One Tower House

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:

Author: James Mann

Ypsilanti is fortunate to have so many stately homes of the late nineteenth century lining its streets. Some of these homes have been restored to their past glory and add to the quality of life. Then there are homes that can be called “works in progress.” Sadly, there are not as many of the grand homes as there once were. A number of the grand old homes have been demolished because of neglect or to make way for a new structure. A few have been lost to fire. One such house stood at 701 East Forest Avenue.

William Evens built the two and a half story frame house at 701 East Forest Avenue in 1892. He is listed in the 1896 Ypsilanti City Directory as a real estate agent. The house had a tall tower on the front west end, and a wide porch below the tower. Evens and his wife Helen lived in the house until 1899, when it was sold to a Major B. H. Rothwell of Detroit, who moved into the house in April of that year. William and Helen Evens moved to Detroit. Major Rothwell would return to Detroit to live in October of the same year, after selling the house to Louis B. Littlefield, the former sheriff of Wayne County. Successful in business in Detroit, Littlefield was elected Alderman in 1883, and later as sheriff of Wayne County.

“In those days the river front, from Gross Point to Wyandott was considered rather “lively,” and in certain localities low dives and gambling dens existed with little restriction. Cock fights, dog fights, fargo tables, road houses where orgies were held, and other interesting places, made up a rather warm combination,” noted The Ypsilanti Commercial of Thursday, January 4, 1900.

“Sheriff Littlefield made a systematic move on the gamblers and pit fighters” the report continued, "and many are the interesting stories related to his raids. When the famous McCarthy road house murder occurred he began a systematic effort to restore law and order among this class of public places, and succeeded admirably. He was an officer feared by law breakers, and was always prompt in deciding on his official course. So great was the fear of his strong hand that a number of River Rouge and Ecorse's sporting residents can even now remember taking a cold plunge into the river one night from back windows of a certain resort, when it was announced that “Louie Littlefield was in front.” Littlefield was later elected city treasurer and then retired from politics because of failing health.

“The property conveyed to Mr. Littlefield includes 10 acres, fruit orchard and buildings, and the price paid was $16,905,” reported The Ann Arbor Argus-Democrat of Wednesday, October 20, 1899. “It is not known,” the report concluded, “whether he will remain out of politics in this county or whether he will soon make a break for the republican leadership here. At any rate, the younger politicians who get into his good graces will find his political advice of value.”

Whatever reason Littlefield had for moving to Washtenaw County never became clear, as he died at his new home on Wednesday, January 3, 1900. Soon after, the house was sold to a Charles Widrig, a traveling salesman, and his wife Elizabeth. Charles Widrig seems to have come into some notoriety himself, as The Ypsilanti Sentinel-Commercial of December 1, 1903 noted: “This is the house where Mr. Widrig had his celebrated smoking den, which figured so largely in the lawsuit about the fine rugs which he bought in Detroit.”

Widrig and his wife sold the house and moved out by September of 1903. The house was then the property of D. C. Griffin. Mr. Griffin appears to have been in no hurry to move in, as the house stood empty for some time. A Martin Cremer stopped by the house on Wednesday, November 25, 1903, and found everything in order. The furniture consisted chiefly of two stoves, a gas range, curtains and cushions. Cremer locked the house as he left.

A neighbor was returning home just after midnight of Saturday, November 27, 1903, and saw the house was on fire. An alarm was immediately turned in. The fire department responded promptly and did Trojan work, succeeding in saving the laundry buildings, barns and the adjoining neighboring residences. “When they arrived on the spot there seemed to be fire in every room in the house, and the floors were falling in,” noted The Ypsilanti Sentinel-Commercial of December 1, 1903. “The origin of the fire is unknown.” All that was left of the house were two tall chimneys and the foundation walls. Everything else had burned to the ground. “There was an insurance of $5,000 on the house but this will not begin to cover the loss,” reported The Evening Times of Saturday, November 28, 1903. “There seems to be some question, whether on account of the vacancy of the house the insurance has not been reduced one-third,” noted The Ypsilanti Sentinel-Commercial.

In time, a new house was built on the site, which still stands today.

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

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: The “One Tower House” at 701 East Forest Avenue burned to the ground in 1903.

The Towner House: A Diamond in the Rough

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:

Author: James Mann

The streetscape of North Huron between Michigan Avenue and Cross Street is an almost complete textbook of the architectural styles of Michigan from the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Here are examples of Italianate Ville, Italianate, Second Empire, Queen Ann, Georgian Revival and Neo Gothic. Each facility restored to former glory, outstanding examples of historic preservation. It is hard to believe these gems suffered years, if not decades, of neglect and abuse. By the 1970's a number of people in the City were ready to see each and every one of these buildings demolished. Now, each is a source of pride for the city. There is, however, one diamond in the rough to be found. This is the Towner House at 303 North Huron, on the corner with Emmet Street.

The Towner House is said to be the oldest house on its original foundation in Ypsilanti. The crossbeams in the basement are tree limbs, with the bark still on. The house is in the Greek Revival style of architecture, the first used in Michigan, after the log cabin. The style was made popular in America by builder guides, such as The American Builder's Companion by Asher Benjamin, The Builder's Assistant by John Haviland and Beauties of Modern Architecture by Minarl Lafever. Guides included plates showing examples of the style, as well as plans and instructions on how to build them. The professional architect was far in the future.

The site on which the Towner House stands was deeded to Marcus Lane and Arden H. Ballard on February 4, 1836, for a consideration of $181.37. Ballard and his wife quit their claim to the deed in April of 1837, for a consideration of $500. The rise in price on a property is usually the result of an improvement to the site, such as the construction of a house. Lane was one of the first attorneys in Washtenaw County. He was a delegate for Washtenaw County at the State Constitutional Convention in 1836. Ballard was a builder and it was he who built what is now the Ladies Literary Club House on North Washington Street and the original section of the Ballard-Breakey House on North Huron. Each was built in the Greek Revival style.

In most accounts of the Towner House, Lane is credited with the construction of the house. The date the house was built is not known, but accounts place it in about 1837. It is likely, that Lane partnered with Ballard to build the house in 1836, and once work was completed, Lane paid Ballard his fee.

“From the standpoint of architectural history,” wrote Kevin J. McDonough, in a paper dated February 7, 1982, “the Towner House is a rarity. It may possibly be the only house of post and beam barn type construction remaining in either Ypsilanti or Washtenaw County. Its' vernacular Greek Revival style, Gothic Revival porch, Michigan basement and haphazard additions make it a unique testament to the pioneer era of early Michigan. Because it stands on its' original site and foundation it is an important link in the physical evolution of the historic environment in which it is located. It's historical significance in this respect is unquestionable”

“The low pitched gable roof with a broken pediment and entablature serving as a base are evidence of its Greek Revival style,” notes a paper prepared by Preservation Eastern. “Adding to the significance of the house are several six-over-six double sash windows. Some of these have their original glass. Later additions to the house include an Egyptian Revival doorway and a Gothic Revival porch, demonstrating the evolution of taste and style in Ypsilanti.”

On April 4, 1840, Marcus Lane died and left his estate to his wife. As executor of the estate, he had named John Geddes. On March 2, 1842 Geddes presided over the sale of the property to the brother of Marcus, Charles. Then on April 19, 1842 Charles and his wife sold the site to William Field for $400. The property was returned to Charles one year later for a mortgage of $400.

“What occurred in the next five years is not totally clear,” wrote McDonough in his history of the Towner House, “but the property was presented by Mr. Field to John S. Worden by Warranty Deed for a consideration of $675. Two months later Mr. Worden sold the property for a profit of $25. The new owner was Lewis Morey and his wife Olive who sold the property on March 6, 1851 for a consideration of $900.”

The new owner was Nancy Spencer Towner, the widow of Ephraim Towner. Her late husband Ephraim is said to have arrived in Ypsilanti in 1835, with eight children by his first wife Anna. She had died giving birth to Norman on November 3, 1816. At Ypsilanti, Ephraim married Nancy, who had several children of her own, including Jeanette.

On May 16, 1854 Norman married Jeanette. They were step brother and step sister. For a time the couple lived in Chicago but then returned to Ypsilanti. The date of their return is uncertain, but it was most likely in the 1850's. The two lived in the house on North Huron Street, after the death of Nancy. The date of her death is not recorded.

The couple had five children. The first child was Caroline, born August 18, 1856. The second child was Guy Carlton Towner, who was born on August 24, 1858. He died at the age of six, on November 17, 1864. The next was Anna Hinsdale Towner, born on December 18, 1860. Tracy Lay Towner was born on March 2, 1864. Laura Magill Towner, the fifth child, was born on January 18,1866. She graduated from the Michigan State Normal College, with a degree in the Scientific Course. Laura died in 1884, at the age of eighteen. Their father, Norman, died at the age of 79, on October 1, 1895, of an “attack of inflammation of the bowels.” Jeanette died on July 11, 1920, in the house on North Huron, and there the funeral service was held.

“Mrs. Towner was a member of St. Luke's church and of the Parish Aid and Home Association and for many years was actively engaged in church work,” noted her obituary, published in The Ypsilanti Daily Press of July 13, 1920. “The last years of her life were spent rather quietly, a sprained ankle in October rendering her unable to go about freely thereafter. She was doubtless the oldest inhabitant of Ypsilanti, making her home in this city and her life has spanned the development of Ypsilanti from a small village to its present standing as a prosperous small city.”

“A most hospitable atmosphere has always pervaded Mrs. Towner's home. Her nearest friends visited her constantly and there are many who considered her their best and most esteemed friend,” continued the obituary. “Gracious and loving and sympathetic she embraced an entire neighborhood in her affection.” She is buried in Highland Cemetery.” The three surviving children lived most of their lives in Ypsilanti in the house on North Huron Street. None of the three married.

Tracy Towner graduated with the law class of the University of Michigan in June of 1888. He joined with Captain E. P. Allen in the practice of law in 1888. After the death of Captain Allen, he continued the practice alone. Their office was in the Ypsilanti Savings Bank Building, now City Hall. Tracy Towner was mayor of Ypsilanti from 1910 to 1912.

“He was one of the most active members of the Goodfellows Organization, and every year, despite rain, snow or sleet, he could be found on Michigan Avenue, selling papers to provide Christmas cheer for needy residents of the city,” noted The Daily Ypsilanti Press of Thursday, October 14, 1943. He died October 14, 1943, at the age of 79.

“Anna was attending grammar school in Ypsilanti in 1873,”, wrote Mary Anderson, in a paper dated February, 1983, “and graduated from Michigan State Normal College in Ypsilanti with an English-Latin Course in 1880 at the age of twenty. In 1885 and 1888-89 she was listed as teaching in the Central Building of Ypsilanti Union School.” She made a career as a teacher, and died at the age of 89, on August 7, 1949.

The last of the children was Caroline, who died at the age of 95, on April 4, 1951. “Miss Towner taught voice for many years at the Conservatory under Prof. Frederic Pease; taught in the Fifth Ward School; studied at the Julliard School of Music and the Louvre Conservatory in Paris, France. She was able to speak fluently in several languages,” reported her obituary.

After the death of Tracy Towner the property passed into the care of St. Luke's Episcopal Church at 120 North Huron Street. The sisters continued to live in the house until their deaths.

In 1951 the house was purchased by Gerald Stewart and his wife, Mary. The couple, with their daughter Susan, lived in the house until 1968. During the years of the Towner occupancy of the house, an addition had been added to the rear of the house. The daughter, Susan Stewart Schoeder, later wrote of these additions, “consisting of a nice dining room with leaded windows, a garden without and a trellis with wisterian vine. Beside the dining room was a smaller room with additional two steps reaching to the stairway, and a cellar door entrance. Behind these two rooms was a kitchen with iron sink and wooden cupboards. The only counter space was a kitchen table. A small porch was in an el behind the dining room and beside the kitchen. Behind the kitchen was a sort of storage room. A separate one car garage had been added behind all this with a lovely grape vine on a fence beside the driveway.”

She noted the house was surrounded by lovely old elm trees, but these succumbed to Dutch Elm disease in the 1950's. The house, she noted, was a very pleasant place to live. “My mother furnished it with lovely, appropriate antiques. Indeed several of them were from the Towners, however recovered and refurbished. Despite the very basic kitchen, there were lovely meals prepared for serving in the dining room and on warmer days on the side porch. I remember the grapes dripping their juice into a metal dishpan to make lovely tasty jelly.”

The property was purchased by the First Presbyterian Church for $61,741.78 on July 17, 1972. This was for future development of church facilities. According to some sources, the church planned to use the site for the expansion of the church parking lot, and others claim it was for the memorial garden. The Session voted unanimously on June 10, 1974, “to tear down the Huron Street property unless the Historical Society is interested in retaining and removing it.”

The intention of the church to demolish the Towner House created a controversy that would continue for years. The Ypsilanti Heritage Foundation was founded to preserve the historic houses and building of the city. The saving of the Towner House was a major goal of the Foundation. The church leased the house to the Heritage Foundation for $1.00 per year. The Foundation in turn sublet the house to Gary Decker, who paid $100 a month. This money went to the upkeep of the property. Decker lived in the house for six years, working to renovate it. It was during these years the house was painted a dark green color. In 1981 the Foundation requested a lease of more than one year. The request was turned down by the church. The church told the Foundation it could no longer have a year to year lease, but must now accept a month to month lease. The Foundation decided against renewing the lease with the church.

A new group, The Friends of the Towner House Children's Museum signed a lease for ten years with the church on August 2, 1982. Under the terms of the lease the committee overseeing the museum agreed to maintain the house, pay all bills, provide adequate insurance and complete specific improvements on the house. Completed improvements included: Stripping off the old roof, installation of new shingles on the roof, replacing and repairing unsound wood in the roof, replacing existing flashing, installing new basement stairs and handrail and reset bathroom stool. The Heritage Foundation donated $1,800 in 1983, for the installation of a new furnace.

Students from the Ypsilanti Public Schools visited the house to learn what life was like in a 19th century home. The home, turned museum, was the site of activities for children during the Heritage Festivals during the 1980's. Teachers from the public schools volunteered their time, to teach 19th century crafts. The Children's Museum sought a $36,000 State of Michigan Equity Grant for the restoration of the house. The grant required a long term lease with the church. The request for a long term lease was turned down by the church, which then told the museum it must now accept a month to month lease. This was rejected by the Children's Museum. The lease with the church was terminated on January 15, 1991.

Over the years the church has received offers to purchase the house, with the intention of restoring it. The church has turned down each offer, and was determined to either demolish the house, or see it moved to another location. The reasons the church gave for refusing to sell the house were: it would be a substantial financial loss, it would defeat the purpose for buying the property, it would interfere with the Memorial Garden, it would diminish the usefulness of whatever property would be left of the east church yard, it would require difficult negotiations with the City over the size of the lot, it would require the approval of the Presbytery of Detroit, and it would further limit future development of church facilities.

As a compromise, the church offered help in moving the house to another location, or restoring the exterior of the original structure, if the additions could be demolished. As part of a compromise, the additions at the rear of the house were demolished in 1999. The house now came under the care of the Towner House Committee, which has cared for it since then.

Now a new chapter in the history of the Towner House is about to begin.

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

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: The Towner House at 303 North Huron Street.

Photo 2: The original log beams with the bark still intact in the basement of the Towner House.

Photo 3: The Towner House showing the additions that were added over the years to the original structure.

Photo 4: All of the additions were removed as part of a consent agreement between the City of Ypsilanti and the Presbyterian Church.

A View From Olive Street

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:

Author: George Ridenour

(A report of an interview with Joy (Walters) Hayes who lives at Cross Street Village, a senior housing complex in the old Ypsilanti High School.)

In Rockford, Illinois, in November of 1931 during the “Depression Era,” Thurman and Gladys (Kuhl) Walters welcomed a baby girl into their family. Mr. Walters had gone to Rockford with the hopes of finding a job. However, a year later he and his family came home and settled into a house at 208 Olive Street in Ypsilanti, Michigan (the house still stands). Mr. Walters took a job with Central Specialty and Gladys raised the Walters children. Right across the street stood Central School which would become Ypsilanti High School in later years.

Joy found herself on the first day of Kindergarten walking to school with her Mother. However, soon after arriving at the school she decided that “THIS WAS NOT FOR HER.” So she decided to run home and before mom hit the front door she looked and there stood Joy on a neighbor’s front porch!

Joy kept busy. She took piano lessons and studied dance from six years old into her teens. Oh yes, and one should not forget her staring performance as Anna Pavlov, for the Ypsilanti High School assembly. Joy, who was (is) rather “free willed” could not understand why she was disciplined for wanting and trying to slide down the banisters from third floor to first at Ypsi High. Darn, she would have made it if Jean Reagan (teacher) had not been waiting for her. Up to the third floor she and Ms. Reagan went, and ladylike, Joy walked every step down to the first floor.

During summers, Joy enjoyed swimming, dancing and going to the Teen Canteen. A place for Ypsi High teens to meet and enjoy records, soft drinks, and dance, dance, and dance. (Wonder if this is where she developed her ability to sweep sailors off their feet?) Other places of interest in Ypsilanti were Michos Ice Cream Parlor, being able to explore Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor on bicycles. During the winters she enjoyed sledding and when the streets were ice packed she and her friends could even skate on Olive Street. During many winters she remembers the ice packed streets more than sledding on the snow.

Asked to describe Ypsilanti during certain decades Joy remembers the following:

1931-1941: The vacations in Tawas or just staying on Olive Street. Everyone knew their neighbors for several blocks. “Very small” town feel yet kids felt safe and there were “no problems.”

1941-1951: Years of change for Ypsilanti. She was no longer allowed to go uptown without an adult due to the many people from all across American coming to work in the Bomber plant. Her wallet having been stolen downtown was a major contribution to this prohibition. Everything was rationed. She remembers standing in line with her sisters for hours for ¼ lb. of butter or bananas. Oh yeah, she loved the banana cream pie but remembers that somehow asparagus was served at the main meal (Ugh). Another change was having to lock your doors. Prior to this decade hardly anyone locked a door. Yes, during this period and especially when the bomber plant was in full productions she saw the little people who worked at the plant. Her sister as well was a “Rosie the Riveter.” One of the little people was in their own right a celeb as he had appeared in the Wizard of Oz. Her father had a two acre victory garden and gave away the produce to family and friends.

In August of 1949 she marries and in 1967 divorces after four children. To support herself she begins a career in food service at Eastern Michigan University where she worked from 1966-1994. She marries Charles Hayes in 1991. They have no children. Here again she is only eight blocks from where she started life in Ypsilanti.

1960: With all the upheavals Joy settles into work, children, home, school activities, church. Although working at EMU she does not remember the free sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Her children were not involved in “the scene.”

Today, giving her impression of Ypsilanti she says: “She feels safe and secure, school friends have remained friends through the years. Her impression, now from the vantage point of Cross Street Village Apartments (across from her old Olive Street home) where she moved in 2003 is “It’s another world.” Uptown the stores are all so different. Parades and other activities are all gone. Families used to visit and shop together.

Her mind drifts to the old Wyman and Matthews (great chocolate sodas). Of course, Millers Ice Cream, the Avon Restaurant where her family would go on weekend nites, Klucks’ Root beer stand, and the Martha Washington theater. A real joy was going to the Wurth Theater with an uncle and staying for the double feature with cartoons, newsreels and coming attractions.

Joy viewed the world from an eight block area from Olive Street to EMU and down Cross Street to the parking lot across from Olive Street. The parking lot in her day was NOT there for residents of Cross Street Village Apartments but was a playground for the younger students at Central (Ypsi High). Swing sets, jungle gyms, and a huge tree over a large sand box. No cars and little cares.

Joy remembers worrying about her girls during the events surrounding the coed murders in Ypsilanti alleged to have been committed by an EMU student. Her worry intensified as two of the victims had been in school with her daughters.

However, she vividly remembers the murder of Nurse Pauline Campbell by Bill Morey. Morey, who was convicted and served time, had a grandfather who was a good friend of Thurman, Joys’ dad. “I was floored. I knew a little of Bill. He was popular in school. Although younger than me I do remember him. I was stunned it was him because he was so well liked and a good student. People could hardly believe it.”

Joy made the Ypsilanti Press of March 6, 1935. She was three years old and was clipped to the clothes line pole in the backyard. Her mother was hanging out clothes. The Drum and Bugle Corps began to practice in the street nearby. Well, Joy got loose! She followed the band all the way over to Washington Street where the band director took her to the home of Ms. DuPont to see if a child was reported missing. Captain Ernie Klavitter said “no missing” child had been reported to the Ypsilanti Police. However, he dispatched a car to the house. Upon seeing her the policeman asked her “what is your name?” Joy replied: MATILDA JONES. Taken to the police station Joy (Matilda) was picked up by a very unhappy Daddy. They were glad she was OK but this was one day after Richard Streicher, age 7, had been found murdered near what is now Frog Island.

Joy, still active at 85, (she said it was ok to put her age in the story) remains vital, with vivid memories of home, Ypsilanti, and her life here. She continues to cook and bake for her friends and family and her desserts are always a hit at the potluck. It has been a great pleasure to share Joy’s memories and I have just one last question for her as she reads this article in the Gleanings. Do you think that sailor who danced with a young girl from Ypsi, and who really wanted her phone number, ever got over the night you swept him off his feet? Thanks, Joy!

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

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: Joy Walters in 1933.

Photo 2: Joy (Walters) Hayes grew up across the street from old Ypsilanti High School where she now lives.

Photo 3: Joy (Walters) Hayes as a teenager.

Photo 4: Joy moved into this house at 208 Olive Street when she was one year old.

The History of the Peck Street Primary

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:

Author: Jan Anschuetz

There is no street sign that identifies Peck Street today. It is the second driveway north of the intersection of East Forest and North River Street. At one time it led the way to an artesian well, now covered by a stone, which early settlers to Ypsilanti could draw pure water from until they built their own wells. In the early 1820’s the Peck family had built a double log cabin on their property, which had extended from Forest to Holmes, the Huron River to Prospect Street. The cabin was located on River Street at Peck Street. If you follow Peck Street today you will come to a large brick structure. It is an unusual shape and size, now located on the Anschuetz/Swaine property at 101 East Forest. It began as a dream of Sophia Peck who came to this area from New York in 1823 where she had been a “school marm.” The wilderness that she arrived in needed many things including a school, so after her husband Joseph established a farm, built a mill and replaced their log cabin with a large and fine house still standing at 401 East Forest, he built a brick school house called the Peck Street Primary.

The brick school house was large enough to accommodate 100 students and was operated by the Peck family until they sold it in 1850 for $40 to the 4th Ward School District which converted the curriculum of the school into a graded system and it became one of the first graded schools in the state of Michigan, as opposed to students studying at their own pace in primers. The building and the grounds that it was built on were sold again in 1866 when it was “bursting at the seams” and a bigger building was needed for the growing number of students. The 4th Ward students then went to the much larger school called the Seminary. The building and grounds were purchased by Leonard Wallington and with his father in law George George, and his brother in law Worger George helping, he converted the structure into a malt house. As maltsters they bought grains from farmers, converted it into malt, which was then sold to several breweries in Ypsilanti. In the picture you can see the daughters of Leonard and Patti George Wallington playing in the yard next to the converted school building in the late 1870s. The Wallingtons as well as the George families all lived on River Street.

About 1872 a young man, Frederic Swaine, whose family were licensed brewers to the Kings and Queens of England for many generations, came to Ypsilanti from Kent, England, fell in love and married the daughter of George George. He also invested in the malt house and within a few years he bought out his in laws - George George, Worgor George and Leonard Wallington. With his inheritance and his knowledge of the latest brewing methods, he soon added steam power to the malt house and greatly changed and enlarged the building, creating a two story 50 x 94 foot structure. His business was so successful that he rented nearby houses to store grain. He also built a large Victorian Italianate home on the property in 1875 for his young family.

Sadly, this ambitious young man died at the young age of 47. His wife, two young daughters and the bank attempted to continue the business, but the malt house was closed around 1900 and the large building was used to store ladders from the Michigan Ladder Company.

The malt house came to an end for good about the year 1912, when it was torn back to the original school section. The bricks were sold and used to build a commercial building at Michigan Avenue and the Huron River. The two additional lots that it stood on were sold and Sears Roebuck kit houses were built on them by the owners of the lots – the Lidke and Bortz families.

However, parts of the Peck Street Primary remain. The structure that now exists was once part of the school. The brick wall defining what is now the Swaine/Anschuetz property from the building to East Forest is the remains of the exterior west wall of the malt house. The present owners of the property have found two slate pencils and a slate from just outside of the school, and while installing a fence 35 years ago, the family dug up seven tombstones. Later they found out that they were used as either fill or garden stones when the George family remains were moved from Prospect Cemetery to Highland Cemetery and newer headstones were purchased. The west wall of the building was replaced in 1873 when the original school house wall fell down due to the huge quantity of grain that was stacked against it. The north side, which would have been the entrance of the school, faces what was once Peck Street. It is now a driveway. When the Anschuetz family purchased the Swaine house and property in 1971 the rotten roof was letting in rain and damaging the brick walls. All of the trusses had to be replaced and the bricks repaired. The weight of the snow and ice on the roof caused it to collapse around 1985 and it was again rebuilt.

More information can be read about the Peck family, Peckville, the George and Swaine families and the Peck Street Primary in articles researched and written by Janice Anschuetz and published in the Ypsilanti Historical Society publication – Ypsilanti Greanings, the Summer-2010 and the Fall-2011 editions.

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

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: Parts of the Peck Street Primary School that was built in the early 1800s still on the Swaine/Anschuetz property on River Street.

Photo 2: The Swaine girls with friends outside the Malt House in c1885.

Photo 3: An advertisement for Wallington, Swaine & Company Maltsters indicating that cash was paid for barley and hops.

Photo 4: Maude and Ethel Wallington with Florence Swaine with the Malt House in the background in c1879.

The River Street Saga Continues: Benjamin and Elvira Norris Follett

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:

Author: Jan Anschuetz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Captions:

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

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

Photo 3: The Follett House c1870.

Photo 4: Nathan Follett

Photo 5: The Follett Residence c1870.

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

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

Photo 8: Benjamin Follett.

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

The Parents of Depot Town - Mark & Roccena Vail Norris

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:

Author: Janice Anschuetz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Captions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ypsilanti's Dutch Town

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:

Author: Doreen Binder

(Note: This article was originally published in the Summer 2004 Issue of the Gleanings.)

My family has fond memories of growing up in the “Dutch Town” area of Ypsilanti during the 1930s and 1940s. The neighborhood borders River Street to the west, Babbitt to the north, Grove on the east, and South Street to the south with Michigan Avenue cutting right through the middle. Other streets included Parsons, Lincoln, and Park.

Woodruff School, at the corner of Michigan and Park, was a local landmark. Floyd Smith was the well-loved principal who cared for his students as family. Floyd was an effective role model for the boys in the school. Louella Parsons, Esther Fletcher, Jane Holzhauer, and Amy Hopkins Thomas were some of the wonderful teachers. Derwood Hagen, the Poling girls, and Bob Russell were some of the alumni. Derwood later served as an election worker at the Adams School polling station.

Businesses on the north side of Michigan Avenue going east from River Street started with Ken Brokaw’s gas station on the corner. Ken later opened Ken’s Bar in Depot Town. Continuing east, Dolph Thorne’s Tire and Appliance store was on the site of Lucas Restaurant, followed by the A & P store on the northwest corner of Grove and Michigan. Marsh Plating is now located on that corner.

On the south side of Michigan, early businesses included Otis Tooze’s Barber Shop, Herzberg’s Processing (we called it a junk yard, modern jargon would call it a recycling center), Steffe’s Gas Station, Russell’s Bakery, and C.F. Smith’s Grocery on the southeast corner of Park and Michigan. Parkview Pharmacy occupied what is now the party store on the south side of Michigan Avenue. My dad, George Binder, partnered with Bernard McLlhargie and bought the pharmacy. The pharmacy was locally called McLlhargie & Binder drugs where I spent many hours serving sodas and helping dad. Later, John Kealy’s Bakery replaced Russell’ Bakery. John’s glazed donuts were memorable.

Additional businesses included Al Holzhauer’s Print Shop, Max Bitker’s Dry Goods, and Emil Batchelor’s Meat Market where neighbors bought fresh meat daily. What is now the Bomber Restaurant was started by the Baldwin family and was known as Mrs. Baldwin’s Restaurant. During World War II, the family changed the name to the Bomber. The house that stood to the east of the small building that was Al’s Barber Shop was Clarence Tyrell’s Plumbing Shop. Clarence taught his customers how to do repairs and he had every plumbing part a customer could ever need that only he could find. Clarence even made labor free house calls for his Dutch Town neighbors. The plumbing shop building burned and was demolished as a consequence of the fire in 2004. Carrie Chadwick’s Piano store occupied the southeast corner of Grove and Michigan where the Mida’s Muffler is now located.

In 1935, a State Police Post was erected on the southwest corner of Michigan and Park. The first commander was Frank Walker. The good looking troopers brought a new look to the area. The building became a rug market and was demolished as part of the Water Street development. Gilbert Park, on the south side of Michigan Avenue and between Park Street and Lincoln Street, was the center of summer activities for the neighborhood kids. There were band concerts in the summer as well as supervised playground activities. Summer ended with a friendly tournament with kids from all the City supervised playgrounds competing. Gilbert Park was sold by the City of Ypsilanti during the 1960s for economic development that featured an Arlens Department Store.

Dutch Town families included the Thumns, Beggers, Harners (Ev, Harp, and Win), Horns, Hipps, Reddaways, Hinschs, Croghans, Parkers, Thibodeaux, Mayos, Malcolms, Hines, Tuckers, and others. With his automotive dream, Preston Tucker became the most famous Dutch Town resident. Bob Mayo delivered newspapers to Dutch Town residents during the 1950s. Carl Hipp grew up on Michigan Avenue between Park and Grove and was always eager to share his stories of the area. Carl moved up near North Congress and Wallace and died some time ago in his late nineties.

Within the small town of Ypsilanti, Dutch Town was a district residential community served by a full service business district. The local businesses provided all of the needs and services a family could want. The families gave me warm memories of my childhood. As is the same story everywhere, the small businesses lost out to supermarkets and large chain stores. With the loss of businesses, Dutch lost its identity and is only remembered by us old timers.

(Doreen Binder, now retired, was a teacher and principal for forty-two years and is a life long resident of Ypsilanti.)

Photo Captions:

1. Doreen Binder at three years old in front of the drug store.

2. George Binder in front of store (c. 1935).

3. Dutch Town parade (c. 1940).

4. Corner of Park and East Michigan Avenue

Warren Lewis and his famed Auction Sales Pavilion

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

Author: James Mann

Warren Lewis started out his career as a circus barker. According to an article in the February 5, 1941 issue of a local paper, “Mr. Lewis’ father, W. H. Lewis, operated a chain of hotels including the famous Follett House and the Oliver House at the Depot. There the circus and show people stopped and early in life Mr. Lewis mingled with them. He joined the John Robinson Railroad Show from Cincinnati when they stopped in Ypsilanti. The shows unloaded and loaded at the Deubel Mills and from his window, Mr. Lewis, then past 15, watched and made up his mind to join them. Mr. and Mrs. Gill Robinson, part owners of the circus, stayed at the Follett House and after Warren was discovered with the show, Mrs. Robinson looked after him in a motherly way. Mrs. Robinson was the daughter of “Wild Bill” Hickok, of Western fame.” Lewis had become disabled at age 11 when he lost his left hand above the wrist.

According to other sources Lewis not only traveled with circuses all over the United States but also spent considerable time in Europe with the Barnum and Bailey Circus. According to an article in the October 30, 1954 Ypsilanti Press, “His happiest days were those with the Barnum circus where, as chief barker, he road atop the leading wagon in the old time parade and warned, “Watch your horses, the elephants are coming.’” Lewis married one of the “best bareback riders of her day” and together they owned “Hamptons Great Empire and Warren Lewis’s Two Ring Circus.” The show consisted of two railroad cars when they started out but in 1917 when he sold the show it consisted of 22 railroad cars.

Today Warren Lewis is best remembered as the manager of the Lewis Horse Exchange, a gambling den he operated in Depot Town during the early years of the 20th Century. Gamblers rode the Interurban from Detroit during the racing season to place their bets on the races. This activity received a great deal of attention at the time, until it was closed by order of the governor in 1911.

Yet during his lifetime Lewis was best known for his skills as an auctioneer. He may have been the first to sell an automobile at auction. It was said, if there was anything he had not auctioned a new addition of the dictionary would have to be issued to include it. Lewis resided at the house at 204 North Street, and owned a large tract of land around the house. This property was bounded by North Street, the Michigan Central Railroad sidetrack on Lincoln Ave. and Babbitt Street. On this property Lewis announced he was planning to build an auction sales pavilion. “The sales pavilion will be built adjoining the Michigan Central sidetrack which passed over Mr. Lewis’ property. This insures the best of shipping facilities for those who will send stock here to dispose of at auction and to buyers who may wish to ship out their purchase,” reported The Ypsilanti Daily Press of Saturday, March 21, 1908.

“The pavilion will be built with glass sides and wholly enclosed,” continued the account. “The seats will be amphitheater style with a ring as in a circus where the stock will be in plain view of everyone when it is under the hammer. There will be an auctioneer’s stand and cashier’s desk. The sales will be conducted summer and winter and in order to make it thoroughly comfortable in cold weather, the pavilion will be equipped with a steam heating plant. There won’t be anything small or cheap about the whole affair. It is designed to be one of the auction centers of the country and a leading attraction of the city.”

The pavilion was principally designed for the sale of horses and cattle. “I propose to pull off some of the big farm auction sales there too,” said Lewis. “It will be central and farmers can bring in everything they have to offer.”

The auction sales pavilion must have been a success, as Lewis added a second pavilion some twelve years later. “The new pavilion has a Michigan (Central Railroad) siding and loading shoot and about 8,900 feet of floor space and will accommodate 20 automobiles or vehicles, large consignments of house furnishings, general merchandise, and will be an excellent place for holding stock sales,” reported The Ypsilanti Record of Thursday, April 22, 1920. “It faces the D. U. R. tracks (Interurban) on Michigan Avenue and will also serve the farmers who wish to dispose of their farm products of live stock, or farm machinery which they wish to bring for private or public sale, with little or no expense to them, in fact, they can advertise and conduct their own sale.”

Lewis was known throughout the United States and Europe for his auctioneering skills. M. Cummings, editor of a big auction journal in Chicago published the following comments: “America has had many really great auctioneers who have made fame and fortune usually specializing in some particular line of sales. Warren Lewis is the greatest all around auctioneer on earth. The reason for this is he can become an expert on any kind of a sale, selling on a few minutes’ notice. Our files in this office show that he specialized with the top liners for several years before he stepped out in the champion class of all around auctioneers and is now in a class by himself. Besides conducting larges sales Warren Lewis is an instructor in the art of auctioneering at his large home auction studio in the college city of Ypsilanti, Michigan. The writer is thinking that if anyone can give fundamental principles and teach auctioneering in all its branches Warren Lewis is the man.”

Lewis sold the auction grounds to the Ward Company of Jackson on Friday, May 28, 1937. The new owners planned to remodel the buildings and set up a buying and shipping business. “The grounds have been a landmark for many years,” noted The Ypsilanti Daily Press of Friday, May 28, 1937, “and many deals, starting with horses in former days and progressing to automobiles in recent times have been transacted.”

Today there is nothing of the auction pavilion to be seen. All that remains is the house where Lewis once lived.

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

[Photo caption from original print edition]: Warren Lewis enjoyed the attention he received because of his jaunty attire and the fact that he usually carried a cane

[Photo caption from original print edition]: The Warren Lewis Auction Sales Pavilion was located at 204 North Street where he owned a large tract of land around the house

Peck Street: A Story of Broken Dreams!

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

Author: Janice Anschuetz

All that remains of the hopes and dreams of a family of 19th century English immigrants to Ypsilanti is a brick building, used as a garage since the 1920s, and an adjoining brick wall. If those remaining structures could talk, they would tell an interesting and sad tale of misfortune that must sound familiar to many investors and business people today.

The small garage, now standing about 100 feet east of the old historical home at the northeast corner of River Street and East Forest, started life as the second school founded in Ypsilanti. Built in 1839 by Joseph and Sophia Peck, and named the Peck Street Primary, it was situated a small distance across from the original Peck homestead built in 1824. The Peck home was located on what was then called Peck Street, now a driveway off North River on the property of the historical home later constructed there.

Reportedly, Sophia Peck had served as a “school marm” in the Pecks’ native state of New York, and, believing in the value of a good education, had encouraged her husband to build the school in Ypsilanti. As it happened, the Peck Street Primary flourished, and in 1850 it was sold to the 4th Ward School District for $40. It then became one of the first “graded” schools in Michigan, which meant that students attending it advanced from grade to grade based on performance standards, rather than simply using textbooks to learn skills at their own pace. By 1866, the small graded school was bursting at the seams with 99 pupils, and the school board decided to replace it with a larger four-room building at the corner of Prospect and Oak. That new school, named the 4th Ward School, was eventually built in 1878.

The story of the original Peck Street Primary continues with a man named George George, who had immigrated with his family to Ypsilanti from Kent, England in 1863. George purchased the defunct Peck Primary and, with the help of his son Worger George and son-in-law Leonard C. Wallington, converted it into a small malt house. Ypsilanti was home to several breweries at the time, and malt was essential to the industry. It was made from barley bought from nearby farmers, which was sprouted in the malt house, with the help of steam equipment, and dried. The resulting malt was then supplied to the breweries, where it was combined with yeast, hops, and other constituents as a basic ingredient for brewing fine beer.

A further turn in the story came with the arrival of a visitor to the George family from the town of Dorset, in Kent, England. This was a “cousin” of sorts by the name of Frederick John Swaine, who had come to the United States to “seek his fortune.” Taking a shine both to Ypsilanti, and to the daughter of George George, a young beauty named Eliza (called Lizzie), Swaine decided that this was the place he wanted to stay and invest his inheritance. He married Lizzie in 1874, became a partner in the malt business with her family, and built a fine home just west of the malt house. That home is now proudly occupied by the writer of this piece and her husband, nearly a century-and-a-half later.

From Orphaned Baby to Successful Businessman and “Father of Classical Music in Michigan”

Frederick Swaine was orphaned as a one-year-old baby and raised by relatives in Kent, England, where he was well educated. He spent part of his childhood living with an uncle in a palatial homestead -- Lympne Castle, near Romney Marsh, in Kent. His father and grandfather were considered to be among the finest brewers in Great Britain, and had been licensed for several generations to brew beer for the royal family. It was no wonder, then, that young Frederick found himself drawn to the George family and their malting business. In them he could make real his dreams of winning his fortune in America.

After their marriage, Frederick and the former Lizzie George moved from the George/Wallington residence at 627 North River to their fine new home at what is now 101 East Forest. There they soon became pillars of Ypsilanti’s gentile society. Frederick bought out his partners in the malt business and greatly enlarged the malt house. The new structure, which measured 50 x 94 feet and was three stories high, now fronted East Forest Avenue rather than Peck Street. What had once been the entire Peck Street Primary had become the steam room for the malt house. On stationary and business cards, Frederick Swaine presented himself as “Maltster and Dealer in Barley, Malt and Hops.”

The Swaine business thrived. With his savvy, drive, and investment capital paving the way, Frederick increased the sales of beer grains from 11,000 bushels in 1874 to 40,000 by 1880. In addition, his education, talents, and interests added much to the growing Ypsilanti community. He became a good friend of Frederick Pease, who founded the music program at the Normal College (now Eastern Michigan University). The relationship was so close that, after Pease had carefully selected a fine rosewood square grand piano for the Normal school, Frederick Swaine purchased an identical one for the parlor of his home. [That piano has since been restored by the present owners of the home and still stands in the same parlor in all its original stately grace.] By the end of his life, Swaine’s influence on the music program at the Normal College, his patronage of local concert halls, and his various roles as a gifted actor in Gilbert and Sullivan plays in the Ypsilanti Opera House had brought him such recognition that he was characterized in his obituary as “The Father of Classical Music in Michigan.”

The Dreams are Shattered

Regrettably, as we see happening all around us today, economic vicissitudes have a way of shattering the dreams of even the best businessmen. Frederick Swaine would come to suffer the same fate in his day.

His malt business continued to thrive until the mid-1890s. But its future was always uncertain, since it depended on the willingness of local breweries to pay a price for his products high enough to cover the costs of the barley and hops he bought from farmers, and still allow a profit.

In Frederick Swain’s case, it happened that, when his huge three-story malt house had been gorged with produce purchased with money borrowed from the Ypsilanti Savings Bank, a supplier in Kansas City, Missouri offered the breweries in the area grain products at a price three cents a bushel less than Frederick could sell them for. The breweries quickly changed suppliers and left him in dire economic circumstances. He had borrowed heavily from the bank to fill the malt house, and now found himself $16,000 in debt. He died suddenly soon afterwards, without a will, in April, 1897.

Swaine’s obituary tells us much about his death, as well as his life. The cause of his death at the age of 47 is cited as “nervous prostration.” This was a Victorian term for a nervous breakdown, which was then thought to have a physical basis as a “disease of the peripheral nerves.” Most likely, this successful young man died from great frustration and worry caused by his inability to figure out a way to save his home, business and family from a weighty burden of debt.

In the obituary, which was published in the local papers of the time, Frederick is described as an honest man, well read, interested in politics, charitable, an initial organizer of the Ypsilanti Musical Union, choir director of the German Lutheran Church, an actor and singer, a student of the German language, and a devoted husband and father. The obituary states that “While Mr. Swaine has not been well for months, he did not finally give up until the Sunday before his death, at which time it was found impossible to build up the nervous system. Nervous prostration, resulting in congestion of the brain, was the immediate cause of death.”

The Ypsilanti Savings Bank appointed its own Robert Hemphill as administrator of the heavily indebted estate. Hemphill quickly published a newspaper article indicating that he would continue to operate the business of buying and selling grains for brewing. “As administrator of the estate of the late Frederick J. Swaine,” Hemphill wrote, “I am requested by the heirs of the estate to say that the business of buying barley and manufacturing and securing malt will be continued by me for them, so that parties having barley to sell can depend on getting the highest market price at the old stand, corner of Forest and River street, Ypsilanti, and orders for malt will at my hands receive prompt attention, and customers may depend on the same courteous treatment in the future as in the past.” This newspaper article was dated one week after Swaine’s death – April 21, 1897. The business continued under Hemphill’s supervision until November, 1904, when it was “closed out” with the sum of $4,000 still owed to the bank.

This sad story of broken dreams continues with a court case against Robert Hemphill brought by Frederick’s widow, Lizzie, and his two daughters. The women argued that the amount of $4,000 supposedly owed the bank was fraudulent and should be set aside. They contended that Hemphill either should have sold the business when Frederick died or run it year by year only if there were a profit and not a debt. The case eventually went to the Michigan Supreme Court, where, on May 8, 1911, its opinion was rendered and published.

The summation of the case indicates that Mrs. Swaine put the entire amount of the insurance money granted to her after her husband’s death - $5,650 – into the business, and, further, that the business paid out to her and her daughters nearly $9,500. It also notes that men employed at the malt house did work at the Swaine home and that the home was heated by the malt house (probably excess steam). The judges determined that the Swaine women and Mrs. Swaine’s brother were aware that the business had lost money in the fourth year, but were part of the decision making process to continue to operate the business, along with Hemphill, and so they were equally culpable in the loss.

The published decision in the case states that “the losses during the latter part of the operation appear to have been caused in part … by competition with large manufacturers of malt, who sold at prices so low that this small plant could not make a profit of it .…” It further describes the widow’s efforts to save the situation: that she daily traversed the one-hundred feet from her home -- which she was in danger of losing to the bank -- to the malt house, in order to inspect the books, and that she had asked her brother, also in the malt business, to come from Kansas City to try to help save the business and the livelihood it provided. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court decision denied both the case brought by the Swaine women, and any claims made by Swaine’s widow, in favor of Robert Hemphill, who had once been a friend of the family.

In an insurance map of 1909, we find that the building that had originated as the Peck Street Primary and then become a malt house is in use as a storage area for ladders – probably by the nearby ladder company on East Forest Ave. In 1912, the same property, then owned by a carpenter, George Jackson, was torn down, except for the part that was the original Peck Street Primary, and the bricks sold and used to build the interurban barns on Michigan Avenue near River Street. The two lots on which the expanded malt house once stood were sold, and Sears and Roebuck homes were built on them by the Lidke and Bortz families. In a final change, what was once the Peck Street Primary school, which educated hundreds of Ypsilanti children, was turned into a garage, and a brick wall now defines what had been the west wall of the building.

Frederick Swaine’s widow Eliza and her two daughters, Florence and Jesse Swaine, were able to save their home and enjoy it for the rest of their long lives. Jesse died in the same room and bed in which she had been born some 89 years earlier. Both daughters, who grew up on the same property as the Peck Street Primary, became teachers and influenced many a young life in Ypsilanti, Wayne and Detroit, helping make good on the vision of Joseph and Sophia Peck when they first opened Ypsilanti’s second school.

The son of Worger George (Frederick Swaine’s brother-in-law and former business partner), Edward Shutts George, was also interested in education and served on the Ypsilanti School Board for many years. George School, on Ecorse Road, is named for him. As a child, Edward would have played with his cousins, Florence and Jesse Swaine, at the site of the Peck Street Primary, which had been founded in 1839 to provide a basic education to children in the frontier wilderness of Ypsilanti.

If buildings could talk, the modest brick structure that still remains about 100 feet east of the Swaine House at Forest and River – though three walls have fallen down and been replaced, and it now serves only as a prosaic garage -- would have a poignant story to tell. Hearing it, we could surely learn even more about the hopes and dreams of English immigrants to the new world, and of fortunes won and lost.

(Janice Anschuetz is a local historian who is currently researching and writing her third book – a history of one of her ancestors and their role in the shaping of England and America.)


Photo 1: Peck Street Primary at the left with the daughters of Frederick Swaine’s partner, L. C. Wallington – Maude and Ethel May, with Florence Swaine on the right

Photo 2: Maude and Ethel May Wallington outside the Malt House in the snow

Photo 3: The Malt House fronting East Forest. Worger George in front with a shovel

Photo 4: Eliza (George) Swaine

Photo 5: Frederick Swaine

Photo 6: Lympe Castle and Church in Kent where Frederick Swaine grew up as a boy

Photo 7: Malt House connected to Peck Street Primary. Part of the West wall remains as a brick wall today, as does the Peck Street Primary. This shows the first cement sidewalk in the City of Ypsilanti that the town cows liked to walk on while going to pasture at the river

Photo 8: Florence and Jesse Swaine and friends outside the Malt House in a donkey cart.
The Swaine house is to the left

Local Historic Districts

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

Summer 2011

Author: Michael R. Newberry

Local Historic Districts
By Michael R. Newberry
Local Historic Districts are a point of pride in a community. Neighborhoods in a local Historic District tend to maintain property values better than comparative neighborhoods located outside of the Historic District. Because they are often comprised of residents concerned with the preservation of examples of quality workmanship and construction, and because they are guided by a commission that upholds standards provided by The Secretary of the Interior, Historic Districts often look better and possess a more unified community than surrounding areas. Residents are rewarded for approved home improvements through State and Federal Tax Credits for Rehabilitation, and pleasant-looking, unified communities often experience lower crime rates in their area as a result.

Ypsilanti currently has the third largest Historic District in Michigan, and this city possesses many examples of valuable architecture within and outside of its current Historic District boundaries. Current neighborhoods within the Historic District include the Historic South Side Neighborhood, the Historic East Side Neighborhood (including Depot Town), Downtown Ypsilanti, and the Riverside Neighborhood. There are many houses and neighborhoods of historic merit that exist outside of the current Historic District, that currently do not receive all of the benefits that are experienced within the District. If Ypsilanti were to consider the creation of four additional Historic Districts, more beautiful neighborhoods could receive these valuable benefits, which could arguably increase the desirability of Ypsilanti, Michigan for home ownership.

Four Ypsilanti neighborhoods possess character traits that would make them excellent candidates for additional Local Historic Districts. Midtown Neighborhood, Woods Road Neighborhood, Normal Park Neighborhood, and College Heights Neighborhood possess unique characteristics that would make them valuable assets to the community as individual Local Historic Districts. Because Local Historic Districts must establish a period of significance, each neighborhood benefits from a focused range of years considered historically significant in their particular neighborhood. This reinforces the notion that all historic homes have the same merit, because they fall within a time period significant to our local, state, or national history. Thus, a ranch house from the 1950s is just as important and worthy of preservation as a Greek Revival farmhouse from the 1840s.

Furthermore, if the current Local Historic District were to be divided into its component parts, and each neighborhood association currently within the District were considered its own Local Historic District, such an act would serve to encourage partnerships with the individual neighborhood associations and its community members. Such partnerships would aid in the dissemination of information in an effort to educate the community, and it would help further market and define each neighborhood in its own unique way. Essentially, each Local Historic District (neighborhood association) would be in compliance with a basic set of standards, but they would also have their own tailored standards that meet their unique, architectural, and aesthetic needs. Such standards would also enable the Historic District Commission to better serve the community because they would be able to narrow their focus to standards that are tailored to a specific neighborhood. For example, the needs of a homeowner seeking to renovate a 1950s ranch house are very different than the needs of a homeowner renovating an 1860 Italianate home. Effective communication and direct guidance could be provided by the Historic District Commission to homeowners in distinctly separate Local Historic Districts.

Granted, much footwork would have to be done to establish these new Local Historic Districts, but much footwork has already been done. Graduate students at Eastern Michigan University’s Historic Preservation Program documented and photographed much of Normal Park and College Heights in the mid 1990s. These documents have been preserved and are available to the public here in the Ypsilanti Archives, waiting to be compiled into a report that would advocate for the creation of a Normal Park Historic District and a College Heights Historic District. Below are small overviews of each of the four neighborhoods that would make ideal Local Historic Districts. Each overview contains a map of the neighborhood boundaries along with an example of the different house types encountered in each neighborhood.

Midtown Neighborhood: Nestled south of Eastern Michigan University and west of downtown Ypsilanti, Midtown Neighborhood is the oldest of the four neighborhoods that could be proposed as a Local Historic District, and it is largely composed of homes from the Victorian period. The Midtown Neighborhood Association is bounded on the South side by West Michigan Avenue, on the East side by North Hamilton Street, on the North side by Washtenaw Street, and on the West side by Summit Street.

Woods Road Neighborhood: Woods Road Neighborhood is comprised of 46 houses located on Linden Court, a cul-de-sac directly south of Recreation Park, and the rectangular diverticulum of Woods Road and Pleasant Drive. The majority of the houses in this neighborhood are wood frame structures from the 1930s. There are also masonry and stone houses in various revival styles to include one English Medieval Revival designed by Ralph S. Gerganoff. Linden Court is comprised almost entirely by wood framed English Tudor Revival homes.

Normal Park Neighborhood: Approximately 700 houses comprise the Normal Park Neighborhood Association. Known for its 1920s and 1930s Colonial Revival homes, various kit homes, Bungalows, Craftsman, and English Tudor Revival homes, Normal Park is a unified community with many excellent examples of highly maintained historic homes. The neighborhood is bounded on the South side by Congress Street, on the East side by the west side of Summit Street, on the North side by the south side of Washtenaw Avenue, and on the West side by Mansfield Street.

College Heights Neighborhood: The newest of the four neighborhoods that should be proposed as a Local Historic District, College Heights is known for its post-war ranch style homes and English Tudor Revivals. This neighborhood was among the first in Ypsilanti to abandon the grid system in favor of the non-linear neighborhood street layout reminiscent of 1950s suburbia. College Heights is bound on the South side by the north side of Washtenaw Avenue, the East side by Oakwood Street, the North side by Ainsley Street, and the West side by Bellevue Street. The proposed Local Historic District boundaries for College Heights might be bounded as it existed in 1952: on the South side by the north side of Washtenaw Avenue, the West side by Cornell Road, the North side by Collegewood Drive, and the West side by the east side of Oakwood Avenue.

(Michael Newberry is a graduate student in the graduate program in Historical Preservation at Eastern Michigan University. He just completed an Internship in the YHS Museum.)

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: The current Historic District in Ypsilanti is the third largest in the state of Michigan.

Photo 2: The Midtown Neighborhood is south of Eastern Michigan University and west of downtown Ypsilanti.

Photo 3: The Midtown Neighborhood is composed mostly of homes from the Victorian period.

Photo 4: The majority of the houses in the Woods Road Neighborhood are wood frame structures from the 1930s.

Photo 5: There are masonry and stone houses in the Woods Road Neighborhood in various revival styles including thisEnglish Medieval Revival designed by Ralph S. Gerganoff.

Photo 6: The Normal Park Neighborhood is known 1920s and 1930s Colonial Revival homes, various kit homes, Bungalows, Craftsman, and English Tudor Revival homes.

Photo 7: This home at 311 North Wallace Boulevard was built in 1921.

Photo 8: The College Heights Neighborhood is known for its post-war ranch style homes and English Tudor Revivals.

Photo 9: This home at 703 Cambridge Street was built in 1952.

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