The Gilbert Family - Part II

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
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Author: Janice Anscheutz

Our story of the Gilbert family – of fortunes won and fortunes lost – of dreams that turned to nightmares – continues after the death of Major John Gilbert, who died at the age of 86 years on January 19, 1860 at his modest brick home at 301 North Grove Street.

As the tale was told in Part I of The Gilbert Family Saga, published in the spring, 2013 issue of The Gleanings, Major John Gilbert, for all of his hard work, determination and skills, lost his fortune in a bank fraud, and was being supported by his two sons, George and John Jr. from the mid 1840s until his death in 1860.

This is the story of his son, John Gilbert, Jr., and how he regained the family’s wealth and status. It also relates to the legacy his family left to the city of Ypsilanti. John Jacob Gilbert Jr. was born in Manlius, Onondaga County, New York on January 6, 1820. As a young lad of 11 years old he traveled with his family to Ypsilanti, Michigan from New York State. Though not college educated, John was able to glean many skills from his father, which included expertise in mill building and operations, buying and selling grain and grain products, town planning and development, train operations, and manufacturing of metal products.

By the time he was eighteen years old, John was manager of a store next to his father’s flour mill on the Huron River at the Chicago Road (now Michigan Ave.) and Water Street, which provided not only various goods to citizens living nearby, but supplies to those building the new Detroit to Chicago line of the railroad. By 1840, due to poor investing, this once wealthy family lost the mill and the majority of their land and business holdings, and John, Jr. and his brother supported their parents, their sister Emily, and Emily’s daughter.

We know that John enlisted in the Ypsilanti Guards of the 6th Regiment of the Militia of Michigan and in May, 1844 was elected Captain, and received his commission from Governor John S. Barry. He left Ypsilanti in 1846 and moved to Detroit. In a memorial report of the “Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society Collections,” published in 1896, we learn that like his father, John Jr. became a Mason, and in January, 1851 was one of the founding members of Detroit Commandery [sic] No. 1.

We also know that in 1851 he was employed as a conductor for the railroad that went through Ypsilanti from Detroit. In his obituary, it is written that John saw the first train pass over the line from Detroit to Ypsilanti. He was conductor on the train in 1851 when some of the unscrupulous officials who built that line were carried back to Detroit for trial. At that time, John Jr. was employed on the section that ran from Detroit to Jackson.

The year 1857 was an important one for John. His leadership ability was recognized by fellow Masons when he was elected in Detroit as the First Grand Commander of the Grand Commandery [sic] of the State of Michigan. It was also the year that John moved to Chicago and with James Bailey as his partner, started a commission business called John Gilbert and Company. The business was involved in buying and selling grains and most likely John’s earlier experience, both working at the mill his father owned and selling flour and supplies, provided him with the education he needed to succeed.

Another milestone in the year 1857 is that John came back to Ypsilanti in order to marry Harriet Amelia Heartt on November 11, 1857. The service was conducted in St. Luke’s Episcopal Church by Reverend John A. Wilson. In her obituary, we learn that Harriet was born in Troy, New York on May 26, 1830. Her parents were William and Elvya W. Dunn Heartt. When she was 15 years old, her father, who had been a riverboat captain on the Hudson River, brought his family to Ypsilanti. They lived on a farm a short distance from the city. John brought his young bride to Chicago and they remained there for three years. We can assume that this business was successful because by 1860, John and Harriet returned to Ypsilanti and a year later moved into the elegant and stylish 13-room mansion they had built at 227 North Grove Road.

On September 3, 1859 Harriet gave birth to a baby boy who died the same day. On December 2, 1860 a daughter, Alice Haskins, was born in Ypsilanti. On May 30, 1863, another son, John Thomas, was born followed by his brother William Heartt born May 17, 1865. Finally, two daughters followed: Harriet Eliza, born February 25, 1867 and Margaret Edmunds, born January 15, 1870. The beautiful oil painting of their five children, which was once proudly displayed in the happy home, now hangs in the Gilbert Residence on South Huron Street, found abandoned in what was once the Swift family barn on the property in 1963.

The young family prospered in their elegant home, which was noted for its flowered mansard roof, the first of this style of short, steep roofline in Ypsilanti. We can imagine the grandeur of the home by the descriptions provided in Colburns “The Story of Ypsilanti” added to by Ilyne Sari, who lived across the street and as a child often played there. There were five chimneys in the house, which was surrounded by four porches covered by flowering vines. The slate roof was patterned with a flower motif. After entering the mansion through heavy front doors there was a mosaic patterned tile floor in a broad hall with a curving staircase. Most rooms had a fireplace, oak floors and decorative plaster.

The grounds themselves were fabulous - more like a park than the lawn of a family home. The large seven-acre lot, surrounded by High, Grove and Park Streets was deeded to John by his father, Major John Gilbert, before the family’s financial collapse. In a newspaper article from the Ypsilanti Daily Press, August 10, 1961, some of the features of the landscaping were described. There was an ample playground with a teeter-totter and swings, enjoyed not only by the five Gilbert children, but other children who were welcome to play there. Flowers, especially roses and lilies, were planted everywhere, and flowering vines cooled the ample porches. In the winter, spring and fall, flowers were always in bloom in the greenhouse, which was built onto the building, and Mrs. Gilbert was generous in providing these for church displays, weddings, funerals and other events.

As daughter Margaret got older, she taught painting to neighborhood children under the towering pine trees on the property either on Saturdays or during her summers off from teaching art in the city schools. The article goes on to describe the hospitality of the family in welcoming others into their beautiful home. “Mr. Gilbert always made a big thing of the Fourth of July and took all the children of the neighborhood to the top of the tower at the rear of the house to watch fireworks ‘uptown’ at night. Evenings as a rule found the children of the area playing Hide and Seek. In the wintertime the place was still the center of attraction with an artificial lake providing safe skating. The lake had its beginning when the Michigan Central Railroad track was built. Soil was scooped out in quantity and the hole eventually became a small lake fed by streams, which also provided water for a swimming pool nearer the house. A splashing fountain south of the residence provided an attractive water feature of those days.”

Another water feature was a clear pool near the back door of the home, which was spring fed and provided delicious cool drinking water for the family and visitors. Major John Gilbert not only brought his family from New York State but brought with him four pear trees which his son used to begin a little orchard near a vineyard and vegetable garden on the property. Small boats were available for fun in the little lake, and a stable on the property provided further diversion to children visiting the home.

Mrs. Gilbert was considered a generous and kind woman and was one of the founders of The Home Association, which provided for the needs of the poor in Ypsilanti. Colburn tells us more about the purpose of this charity, which was founded in 1857 to help only three families. By 1907 the numbers of those assisted had risen to an average of 81 each year. “A wife and child abandoned and helpless…within a day were discovered, clothed, comforted and provided with railway tickets to the distant home of a relative. Necessary surgical operations were provided for the poor. Modest pensions were given some aged and suffering people.” Before the city was persuaded to provide wood for the poor, stacks of it would be piled in members’ yards to be distributed as needed.

Harriet was also an active member of St. Luke’s parish and their charity work. In the Ypsilanti Commercial newspaper of June 22, 1878, we get a glimpse of the hospitality of the Gilbert home in an article that stated: “An immensely pleasant festival and lawn party was given by the “Ladies Aid Society” of St. Luke’s Church at the residence of Mrs. John Gilbert on Friday evening of last week. The spacious and elegant grounds were enjoyed by all present and as an additional attraction several boats plowed the waters of the beautiful artificial lake. In a financial way, the social was also a success, a gain of about thirty dollars being the result.”

It is said that passengers on the train of which John Gilbert, Jr. was conductor would gasp with awe while passing his beautiful home and ask him what that wonderful building was, and he would say, in jest, that it was the Gilbert Insane Asylum. It seems strange to think that the builder and owner of this magnificent mansion merely worked for the railroad, but he had other sources of income as well. Once, when asked by a census taker, what his occupation was, he stated that he was a Capitalist.

In Colburn’s book, John Gilbert Jr. is credited as “contributing much to the development of the East Side. He built stores on the north side of East Cross Street and the factory building on Grove Street, later owned by the National Foundry Company, and was interested in many early industries. His home on Grove Street was long one of the city’s beauty spots. Mrs. Gilbert, his wife, is well known in The Story of Ypsilanti as President, for years, of The Home Association. The Gilbert Home is the fine old mansion at the corner of Grove and High Streets, with its extensive gardens covering the block and surrounded by a high wall.”

In the City Directory of 1873-1873 John’s profession is given as a manufacturer of milk and cheese safes, probably produced in his factory on Grove Street. These were metal containers which could be cooled with ice or placed in a well or spring that would keep these dairy items fresh, the precursor to the ice box.

It is possible that he also planned to manufacture one of his inventions – a self-locking coffin, which he had patented in 1876. In his patent application, he provides us with this description: “My invention has for its object to so construct a metallic coffin that when a corpse is placed therin [sic] and the lid is closed down, the coffin cannot be again opened…it consists in providing the coffin lid with internal self-acting fastening – hooks, which will lock the lid to the coffin when placed in position.” At that time, The University of Michigan and other medical schools provided a “cottage industry” of sorts for unscrupulous people who would search various cemeteries for fresh graves from which bodies would be dug up and supplied, at a good price, for students to dissect and study. They were called “resurrections.” It was not uncommon for families of the newly buried to camp out at the cemetery and guard the grave for several weeks until it was certain that enough decomposition had taken place in the corpse to make the body worthless to medical schools.

Not only was this imaginative and energetic man involved in making money, but he was active in local and state affairs as well. We read in his obituary that he was a “staunch Democrat and in 1863 was elected supervisor of his district, continuing to serve until 1868. In 1865 he became a member of the executive committee of the Michigan State Agricultural Society and remained on the board for 12 years, acting as chairman of the business committee for a large portion of the time.”

After a long life filled with challenges met, John Gilbert Jr. had become a rich man in his own right. He died in his beautiful home on September 14, 1894. We learn more about his last few years in his obituary: “By an unfortunate accident Mr. Gilbert lost an eye, after having had a successful operation upon it for cataract, and it not only deprived him of his sight, but wrecked his nervous system almost completely, so that for over two years his life had been one of suffering. He had lately been looking forward to a more successful result of an operation upon his remaining eye and was even daring to anticipate meeting some of his old friends at the coming State Fair. But it was not to be, and a short but severe illness proved too much for his weakened system and he passed peacefully away from the sorrow and suffering of this life to the joys of the better land.” Copying the closing words of his father’s obituary we may say of him:
”Mr. Gilbert has gone down to the grave leaving to his children the heritage of a stainless name.” John Gilbert, Jr. joined his father and his beloved son, John Thomas, to lie in rest at nearby Highland Cemetery in the family plot in Block 45.

Even though John and his wife, Harriet Amelia Heartt Gilbert, had six children, only two outlived their mother, who died at her home on October 6, 1910. Their infant son died on the day of his birth in 1859. Sadly, while the oil painting of the five Gilbert children was being painted, John Thomas, who was only 7 years old, died in 1870. In 1888, their daughter, Harriet Elvya, died at the age of 21. Daughter, Margaret Edmunds, who had worked as an art teacher in Ypsilanti, married lawyer Charles Taylor of Chester, Pennsylvania, and died on September 8, 1905 in childbirth with twins. Her body was brought back to Ypsilanti from Pennsylvania to be buried in the family plot at Highland Cemetery, and the twin babies came to live with their grandmother and Aunt Alice in the Gilbert family mansion. Love and tender care could not save them and they died before they were 11 months old and were buried with their mother.

The remaining children, William Heartt Gilbert and Alice Gilbert, lasted long after their mother’s death, and were alive when the City of Ypsilanti honored their family with the naming of Gilbert Park This small plot of land, which was at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Park Street, was actually one of two Gilbert Park’s in the city. Another park, which stood between Huron and Washington Streets, was a gift of land to the city made by Kate Gilbert in her will. She is no relation to the John Gilbert family and was a teacher in Ypsilanti. Her husband died from wounds suffered in the Civil War and Mrs. Gilbert bestowed this land to the city. It had ceased being a park shortly before 1923.

Most likely Gilbert Park was formed sometime after the park system of Ypsilanti began in 1892. In the early development of Ypsilanti, in the 1830s, this land was undeveloped because it was what we would call wetlands today – marshy and muddy. It had also been part of a large Indian campground where tribes would stop on their sojourn to Canada each year to camp on the river bank. This is described in the previous article on the Gilbert family. During the Civil War, it was used as a town green where new recruits would learn to march in formation and was considered part of the city commons. It had also been used as a market square and wood lot.

Gilbert Park was a pleasant few acres and served as the staging point for the 100th birthday of Ypsilanti which was celebrated in 1923. There was a traditional bandstand, drinking fountain, and play areas for children as well as picnic tables and benches, trees and shade. In 1961 the original 2.3 acre park land was traded by the city for a similar sized lot on the river by a developer who built a small shopping center. The new facility was also developed as a park with ball fields, a children’s playground, picnic tables and benches.

William Heartt Gilbert, the surviving son of John Jr. and Harriet, married Mary Winsor Silver on November 8, 1905 in Church of the Covenant, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and they moved to Battle Creek, Michigan where he was employed by the Michigan Trust Company. He was also a realtor and it seems was able to accumulate his own wealth. They had no children. He died in 1933 and his wife died a short time latter.

Alice lived in the Gilbert mansion until 1920 when she sold it and moved to a large home at 314 West Forest. Daniel Smith, who made the heaters which were installed in Detroit street cars, purchased the property and had the swimming pool cemented over. By that time, the small lake and pool on the property had been destroyed by a city water project which redirected the springs that had supplied water for them. The City of Ypsilanti came into possession of the home and grounds for non-payment of taxes during the Great Depression, after Mr. Smith’s death. It was first used as a community center, then a canteen during World War II, and in1961 became home to the Boys Club. When a new building for the Boys Club was built on the spacious property in 1974, it became briefly a Girls Club, until the girls joined the boys in the newer structure. By 1982, the once beautiful home had become quite dilapidated and city voters were given the opportunity to decide its fate. The building was eventually sold for $1 and has now been restored to much of its former glory, and people are again living in its luxury apartments.

Alice continued in the activities which she had been involved in with her mother, most of them devoted to the benefit of the needy. She died on December 16, 1946, just past her 86th birthday. In a scrap of paper found in the archives, there is a typewritten few sentences which must have been delivered to an audience of some sort. It states: “It is with real sorrow that I note the passing of Miss Alice Haskins Gilbert, a very estimable and kindly lady. The Gilbert family has been prominent in Ypsilanti affairs for over a century and she was a worthy member of that family. She was a veritable well of information on early Ypsilanti. I understand that her last act was to feed her friends, the birds, in her doorway.”

Her obituary tells us more about Alice’s life of service. Like her mother, Harriet, before her, she was active in the Ypsilanti Home Association which provided assistance to the poor of Ypsilanti in terms of food, clothing, housing, heating fuel, and medical care. Help was given in a way that retained the dignity of the recipient. Both Alice and her mother were particularly concerned about the many needs of the elderly in Ypsilanti, many of them having to live in poverty without a source of income.

She was very active in the activities of St. Luke’s Church and its auxiliary Guild. Her published obituary from an Ypsilanti newspaper stated, “she herself carried on when all her family passed away and her liberality and kindliness were notable. For years she entertained the Home Association at its first fall meeting, and was devoted to St. Luke’s Church and its Auxiliary Guild. Her kindness and liberality often helped young people.”

Not only was Alice concerned about the less fortunate in Ypsilanti during her life, but in her death too, and her good deeds continue to aid others and are evident today – nearly 70 years after her death. In a newspaper article of December 28, 1946, the will of Miss Gilbert is published. The report reads: “Known in Ypsilanti for kindness and generosity during her long life, it appears the late Miss Gilbert chartered a similar course after her death.” In her will, nearly 70 persons and organizations were listed as dividing her personal estate, which is estimated at $250,000… “Benefiting most from the bequests were the Gilbert Old Peoples Home, Beyer Memorial Hospital and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. A $500,000 trust fund for the establishment of a home for the aged in Ypsilanti was set aside by the will of William H. Gilbert, brother, who died in 1933. The fund was to be available upon the death of Miss Gilbert, last remaining sister. Miss Gilbert augmented this fund by leaving one half of her estate’s financial residue…and the balance of her personal property after all other provisions in the document have been met…to the Gilbert Home.”

It was the wish of Alice and William that this fund – an enormous amount of money to have survived the Great Depression - would be a way to honor their family and especially the work of their kind and devoted mother, Harriett, and continue the unending crusade to aid the poor and elderly in Ypsilanti. In a paper entitled “History of the Gilbert Residence”, we read “Mr. William Gilbert wished to honor his mother who had been active in the Ypsilanti Home Association.” In his will, he pledged half of his estate to fund and start a home for impoverished men and women unable to maintain themselves. During the 1930’s through the 1950’s, the group functioned as a foundation, using proceeds from investments as direct support for local seniors. Initially, in accordance with Mr. Gilbert’s will, the group was called the Gilbert Old Peoples Home of Ypsilanti. The mission was “to found, endow, and maintain a home for the care and support of such aged and impoverished men and women as may be unable to maintain themselves.” In an undated newspaper article, probably from the late 1950s, we read that the trust fund had increased past the quarter million dollar mark while still serving the poor. “Through valuable aid of the Ministerial Association of Ypsilanti, trustees of the Gilbert fund have been able to bring relief to highly deserving senior residents of the community. Recommendations are made after careful investigation and financial aid that would not otherwise have been available has lightened closing years for some who are no longer living as well as for those who are still active but in need of help.”

In the late 1950’s, the board of trustees of the Gilbert Old Peoples Home of Ypsilanti made the decision to purchase the beautiful Swift Home at 203 South Huron Street from the elderly owner, Miss Harriet Swift, who would be able to continue to live in the large home. It was turned into an “old people’s home.” The first residents were required to be able to walk and served as a retirement community, rather than a nursing facility, but as people living there grew older and had health issues to deal with, the board of trustees determined that a more suitable one-story building was needed.

In 1959, the Swift home was demolished, and a new Gilbert Residence was built in its place. In 1972, part of this new structure was converted to a nursing home facility to meet the needs of the residents and today expansion is under way to enlarge and expand the care for the residents of Ypsilanti.

The Gilbert Family, who came to the wilderness of Ypsilanti in the cold and bleak winter of 1831, was not only instrumental in helping to build a town, but their legacy is still working today through the Gilbert Residence in providing an exceptional quality of life to the old and infirm of the area.

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

Photo Captions:

1. The Gilbert home at the corner of Grove and High Streets.

2. Harriet Gilbert was known as “Hattie”.

3. The Gilbert children, painted about 1870. The painting was found in a barn on the Swift property. Back row - left to right: John Thomas (1863-70) and Alice Haskins (1860-1946). Front row – left to right: Harriet (1867-1888), Margaret (1870-1904) and William Heartt (1865-1933).

4. Alice Gilbert cavorts near the pond.

5. Gilbert Park, the site of the 1923 Centennial Celebration, Arlan’s Department Store, a Giant Flea Market, and currently the Water Street Project

6. The Swift house, from about 1930, was purchased with funds from the estates of William and Alice Gilbert and was torn down when the current Gilbert Residence was built on the lot. The Swift house was surrounded by gardens and trees and the original owner became one of the first residents of the then-called Gilbert Old Peoples’ Home.

Where do you think you are?

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:

Bits & Pieces of Ypsilanti History from the Fletcher-White Archives of the Ypsilanti Historical Society

From an 1890 panorama view looking north-east: Congress Street is now Michigan Avenue and that's Riverside Park in the upper left corner, so this is basically the site of today's still-waiting-to-be-developed Water Street project. The four-story building on the east bank of the Huron River (#45) was the mill owned by John Gilbert at one time. See page 25 for Janice Anscheutz's initial installment on Ypsilanti's famed Gilbert family.

The Farm Gate Controversy of 1878

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:

Author: James Mann

Farmers in Washtenaw and other counties in Michigan were angered during the summer of 1878, as agents of a firm in Ypsilanti worked to collect royalties on a farm gate in common use. A circular was issued to warn the farmers of legal action, unless the royalties were paid. The circular read: You are hereby notified that suit will be brought against you in the United States Court, for an infringement of patent upon the ‘Field Fence and Gate combined,’ as secured to John C. Lee, of Medina County State of Ohio, by Letters of Patent, dated October24, 1865, and number 50,605; and which said patent, with full right to collect damages for all infringements thereof, has been assigned to us. No further notice will be given before suit is brought, and you may pay to Babbitt & Griffin, Attorneys at Law of the city of Ypsilanti, the regular rates; with fifty per cent, additional, in full settlement for your infringement, at any time before the commencement of said suit. Signed, Joseph Bickford & Co.

Farmers whose farms did not exceed sixty acres were to pay $3, those not exceeding one hundred acres, $5, those not exceeding one hundred and sixty acres, $8 and those two hundred and forty acres were to pay $10. “The firm secured the co-operation of several agents, and have been scouring the country, picking up many a dollar from farmers,” noted The Ann Arbor Courier of Friday, August 2, 1878. “They have not adhered to their printed schedule of terms for rights, but have bull-dozed what they could, anywhere from fifty cents to ten dollars for a right.”

Farmers claimed agents of the firm told them other farmers had paid the rates, only to learn later this was not the case. “Mr. Cook, Jr., of Pittsfield, says that Alfred Miller, of Saline, and Joseph Bickford, brother of the Ypsilanti Bickford, represented that several of his neighbors had paid for a right, when such was not the case, and therefore procured $10 of him. Mr. Phillip Lohr says the same game was practiced on him. Mr. C. C. Warner, of Lodi, also paid $8 for a right, and how many more we do not know: but the number is quite large for the short time they have operated,” noted The Ann Arbor Courier.

The farmers were angry for the fact that the type of gate in question had been in general use in the county before the patent was issued. This, if true, would make the patent worthless, as, under patent laws, no article is patentable unless it involves a new principle or discovery. Farmers asked Washtenaw County prosecuting attorney J. Willard Babbitt, to prosecute the suit on their behalf. He refused and further refused to turn the case over to someone else. This should not have come as a surprise to the farmers––Babbitt had a conflict of interest, as he had been retained by Joseph Bickford & Company as their attorney. At this time the county prosecuting attorney held the office while in private practice.

“In order to make a test case,” reported The Ann Arbor Courier of Friday, August 23, 1878, “they have brought suit in the United States court against two men by the name of Gardner, who reside in the township of Livingston County, and Mr. Robert Yerkes, of Wayne County. Upon the termination of these suits it will be determined if the present owners of the patent can realize from their investment.”

As suits commenced in the United States Circuit Court against some of the farmers who had refused to pay the royalty, it was important for the farmers to have the question of the validly of the patent settled. The general belief among the farmers was they had a good defense, but the cost of legal action was more than one farmer could afford. A meeting was held at the fairgrounds at Ypsilanti, where the Michigan Farmers’ Mutual Defense Association was organized. The Executive Committee of the Association had the duty to employ legal counsel for any member of the Association who was taken to court for refusing to pay the demands.

“Any resident of Michigan may become a member of the Association by sending his full name and address, with two dollars, to the Treasurer,” reported The Ypsilanti Commercial of September 14, 1878. On October 30, 1878, the president of the Association, H. D. Platt, with Mr. N. C. Carpenter, traveled to Seville, Medina County, Ohio, to meet with Mr. John C. Lee, the original patentee of the Lee Gate. There, as noted in The Ann Arbor Register on November 7, 1878, they “found Mr. Lee to be by reputation an honest, square dealing man, by occupation a farmer, residing two miles south of Seville.”

When told the reason for their visit, Lee provided all the information he was in possession of so as to place the facts before the farmers of Michigan. In an affidavit, Mr. Lee stated that his patent was “for an improvement in a gate, known as the two post gate, and that my improvement consisted in the dispensing with one post and the cross slats and in the use of a strip perpendicular with the post and slats running parallel with the gate; and further states that the two post gate was in common use in this county at the time my patent was issued.”

Mr. Lee said he had told Mr. Bagley, of the firm of Dale, Bagley & Root, that he did not claim a patent on the gate post in common use, but an improvement on that gate. He said he showed Mr. Bagley the difference between the two gates as he had both in use on his farm. “Mr. Lee,” the letter concluded, “told Bagley that if he collected royalty of the farmers of Michigan on the two post gate it would be nothing less than swindling.”

The United State Circuit Court must have agreed at least in part with the view of Mr. Lee, as it seems the court did not uphold the patent. Those who had refused to pay the royalty were right and saved their money. “Those farmers who paid royalty on their gates are now looking for redress,” noted the Ypsilanti Commercial of Saturday, November 16, 1878. “But as they paid their money simply to avoid being sued, redress there is none.”

[James Mann is a local author and historian, a regular contributor to the GLEANINGS, and a volunteer in the YHS Archives.]

Photo captions:

1. Farm gate patent “The patent Mr. Lee had for improvements to the farm gate relating to constructing a fence so that any panel along the entire fence could be readily converted into a gate”

The Skeletons of Bell Street

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:

Author: James Mann

Thomas Smith, an employee of the Ypsilanti City Water Department, was digging a trench on Bell Street, on the morning of Tuesday, January 17, 1933. Smith was in for a surprise, when he uncovered human bones above the water main in the center of the street. When Smith found the bones, these were in no order, with the skull and jawbones next to the thigh and legs.

“A box had evidently contained the remains at one time, as rotted fragments were uncovered around the bones. That burial had taken place not so many years ago was indicated by the fact that bits of rusted metal, which appeared to be screws were found imbedded in the wood,” reported The Ypsilanti Daily Press of that date.

“Several of the teeth were found in pieces of the jawbone,” continued the account. “They furthered the belief that the skeleton was that of a mature person. Although cavities were located in the teeth, no dental work was evident.”

There was never a cemetery on this site, and, to add to the mystery, Smith said the remains were found directly on top of the sewer. Dr. J. J Woods examined the remains and estimated they had been in the ground for no more than 50 years.

“An attempt is being made to shed further light on the case among the old-timers of the city,” concluded the account. Some conjecture that this may be the first discovery of an ingenious murder, in which the corpus delecti was secreted under a city street.”

The remains were turned over to Dr. W. B. Hinsdale of the University Of Michigan Museum Of Anthropology. He concluded the remains were of four persons, two men, a woman and a child. He was able to determine there were four bodies in the grave, by the thickness of the fragments of the skulls. Dr. Hinsdale said, if more of the skulls had been recovered and assembled, then the race of the individuals could have been determined.

“Some of the bones are large, indicating that the person was probably a man of tall stature, while others of a similar kind are much smaller, leading to the belief that they are those of a woman. The condition of the teeth indicate, according to Dr. Hinsdale, that the person from whose jaw they came was not older than the early twenties,” reported The Ypsilanti Daily Press of Thursday, January 19, 1933.

“No implements, jewelry or other trinkets were found with the bones, and their position in the earth led to the belief that the bodies may have been crowded into a small box in a cramped position and buried in that way,” noted the account.

Dr. Hinsdale noted that it was a practice of the Native-Americans of this region, to intern several individuals in one grave. He pointed out, that only a few months before, the remains of men, women and children were found on property owned by the Ford Motor Company near Ypsilanti. “The presence of the fragments of board,” he noted, “however, is a disturbing element.”

“If an anthropological expert had been present when the bones were taken up,” said Dr. Hinsdale, “he would have been able to determine whether the soil had been touched within comparatively recent times. He also would have made a close study of the bones in the position in which they lay to determine whether they had been placed there originally or whether the interment was re-burial.”

At the time it was estimated the individuals where thought to have died about 100 years before, it was noted, a smallpox epidemic was raging in the state. During the epidemic, several bodies were sometimes buried in the same coffin. This was offered as a reason why several persons were buried in a single box. “In a Detroit cemetery from which bodies were moved several years ago,” noted the account, “workmen discovered from positions of bodies buried during the plague that in haste to dispose of the remains, some had been buried alive.”

Part of the mystery was explained by Robert Simons of 604 East Michigan Ave., who explained, the bones were first uncovered some thirty-five years earlier, perhaps in 1896, when workmen installed the water main. He had been the foreman of the crew who had found the bones in the center of the street.

“Although he cannot recall the exact position in which the bones lay, Mr. Simons says it was such that those who made the discovery believed that there were three skeletons. The skeletons were not complete; several of the bones having rotted and the condition in which they were found made interested parties believe the bones had rested in their grave for a long time,” reported The Ypsilanti Daily Press of Friday, January 20, 1933.

At the time of the first discovery of the bones, it was assumed the remains were of Native-Americans who had once inhabited the region. Simons said no artifacts were found with the remains, which were usually buried with Native-Americans.

“The fragments of the box surrounding the bones when discovered Tuesday are explained by the fact that the workmen placed the skeletons in a container, not attempting to preserve any orderly arrangement. The receptacle was then put in the ditch, when the main had been installed and covered up again, Mr. Simons stated. No investigation was held at the time of their first discovery and no formalities were gone through when returned to their resting place,” the account concluded.

One part of the mystery was explained, but another was left unsolved. No one could say if the remains were those of Native Americans, or of pioneers who died in the smallpox epidemic. Certainly, whoever they were, they deserved a better interment than the one they received.

[James Mann is a regular volunteer at the Fletcher-White archives and a prolific history writer who frequently contributes his research to publication in GLEANINGS.]

Photo captions:

1. Bones in a box clip art

2. Bones photo (no caption)

3. Bones photo (no caption)

The Gilbert Family

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:

Author: Janice Anscheutz

Out of mixed fortunes, a lasting legacy for Ypsilanti
Part I: The Gilbert Family

The Gilbert name is familiar to most Ypsilanti residents. Many of us can remember going to the beautiful Gilbert Park on Michigan Ave. at Park Street to enjoy the riverbank, to have a picnic, or to cheer on our children playing in Little League baseball games. We keep these images in mind, even as the park today has been overgrown with grass and trees and put on sale by the city as part of the Water Street parcel.

Other landmarks of the Gilbert presence are readily apparent to those who merely visit Ypsilanti, as well as to its citizens. Cars traveling north from the Huron St. exit of I-94 pass by the imposing and currently expanding Gilbert Residence, a senior residence and nursing home founded by the Gilbert family. Those taking a train through town, or walking through the beautiful historic east side, won’t fail to notice the Gilbert House on North Grove St., the former family home of John Gilbert, Jr. Today a stylish apartment house, the building remains a widely admired architectural showplace. For many male Ypsilanti residents, it is also the source of vibrant childhood memories. Few among them nearing the age of fifty will fail to recall fun-filled hours spent in this spacious structure when it served as a recreation center and later hosted a popular Boys Club.

In light of the renown of the Gilbert name in Ypsilanti, and the legacies by which it is remembered, you may have wondered, as I have, who the Gilberts were and what eventually became of them. I hope you’ll find this account of the Gilbert saga informative, and that it will do justice to the honor the Gilbert family is due for its contributions to the enrichment of our Ypsilanti community.

The rise and fall of Major John Gilbert
The Gilbert family history begins with the life of Major John Gilbert, a resourceful man who devoted his many assets of intelligence, energy, skills and money to improving the lot of his family and community. His efforts, however, produced very mixed results of successes and failures, making his life story at once amazing, exciting, and sad.

John Gilbert was born on March 16, 1774 in the town of Lenox, Massachusetts, near Pittsfield, Massachusetts. His mother was Debiah Sweeting, born in 1745, and his father Captain Job Gilbert. The parents had been married in Norton, Massachusetts in 1769 and raised two sons, John and Thomas.

Job Gilbert was well known for his military service in the Revolutionary War. And in the book “Michigan Pioneers and Historical Society Collections,” published in 1896, we learn that he also played a role in the earlier French and Indian War. The publication’s memorial report credits Captain Job Gilbert for his actions as part of “a small band of provincials which under the command of Washington, covered [General] Braddock in his defeat and led his broken column to a place of safety.” In this battle, which took place near Pittsburgh in 1755, British and British Colonial forces had been routed by a party of French and Indians, and General Braddock had been mortally wounded. The then Colonel George Washington had been forced to take over for Braddock and, with the help of Gilbert and others, lead the British retreat.

Captain Job Gilbert was a man of many talents. He was a surveyor, worked on large engineering projects, and was knowledgeable in the operation of iron ore furnaces and the construction of mills using water power. All of these skills he passed on to his son John, who applied them in major undertakings while still a young man. Those projects and Gilbert’s subsequent business ventures are reported in a well-researched online article written by Ray Berg, entitled “Major John Gilbert–The Founder of Manchester” [viz. Manchester, Mich.] We learn that, at the tender age of 18, John assisted his father in surveying and developing a large tract of land in the Rochester area of New York State. He also studied mill operations and civil engineering under his father. And when the Gilbert family settled in what is now Syracuse, New York in 1799, John helped design and build the Onondaga furnace, which was used in manufacturing equipment for the military.

While living in Syracuse, John Gilbert met Susan Ann Haskins (1784-1873), to whom he was married on May 4, 1803. Susan’s father was Captain William Haskins, a wealthy Revolutionary War veteran who had served in that war with Job Gilbert. The young couple eventually had six children: Lavina b. 1805, Harry Hegerman b. 1807, George Washington b. 1812, Emily Louise b. 1816, John Jr. b. 1820, and Susan Ann, b. 1823. It was in Syracuse that John’s career prospered. Applying his skills as a surveyor, land speculator and civil engineer, he soon accumulated considerable wealth.

John also worked with his brother Thomas at the burgeoning salt works in Salina, New York. And, after distinguishing himself as a cavalry quartermaster in the War of 1812, where he was awarded the commission of Major, he was hired by the governor of New York, along with his father Job, to perform both surveying and construction work on the new Erie Canal in the area of Syracuse, Rochester, and Lockport, New York. It was while bringing this massive project (1818-1823) to a successful completion that John met a man with the unusual name of Orange Risdon. John hired him as a surveyor, and also partnered with him in land-speculation activities that earned both men a considerable amount of money.

We learn more about the Gilbert/Risdon partnership in the online article by Ray Berg. In 1824 the United States Congress passed The General Survey Act of that year. The act mandated that the Army Corps of Engineers not only survey but undertake the improvement of a military road from Detroit to Chicago. For this project, Gilbert was hired as a surveyor and Risdon as the survey director. While discharging their nominal duties in the new territory, the two men also took advantage of their positions to purchase some of the best large tracts. Gilbert himself was able to scope out and file land patents on prime areas for the development of mills and towns. Between May 10, 1826 and October 1, 1835 he filed purchase claims on several of these sites, which included what are now the mill pond and downtown area of Manchester, Michigan.

Gilbert also invested in large holdings of land along the Chicago Road, now Michigan Avenue, including those later developed as downtown Ypsilanti and Pittsfield Township. Other land was purchased in Jackson, Hillsdale and Lenawee Counties. Gilbert was especially interested in land that held the potential for running a mill by water power, or that lay along the soon-to-be-improved road to Chicago. In the year 1830, however, both John Gilbert and Orange Risdon returned to New York State and their families.

Migration to Michigan and business success and failures
Though he was glad to be reunited with his family in New York, Gilbert remained excited about his prospects for land speculation and development in Michigan. Moreover, he, like Risdon, was a Mason, vulnerable in New York at the time to a rising wave of anti-Mason distrust and hostility. John quickly decided, therefore, to gather his large family together and pursue his fortunes for good in the new Michigan Territory. The trip proved a challenge for a family with six children ranging in age from seven to twenty-six, who had been used to living the good life in the settled urban center of Rochester, New York.

The family left New York in the winter, traveling with horses over snow-covered roads and crossing the Detroit River in a birch-bark canoe––the unharnessed horses being brought to Detroit later by ferry-boat. While the trip was difficult enough through snow and ice, one can well imagine how much more difficult it might have been in spring, when the roads would be deeply rutted and the wagon wheels prone to sinking in mud. After arriving in Detroit, the family is said to have stayed on a while at the Woodworth Hotel, before completing its journey and finally arriving in Ypsilanti in January, 1831.

A fellow surveyor of the time, C. E. Woodard, wrote a narrative describing Washtenaw County as it looked when he first saw it in the year 1833, around the time that the Gilbert family made Ypsilanti its permanent home. The narrative mentions the Gilbert farm and the Gilbert Park area:

“It was nearly unbroken wilderness. ‘Lo the poor Indian’ had nearly abandoned his happy hunting grounds in these parts and gone west. Except in the fall of the year when he took up his line of march along his well beaten trail towards Fort Malden, Ontario Canada to receive his annuity and return. He was seldom seen. At the time of the Black Hawk War the few scattered settlers were naturally alarmed at the apparent activity among the Indians. At times hundreds might be seen camped on the banks of the Huron near the East Public Square and on Gilbert farm. [NOTES: “East Public Square” was located on the south side of East Michigan at Park Street. This is where Gilbert planned the town square and where Gilbert Park was originally located. Gilbert Farm was located at West Michigan Avenue and Platt Road.] But I do not remember ever hearing anyone ever being molested by them or even trouble by their begging food for the land. Then it was alive with all kinds of wild game and plenty of meat could be had for the killing of it. They were better off than their white brothers being better hunters….

It was always understood that our most important highways--the Chicago Road and others followed the general lines of these main Indian trails, thus admitting the Indians’ skill in their part in Civil engineering, selecting the best ground on which to locate our Highways. The main trail going through Ypsilanti was more or less used as an Indian trail down to 1834 and their camp grounds plainly marked by the ashes of the camp and the then standing of the Poles of the Wigwams. On the Gilbert farm 4 miles west of town, and which became the big Harwood farm was one of these camps near where Mr. Woodard was then living.”

Not only did John Gilbert have a large farm on the Chicago Road near Ypsilanti, but he immediately started developing his other land investments in both Ypsilanti and Manchester. Like other Masons in the village of Ypsilanti, such as Walter Hewitt and Samuel Post, he quickly became instrumental in the planning of the town and was elected the first village president in 1832. Gilbert served in this position for two terms. By 1833 he joined other investors who pooled their money for a shipping boat that would carry goods between Detroit and Ypsilanti. This venture failed, however, and John’s money was lost.

Despite this setback, and while he was still the first village president of Ypsilanti, Gilbert undertook yet another project in 1833, using his surveying and land-development skills to plat out the village of Manchester on land that he owned. His original plans called for one grist mill and one saw mill, fourteen blocks (some of which he named), one store, one house, one barn, and a bridge--all of which were near the River Raisin. In naming the village Manchester, Gilbert probably had in mind the village of Manchester on the Erie Canal in New York State (itself named after Manchester, England) where he had worked as a civil engineer during the 1820s. In any case, he was soon able to sell his platted land in Manchester at a sizable profit.

John’s next venture was to invest $500 in a million-dollar scheme involving a number of investors to build a railroad line from Detroit to the mouth of the St. Joseph River. Surveys were completed, but the scheme fell through before any construction work on the line was started. In 1837, the state of Michigan purchased the surveyed land, as well as all rights for developing and building the railway. This reversal, however, did nothing to diminish John’s entrepreneurial ardor.

Before the first train on the completed line passed through Ypsilanti in 1838, he and his son John Jr. had developed facilities ready to make money from it. By 1835, Major Gilbert, with his partner and soon-to-be son-in-law, Abel Godard, had purchased and rebuilt a water mill and dam on Water Street at what is now Michigan Avenue. The mill, which was used to produce flour, was first called Harwood’s Flouring Mill, and later Huron Flouring Mill. Next to it was a large supply and feed store, run by John Jr. This operation proved profitable in providing goods and food stuffs for the building of the new rail line.

Harvey C. Colburn’s The Story of Ypsilanti, published in 1923, makes clear, however, that not all of Major Gilbert’s planning and development investments were profitable. Perhaps his biggest failure was his vision of a new luxury hotel that he believed would be welcomed by large numbers of weary travelers passing through Ypsilanti on the new rail line. In 1837, John started construction of a palatial four-story edifice at the corner of River Street and the Chicago Road (now Michigan Ave.). Unfortunately, Colburn tells us in his book, “The main part of this hotel fell in before it was quite completed.” When The Story of Ypsilanti was published in 1923, the kitchen of the hotel was still standing, while the opulent spaces and rooms in what Colburn had parodied as “Gilbert’s Temple of Folly” had long before been reduced to rubble.

A curious side note
Here, I might note as an interesting aside a still unsolved mystery that originated less than a mile from the ill-fated hotel at about the time it was being built. The mystery was discovered by John Gilbert’s oldest son Harry, who had become something of a celebrity in the area. Colburn tells us about it in his book:

“In 1835 Ypsilanti came into possession of a mystery which time has left unsolved. Isaac Kimball and Harry Gilbert were hauling earth from the edge of the bluff not far from the site of the present Beyer Hospital [now a nursing home on South Prospect near Michigan Avenue] for the filling of a lot nearby…. Unexpectedly the spades of the diggers struck a buried timber. Curiosity stimulated their labors. More timbers appeared, and planking. The uncovering and removal of one of these planks revealed a dark hole beneath. Into this, a light being procured, the intrepid explorers descended. They found themselves in a well-built subterranean room, ten feet square and eight feet high. Seeking the proper entrance to this room they discovered a burrow leading southerly for one hundred feet, into the ravine, its opening being effectually screened by bushes…. Further exploration of the hidden room revealed a furnace and half a metal shell containing grease in which a wick was floating. These exhibits being placed before the concourse of villagers resulted in much speculation but no tenable theory. No resident, even of the earliest comers, had known of the cave’s existence, or at least would confess to such knowledge. This being the case, it was reasoned that the cave must be referred to the Godfroy period. Perhaps in the days of the old Indian trading post, a gang of counterfeiters had made the place their rendezvous and burrowed out a workshop in the bluff-side. To be sure, this theory did not explain the need for elaborate secrecy in the wilderness nor did it explain how the cave could have remained hidden from Godfroy’s Indian visitors, who must have often passed that way. So the mystery remains.”

A final fall from riches to rags
In 1835, tax records indicated that Major John Gilbert was one of the wealthiest men in Ypsilanti. His first home had been a wooden structure at the corner of Michigan Avenue and River Street, but by 1835 he had moved his family into a brick home, which still stands at 302 North Grove Street.

Unfortunately, John’s fortune did not last long after this. A final business investment proved so imprudent that, in a single plummet, it brought him down from wealthy and powerful, to penniless. In this dealing, he invested not only all the money he had, but money obtained by mortgaging his extensive property holdings, including the mill. The assets were used to purchase shares in a bank started by his son-in-law Abel Godard, husband of his daughter Emily, and by Godard’s brother, Lewis Godard. This proved to be a major mistake.

In his 1985 book Obsolete Banknotes and Early Scrip of Michigan, Harold L. Bowen identifies Lewis Godard as “king of the bank wreckers.” Gilbert’s money was invested in the Monroe and Ypsilanti Railroad Co., of which Lewis Godard was president. “No road was ever built, but provided Mr. Godard with an ample supply of bills to be used in starting new banks,” writes Bowen. With an ironic twist, he offers as an example Godard’s start-up of the Bank of Coldwater: After having crisp new bills printed and with the signatures scarcely dry, “Lewis Godard walked out of the little one-story bank building into a village of wooden stores, wooden hotels and wooden residences. At the Central Exchange he boarded a westbound stage, for the generous purpose of ‘creating specie’.… As the Cashier truly said, ‘They broke the bank the first night.’”

By 1840 John Gilbert’s mortgages were called in and his dreams for wealth and prosperity were shattered. He lost control of the Huron Mills and most of his land holdings. Earlier, he had deeded a few pieces of land to his son John Jr.

At this point in his life, the handwriting was clearly on the wall for John Gilbert. This once ambitious, resourceful, brave, and skilled man, who did so much to develop what are now the city of Ypsilanti and village of Manchester, retired from business and political life. By 1850, as disclosed in the census of that year, he was living in his home on North Grove along with his wife, his daughter Emily, Emily’s daughter, and several others. There is no mention in the census of Emily’s husband, Abel Godard, who seems to have left Ypsilanti along with the Gilbert fortune.

The poignant letter copied below, written in 1849 by Major Gilbert’s son George Washington Gilbert to his brother John Gilbert Jr., gives us a sense of just how far the Gilbert family had fallen. In it, George pleads with his brother to help him find a job in order to support his parents, his sister Emily, and Emily’s daughter. George himself was married to an Ypsilanti grocer’s daughter, Maria Ann King. Here is his letter:

Ypsilanti, March 10, 1849
Dear Brother
We have had a very sudden death in our family. Mr. King died yesterday at 12 o’clock as we were walking up from his store to his house, on arriving at Grants corner he was attacked with a fit of coughing and ruptured a blood vessel. He died in about three minutes, there was none of his family present but myself until after his death, it was a sudden and very unexpected blow to his family, the funeral will be attended at 2 o’clock p.m. tomorrow. (Sunday)

If you have an opportunity to help me to a situation on the Rail Road by applying to Mr. Brooks or Mr. McCurd you will be doing me a great kindness as well as assisting our Father & Mother being out of employment at this time and our Father & Mother looking to us for support & Emily and her daughter for assistance it has used up all of my available means. I have nothing to look to nor means to assist them with unless I can get into some employment such as I have stated. If they should wish to employ any more assistants I should ask for references as to qualifications you may refer them to B. Follett, C. Joslin or any of the business men of this place or Ann Arbor.
Yours Truly, Geo. W. Gilbert”

Reduced to near poverty, Major John Gilbert and his wife Susan were still living in their home on North Grove St. when he died on January 19, 1860, after years of poor health. John’s death came just a year before his heart could be gladdened by the revival of the family fortunes achieved by his namesake son, John Jr. That revival remains embodied in the elegant mansard-roofed mansion and park-like grounds of the Gilbert House, which was completed in 1861 and continues to glorify the east-side neighborhood across the street from Major Gilbert’s modest final residence. Susan Gilbert died thirteen years after John in the home of her son George Washington Gilbert in Detroit, and she and her husband now rest together at Highland Cemetery.

[Janice Anscheutz’s story of the Gilbert Family’s rise from ruin to renewed riches will be told in the next issue of the GLEANINGS, when we take up the life of Major Gilbert’s son, John Jr. Anscheutz is a regular contributor to the Society’s GLEANINGS publication.]

Photo captions:

1. Gilbert Mansion (no caption)

2. Mill: The Huron Flouring Mill looking south from Congress Street/Michigan Avenue.

3. 302 North Grove Street

4. The Gilbert Family plot at Highland Cemetery

5. Bird’s eye view: From an 1890 panorama view looking north-east: Congress Street is now Michigan Avenue and that’s Riverside Park in the upper left corner, so this is basically the site of today’s still-waiting-to-be-developed Water Street project. The four-story building on the east bank of the Huron River (#45) was the mill owned by John Gilbert at one time.

How did it get there? The Consolidated B-24 “Liberator” bomber

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:

Author: Fred Thomas

Nowadays an Eby-Brown Company warehouse occupies the northwest corner of East Michigan Avenue and Spencer Lane. The large facility is hard to miss. However, had you passed the same location sometime between 1946 and 1950, what you saw would have left you wondering. Parked in an orchard at this intersection was a huge WWII airplane. Around it a gateless, four foot high, picket snow fence stood guard to keep onlookers from getting too close.

It was a B-24 Liberator bomber. From October 1942 until April 1945 employees at the Ford Motor Company’s Willow Run plant produced 8,865 of them. Each aircraft required 1,225,000 parts to manufacture, at a cost of $297,627. The B-24s proved well worth the time and money. They saved countless lives while bringing hostilities to an earlier conclusion.

With 110 feet of wingspan and 4 monstrous engines facing the highway, the sheer size of this winged behemoth made it impossible to pass without notice. The question was, “How did it get there?”

One evening, late in 1945 several members of a nearby veterans’ group decided to ask the War Department for a dummy bomb to use as a war memorial. The request was denied. Thereafter a member suggested, perhaps in jest, that they ask for a plane instead, and they did. To their surprise, notification soon arrived that they would receive a B-24 to display.

Bomber 139 landed at the Willow Run airport February 26, 1946 for delivery to the Edsel B. Ford American Legion Post 379, located in a log cabin building on the south side of Michigan Avenue opposite the government owned corner property.

After an acceptance ceremony, the retired war bird was taxied to the airfield apron to await transfer to its place of honor. However, the challenge was to figure out how to move it without major difficulty, using a caterpillar tractor hitched to the nose wheel, and a smaller tractor hitched to each side wheel.

After difficulties getting out of the Kaiser-Frazer yard the first day, the slow moving vehicles traveled Ecorse Road west to Ford Boulevard. En route a wing clipped a tree which had to be cut down to clear the way. In addition, highway signs and overhead electric wires were temporarily removed so the plane and its accompanying procession of helpers could pass.

By evening the crew reached Forest Avenue. The next day the movers headed east to Spencer Lane, and the orchard location where the 67 foot long aircraft was positioned among the apple trees.

A ceremony to dedicate the plane was held May 26, 1946. Guests of honor were Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford. The American Legion post was named in honor of their son Edsel who had died in 1943. In addition, it was Henry Ford’s company that was responsible for the bomber plant. Old 139 had returned to the place where it made its maiden flight, home to Willow Run.

Life for the former sky warrior was not as glorious as it had been flying combat missions overseas. The protective fence was no match for curious folks longing to explore the interior of the aircraft. Over time souvenir hounds picked away once vital parts. Bit by bit neglect increased. No longer did admirers come to recall the valiant service it had performed supporting America’s war efforts. Finally, in 1950, the remaining carcass of the once majestic Liberator was carefully removed by workers from a scrap metal company.

As a pupil at Spencer Elementary School in the late 1940s I often stood and marveled at the giant craft. I recall being saddened when I arrived at the school one day only to find the B-24 gone. For more about old number 139 see pages 78-83 of Marion Wilson’s The Story of Willow Run.

(Fred Thomas moved to Ypsilanti in 1948, graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1958 and then from Eastern Michigan in 1965. He currently lives in Phoenix, Arizona.)

Photo captions:

1. Taken at Willow Run when 139 was transferred to Post 379 (photo courtesy of the Ypsilanti Historical Society)

2. It was a challenge to move 139 from Willow Run to the Edsel B. Ford American Legion Post 379, located in a log cabin building on the south side of Michigan Avenue (photo courtesy of The Story of Willow Run by Marion Wilson - copyright 1956)

3. Guests of honor at the dedication ceremony held May 26, 1946 were Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford (photo courtesy of The Story of Willow Run by Marion Wilson - copyright 1956)

Cruisin’ Ypsilanti

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:

Author: Fred Thomas

American Graffiti is a 1973 coming-of-age film by George Lucas. The movie is a study of the rock and roll and cruising cultures popular among post WW II baby boomers. Set in Modesto, California in 1962, the film is a nostalgic portrait of teenage life in the early 1960s told in a series of vignettes, featuring the story of a group of teenagers and their adventures within one night.

In the mid 1950s Ypsilanti teenagers cruised and listened to rock and roll music, too, much to the chagrin of their parents. Cruisin’ scenes similar to those in American Graffiti were played out in our town before George Lucas was old enough to drive.

In my opinion, the boom years of the drive-in era in Ypsilanti were 1954-1959 when the streets of our city and adjacent township were alive with cruisers. Few ventured out during the week as school or work demanded their time. However, when the weekend arrived, they hit the roads, hoping to sow wild oats. Local drive-ins attracted those in search of excitement like flowers lure honeybees gathering nectar. And, like bees in flight, carloads told each other which places were buzzin’.

As adolescents my buddies and I could only watch the older kids passing as we stood curbside and longed for the day when our turn would come to join the seemingly unending caravans of cars. Finally I reached the rite of passage. January 22, 1957 was my sixteenth birthday and I got my driver’s license that same day.

One benchmark in life is the day you acquire your first automobile. It signifies the cutting of the apron strings. Adult responsibility now belongs to you. Misuse of the vehicle can spell disaster. However, that thought never enters your mind. All you can visualize is how neat it will be to drive your own car, going wherever you want, whenever you want. Before long I bought my first car, a 1950 Ford. Thus began my regular participation in the ritualistic activity commonly called “cruisin’.”

My ego depended on that car. I could feel my chest swell whenever someone made a complimentary remark about it. Whether arriving at a local high school or a drive-in, the vehicle provided me advance recognition. Friends saw it coming and knew immediately who was driving. What follows is a summary of a typical evening’s cruise in my black Ford.

A Saturday afternoon phone call usually confirmed plans for an evening of drive-in hopping. That called for a meticulous car cleaning at Talbot’s Mobil Service at 2851 E. Michigan Avenue at the corner of Ridge Road. For seventy-five cents you could scrub your own vehicle. A friend pumped gas there, and would often assist me if business was slow.

Next a cleanup at home and a change of clothes was in order. Not to be forgotten was the extra time needed to apply a little dab of Brylcreem to my hair and assign each strand its proper place. In addition, my departures were often delayed as a reinforcing ego demanded I check my appearance in the mirror at least four or five times in order to validate “how cool” I looked!

As prearranged, two or three cohorts would be picked up. Each passenger would throw in a buck for gas. Driving responsibilities rotated from weekend to weekend, depending on the drivability of our respective autos. Immediately a consensus would determine the initial destination on the circuitous cruising route. Often it was Frostop.

Frostop is a name that at its zenith was familiar to millions. In the 1950s, Frostop experienced tremendous growth. The signature brown and yellow, neon lit stands, with their gigantic, revolving root beer mug on top alerted drivers to locations from considerable distances. Reddaway’s Frostop location at 3015 East Michigan Avenue was the township’s easternmost drive-in. Ingress and egress from either Holmes Road or Michigan Avenue made the lot conducive to cruising.

After a root beer float and cute comments to the car hops, we would head west, toward town. The next stop on the Old Chicago Road was Rea’s Drive-In at 1370 East Michigan, owned and operated by Kelsie and Roy Tillman. (See GLEANINGS, winter 2012, page 29 for more about them.) Their barbeques were on our favorites list. We would occasionally stop for one. However, the parking lot was usually full and consequently not easy to maneuver in and out of.

A quick shot across the highway took us into Covey’s Drive-In at the corner of Michigan and Burbank. A slow rolling inspection of the crowd at this curved cafe and we would be on our way, barring any social contacts, of course.

Re-entering Michigan Avenue was precarious due to a 50 mph speed limit. Crossing over to Bill’s Hot Dogs at 1294 East Michigan had to be done quickly and only after two oncoming traffic checks! Bill and Eileen Bristol opened the small curb-service-only stand in 1935 and operated it for many years. The hot dogs were delicious, but parking was all next to the highway and to exit you often had to avoid traffic when backing out. Also, Bill was not happy when cars sat too long and took up space. Besides, Bill’s employed only curb boys and they were not particularly receptive to our offhand remarks. A dog and a beer, and we moved on.

Just west of Bill’s on the north side was Cecil’s Drive-In at 1215 East Michigan. You could not miss the large lighted neon letters spelling out “Cecil’s Good Food” to passers-by. A spacious parking area provided ample room for customers. Inside and outside service was available at all hours. The restaurant was well lighted and inviting with red and yellow leather covered seating and the long, brightly polished stainless steel soda fountain. A Wurlitzer 200- play jukebox blared the latest rock ‘n’ roll songs outside, but was toned down inside. Good food, seeing numerous cool cars, and chances to meet friendly females would bring us back often to loop the busy lot.

Our stays at Cecil’s could last more than an hour. Eventually we made our departure onto US-12 and again headed west. At Ecorse and Michigan a left turn steered us to nearby Stan’s Carfeteria at 62 Ecorse. If the name does not sound familiar, think of the Elias Brothers Big Boy which it became not long after opening. The double-decker Big Boy hamburger and the Slim Jim ham sandwich were only available there. I recall prices being higher. For that reason our routine was to pull through and survey the place for people we knew. If the search was in vain, we exited.

Before turning left onto Ecorse we debated a right turn and a visit to the small Ecorse Drive-In at 161 Emerick, but generally decided to forego it, and head to greener pastures.

Another left hand turn onto Michigan and a right turn onto Prospect Street would lead us to a popular hangout, the Chick In Drive-In at Prospect and Holmes Road. (See GLEANINGS, summer 2009, p.12 and p.22 for the history of this continuing business). Following prolonged conversations with newly met acquaintances, we would head south on Prospect to the next traffic light where we turned right.

Forest Avenue took us to the intersection with Washtenaw where we turned right again (Forest now ends at College Place). Soon we would reach the westernmost drive-in, three hours after leaving Frostop and covering a distance of only about six miles. McNaughton’s, at 1303 Washtenaw was a likely place to meet acquaintances from school who lived within walking distance. This made the extended driving effort worthwhile.

The drive-ins we visited were in no particular sequential order. Where we ventured was often a result of tips other groups had given us. The last loop before heading home was normally through the Chick In or Cecil’s, as they stayed open later. The excitement was over and we were ready to go home.

Take a ride down memory lane
Take a parent or grandparent with you. Begin at the Chick In. Turn left and follow Holmes to the eastern end. Make a right turn. Frostop was at this corner. Head west on Michigan. Rea’s was near the Hana Korean restaurant. Covey’s is now a Roy’s Squeeze In. Bill’s Hot Dogs is now Bill’s Drive-In. Cecil’s burned down in the mid 1960s when it was called Barhops. I am not sure about the status of Stan’s, or the Ecorse Drive-In. McNaughton’s is no longer there. Yes, some of the 1950s drive-ins still exist, and some don’t. But, your parents’ and grandparents’ stories of cruisin’ Ypsilanti still exist in their memories. Ask them to share a few.

[Fred Thomas moved to Ypsilanti in 1948, graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1958 and then from Eastern Michigan in 1965. He currently lives in Phoenix, Arizona.]

Photo captions:

1. The author’s first car that he used for “Cruisin’ Ypsilanti” was a 1950 Ford

2. Reddaway’s Frostop Drive-In at 3015 East Michigan Avenue was a popular stop

3. One of the stops on the Old Chicago Road was Rea’s Drive-In at 1370 East Michigan, owned and operated by Kelsie and Roy Tillman

4. It was easy to see the large lighted neon sign at Cecil’s Drive-In at 1215 East Michigan Avenue. A Wurltzer 200-play jukebox at Cecil’s Drive-In blared the latest rock and roll songs

5. Stan’s Cafeteria at 62 Ecorse became Elias Brothers Big Boy not long after opening. The double-decker Big Boy hamburger and the SlimJim ham sandwich were available only there

There Has Always Been Heavy Traffic On Downtown Michigan Avenue

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:

Author: Tom Dodd

We’ve been down this road before

Michigan Avenue
US -112
Congress Street
The Chicago Road
Military Highway
Sauk Trail
Mastodon Highway

Take another look at downtown Ypsilanti’s Michigan Avenue. Take away the cars and trucks; take away the concrete and asphalt. Let’s even take away what’s left of the Interurban tracks and the paving bricks and get right down to the dirt. Now we can see footprints on the bare earth. The traffic where this thoroughfare crosses the Huron River has been coming through for centuries. Welcome to our Real Main Street.

This road is a path; a very old path
The earliest inhabitants of this Michigan peninsula traveled mostly by water and, for most Native Americans, by birch-bark canoe, along lakes and rivers. Few Indians inhabited the upland, drier portions of land––areas mostly seen while “just passing through.” Light Indian canoes were easily guided through the rivers that kept a regular flow before deforestation took place. These same routes and their portages were later used by the first European travelers.

Once on land, however, paths were created for foot travel. As those paths developed, at least a few were the beginnings of highways like downtown’s Michigan Avenue.

Some early Indian trails are still in place
Sauk Trail, followed roughly the line of present US 12 from Detroit through Ypsilanti and to Lake Michigan through the “smile” of prairie that extended across the bottom of the lower peninsula
Saginaw Trail from Toledo through Saginaw to Mackinac, part of which forms today’s Dixie Highway
Grand River Trail between Detroit and Grand Rapids, now followed by the trunk line US 16
Sault and Green Bay Trail east/west across the upper peninsula, now by US 2 and State Rte. 35

The Sauk Trail ran through Illinois, Indiana and Michigan. From west to east, the trail connected Rock Island on the Mississippi River to the Illinois River near modern Peru, with the trail along the north bank of that river to Joliet, and on to Valparaiso, Indiana. It then ran northeasterly to LaPorte and into southern Michigan through Niles, Three Rivers, and Ypsilanti, ending at the Detroit River. The trail followed a winding path along the ridges of dune and moraines that marked the earlier glacial period Lake Michigan shorelines. European settlers improved the trail into a wagon road and later into modern highways.

There are even older trails
Many will settle for tracing the origin of these roadways back to the Native Americans but some of these ancient paths were here even before that. Sections of the trail followed the southern boundary between he dense forest and the mixed grassland regions. The presence of a mastodon trailway along the same path indicates that humans may have been using a long established game trail.

Every generation of road-builders in history has had to skirt the edges of the great salt marsh between Ypsilanti and Saline. Pittsfield Township’s C. Edward Wall still harbors dreams of installing life-size sculptures of mastodons in that marshy area just east of the City of Saline.

Side roads proliferated
Narrower tributaries from the major trails cut swaths through the prairie that extended across Michigan’s lower peninsula. “An Indian trail was merely a narrow path, about 12 to 18 inches wide, permitting only single-file travel,” noted Dorothy G. Pohl, Director of the Ionia County Road Commission, in her report to the Association of Southern Michigan Road Commissions in 1997. “It was not until the coming of the white settlers, laden with supplies, that the trails were improved. The use of the packhorse was the first step in the process of widening these pathways. Branches and bushes were broken off from each side of the trail and soon it was several feet wide. Later, when settlers flocked to Michigan Territory, bringing their possessions in oxen-drawn wagons, there was a need for even wider roads.”

Henry Schoolcraft, at present-day Michigan City, Indiana in 1820, described the trail, as a “plain horse path, which is considerably traveled by traders, hunters, and others...” and said a stranger could not follow it without the services of a guide because of the numerous side trails. The Sauk Trail intersected many important trails and early roads including the trails to Vincennes, Green Bay, Fort Wayne and north to Little Traverse Bay.

Sections of the Sauk Trail still exist in some form. There is a winding road still called Sauk Trail which runs from Frankfort, Illinois to Dyer, Indiana, passing through Sauk Village, Illinois. Johnson Sauk Trail State Park in western Illinois sits on another section of the trail. Sauk Trail forms the southern boundary of Sauk Trail Woods park. When America’s first national transcontinental highway, the Lincoln Highway, was built, its route through western Indiana followed the roads built over the Sauk Trail.

Treasures found along the paths
Along the many trails, archeologists have identified over 1,000 mounds, 80 enclosures and embankments, 30 so-called ‘garden beds,’ 750 village sites, and 260 burying grounds. Unearthed along the Indian paths are miscellaneous artifacts such as arrowheads, hammers, knives, drills, hoes, spades, pipes, fragments of pottery, and large and small effigies in stone.

The ancient highway in Northwestern Lower Michigan has revealed countless Native American artifacts and campsites. Near Mesick, nearly 50 mounds have been discovered. U.S. Forest Service workers have found 150 circular fire pits near Buckley.

MSU’s Randall Schaetzl has paraphrased from C.M. Davis’ Readings in the Geography of Michigan (1964): “Those who travel its fading lanes often find themselves on a journey that leads them back in time. Faded and worn stone markers remain at certain sections of the trail to point the way down the old highway which has nearly been lost in the pages of time. The evidence that it was also an old stagecoach route is that there are tracks of wagon wheels found along certain parts of the trail. Information available at the Forest Service also states that a silver oxidated cross, which is believed to have belonged to a Jesuit priest, was found at Buckley. A sword and pieces of metal that resembled armor were additional relics obtained at the site. Records indicate that a sword and armor found at the location may possibly have been from the French explorer La Salle, who is known to have visited St. Joseph, Michigan at one time.”

Entire communities of Native American families walked these trails. The paths followed the areas of least resistance and crossed rivers where they were shallowest. When European settlers arrived, many of the trails became stagecoach highways.

Roadways continue to follow the old paths. The Michigan State Highway Department was created by Governor Fred Warner in 1905 and the State Trunkline Act came into play in 1913. Pohl and Brown highlight the 1916 Federal-Aid Road Act, the beginning of snow removal in 1918, gasoline taxes in 1925, and further legislation that created the infrastructure of today’s roadways.

In her report to the Road Commission, Dorothy Pohl’s study (with Norman E. Brown, MDOT Act 51 Administrator) on the history of roads in Michigan goes far beyond early Indian trails. Their study examines farm-to-market routes in 1805, military roads in 1816, early State-sponsored transportation improvements, township road-building in 1817, private turnpike companies, swamp land roads of 1859, and on to the 1880s impact of bicyclists.

Pohl concludes, “Many of us in the road business have heard and used the phrase that the roads just “grew” there. Now we really know what happened!”

The mastodon is our state fossil
The giant mastodon (Mammut americanum) was designated the official state fossil of Michigan in 2002. This magnificent animal disappeared from the Ypsilanti area about 10,000 years ago. One of the most complete mastodon skeletons was discovered near Owosso, and is now displayed at the U of M’s Museum of Natural History. The most intact trail of mastodon footprints (30) has been found along Michigan Avenue west of Saline across from Harry’s Furniture. The campaign to adopt the mastodon as Michigan’s state fossil was led by David P. Thomas, Sr., a geology instructor at Washtenaw Community College.

Mastodon vs. mammoth?
The American mastodon is different from the woolly mammoth. Mastodons had straighter tusks and both the body and head of the mastodon is longer and squatter than the woolly mammoth and its back doesn’t slope like a mammoth’s. Mastodons were about the size of an Asiatic elephant of today, but its ears were smaller than modern elephants. They had thick body hair similar to a mammoth, but mastodon teeth suggest the diet of a browser, not a grazer. The mastodon also lacks the high, peaked knob on the head seen on the woolly mammoth. Mastodons are an older species, originating in Africa 35 million years ago and entering North America about 15 million years ago.

“The Calf-Path” by Sam Walter Foss
One day through the primeval wood
A calf walked home as good calves should;
But made a trail all bent askew,
A crooked trail as all calves do.
Since then three hundred years have fled,
And I infer the calf is dead.
But still he left behind his trail,
And thereby hangs my moral tale.
The trail was taken up next day
By a lone dog that passed that way;
And then a wise bellwether sheep
Pursued the trail o’er vale and steep,
And drew the flock behind him, too,
As good bellwethers always do.
And from that day, o’er hill and glade,
Through those old woods a path was made.
And many men wound in and out,
And dodged and turned and bent about,
And uttered words of righteous wrath
Because ‘twas such a crooked path;
But still they followed — do not laugh –
The first migrations of that calf,
And through this winding wood-way stalked
Because he wobbled when he walked.

This forest path became a lane
That bent and turned and turned again;
This crooked lane became a road,
Where many a poor horse with his load
Toiled on beneath the burning sun,
And traveled some three miles in one.
And thus a century and a half
They trod the footsteps of that calf.
The years passed on in swiftness fleet,
The road became a village street;
And this, before men were aware,
A city’s crowded thoroughfare.

And soon the central street was this
Of a renowned metropolis;
And men two centuries and a half
Trod in the footsteps of that calf.
Each day a hundred thousand rout
Followed this zigzag calf about
And o’er his crooked journey went
The traffic of a continent.
A hundred thousand men were led
By one calf near three centuries dead.

They followed still his crooked way.
And lost one hundred years a day,
For thus such reverence is lent
To well-established precedent.

A moral lesson this might teach
Were I ordained and called to preach;
For men are prone to go it blind
Along the calf-paths of the mind,
And work away from sun to sun
To do what other men have done.
They follow in the beaten track,
And out and in, and forth and back,
And still their devious course pursue,
To keep the path that others do.
They keep the path a sacred groove,
Along which all their lives they move;
But how the wise old wood-gods laugh,
Who saw the first primeval calf.
Ah, many things this tale might teach
But I am not ordained to preach.

Photo captions:

1.Mastodon (no caption)

2. Downtown overlay

3. Indian trails of importance to Michigan

4. Major Indian tribes and trails – 1760

5. Mastodon skeletons have been found near Textile and Carpenter Roads and in the gravel pits along Michigan Avenue west of Saline (north of Harry’s Furniture)

6. U of M’s old fossil

7. Paths through tall grass prairies connected the main Indian trails

Ypsilanti History - It's a Test!

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, Winter 2011,
Winter 2011
Original Images:

Author: Peter Fletcher

1. What Medal of Honor awardee is buried in Highland Cemetery?
2. What Ypsilanti couple raised national prize winnings dogs? Hint: The breed is considered quite unfriendly.
3. Name the Ypsilanti native who became well acquainted with Bob Hope of movie fame through a mutual interest in golf.
4. Identify the four Ypsilanti brothers who were each Presidents of their respective senior classes at Ypsilanti High School.
5. Why do loyal Ypsilantians refer to St. Joseph Mercy Hospital as St. Elsewhere?
6. Many will recall the visit of Mohammed ali AKA Cassius Clay to the Credit Bureau of Ypsilanti long ago. What is the updated Clay connection now with the Credit Bureau?
7. Tell about themurder in 1951 committed by a grandson of a long time Sergeant in the Ypsilanti Police Department.
8. Former Michigan Governor William g. Milliken is considered the epitome of a perforce gentleman, yet he recently phoned an Ypsilantian he apointed to two different state offices and urged him to keep on "raising hell and stirring up trouble." Who received the call?
9. A Michigan Governor with an Ypsilanti connection was nicknamed Soapy Williams. what was his real first name?
10. Three generations of the Fink family of Ypsilanti have occupied public office. Name them and their respective offices.
11. "Festival of LIghts" was the name of what seasonal event held a number of years ago?
12. Our local teacher training college operated two lab schools with what famous names?
13. The federal draft law had to be revised to accommodate what problem created by February 29th?
14. Give an example of a "New" car concept that is really a recycling of an old idea.
15. How many local streets are named after U.S. Presidents and how many can you name?
16. Have you encountered anyone in the last year for the first time who knew the correct orogina of the name Ypsilanti?
17. Recite the saga surrounding a change in the method of picking up trash each week.
18. When did Ypsilanti change to a City Manager form of government and who was the first City Manager?
19. What nearby stretch of Interstate Highway was designed to encourage use of bike paths along the Freeway?
20. Here is the answer: "Disappointed." What is the question?

Check your answers here.

(Peter Fletcher is the President of the Credit Bureau of Ypsilanti and is widely known for his inspirational speeches.)

Samuel Post: Ypsilanti's "Squeaky Clean" Politician

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, Fall 2012,
Fall 2012
Original Images:

Author: Janice Anschuetz

Samuel Post: Ypsilanti’s “Squeaky Clean” Politician
By Janice Anschuetz

In this election year it would be an honor for any politician to be labeled “squeaky clean.” In the mid-1800s, Ypsilanti laid claim to a politician who was “squeaky clean” not only in the usual moral sense, but, in time, in a quite literal sense as well. This luminary was Samuel Post. In July of 1854, he was present at the founding convention of the modern Republican Party in Jackson, Michigan. Years later, he founded the highly prosperous Detroit Soap Company.

In his day, Post was such an accomplished, imaginative, gregarious and unusual man that his very appearance attracted attention both in Ypsilanti and Detroit. He was known for his stovepipe hat and frock coat, and for carrying a gold-tipped cane. Whether he was seen on Congress Street (now Michigan Avenue), in Ypsilanti, or on Woodward Avenue in Detroit, heads would turn and people would wonder whether Samuel was an escaped wedding guest or an actor in costume. Yet, it is said that all those who actually met this friendly and vibrant man believed they had made a true friend. To one and all, he was known as “Sam,” and no one who met him ever forgot him.

The Family Background: Samuel Post was born on November 9, 1834, in a brick home surrounded by gardens, in the middle of what is now the south side of Michigan Avenue, between Huron and Washington Streets. Livingstone’s History of the Republican Party, written by William Livingston in 1900, gives us more information about this family: “{Post’s} …parents were William Rollo Post, a hatter, and Mary Ann Pardee. Both parents were born in New York State, came to Michigan in 1830, and located in Ypsilanti, where they continued to reside until death, both dying in the same year at the advanced ages of 86 and 87. When they came westward the methods of travel were very primitive, the Erie Canal furnishing the best means of crossing New York State, and an ox team being used for the journey from Detroit to Ypsilanti. Mrs. Post’s father, Israel Platt Pardee, was a Captain in a New York regiment during the Revolutionary War and the more remote ancestors were French Huguenots who fled to this country to escape religious persecution by the Catholics during the reign of Louis XVI.”

William Rollo and Mary Ann Post eventually had four children, Lucy Ann Post (1827-1922) and Eliza Pardee Post (1832-1862), Samuel (1834-1921), and Helen Mary Post (1838-1917).

Samuel’s father William Rollo is best known in Ypsilanti history for building what was sometimes called the Ypsilanti Follies. According to Harvey C. Colburn in The History of Ypsilanti (1923), this large four-story building, proposed for a hat factory, was adjacent to the Michigan Avenue Bridge and called “The Nunnery,” based on its venerable appearance. Before it burned down in the great fire of 1851, the building was used as a school that began as The Presbyterian Session House. There are accounts of William’s bravery in trying to save the doors of the building, while flames fanned around town. William was also a land speculator, and, with his partner Judge Lazelere, extended the town plat south to Catherine Street in 1857.

Samuel’s Start in Business: William’s propensity for business seems to have been inherited by his only son Samuel. As a young lad, Samuel made a name for himself as a street merchant selling apples and chestnuts. Livingstone tells us that “At ten years of age, while attending school, he was employed by Charles Stuck, in his general store, to work, when not engaged in the school room, at $2.00 a month….” In an article in The Ypsilanti Daily Press of October 30, 1954, more is written about Samuel’s early ambitions. “His salary finally was advanced to $6.00 a month, and at the age of 16, he left school in order to give all his time to business. At the age of 21 he was earning $50.00 a month and decided it was time to strike out for himself.”

As often happened in Samuel’s life, just the right person came along at the right moment to help. On this occasion it was an interesting man by the name of Rev. John A. Wilson, who served at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. Rev. Wilson lived in Ann Arbor and had no horse, so he walked to Ypsilanti to conduct services and the business of the church. The elder Posts and their children were active members of St. Luke’s, and Samuel’s sister Lucy sang in the choir.

Samuel is said to have explained his ambitions to open his own store to Rev. Wilson and to have asked his advice on how to raise $500 to add to the $500 he had saved from his own small salary. He was so convincing in his eagerness that the kind Rev. Wilson lent the young man $500 from his own savings to be paid back, without interest, over the next five years.

The Ypsilanti Daily Press article states: “Post entered into partnership with Robert Lambie, a man who had learned tailoring in Scotland and together they launched into the dry goods business. It was successful and later Post sold [his share] to his partner and built the Post Block which housed the largest general store in town.” The Post Block is situated on the north side of what is now Michigan Avenue (then Congress Street), between Washington and Adams. In its day, it was surely one of the most elegant blocks in the county, housing both the famed Opera House and the glorious Hawkins’s House Hotel.

Family Life and Civic Stature: Samuel’s personal life also prospered during this time. In 1857, he married a beautiful young woman, Amanda “Mandy” S. Flower, who was born in New York. The couple soon had three children: William Rollo Post, born in 1858; Helen E. Post, born around 1860; and Samuel Post, born in 1867.

In 1865, the young family moved into a large brick home on West Forest near College Place, at the edge of the campus of the Normal School. Samuel’s parents and his sister Helen, who taught at the college, lived with them. Samuel had bought the home from a local merchant, Adonijah S. Welch, for $9,550. With its large lawn and gardens, it was the perfect place to raise a family and also to entertain and impress others. By this time, Post was considered a man of substance and character, and one of the most important people in Ypsilanti. He was a warden at St. Luke’s Church and a prominent and prosperous citizen of Washtenaw County.

A Career in Politics: Several sources, such as the Ypsilanti Daily Press article cited above and an obituary at the end of Sam’s life, add substance to a Post family legend. It reports that Samuel was present when the modern Republican Party was formed at its first party convention, in July, 1854 at Jackson, Michigan, under the spreading limbs of an old oak tree. Samuel was just a young man at the time, only 20 years old, but keenly interested in politics. At the convention he met the Republican politician Zachariah Chandler, a Detroit dry goods merchant, who soon became a helpful friend.

To pursue his ambitions for a political career, Samuel first sold off his share of the dry goods partnership in 1870, earning a good profit. In the same year, he was elected to the state legislature, and two years later became head of the Republican Party in Washtenaw County.

We learn more about Sam’s burgeoning political career in Livingstone’s book on the Republican Party. While in the state legislature, Livingstone tells us, Post “…was Chairman of the Insurance Committee and of the Committee on Federal Relations. As Chairman of the former Committee he framed or reported some very important legislation, including the general law under which the first Insurance Commissioner, Samuel H. Row, was appointed and virtually created the Insurance Department.” Post was also a member of the State Central Committee and attended many state and national conventions.

With growing national exposure, and the help of his friend Zachariah Chandler, who knew President Grant personally, Post was appointed by the President in 1873 to serve four years as the United States Pension Agent at Detroit. He was subsequently re-appointed by President Arthur, and served a total of twelve years and ten months in this office.

In a Detroit newspaper article, found in the archives of the Ypsilanti Historical Museum and dated January 11, 1947, W.K. Kelsey provides interesting additional information about these honored appointments: “This was considered a fat job; so lucrative, indeed, that the former pension agents had departed with the funds. Therefore Uncle Sam demanded that the holder of the job post bond in the amount of $600,000.”

That was a high hurdle even for Sam Post. “He knew he was honest,” Kelsey writes, “but the temptations of the pension office had been proved great. He consulted his old friend Daniel Lace Quirk, president of the First National Bank of Ypsilanti – knowing that Quirk was a strong Democrat and unlikely to help a Grant appointee. But Dan Quirk signed the bond for $50,000.00 which was a lot of faith in those days. When Sam Post showed Dan Quirk’s signature to other responsible men in Ypsilanti and Detroit, he had no difficulty raising the rest.”

In his History of Ypsilanti, Harvey C. Colburn sheds even more light on the special credentials required for the Pension Agent’s job. He quotes Post as saying, “Had Quirk not signed, I doubt if I could have filed the bond. There were no guarantee companies in those days and the pension office was in ill repute. Three preceding agents had absconded and bondsmen had suffered. I was a Black Republican and Quirk a strong Democrat, but Quirk put his name down for $50,000.00” It is said that, in later years, Sam would stop by the First National Bank of Ypsilanti and joke with the tellers, asking them if Quirk had $50,000.00 in his account!

From Squeaky-Clean Politician to a Squeaky-Clean Business: Samuel Post’s career as United States Pension Agent at Detroit came to an end with the election of President Grover Cleveland, who appointed a Democrat to the position. But this also freed Sam for a new undertaking. Having distinguished himself as a “squeaky-clean” politician, he now formed a squeaky-clean business, the Detroit Soap Company. Again, he started out with a partner, Digby V. Bell. But, following the early death of Bell, the company was reorganized and renamed the Queen Anne Soap Company. At this juncture, Samuel’s sons, William R. and Samuel, Jr., joined the management. From then on, the company, located in Detroit, prospered under Sam’s leadership and skills as a salesman.

A Good American Businessman and a Typical Englishman of the Victorian Age: In 1893, at the age of 59, Samuel rented out his beautiful home on West Forest to the president of the Normal College, and for 45 years it served as the official residence of the college president. In 1938, the home was torn down and replaced with a new official president’s home. King Hall, a dormitory, was also built on the site. For many years, Sam’s two beautiful and rare Camperdown elm trees continued to stand outside King Hall. There they reminded passers-by of the grace and elegance of the stately Post home, until they finally died of old age over a hundred years after they were planted.

On leaving his home, Sam took residence (presumably with his wife Mandy and sister Helen, though the records don’t make this clear) at the then elegant Hawkins’s House Hotel on the north side of Michigan Avenue (then Congress Street). From that location he commuted daily to various destinations by trolley or train. In a letter written by Carl W. Dusbiber to the Ypsilanti Historical Society many years ago, we learn something about Sam’s life as an elderly man: “He was a typical Englishman of the Victorian age. He wore a stovepipe hat, a frock coat and his jowls were garnished with sideburns…. Mr. Post lived … at the Hawkins House, which at the time was considered one of the best hostelries round about. He went to the Michigan Central Depot for his frequent trips to Detroit, he always rode in a carriage…. Sam Post was a very picturesque figure. And he was friendly and affable. He was on the vestry of St. Luke’s Episcopal…. He occupied a private pew, indication that he was a very generous contributor. I observed all these things, because around 1904, I was a choir boy at St. Luke’s and once a month Sam Post and the reverend gave the boys a jolly party.”

Samuel’s unusual appearance was commented on in the newspaper article by Kelsey: “For 40 years or more, Sam Post was a notable figure in Detroit. Strangers who passed him on the street stared at him. Who was he? A medicine man from some show? An advertiser of something? A strayed wedding guest? For wherever he went, Mr. Post was arrayed in a silk hat and a frock coat. Long after these articles of apparel had become the signs of an extra-formal occasion, Sam Post wore them to his daily work. It is probable that Mr. Post adopted this garb when he was elected to the Legislature in 1870, and decided that it was the correct attire for a statesman…. He was in no sense ridiculous; the costume became him. But it made him a marked man, so that people asked who he was, and got so they felt they knew him, saluting him and speaking to him as they passed, and receiving a courteous nod in return. No doubt Sam Post enjoyed this publicity and thought it was good for Queen Anne Soap, as well as for himself.”

A Pioneer in Creative Sales Promotion: Not only was Samuel’s appearance a good advertisement for Queen Anne Soap, but he had many ways to make sure that the public knew about, and bought, his product. Each bar of soap had a trading card inside. These are now common on eBay, and the card illustrations range from flowers and infants to farmers with moonshine. Another gimmick was that the soap was sold at a discount by the case to enterprising housewives, who in turn would keep the coupons inside the case and sell the bars of soap to family and friends. The coupons could then be exchanged for such diverse items as furniture, lamps, and even a trip on a daily excursion boat to Cedar Point on Lake Erie! My mother-in-law always proudly displayed her family’s Victorian desk bought with soap coupons.

Mrs. Addie Murray of Farmington, Mich. wrote about her childhood introduction to Queen Anne soap: “I was a small girl living in Detroit and my mother would walk with her four children to a spot known as Campans dock. We would board the Belle Isle ferry and for about ten cents ride all of a summer afternoon and evening up and down the river with the orchestra playing ‘In the Good Old Summer Time.’ My first notice of Queen Anne Soap when I learned to read was a mammoth sign located at the river’s edge, which I saw on the excursions. Then later I remember Mother saving the wrappers for a new parlor lamp or something.”

Perhaps Post’s most imaginative venture into advertising was at the Detroit Fair and Exhibition of 1899. Visitors to the fair could smell the tantalizing fragrance of Queen Anne Soap, said to be the first scented soap, and couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw a full-sized cottage carved out of a giant block of the product!

Sam’s Last Years and Legacy: After the age of 80, Samuel Post sold the soap company and also the famed Opera House in the Post Block. The Opera House was never the same after that, and the Hawkins’s House Hotel was hit by a “cyclone” in 1883 and rebuilt around 1886. The Ypsilanti Opera House was converted into a movie theater in 1918, which, according to the April 2, 1918 issue of “The Michigan Film Review,” was called the Forum Theatre. The Forum then became the Wuerth Theater, which showed silent films and held occasional live shows. The part of the building that was the Wuerth Theater was torn down in 1959 to provide space for a parking lot.

Samuel Post died in Miami, Florida in December, 1921, and, after a well-attended funeral at St. Luke’s on North Huron Street, joined his wife Amanda, who had died in 1901, in peaceful rest at Highland Cemetery on North River Street.

Today, we can remember Sam Post not only for his squeaky-clean conduct as a politician, and the squeaky-clean product he made at the Queen Anne Soap Company, but as a talented public servant who was elected to the state legislature, appointed by the governor to serve six years on the Board of Trustees of the Michigan Asylum for the Insane, and appointed by two United States presidents to head the United States Pension Board at Detroit.

Sam was also a community activist. He was a life-long member, warden, and supporter of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. As reported in the 1908 Book of Detroiters, by Albert Nelson Marquis, he was also a member of the Detroit Board of Commerce and of the Masonic Order, Knights Templar, Detroit Post No. 384.

Ypsilanti historians know Sam Post best as a colorful and productive contributor to the city’s early growth. His Post Block still stands today as a reminder of a creative vision that can continue to inspire our efforts to make Ypsilanti a more vital and attractive place to live.

(Janice Anschuetz is a local historian who contributes regularly to the Gleanings.)

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: Sam Post dressed in his silk hat and frock coat

Photo 2: An ad for Sam Post’s Queen Anne Soap

Photo 3: In 1857 Sam married Amanda “Mandy” S. Flower, who was born in New York.

Photo 4: Sam Post’s father William Rollo Post

Photo 5: Sam Post’s mother Mary Ann (Pardee) Post

Photo 6: The Post house on West Forest near College Place, at the edge of the campus of the Normal School

Photo 7: The Post Block with the Opera House and Hawkins Hotel where Sam Post lived as an old man

Photo 8: The Queen Anne Soap building in Detroit

Photo 9: Sam Post Jr. went into the soap business with his father and brother William

Photo 10: “Queen Anne Soap – without an equal as a family soap”

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