Memories Mingle with the River

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, November 1975,
November 1975
Original Images:

















Author: Foster L. Fletcher

The following is taken from a talk given by Foster L. Fletcher, Ypsilanti City Historian given before the Washtenaw County Historical Society 1974.

Memories Mingle with the River

“When Time, who steals our years away,
Shall steal our Pleasures too,
The Mem'ry of the past will stay,
And half our joys renew”
Thomas Moore
(1780–1852)

Today I will visit with you about the History of Ypsilanti. But Ypsilanti has been thru a Centennial Celebration in 1923 and then thru a Sesquicentennial in 1973, so it would seem that people must surely know all about the history of the most difficult town in Michigan to pronounce and to spell, so we will try projecting snatches of some older days and recall, even if unable to revive, the many places of business and industry that are no longer with us.

I sometimes have difficulty in falling to sleep at night. Or sometimes it is so easy to fall asleep while sleep starts knitting away at that ravelled sleeve of care, and then the knitting stops and we are wide awake. In one of those wakeful eons, so aptly described by my old friend Thomas Moore: “Oft in the Stilly Night ere slumber's chains have bound me … fond memory brings the light of other days around me…” and as an antedote, I try naming the dams and mills on the Huron River from where it leaves Base Lake and comes down to at least Rawsonville or even Belleville.

The first dam is one made of stones and dirt in the NW. corner of Webster Township just above the canal that was dug about 1908 from the Huron to Portage Lake; the opening in that dam was always a tough one to negotiate if you were going to Base Lake; then we slide on down to Dover in the NE corner of Dexter Township where there used to be a dam for Birkett's Mill; as we go on down toward Dexter, we come to a larger dam and a place called Hudson Mills. Now if you want to take a side trip in your mind to Peach Mountain and try to rem-ember when there were Peach Trees there, you certainly have my permission.

As we get near Dexter, the river veers toward the East and unless you follow it by canoe or boat, you get the idea from the Main Street in Dexter, that the dam where Mill Creek crosses Main Street, that this is the Huron River. People have argued that it has to be the Huron River which of course it is not.

In 1872, Dexter had two Flouring Mills, one Plaster Mill, a Sawmill, two Wagon Works, and a Sash and Blind factory.

In a Directory for Washtenaw County for 1878, it says: “Dexter Village, the town was settled about 1823 by Honorable S.C. Dexter from Boston…”

Next comes Scio Mills, of course in Scio Township, then a Village whose name you all know, Delhi Mills, but did you know that in the 1874 “Washtenaw County Atlas”, there is a Birds Eye, full page of Delhi Mills. It has the usual street layout with numbered lots, sketches of the Ithica Mills, a woolen factory, Sawmill and several other places of business. Soon we arrive at the Foster Station also known as Newport and often called Cornwell. We are dipping freely into the past using old maps and written reports and then skipping lightly to the present with no harm done. You know where the Barton Dam is and Barton Hills, well Barton Hills was a paper village as early as 1837 and had only one house in it for several decades.

The Barton Dam is impressive and then farther on was a weir for the Cornwell Mills where paper and felt were made. When North Main Street in Ann Arbor used to cross the river on a lower level, you could look west and see some of the old pilings where the Cornwells had their mill. A weir is like a dam, but it diverts the water to a mill for cooling and washing rather than making any power. As we cross North Main Street, in Ann Arbor, where you may revive and con-template those rugged pioneers, John Allen, Henry Rumsey and others, we follow the river where it bends south, and as it gets to the tressle of the Ann Arbor Railroad, the river seems to disappear. There is a weir, and the old maps show a woolen mill and the Sinclair Mill where the Pontiac Trail crosses the river and gives way to Broadway as they merge.

Ann Arbor Side Trip:

It is so easy to make a few side trips every now and then. Its fun to read an old ad. or two! In the 1878 Directory:-

Owen the Great Monopoly Smasher-the friend of the Consumer and Death to the Monopolist. Look at his prices for Tobacco! Owens Parlor, Ann Arbor $1.00 Tobacco for 60°c

And another ad. says:

Hot and Cold Baths, always ready At the Owen Mineral Springs Bath Parlor-First door north of Gregory House, O.G. Owen, Ann Arbor

Next we arrive at Geddesburg as it was known on the old maps, and there was a Papermill known as the Michigan Paper Company, with G.B. Kelley as Secretary. In more recent years, the dam was washed out during a flood, and it took longer to get it rebuilt than it took to construct an Egyptian Pyramid.

Fleming's Creek Dam

One of the very old dams you might want to add to our list, even though not directly on the River, is the dam on Fleming's Creek. There is record of Robert Fleming buying 45 acres in Superior Township, September 29, 1823, and then in 1824 he moved to Section 25 in Ann Arbor Township where the creek, now bearing his name, joins the Huron River. He built a sawmill and we assume he made a dam in the creek even though we know Benjamin Woodruff had a saw mill on the east bank of the Huron River in Ypsilanti Township without having to construct a dam. Later the Parkers used the power from Fleming's Creek to make their stoneground flour. The dam was washed out in a flood a few years ago and has not been rebuilt.

As we follow the river toward the East, we come to a large area of flat land where the railroad made a yard for storing empty box cars. It was a very popular place for those gone with the wind non rent paying characters, known as tramps.

The Cornwells are again encountered at Lowell, in the southwest corner of Superior Township. Perhaps it was the same group of promoters who envisioned Barton Hills in 1837 who wrote glowingly of this Lowell village on the Huron, which in the 1840s was to surpass Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. The State population was only 212,267 in the 1840 Census. You can read all about the exciting history of early Lowell in the April 1974 issue of the Newsletter of the Ypsilanti Historical Society and Archives.

The Cornwells arrived in Lowell after the promoters had moved on, and the 1881 “Washtenaw County History” said:

The Paper Mill at Lowell is the greatest industry ever established in the County.

There is a 17 foot fall for power and the Cornwells built a dam and paper mill, there was a modest settlement with several houses. Today the waterpower produces millions of volts for the Detroit Edison but there are not enough people living there to entice the opening of a Branch Bank or a saloon. During the winter of 1921, when there was a slowing of the economy that had nothing to do with a short-age of gasoline, and the Eastern Financial Wizards made an unsuccessful attempt to break Henry Ford, some of the un-employment was helped a little by having men cut ice on that pond north of the railroad bridge of Lowell. The ice was loaded into waiting boxcars and taken away to be used in the Pullman cars of the railroad.

Other ice harvesters were much earlier and nearer Ypsilanti. As we leave Lowell and continue on, we come to the large deep pond whose waters are formed by the Peninsular Paper Company dam. There was plenty of room on this pond for two companies to harvest ice. The one on the south side of the pond was the Shepherd ice and the larger frame icehouse on the north side was Jacob Grob. That was in the days when horses were used on the ice for cutting and also for hauling the big blocks into the ice houses where sawdust was used to prevent melting. The first dam for the Peninsular Paper was built in 1867, the year the company was organized. The River Huron is quite rapid and shallow as it leaves the Paper Mill except at LeForge Road (and map makers select their own wooden LeForge Road bridge was replaced, soon after the turn of the century, by steel I-beams, one of the workers was literally carried away by his work. He clung to a beam which missed its placement, splashing into the river and drowning the man.

High banks along North River Street, turn the river toward the south and there is a drop in elevation, making a good location there as early as 1827 followed by a larger dam and the Eagle Mill. The Eagle Mill had an uneven history and the location became the site of the Ypsilanti Woolen Mill, a large brick structure of imposing dimensions.

Without benefit of Marketing Surveys or a Manufacturer's Representative, the knitting machines in the Mill were soon making an undergarment, combining undershirt and drawers in one piece and known as the “Unionsuit”. Perhaps there were cotton or wool unionsuits but the most interesting and fas-cinating garments were those made of silk. These fine unionsuits caught the fancy of the Prince of Wales and many less famous, ordinary mortals who loved gracious living. Marshall Field & Company was the largest wholesale customer. The firm of Hay & Todd-Frank Todd and William Hay-were succeeded by the Colvan family-but styles change-the consumer was as fickle and mysterious in those days as now, the old B.V.D. helped slide the Unionsuit into oblivion and today there is no trace of the building or the business and even the dam has lost its identity. But one item that is not easily forgotten, is the heroic painting of a lady in her Unionsuit holding a banner aloft in her outstretched arms. An interesting pose on the east side of the building for all the passengers on the railroad to see. It was an an excellent location, not too far from the railroad and the station, so passengers had plenty of time to gaze as their train slowed down coming from the west or slowly started from the Station. The lady and her unionsuit were known from Coast to Coast and she even had mention in a lead article in the old “Saturday Evening Post”.

Perhaps the vision was placed there by Winsor McKay, a runaway from Spring Lake Michigan. In 1888 he spent a year or more in Ypsilanti drawing encouragement and inspiration from John Goodison who was then Head of the Art & Science Department at the old Normal School.

For the benefit of those who were born long after the turn of the century, Winsor McKay is the man who dreamed of and drew the cartoon “Litte Nemo”, and is said to be the origin-ator of the animated-dream-futurist cartoon. Winsor is being revived, having died in 1934, and a $25. illustrated book published in 1973, tells all that is known about him and his ideas.

And now let us get back to where Forest Avenue, also known as Mill Street on early maps crosses the river.

On the west side of the river on Forest about where the Ypsilanti Farm Bureau has their store, was the Grob Brewery and Saloon. Ypsilanti never did lack for booze as history tells us of a distillery in the village as early as 1827 and in 1831 when the Village population was about 600, there were six saloons, which record, it sometimes seems, the Liquor Control Commission is trying to equal.

You have noticed how many times the Railroad had to cross the river to avoid grades too steep for the old steam engines. The railroad crosses the river 7 times in Scio Township, 5 times in Ann Arbor Township and 3 times soon after leaving Ypsilanti. On the east side of the river at Forest, there was a gravel pit which later became the location of the Haggerty Ladder Co. brought to Ypsilanti about 1901 upon payment of $5,000 by the City. One of the very few in-stances of the City parting with money in order to get an Industry. There were the usual gates at the railroad and a Gatehouse where a man lowered and raised the gates for passing trains which was pretty often.

On the east side of the railroad and south of Forest Avenue was a stockyard on a railroad siding where pigs, cattle and sheep were confined for shipment after having been herded thru the streets of the town as late as 1914. Traffic was light in those days on roads leading into town, so it was easy to drive sheep and cattle along the streets. Pigs were not easily handled and were brought in wagons. Ypsilanti had at least three Abattiors in the surrounding country here animals were slaughtered under conditions which would have caused a stroke in that tender brain of Ralph Nader had he been around.

At the head of the millrace, was the Lath and Sash Factory of Follmore and Scoville using the power of the river and also using the race as a depository for the logs which were brought in for sawing into lumber. Maple Street was known as Mill Street and its parallel neighbor was Oak Street giving evidence of the two most prolific trees in our area. At the south end of the millrace where it emptied back into the Huron and facing East Cross Street, was the Deubel Flouring Mill. A very substantial business and along with it the usual cooperage where barrels were made for the finished flour. Not far east of the Deubel Mill was the Follette House, built in 1858 and said to be the finest Hotel be-tween Detroit and Chicago. The exterior of the several storied brick building gives little evidence of the glitter and gayiety of former days while the interior is a complete shambles.

When the woodburning single tract railroad was completed from Detroit to Ypsilanti in February 1838, the planners and promoters were busy. The first tiny station was a wooden structure on the west side of the track. Mark Norris, an impressive name in the early Ypsilanti history came to Ypsilanti in 1827 and during the next quarter century, he contributed greatly to the steady growth of Ypsilanti. He built a fine brick home on River Street, several brick structures near the intersection of East Cross Street and the railroad. Those buildings are standing today and in use, having served retail and wholesale endeavors for many owners. The big brick building on the NE corner of River Street and East Cross was built by Norris in 1864 and housed a Company of soldiers during the War Between the States. Benjamin Thompson and O.E. Thompson manufactured carriages and hand seeders and hand cultivators there for years. Philo Ferrier came from Detroit and had a foundry on the East side of River Street just south of the railroad. It was a foundry that made heavy machinery for papermills, and it was in that foundry that parts were made for the only threshing machine made in Ypsilanti. Edward D. McPherson had successfully manufactured Threshing Machines in Port Clinton, Ontario for many years. His best market was in the States but the states set up a 35% protective tariff. So Edward came to Ypsilanti and located on the north side of the railroad at Park Street. The Promoters writing for the 1881 ‘County History’, wrote that McPherson was able to turn out 500 Threshing Machines annually. Perhaps there are too many ciphers on that production number! The East Side, as the area on the east side of the Huron was called, had the names of able men in its roster: Mark Norris, John Howland, John Gilbert, Judge Ninde, Benjamin Follett, Ben-jamin Thompson and O.E. Thompson, plus C.E. Woodard, the Civil engineer who came with the railroad in 1838 and many others. A cluster of business places near the railroad, many fine homes, the East side seemed to dominate early Ypsilanti and yet for reasons never exactly clear, these men resented the growth of the West side with its business section on the wide United States Military Road. Even though the West side seemed to have more fiascos and actual disasters, it ex-panded and overshadowed the East side.

The first little brick schoolhouse was on the East side, but when School District No 4 was formed, the Seminary was built on the West side. The East side had the first Fire Department, it was the location for the First Masonic Lodge, the Deubel Mill, largest flouring Mill in Washtenaw County was on the east side of the river. Many factors seemed to favor the East side. Even the fact that there was no bridge for wagon traffic across the Huron at Cross Street until 1858, seemed to indicate that the East side was a complete community. The West side may have grown just because it West, and in the life of so many pioneers, there was that magnet of the west for expansion; the East side was cut off be the river. The West side suffered the great disaster of the 1851 fire that destroyed 21 places of business in the block from Washington Street to Huron. Immediately brick buildings replaced the burned out wooden ones.

Most of these structures in use today are three story. One of them has an iron plaque high on its front which reads: “G. Davis 1851”; that was Gilman Davis, and today he, of course, is forgotten and so is the plaque as it is covered by an aluminum front.

At any rate, the East side set up their own government and separated in 1858 from the West side. Representation and Taxation were still exciting words in those days. At last the two parts of the city were united and a bridge for vehicles constructed across the Huron on Cross Street, but the City Hall was built on Cross Street at the west end of the bridge.

Ypsilanti has had several disasters, two of them major ones. The great fire of 1851 which destroyed 21 places in the heart of the business section; the cyclone of 1893 which left the downtown in a bombed out condition. Fires were common disasters; the first building for the old Normal Teacher Training College was burned soon after the school opened. The Seminary burned, the high school burned com-pletely once, and three times partially. The Cornwell Mill at Lowell had a serious boiler explosion and then in 1908 burned entirely. The Cornwells also had a terrifying boiler explosion in their plant where the Ford Generator Plant is. In order to get the newsprint order from the “Chicago Tribune”, the Peninsular Paper was required to build a second plant across the river to insure uninterrupted production and sure enough their plant on the north side of the Huron River was completely destroyed by fire.

You can see how easy it is to find a reason to leave the river. But let's continue down the river from Cross Street. If we were on foot on River Street, which is a boulevard, we pass the elaborate brick home of the Ferriers and the im-posing brick home of Bernard C. Whittemore, State of Michigan Treasurer in 1850. We can cut thru where Mark Norris built his home in 1834, and it still stands, and as we come to the river, there is a weir which diverted water for cooling purposes in the carbarns of the old Interuban electric, east of the river and on the north side of old Congress Street. That big brick building was half destroyed by fire the winter of 1974. Two McCullogh brothers had an excellent foundry on the south side of Congress, and then we find a weir for another Deubel flouring mill, destroyed by fire in 1915. On the high bank of the west side of the river, Dr. Helen McAndrew, the first woman Doctor in the County and one of the earliest in the state, built an octagon house in 1854 and had a health spa and small hospital. A high tight board fence did not keep the curious from getting a glimpse of live, human anatomy, alarming outsiders, causing consternation and complaints. The spa and the doctor are gone, the house altered for income, so you have to look closely to see that it must be an old octagon. Ypsilanti has two existing octa-gons, this one at 105 South Huron and the other at 114 N. River Street where it was located after moving it from its original location on old Ellis Street, now Washtenaw. Continuing on the high bank of the Huron, we come to the handsome frame mansion of the Swift family. In the 1890s the property was sold or leased to the group representing the Keeley Institute. Some of us remember the Keeley Cure as a forerunner of Alcoholic Annonymous. The business did not prosper, the Swifts reclaimed the property. Today it is the site of the Gilbert Residence, a very fine retirement home.

The river makes a big loop, washes South Grove Street before returning to a dam and race for another Cornwell Paper Mill. The Cornwells used the water for power and also extensively for cooling and washing, having a big pond and also a weir. It is now the location of the Ford Motor Generator plant. And then the river rushes on, putting tremendous pressure on the east bank, south of the present 1–94 and that is where Benjamin Woodruff had his sawmill, using the swift current of the river for power without constructing a dam. Then the river meanders thru the flat lands of a wide valley known as King's Flats and now it is Ford Lake.

Some of you can rest at Ford Dam if you like, while we re-turn to mention the “Bradstreet Reports” for Michigan for the year 1876, just 100 years after that world shaking Proclamation of Independence, and 100 years after that is us! In 1876 the Peninsular Paper Company is rated ‘Very High’ and given an ‘A’ for Credit; Daniel Lace Quirk is the only other “A” rating in the Ypsilanti list of 160 and he is a Capitalist. He was one of the organizers of the Peninsular Paper Company.

There are only 4 Companies with a ‘B’ rating; Philo Ferrier & Son, Foundry, George Moorman, Grocery; Ypsilanti Paper Co. (Cornelius Cornwell) and A. Worden & Bros. Manufacturers of a horse and buggy accessary known as the ‘Whip Socket’. There must have been money in making whipsockets because the Wordens were sued for patent infringement. There were at least 6 Blacksmiths, plus a dozen Saloons and a half dozen Taverns, one Pump Manufacturer, one Tanner, two Wagon Makers, three Carriage Makers.

In those days, when common sense was better than a College Degree, the Medical Doctors were rated and also the Dentists, even though Dentists were often considered refined black-smiths. An interesting listing is for Watling & Tremper, Dentist with a ‘C’ rating. John Watling lived in Ypsilanti for many years and became world famous in dentristy. His fine brick residence still stands on North Huron Street and also the brick building he used as his office and that building has a splendid Roman Arch in its front. We have hopes that the home and office building will be preserved, both having been purchased recently along with the Breakey-Ballard house by Haabs. The Grants were early pump makers, specializing in the chain rubber bucket pump. For many years their home was that Greek Revival House on North Washington Street, now the home of the Ladies' Literary Club since 1913 and recently put in first class condition.

We have splendid examples of Greek Revival Architecture still standing. Half a dozen such structures have been destroyed. The mansion that Shelly Byron Hutchinson built, soon after the turn of the century still stands. It was a pre-Hollywood structure, with a ballroom, an indoor swimming pool, a billard room and the finest artisians produced a lavish interior. A farm boy with that romantic name, Shelly Byron, sold shoes both wholesale and retail, and talked about a trading stamp idea until, at last with the financial help of Sperry, the ‘S & H. Green Stamp and Premiums’, were an established fact, bringing fabulous riches but an unhappy home life to the farm boy with the romantic name. The mansion is at 616 N. River. Kind words can never die, and the 1878 Ypsilanti Directory, after saying that Ypsilanti has two business centers or villages, with fine water power and having a population of 6000, listing the several important busineses and ending the eulogy with the statement: “Few Towns in the West have a better reputation for good morals”. And where are they now? The Cutcheons, the Starkweathers (Mrs.Starkweather was a Newberry), the Babbitts, Shelly Byron Hutchinson, John D. Pierce, the Wortleys, Charles King, Hemphill, Follett, Elijah McCoy, Batcheldor, Showerman, Ballard …there is such a long rollcall. Yost, Putnam, E.P.Allen, Bogardus, Parmenio Davis, Glover, the Thompsons. Women had much to do with the for-mation of the village and town. Dr. Helen McAndrew, Florence Babbitt, the greatest and most industrious collector of Americana in the Middle West, Eunice Watling, Harriet W. Larzelere, Roxanna Norris, Anna Muir, Ruth Hoppin, Julia Ann King, Frances Stewart, Lucy Hewitt, Sarah Owen, and in later years, Helen Jenks Cleary, Marna Osband, Lulu Skinner, Florence Shultes. So many names, events, deserving of mention. Our intention was to stick with the River. And now-the moving finger having writ, moves on…with interest reviving in the railroads, we will leave you with that old corny juvenile joke which went something like this: “They aren't going to have those gates at the railroad any longer,” and the astonished listener would ask: “They aren't? Why not?” and the shrewd answer was: “Because they are long enough now!”


A talk given by Foster L. Fletcher, Ypsilanti City Historian given before the Washtenaw County Historical Society 1974.