Ypsilanti's Yonder

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, Fall 2009,
Fall 2009
Original Images:



Author: Derek Spinei

Not one, but two other communities in the United States bear the name “Ypsilanti.” How either of them received their name is a rather murky (and becoming all the more ambiguous with the passage of time), but stories and rumors abound.

Ypsilanti, North Dakota: Expansion of the railroad Westward brought settlers from Michigan to the Great Plains. In 1879 the U.S. government gave 621 acres of land in Stutsman County of the Dakota Territory to the Northern Pacific Railroad, part of which became Ypsilanti Township, which includes the Ypsilanti townsite. The townsite was staked out on the East bank of the James River by a William Hartley Colby from Ypsilanti, Michigan. However, there are differing ideas on how the name of “Ypsilanti” was ascribed to this new community.

There is an accepted belief that Colby himself chose the name. A contrary argument is that local businessman and banker Louis Klein, also from Ypsilanti, Michigan, named the area. Evidence has also been presented that an Allen family from Ypsilanti, Michigan or even the Northern Pacific Railroad itself picked “Ypsilanti.” The N.P.R. apparently had a practice of naming new stations after the hometowns of its employees. Many being from Michigan, there were communities within 40 miles of the new Ypsilanti named Adrian and Grand Rapids. This is analogous to the way that several Michigan locales were named by migrants from New York (Rochester, Flushing, New Buffalo, etc.). It is most likely that the name “Ypsilanti” was chosen by consensus by the many settlers who came from Ypsilanti, Michigan, and wanted to propagate that name. So when Colby established the first post office in 1882, Ypsilanti came into being. Although Stutsman County had been organized in 1873, it was not until 1889 that the territory was split and North Dakota was admitted into the Union as the 39th state, creating Ypsilanti, North Dakota.

Colby also established a stagecoach stop at Ypsilanti in 1882 and travelers arrived in Concord Stagecoaches from Jamestown until service ended in 1885 when the railroad came to town. This was a rail that had been planned by the James River Valley Railroad Co. to connect Jamestown and LaMoure, Dakota Territory. After finishing the grading, the company ran out of funds which allowed the N.P.R. to purchase and complete the line. Ypsilanti Township was then organized on St. Patrick’s Day in 1908 with the goal of building and maintaining roads. The townsite was never incorporated and continues to be governed by the township except for a portion which straddles neighboring Corwin Township.

Situated exactly 800 miles Northwest of Ypsilanti, Michigan, Ypsilanti, North Dakota has always been a rural community a little behind the times. Early settlers lived in sod houses with dirt floors and no indoor plumbing. Each family had their own well and heated their home by burning wood or coal, using kerosene or gas lamps for light. The N.P.R. brought Western Union telegrams with the railroad, but it wasn’t until 1958 that the Dakota Central Rural Telephone Co. brought its services to the area. Ypsilanti did not even have electricity until 1942. The lack of modern amenities was made no easier by the environmental disasters which frequently befall plains states. In 1901 there was a disastrous flood and a cyclone in 1909 caused three deaths and left buildings destroyed. Being almost exclusively constructed of wood, many houses and businesses in Ypsilanti have burned down over the past century.

Some notable residents of the town are Pearl Youse, a second cousin once removed of Abraham Lincoln, and Chris Hendrickson. The James River is purported to be the longest unnavigable river in the world, but Hendrickson challenged that claim when he floated down the river in a wash tub during the 1901 flood to find high ground where he would build his new house. Records show a number of residents came from Michigan but there is little indication of specifically where they originated. Settlers immigrated from Belgium, Netherlands, Sweden, Norway and Germany, as well as from other parts of North Dakota. Ypsilanti became known as the “White City” because every structure in town was painted white.

However, in the 1960s complaints started to arise that younger people in town were not upholding this tradition and they were accused of lacking community spirit. Resources and money being scarce, many of the homes in town were actually moved from farms significant distances away. There has indeed been a great amount of community spirit through the years. One resident donated the land for a dam to be built by the WPA in 1932. This established Ypsilanti Park which is enjoyed by residents to this day. Baseball was always a popular diversion and spectators would watch their town team from planks placed between beer kegs. They even won the county championship in 1936. Also popular has been the Friendly Squares, a square dancing club formed in 1952.

One thing Ypsilanti has always lacked is human population. It was reported to be around 250 in 1981 but has since dwindled to 168 as of 2000. There are less than 5 people per square mile in the township. In fact, the entire population of Stutsman County is less than that of Ypsilanti, Michigan. Most business must be conducted 10 miles northwest of town in the relative metropolis of Jamestown – a city best known as the site of the National Buffalo Museum, where visitors can find the world’s largest statue of a buffalo and a live albino buffalo.

Connections have been made between the Ypsilanti in Michigan and the one in North Dakota. Many curious Michiganders travelling on I-94 have made pit stops in Ypsilanti, North Dakota since it is only six miles south of the interstate. As part of the bicentennial celebrations in 1976, the town hosted “Ypsi Day,” a parade and festival which attracted thousands including Ypsilanti Press reporter Steve Jones. He recorded one resident of the overwhelmed town as saying “It blows hard here 360 days a year.”

While we may never be entirely sure who deserves credit for making the final decision about naming the town, it is guaranteed that it was named for Ypsilanti, Michigan because of the settlers who came from here and the great memories they must have wanted to recreate.

Ypsilanti, Georgia: The history of Ypsilanti, Georgia has proven much more elusive, especially since it barely exists anymore. Approximately halfway between Macon and Columbus, in Talbot County, Ypsilanti is now merely a crossroads with a reported five residences. Unlike Michigan with its platted townships, Georgia counties were divided into militia districts. When an area had enough settlers to muster 100 white men capable of bearing and carrying arms, a militia district was formed with the goal of protecting against Indian raids. Most people would live in clusters near the post office or church in their militia district and these would grow into towns.

Ypsilanti is in the Redbone militia district and when the first post office was established in 1856, the village was simply called Redbone. However the post office had to be closed in 1861 because of the Civil War. When the community was set to reopen the post office in 1883 (or 1885), they learned that a community elsewhere in Georgia had already claimed the name Redbone. At this point, stories vary widely about how “Ypsilanti” was chosen. One theory is that the Post Office Department in D.C. simply assigned the new name at random. More likely is that the Department asked the townspeople for suggestions and they picked Ypsilanti. However, there are accounts that residents did not find out there was an Ypsilanti, Michigan until later, so just like Judge Woodward in Michigan, these Georgians named their town after the Greek hero Demetrius Ypsilantis. Although Ypsilantis had been a household name, the fact that Ypsilanti, Georgia was named 50 years after the leader’s death casts some doubt on this theory.

A likely apocryphal explanation is that the name Poplarville was proposed, but the Post Office Department thought the name was too long. The residents then just randomly looked at a map of the country and their eyes fell on Ypsilanti, Michigan. Of course, “Ypsilanti” is only 2 letters shorter than their original choice so this story also seems implausible.

While no one can quite agree on the source of the name, it is known that the sudden change from Redbone to Ypsilanti caused confusion around the area and was probably a great inconvenience for the locals. A Star Route was created between the new post office and Prattsburg (about 4 miles Southeast of Ypsilanti), at first carrying mail once a week and later three times a week. But a dwindling population prompted the closure of the post office in 1916, and Ypsilanti is now served by Talbotton, the nearby county seat. The population of the county is currently only 6,600 and there is little chance that this hamlet will grow enough to warrant reestablishing the post office.

During its heyday in the early 20th century, when cotton was king, Ypsilanti boasted two cotton gins, four stores, a school and a church. The boll weevil infestation which devastated cotton yields sent most residents looking for work in the cities. Many ante-bellum farm houses have simply been abandoned since that time, and no new homes have been built since 1937. Today no row crops are grown and residents rely on timber, peaches, cattle, and chickens for their livelihood. In fact, pulp wood companies own much of the county, threatening what’s left of the community by their habit of removing old buildings from their properties, a necessity to keep taxes down. As for structures on land owned by residents, in 1967 a local was able to sum up the situation with the lament that abandoned homes were “too pretty to tear down, too old-fashioned to live in, and too expensive to remodel.” That same year Ypsilanti’s oldest standing house, built in 1830, was being sold for building materials because of the value of the old growth wood.

As has been shown, a lot can be lost to history after only a few generations if records of significant information are not kept. Frontier settlers with rough lives did not likely have posterity on their minds when recording civic business, but these towns should serve as examples of what can happen when history takes a back seat to progress and people disregard their past.

(Derek Spinei is enrolled in the graduate program in Historical Preservation at EMU and is serving an internship in the YHS Archives. He is a regular contributor to the Gleanings.)

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: “Ypsilanti” is the name of a city in Michigan, North Dakota, and Georgia.