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Ann Arbor 200

Celebrating Ann Arbor's First 100 Years

Author
Lily Wiest

As Ann Arbor celebrates its bicentennial, now is an apt time to look back at how the city honored its first hundred years during the 1924 centennial. Planning for celebrations began well in advance with the Chamber of Commerce putting together a Centennial Committee in 1923. The committee proposed ideas to commemorate the occasion as diverse as planting trees along a newly broadened Washtenaw Ave, laying out land for a new public park, installing a permanent historical exhibit, or erecting a war memorial. None of these plans ever came to pass, but the city celebrated in other ways.

A Banquet Birthday Party

The first event to kick off the centennial year was a formal banquet hosted at the Michigan Union on the evening of Wednesday, February 27th, 1924. Pitched as a “birthday party” of sorts for the town, the event was also intended to raise money for future centennial celebrations. 

Photograph of a group of pioneer descendants at the Michigan Union Ann Arbor Centennial banquet
46 pioneer descendants at the centennial banquet, Ann Arbor Times News, 1924

Tickets sold for $2 a plate. Many tables were reserved for local clubs, with as many as 34 different groups ultimately present. The majority of guests, however, were invited in honor of their historical significance – and encouraged to come in historic dress! Any resident over 80 was invited, as well as those who had lived in Ann Arbor for more than 50 years. The most important guests were the descendants of those who had settled in Ann Arbor within the first ten years of its founding. Fifty such families attended, often bringing whole generations. The Mann family, for instance, reported 40 descendants of original settlers. 

In total, 588 people attended the banquet, forcing the hosts to rent an additional side room to accommodate overflow guests. At the time, the only other gathering of a similar size ever held at the Union had been a banquet for soldiers returning from WWI.

In a nod to the patriotic feeling which would color all the centennial celebrations, the banquet commenced with a rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner." University of Michigan President Emeritus Harry B. Hutchins presided over the evening and began with a toast. Next Rev. Leonard A. Barrett, then-pastor of the first church in Ann Arbor (First Presbyterian), gave an invocation. The banquet itself consisted of fruit salad, green salad, celery and olives, roast chicken, sweet potatoes, and corn pudding.

After the meal, university professor Orlando W. Stephenson presented on “Early Settlements in Ann Arbor.” Stephenson had also been put in charge of crafting a general history of Ann Arbor, which was eventually published by the Chamber of Commerce in 1927 as Ann Arbor, The First Hundred Years. In contrast, Mayor George E. Lewis gave a speech entitled “Ann Arbor Today,” primarily focused on the city’s industrial feats. The principal speaker for the night, however, was sitting University President Marion L. Burton who delivered an address on “Civic Pride.” During dinner, university organist Palmer Christian led a band through renditions of popular ballads from the 1824-1834 era. 

Photograph of the 240 lb centennial birthday cake: eight tiers, topped with candles, reading "Ann Arbor 1924"
The centennial birthday cake, Ann Arbor Times News, 1924

Attendees were seated in the order in which their families settled in Ann Arbor, with the oldest families closest to the speakers’ table. The formal program ended with a roll call of descendants. The loudest applause was given to the 57 present descendants of Frederick Staebler, who had settled in Ann Arbor in 1830. In Ann Arbor, The First Hundred Years, Stephenson reports that a telegram arrived mid-banquet announcing the birth of Staebler’s 129th descendant, a baby Paul Staebler of Kalamazoo.

The night ended with a big surprise. As the program finished, the Chamber of Commerce presented guests with an enormous birthday cake which had been donated by a team of 12 local bakeries. Members of the Chamber had to team up to carry the delicacy to the speakers’ table. With eight layers and 100 candles, the cake measured seven and a half feet in circumference and reportedly weighed 240 pounds. The cake was large enough to serve all 588 guests, with coffee and ice cream to accompany. Attendees satisfied their sweet tooths, then joined together in renditions of “Auld Lang Syne” and “Home Sweet Home” before departing.

A Failed Vote

The Centennial Committee was buoyed by the success of the banquet and had grand plans for further celebrations. They hoped to organize a full week of events in the early fall, culminating in a pageant to represent the history of Ann Arbor. Such an elaborate theatrical undertaking was sure to cost, though. The committee suggested a budget of $10,000 (about $177,000 today) for the Centennial Week, with anything leftover from the celebrations to be put toward a permanent memorial.

This request for a $10,000 levy appeared on the city ballot in a special election in April 1924. Centennial committee secretary D.W. Springer led a speaking campaign around the city urging people to vote for the measure. However, the centennial levy was the only measure on the ballot not to pass, with a resounding 60% opposition.

The Committee briefly considered trying to raise the funds privately, but ultimately decided that the will of the people should direct their efforts and determined that a more moderate celebration would prove most popular with local citizens. The idea for the pageant was scrapped altogether. Instead, the committee moved forward with a proposal to mark sites of historical importance and plan a single-day celebration.

County-wide Celebration

Newspaper clipping announcing county centennial picnic celebration
Headline announcing the celebration program, Ann Arbor Times News, July 4, 1924

In a bid to frugality, the centennial celebration was combined with traditional Independence Day festivities. Willis G. Johnson acted as chairman of a new planning committee. It was decided that the week leading up to the celebration would be marked with a carnival at the fairgrounds put on by the Veterans of Foreign War Graf O’Hara post. On July 4th, the fairgrounds would be cleared to host a county “homecoming.” Early settlers who had since moved out of town were tracked down and invited to come for a reunion. The Ann Arbor Business Men’s Club donated $1000 to make the celebration possible. A whole bill of events took place on Friday, July 4th, and admission was free for everyone. 

The festivities kicked off at 9:30am at the City Courthouse, where Otto’s Knights Templar Band played on the steps to a waiting crowd. The band then led a parade to West Park where a City League baseball game took place at 10am, with The Elks facing off against the State St team. 

The game was scheduled to be completed by noon, at which point attendees headed to the fairgrounds for a nostalgic basket picnic luncheon in the shady ravine known as Dexter Del. 

The picnic grove was divided into “precincts” matching the old layout of the city so that early settlers from those areas could easily find and connect with old neighbors. 

Company 1 of the National Guard displayed a guard mount. Otto’s band continued to provide musical entertainment, as well as “Split” Anderson’s Quarter from Ypsilanti. At 2pm, Judge H.W. Newkirk gave the principal address from the stepbridge over the ravine. After the address, the Ann Arbor Driving Club hosted a series of harness horse races, for which they offered “$600 in purses.”

The day concluded with more music and an elaborate fireworks show which was said to attract thousands of viewers.

Photograph of the Ann Arbor centennial plaque at 315 W Huron St showing Ann Allen and Mary Ann Rumsey under an arbor
Centennial plaque at 315 W Huron St, courtesy of Steve Jensen, 2016

Memorial Plaque

Today, the most recognizable artifact of these centennial celebrations is a plaque on W Huron St near The Last Word. Originally placed on the Artificial Ice Company plant building, the plaque was removed when that building came down and added to a permanent stone marker. Underneath an engraving of Ann Arbor’s founding wives Ann Allen and Mary Ann Rumsey, it reads:

“THIS TABLET ERECTED BY CITIZENS OF ANN ARBOR 1924 COMMEMORATES THE FOUNDING OF THE CITY ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO.”

The plaque follows with the oft-cited myth of how the city got its name from a grape arbor the Anns liked to rest beneath. Though that romantic story has since been debunked, the memorial remains. The Ann Arbor Bicentennial Committee plans to add a small plaque to the stone this year which will both correct the historical record and honor the founding of the city, now two hundred years ago.

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