughter Ann attended Roosevelt High School and the University of Michigan graduating in 1952. In 1953 Ann married Patrick Heck of Toledo and had four children, Teresa, Catherine Ann, Patrick and Maria. In March 1975 Ann divorced Patrick Heck.

On March 14, 1977 she married Lieutenant Colonel Charles S. Kettles (a corporate merger with net assets of 10 children). Ann had known Chuck since her high school days when he was living next door. Chuck was drafted for the Korean War in October 1951 after completing two years at Michigan State Normal college. He completed Officer Candidate training at Fort Knox, KY and the Army flight Training program before being assigned to Korea. He achieved a distinguished record as an officer and Army aviator being awarded the Army Distinguished Service Cross for heroism in combat in Vietnam.

The Kettles family have truly been pillars of the Ypsilanti community, for Eastern Michigan University (EMU), Cleary University, Washtenaw Community College and Washtenaw Technical Middle College (Charter School).

Ann Cleary Kettles began working at EMU in September 1972. Her excellent organizational and leadership abilities were recognized and she rapidly advanced from secretary in the Nursing Department to becoming Director of Records, Registration and Academic Advising in early 1990, a position she held until her retirement in January 1996. She also served on the Board of Trustees of the Washtenaw Community College for over 12 years and Chair of the Board for the last four years of her service. She served on the initial board for the Charter School created under the Washtenaw Community College and on the Board of the Red Cross of Washtenaw County.

She began serving as a Trustee of Cleary College in March of 1985 and retired as a Trustee Emeritus in 2003. Ann suffered a hemorrhagic stroke in October of 2001 at the age of 71 that left her paralyzed on the right side. With the determination that has been her “hall mark,” she continued to serve on three of the boards for over two years before accepting the fact that it was no longer practical.

Chuck served on the Ypsilanti City council for four years. Further, he developed and implemented the Aviation Management Program in the College of Technology, Eastern Michigan University that continues to graduate students in Management and Flight. He was instrumental in establishing a scholarship in the name of Capt. Robert Arvin, USA which provided over $110,000 to deserving students over the ten year period of the Foundation. The program continues as an endowed Scholarship in honor of Bob Arvin, a graduate of Ypsilanti High School and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, NY. Arvin lost his life in Vietnam after having earned two Silver Star medals for heroism.

Patrick Cleary II attended Roosevelt High Schools and the University of Michigan and received his B.S degree in 1956. he entered the U.S. Navy Flight Training later that year. He married Wilma Louise Stiltner in 1957 and was designated a naval aviator in 1958.

Pat and Wilma had two sons, Patrick Roger Cleary III in 1962 and Michael Jenks Cleary in 1964. During Pat’s 24 years of service with the U.S. Navy, their family lived in the Far East including Guam, Japan and the Philippine Islands. They also were stationed in San Diego and San Jose, CA, Lexington Park, MD and Washington, DC. While living on Guam, Wilma taught school and in Japan she taught English to Japanese doctors.

Following his retirement from the Navy in 1980 as a Captain, Pat was employed by Litton Industries and retired as a Vice-President and General Manager of the Warfare systems Division. After Pat’s retirement, Wilma opened a boutique in Alexandria, VA, successfully operating it until she retired in 1991. After she retired, she and Pat traveled extensively in Europe, Canada and the U.S. Wilma passed away in September 2015.

Patrick Roger Cleary III graduated from The College of William and Mary in 1984 and also became a naval aviator. He retired in 2013 as a Captain. He married Annemarie Dinardo in 1989 and they have two daughters, Emma, 22 and Erin, 17.

Michael Cleary graduated from James Madison University in 1987 and went to work with the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI). He married Ellen Grube in 1990 and they have three children; Bridget, 20, and twins, Owen J. Cleary II and Dana, 16. Michael eventually transferred from ONI to the Defense Intelligence Agency where he is currently a senior executive.

In the three decades from 1980 to 2010 Cleary College saw many milestones achieved including accreditation as a university, a high ranking among specialty colleges and being ranked as the second best value education in the state of Michigan just behind the University of Michigan’s extension campus in Dearborn.

Today, two of P.R’s. and Helen’s descendants continue to be involved with the Cleary institution. Anne McKenny, a software engineer and manager for General Motors, was named to the Cleary College Board of Trustees in 1990. She continues as the longest sitting member on the Board and one of the University’s most significant donors. Patrick Roger Cleary II is also deeply involved with Cleary University, having been on the Board of Trustees since 2003. He has now been named as the vice-Chairman of the Board.

(Patrick Roger Cleary II has served on the Board of Trustees of Cleary University since 2003 and was recently named Vice-Chairman of the Board.)

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: The original Cleary College building in 1893. This picture was taken in circa 1905.

Photo 2: The two-room thatch roofed cottage where Patrick Roger Cleary‘s parents lived in Ireland in 1858 when Patrick Roger was born. The picture was taken in 1938, 39 years after Patrick Roger left Ireland for the United States.

Photo 3: Patrick Roger Cleary at age 25.

Photo 4: Patrick Roger Cleary started teaching penmanship in many towns in southern Michigan in 1880.

Photo 5: Cleary included handwriting samples in this 1883 newspaper ad.

Photo 6: The cyclone that struck in Ypsilanti on April 12, 1893 did severe damage to the newly constructed Cleary College building.

Photo 7: By the end of the decade, Patrick Roger and Helen had had four children born to them; (L to R) Marjory Julia in 1892, Ruth Marie in 1894, Mother Helen, Owen Jenks in 1900, and Charles Brooks in 1890.

Photo 8: Donald Silkworth and Owen Cleary at the cornerstone laying ceremony in 1960.

Photo 9: The Cleary College building that was located on the Northwest corner of Washtenaw Avenue and Hewitt Road in Ypsilanti.

Finding George Family Tombstones in the Anschuetz Family Backyard

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:

Author: Robert and Eric Anschuetz

The Swaine family property at the northeast corner of Forest Avenue and River Street held many treasures that went undiscovered for years until the Anschuetz family moved into the house. Over the years while planting gardens and burying animals, the Anschuetz family dug up several artifacts on the property, including pottery, china, old coins, a clay pipe, bottles and buttons. Nothing, however, beat the discovery of seven tombstones they found while digging fence posts in their backyard.

The tombstones were found in close proximity to one another near the Anschuetz family garage, which began life in 1839 as the Peck Street Primary school and then became a malt house before being converted into a garage in 1912. In the early 1970s, twins Robert and Eric Anschuetz, along with their father Bob Anschuetz, took turns with the fence pole digger for the purpose of installing a wooden fence in their backyard. Memories don’t recall who struck the marble tombstones first, but the post diggers originally thought the obstruction must be a large rock. When they dug the first tombstone out of the hole, they were really shocked. Robert and Eric were certain that there must have been bodies buried near the garage. It was their mom Janice Anschuetz’ knowledge of local history that quickly let them know that the tombstones must have been placed in a heap by the garage when new tombstones were purchased for the George family plot, probably after the death of Anna E. Shutts George in the 1920s, and most likely by her son Edward Shutts George.

The tombstones were from the George family. The largest tombstone was for Worgor George. There were also tombstones for two of his children. One reads “Precious Minnie” for his daughter, and another bares his son’s name - Percival. The collection also has smaller footstones, and a tombstone for an infant. The George’s were cousins to the Swaine family and lived a few blocks away on River Street. Finding such a strange treasure in their yard justified a visit by a Detroit Free Press reporter, who came over to shoot a photo and write an article of the Anschuetz family and their tombstones. One day in 4th or 5th grade, Eric was embarrassed as one of the girls in his class read the article in class for “show and tell.”

The Anschuetz family used the tombstones as part of their ambitious Halloween decorations for years. The old tombstones are now safely preserved in the Anschuetz’ basement. The Highland Cemetery now holds the remains of the George family with their once-new tombstones, buried next to the Swaine family. The current tombstones marking the George graves are now crumbling, with the original ones probably in even better shape since they were persevered underground for several decades and are now protected from the weather. Janice Anschuetz has dug up two more unmarked tombstones in the past few years along with much sidewalk slate, buttons, hair pins, old English coins, and slate pencils and slate tablets as reminders of the school house. She has also excavated a silver thimble with an etched letter “S” for the Swaine family who are still remembered for living and dying in the home at the corner of Forest and River.

(Robert and Eric Anschuetz are members of the Ypsilanti Historical Society and regularly contribute articles for the Gleanings.)

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: Tombstones were found in close proximity to one another near this garage which began life in 1839 as the Peck Street Primary and then became a malt house before being converted into a garage in 1912.

Photo 2: The Worgor George and Anna Shutts tombstones in Highland Cemetery.

Photo 3: The George family tombstones that were dug up near the Peck Street Primary structure.

The George Families of River Street (Another Episode of the River Street Saga)

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:

Author: Jan Anschuetz

River Street in Ypsilanti is a short and beautiful road that has led to fame and fortune for several of its residents including Mark Norris, Lyman Norris, Benjamin Follett, Shelly Hutchinson, Walter Pitkins and Walter Briggs, all of whose stories can be found in past issues of the Gleanings. In this installment I will tell the story of an immigrant family who came to this country from England seeking free and excellent education for their children and whose grandchildren, in turn, did much to influence education in Ypsilanti.

Our tale begins in England and is the life-long love story of Cary Eaton and George George. Cary was the daughter of Susannah Woodhams; she was born in July, 1781 in Hartfield, Sussex, England and died circa 1812. Her father was James Eaton; he was born circa 1772 in Kockholt, Kent, England and died about 1818. His profession is listed as a farmer on Cary’s marriage record. Susannah and James were married August 11, 1800 in Hartfield, Sussex, England, and Cary was born May 28, 1808 in Godstone, Surrey, England.

Cary wrote her own life story as published in her obituary in Ypsilanti in 1895: “My parents lived at Godstone, Surrey, England, and their six children were all baptized at Godstone Church. My mother died when I was only four years old; my father died soon after, and my Aunt Hesham who was my mother’s oldest sister, and who stood sponsor for me when I was baptized in infancy thought it was her duty to take me and bring me up with her own family. When I was 15 years old I went to live with a distant relation of my mother’s who had not any family and she wanted a companion and someone to write her notes and teach her little niece; so I went there and had a pony to ride and was quite happy. They had a nephew living with them, George George. He fell in love with me. I consented at last and we were married in 1838.”

Their marriage record can be found in Guild Hall, St. Bride Fleet Street, Register of marriages, 1837-1839 in the parish registry, City of London for July 22, 1839. George George is the son of George George (1788 to 1845), whose occupation is listed as a farmer on his son’s marriage record. His mother was Ann Worgor. Cary writes a little about their life together, referring to her husband as she continues: “He had a great deal of trouble, poor man, through the sacrifice he had made, and I am afraid he was never repaid for it: but we loved our children and they were so good and dutiful to us I think that we can say, what very few parents can say, that not one of our children ever gave us any trouble.”

We don’t know what troubles that Cary was referring to in George George’s life, but we do know that Cary and George decided to immigrate to the United States of America with their children. Their oldest son, Worgor, was born July 4, 1840. He was married while in England to a woman seven years older than him, Emily Morgan, and had a daughter, Marianne, who was born in 1863. Cary and George’s son, Frederick, was born February 24, 1842; Cary Elizabeth was born November 16, 1843; George Edward was born September 1, 1845; Eliza Ann was born in 1847; Susanna was born September 27, 1849 and died two years later; and Martha Maria was born July 14, 1851.

In an audio-taped interview recorded in 1965, Cary and George’s granddaughter, Jessie Swaine, stated that her grandparents decided to come to America because they had a large family and wanted their children to have a good and free education. In England, at that time, parents were responsible for paying for their children’s schooling, and the George family could not afford to educate their many children on their own. Family records tell us that George George came to the United States in 1863 and the next year sent for the rest of his family.

We do not know how it was that Cary and George George and their children ended up in Ypsilanti, but we do know that their daughter Cary married a local man, Leonard C. Wallington, and lived at 627 River Street. Jessie Swaine, their niece, tells us in an interview recorded 60 years ago that Leonard inherited part of a family farm which was on Cross Street where the golf course is, sold his portion, and purchased a large home on River Street. He soon went into the malt business with his father-in-law, George George, who in 1866 bought the brick school which was built in 1839 as the Peck Street Primary and then sold to the public school system and became the Fourth Ward School in 1850.

George George, L. C. Wallington, and Worgor George went to work converting the structure into a malt house. A second cousin to the George children visited the family from Kent, England and was impressed with the opportunities in Ypsilanti, Michigan for the brewing industry. Frederick Swaine’s family occupation, that of his father and grandfather, had been brewers, and they were licensed to brew for the king. Although he had been orphaned as a baby, Frederick was interested in investing his inheritance, talent and ambition in the malt business to supply the two breweries in town. He also fell in love with the beautiful young Eliza Ann George, his second cousin. Swaine returned to England to pack up his belongings, arrange his finances and affairs, and moved to Ypsilanti where he married Eliza in 1874. The young couple then moved in with his brother and sister-in-law on River Street while he went about the business of becoming a maltster. Frederick quickly bought out the interests of his father-in-law and two brothers-in-law, Worgor and Lawrence, even though they remained employed by him. He also set about greatly enlarging the malt house from a 20 by 40 foot structure to a three story building of an impressive size: 50 by 94 feet.

Furthermore, Frederick Swaine contracted for the building of a home for his new bride on the north east corner of River Street and Forest Avenue. River Street was soon teaming with George family members – working, playing and living. Worgor, Emily and their three children, Marianne, Percival (born in 1867), and Frederic Morgan were living at 505 River Street. Leonard and Cary George Wallace lived a few doors south of the malt house at 627 River and had two daughters: May, born circa 1870, and Ethel Maude, who had been born in 1872. Frederick Swaine and Lizzie George had a total of four children: Florence born in 1875, John in 1877 (who died the same year at about six months), then Jessie born in 1880, and son Frederick who was born in 1880 and died two years later of diphtheria.

Meanwhile the malt business and the George families prospered. It seems that the dreams of George and Cary George were coming true at last with prosperity for their children and a free and excellent education for their grandchildren in the new country. All of the grandchildren of George and Cary were attending the excellent public school at the 4th Ward School, and then the Seminary and Ypsilanti High School. However, their joy was tempered with sadness with the death of their beautiful 22 year old daughter Patti in 1873. A few years later, in 1879, Cary Elizabeth George Wallington died, along with the baby boy named George Edward Wallington she had just delivered seven weeks earlier. From census records, we know that her daughter Maude moved into her Aunt Lizzie’s home.

Tragedy continued when Worgor’s wife, Emily, died of consumption in June, 1879 and despite the kind and faithful nursing of her Aunt Lizzie George Swaine, his daughter Marianne soon joined her mother. Her touching obituary in the Ypsilanti newspaper reads

“GEORGE – Dec. 8th, 1880, of consumption, MINNIE, beloved and only daughter of Worgor and Emily George, aged 17. Minnie was left motherless a few months since. The eldest child she was her fond father’s dependence. She was ‘glad to go and meet her mam’. Shortly before her death she said to her aunt, Mrs. Swaine, ‘Pa cries and you cry, but I don’t.’ Her pastor, Rev. Dr. Wilson made some affecting (sic) remarks at the funeral. Thy Father called thee, loved ones, while yet in early bloom but fond, sad hearts of earth will cry, too soon, too soon.”

Worgor did not give up on love and a few years later married a local girl, Anna E. Shutts, who was born September 10, 1850. Anna was the daughter of Martin and Mary A. Shutts who owned a farm in Plymouth, and soon two more children joined their cousins on River Street: Anna Marian and Edward Shutts. Despite these blessings, sorrows were not over for Cary and George George.

In 1886, George George, the optimist who moved to Ypsilanti from England to seek his fortune and make sure that his children and grandchildren were educated, died, and his widow Cary moved in with her daughter and son-in-law. What type of man was George George? Perhaps we can glimpse his kind character and genuine affection for his grandchildren in the little poem he wrote to his four-year-old granddaughter, Jessie Swaine, which was found in her childhood album. It reads:

I have searched and searched the place around

Searched nearly every house in town

To see if I could possibly find

A nice little girl for a Valentine

All at once I thought of you

I want no other she will do

That’s the girl for me, say I

The one that suits my eye

You are mine dearest Jess

I choose you from all the rest

Grandpa, 1883

There are several other affectionate and sincere notes from her grandfather carefully pasted by the little girl in the scrapbook on pages which are now yellow and brittle, and now reside in the Ypsilanti Historical Museum archives. The album is filled with childhood memories of Jessie Swaine, who died in the same bed and in the same bedroom that she was born on River Street nearly 90 years later.

Within a year after George George died, his son Worgor died in July, 1887. By this time, Cary had only two of her seven children living – daughter, Lizzie George Swaine, and a son, George Edward, who was a grain buyer in Kansas. Cary wrote “Bereavements have been a great trial, only two left out of seven children, my daughter Lizzie and my son (George) Edward of Kansas City. God grant they may be spared to me. The others, I trust are safe in Heaven.”

The sadness continued on River Street, and Worgor’s son Percival died of consumption only four months after his father. His obituary in a local newspaper states: “Died – 11-7-1887: Percy George, son of Mrs. Worgor George of River St. died suddenly last Monday of hemorrhage of the lungs. He was but nineteen years old, and a young man respected by all who knew him. The funeral services were held at the house, Wednesday afternoon and conducted by Rev. Mr. MacLean.”

Cary George, who lived with her daughter Lizzie and son-in-law Frederick Swaine and their two daughters, passed away eight years later. Her obituary gives us a glimpse of her life and her last hours, as published in the Ypsilanti newspaper: “Mrs. Cary Eaton George died at the residence of her daughter, Mrs. F. J. Swaine, Monday, June 10, 1895, at midnight, aged 87 years and 13 days. The life which then was transferred from this to the world beyond was a beautiful one and presents an example worthy of emulation. Mrs. George was born in Surrey, England, in 1808, left an orphan while a little child, and was reared to womanhood by relatives. At 15 years of age she shouldered the responsibilities of life for herself, and for a long time made her own way in the world. In 1838 she became the wife of George George, with whom and the family she had she came to this country in 1863. Here she has lived ever since, her husband and five of their seven children preceding her to the other shore. The two surviving members of her family, a son Edward George of Kansas City and a daughter, Mrs. Swaine, were at her bedside to receive her dying blessing. Mrs. George was a consistent member of the Episcopal church in which faith she found comfort and happiness in her declining years.”

Two years later, Frederick Swaine, husband of Lizzie and once a successful business and civic leader as well as noted musician, died suddenly, leaving the family destitute. By this time, Florence and Jessie Swaine were in their early 20s and, after graduating from high school in Ypsilanti and from the Michigan Normal College, they were able to supplement the family income by money earned in their teaching careers.

George George and his wife Cary came to America so that their descendants could receive a free education and would have been proud to know that this dream had come true and that at least four of their grandchildren attended college. Jessie and Florence were both life-long teachers who went on to continue their education beyond their college degrees, and Jessie was an especially loved and honored founder of the first home economics department in Ypsilanti Public Schools.

We know that Fred George, son of Worgor and Emily, attended college. We have several pictures of him as a student with a mortar board on his head and pipe in his mouth in a student bedroom looking very happy.

Fred’s half brother, Edward Shutts George, son of Worgor and Anna, also grew up to pursue an advanced degree and make his mark on education in Ypsilanti. In fact, he was so esteemed for his contributions that George School on Ecorse was named for him.

In remarks made shortly before he died, we get a glimpse into his personality. Edward teasingly admitted that “as a boy we had a neighbor, a dear old Irish lady, who once told my mother. ‘Why – he’s the devil of the Fourth Ward’”. We know that Edward grew up with this sister and half-brother, Fred, on River Street. He liked to play at the Huron River bank and served as a choir boy at the George family’s church, St. Luke’s, on North Huron Street. He graduated from Ypsilanti High School in 1906 and worked as a lineman on the railroad that passed two doors from his home on River Street, to earn money to go to the University of Michigan Dental School, from which he graduated in 1911. Edward worked at a dental clinic in Ann Arbor for a year and then joined a partnership with Dr. Louis James in the office at 119 Huron Street, started by Dr. Watling who had founded the dental school at the University of Michigan.

His life continued to improve when on June, 1915, he married a local girl, Alice Mable Gass. They lived with Edward’s mother, Anna, on River Street until they purchased a large home a block from his dental practice at 219 Huron Street. Edward and Alice had one daughter, Marian Elizabeth, who married George N. Elliot and they, in turn, had three daughters.

Edward’s philosophy was to serve the community as well as his family. Soon he went about proving his leadership talents and positive outlook on life through a variety of community commitments. In a speech he once wrote, he stated his view on life by saying “If you want to be really cruel to a man, just deny him the opportunity of serving his community and his fellowmen.”

Perhaps Edward was influenced by his grandparents’ reverence for education. He served on the school board from 1919 to 1939 and wanted to make sure that the educational system in Ypsilanti met the growing needs of the community. During his time on the school board, a gymnasium was added to the high school and the aging Prospect School was rebuilt. Also, an addition was added to Woodruff School and Harriet School was built on the south side of town.

In an undated newspaper article published after Edward’s death, found in the Ypsilanti Historical Museum archives, we read about other ways that he served the community: “Another of his contributions to the city was his leadership in the construction of Island Park. When Detroit Edison bought the water rights at the Huron River he foresaw the possibilities of using the land for a recreational center. The electric company deeded the land jointly to the city council and the school board. Dr. George together with his friend, Fielding Yost, who took a personal interest in the project, worked to lay out the recreational field. Both men had become close friends while working together on the County Boy Scout Council. Dr. George had worked so hard on the island project that one day a group of his friends called him down to the area where they had placed a sign naming it “George Island.” One reason he chose the spot was because he had played there as a child along the banks of the Huron River.” Thus we learn that what we know as Frog Island Park was once named Island Park and, in jest, “George Island Park.”

Dr. George was also president of the Kiwanis club from 1923-1924 and was the enthusiastic energy behind their participation in the city’s 100th anniversary projects. The Kiwanis built an authentic log cabin, completely furnished appropriately for the 1823 era at Gilbert Park, where it remained for several years. They also obtained an ox cart, oxen, and driver and gave rides to eager children.

In a speech he gave to the Ypsilanti school board shortly before his death, Dr. Edward George relayed his philosophy of education: “Sometimes we put too much stress on buildings and equipment, when the backbone of a good school system is in the teaching staff. Personally I have always felt – start with the best kindergarten teachers that can be found – then go one better – if possible – for the rest of the grades.”

The grandson of George and Cary George was well loved and honored for his contributions and betterment of education and the community of Ypsilanti, so much so that after his death in 1949, the new E. S. George School at 1076 Ecorse Road in Ypsilanti was named for him. In a short paper, handed out when the school was opened in 1951 it was written “this school was named for a Dentist, Dr. Edward Shutts George who was born and raised in Ypsilanti in 1886 and lived here his entire life, until he passed away in 1949. He had been President of the Ypsilanti School Board from 1919 to 1933 and because he was a staunch believer in improving educational facilities, this school was named for him.”

Over 150 years ago when the George family made the long and perilous sea crossing from England to American for the education of their children and grandchildren, little did they know that the surname of George would be written on a school building and stand for quality education in their chosen city. The Georges are still on River Street – resting together on a beautiful bluff high above the Huron River and city of Ypsilanti that they loved so well, where the dreams of this immigrant family seem to have come true.

Other stories in The River Street Saga series can be found online at the Ypsilanti Historical Museum web site. More still can be read about the Frederick Swaine and Lizzie George family, as well as others who lived on this pretty little street in Ypsilanti, Michigan, most of whom are still there, in body if not in spirit, in the historic Highland Cemetery.

(Jan Anschuetz is a local history buff and a regular contributor to the Gleanings.)

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: Funeral photo for Worgor George. Daughter Anna Marian is holding his photo. Second wife Anna E. Shutts George is holding baby Edward Shutts George. Standing is Frederick George and seated is Percival George.

Photo 2: Emily Morgan George, first wife of Worgor George with daughter Marianne. Emily is holding her son Percival.

Photo 3: Martha (Patty George) daughter of George and Cary Eaton George.

Photo 4: Worgor George with pitchfork in front of the Malt House on Forest Avenue.

Photo 5: Jessica Florence and cousins having fun outside the Malt House. Note the Swaine home on the left.

Photo 6: The Wallington girls May and Maude with cousin Jessie Swaine with bicycles on River Street at Forest Avenue.

Photo 7: Eliza (Lizzie) George Swaine, wife of Frederick Swaine.

Photo 8: The log cabin built by the Ypsilanti Kiwanis Club for the Ypsilanti Centennial celebration.

Photo 9: Jessie and Florence Swaine circa 1883.

Photo 10: Children from Fourth Ward School at the corner of Prospect and Michigan Avenue in 1892. Front row 3rd from left is Edward Shutts. Second row in the middle is Miss Stuffy, the teacher. (Anna) Marian George is at the right end of the second row.

Photo 11: Cary Eaton George and George George.

Photo 12: Cary Eaton George as a young woman in England.

Photo 13: Marianne George, daughter of Worgor and Emily George.

Photo 14: Worgor George, son of Cary and George George.

Photo 15: Joseph E. Thompson making presentation to Dr. E. S. George in 1949. Seated at right are Mr. and Mrs. Paul Ungrodt.

Gertrude Bennett Went Missing

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:

Author: James Mann

The atmosphere in the Bennett household on Geddes Road must have been tense on that evening of Monday, January 3, 1938. Gertrude Bennett, the 17 year old daughter of Harry Bennett, was missing. Her father had good reason to worry, as he was head of the Special Services Department at the Ford Motor Company. This department was charged with keeping Ford workers from joining a union. Bennett and his men carried out this task with sometimes brutal means. Harry Bennett had made many enemies, and he often received threats against himself and his family. Bennett had received a message the Friday before, claiming to be a friendly tip, advising him to keep a close eye on his daughters. Gertrude was the second daughter of his first marriage.

That morning Gertrude and her sister Billie, who was then 19 years of age, left the family home on Geddes Road at 7:30 a.m., to go to the Michigan State Normal College, now Eastern Michigan University. Billie was a student there and Gertrude was to arrange for classes for the next semester. The brakes on their car were frozen, so they called Russell Hughes, who lived nearby and was a student at the Normal, to ask if he could give them a ride.

At 1:00 p.m. that afternoon Billie was handed a note by the clerk at McKenny Union from Gertrude. The note read: “Billie, I called Ester (Mrs. Bennett, their stepmother) and I have a 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. sports class, also a WAA (Women’s Athletic Association) dinner at 6:00 to 8:30 p.m. Go on home and I’ll call you and Max (Maxine Wilbur, a friend) to come down after me when I’m through.”

Gertrude did not call and the family became alarmed. Their father made several inquiries, which failed to turn up any information. Bennett had men of the Ford Service Department search for Gertrude until 1:00 a.m. Then he called the Michigan State Police at 1:00 a.m., and a broadcast was sent to police agencies. The Michigan State Police made their headquarters for the case at the Bennett home, and agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation were standing by to enter the case if evidence of kidnapping was uncovered.

“In Detroit the highest police officials, from Commissioner Pickert down, were called from their beds to be notified,” reported The Detroit News of Tuesday, January 4, 1938. “In addition to spreading the alarm by radio and teletype, the Detroit police resorted to the rare procedure of using the flasher system.” Under this system, lights flashed over police call boxes, and beat patrolmen were to call the precinct.

Harry Bennett feared his daughter had been kidnapped either for ransom or revenge. Police considered a third R, romance, as more likely. Adding to the theory that romance was the reason for the disappearance, was the discovery that Gertrude had withdrawn $50 from her savings account at the Ypsilanti Savings Bank. Bennett was sure his daughter would not have eloped, without first telling him of her intention.

Questioning of friends of Gertrude lead police to believe the romance theory was the more likely explanation. Friends had seen Gertrude standing by the car of Russell Hughes in front of McKenny Union that afternoon. According to Richard K. Eckert, service station manager at Ballard Street and West Michigan Avenue, “Russell Hughes, accompanied by Trudie Bennett, drove into his station at 3:30 p.m. Monday, filled their tank with gasoline and drove west on West Michigan Avenue.” reported The Ypsilanti Daily Press of Tuesday, January 4, 1938. “In the car,” the account continued, “which answered the description of that driven by Hughes, was a suitcase and a set of drums. Young Hughes has played intermittently in various dance orchestras in this vicinity during his high school years and while he has been in college.”

The Bennett family did not believe Gertrude had eloped with Russell Hughes. “The diamond ring Trudie wears was given to her by her father,” said Mrs. Bennett. “Billie has one like it. Hughes gave Trudie a Christmas present, but it did not signify an engagement or any close friendship. It was a manicure set.”

Russell Hughes had stopped by the family home where he picked up an extra suit and other clothes, and, according to his mother, he said he would be away overnight. “Gertrude,” his mother said, “was in the car when he drove off.”

“Descriptions of Hughes and the girl were broadcast to every State Policeman in Michigan. Authorities of Indiana, Ohio and neighboring states were asked to co-operate,” reported The Detroit News.

“Captain Don Leonard of the state police, who had set up official headquarters in the Bennett home to direct the search for the couple, announced at 1:00 o’clock this afternoon that he had been informed they obtained their license at 6:00 p.m. yesterday from County Clerk Carl Walters at Auburn but that Walters had been ill at home and unaware of the nationwide hunt.” reported The Ann Arbor News.

Gertrude gave her age as 19, and said her father was employed by the Detroit Edison Company. Russell Hughes may have had second thoughts about the elopement, as he was heard to say something about waiting. To this Gertrude said, “No, I want to get married.” The couple was married by Justice of the Peace Miles Baxter. “He said they seemed excited like any young couple.”

News of the marriage brought an end to the search, and a sense of relief to the Bennett household. “I hope the guy has a job and can support her.” said Harry Bennett, “They’re on their own now.” Later, after he had taken a six hour nap, Bennett added, “…Of course, Trudy is still my daughter and I will do anything I can to help her. It’s all over now.” Harry Bennett was many things; one of them was a father.

(James Mann is a local author and historian, a volunteer in the YHS Archives, and a regular contributor to the Gleanings.)

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: Gertrude (Bennett) Hughes.

Photo 2: Harry Bennett’s castle overlooking the Huron River valley between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.

The River Street Saga Continues: Benjamin and Elvira Norris Follett

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:

Author: Jan Anschuetz

In the Spring 2014 issue of the Gleanings we met Mark and Roccena Vail Norris who were described as the “parents of Depot Town.” They were also the parents of two children: Elvira and Lyman Decatur. In this installment of “The River Street Saga” we will learn more about Elvira, her life, her family (including her amazing husband, Benjamin Follett), and their own influence on the growing town of Ypsilanti in the nineteenth century.

We can only imagine the challenging life of Elvira, who was born in a log cabin on January 22, 1821 in Covington, New York. When she was only seven years old, the Norris family made the grueling trip from New York State to a sparsely settled wilderness lacking any degree of civilization – a place without a church, organized town council, roads, mills, or even a name. Mark and Roccena soon helped to change that and contributed greatly to making Ypsilanti a community in which people wanted to live - complete with a town organization, a railroad, laws, schools, churches, cultural opportunities, a library, stores, mills, and beautiful homes.

For the first year of their arrival, the Norris family lived behind a storefront at what is now the southwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Washington Street. This cramped space did not stop Elvira’s mother from teaching children of the settlement in one of the four rooms that the family shared. Roccena was dismayed that there was no place for religious instruction or worship and quickly organized a Sunday School for all ages that met in a log cabin each week and would also welcome circuit riders to preach when possible. The Norris home was always available to offer hospitality to visiting preachers.

The following year, the small family was able to move into the first sawn wood-frame home east of the Huron River, and within a few years was living in a brick mansion which was originally built for Roccena’s uncle. When her uncle was unable to move into it, Mark and Roccena purchased the unfinished structure from him for $1,000. It was in this eight bedroom mini-mansion on River Street that Elvira and her brother spent their childhood. Aside from the years 1834 to 1836 when she attended a celebrated all girls finishing school in Detroit, Elvira received her entire education in Ypsilanti.

Elvira grew up accustomed to fine gowns, a beautiful home complete with gardens, and indulgent parents. She had friends, a church community, and charitable activities to keep her occupied, and enjoyed the status of being a part of one of the wealthiest families in Washtenaw County due to her father’s ambition and hard work. She was brought up to cherish reading and education and the finer things in life. Her brother spoke of Elvira’s education in a life sketch he prepared for Elvira’s funeral. Speaking of his own childhood home on River Street he stated “…the pioneer home was perhaps a better school for life and its duties than most of our modern young ladies’ seminaries. In that home, heart, mind and soul were trained into symmetry and strength. That hospitable roof sheltered more than one guest, from which the family gained more than they gave. The ‘prophet’s chamber’ was seldom vacant in their day, when the traveler was forced to rely upon private hospitality for entertainment by the way, and the growing girl may have learned much of that breadth of broad-gauge sympathy with all classes and conditions, which she displayed in later years, from this contact with the men and women of many types, which the exigencies of those pioneer times brought to the door.”

Mark Norris, Elvira’s father, was from a large family with 14 children and many of Elvira’s uncles and aunts on both sides of her family moved into the community. One of her uncles, Justus Norris, who lived nearby and ran her father’s Western Hotel on River Street, was a noted and outspoken abolitionist in Washtenaw County. More will be written about him in another segment of “The River Street Saga.”

Elvira’s maternal grandmother moved from New York State to enjoy living on the Huron River in their fine house. It was not unusual for Elvira and her mother to travel back to New York by train or ship to visit family there or to enjoy some of the “cures” offered at that time in various spas. On one such trip, she arrived home at the train station in Depot Town only to have her father meet his beloved wife and daughter in a beautiful new carriage pulled by two matching and elegant horses which delivered them to the family home one block away. There, another surprise awaited them - a new grand piano in the parlor.

You might imagine that it would be difficult for a young woman brought up in luxury to find a suitable husband in the frontier town of Ypsilanti, but somehow the right man was waiting for her, living only a few blocks away. Benjamin Follett, who would wed Elvira, seemed the perfect match. He too had been born in New York State, where his father had been a store owner as had Elvira’s father when they lived in New York. Benjamin’s parents were Nathan and Nancy Keith Follett. Prior to marrying Nathan, Nancy Keith was a young widow with two children of her own. When they were married in Canandaigua, New York in 1818, the young couple was admired for their handsome appearance. Benjamin was born the next year in 1819.

Nathan owned a hat store and was also a successful businessman. The family lived in Batavia, New York, and was comprised of Benjamin (who was the oldest) along with Nancy Keith’s two children from her first marriage. In a family paper written by Roy K. Spencer, we learn that Nathan built a hat factory and was also a banker. “For many years he was one of Batavia’s most prominent citizens. He was repeatedly elected to the most important posts in Batavia’s village government, he was vestryman of the Episcopal Church, and he became one of the wealthiest men in Batavia.”

Benjamin grew up in a large and luxurious home with servants, some of whom were once slaves on the Virginian plantation on which his mother grew up. His mother and father were adamant abolitionists and when they inherited the plantation they freed the slaves, sold the property, and moved north to a state that did not allow slavery. Some of their former slaves moved with them and became paid servants. We read that Benjamin’s childhood home was always filled with the pets that his father Nathan loved including dogs, cats and birds. Sadly, this happy family life came to an end with the death of a child in infancy and the death of Nathan’s young and beautiful wife. Nathan married again a few years later to a first cousin and they had three more children before she also died.

Perhaps because of an anti-Mason sentiment in New York at the time, or perhaps because Benjamin simply wanted to “go west and seek his fortune” as many young men were advised to do, he arrived in Ypsilanti as a young man. We do know that Benjamin Follett was first mentioned in the written history of Ypsilanti at the age of 19, in the year 1836. At that time he was employed as a cashier for the Bank of Ypsilanti. In T. H. Rinchman’s book Banks and Banking in Michigan with Historical Sketches, published in 1887, Follett is described as “a worthy, conscientious and competent young banker.”

Mark Norris was a major stock holder in the Bank of Ypsilanti and we can only guess that Mark and Roccena invited this eligible young bachelor with a good character, family, and prospects into their home to meet their young daughter from a similar background. We do know that by 1841, after the failure of the Bank of Ypsilanti in the “Wildcat Schemes” of the time, Benjamin had returned to Batavia, New York to work as a bank cashier and to be closer to his family. It was there that he sent for and married Elvira on September 23, 1841. The young couple lived in that community for two years even though Elvira missed her family and friends in Ypsilanti. Letters from her father found in the Ypsilanti Historical Museum archives, which counseled her to try to make the best of her new community and to always speak positively of the people of Batavia, seem to suggest that Elvira was not happy living away from her River Street home.

It seems that Mark and Roccena also missed the company of their daughter and Mark might have influenced their return to Ypsilanti by offering his son-in-law partnership in a mill. Perhaps the “icing on the cake” was building and gifting them a spacious, elegant, and charming new home on the east side of River Street, between Oak and Maple Streets, just three blocks away from Elvira’s childhood home. In 1843, after two years in New York, the young couple returned home. We read in Sister Maria Hayda’s book The Urban Dimension and the Midwestern Frontier, A Study of Democracy at Ypsilanti Michigan, 1825-1858 that “Benjamin Follett possessed relatively large amounts of capital from his own family resources in New York” which he was ready to invest in Ypsilanti. In fact, tax records from the 1850 federal census cite him as owning $27,000 worth of real estate and he was estimated to be the fifth wealthiest citizen in town.

The partnership with his father-in-law sharing the ownership of a mill did not work out. It seems that Benjamin was not a successful miller and within a few years had returned to banking and financing. He also spent time and energy investing in railroads, building and running a fine hotel, investing in a store, two mills, and other ventures. Benjamin had a gift for leadership and soon became a pillar of Ypsilanti life, influencing its development. Like his father before him, he believed in giving back to the community and sharing his time for the good of the people of the growing town. In 1860, Benjamin was elected Ypsilanti’s third mayor. As such, he helped to organize the first fire department and paid for the fire equipment out of his own money. Later he served on the city council and was active in the Democratic Party. He was an active member of St. Luke’s parish and served on the building committee for a new church. Benjamin partnered in a land deal which added a vast amount of area to the city of Ypsilanti. He influenced city leaders into building the first city hall and jail on Cross Street on the east side near Depot Town. Benjamin was one of the founding members of the Masonic Wyandotte Lodge Number 10, and built their headquarters in what is now known as the three-story Masonic Block on Cross Street in Depot Town.

Benjamin invested heavily in the growing Depot Town area by financing and building a lavish hotel in 1859 which is still standing and bears his name as The Follett Block. Not only that, but this amazing, energetic, and imaginative man also organized and led a choir which regularly sang and entertained the community in Follett Hall located in the building. His business interests extended to the Peninsular Paper Company, the Farmer’s General Store, the Eagle Mill, the Huron Mill, as well as other business undertakings.

Benjamin’s father Nathan moved to Ypsilanti in the year 1849. Nathan was only 50 years old at the time of his second wife’s death. He had 5 children to raise alone and his financial status, as well as his personal life in New York State, quickly nose-dived when three friends for which he had signed promissory notes defaulted. That left Nathan responsible for their debts, which amounted to a large sum of money. Spencer tells us that “saddened by the death of his wife and disillusioned by the conduct of his alleged friends, he packed his furniture into a railroad freight car, took his numerous family, consisting of his four daughters and the two children of Nancy, whose husband had died a few years after marriage to settle in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where his son, Benjamin, was an active and successful citizen.” Nathan also brought four or five servants with him but they soon tired of the “wild west” of Ypsilanti and returned to the “more civilized” New York.

Nathan was able to reclaim his role as a community leader in his new town of Ypsilanti. He purchased the stone house across from the Quirk mansion on North Huron Street and had enough capital to buy and run two successful flour mills in town. He joined his son Benjamin in becoming an active member of the Episcopal Church and was remembered as a man who, like his son, lived his Christian religion with kind regard for all. An example of this was his interest in the education and promotion of a young black man, John Fox. Nathan hired him to do minor clerical work but paid him well enough so that he was able to study law and be admitted to the bar. Indeed, this liberal attitude that all people were equal seemed to be extended to his son Benjamin who was rumored to aid escaped slaves.

While Benjamin, his father, and father-in-law were busy making money as the town of Ypsilanti expanded, Benjamin and Elvira’s family expanded as well. They had seven children, five sons and two daughters, to fill their large home and their hearts. The oldest daughter, Alice, was born in 1844. Another daughter, Lucy Elvira, followed in 1847. A son, Nathan, was born in 1849 and another boy, Lyman Decatur, in 1851. Benjamin was born in 1854. Mark Norris was born in 1858 and his brother Simeon Keith, born in 1860, completed the family.

Elvira’s widowed aunt, Mrs. Blackmon, sister of her mother, came to live with the family soon after they moved into their River Street home and became a second mother to the children. Lyman Norris tells us “For thirty years this good aunt remained with them, leaving this home only for an eternal one. During all these years, she bestowed upon Mrs. Follett and her children all the love and care of her motherly heart. Her presence made it possible for Mrs. Follett to enter more into outside affairs than she could otherwise have done; to take many journeys, longer and shorter, with her husband; and to assist him more freely in that large hospitality which he so enjoyed.”

A photograph of happy children, dogs, flowers, grass, and a fountain in front of their charming house on River Street gives us the impression that Elvira and Benjamin were well rewarded for their work ethic. In The History of Ypsilanti, written in 1923 by Harvey Colburn, this River Street mansion is described as follows: “The beautiful Follett home was for years one of the show places of the city. It was situated on River Street in a grove of oak trees extending from Oak Street to Maple, a great rambling structure with big bay windows. The surrounding grounds were extensive, brilliant with flowers, and adorned by a large fountain fed by a windmill standing on the hill above.” The home was the first in Ypsilanti illuminated by gas lights. People came from miles around just to admire the barn which was considered one of the finest in Michigan, if not in the country.

Benjamin and Elvira, though busy with their family and life in Ypsilanti, also enjoyed traveling. In 1853 the young couple, along with her parents and brother, took a vacation which included visiting Montreal, Bellows Falls, New Haven and New York. In her letters we read that Elvira thought that traveling and adventure were important to further her education and life views. She was also interested in a healthy life style and one of her favorite excursions was to visit the water cure at Elmira, New York, sometimes staying there for several months. Her youngest two children were born there.

Elvira also had a serious side. Like her mother, she was dedicated to helping to improve the community. She was a life-long member of The Home Association, which she helped to organize in 1857 and later served on the board and as an officer. This was a group of women from various churches, who attempted to make the lives of the poor and destitute of the community better in any way that they could – providing food, transportation, clothes, and even firewood.

For many years she was one of the vice-presidents of the Detroit Home for the Friendless and her organizational and interpersonal skills helped to form the agency and its policies. She shared her mother’s love of reading and was the first president of The Ypsilanti Ladies’ Library Association. Her brother commented that “the influence of this valuable Library Association upon the mental growth and culture of the town has been very great; and she was one of the most indefatigable of the body of intelligent, cultured women, to whose labors the library owes its continued success.”

Alas, the lives of this energetic, active, happy, and productive couple changed. First Elvira’s father Mark Norris died in 1862 after an extended and painful illness. The next year, in 1863, his namesake, their six year old son, Mark Norris Follett, died suddenly of diphtheria. After that, things only seemed to get worse. Benjamin Follett was one of the founders of the beautiful Highland Cemetery on River Street which was dedicated in 1864. Little did he know that only four months after making one of the speeches at the opening ceremony, he, himself would be buried there. It seems that he attended the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, leaving in good health and then on September 1st he was stricken with coughing and hemorrhaging of the lungs and conveyed back to his River Street home and family. In a letter written to her grandmother in late 1864, daughter Alice stated “Father gains very slowly and coughs a good deal. Dr. (sic) was here and insisted there is no tubercular disease of the lungs. He does not want him to go away for all winter but wants him to visit and be away from all worrying business. It seems very slow and discouraging.” Benjamin and Elvira followed the doctor’s orders and left for the water cures they had often taken at Elmira, New York. The night before they left they gathered their family around them in prayer. Benjamin also met with the pastor of his beloved church and placed in his hands a discharge of mortgage for the new church and parsonage, stating that he couldn’t leave the earth without doing this. He had paid the remaining amount of the mortgage with his own funds.

The doctors at Elmira offered him little hope and told him that he would die soon. He accepted this calmly but said that he wished to live. His entire family traveled to New York and was with him when he died on December 26, 1864 at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, offering prayers and comfort. He was only forty-five years old. He was so well-loved and respected in Ypsilanti that when the train carrying his body home for burial arrived at the depot a few days later, a crowd was waiting to welcome him home, including formal delegates from the city, friends, townspeople, and representations of organizations and businesses.

The young Benjamin lay in state in the parlor of his beautiful home the next day from nine in the morning until one in the afternoon and it was reported in his obituary in The Ypsilanti True Democrat that there was “a constant throng of visitors to see the corpse. Dressed in his business suit he looked natural as if he had quietly gone to sleep.” At one in the afternoon the remains were then escorted to St. Luke’s Episcopalian Church on North Huron Street, which he loved so well. The funeral sermon described him as a true Christian man who daily lived his religious with honesty, generosity, and love for all men. From the church the long funeral procession brought the body of Benjamin Follett back to his beloved River Street where it remains to this day at Highland Cemetery, now surrounded by the remains of his loving wife Elvira and much of his family.

Elvira was left to raise six children, which she did with the help of her aunt. Death visited the River Street mansion again within the year when daughter Lucy died at the age of 18. Elvira’s oldest daughter, Alice, married in May, 1865 and one by one, the Follett children grew and left home. Elvira, often in the company of her mother, continued to be active in community endeavors. She also was able to enjoy travel and adventure and in 1873, accompanied by her son, L.D. Follett, went out west to visit her two sons, Nathan and Benjamin, who were living as pioneers on a ranch in Fort Collins, Colorado. Elvira’s health was not good at this time, but she thought that the change of climate might be helpful. While in Colorado, she ventured into the mountains for campouts of three or four days with her sons and returned in good spirits believing that the adventure had much improved her body and her spirits. Her letters to friends reflected her joy in anticipating trips and also in returning from them.

In 1876, Elvira’s mother, Roccena Norris, died a painful death following a long illness, and the next year, 1877, her aunt, Mrs. Blackmon, who had been a second mother to the Follett children and lived with them, also died. Unfortunately Elvira’s health was on a decline and she spent less and less time at her own beloved home, which she refused to move from, and more of it with her children in Grand Rapids, Detroit, and even Kansas, but she returned to her home on River Street to live out her last days.

Even though she was an invalid, suffering with pain, the last four years of her life were blessed. Her children and grandchildren often came to stay with her, and her River Street mansion again came alive with lively conversation and children’s laughter and games. She continued to enjoy reading, learning, and reflecting on her well-lived life. Thinking that death was near, all of her children were summoned to their childhood home on River Street in late summer, 1884. However Elvira seemed to have rallied from the visit and they left back to their own homes. Shortly after that, Elvira caught a chill and died on September 10, 1884. She was 63 years old. After a well-attended viewing at the home and funeral at St. Luke’s, her brother Lyman so eloquently stated “The weary, pain racked body was laid to rest beside that of the husband of her youth, in beautiful ‘Highland Cemetery’, which now crowns the hill that overlooks the valley of the Huron, and where in the month of June, 1828, she and her mother caught the first glimpse of the home they afterwards came to know and love for almost half a century.” Elvira returned to River Street to rest for eternity.

And what of the beautiful mansion that was once the crown jewel of Ypsilanti? Part of it still remains, a shadow of the glory that it once was. The “gymnasium” of the Benjamin Follett estate on River Street was purchased in 1861 by Charles Woodard and moved to 301 Grove Street. He converted it to a residence and added a two story wing in 1863. The Woodard family lived in the home for almost a century. Unfortunately, the home and property were on a decline when purchased in 1980 by Joseph Mattimoe and Henry Prebys who have lovingly restored, improved, and turned the homes and gardens into another east side showplace. The barn had burned down, and after the death of Elvira, the house and garden were untended. In 1904, Shelly Hutchinson, who had grown up across the street from it, purchased the home and land to use for gardens to glorify the mansion that he was having built on River Street between Forest and Oak Street.

Though the Follett mansion is gone, the legacy of Benjamin and Elvira Norris Follett lives on in other structures - the Follett and Masonic Blocks are an integral part of Depot Town. Take a walk down Cross Street in Depot Town and feel their presence in the love, vitality, and hope that this generous couple bequeathed to Ypsilanti, Michigan.

(Jan Anschuetz is a long time member of the Ypsilanti Historical Society and a regular contributor to the Gleanings.)

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: The Follett residence as featured in the Washtenaw County Plat Map publication in 1856 and 1864.

Photo 2: Mark Norris Follett (named for his grandfather) who died at six years old.

Photo 3: The Follett House c1870.

Photo 4: Nathan Follett

Photo 5: The Follett Residence c1870.

Photo 6: The “gymnasium” of the Benjamin Follett estate on River Street was purchased in 1861 by Charles Woodard and moved to 301 Grove Street. He converted it to a residence and added a two story wing in 1863.

Photo 7: East Cross Street looking west c1859. The Follett Block is on the right side of the street.

Photo 8: Benjamin Follett.

Photo 9: (left to right) Mrs. Mark Norris, Mrs. Benjamin Follett, Lucy Uhl and Mrs. Ed. Uhl.

The Parents of Depot Town - Mark & Roccena Vail Norris

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:

Author: Janice Anschuetz

Mark Norris is considered by many Ypsilanti historians as the father of Depot Town. If that is so, then his wife Roccena is the mother, and together they are the parents. In this article I hope to tell the story of how they combined to do so much to influence the enterprise, activity and fabric of not only Depot Town but also of River Street. Together, but in their separate ways, they helped to build a sturdy foundation for a successful town in which businesses could thrive and families could prosper. Many of his contemporaries would agree that Mark Norris was an enterprising, energetic man who probably founded more businesses and did more to improve the daily life of Ypsilantians than any other man in Washtenaw County in the mid 1800s. Roccena, his wife, spent tireless hours helping to shape the moral character of the community by encouraging religion, education, literacy, and helping the poor of the community.

Mark Norris was one of 14 children born in a town which later became known as Peacham, Vermont, on February 16, 1796. He was educated there and once taught at Lima Seminary. Mark learned the trade of land surveyor and left home to move to Covington, New York, sometime before 1819, where he opened a business running a country store. He also built and ran an ashery where potash and pearlash were made. He was appointed postmaster in 1824.

There, Mark’s life changed forever when he fell in love with the spirited Roccena Vail. She had been born in Delaware County, New York, in 1798, the oldest daughter of James and Helena Compton Vail. Education was valued in their household and Roccena was taught to read at an early age by her favorite uncle. She grew up surrounded by the books that she loved, as her father founded the town library. Her teacher also lived with the Vail family. According to Roccena’s granddaughter, Maria Norris, the Vail family lived on the banks of the Delaware River and the young girl rowed a canoe across the river to school.

Roccena’s father’s sudden death, when she was only 15 years of age, quickly changed the life of her family. Roccena and her aunt traveled together to the wilderness of Pike, New York, to find land that her widowed mother could afford. Indians still lived in this area and the curious young girl would visit with them in their nearby wigwams. Rocenna’s family soon joined her and her aunt, and a log cabin was built for them to live in. Roccena found a job as a teacher. Her small salary provided much of the support of her family. Food was scarce and Roccena’s heart went out to the starving Indians and poor people in the community. Because she was sometimes paid in peas and new potatoes, her family had enough food and they shared what provisions they had with the less fortunate.

Mark and Roccena met at a church in Covington, New York, which was the town she taught in seven miles from her own family home in Moscow, New York. They married in her mother’s log cabin during a fierce two-day snow storm in January, 1820, and moved to their own log cabin. Mark and Roccena invited her mother and the rest of her family to join them three months later, adding two rooms onto their house to accommodate them. Mark’s businesses did well and they were soon able to move from their log cabin to a substantial frame home, which their granddaughter Maria described as a “modest mansion.” The family had grown by then and Mark and Roccena were blessed with two children, Elvira and Lyman Decatur.

Mark Norris was a Mason and at that time there was a great deal of anti-Mason sentiment in New York, which seems to be the family’s primary reason for seeking a more tolerant and free environment in a new territory. He first traveled to what is now Ypsilanti, Michigan, in 1827, and we can read about his journey in pages from his diary:

July 9, 1827 – Left Buffalo on steamer Marie Antoinette, Captain Whittaker, for Detroit, which was reached July 16, only a seven days’ passage.

July 18 – After waiting a day for the stage, I started on foot for the interior. Walked as far as Springwells, when I took a due west course of about six miles. Crossed the Rouge, a sluggish, dark muddy stream, with plenty of rich land on either side, and rich in fever and ague too, I should judge. Traveled about 24 miles. Stopped all night at Andrew’s Tavern on Togus Plains.

Ypsilanti, Friday, 28 – Have spent most of the day in viewing the village. Nature and art have combined to make it a place of business. It is situated on the Huron, nine miles below Ann Arbor, and four miles above the landing, where boats of twenty-tons burden arrive from the lake to unload. Land is already valued very high.

Saturday 29 – To-day bought two village lots (half an acre) for which I paid $100 and returned again to Ann Arbor.

Sunday, 30 – Spent most of this forenoon in searching for a man lost in the woods, and supposed to be dead. Made no discovery. There is no church and no preaching here to-day. It seems to be a place for lounging and gossip. In the afternoon attended a wedding and saw Mr. Higby united in “hymen’s gentle bonds” to Miss Ann Gorham.

Monday, July 31 – Went with Dr. W. to Saline. Fine good land but somewhat broken and I believe sickly. Returned by way of Ypsilanti, a fine country of land between the Saline and Huron.

Tuesday, Ypsilanti – This day I have been viewing the lands in the vicinity of this village. Concluded to purchase within a short distance of the village. The lands on the Chicago road, now being built from Detroit west, and mostly taken up by speculators, and also on the river.

Aug. 5 – Staid in this village last night. This morning took a deed for the farm purchase yesterday and returned to Ann Arbor.

Aug. 6 – Left Washtenaw for Detroit. Traveled to the Rouge within six miles of Detroit. Retired to bed very much fatigued, but the mosquitoes would not let me sleep. They attacked on larboard and starboard, and raked me from “stem to stern.” I fought them until my patience, if not my ammunition, was exhausted, when I arose and prepared for flight. Started about 12 o’clock for Detroit. The first three miles met with no incident worth mentioning, after which I was assailed by an army of dogs at every house. Arriving at Detroit I went to the inn, where after receiving a long lecture from the landlord for being out at that time of night, I was permitted to go to bed again, and slept until a late hour the following morning. Men, who are not pioneers are allowed in hotels now minus a landlord’s lecture.

Surprisingly, after all he had endured on his first venture to what is now Ypsilanti, Mark returned to Covington, disposed of his business, store, and home and began the return journey with his two young children and wife the next year, 1828. In 1874, son Lyman spoke at Ypsilanti’s Semi-Centennial and told about his family’s trip to Michigan. It was not an easy one either physically or emotionally for the small family. In The Story of Ypsilanti, written by Harvey C. Colburn, published in 1923, Colburn summarizes Lyman’s speech.

In their company was a Mrs. Curtis who was on her way to visit a son in Superior Township. The Norrises arrived from Detroit by way of Plymouth and Dixboro. In the city they had secured a horse and a two-wheeled gig. Anson Brown with a one-horse wagon travelled with them, taking the children with him in the wagon while the ladies rode in the gig and Norris walked. The road was all but bottomless and it was after thirty-eight hours that they arrived in Dixboro, having stopped one night at a wayside tavern. In Dixboro they remained over night with a family by the name of Martin, then having parted from Brown, followed the road to Ypsilanti, the children riding in the gig.

As they reached the bluff where now is Highland Cemetery, Norris cried “There’s Ypsilanti.” Half a mile distant, they saw a wreath of smoky vapor rising from the bushes and caught a glimpse of the unfinished frame structure which was to be Perry’s Tavern. Mrs. Norris leaned her head against a stump, wearied and lonesome, and burst into tears. Then, Norris being urged to go forward and procure some manner of lodgings, the mother and two little ones slowly followed. Arriving at the bank of the Huron, they found a narrow foot-bridge, newly erected, spanning a clear, swift stream. The opposite bank up which the road climbed was very steep and at its summit stood the tavern then kept by Judge Oliver Whitmore.

It seems that the young family soon set about to become positive members of the sparsely settled town. Their first year was spent at the rear of the Ely home, which was situated on the southeast corner of the Chicago Road (now Michigan Avenue) and Washington Street. Their granddaughter Maria Norris described the modest living quarters as consisting of two rooms and a pantry on the ground floor, a store operated by Mr. Arden Ballard in front, and two rooms above. This did not stop Roccena from using one of the rooms as a school for the pioneer children in the vicinity. There was no church at the time, so she assisted in organizing the first Sunday School in a log building on the Chicago Road for people of any denomination. Circuit riders were always welcome guests at her home, which later housed many visiting ministers.

By the next year, 1829, Norris built the first frame home on the east side of the river. Some believe that it was in the area of 501 North River Street. The same year, he opened a dry goods store made of logs with huge cracks in the rough wood floor. This was situated east of the Chicago Road Bridge, on the south side of the street. It was not an easy matter to equip his store. He purchased goods from New York which were then shipped to Buffalo on the Hudson River, then through the Erie Canal, where they were transferred to a boat which stopped in Detroit. Word was spread to Norris that the boat with his order was about to land in Detroit, so he had to quickly secure seven, two and four horse teams and urge them through the heavy mud on the road towards Detroit. There was no vessel in Detroit when he arrived, so he rented a row boat, rowed down the river, found the boat with his goods on it, and finally rowed back to Detroit to await its arrival. From there, the wagons were loaded and 31 days from the time that they left New York, his shelves were packed with products for sale.

Building and equipping a store and a new home in one year was not enough for Mark. He was appointed postmaster and eventually served two terms under President Andrew Jackson. He knew that the wealth of this new community was to be connected to the water power that it offered, and soon set about harnessing and selling that water power of the river by building substantial dams to replace the primitive ones that resembled beaver dams. Mark rented out the water power from at least one of the dams, and he also imported carding machinery to open a woolen mill to process wool and create cloth. During the next twenty years, he would become a partner in a number of mills on the Huron River including the woolen mill, a saw mill, and several flour mills.

Mark was also concerned about the moral climate of his new community. In 1829, he became one of the founding members of the Temperance Society – devoted to eliminating alcohol in this rough pioneer community where drunken men and woman were often involved in brawls and lawless activities.

He became a partner in two distinct businesses designed to make Ypsilanti a center of trade and which would allow raw and trade goods to be brought into the town and also shipped out of it. In 1831, he purchased stock and became director of an ambitious railroad line called The Detroit – St. Joseph Railroad Company which was to run between Detroit and Chicago. However, after making little advancement, this company was bought out by the Michigan Central Railroad six years later.

In 1833, Mark became involved in another imaginative but failed venture with other citizens in Ypsilanti. He was a shareholder in a large boat designed to navigate the Huron River and bring goods into and out of town. Unfortunately the “Enterprise” as the boat was optimistically named, was soon wrecked and Mark’s investment lost.

As testimony to his financial success with his store and mills, around 1833 Mark built a large brick home for Roccena and his children. The family left their frame structure and moved south on River Street to a beautiful, large home on the Huron River, the same river which had contributed to Mark’s wealth as a mill builder and owner. Roccena was able to again enjoy living on a river as she had as a young girl in New York. She quickly made the house into a home, planted gardens, furnished rooms, and began entertaining both local citizens and travelers. The Norris home was referred to as “The Minister’s Hotel” because of the number of clergymen and their families who stayed with them. Her beloved mother moved from New York and lived with the family in their large home.

Norris continued to purchase and sell land, especially on the east side of Ypsilanti. Between 1834 and 1852, sometimes working with partners, he accumulated a great amount of land on the east side as additions to the city including what is now the area bounded by River, Prospect, Forest and Cross Streets.

Believing that the growing town needed a source of capital to invest in new business ventures, Mark joined with other leading citizens of Ypsilanti to charter the Bank of Ypsilanti in 1836. The bank operated for three years before going bankrupt. Norris has been honored by both friends and historians as paying off all debts even though the amount of money owed far outweighed his income.

By 1838, Mark Norris owned and operated the flour mill in Depot Town and helped influence the building of a train station in the area of Cross and River Street, thus founding Depot Town. He built a large brick structure, The Grand Western hotel and tavern, on a triangular piece of ground just west of the Michigan Central train station. The magnificent building opened in 1839 with stores on the ground floor and the hotel above.

During this time, Mark’s wife Roccena continued to earn a place in the heart of the community as well. She made sure that her two children were well educated by sending them both out of town to complete their education. (More will be written about Elvira and Lyman in another episode of “The River Street Saga”). When the state of Michigan was investigating a town in which to build a college for teachers, Roccena and Mark donated $1000 to the fund collected by the generous people of Ypsilanti to ensure that the college would be built in Ypsilanti. When the college opened, their daughter, Elviria, was among the first students.

In 1838, Roccena helped form a library association in town, as her father had done in New York. She was a founding member and president of the Ladies’ Home Association, which served the needs of the poor and the unfortunate in Ypsilanti, providing to their needs with dignity and generosity.

In 1839, Norris was one of the founding members of a secret society called The Vigilance Committee. Its purpose was to try and curb illegal and dangerous activity in the community. The group met on a regular basis in secret locations to try to stop crime and protect the citizens of Ypsilanti.

With all of his enterprise and interests, Mark Norris was noted for being an indulgent father and a caring husband. One example, in 1838, occurred when his wife and daughter Elvira returned from a visit back East, they found a new carriage waiting for them at the depot, and when they arrived home were surprised by a beautiful pianoforte in their parlor. He loved what he called his “Old House by the River.”

Many of his letters to family, friends, and business associates are tenderly saved and available at both the Bentley Library of the University of Michigan and the Ypsilanti Historical Society archives. In one, he offers advice to a somewhat homesick daughter who has married and moved to New York. In the letter dated November 10, 1841, he writes “Now, Elvira… you (now) live in Alexander, don’t you (?) Well, now, you must not say one word against the town or its inhabitants. Speak well of the town and its inhabitants. If all would try to find some good quality in everyone they meet or see and would, if it became necessary to speak of them at all, speak of those good qualities…how much better it would be.”

Both Mark and his wife were involved in the Presbyterian Church in Ypsilanti, which by 1856 was in need of a new facility. Mark Norris took the lead, as a trustee, and not only served on the board to oversee the construction of a beautiful new structure, but the Norris family contributed $1,000, which was a sizable amount of money at the time.

Like her husband, Roccena was interested in the world around her. In the sermon given at her funeral, she was described by Reverend Tenall as “…blessed with a wonderful memory. This connected with her wide range of general reading made her one of the most entertaining of friends. She seemed to know something of almost everything – perhaps no subject could be started in conversation concerning which she could not furnish some scrap of literature, and she was always learning, always reading…Her desire for knowledge and her interest in educated persons was unabated to the end of life.” Roccena was an advocate of woman’s rights and a noted reader and writer of letters. Indeed, many of her letters and papers are in the Norris Family Collection at The Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, including correspondence with early feminists such as Caroline Kirkland and Electa Stewart.

About the year 1860, The Michigan Central Railroad needed the land that the Norris hotel was built upon to expand. Mark used his skills and imagination to deal with this challenge. He arranged for the bricks from the hotel to be moved across the street from the northwest corner of Cross and River Street to the northeast corner. There he constructed the magnificent and imposing Norris Block which opened in 1861. It was bought by O.E. Thompson in 1869, who painted his family name across it and has since been known as “The Thompson Block.” Few remember now that for the first eight years, this imposing three-story structure was called “The Norris Block.”

Mark Norris had time to prepare for his death at the age of 66 in 1862. Because of his father’s failing health, Lyman moved back to Ypsilanti in about 1854 and along with Mark’s son-in-law, Benjamin Follett, took over the business enterprises with which his energetic father was involved. Mark Norris died at his beautiful home on River Street, a block from Depot Town, in an area that he not only lived in, but founded. He left behind a grieving family with two married children and nine grandchildren of which more will be written about in the next article in “The River Street Saga.” Eight of his fourteen siblings were still alive when he died. His wife, Roccena, continued to live in her beautiful home, very actively involved with her family, church, and community to the very end of her life. She was surrounded by her entire family when she died at the age of 79 in 1876. Both now rest together in eternal peace on River Street at Highland Cemetery, sharing the same view that they first had upon arriving in Ypsilanti as a young couple.

(Janice Anschuetz is a long time member of the Ypsilanti Historical Society and a regular contributor to the Gleanings.)

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: The Norris home that was built on River Street near the Huron River in c1833.

Photo 2: Roccena Norris, along with her husband Mark, might be considered “The Parents of Depot Town.”

Photo 3: Mark Norris is considered by many Ypsilanti historians as the father of Depot Town.

Photo 4: Mark Norris died in 1862, at the age of 66, in his beautiful home on River Street.

(Author’s note: I fell in love with River Street on my first trip to Ypsilanti as a 21 year old in 1964 when we visited the area to find a place to live. My husband had just signed a contract to teach English at Eastern Michigan University and we were living near Wayne State University in the inner city of Detroit. We drove down Michigan Avenue, and when we realized we were in the town of Ypsilanti, by chance, we turned right onto River Street, and that was the moment when we knew that River Street was where we wanted to live. We passed beautiful Victorian mansions, smaller Greek revival homes, 1920’s bungalows and small cottages. We glanced at Depot Town, saw the train station (where trains still stopped several times a day), passed the Hutchinson House high on a hill, drove by the Swaine house on the corner of Forest Avenue, and marveled at the vegetable and flower gardens. We saw a chicken or two and even a goat in the large yards as we approached Highland Cemetery. We gazed at the hills, the vistas, and the woods that surrounded us. We had seen enough. Turning the car around in search of a real estate office, we met a realtor and told her that we wanted to live on River Street. “No you don’t honey,” she drawled. “You can’t.” We assumed that she was telling us that homes on that amazing street were out of our very limited budget. We followed her car down River Street again and turned right on Clark Road and within two hours we had signed a purchase agreement on an FHA repossessed house with a large park behind its backyard with woods beyond.

However, River Street was still calling to us. Five years later when we bought the beautiful, but needy, Swaine House at the corner of East Forest and North River, I finally understood the realtor’s statement. The reason she said that we couldn’t buy a home on River Street was because the area was redlined and it was nearly impossible to either get a mortgage or insurance for a home on River Street. The zoning made it a haven for slum landlords buying on land contract. As the saying goes, “where there is a will there is a way.” With four children under the age of five and another on the way, we followed our hearts to live happily ever after (most of the time) in our River Street home.

I think that I needed River Street and perhaps River Street needed me. I used what I had learned from my Master’s Degree in Social Work in Community Organization from the University of Michigan, and joined with other long-term residents and new neighbors who were also in love with our area. We worked together to change the zoning, clean up blight, fight the slum landlords and drug dealers, restore our homes, and place our beautiful neighborhood on the local, state and national historic registries. More importantly, we all helped to make this part of our city a desirable place to live.

River Street and the ghosts of River Street still call me. I have researched and written articles for the Gleanings about many River Street residents such as the Peck family, the George and Swaine families, the Hutchinson family, and even Walter Briggs, who was born on River Street. In this series, which I will call The River Street Saga, I am researching and writing about even more people who have made their homes on River Street. It should be noted that there are many more community leaders whom I have written about who rest for eternity at beautiful Highland Cemetery on River Street. These include Frederick Pease, Walter Hewitt, Samuel Post, and their families. I hope that you will enjoy reading The River Street Saga as much as I have enjoyed researching and writing it. River Street and the people that have lived there are calling me to tell their story.)

Winter on the Banks of Sneak-a-Leak Creek

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, Winter 2010,
Winter 2010
Original Images:

Winter 2010

Author: George Ridenour

The last produce from the garden had been harvested and either eaten or preserved for the long winter season. Summer had been spent weeding the garden, playing baseball, exploring Sneak-a-Leak Creek, or shopping for clothes. Sadness reigned because the long days of freedom would now be replaced with School.

At the end of summer the house smelled of vinegar and pickling spices. Steam rose from the kettles of tomatoes being boiled which would soon be turned into tomato juice, diced tomatoes, and oh God, Moms’ great chili sauce. Veggies were cut, dried and canned along with a variety of fruit for jams, jellies and deserts.

There were countless other smells from peanut butter, molasses and anise and the smells wafting from cookies, coffee cakes and other pastries. Many of these items were made by Mom to be used as gifts or for the packages that were delivered for the poor that lived in our neighborhood. The sights and smells tempted all of us whether we were adults or children.

In our house of ten it was essential that every item needed for survival was preserved, used or passed down. Clothes were mended, and if possible, passed to the next brother or sister. Winter, especially to a one-income family, was a hardship. Carrots, potatoes and onions were piled under dirt in the root cellar to be used for those special “Sunday dinners.” In those days these dinners were a once-a-week special occasion.

The first of the many hard freezes and snows transformed the Sneak-a-Leak Creek area into fields of glistening snow and ice. Looking back, it seems like it snowed more often and the drifts were deeper in those days. Snow piled over broken corn stalks provided a haven for pheasants and other wild animals. Cows huddled near barns and would not venture out into the pastures until the green of spring.

Soon after that first snow the sleds appeared and those that had been especially good brought out their new toboggans. There were many hills in the area for all kinds of sledding. Skis were very rare around Sneak-a-Leak Creek. Skates would glide over the snow crusted ice and the occasional frozen stump served as seats on our “ice rinks.” There were places along the creek where you could see rushing water beneath the clear ice and we all wondered “Where’d the fish go?” Traps were set along the banks of Sneak-a-Leak” and we dreamed of selling hides for a few dollars.

Mom would point out footprints in the snow outside our windows. Legend had it that Tom-Tom, a special elf of Santa Claus, watched us through the windows and reported on our behavior. Oh God, our greatest fear that Santa would leave us coal in our stockings.

Speaking of coal, the coal man would come every couple of weeks. With blackened face and clothes, driving a huge coal truck, he would back his truck up to the window to the “coal bin” in the basement.  A ton of coal would “thunder” out of the truck into the basement shaking the house. Then every so often someone would go down in the basement, shake the ashes through the grate, and shovel fresh coal into the furnace. If the fire went out during the night you would wake up to a very cold morning. One of our winter chores was to load the ashes into buckets and take them out and spread some on the driveway and empty the rest into the garden.

As Christmas drew near our thoughts turned to Santa and out came everyone’s “dream books.” The Sears, Spiegel and Montgomery Ward catalogs, along with their “toy supplements” were used to create our “wish lists.” The girls dreamed of receiving dolls, baking ovens and sewing cards, while the boys focused on guns and holsters, bicycles and slinkies. Also on the “wish lists” were board games like Clue, Monopoly, and Sorry. I wonder now if Santa ever read our “wish lists.”

Around Sneak-a-Leak Creek Santa was assisted in providing gifts by “The Old Newsboys” through Uncle George Ridenour. Gifts of meat, bread, toys and clothes helped add joy to our Christmas season and into the New Year. We thought we were blessed by both Santa and Jesus (…and we were!).

One of the things we did was lay face up under the fresh cut Christmas tree which was full of colored lights, old bulbs and streams of icicles. A sky of colored lights, shimmering silver reflections and the smell of pine needles overwhelmed our senses. All too soon it was over. The tree stayed for awhile but everything else was put away.

On free days out favorite thing to do was “go outside” to play. Most of the time this meant picking sides for the snowball fights. I often ended up getting my face washed with snow by my brother. Snow forts, snow angels, sliding, skating and sometimes just walking the dog in the knee deep snow occupied our time.

I remember delivering the Ypsilanti Press in the snow. This meant walking about one and a half miles along the route and then returning home on the dark and lonely roads. Sometimes there was sleet or just the raw, cold wind burning your cheeks. But more often than not, there was the glory and satisfaction of walking along the darkened road as the moon rose, revealing quiet fields now filled with millions of shining diamonds. There was the crunch, crunch, crunch of the cold snow under your feet, the buffs of white breath from your mouth, and the anticipation of getting home and warm again.

Back then, family and home were important, School was a necessary part of learning and growing up, and church and God were a natural part of life. Kids for the most part respected one another and spent a great deal of time playing together. Television was new and computers and cell phones had not been thought of yet. We read newspapers and magazines like Life, Look, and the Saturday Evening Post that we actually held in our hands and would often listen to the radio as a family.

There was an innocence in those days on the banks of Sneak-a-Leak Creek and the wonderful memories of those times will be with me for all the days of my life.

(George Ridenour is a volunteer in the YHS Archives and a regular contributor to the Gleanings.)

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: George and his sister resting after sledding on Sneak-a-Leak Creek.

Photo 2: George in a snowsuit that was passed down from an older sister.

Strange Story of a Nine Year Old

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, Winter 2010,
Winter 2010
Original Images:

Winter 2010

Author: James Mann

Children are told not to talk to strangers, and someone should have said this to Mary Lewardowski, who was nine years old in 1920.   On Wednesday, August 4th of that year, Mary was playing in the street near her home in Detroit, when a strange man asked if she would like a car ride.  The car in this case was the Interurban, a street railway or street car line.  Mary said she would like a ride, and the two boarded a car together.  Once on the car Mary fell asleep.  The man got off the car, leaving Mary behind.  The car ended its run at Ypsilanti at one o’clock in the morning of Thursday, August 5, 1920.

“Homer Smith found Mary last night, questioned her and then took her to the city hall, where she slept in the detention room overnight,” reported The Daily Ypsilanti Press of Thursday, August 5, 1920. According to the report, Ypsilanti Chief of Police John Connors questioned the girl that morning.  In the course of his career, Chief Connors had heard many strange stories, but the story Mary told may have been one of the strangest.

Mary said her mother had died long before, leaving her father with six children.  She said her father gave all of the children away.  Her father, she said, was in prison and had been for two years for breaking windows.  Mary said she lived with a man named John Kasidlo on Proctor Street in Detroit.  Kasidlo, said Mary, had sold all of his furniture and had moved away.

Mary said she had an older sister named Sophia, about 16 years of age, who was accused of stealing $10 and was sent to the reform school for girls at Adrian.  Another sister, she said, lived in Hamtramck.  She said she did not know where the other children were and did not know their names.

“Mary can write and is an unusually bright and intelligent looking little girl, with golden hair and blue eyes.  She carried a pair of roller skates, which she guarded carefully,” noted The Ypsilanti Record of Thursday, August 5, 1920. “Mary is as bright as they make them.  When she is washed and properly dressed, she might be turned into a Polish beauty,” observed The Daily Ypsilanti Press.

She was taken to the health cottage on Perrin Street where Miss Sperry, the community nurse, took care of her.  Chief Connors notified the juvenile court in Detroit, and was told an officer would be sent for her.  It would be up to the authorities in Detroit to determine the truth of Mary’s story.

(James Mann is a local author and historian, a volunteer in the YHS Archives, and a regular contributor to the Gleanings.)

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: In 1920, Mary Lewardowski, a nine year old from Detroit, rode an Interurban car like this to Ypsilanti.

Ralph Garfield Ridenour

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, Winter 2010,
Winter 2010
Original Images:

Winter 2010

Author: George Ridenour

(Much of the information in this article about my “Uncle Ralph” was obtained from members of the Ralph Ridenour family.)

Ralph Garfield Ridenour was born to his parents, William and Emma (Veniman) Ridenour, on March 9, 1921, at 868 Railroad Street in Ypsilanti. The family would grow to five boys and one girl. Ralph attended and graduated from the Ypsilanti Public Schools where he was an athlete and played on the high school football team.

His further education was with the Sales Analysis Institute in Chicago, Illinois, the Primary Mechanics School at the Air Force Base in Amarillo, Texas, the Boeing Airplane and Engine Specialist Training Program in Seattle, Washington and the Army Counter-Intelligence School in Baltimore, Maryland.

Ralph’s military experience was with the United States Army where he served for twenty-two years. He was stationed in Seattle, Washington and Savannah, Georga and for a time in both Italy and Germany. His primary assignment was a mechanic for B-29 aircraft. A letter found in his archives shows he was a Special Agent in the Counter Intelligence Corps, Home Detachment and Zone 5 – APO 512, U. S. Army. The letter dated June 12, 1946 commends him as follows: “…He has performed the tasks assigned to him in an excellent manner, displaying initiative and leadership in the organization of his work…Special Agent Ridenour’s assignment in the detachment has been in the investigative section…He has been of value to this office through his knowledge of photography, from photographing to the final development of good pictures.” This era of his life provided valuable education for future endeavors.

Ralph married to Miss Ila Pepper on August 17, 1941, in the West Side Methodist Church in Ann Arbor. The reception was held at the farm home of Mr. and Mrs. Pepper. Ila had graduated from Ann Arbor High School and at the time was working as a licensed Cosmetologist. Ralph at the time was employed by the French Home Equipment Company. Ralph and Ila had three daughters, Ellen, Rianda and Pamela and several grandchildren.

Daughter Ellen had the following to say about the reception at the farm. “I don’t know how many acres but there was a gigantic front lawn and a side yard with a driveway, a barn where grandpa dried tobacco leaves in the loft, a chicken coop, a spring house, and then there were the fields, woods and a stream in the back. The spring house was small and when the water got piped into the house it went away…Mom and I lived there quite a while when dad was away in the service…”

Ralph’s work in the areas of 3D holograms and lasers began with the Conductron Corporation of Ann Arbor where he served as an Assistant Research Engineer. Ralph described his duties as: “…I organized a mass production facility for 3-dimensional holograms. This included the selection, ordering and installation of equipment and the design and general supervision of construction of the necessary dark rooms, along with building the hologram viewing devices for which three ideas have been submitted to the Conductron Corporation for possible patent rights.” In September of 1968 Ralph was the Project Manager for Holographic Viewing Systems including the design and construction of prototypes. He worked closely with the Marketing and Sales Department to improve the advertising and display of company products.

Ralph spent 18 years affiliated with the University of Michigan where he perfected his skills as a photographer and researcher. The first eight years with the U of M he was assigned to the Photography Section of Willow Run Laboratories and then eight years with the Moving Target Indication Radar Laboratory. He described this experience as follows: “During this time a great number of field trips were made and I was responsible for all photography, recording and processing. Further, I was given the responsibility for writing, directing, photographing and editing a classified training film. It was eighteen minutes in length and was well received. During this time a great deal of time was spent researching different films and developers. Two years were spent working in the Optical Section of the Radar Optics Laboratory. The primary concern was lasers and holography. We were charged with photographing hundreds of set-ups in the labs, studio work, micro-photography, laser photography, holography and various other special photographic problems.

Later, Ralph worked at Argus Incorporated in Ann Arbor. He supervised twenty employees involved in the grinding and polishing of camera lenses. Ralph in his spare time enjoyed photography. A quiet man, he lived with Ila and his three daughters on a quiet, tree lined street in Ann Arbor. He was a member of the Free and Accepted Masons, the West Side Methodist Church and served as President of the Bach School Parent Teacher Organization. His photography appeared in technical journals and newspapers. He was hired by Life Magazine to do laboratory work in conjunction with their special 1966 photographic issue as well as future editions.

Finally, after almost 35 years he retired from what was then known as ERIM. He engaged in an active retirement of travel and working with his daughter and son-in-law in a flower shop. At his retirement, Ralph remembered his work at Willow Run as follows: “When I first arrived at Willow Run, they were testing rocket engines for NASA. We had a remote motion picture camera set up, and in addition, I had to take still shots. The only problem was that when an engine wasn’t working right it usually caught fire and so did everything else. The test facility was rebuilt more often that I can remember.”

A grandson of Ralph’s remembers the following: “Grandpa told me that during his senior year he performed a solo in a concert given by his high school choir at Greenfield Village. Henry Ford Sr. was in the audience and when Grandpa sang, he told the person next to him, who was head of the Village, to hire Grandpa as a tour guide because of his strong voice. That was in 1939 and a job was a good thing. After graduation, he went directly to work acting as a guide in the Lincoln Courthouse in the Village. After a couple of weeks, though, he was moved to the outdoor silkworm demonstration. Apparently the other guides, even those inside the buildings next door to the Courthouse, were complaining because he was too loud. The silkworm machine makes some noise and being outdoors his voice was perfect for it.”

Finally, Ralph’s daughter Ellen related: “What Ralph Ridenour did was to set up the cameras that were used and develop the pictures. He developed the moon pictures and the Landsat pictures from the satellites that went around the world taking pictures of land and water masses.”

Later in life Ralph was diagnosed with an eye condition that had the potential of destroying his eyesight. However, he was able, in his retirement, to take over 5,000 photographs from all over the world. Ralph died October 13, 1994. Although little is known outside his work, home and church, he had a major impact on the development of 3-D, holograms and lasers. Ralph was another “Ypsi” boy who accomplished a great deal during his lifetime and never forgot his roots.

(George Ridenour is an historian and researcher, a regular contributor to the Gleanings, and a volunteer in the YHS Archives.)

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: Ralph Ridenour’s work in photography involved the development of 3-D, holograms and lasers.

Photo 2: The William Ridenour family: (front row – L to R) William, Goldie, Ralph and Emma (back row – L to R) Dale, Glen, Lloyd and Howard.

Photo 3: Ralph developed the moon pictures and the Landsat pictures from satallites.

Photo 4: Ralph (second from right in second row) played football on the Ypsilanti High School team.

The Farmer and the Poet

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, Winter 2010,
Winter 2010
Original Images:

Winter 2010

Author: Laura Bien

Well-remembered are Robert Frost’s three sojourns to the University of Michigan in the 1920s, and his house on Pontiac Trail, now at the Henry Ford Museum. Forgotten are the works of Ypsilanti poet-farmer William Lambie.

Lambie belonged to a generation earlier than Frost, but like Frost, Lambie had Scottish blood and took as his subject the natural world. Unlike Frost, he never left the occupation of farming or made much money. Lambie never won anything more for his verses than friends’ approval, with one exception – a penny postcard that Lambie valued as priceless. The postcard came from another poet whom Lambie admired.

Lambie emigrated to the U.S. in 1839 at age 18 with his parents and eight siblings from the Scottish village of Strathavan just southeast of Glasgow. The family settled in Detroit, then purchased a farm in Superior Township just north of Highland Cemetery.

“We bought the Moon farm, in the town of Superior, in June, 1839, and had a fair, square battle with privations, exile and penury for many a day,” wrote Lambie in an essay – he read aloud from it years later at a Pioneer Society of Michigan meeting. “It was the half-way house between Sheldon’s and Ann Arbor, and had a bar for the sale of whisky. Kilpatrick, the pioneer auctioneer, said we could make more money on the whisky than on the farm, but we preferred the plow to the whisky barrel.” The family purchased 150 sheep.

Lambie’s father soon tired of America and in 1854 emigrated again to Ontario with his wife and younger children. Other siblings settled in Detroit. Only Lambie’s brother Robert stayed in Ypsilanti, where he worked as a tailor and later opened a clothing store and then a dry goods store. Robert also served on the city’s first city council in 1858.

William remained on the old Moon farm. Anna, the first of his six children, was born in 1851 when William was 30. In his diary entry for December 13, 1886, Lambie wrote, “Anna’s Birthday - It was a cold dreary day when she was born when we only had one wee stove and one room 12 by 16 and our few potatoes all froze - poverty within desolation.” William and his wife Mary wallpapered the inside of the house with newspapers in an effort to save the houseplants, but the plants froze.

William eventually built a larger house elsewhere on the farm and planted a grove of oak and apple trees nearby. By 1860 at age 39 he had five children ranging in age from 2 to 9, and a farm whose value adjusted for inflation – in an era of cheap land – was $94,000, a bit better than many of his neighbors.

On his 80 acres he raised oats, beans, wheat, barley, corn, and chickens and sheep. He also produced poems. In a May 15, 1876 diary entry he wrote, “A sick sheep drowned – pulling the dirty wool off a dead sheep is not very conducive to poetry.”

After William’s failed attempts to have a poem published in Harper’s, local newspapers began publishing his works. “My poem Auld Lang-Syne in the Commercial,” he wrote in his diary on May 26, 1877. This was a reworking of the familiar lyrics. William called it “A New Version of Lang-Syne.” His introduction to the poem reads, “It is a great pity that ever the world-renowned song of ‘Auld Lang-Syne’ should become the song of the drunkard, to lead either drunken or sober men farther away from temperance and virtue, and down the shameful road of disgrace and ruin. If this new song of Lang-Syne is not as good poetry as the old one, it at least inculcates better morality.”

The original song, of course, had been partially collected and partially composed by Robert Burns. Burns’ January 25th birthday was one of two annual events Lambie faithfully noted in his diary every year. Yet the “Ploughman Poet,” the “Bard of Ayrshire,” was not Lambie’s favorite poet.

On February 1, 1886, Lambie wrote in his diary, “[daughter Isabelle] and I drove up with old Frank the horse, to her School. Good sleighing – Had a note from my favorite Poet Whittier.” John Greenleaf Whittier’s note was published in the Ypsilantian, in an edition unfortunately not locally available on microfilm. It was one of two artifacts Lambie would receive from Whittier.

The Presbyterian Lambie shared several values with the outspoken abolitionist Quaker poet, such as pacifism. In Lambie’s essay “Out in the Harvest Field,” from his 1883 collection of prose and poetry “Life on the Farm,” he wrote, “We detest all kinds of war and battle and murder, and believe it is far more manly and heroic to fill a man’s sack with corn than it is to kill him in battle.”

Lambie was also sympathetic to the spirit of abolition. The other annual event he always noted in his diary was Emancipation Day on August 1, commemorating Britain’s 1833 Slavery Abolition Act, which a year later ended slavery in most of the British empire. It was an antebellum holiday that was observed locally in Washtenaw County, Detroit, and Ontario – Canada was one of the British possessions affected by the Act.

In 1876 William attended the August 1st Emancipation Day celebration in Ypsilanti. In his diary he wrote, “Ground very dry – hoping for rain – the colored man’s day of Freedom – [Isabelle] and I went to see the Celebration in William Cross Grove at the Fair Grounds [now Recreation Park] – The dark Beauties rigged out in white, red and blue and a feast of good things. Apples 75¢ a bushel.”

In December of 1887, at age 66, Lambie wrote a poem to Whittier in honor of the poet’s 80th birthday. He enclosed a prepaid penny postcard. The return address, “William Lambie/Ypsilanti, Michigan,” is written in Lambie’s plain yet graceful hand. The Quaker poet returned Lambie's penny postcard.

On January 17 of 1888, Lambie wrote in his diary, “Received a kind complimentary postcard from my favorite poet, Dear delightful John Greenleaf Whittier.” Written in a rapid, looping script, the postcard reads, “Dear Friend, I heartily thank thee for thy poetical tribute and am thy sincere friend. John G Whittier.”

Lambie saved this card and passed it down through family members. More than a century after Lambie’s 1900 death and burial in Highland Cemetery, the tiny and delicate card continues to be cared for today. The fragile relic speaks to the heart of a down-to-earth Ypsilantian farmer who never pretended he was otherwise - and yet befriended one of the nation’s leading poets.

. . . When winter days grow dark and dreary
And I am sad, and weak, and weary,
His pure sweet lines oft make me cheery.

Even Milton in his strains sublime.
And Burn’s in my land of Lang-syne
Are not read so well by me and mine . . .

—“Whittier,” William Lambie

(Laura Bien is a local historian, the author of “Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives,” and a regular volunteer in the YHS Archives.)

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: William Lambie with his oldest daughter Anna and wife Mary in the background.

Photo 2: In 1887 Lambie wrote to Whittier and enclosed a prepaid penny postcard with his return address on it.

Photo 3: Whittier returned Lambie’s penny postcard with a note: “Dear Friend, I heartily thank thee for thy poetical tribute and am thy sincere friend. John G Whittier.”

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