The Swift House

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



Author: James Mann

The Gilbert Residence on South Huron Street, a highly rated home for senior citizens, stands on what was once the site the Swift house, one of the grand homes of Ypsilanti. For many years this was the home of Helen Swift, and then her daughter Harriet. The Swift house was demolished to make room for the Gilbert Residence. What is not well known is the fact the Swift house was once a treatment center for alcoholics.

Helen Conklin Swift was born on July 26, 1849, in the house at the corner of Washington and Emmet Streets, now the home of the Ladies Literary Club. She was the daughter of Isaac Conklin who was active in local business and was one of the original organizers of the First National Bank in 1863, was for many years president of the Ypsilanti Gas Company and a director of the Peninsula Paper Company. Helen married Ward Willard Swift on February 27, 1867, and the couple had five children. After her father’s death in 1884, Helen took over many of his interests and would always be identified with them.

Ward Swift seems to have shared an interest in real estate with Helen. The Ypsilantian of March 22, 1888 reported: “Mr. Swift has (purchased) three new houses—one at the northern point of Washington Street, where it runs into Huron Street, and two back of that on Arcadia Street, the short street that extends diagonally from Huron to Adams. The latter two are small cottages, and the first is a two story frame with extreme dimensions about 28 x 32 feet. The old house between these, on the corner of Huron and Arcadia, also owned by Mr. Swift, is being repaired, with new and higher roof, etc.”

At about this time in 1888, Helen Swift acquired the old Judge Joslyn homestead on South Huron Street. She either had the old home demolished and a new structure built, or had the old house remolded. Then in 1892, she sold the property to The Michigan Institute for the Treatment of Alcoholism. Investors from Detroit had purchased the rights for the State of Michigan for the Keely Gold Cure, and formed an incorporated stock company.

The Keeley Institute was founded by Leslie Keeley in 1879 at Dwight, Illinois, and was the first time alcoholism was treated as a medical problem and not as a moral weakness. “Alcoholism is a disease,” said Keeley, “and I can cure it.” His treatment called for his patients to line up four times a day for shots, which Keeley said contained bichloride of gold. They also had to take a preparation every two hours every day. Chemical analysis revealed the proprietary tonic contained just over 25% alcohol, ammonium chloride, aloin and tincture of cinchona but no gold. The shot contained sulphate of strychnine, atropine and boracic acid. Today the treatment is remembered as an example of successful quackery. In 1892, however, the Keeley Gold cure seemed like a good investment.

Several residents of Ypsilanti, including Helen Swift, bought stock in the company. The company moved its operation to Ypsilanti, and purchased the Swift property on South Huron Street. When Helen Swift left the property, she left the house furnished and ready for use. The property was said to be the most admirable for the purpose that could be imagined.

“Although located in the heart of the city, but two blocks from the main business street, it is quiet and almost rural in its park-like character. The house, which was a few years ago rebuilt and embellished in modern style, stands well back in the spacious grounds, with fifteen rods of rich sward between it and the street, shaded by original native oaks. Ten rods in rear of the house, the lawn ends at the top of a steep, wooded bluff, 30 or 40 feet high, at the foot of which flows the swift current of the Huron River. The property has a front of 350 feet on Huron street, including a cottage at the south corner, and extends back of the remaining two lots south to Race Street, on which there is a front of over 400 feet, reaching to the river. The fine brick stable and carriage house is located on Race Street, and the whole area of the grounds is about four and a half acres,” reported The Ypsilantian of Thursday, May 19, 1892.

“The lovely rooms within the house were left not only with all of their rich and luxurious furniture, but bric-a-brac upon stands and mantels, draping, bedding and linen in place as Mrs. Swift had them for ornament and use, make every room inviting. The south front room on the first floor will be the manager’s office, and the dining room in rear of that, and opening from the end of the hall, will be a reception room. The north front room will be the operating room, and in rear of that is Dr. Poole’s private office. Mr. Rose has his office on the second floor, where the two front chambers will be retained with sleeping apartment furnishings for use in case of a visit from any eminent guests to whom the institution should desire to pay especial honor, as the officers of the company, or Dr. Keeley himself,” noted The Ypsilantian of Thursday, June 2, 1892.

“The premises,” noted the account, “are to be further improved and embellished. The old brick stable, lately used for an ice house, will be removed when it is empty. The handsome new stable that Mrs. Swift erected on the Race Street front of the premises, will be reconstructed, a new front put upon the north face, and considerable addition built upon the east, to adapt it for a club house - reading rooms, hall for debates and other entertainments, billiard rooms, etc. On the east side, a bowling alley is to be constructed, where the poultry houses now are, and these are to be removed to the river bank and converted into boat houses.”

Those to be treated at the Swift house often arrived while in an intoxicated condition, and were placed in the care of an attendant until sobered up. Then the treatment began. This consisted of a hypodermic administration of the Gold Cure four times a day. At the sounding of a gong morning, noon, afternoon and evening, those to be treated passed in single file through the operating room for the treatment which they had facetiously termed ‘receiving the shot.’ They would also take a preparation from a vial which they carried in their pocket every two hours while awake.

“The patrons of the Keeley Institute are chiefly men of social position and intellectual worth. Physicians, lawyers and members of other learned professions are frequent among them; and their restoration to their proper position in the family and community, and transformation from lost and hopeless men to good citizens and earnest reformers, is a work worthy of the honors that it’s illustrious discoverer is now receiving in two hemispheres,” concluded the account.

By 1896 the Keeley Gold Cure had left Ypsilanti and the city directory for that year lists Helen Swift as living at 203 South Huron Street. The reasons for the Cure leaving the city are unclear, perhaps another city made a better offer and obtained the franchise. Now the house was once again a residence and Helen Swift lived in the house until her death at the age of 78 on Wednesday, June 29, 1927. Her daughter Harriet, who never married, lived in the house until her death August 8, 1958. The house by then had been purchased by the Gilbert Fund and plans were made for the building of a senior community. The house was demolished and the Gilbert Resident was built in its place.

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

Postscript by Peg Porter, Gleanings Assistant Editor: When my parents were first married they lived in an apartment on Huron Street. Hattie Swift offered to let them store some furniture and wedding presents in her carriage house until their new home was built. Not long afterward, a fire destroyed the carriage house and its contents. Hattie, who felt badly about their loss, gave them several of her antiques. Two of them, a marble top table and a rosewood melodian now grace my home. I remember going with my mother to visit Miss Swift when I was about five. As I recall, we went in the side door, into the kitchen where it appeared Hattie spent most of her time. She took us into a small parlor where we had tea. Much of the house was closed off no doubt to save money. She was a tiny little lady with white hair. She seemed so happy to have visitors. I feel fortunate to have spent some time with her and to have items from an interesting time in Ypsilanti's past.

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: Helen Conklin Swift was born in 1849 in the house that is now home to the Ladies Literary Club.

Photo 2: The Swift House at 203 South Huron Street in Ypsilanti.

Photo 3: Harriet Swift, who never married, lived in the house at 203 South Huron Street until her death in 1958.

Photo 4: A pictorial drawing of the Gilbert Residence by architect Ralph Gerganoff.