Lost Businesses of Ypsilanti - Zwergel’s on West Cross Street

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


Winter 2010

Author: Peg Porter

If you attended Roosevelt, the “lab school” of MSNC, later EMU, chances are you remember Zwergel's. Like most other Roosevelt students you likely made regular visits to Zwergel’s during the lunch hour. Out the door, down the street past Pease Auditorium, around the corner and up the worn cement steps, and there close to the door on the right stood the candy counter. Oh, the decisions to be made. Would you like a rope of licorice or perhaps a piece of Double Bubble bubblegum? How about a jaw breaker? Were you up to handling a Fireball? And if you had more than a couple of pennies you could choose a candy bar or a package of Chuckles. So many choices!

Zwergel’s wasn’t in business to sell penny candy. Yet one of the clerks stood behind the counter patiently waiting for us to choose. We were never pressured nor treated like a minor nuisance (which we probably were). We headed back to school ready to begin the second half of the school day.

J. George Zwergel was born in 1851, to German immigrants, in Freedom Township, Washtenaw County. The family had settled in the County in the 1840’s. J. George left the family farm at age 22 to enter commercial life. He clerked for the John C. Liken Company in two different locations learning the trade. In 1896 he bought a lot in Ypsilanti on Cross Street where he built his store, just across the street from what was then the main campus. Zwergel’s sold books and school supplies as well as groceries and dry goods. For a time, Zwergel also operated an ice cream parlor. The business prospered. His prime location became the campus stop for the Interurban. Passengers would wait on the steps of Zwergel's for their car likely having made a stop at the store first.

Active in city affairs, Zwergel served as alderman for the Third Ward in 1902 and 1903. He was president of the City Council and Chairman of Ways and Means during his two terms. He died in 1915. Upon his passing, his daughter Mary, who had been clerking at the store, took over the business which she managed until her death in 1944. During her tenure the business expanded to include a beauty shop run by her niece Helen Zwergel Bassett. Prior to taking over the store Mary completed a year’s course in Cleary College and worked as a bookkeeper at the telephone company.

The following was written in the January 1, 1932, issue of the Ypsilanti Daily Press: “Miss Mary Zwergel, who heads four business enterprises at 616 and 618 West Cross Street is looking forward to improved conditions in 1932 even though the depression failed to make an appreciable difference in her sales. She is proprietor of Zwergel’s (the store at the Normal), Zwergel’s Beauty and Gift Shoppe, and Zwergel’s grocery and meat market.”

The location and the store’s reputation for customer service combined to create a very successful business that would last for many years. As the college, then University, expanded all around the store, the corner property eventually was acquired by the University, the store was demolished and the grounds of Pease Auditorium were extended to Cross Street.
I have not looked to see if there is any sort of marker to designate where Zwergel’s once stood. If there isn’t, there should be for the store was a vital part of campus and city life for almost 100 years.

(Peg Porter grew up in Ypsilanti and is the Assistant Editor of the Gleanings.)

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: George Zwergel outside The Normal Book Store just after the turn of the Century.

Photo 2: Newly constructed Roosevelt School (c1927). The sidewalk in the foreground leads to Cross Street.

Photo 3: An ad for “Holeproof Hosiery” from Zwergel’s at the Normal.

Photo 4: An ad for “Fresh Meats” from Zwergel’s, The Store at the Normal.

Photo 5: The front cover of Zwergel’s Beauty Review that was published in 1940.