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Building's Heritage Rich As Refuge Site For Minorities

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A 115 year-old-building at 724 N. Fifth Ave., in which David R. Byrd, director of the Ann Arbor Community Center, hopes to establish a museum emphasizing black and other minority group heritage, once served as a refuge for Italian and Japanese immigrants. Basil Mussio, principal of Scarlett Middle School, who lived in the former brewery building 'witfi itsurtaérground" vaults and passageways, says it was called "Little Italy" in the 1920s. Owned by nis grandfather, Daniel Camelet, from 1921 to 1956, the old brick building served as a "half-way" house for Italians with little money who were on their way to Chicago and points west to make a new life for themselves in America, he says. "There was prejudice against Italians in the 1920s because of the Italian gangsters - one of those built-in things as with the blacks. "It also was a dramatic change from Italian to Anglo culture for the imigrants," and the former brewery, on N. Fifth Avenue which had been turned into an apartment house provided a place where they could get together and communicate in their own language, he says. The local school principal's father, Agostino Mussio, who is associated with the Mussio Tile" Co., 1731 Hatcher Crescent, owned by another son, Daniel, was one of those Italian immigrants. Coming to this country with less than $50 in his pocket, he took up residence in the old "brewery" building, and his sons, Basil and Daniel and their sisters, Mrs. Lucy Anderson and Mrs. Tina Galardi, were born there. "Italian immigration died off in the 193üs, although Italian families still lived in the area," and in the latter part of that decade and in the 1940s a number of famous U-M football players were frequent visitors in the old building, Mussio says. They were guests of Paul and Joseph Camelet, Mussio's úneles, who formerly operated a local clothing store and tailor shop. "Julius Franks, Michigan's first black All-American football star, had a spaghetti dinner in the old house, and it was there I met the most famous of the UM's All-Americans, Torn Harmon," the Scarlett principal says. Albert (Ox) Wistert, and his brothers Francis (Whitey) and Alvin, all of whom received national status as AllAmericans, were among other U-M football greats who visited there as guests of his úneles, who lived in the building at that time, he adds. Also, in the early 1940s, Japanese migrating from California took up residence in rooms and apartments of the rambling structure before moving on, replacing the former Italian migrants. "My grandfather was one of the most humane individuals I have ever known. It mattered not if these people had money - they had a place to stay," Mussio says. "I feel my experiences (in the old building) led to a better appreciation of all races," headds. Markings and improvements . in the building at 724 N. Fifth Ave., identify it with Ann Arbor's little remembered "Little Italy" era. Ceramic tile floors in one of the apartments and tile in its bathrooms represent the Italian heritage skills of Mussio's father, and there are inscriptions in Italian on one of its concrete floors. As a boy, Mussio remembers that "I was kept out of the tunnels and vaults underneath the house except at Christmas time when my brother and I were allowed to go down into them. Grandfather stored wine in them because of the uniform temperature." There are two vaulted rooms extended under the lawn of the old building, with tunnels leading out of the smaller room. Mussio says his father "did some rebuilding and cement work" in the underground área. He calis them "weird places," mostly sealed off with rubbish and trash when his grandfather bought the place. The Scarlett principal says his grandfather told him that when he first carne to Ann Arbor in 1908, the neighborhood in which the building is located was predominately dccupied by Germán families and a few Irish families. Most of the blacks lived across the river on Broadway. "When Hoover Bal] & Bearing Co. (then Hoover Steel Ball) moved here from Philadelphia just before World War I, a number of Italians came with the firm and settled in the neighborhood, and later, in the 20s, the migrant Italians came to stay temporarily in the former brewery. When the Italians moved out, the blacks moved in, " he says . Japanese families were still living in the building which had been remodeled into apartments - sometimes two families to an apartment - when his grandfather sold the property in 1956, Mussio says. The Scarlett principal is a gradúate of Eastern Michigan University and also holds a master's degree from that school. Byrd came up with the idea of establishing a black culture museum in the building after uncovering some evidence the "brewery" may have been used to house runaway slaves on their way to Canada and freedom. More recently, since learning of its role as a refuge for Italian and Japanese immigrants, he says he favors including these eras in Ann Arbor's history in such a museum as well as the city's role in connection with the "underground railroad." Wystan Stevens, curator of the Kempf House, says a search of maps in the Michigan Historical Collections which show locations of buildings, seem to indícate the "brewery" was not built before 1858, but there is a gap in the maps between that year and 1864 when the building is shown. Later research by the Ann Arbor Community Center, however, has uncovered what is apparently the first city directory, published in 1858, which lists the Ann Arbor Central Brewery of Adam Volz, a Germán immigrant, at that site. Also, the building is shown on an old 1859 map in the U-M Library, and property valuation records for the site show a large crease in valué in 1858, indicating Volz built nis brewery at that time, according to the center. Meanwhile, Byrd and the Ann Arbor Historie District Commission are seeking further evidence on the building being used to house slaves, and the Ann Arbor Community Center director is preparing a resolution for presentation to the City Council on having the property declared an historie site. At least the old building served as a refuge for Italian and Japanese migrants, and quite possibly for fleeing slaves which would have made it a re-i fugeforthreeminoritygroups. m