Providing for the Family During the Great Depression: An interview with Virginia Davis-Brown

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:

Author: Eric Selzer

Virginia Davis Brown has been active with the Ypsilanti Historical Society since 1980. She has served as a volunteer and been a member of the Board of Trustees for over four decades. She was born in Washtenaw County in 1925 and grew up in the 1930s, during the height of the Great Depression. Last autumn, Mrs. Davis-Brown discussed some of her most vivid childhood memories in a tape-recorded interview that is currently on file in the Society Archives in conjunction with an ongoing oral-history project.

Virginia, could you tell me a little bit about your home life experience?

My dad, Frank Jr., was a builder and worked on several buildings in the Ypsilanti area. He helped build the Huron Hotel. He was not wealthy, but had enough that we could build a house. So he bought property out on Michigan Avenue near Hewitt Road and built a house, never completing it, because when the depression came the banks closed and there was no money. He had absolutely no money, no job, and did not work for two years. He had children to keep fed and warm ... And so, we had to grow our own vegetables, our own food. We always had chickens, so we always had eggs. My dad went hunting almost every day for food and he would come home with squirrels and rabbits and raccoons and my mother, Helen, would can them. There were not that many deer in this area ... but the everyday things were the rabbits and the squirrels and the raccoons. And my mother would can anything that he brought home, so we would have enough food to carry us through in the winter, because there was no money
for food. There was no way of getting [food] except walking the two miles into Ypsi to buy the necessary things that we could not raise on our own.

There also were men who walked up Michigan Avenue coming from Chicago and going to Detroit that had no food and they would stop at certain houses. My mother always had an egg sandwich for them and they always said, “thank you,” and wanted to help. Sometimes they’d see if they could help do something around the house to pay for what they had received and then they would continue on their way. They always said, “thank you.” They were always very, very polite. My dad eventually lost the house. He borrowed money on it and was not able to pay it back and so they foreclosed and we had to move.

What sort of attempts did your father make to find employment during those two years?

Well, he tried a lot of different places, but there were just no jobs for anybody. The government was just starting with the Works Progress Administration and he did apply for that, but did not take it. He was a builder and so if he was not out hunting, he was out collecting willow and made furniture. He had a few nails and we had all kinds of furniture. He sold some, but not much because not many people had money. But he was very, very busy trying to keep up with the garden. And we had to grow enough food to carry us through the winter. We would buy flour, so we would have flour enough to carry us through in the winter to make bread and biscuits and other things that we would need the flour for. We made all of our own bread. We had no idea what it was to have bought bread.

Primitive Open Hearth Trammel

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:

Author: Peter Diehr

(The Trammel with hooks and chain were found on the old Kelly Farm at 6170 Whittaker Road in Ypsilanti Township, Washtenaw County, Michigan)

Our neighbors found this rusty old chain with three hooks near the old barn of the former Kelly farm. It was clearly hand-forged from old-style wrought iron by a blacksmith. It is a Hearth Trammel:  “An adjustable pothook that was used to hang cooking pots over the fire at different heights. The cook could adjust and lock the trammel into different lengths, thereby controlling the temperature.” This one was made to hang from a beam up inside of a great hearth.

This trammel has three hooks. The largest is on the end of the grab bar and will be hung from the support. The other two are at the opposite ends of the short bar at the hanging end of the chain. The smaller hook can be used to adjust the length of the chain, while the final hook is for hanging the pot.

It probably dates from the earliest days of the Kelly homestead, as cooking was an everyday activity! It would have been relegated to the summer kitchen after a major enlargement and renovation of the house in 1860, when they probably installed a box stove. It was removed to the barn when the farmstead was renovated in 1940.

The founder of the Kelly farm, John Peter Kelly (formerly Köhli) (1780-1829) left Switzerland after the Napoleonic Wars, bringing his family to Philadelphia in 1818. Later, while working on the Erie Canal at Lockport, NY, he met Lyman Graves. When their work was done in the spring of 1825 they came to Ypsilanti Township and took up land near today’s Textile and Whittaker roads. John Peter was a formally trained blacksmith, and the family story is that he started the first blacksmith shop in the area by burning out an old stump for a forge pit.

So John Peter probably made the hearth trammel to fit the great hearth of his new home; or it may have been his son, Christian Kelly (1809-1869), as the house was enlarged over the next few years. Christian married in 1833 and he and his wife raised a large family. Christian was trained in blacksmithing by his father, and there are entries in his cash journal from 1866 for straightening plow shares and sharpening saws.

The “rusty chain” was partially restored by removing the heavy rust without damaging the existing metal or finish, by means of electrolysis.

(Peter Diehr was raised on the family farm and remembers his great grandmother, Ella Youngs Kelly. His grandmother donated many items to the Ypsilanti Historical Society and he has continued the tradition by donating the hearth trammel. You may be able to see it soon, with an old iron pot, hanging in the YHS kitchen! Six generations lived on the old homestead between 1825 and 1975. The farmhouse is still standing.)

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: Christian Kelly (1809-1869) and his wife, Sarah Ann Steers (1812-1893). These photographs taken about 1862 by Edwin P. Baker, Ypsilanti photographer.

Photo 2: Trammel after rust removal.

Photo 3: A demonstration, at Sauder Farm Ohio, of cooking over an open fire with a trammel to hold the pot.

Photo 4: Detail of the individually forged links connected to the grip bar which has been twisted.

Photo 5: Early blacksmith work by the Kelly family, John Peter or Christian c1825.

Figure 6: C. J. Kelly farm on E. Monroe, now Whittaker Road, from an 1873 Atlas.

Photo 7: Kelly farmhouse in 1938. The photo was taken by Harlan John (Foster) Diehr.

The Way We Word

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:

Author: Richard Lederer

Back in the olden days we had a lot of moxie. We’d put on our best bib and tucker and straighten up and fly right. Hubba-hubba! We’d cut a rug in some juke joint and then go necking and petting and smooching and spooning and billing and cooing and pitch woo in (depending on when we were making all that whoopee) flivvers, tin lizzies, roadsters, hot rods, and jalopies in some passion pit or lovers’ lane. Heavens to Betsy! Gee whillikers! Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat! Holy moley! We were in like Flynn and living the life of Riley, and even a regular guy couldn’t accuse us of being a knucklehead, a nincompoop, or a pill. Not for all the tea in China!

Back in the olden days life was a real gas, a doozy, a dilly, and a pip; flipsville, endsville, the bee’s knees, the cat’s whiskers, the cat’s meow, and the cat’s pajamas; far-out, nifty, neat, groovy, ducky, beautiful, fabulous, super, terrif, sweet, and copacetic. Nowadays life is the max, ace, awesome, bad, sweet, fly, kick-ass, gnarly, rad, dank, word, and phat. Life used to be swell, but when’s the last time anything was swell? Swell has gone the way of beehives, pageboys, and the D. A. (duck’s ass), of spats, knickers, fedoras, poodle skirts, saddle shoes, and pedal pushers. Oh, my aching back. Kilroy was here, but he isn’t anymore.

Like Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle and Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, we have become unstuck in time. We wake up from what surely has been just a short nap and before we can say. “Bob’s your uncle!” or “I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!” or “This is a fine kettle of fish!” we discover that the words we grew up with, the words that seemed omnipresent as oxygen, have vanished with scarcely a notice from our tongues and our pens and our keyboards. Poof, poof, poof go the words of our youth, the words we’ve left behind. We blink, and they’re gone, evanesced from the landscape and wordscape of our perception, like Mickey Mouse wristwatches, hula hoops, skate keys, cap guns, candy cigarettes, little wax bottles of colored sugar water, and an organ-grinder’s monkey.

Where have all those phrases gone? Long time passing. Where have all those phrases gone? Long time ago: Pshaw. The milkman did it. Think about the starving Armenians. Bigger than a bread box. Banned in Boston. The very idea! It’s your nickel. Don’t forget to pull the chain. Knee high to a grasshopper. Turn-of-the-century. Iron curtain. Domino theory. Third world. Fail safe. Civil defense. Fiddlesticks! You look like the wreck of the Hesperus. Cooties. Going like sixty. I’ll see you in the funny papers. Don’t take any wooden nickels. And awa-a-ay we go! Oh, my stars and garters! It turns out there are more of these lost words and expressions than Carter had liver pills.

The world spins faster, and the speed of technical advance can make us dizzy. It wasn’t that long ago that, in the course of a typical lifetime, only the cast of characters playing out the human drama changed. Now it seems the text of the play itself is revised every day.

Hail and farewell to rumble seats and running boards. Iceboxes and Frigidaires. Victrolas and hi-fi’s. Fountain pens and inkwells. Party lines. Test patterns. Tennis presses. Slide rules. Manual typewriters. Corrasable Bond. Ditto for Photostats and mimeographs. (Do you, like me, remember that turpentiney smell of the mimeo fluid?)

The inexorable advance of technology shapes our culture and the language that reflects it. We used to watch the tube, but televisions aren’t made of tubes anymore, so that figure of speech has disappeared. We used to dial telephone numbers and dial up people and places. Now that almost all of us have converted from rotary to push-button phones, we search for a new verb -- "Sorry, I must have pushed the wrong number"; "I think I'll punch up Doris"; "I've got to index-finger the Internal Revenue Service"; Press M for Murder -- and watch dial dying on the vine. With modern radios, can the demise of “don’t touch that dial!” be far behind?

How many more years do hot off the press, hung out to dry, put through the wringer, and carbon copy have, now that we no longer print with hot lead, hang wet clothes on clotheslines, operate wringer washing machines, and copy with carbon? Do any young folks still say, This is where we came in? The statement means the action or situation is starting to repeat itself, and it comes from the movies. Today there are so many ways of finding out exactly when a movie begins, but back in the olden days we’d get to the theater at pretty much any time and walk in at random. We might watch the last half of a movie and then some trailers, a newsreel, and cartoons (which the multiplexes don’t show anymore) and then the second movie in the double feature and then the beginning of the first movie until the point where we could say, “This is where we came in.”

Do I sound like a broken record? Do you think I must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle? In our high-tech times, these metaphors fade away, like sepia photographs in a family album.

Technology has altered our sense of the size of the world and the things in it. Remember the thrill your family felt owning that six-inch black-and-white rabbit-eared television set (soon to be known as the boob tube and idiot box)? Keep the lights off. No talking, please!

Today more and more TV screens are upwards of forty inches. We drive bigger cars, live in bigger homes, eat bigger meals, and inhabit bigger bodies. I am 6’3” and I used to be called a six-footer. Now the NBA is studded with at least a dozen seven-footers, and outstanding female athletes, such as Lisa Leslie, Lindsay Davenport, and Venus Williams, regularly and majestically top six feet, so six-footer has lost its magic.

How to respond to the supersizing of America? That’s the $64 question. The $64 question was the highest award in the 1940s radio quiz show Take It or Leave It. By the 1950s, inflation had set in, and $64 no longer seemed wondrous. Then in 1955 came The $64,000 Question. The popularity of the show helped the $64,000 question become a metaphor for a question whose answer could solve all our problems, but the expression has faded from our lives because that once sumptuous figure no longer impresses us. Neither does millionaire command our awe anymore, now that there are more than two million millionaires in the United States.

While our bodies and our possessions have expanded, our world has grown smaller, and the language of distance has changed. Remember that admonition Shhh. I’m on long distance!? Phrases like long distance and coast to coast and even worldwide used to hold such excitement for us. Now we take them for granted, so we hardly ever use them. Nor do we use the likes of mailman, fireman, waiter, and workman’s compensation. As a culture we have fashioned letter carrier, firefighter, server, and worker’s compensation, genderless terms that avoid setting males as the norm and females as aberrations from that norm.

When’s the last time you heard or uttered the word stewardess? Now those women and (increasingly) men who try to make us comfortable as we hurtle through the air packed in a winged sardine can have transmogrified into flight attendants. Isn’t is wonderful to live in an age when a flight attendant can make a pilot pregnant?

This de-gendering of our language reflects the new realities of our lives and a growing respect for the humanity of women. Remember housewife and homemaker? Now we call such a woman a stay-at-home mom, respecting her choice to fill such a crucial role. Remember how we used to taunt other kids with “Your mother wears combat [or army] boots!”? These days, your mother could very well be wearing combat boots!

And we’ve grown more sensitive about other areas of life. Whither spinsters and old maids, divorcees, illegitimate children, juvenile delinquents, cripples, midgets, and the deaf-and-dumb? Gone, too, are Bowery bums and tramps and hobos riding the rails. They’ve left the neighborhood and been replaced by transients and the homeless -- kinder, gentler, less judgmental words that recognize that people living on the street and in the woods usually haven’t made some sort of lazy choice to be there.

At the same time, we’re more blunt about a lot of things. Did women get pregnant when I was a lad? Not that I recall. Pregnant was a little too graphic for polite company. Women, instead, were in a family way or expecting. What they were expecting was a visit from the stork.

At the high risk of being labeled a geezer, fogy, and curmudgeon, I’ll say right here that along with the bluntness of modern parlance has arisen a certain impoliteness. Has that simple first-person pronoun I been banished? What we’re hearing these days is “Me and Chip like to go to parties that blow out our eardrums.” To those of us who remember the days when teachers thought it important to pass the torch of correct English to the next generation “Me and Chip” squeaks like chalk scraping across the blackboard of our grammatical sensibility. But “Me and Chip” is also a social atrocity because it reverses the order of words that we were taught back in the olden days: always to put ourselves last in a string of nouns and pronouns. “Me and Chip” literally reflects a me-first culture. I’ll stick with “Chip and I.”

As long as I’ve left the rant-control district, a certain polite acknowledgment from our youth has gone far south. That statement is “You’re welcome.” I’m sitting at a table in a restaurant, and I ask the server for extra lemon with my tea. He or she returns with those slices and I say “thank you.” How does the server respond? You know, don’t you? Not with “you’re welcome,” but with “no problem.” No problem? I’m sure I’m not the only one who wants to grab the server by the collar and hiss, “You’re darned right it’s no problem. It’s your job!”

During the past century, the English language has added an average of 900 new words a year. As newly minted words have added to the currency of our language, the meanings of the words we grew up with have changed under our eyes and ears. A hunk no longer means simply a large lump of something, and rap isn’t just ‘60s talk. Crack means more than just a small opening, ice more than frozen water, and pot more than a cooking utensil. A pocket isn't just for pants, and a bar code is no longer ethics for lawyers or the etiquette of behavior in a café. A pound is no longer just a unit of currency or measurement but that tipsy tic-tac-toe game that sits above the 3 on your keyboard or below the 9 on your telephone.

Remember when IBM was something a two-year-old might say to a parent? The computer, the most deeply striking technology of our lifetimes, has powerfully challenged our sense of so many hitherto uncomplicated words -- back up, bit, boot, cookie, crash, disk, hacker, icon, mail, memory, menu, mouse, pop-up, scroll, spam, virus, and window. Of all the words that have undergone a semantic shift this past half century the one that rattles the most cages and yanks the most chains is gay. We grew up with gay as an adjective that meant “exuberant, high spirited,” as in the Gay Nineties and gay divorcee.

In the second half of the 20th century gay began traveling the linguistic path of specialization, making the same journey as words such as chauvinism, segregation, comrade, and colored. Shortly after World War II, activists popularized the concept of Gay Liberation -- and many heterosexuals have lamented that a perfectly wonderful word has been lost to general usage, wordnapped by the homosexual community.

But as much as heteros believe they need gay, the English language needs it more -- as a more fulfilling word for the gay community than homosexual because it communicates a culture rather than concentrating on sexual orientation. For those who lament the loss of gay to general discourse, I recommend that henceforth they be merry.

This can be disturbing stuff, this winking out of the words of our youth, these words that lodge in our heart’s deep core. But just as one never steps into the same river twice, one cannot step into the same language twice. Even as one enters, words are swept downstream into the past, forever making a different river. We of a certain age have been blessed to live in changeful times. For a child each new word is like a shiny toy, a toy that has no age. We at the other end of the chronological and language arc have the advantage of remembering that there are words that once did not exist and that there were words that once strutted their hour upon the earthly stage and now are heard no more, except in our collective memory. It’s one of the greatest advantages of aging. We can have archaic and eat it too.

(Published with permission from Richard Lederer, an American author, speaker, and teacher. He is best known for his books on the English language and on wordplay such as puns, oxymorons, and anagrams. He refers to himself as "the Wizard of Idiom," "Attila the Pun," and "Conan the Grammarian." His weekly column, "Looking at Language", is syndicated in newspapers and magazines throughout the United States.)

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: Photo of Richard Lederer by Hoffman Photographic.

Photo 2: One of many books published by Richard Lederer on words and language.

War of the Clothesline

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:

Author: James Mann

Before every home had a dryer to finish the washing of clothes, there was the clothesline, where wet shirts, socks and other items of attire were hung to dry. This was seen as a pleasant domestic scene, with women out hanging the clothes to dry in gentle breezes. At least, that is how it should have been.

At 607 West Michigan Avenue, there were in September of 1922, two families and one clothesline. The line was not long enough for the two families to use at the same time. Mrs. Helen Thompson would do the family wash one day and use the line. Then, on another day, Celia Johnson would do her family wash and use the line on another day. Problems arose when both women wanted to use the line at the same time.

Celia Johnson would later claim that Mrs. Helen Thompson had done her family wash on a Thursday, so she, Mrs. Celia Johnson, started to do her family wash on Friday. At about the same time, Mrs. Thompson started on a second round of wash for her family. The two women set out to hang the wash on the line at about the same time.

“Each claimed a right to use it and each did use it. About as fast as Mrs. Johnson got her clothes on the line, Mrs. Thompson took them off and replaced them with her own and then Mrs. Johnson cleared the line and put hers right back,” reported The Daily Ypsilanti Press of Saturday, September 9, 1922.

As Mrs. Johnson said: “I washed last Friday and when Mrs. Thompson started to hang up her clothes I told her not to, as I needed the line. She hung her clothes up just the same and whistled while she did so. I went to take the clothes down, when Mrs. Thompson busted me one right on the nose and she kept on knocking me with her fist. I grabbed her and shook her down to the ground, but she would get right up again and kept knocking me with her fist. She finally got a small pail and cut me on the head with it. She then left me with a volley of slander,” reported The Ypsilanti Record of Thursday, September 14, 1922.

Helen Johnson paid a visit to the office of the justice of the peace, to demand a warrant for the arrest of Mrs. Thompson. As there was blood in evidence, the document was granted and prepared. Then the warrant was turned over to Constable Maddux.

Constable Maddux went to the house to serve the warrant on Mrs. Thompson. There he found her to be a small woman of about one hundred pounds. She was also, he found, to be an active woman. “She was,” noted The Daily Ypsilanti Press of September 9, 1922, “very, very active, according to the constable and in the process of bringing her to the courtroom about all his paraphernalia was pressed into service, but he finally succeeded.”

The case came before the justice of the peace on the morning of Thursday, September 14, 1922. Each woman told her account of the matter, and each said the other struck the first blow. Mrs. Johnson admitted striking Mrs. Thompson, but said Mrs. Thompson started the fight by clawing at her face and hair.

Mrs. Thompson denied starting the fight, but did admit throwing a pail at Mrs. Johnson, which cut a gash in her head. “That there really was a gash was certain as Mrs. Johnson on the day of the fight, left her wash just as it was to present her wound before the police and Justice Curtiss, who this morning tried the case,” reported The Daily Ypsilanti Press of Thursday, September 14, 1922.

The only witness called was a Milton Hightower, who swore Mrs. Thompson started the fight. Hightower said he saw the battle from a safe distance. The court decided that Mrs. Thompson struck the first blow, and fined her $10 and costs. The fine was remitted on the prompt payment by Mr. Thompson, who had come to court with his wife. The court costs were $3.45.

By the day the case came to court, the Thompson family had moved from the house, to a place where Mrs. Thompson had a clothesline all her own.

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

Whiskey was the Antidote

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:

Author: James Mann

On the night of Tuesday, July 8, 1913, Lynn Crosby went to see his ex-wife Ella, from whom he had been divorced for some time. He had been trying to get back together with her, but his efforts at this were seen as obnoxious by his former wife. She was in fact, seeking an injunction prohibiting him from trespassing on her property.

Crosby had been drinking heavily, as he was very drunk when he arrived at the house at 317 Chidister Street in Ypsilanti. Ella Crosby informed the police her former husband Lynn Crosby was there and making trouble. The police came and arrested Lynn Crosby. He was taken to the city jail where he spent the night.

Crosby was to appear before the Justice of the Peace Stadtmiller the next morning, but he was physically unable to make the appearance. His condition was so bad, it was at first thought he was suffering from delirium tremens. Dr. Hurbert Johnson examined Cosby at the jail, and determined he was too unstrung by the after effects of his drinking the night before to appear. His appearance before Justice Stadtmiller was held one day later, on the morning of Thursday, July 10, 1913. Crosby was fined $6.15.

That afternoon Crosby was in Ann Arbor on the banks of the Huron River. At about 1:30 p. m. Crosby drank two ounces of strychnine. Crosby then calmly walked around, and coming to a laborer said, “I’ve taken strychnine.” The laborer did not at first believe Crosby, until he was shown the empty vile. Sheriff Stark was at once summoned. By the time the sheriff arrived, Crosby appeared nearly dead.

“He was taken at once to the hospital, where attempts were made to save him. Dr. Weisinger, who attended him, said that he could not recover, as the emetic he had been forced to administer on account of the size of the dose of poison the man had taken, would almost be sufficient to cause his death, even if the poison did not,” reported The Daily Ypsilanti Press of Thursday, July 10, 1913.

By the afternoon of Friday, July 11, 1913, Crosby seemed to be recovering. As Crosby had tried to take his own life, he may have made his recovery possible. “This unexpected turn of events is due to his ignorance of whiskey as an antidote. He washed the poison down with a large draught of the liquor,” reported The Daily Ypsilanti Press of that date. Crosby did recover and was discharged from the hospital on Tuesday, July 15, 1913.

He once again found himself standing in front of Justice Stadtmiller on November 11, 1913, on a charge of being drunk and disorderly. The chief witness against him was his former wife Ella. This time Justice Stadtmiller sentenced Crosby to thirty days in the county jail. Crosby appears to have left the area after his release, as he disappears from local records.

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

The Green Book

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:

Author: George Ridenour

The “open highway” WAS NOT so open to all Americans. While sitting in the U.S. Senate gallery in June, 1964 I listened to the debate over what would become the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Bill. Little did I realize after a plane ride, a good room, eating and drinking anywhere I wanted while in DC, that this same “right” was not open to all! Little did I realize, until 2011, that the “open road” was not so for all Americans.

The daughter of A. P. Marshall came to visit the archives. A. P. Marshall served as Dean of Academic Services at Eastern Michigan University and was a leader in the Ypsilanti community. Marshall’s daughter mentioned she wanted a copy of the Green Book and my immediate reaction was that I would simply find a copy and present it to her. However, in my search for a copy I found it did not exist on Amazon or other booksellers.

I did not realize what this Green Book was, where it could be purchased, why it was published, or anything about the content. Therefore, I want to share with you information about “The Green Book” aka “The Negro Motorist Green Book” that I discovered in my efforts to locate a copy of this publication. In addition to the title, the following information was published on the cover of the 1949 issue: “An International Travel Guide to USA, Alaska, Bermuda, Mexico and Canada. - Carry your Green Book with you….You might need it. – Travel is Fatal to Prejudice.” The “Travel is Fatal to Prejudice” is a quote from Mark Twain.

In 1936, the first year of publication, The Green Book was a local directory for those living in New York. The publication, which was produced by Victor H. Green and Company of New York went national the next year. Mr. Green was a Harlem postal worker and civic leader who was responding to the humiliations, violence and discrimination directed toward Negro travelers during that time period.

The purpose of The Green Book was “…to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable.” This was not a new idea. Jews and Whites, previous to The Green Book, had their own publications detailing where they could find all kinds of travel information.

The book was only to last until discrimination of Negros was over and the open highway was friendly to all. As stated in the introduction to the book “…There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in all the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment…….”

The purpose was to show the Negro motorist, listing states and cities, where they could find Negro owned or Negro friendly places. For example: “…Hotels, tourist homes, restaurants, beauty parlors, barber shops, and various other services that would assist the Negro traveler to feel comfortable and safe in travels.”

While thumbing through the book I looked up Michigan. There is in Washtenaw County a listing for Ann Arbor only. Hotels are listed: American, 123 Washington Street and Allenel, 126 E. Huron Street. Tourist home: Ms. E. M. Dickson, 144 Hill Street. No listings in this edition for Ypsilanti.

To show the plight of a traveler Calvin Alexander Ramsey has written “Ruth and the Green Book.” One point that surprised me in reading this “children’s book” is that Esso Gas Stations were the only service stations where the Negro Traveler could find all the services he needed, i.e. bathroom rights, drinking fountains, gas and cool drinks. Also, there were no “Whites Only” signs at Esso Gas Stations. Esso was a prime distributor of The Green Book. Esso was also a major franchisor for Negros. This book will give the reader an insight into the times and dilemmas facing Negro travelers.

The Civil Rights Bill of 1964 was passed and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The Green Book ceased publication that year. Along with many other books from the past, most copies of “The Green Book” were tossed out, thrown in trunks, burned or just forgotten. (PS: If you have one, they are valuable!)

Finally, the roads of our nation finally begin to be open to all travelers.

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

Photo Captions:

1. The 1940 edition of The Negro Motorist Green-Book.

2. “Ruth and the Green Book”, a fictional story about a trip Ruth took in the 1950's.

Roberts' Corner

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

Author: James Mann

Until recently there stood a house by the intersection of Michigan Avenue and U. S. 23, notable for many perhaps, because it stood alone surrounded by overgrown wild grass. The house had the appearance of neglect and age. The house was old as it was built in 1840. This was the site of Robert’s Corner.

This was the farm of the Roberts family, on the old Chicago Road, now Michigan Avenue. The house was originally a stage coach stop, where the horses were changed, and travelers could relax for a bit. What became the dining room was at first the tavern, where whiskey was two or three cents a shot.

In the traven was a large fireplace, where travelers would circle around and tell stories, or gaze into the flames of the fire as steaks were broiled. This fireplace was also a means for deciding the order in which guests were treated to rounds of drinks. “When time lagged and excitement was wanted, someone suggested that they all lie down in front of the fireplace for the drinks. A circle was drawn from one corner of the hearth to the other out and away from the fire about an arm’s length. All stretched out on the floor with their heads to the mark and extended an arm toward the fire. He who could leave his hand against the heat the longest time would be the winner. The one with the shortest arm usually won. The first to give up was the first to treat, and so on in turn. The last one only would be the real winner,” noted The Ypsilanti Record of Thursday, February 8, 1917.

In May of 1911 a new bride arrived at the farm named Clara Roberts. Charles married the former school teacher in the Episcopal Church. The couple made the journey to the farm in a carriage from the livery of Oliver Westfall. The couple had to wait as the wheels were changed to runners, as there was eight feet of snow on the ground. As they rode to the farm, the couple probably snuggled close for warmth, as it was eight degrees below zero. At the time what is now Michigan Avenue was a single dirt track road.

Years later Clara would see the first improvements in the road, as the farm was the headquarters for the crew. The workers were, for the most part, prison labor. The heavy work was done with teams of horses and the men slept in a huge tent in the field behind the barn.

“Water from the Roberts farm was used exclusively for a distance of ten miles along the roadway and a doctor, imprisoned in a notorious abortion case, was responsible for its purity. Although the men were fed state food and had their own cooks many had money of their own and supplemented the meals with sandwiches and pie made by Mrs. Roberts. The doctor took the orders from the men, made the deliveries and saw that Mrs. Roberts was paid. She remembers that their favorite pie was lemon,” reported The Ypsilanti Press of May 22, 1961. Clara Roberts was still on the farm when modern machines were used to pave and widen the road, by changing the landscape to its present shape.

Roberts Corner had another landmark as well, that of a concession stand. For at least 32 years the Netterfield family parked their concession stand at the intersection of West Michigan and Carpenter Road. Rows of yellow lights flashed on and off to beckon families to stop for a few minutes to purchase popcorn, candy apples and more.

Every year the Netterfield family traveled from Tampa, Florida to work the fair and carnival season. Paul Netterfield had found the spot at the intersection and stayed for a week, and then two weeks, then three. Then, for years after, the family would arrive in April and open the trailer for business until the Fourth of July, when the fair season began. There is only one newspaper clipping from The Ypsilanti Press in the Roberts file in the Archives to tell the story. Whoever clipped the story from the paper forgot to write the date of publication of the story. Then again, there are still those who remember.

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

Photo Caption:

Photo 1: Roberts Corner was located at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and U. S. 23.

An Odoriferous Education

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

Author: Tom Dodd

A before-standardization memoir: We learned more than our teachers suspected in the schools of our childhood.

“School stinks!” we proclaimed when we wanted to say something unkind about our childhood headquarters, and indeed, the schools of our past did have a unique smell about them. One wonders if today’s tots enjoy the same sensory experiences we knew in schools that had wooden floors, slate blackboards, wet plaster walls, oak trim moldings, cork bulletin boards, coal and/or steam heat, and windows that actually opened. And we had those long cords on the window shades that could be tied into hangman’s knots! Today’s kids just have iPods.

Our teachers sometimes accused us of “not paying attention” but, in reality, we paid attention to far more than they realized. We saw, heard, tasted and smelled everything that was going on. For some unexplained reason, our library paste was laced with mint flavoring, but the teachers warned us not to eat it. We ate it anyway. We never used “library paste” in the library; only in the elementary classrooms.

Mimeograph ink was so delicious that, when the teacher handed out new papers (“Take one for yourself and pass them back!”), it was the custom to bury our face in the top sheet and inhale deeply. Long before we heard that Morning Glory seeds had a hallucinatory effect, we were convinced there was some magical quality in the smell of that purple mimeo ink. In those days, “purple” was an exotic color, only to be used by “fancy ladies.” That was long before rip-stop nylon backpacks in purple, pink and chartreuse.

A faint odor of peanut butter & jelly wafted from the lockers in the corridor. In some spots it was mixed with the gentle hint of urine. Old, forgotten sandwiches sometimes mixed into a potion of ingredients nearly unrecognizable by semester’s end. The bright pink deodorizer cakes in the bathroom urinals smelled worse than the smells they were trying to cover up, but they were fun to pee on.

Old books in the library had a musty, mysterious quality about them. The giant dictionary on a reading stand had alphabetized thumbholes on the side and, when you riffled the gold-edge pages with your thumb, the odor of antiquity wafted clear over to the kid doing homework across the table. These were the most popular reference materials available to us, and contained most of the banned words that we had been wondering about. They were easy to find; these pages had been opened so regularly that just placing the book on its spine would cause it to open to the favorite sections. We had to wash our hands after handling those smelly, old books, but it was worth it.

Wood pencil shavings had an “up north” aroma about them but, when mixed with graphite from pencil sharpeners (grinders), they made a dirty mix of pine pitch and acrid chemicals that we were sure were poisonous. At least it killed the plants on the windowsill.

Soft, pink pencil erasers were a “smellifluous” addendum to childhood - until you brushed the crumbles off the page when they mixed with the former pencil marks. Then they were a minor-grade poison. Art Gum erasers were the best crumbles to collect. You could chew on them too, but we did not swallow. Those green or gray kneaded erasers looked like chewing gum, but tasted terrible.

Rubber cement was voted the most volatile smell in the classroom and painting it on your cheek or forearm and then squeezing it together when nearly dry made the most believable facsimile of a terrible scar. Walking around with a severe limp added to the wounded-soldier-affectation and sniffing the cement reminded us to stay in character for maximum effect.

Airplane glue came later, and we quit destroying our brain cells just in time to get into college. Most of our projects started out soberly but became more sloppy and disorganized as time went on. We never understood what caused that and blamed it on our short attention spans. Imagine a skillfully constructed airplane fuselage with wads of wrinkled tissue paper hanging off the tail. That’s the “designer” taking a nap face-down on his desk. (“Fuselage?” There’s a word we have not seen since the days of Willow Run!)

The custodian dumped a sweeping compound on the floor and pushed it around with a four-foot-wide dust mop in an effort to collect the dirt without sweeping the dust up into the air. The compound seemed to be a mix of reddish sawdust and some kind of sweet-smelling oil. When the custodian was on call with the “slop bucket,” that usually meant there was a “throw-up” somewhere and the corridor did not get dusted for another hour. Students could volunteer to dust for the custodian, but no one ever volunteered to slop the vomits - even though the wringer on the slop pail was great fun to play with. Throw-ups were a common - but still surprising - smell in the corridors. No matter what a sick kid had eaten earlier, it always smelled like a mixture of orange juice and tomato juice. Who do you know who has TWO glasses of juice for breakfast? Today, “throw-up” is a term used by graffiti artists. Vomits are just called vomits now.

When contractors repaired the school’s roof, we collected their droppings and chewed on tasty chunks of warm, black tar. The flavor was a lot like Beeman’s Pepsin chewing gum and the blackness made our teeth look whiter.

Gym lockers gave us the worst and probably most memorable smells. In the days when only women used deodorants, we brought our own towels to school. Some days there were only two or three “acceptable” towels available from donors in gym class, and that was enough to convince most athletes to take theirs home for washing. Long after our gym clothes were washed, the mildew smell remained since not everyone had the same tolerance level for the stench of moldy towels, shorts, shirts and jock straps. It seems the acrid odor had seeped into the steel of the lockers, never to dissipate.

Orange peelings left over from lunch could be placed in the bottom of a gym locker to mask the smell of athletic appurtenances, but they had to be removed after two weeks - or the fruit flies made their presence known to the coach. We were surprised to see that orange turned to dark green in two weeks and most of the smell was gone by the time that green color appeared.

Milk cartons didn’t seem to have much smell about them at first, but if kept in the back of your desk with a few inches of liquid in them for a week or so, they soon joined the other mysteries of that dark space as beacons to direct you to your overdue homework.

Dixie cups were a much anticipated school treat and, when the ice cream was gone, it was still satisfying to keep sucking on the tiny lozenge-shaped wooden spoon that had been stuck to the top of the original product. If you were able to save the spoon until the bus ride home in the afternoon, it was a clear signal to everyone else that your class had a treat… and perhaps they didn’t. Not much flavor was left three hours after the ice cream was gone, but the wet wood had a naturalistic and subtle flavor that lasted long into the day.

Some of the most exotic smells came from our four-hundred-year-old virgin Latin teacher, Miss Virginia Dowdy. On warm days she emitted a tangy sour-milk smell. That was the signal to take up a collection for her annual Christmas present: a blue glass vial of Evening-in-Paris perfume. The larger bottle would last until near the end of second semester as Miss D slathered the not-too-subtle hints of a continental lifestyle across her entire torso.

The high school social studies teacher smelled equally wonderful. Mr. Schaeffer wore the most intriguing tan leather sport coat––often with a Real Bow Tie (not the clip-on kind). Leaning over his desk with a question, a student could get close enough to smell the leather and maybe even briefly touch the softness of the former bovine. Such brave and intimate inspection also reinforced the suspicion of other smells coming from this dapper professor: tiny bits of Sen Sen tried (unsuccessfully) to hide the fact that he smoked in the boiler room between classes, and Listerine antiseptic sometimes dribbled from the corners of his mouth. Schaeffer kept a big bottle of the volatile mouthwash in his largest desk drawer and, as there was no sink in which to spit it out, he swallowed it. He was always in his best mood for the class that met the first hour after lunch. One big bottle usually lasted a week.

Similarly, the Home Economics staffer sipped on the giant-size bottle of vanilla extract. She was one smart cookie and always jolly and friendly.

School students of an earlier age could literally “follow their noses” to a more sensory education. Maybe we could apply for a grant to open a new charter school to reinvigorate the “stinky education” we experienced before standardized testing took the senses out of learning.

Addendum by Robert Fox: “Oh yeah, and I remember the smell of the asphalt playground. Seemed like there was always some kid four years older than me who thought I needed another taste. The Catholic school paved the playground so it could be used as a parking lot on Sunday - and there was less mud tracked around. And then there was blood - so much blood. You see, I didn't like fighting, but I was big for my age and someone was always thinking I'd be a good foil for testing manhood. I had a rock jaw, but a glass nose - just a touch and my nose would gush. It became a deterrent. Those bullies with white shirts and ties - as soon as my nose bleed started, I'd grab the assailant and hug them - making certain as much of their white shirt turned scarlet red as possible. They looked gut-shot and I'd spend the remainder of the day with a head full of blood clots draining down my throat. Then there was the taste of dirty, salty snowballs. They stung twice, like a razor burn when they hit you in the face, and later when we got the paddle for throwing them.”

Scratched onto the upper-left-hand side of the chalkboard, outlined and labeled “Save” would be the daily vocabulary list with the notice “They’re going to be on the final exam.” So, if you are up to it here is your list!

Today’s vocabulary list:
Aroma, Bouquet, Fetor, Fragrance, Funk, Odor, Odorus, Odoriferous or Odiferous, Redolence, Reek, Scent, Stink, Whiff. “They’re going to be on the final exam.”

(Tom Dodd is a retired teacher, historian and author and is a regular contributor to the Gleanings. He is also the author and editor of the Depot Town Rag.)

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: A typical early classroom with wooden floors, slate blackboards, oak trim moldings, and windows that actually opened.

Photo 2: Every day we would have a new vocabulary list on the blackboard.

Photo 3: Gym lockers gave us the worst and probably most memorable smells.

Marilyn Begole Chose Love

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

Author: Phil Barnes

Broadway almost had a grip on her future but she backed out at the last minute and stayed home. At the urging of Dr. Hugh Norton and Professor Garnet Garrison of the University of Michigan Dance and Theater Department, Marilyn Begole had been asked to accept an opportunity to go to New York City to further her career in dance and theater. Marilyn declined, which was a decision that changed her life forever and also that of “the love of her life, Ellis Freatman. Ellis was an aspiring young attorney at the time and he had asked Marilyn to become his bride.

Little Marilyn arrived in Ypsilanti in 1930 with her parents Grace and Mack Begole. Memories of her early dance lessons prior to the age of five are vividly etched in her mind. Grace opened up a dance studio in Ypsilanti in 1934 and many of the little girls took lessons from her for twenty-five to fifty cents, which was a true bargain. The dance recitals at the Ypsilanti High School Auditorium were outstanding with up to 100 students performing. One of those girls was Lois Katon. Lois and Marilyn were best of friends and took dance instruction from Grace Begole and piano lessons from Margaret Breakey. Lois remembers how beautiful Marilyn was with her flowing curls and a big bow in the side of her hair. In describing her abilities she said “Marilyn was a lovely dancer, specializing in ballet and toe dancing. We were best of friends and stayed very close until high school.” Marilyn went to Roosevelt High School and Lois went to Ypsilanti Central. They remained close and participated in Sunday School activities in the First Methodist Church and Girl Scout functions as well.

Marilyn’s mother Grace decided to further her experience by enrolling her in the Denishawn Dancers in Detroit where she stood out as a top candidate for a future in dance. Her appearances were stunning and she continued to study under her Mother’s soft hand. Dancers from Denishawn were appearing in New York once a month and Marilyn’s work deserved an invitation to go east. Her refusal to go led to more extensive opportunities locally. With her local career flourishing, the Ben Greet Players, a professional group, came forward and offered Marilyn an opportunity to join them. She danced and acted in many performances at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre at the University of Michigan. Her career was now in the hands of Paul Hubbell, who headed the Ben Greet Players. She steadily rose to the top and was chosen to play the lead in several performances at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater. It was her performances in these starring roles that led to the New York invitation which she refused preferring to stay at home and be close to Ellis Freatman. Marilyn’s career was important to her but love won out.

After she received her Master’s Degree in Theater Arts from the University of Michigan, Marilyn was interviewed for a job with the Milan Area Schools by the Superintendent, Mr. Drevdall. The position involved teaching drama at the High School and heading up the school plays. She was sold on the job after her interview with the Superintendent and produced two plays a year during her five years of teaching in Milan. Joan Cullip, one of Marilyn’s students in Milan said, “Mrs. Freatman was a wonderful and well liked teacher and drama coach.” Her work there is still fondly remembered by the many students who performed in the plays she directed.

Marilyn and Ellis now reside in Ypsilanti after raising their family. She and Ellis spend winter months in Florida and the rest of the year with friends and family in Ypsilanti. Ellis still says that Marilyn passed up a chance at the “big time” by not going to New York, but secretly he is very happy she didn’t go!

(Phil Barnes spent 30 years in the Milan school system as an administrator, 13 of those years as Athletic Director, and is a regular member of the Ypsilanti Morning Coffee Group.)

Photo Captions:

Keith: The first three photos should be grouped so they have a common caption and then each one has their own caption.

Photo 1a, 2a and 3a: In 1950 while Marilyn was enrolled as a student in the Department of Speech at the University of Michigan she starred in three plays.
Photo 1a: “King Lear” by William Shakespeare. Marilyn played Cordelia, daughter to Lear.
Photo 2a: “Caesar and Cleopatra” by George Bernard Shaw. Marilyn played Cleopatra.
Photo 3a: “The School for Husbands” by Moliere. Marilyn played the Shepardess.
Photo 4a: A recent picture of Ellis and Marilyn (Begole) Freatman.

Finds--The Fletcher White Archives

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, Spring 2006,
Spring 2006
Original Images:

Author: Gerry Pety

Every once in a while you come across something that at the time it was produced was truly unappreciated or recognized. Such it was with a very striking photograph taken many years ago, sometime in the late 1930's or early 1940's. It was taken by what appears to be a “medium format” camera. A camera that either used a fairly large photographic plate of glass or one that used a very sensitive lens with high quality film of the period. In whatever case, the picture was captured by a Mr. Russell Steere, a neighbor of this 219 South Huron Street house address. The Steere family lived at 309 South Huron Street when this picture of a wintry scene was taken over 60 years ago.

Every once in a while when this picture is accessed by researchers in our “address file” at the archives, people ask if a copy of it is available. It is reminiscent of an Ansel Adams photograph in that it captured on film an instant in time that passes so quickly that we rarely stop to take notice. Seems that Mr. Steere did notice both the composition and effects of direct and reflected light, to stop what ever he was doing, and capture this alluring picture that is truly frozen in time for us to enjoy these many years later! If you should like to view the original or desire a copy, it is available. We can make an exact duplicate of the original at the Fletcher-White Archives for the astoundingly price of only two dollars.

Picture taken by Mr. Russell Steere in the 1930s or 1940s.

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