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The Rock

Grace Shackman

Layers of paint conceal Eli Gallup's monument to George Washington

"The Rock" at Washtenaw and Hill was placed there sixty years ago by Eli Gallup, the parks superintendent who virtually created the city's parks system during his forty-five-year tenure (1919-1964). Gallup had a love of interesting rocks and a highly developed scavenging instinct.

He happened upon the mammoth limestone rock at a county landfill on Dhu Varren Road near Pontiac Trail. Attracted by its size and the glacial scratch marks on its surface, Gallup thought the rock should be displayed in a public place. George Washington's two-hundredth birthday was being celebrated, amid much fanfare (he was born February 22, 1732), and Gallup decided to make the rock a bicentennial monument to the first president. City council agreed to support Gallup's idea with a frugal allocation of $15, and he also received an unspecified contribution from the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Gallup chose to put the rock on a triangle of land between Washtenaw and Hill that the city had owned since 1911. Winifred Favraux, granddaughter of dentist Louis Hall, who donated the land, remembers that her grandfather had retained title to the land after an unsuccessful stint at berry farming in order to prevent the development of a gas station rumored to be in the offing. He then gave the land to the city for a park.

Gallup buried a time capsule containing information about 1932 in a lead box on the site, then built a cement pedestal on top of it to hold the rock. He moved it one cold February day, borrowing a heavy-duty Detroit Edison truck to carry it, and ties and jacks from the Michigan Central Railroad to lift it. His wife, the late Blanche Gallup, remembered in a 1967 interview, "They had to wait until the ground was frozen before they could begin or else the truck would have sunk into the earth. Then they had to get it up on a rise and roll it down to the spot where it is now." A crowd of about thirty, including Gallup's seven-year-old son, Al, watched the rock put in place.

Seven years later, Gallup added a marker designed by local artist Carlton Angell. Students from the University High School, including Gallup's older son, Bill, cast the plaque under the direction of their industrial arts teacher, Marshall Byrn. They used copper and other metals that Gallup had salvaged from the city's several landfills.

Gallup put up several other rocks around town during his tenure as parks superintendent: on Huron near First, to commemorate the founding of Ann Arbor; at Gallup Park, near the lake (since moved to the entrance); and at the fork of Jackson and Dexter, to mark an old Indian trail. (This one was recently moved to Vets Park after a car drove into it, with fatal results.)

Rocks weren't the only interesting artifacts Gallup scavenged for the parks. After an interurban demolished the Farmers and Mechanics Bank in 1927, he salvaged the building's pillars and put them up at the Miller Street entrance to West Park. For years, he kept an old millstone he found on Huron River Drive, intending to use it for a water power museum.

Gallup also kept an eye on the city's land transactions, having learned firsthand how it worked when he subdivided his own farm. He kept track of land that would make good parks and tried to acquire it before the price went up (according to Al Gallup, he wouldn't have waited for a Black Pond or Bird Hills situation to develop). He added Huron Hills Golf Course and Fritz, Gallup, Allmendinger, Hunt, Buhr, Frisinger, and Veterans parks to the city system.

Hunt and Buhr parks were both donated to the city. (Gallup had trouble convincing city council to take the land for Buhr--they thought it was too far out in the country for a park!)

Students began painting the Washtenaw rock sometime toward the end of Gallup's tenure as parks superintendent. Favraux, who lived in her grandfather's house on the corner of Hill and Washtenaw in the years before the painting began, recalls that her son, Paul, and his neighborhood friends enjoyed climbing on the rock on Sunday afternoons. But sometime in the mid-1950's the painting began, making climbing on it or even playing around it almost impossible.

The late Rozella Twining, who lived across the street on Cambridge recalled the first incident in a 1987 letter to the editor of the Ann Arbor News. "About 30 years ago my husband, Herb, and I were returning from Farmers Market on the Saturday morning of THE game. And there on our lovely rock . . . were three big green letters: M.S.U. My husband nearly jumped from his car. He had seen nothing so scandalous in his lifetime."

In spite of such reactions, people continued to paint the rock. At first the parks department tried to clean it up after each new assault, but soon gave up the losing effort. Today it is painted so often that it usually feels wet.

Most painters are college students from nearby fraternities and sororities, but younger students, even nursery school children, and older townsfolk have also been seen at work. Messages vary from Greek letters and romantic name pairings to political slogans, birthday wishes, athletic victories, and nonsense letters meaningless to the uninitiated.

As for the marker, it is still there, buried under many layers of paint. It was last seen in 1982, when Brian Durrance, an Ann Arbor native then attending MSU, spent two days chipping off the paint to expose the lettering: "To George Washington this memorial erected in celebration of the two hundredth anniversary of his birth, 1932."

[Photo caption from original print edition]: Parks superintendent Eli Gallup found the Rock in a landfill on Dhu Varren Road. With a $15 appropriation and a borrowed Detroit Edison truck (above), he moved it to the corner of Hill and Washtenaw in the winter of 1932. The tradition of constantly repainting the Rock (right) apparently began with a surreptitious "MSU" painted before a football game in the 1950's.

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Grace Shackman