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Grace Shackman

Dixboro, a small village on Plymouth Road just a few miles northeast of Ann Arbor, probably owes its survival to its location. Serving travelers between Ann Arbor and Detroit gave the crossroads settlement an economic basis that sustained it while other nearby towns, such as Brookville and Geddesburg, dwindled to mere names on old maps.

Dixboro’s founder, Captain John Dix, was only twenty-eight years old when he came to the Michigan Territory, but he had already led a remarkable life. Born in Massachusetts in 1796, Dix had gone to sea at age sixteen, fought in the War of 1812, and been shipwrecked in New Zealand. He bought the site that would become Dixboro in 1824, the same year that John Allen and Elisha Rumsy founded Ann Arbor.

Dix laid out his new town on both sides of a Potawatomi Indian trail that was being used by settlers moving west from Detroit. He set aside a village square with sixty-four lots around it and built himself a house just east of there, about where Durbin Builders is today. His house doubled as Dixboro’s post office and general store. As soon as he was settled, Dix dammed Fleming Creek to power a sawmill and a gristmill.

After nine years, Dix left, resettling in Texas. Dixboro continued to function but never rivaled Ann Arbor. Some believe this was because Dix’s departure deprived the town of strong leadership; others point to the fact that the railroad followed the Huron River instead of coming through Dixboro. Dix sold most of his holdings to brothers John and William Clements. They continued to run the store, the post office, and a tavern. Rival stores and taverns started up as well, along with a few other small businesses—two blacksmiths, a cider mill, a cooper shop, and a steam-powered sawmill.

Photograph of Dixboro Methodist Church, surrounded by fields

The Dixboro Methodist Church, c. 1916, was built in 1858 and has been the center of town life ever since.

Dixboro never incorporated as a city. It has always been governed as part of Superior Township. But for more than a century the village had its own one-room schoolhouse on the public square. The first school, built sometime between 1828 and 1832, was replaced in 1888 with the red brick building that still stands. In 1858, a church, now the Dixboro United Methodist, was built behind the school. The two institutions served as the center of village life. “Everyone took part in the [church] functions, even if they didn’t go to church every Sunday,” recalls Richard Leslie, who grew up in Dixboro between the two world wars. “The church really ran the town.”

Dixboro was surrounded by farmland, and many of the town’s residents were farmers. Lifetime resident Tom Freeman compares Dixboro to a European town where people live in the center and go out to their farms during the day. His mother, Carol Willits Freeman, who wrote the village history, Of Dixboro: Lest We Forget, grew up in a house in the center of town, on Plymouth Road between Dixboro and Cherry Hill roads. Yet her family had three cows, a horse, a few pigs, and some chickens and grew crops to the south of their house.

The Leslie family, who lived on the same street as the church, farmed in many of the fields to the north and kept eight or ten cows. One of Richard Leslie’s jobs as a boy was to take his family’s cows across Plymouth Road to their grazing land behind Oak Grove Cemetery. In the days before automobiles were ubiquitous, only occasionally would a passing car slow their progress.

In 1924, Plymouth Road was paved. The project took two years: one summer to widen and grade the narrow dirt road, and one to pour the cement. Gravel for the project was taken from the Cadillac Sand and Gravel Pit, near today’s Humane Society headquarters, and was transported by a little train, called a “dinky,” that moved on a temporary track. Dixboro men got jobs helping with the road, while their wives earned extra money serving meals to the workers.

Photograph looking east up Plymouth Road when it was still dirt

Plymouth Road looking east, c. 1916, eight years before it was paved.

Much of the paving was done by convict labor. Carol Freeman, interviewed for a video made by Dale Leslie, the son of Richard Leslie, laughingly recalled, “They all told us they were in for bootlegging.” Dale Leslie himself recalls a story told by his great aunt: when she asked one of the convicts why he didn’t work faster she was told, “Lady, I’ve got twenty years to build this road.”

The paved road gave Dixboro an economic boost. The Dixboro General Store, which was built sometime before 1840, was sold in 1924 to Emmett Gibb. Counting on increased business from the improved road, Gibb modernized the store and put on an addition to the east. The extension created a big room on the second level, which was an excellent place for community dances. “We’d shake Mr. Gibb’s groceries off his shelves,” recalls Harvey Sanderson, who played banjo in the Parker Orchestra. It played for the dances from 1924 to 1930; the Parker family supplied most of the orchestra’s members (Sanderson’s wife was a Parker). The Parkers owned the old Parker mill on Geddes Road, today a county park.

Several other businesses opened in response to the increased traffic on Plymouth Road. The gas station (now Gibbons Antiques) sold Dixie Gas and became an evening hangout for men in the neighborhood. As late as the 1950’s, recalls Gavin Smith, now Superior Township Fire Chief, “it was a fun place to go and get the gossip.” The Farm Cupboard restaurant opened in 1928 in what had been the Frank Bush home. After a fire destroyed the house in 1935, the Bushes’ barn was moved onto the site and converted into a restaurant; it survives today as the Lord Fox. Other road-oriented businesses followed in later years--the Prop Restaurant (now a chiropractor’s office), a second gas station on the corner of Ford and Plymouth (now an empty lot), and the Red Arrow Motel, which is still there, but not used for that purpose. On football Saturdays, traffic was so heavy that residents couldn’t cross the road, and even the church got in on the action. From 1926 to 1961, church women raised money by selling chicken dinners to the passing throngs of U-M sports fans.

For more than a century after the village was founded, most of the houses built were for children or grandchildren of long-term residents. Carol Freeman and her husband, Glen, had a house on Church Street that included five acres of land. Later they rented out the house and built a newer one next door. Their children built houses on the remaining land and have recently been joined by a married grandchild. The Leslies did the same thing with three of their children building homes next to the cemetery on family land.

Photograph of men sitting outside Dixboro Store, with signs advertising Staroline Gasoline & Firestone Tire Service

An economic boom created by paving Plymouth caused several area businesses to expand, such as the Dixboro Store.

Dixboro’s first major expansion came in 1951, when the Dixboro Heights subdivision was built in what had been a cornfield farmed by the Leslies. Dixboro Heights was filled with veterans starting families and the community soon outgrew its one-room school. A two-room school was built in 1953, and then in 1958 Dixboro joined the Ann Arbor school system. In 1974, after a large addition was completed, the school was renamed the Glen A. Freeman School, after Carol Freeman’s husband. Today Dixboro children are bused into Ann Arbor, and the former Freeman School is used by Little Tigers day care and Go Like the Wind Montessori school.

Traffic on Plymouth Road decreased in 1964, when the first phase of M-14 was finished. While it hurt some of the businesses (the first casualty was the gas station at Ford and Plymouth), it did no harm to Dixboro’s residential attractiveness. Since Dixboro Heights, three other subdivisions--Ford Estates, Autumn Hills, and Tanglewood--have been built, and houses have filled in a few empty lots in the older part of the village. The new Fleming Creek subdivision adjoins the village to the southwest.

The church is still the center of Dixboro life--residents meet there, for instance, to discuss the effect of new developments on the area. And although the population is large enough that people no longer know everyone else, there is still great community spirit. Every winter, townspeople set up an ice rink in the former village green. “There’s no committee,” Tom Freeman says. “Each fall it just happens.” For years, the merry-go-round on the school playground--like the upkeep of the cemetery--was a Boy Scout project. One year Ron Smith, now a township firefighter, repaired it as part of an Eagle Scout project. He has continued taking care of it ever since.

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Grace Shackman