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Chelsea Retirement Community

Grace Shackman

The Heritage Room recalls a time when the residents worked for their keep

The Chelsea Retirement Community is one of the oldest retirement centers in the state. It was founded by the Detroit Annual Council of Methodists as a home for "aged saints of the church" in 1906.

"They wanted a decent place for people who didn't have family to care for them," explains administrator Connie Amick. 'The only alternative was the poor farm."

The organizing committee looked at several sites in the Detroit area, but decided on Chelsea after Frank Glazier, a local banker and stove manufacturer, donated the land and a generous amount of money. When Glazier ran into financial troubles a few years later, the Old People's Home (as it was originally called) took in his mother, Emily Glazier. Today two of his granddaughters live there.

In 1907, after a year in a single-family home, the community moved into a new building large enough for thirty-six. There were only ten residents at the time of the move, and it took six years to fill the new building, because the idea of living in a retirement home was so new. Most residents could afford only low fees, so donations from churches and individuals supplemented the cost.

The first administrator. Rev. Seth Reed, had started his career as a Methodist circuit rider. Tall and of seemingly poor health, he was nicknamed "death on stilts" - a rubric he defied by living to be 100 years old. While Reed raised money for the home, his wife, Henrietta, handled day-to-day operation.

The way of life in the home's early years and the look of some of the rooms have been reconstructed by the organizers of the Heritage Room, a museum at the retirement home. Exhibits include a reconstruction of an early bedroom, with a water pitcher, washbowl, and bedpan; a dining room table set for a meal; and a fourteen-foot wagon once pulled by Fred, the home's sole horse. Fred did the heavy work during the years when the home's residents raised much of their own food.

Many of the items in the exhibit were donated by residents. Antiques appraiser Gary Kuehnle dated and authenticated the items, while Dana Buck of the U-M's Kelsey Museum created the design. "He broke up a narrow room to utilize the space," explains head docent Polly Monroe.

During the community's early years, residents helped with the chores if they were able: men in the gardens and on the farm, women in the kitchen and laundry. "All the help had to live in, and work for their room and board," recalled Lelah Knickerbocker in a 1996 interview with Kathy dark of the Chelsea Standard. Knickerbocker, who started working at the retirement home in 1923, recalled, "Each girl had a floor to live on and take care of. The home had one floating nurse who also lived in. When someone got sick, they stayed right in their own room. Sometimes when the nurse got awful tired and needed a rest, she'd call on me to sit up at night with the patients."

The biggest difference between the early years and today is "the attitude change," says Amick. "It used to be very paternalistic. Now the residents run it. We have a strong resident council." There is no longer any religious qualification, and the community has grown to include about 360 residents, with a 120-room addition planned for residents suffering from memory loss. The Heritage Room, which has won several prestigious awards, can be toured by appointment.

—Grace Shackman

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Grace Shackman