River Street Neighbor’s Gossip and the Hutchinson Marriage
Author: Janice Anschuetz
Before the days of radio and television, news was spread by way of front porch networks. This is how I heard of the troubled marriage of Clara and Shelley Hutchinson, who had once lived in the mansion across the street from my home. My next door neighbor, Frank Lidke, who was born on East Forest and died in his driveway there at a ripe old age, shared this story with me. He had heard it first as a young lad. He told me that Mrs. Lizzie Swaine, the woman who had built and lived in our home and who had a front row view of both the Hutchinson house and of other houses that became places of refuge for the Hutchinson children and their mother Clara, would give a blow by blow account of the current state of her neighbors’ marriage to anyone passing by. Believe it or not, the neighbors were still gossiping about this troubled family when we moved into the Swaine House over forty years ago, which was more than sixty years after the Hutchinson family moved out. I was curious about the story that I was told, and when I researched it in the museum archives, I found it to be not only true, but even more spectacular than I had thought.
Everyone in Ypsilanti knows where the Hutchinson House is high on the hill at East Forest and North River Street. It was once considered the most extravagant home west of the Allegany Mountains, built with a trading stamp fortune amassed by Shelley Byron Hutchinson. Few people know, however, that directly across from this opulent thirty-room mansion is the tiny four room home where Clara Hutchinson, Shelly’s wife, and her three children, lived before, during and after the Hutchinson’s divorced. There they lived, while the grand Richardsonian Revival house hulked directly across the street, a daily reminder of the servants, jewels, diamonds, swimming pool, and ballroom Clara and her children once enjoyed.
The life story of Shelley Byron Hutchinson would make a captivating novel or movie, but most people would have a hard time believing that it was true. It is the story of a man who made and lost a fortune in a little over a decade, and then lost his young family as well. Let me tell you at least part of this interesting tale. It starts with Shelley’s ambitious grandparents.
Shelley’s grandparents were among the first settlers in Ypsilanti, arriving here from New York State in 1835. James and Elizabeth Cronkhite Hutchinson were both born in New York State in 1797. They were married on Elizabeth’s birthday, December 27, 1818. Like many other young couples of their time, they decided to seek their fortune in Michigan, where land was cheap, so they packed up their belongings and left for Michigan with two young sons, Daniel and Henry. A third son, James Jr., was born in Lockport, New York during the long journey west. In 1822 the Erie Canal was being built, and James Sr. could not resist the high wages that were being paid and found work building it. This lengthened their trip to Michigan by thirteen years, and during that time all three of their daughters – Margaret, Cornelia and Caroline - were born.
The Hutchinson family finally completed their trip from New York and arrived in Ypsilanti in June, 1835, just ten years after the village was platted. The father, James Sr., and his three sons soon started a business as teamsters. James also bought and sold land. Within a short time they purchased farmland west of the settlement in Superior Township. On July 8, 1839 Elizabeth gave birth to another son, Stephen Hutchinson, who married Loretta Jaycox on November 26, 1862. They eventually became the parents of Shelley Byron Hutchinson and three other children.
Shelley was born in a log cabin on a farm in Superior Township on October 19, 1864. Sometime after 1860, his grandparents, James and Elizabeth, left their farm and moved to 227 North River Street. It was a white frame house directly north of the red brick apartment building known as Cornwall House, and was torn down in 1968. The dwelling was near the home of Mark Norris, who is said to have been a good friend. James Hutchinson, Sr. died on November 14, 1874. Shortly before his death, his son Stephen and family moved from the log cabin to live with his parents on River Street. Stephen was the town constable and within a year he moved his family to a home at 509 River Street. They lived there from 1874 until 1894, and it was there that Shelley grew into a young man. The house was across the street from the once opulent Champlain mansion, which was located at River and Forest Street.
Shelley was considered by his neighbors a very bright and ambitious young man. He once even worked as a dance master, and more about his career can be found in his obituary, published in The Ypsilanti Press on July 17, 1961. There we read that “His initial adventure in trading stamps started in Battle Creek, where he, his father and brother, Ernest, were in the retail shoe business in the 1880’s. The idea showed great promise and headquarters were established in Jackson. The undertaking took on new life three years later when Hutchinson met Thomas and William Sperry. Premium stores sprung up in leading Michigan cities and contracts were negotiated with scores of merchants for distribution of the stamps. The stamps were given then, as now, to encourage sales, and customers saved them for premiums. The price paid by merchants for stamps allowed the S. and H. Company a generous profit. The promotion spread to other states, reaching from coast to coast. An uncle, Richard Bagley, and a cousin, Oran Todd, opened a premium store in Ypsilanti in 1894. Hutchinson’s father and brother had a similar store in Ann Arbor.”
Shelley traveled a great deal to promote his new business, even going as far as Sydney, Australia. While in California he was arrested over 20 times on false charges, pressed by a rival in an attempt to destroy his business. He also met and eventually married his wife, Clara Unsinger, who worked in his employment as a stenographer. She was the granddaughter of a deacon living in Ypsilanti. The Ypsilantian newspaper reported the marriage on April 27, 1899, and stated that the newlyweds would live in New York. They lived in Brooklyn and came to visit Ypsilanti with their daughter in 1901.
The young “trading stamp king” was interested in building a new home either in Ypsilanti or Detroit, where he planned to begin a newspaper. At this point he was described by one article as making so much money that he couldn’t shovel it fast enough. He asked for his father’s opinion about the two possible sites. Without hesitation, his father Stephen encouraged Shelley to build the home in Ypsilanti. Having grown up on River Street, with relatives, including his parents, still living there, he was familiar with the then deteriorating mansion built on what was considered the highest land in the city, overlooking the rest. This hill was once used by the Indians as a signal fire point, where messages from one band or tribe could be conveyed to another by way of smoke signals.
His father suggested that he purchase this site, and the Champlain home was divided into several parts, two of which were moved to High Street and became separate homes. Another dwelling at the site was moved to 117 East Forest, Peck family land, and became the home of Dwight and Cora Peck.
In an audio narrative, recorded in the 1960s, when she was over 80 years old, Jessie Swaine, Shelley’s lifelong friend and neighbor, states that building his mansion on the east side of Ypsilanti was a social mistake for the young millionaire. The east side of the river, at that time, was considered the neighborhood of the working class, while the west side was home to the wealthy and socially elite in town.
This issue is explored in a newspaper article in the Ypsilanti Daily Press, dated July 25, 1961. “When he built his mansion, which could not be equaled anywhere in the state… he put it in an area where he grew up. He had the same neighbors as before and apparently treated them no differently…. Local annals do not agree on why he did not go to the west side of the city. Some said he was unable to ‘break into’ Ypsilanti society. Others said that since people in ‘society’ did not accept him before he got the money they wouldn’t have a chance afterward. There are also stories of efforts of the then leading families to entice him. He turned them down, according to that version of the story.”
Notes for a speech given to the Historical Society in Ypsilanti in the 1970s tell more about Shelley’s early life here. “The youth (Shelley) went to the Union School here and it is presumed that his education was through the eighth grade as that was the custom at the time. In the 1894 city directory he is listed as a teacher and this may be the time at which he and a woman named Smith conducted dancing classes in the old Light Guard Hall. During the 1880s he and his brother Ernest were in the retail shoe business in Battle Creek. It was during this period that Shelley germinated the trade stamp idea. Headquarters were established in Jackson but the empire didn’t start building until three years later when he met Thomas and William Sperry…During the height of his success Shelley Hutchinson built the mansion and bought diamonds by the pocketful. These he delighted to wear and when he stood in the sun he literally sparkled. He and his wife rode about town in a fine phaeton with matched horses. The newly rich pair had the finest clothes and the stamp king wore a silk top hat. Memory of slights during his boyhood made him resist building his mansion on the west side of town and he made a point of maintaining his friendships in the old neighborhood. Thus, when the time came for the opening party in the 30 room house his champagne went to east siders, among them the merchants in the depot town area. He went abroad several times and brought back objects for the furnishing of the home. His old neighbors still expected and got the consideration of the old days.”
The building of this home and the “rags to riches” life story were the topic of quite a few newspaper articles. Even though the mansion, which took two years to complete, was still unfinished, The Ann Arbor Courier-Register of May 14, 1902 reported on the “palatial home” of 37 year old Shelley and his wife. He made sure that the mansion was large enough to accommodate not only Clara and his three children, but his parents, brothers and sister - his entire family. This may have been a mistake and it was said by newspaper accounts that he also used poor judgment in investing heavily in the newspaper field, where he envisioned a paper with nationwide circulation called the United States Daily. As a result of this he was involved in many lawsuits and he lost his control of the stamp business.
There was no question that Shelly loved to give people in town something to talk about. A former neighbor, A. A. Bedell, who lived at 325 Maple, remembers the late Shelley B. Hutchinson. He describes him in an undated Ypsilanti Daily Press article. “Hutchinson was always immaculate in dress, dark haired and handsome. One day he stood in the Bedell shoe store in Depot Town and a shaft of sunlight struck all of his diamonds, a glittering array. He had half carat diamond rings in each cuff link and wore two diamond rings, one of three carats and one between seven and eight. His shirt stud had a three and a half carat stone.”
It seems that Shelley’s dreams of a home, family and wealth did not last long. Shelley Hutchinson’s family gave the neighbors more to talk about than diamonds and fine clothes. Even the Detroit News on July 31, 1906 ran an article entitled “S.B. Hutchinson Family of Ypsilanti in a Merry Row,” with subtitles “Wife Withdraws with Children from Mansion on the Hill” and “Neighbors are Zealously Helping the Factions to Air the Trouble.” This interesting article provides the same information that my neighbors told me 60 years after the Hutchinson’s left River Street – and even more. We read: “Whether all that gossip says is true or not, this mansion of cut field stone, with its broad verandas, its splendid ball room and billiard room, its acre or more of lawn sloping down a picturesque bluff – this palatial house is a home only for dissension. Family strife is at its high. Mrs. Hutchinson withdraws in anger ever and anon from it, taking with her the three small children of the couples and goes to sojourn with neighbors. The house is occupied and managed by Hutchinson’s father, mother and sister. They have lived there since the house was built.”
The reporter then attempts to state the reasons for this strife under an article titled “Their Rival Claims.” He writes that “The wife takes the position that she has been forced out of her home. The father and sister declare that they wish she would return and assume the management. The husband has since gone south ‘for his health’. It is a fierce jangle, and the statement that it has got on his nerves can readily be credited.”
This reporter also involves the neighbors in his story: “The gossips will tell the ready listener that the Hutchinsons never got into society here…what folly it was to build such a house in such a place and then practically to shun ‘society’…. The friends of the Hutchinsons are the friends that the town constable’s family had in the early days. It didn’t take them long to learn that internal war was waging in the ‘mansion on the hill’.”
An example given to illustrate this is that Shelley is said to have invited a neighbor and old friend in to see the messy condition his wife left her room in when she went out to the theater with this neighbor the night before. “These neighbors in humbler circumstances seem to be ex-officio, and by common consent arbiters in the most intimate concerns of the Hutchinson ménage. The tales told by both sides of the house, the wife on one side and the father and sister on the other, would be comic if they did not bear an ominous warning for people who allow their neighbors to meddle with their private affairs…. Mrs. Hutchinson is now living at one of the neighbors, and though there is some effort to make out that she is penniless, she has at least something of value. She has her husband’s diamonds – three valuable stones.”
This story becomes even more interesting. Under the newspaper heading “No Oil for the Troubled Waters,” more is written about Shelley Hutchinson’s diamonds. It seems that the winter before Shelley was very ill he entrusted Clara to take care of his diamonds. “When he recovered, he asked her to return them. She refused, saying that he had given them to her. It is related that Hutchison took them from his wife’s hiding place while she slept. He kept them under lock and key in a tin box in a roll top desk in his office in the house. Mrs. Hutchinson secured his key, and unlocked the office door. One of the desk drawers happened to be ajar. She got the box and cut it open with a can opener. The neighbors know all about these things, and much more of the same quality. There seems to be a dim perception creeping in that outside interference is responsible for a great part of the trouble.”
The story continues: “These neighbors,” said the sister in a helpless sort of way, “Why they’ve got his wife, and they’ve even got his dog. They feed the animal and he doesn’t come home anymore.” Then Shelley’s father is quoted as saying, “She hates Retta (meaning that Clara hates Shelley’s sister) but I don’t know what for...” “One time she thought I was listening at the office door when she and Shelley were having a set-to,” says Retta. “I wasn’t, but she came out in the kitchen and pulled my hair.” Another fight was when Clara locked the ball room and Retta used a key to open it.
The reporter goes on to describe the two women: “Retta, blonde and plump, about 22 years old, is rather proud of the fact that the family once were ‘poor people’ and that she knows how to keep house and darn socks and things. Clara, the wife, only three or four years older than Retta is of the darker type, and apparently isn’t much inclined to the details of housekeeping. The blonde is vivacious and perhaps mischievously provocative; the brunette is taciturn and tempestuous by turns. The husband seems to be as incapable of managing the two young women as he is of managing the neighbors.”
At the time of the divorce, before and after it, Clara Hutchinson and children were living in a tiny home across from the mansion at 629 North River Street. Shelley sued his wife for divorce in 1909 and she filed a “cross bill.” In the Ypsilanti Daily Press for January 14, 1910 it is reported that the divorce case was settled and that Mrs. Hutchinson was awarded custody of the three children, with $9,000 cash to be paid over five years time, and his diamonds. We later learn that Clara left town and eventually remarried and had two more children, after selling Shelley’s diamonds. The 3.35 carat stone was sold to a neighbor and others were sold to Square Deal Miller, a Detroit diamond merchant who got his start in Ypsilanti. The diamonds had been originally purchased by Shelley from Tiffany’s in New York.
Shelley continued living his life in the hope that his broken dreams and wealth might be restored. He lived in the east, mainly in hotels, and even when he was 90 years old he was still trying to devise new get-rich schemes. In a newspaper interview from 1955 we read: “Shelley Hutchinson, 91, now lives in New York and visions a new promotion that will out-mode the present coupons, ‘as automobiles have taken the place of carriages.’ He talks of returning to Ypsilanti and the magnificent home which he built here in the ‘gay nineties’ -- a monument to the millions which trading stamps poured into his treasury. He tells the reporter about some of the happier times in the mansion and the first party given there, complete with an orchestra and champagne where couples strolled onto balconies outside the ballroom and were able to look over the quiet village of Ypsilanti. He states, ‘Some of the people there were jealous of me because of the big house but they had no reason to be. I was good to everybody.’”
Shelley did return to Ypsilanti in July, 1961, for burial after his death at the age of 97. He is buried in the family plot at Highland Cemetery, a few blocks north of the dream mansion on the hill, which was sold at public auction to the Ypsilanti Savings bank to satisfy an unpaid mortgage and back taxes in 1912.
I am sitting at my laptop writing this on the front porch of one of the “neighbors houses,” the Swaine House, looking up at the mansion, and I can also look across River Street to the “neighbor’s home” that Clara and the children would retreat to. I can also see the tiny house on River Street where they chose to take residence, rather than endure the strife in the mansion. In telling you this story from my own front porch at Forest and River, I am passing it on from the same place I first heard about it myself from neighbors gossiping over 40 years ago.
(Janice Anschuetz currently lives in the Swaine House that is located at 101 East Forest and is very interested in the history of the neighborhood.)
Photo 1: James Hutchinson, grandfather of Shelly Hutchinson, arrived in Ypsilanti from New York State in 1835.
Photo 2: Sometime after 1860, Shelley’s grandparents, James and Elizabeth Hutchinson, left their log cabin on a farm in Superior Township and moved to this house at 227 North River Street in Ypsilanti.
Photo 3: Shelley’s childhood home at 509 River Street was just across the street from the once opulent Champlain mansion located on the lot where Shelley later built his own mansion.
Photo 4: This is the view of the Hutchinson Mansion that Clara would have had from her tiny home on River Street.
Photo 5: Neighbors said this is the home at the Northwest corner of North River Street and East Forest Street where Clara and the children, and even Shelley’s dog, spent their time rather than fight with the in-laws in the mansion.
Photo 6: The small house at 629 North River Street, directly across from the Hutchinson mansion, that Shelley’s wife Clara and their three children lived in before, during and after the divorce rather than live in the 30-room mansion.
Photo 7: Photo of Shelley Hutchinson that appeared with an article in a local newspaper in 1955 titled “Stamps Bring Fame to Local Man.” Shelley was 91 at the time and the article indicated he was envisioning a new trading stamp enterprise.