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The Tuomy Farm

Grace Shackman

How Cornelius Tuomy's farm became his children's subdivision

The Italianate house at 2117 Washtenaw, an anachronism of an old farmhouse on a busy thoroughfare, is now the headquarters of the Historical Society of Michigan. The Tuomy family lived there for nearly a hundred years, from 1874 to 1966.

The oldest part of the house--a small Greek Revival structure with a center entry and two rooms downstairs and two up--was built about 1854 by George and Jane Bell on what was then a country road between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. The elegant Italianate front portion, which more than doubled the size of the original house, was built about 1864 by Frederick and Almina Spalding. The Spaldings raised five children on the farm; one of them, Volney, grew up to become a U-M professor of botany and zoology and co-founder of the U-M's botanical gardens.

Cornelius Tuomy bought the house and farm in 1874. Though he taught school as a young man, his real vocation was farming, which he learned from his father, Timothy, an Irish immigrant who had developed a successful farm in Scio Township. Cornelius made a success of his farm, growing vegetables, oats, corn, and potatoes; winning prizes for his horses; and raising sheep. He had a herd of twenty-two dairy cows and sold its products in a milk route in Ann Arbor until 1904, when he switched to selling wholesale.

Cornelius Tuomy quit teaching to become a farmer. He grew vegetables, oats, corn, and potatoes, raised horses and sheep, and sold dairy products on his own Ann Arbor milk route.

Cornelius Tuomy was active in St. Thomas Church and also served three terms as a Democratic supervisor of Ann Arbor Township. (Here, too, his father had set the example, serving as treasurer of Scio Township.) In 1885 he married Julia Ann Kearney, also from an Irish family; they had three children--Cornelius W., known as Bill or Will (1886), Kathryn (1888), and Thomas (1890).

Thomas Tuomy died prematurely in the great flu epidemic of 1918, but Bill and Kathryn lived long lives in Ann Arbor after brief periods elsewhere (Bill in the Army Ordnance Corps in World War I, Kathryn teaching business in Kenosha, Wisconsin). They went into business together as Tuomy and Tuomy, selling real estate and insurance. Their office, originally at 122 North Fourth Avenue, was later in a little building behind the handsome stone gas station that they built in 1930 at the convergence of Washtenaw and Stadium.

The Tuomy siblings turned the family farm into the subdivision now usually called "Tuomy Hills," but which they themselves named "Julia Tuomy Estates" in honor of their mother. They gave the streets either family names, like Tuomy and Kearney, or Irish place names such as Adare, Shannondale, and Londonderry.

Julia Tuomy Estates was marketed as "the most exclusive residential district in the city." The Tuomys stipulated that a house could not cost less than $15,000 and the garage could not be built until the house was two-thirds done (perhaps to prevent the not uncommon practice of living in the garage while the house was being built). They also excluded any buyers who were not Caucasians. Such racial stipulations, now illegal, were never common in Ann Arbor; it's possible the Tuomys were trying to keep up with their competitors in the nearby Ann Arbor Hills subdivision, which had a similar racist restriction.

The streets of Julia Tuomy Estates were given family names, like Tuomy and Kearney, or Irish place names such as Adare, Shannondale, and Londonderry.

Neither Bill nor Kathryn Tuomy married, but both kept busy in community activities that mirrored their interests. Kathryn was a founding member of the Ann Arbor Business and Professional Women's Club and an early president of the Michigan Federation of Business and Professional Women. Bill was a charter member of the Erwin Prieskora post of the American Legion, active in the Army and Navy Club and the Reserve Officers Association, and was first city chair of the Citizen's Military Training Camp.

Following his grandfather's and father's examples, Bill was also active in politics, although he switched to the Republican party. He was elected county drain commissioner from 1932 to 1944. He ran on a platform of doing as little as possible, stating, "If I am elected I propose to eliminate every unnecessary drain project from the county program and cut taxes assessed on drains down to the bone."

Kathryn and Bill followed the family tradition of being active in their church. When the Catholic population in Ann Arbor outgrew St. Thomas, the Tuomys were helpful in the founding of the new church, St. Francis, organized to serve the east side of town. In 1945 they sold to the new parish, at a nominal price, eight acres of land facing Stadium at what had been the southern edge of their farm. Later they donated two more acres and paid for the road around the church, now called St. Francis Drive. When they died (Kathryn in 1965 and her brother in 1966), they left a number of generous bequests, including an athletic scholarship in brother Tom's name and a woman's scholarship in Kathryn's name. The remainder went to St. Francis, allowing the church to pay off its building debt of about $137,000.

The Tuomys stipulated that the family house should be used for a "historical or public purpose." Their executor, attorney Roscoe Bonisteel, Sr., was at the time both a U-M regent and a trustee of the Historical Society of Michigan; he arranged that the house should go to those two groups. The society moved in downstairs, and at the invitation of the regents, the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters occupied the upstairs. (An interesting footnote is that Volney Spalding, who grew up in the house, was a co-founder of the academy.)

In 1982 the regents gave up their share of the house, leaving the Historical Society of Michigan as the sole owner and occupant. Founded in 1828, the HSM is a statewide not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving state history. It publishes books and magazines, sponsors meetings and conferences, and has lately embarked on a new program to help teachers to teach Michigan history.

Since gaining ownership, the HSM has been restoring the house, making improvements as they raise the money. "Historic restoration is not for the faint of heart," says executive director Tom Jones. He expects the final cost to be about $725,000.

[Photo caption from the original print edition]: The Tuomy farm was still in operation when the photo at right was taken, but not for long: as Ann Arbor spread eastward, farm kids Bill and Kathryn Tuomy turned the land into an expensive neighborhood. Only their old farmhouse still survives (above); it's now the headquarters of the Historical Society of Michigan.

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Grace Shackman