A farmer's mecca
For all of its life, the hamlet of Bridgewater has served the needs of local farmers. "It still does—what's left of them," says Glenn Mann, co-owner of the E. G. Mann feed mill and grain elevator.
Located in farm country, halfway between Saline and Manchester, Bridgewater at its height had a blacksmith shop, a farm-implement company, a lumberyard, and a farm co-op, which marketed the livestock, timber, flour, and feed produced by its members. The hamlet also included a barbershop, an ice-cream parlor, a bank, a tavern, and a general store complete with a smokehouse and an icehouse.
Although most of the early settlers of the area were from the East (Bridgewater takes its name from a town in New York), the hamlet of Bridgewater was largely built by German immigrants. By 1854 there were enough Germans in the area to start their own church, St. John's Lutheran. Organized by Pastor Frederich Schmid, who started German churches all over southeast Michigan, St. John's ran a German school for a time and continued to hold German-language services into the twentieth century. Former Bridgewater resident Jack Livingstone remembers that when his family moved to the area in 1937, many people still spoke with a German accent.
The Detroit, Hillsdale, and Northern Indiana railroad reached Bridgewater in 1870, making a beeline from Saline to Manchester. The station is still there, now used as a storage shed by Bridgewater Lumber. Businesses around the station catered to farmers shipping their crops to market; there were livestock pens, warehouses for wool and potatoes, and a dairy to process milk.
David Ernst, whose parents ran the ice-cream parlor and blacksmith shop, earned extra money as a schoolboy by helping around the railroad station. He sacked the wool fleeces and put bedding in cars for the livestock. "The train car was divided into two decks, about four feet high. So I'd go in and spread hay about eight or ten inches thick," he recalls.
At the center of Bridgewater's social life was its "opera house," above the implement company's storehouse. "It was called the opera house because it had a piano," explains Livingstone. Dorothy Armbruster, whose dad ran the car repair shop, remembers the dances there. "Dad played in the band every Saturday night, big band music," she recalls, "They put us kids to sleep on stage behind the piano."
On weeknights, locals and farmers often played cards in the Ernst family's ice-cream parlor. On weekends, they'd go to one another's houses for potlucks and play euchre or shoot the moon.
During the summers of the late 1940s and early 1950s, merchants sponsored outdoor movies every Tuesday in a lot between the general store and the railroad station. "There was a serial, a cartoon, and movie—like going to the theater," remembers Margie Wurster. They'd set up a projector on a truck and a big screen at the back of the lot. Families came and settled down on blankets and folding chairs or parked their cars across the road on the mill property.
From the 1930s to the 1960s, Bridgewater was home to one of the biggest chicken hatcheries in the state, owned by Luther and Irwin Klager. (Luther founded the Manchester Chicken Broil.) But as the number of farm families has declined, so have some of the businesses the hatchery once supported.
Train service to Bridgewater ended in 1961, and the general store closed in the mid-1970s, unable to compete with big chains. But the Bridgewater Lumber Company and the E. G. Mann Mill—both in their respective families since 1938—are still thriving. The former general store is now Bridgewater Tire, specializing in big tires for farm vehicles. The bank, a victim of the Depression, is now the Bridgewater Bank Tavern, with historic pictures on the walls.
Setting the clock back a century
Enthusiastic and knowledgeable volunteers are transforming the Rentschler farm on the edge of Saline into a teaching tool. They're restoring the house to show how a farm family lived at the beginning of the century, bringing in livestock to demonstrate the working of the farm, and re-creating a kitchen garden to teach children how to grow plants—all with the unusual advantage of having the last owner of the farm nearby to answer questions.
The farm is on Michigan Avenue, just east of the Ford plant. It was built in 1906 by Matthew Rentschler on 216 acres that his brother, Emanuel, had bought two years earlier. The land would eventually be farmed by three generations of Rentschlers.
The last was Warren Rentschler, who lived on the farm almost all his life. "We had sheep and chickens, sold eggs at the door, had pigs; we grew corn, hay, wheat, oats," Rentschler says. "We sold hay to the horse trade."
As the city of Saline crept up to the farm, Rentschler gradually split parcels off and sold them, starting with a field for the Ford plant in the 1960s. A few years ago, then-mayor Rick Kuss heard that Rentschler was about to sell the last of his farm to Farmer Jack for a shopping center. Kuss talked to him about selling the house and outbuildings to the city instead.
Rentschler was delighted with the idea. In spring 1998 the city of Saline bought Rentschler's property at a discount, and the Saline Area Historical Society went to work at the farm right away.
The restoration of the house's interior is being organized by Janet Swope, antiques dealer, teacher of antiques classes, organizer of the Saline Antiques Fair, and former owner of the Pineapple House. Swope's plan is to restore the home to the way it looked between 1900 and 1930. "We may have some older things," she says. "People inherit things. But we'll have nothing newer than 1930."
Her goal is to "restore it to what a farmhouse would be like—not real affluent, middle class, but nice." This winter she hopes to finish the downstairs rooms: the master bedroom, dining room, and parlor. If time allows, she and her fellow volunteers will also work on the hired man's room upstairs. The master bedroom will be decorated with a historic Saline wallpaper design, found in the Bondie house on Maple, that's being reproduced by the Thibaut wallpaper company. Next spring, Saline resident and former county clerk Bob Harrison plans to re-create the front porch, using a 1910 photo for guidance.
Cathy Andrews, master gardener and historic furniture restorer, created a kitchen garden with help from area schoolkids. She laid out the beds in long, narrow rows, as the Rentschlers would have in the 1930s, and planted vegetable and flower species common for that period, such as a tasty, pinkish beefsteak tomato and a very red variety developed at Rutgers University that was considered good for canning. She kept the rhubarb and horseradish she found at the farm.
Rick Kuss and Jeff Hess, among others, are tending the animals already housed in the outbuildings. Roosters, ducks, and pigeons were donated from Animal Rescue, while Domino's Farms provided two miniature goats. A local farmer gave two piglets, which have since grown big enough to knock Kuss down. "I liked them better when they were babies," he jokes.
Wayne Clements, president of the historical society, bought two lambs for the farm at the 4-H fair. Others followed his example and began donating their prize lambs to the farm to save them from slaughter.
Today, Warren Rentschler lives on the north side of Saline. What does he think of what's happening at his old farm?
"I like it fine," he says. "They'll preserve it. Who wouldn't want that? My granddad and dad worked so hard to keep it up, and I spent a bit of time too."
Photo Caption: Elizabeth and Emanuel Rentschler with their children. Alma, Alvin, & Herman, in front of their farmhouse around 1910.
The rise and fall of a radical idea
In 1919 a group of Dexter-area farmers did something radical. One story says they did it because a Detroit buyer bragged about how much money he was making off them. Another story says that Hoey and Sons Lumber and Coal Company brought it on by charging too much for necessities like feed, grain, and hardware. "Farmers were at a disadvantage dealing one-on-one with packing companies, grain dealers," says Carl Lesser.
In November of that year, about fifty farmers, including Lessor's grandfather, met at the Dexter Opera House and agreed to put in $50 apiece—a tidy sum in those days—to start the Dexter Agriculture Association. Each also pledged an additional $50. "It was just a group of farmers who decided they should be able to buy cheaper and sell for a better price," says Bob Mast, a second-generation member.
In those days, co-ops were relatively new and controversial. The large companies that served as middlemen between farmers and consumers had tried to invoke the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act to have co-ops declared illegal, even though the act was passed to prevent business monopolies. A 1914 law, the Clayton Act, legalized co-ops but did not define their powers. In 1922 Congress finally spelled out, in the Capper-Volstead Act, that farmers could lawfully unite to collectively process, handle, and market their products.
The Dexter group bought an old house and five lots on a triangle of land bounded by Central Street, Third Street, and the Michigan Central Railroad tracks. It was an excellent location: at the time, the railroad was the main way to ship farm produce and get farm supplies. The co-op opened for business on January 1, 1920. Within two months it had ninety-four members.
The association, renamed the Dexter Co-op in 1927, sold supplies to members at low markups and helped them sell their own products. The co-op converted the old house into a feed production area, mainly for pigs, chickens, and cows. The farmers brought in grain they'd grown, such as oats or corn; ground it in the basement; and then took it upstairs to be mixed with a concentrate. Also upstairs, co-op employees shelled corn. These services were so much in demand at harvest time that farmers lined up from dawn to dark waiting.
The co-op bought a large scale (for a time the only one in the area) and placed it near the house, protecting it with a drive-through shelter. Lesser remembers accompanying his father in a horse-drawn wagon when he brought in loads of hay. "The building was so small it was hard to get the hay in," he recalls. "We had to push it in. We must have lost a lot." The co-op's bookkeeper had only to look out the window of the attached office to record the weight.
To store and ship cash crops, the co-op leased a grain elevator, freight house, and loading dock from the railroad. All of them were flush with the tracks for easy loading. (Wheat was then the biggest cash crop, and most of it was sold to flour mills in the area.) When carloads of incoming supplies such as lumber and coal arrived, they were stored until unloaded on a spur of track in the co-op grounds. As the co-op became more successful, it offered an expanding range of items, from flour and salt to Portland cement, fencing, and twine.
The secret of its success, according to Lesser, was its ability to buy products so cheaply that it could sell competitively and still make enough to cover its operating costs. Buying from other co-ops and from organizations such as the National Farmers Group and the State Farm Bureau allowed the co-op to obtain cattle feed and fertilizer at very low prices. For a few years the Dexter Co-op even sold farm machinery produced by a co-op in Lansing.
The board of directors hired a manager for day-to-day operations. The membership of the co-op met yearly at a big dinner, usually held at either the Masonic Temple or St. Andrew's Church. The meeting included a financial report, election of board members and officers, and a speaker on an agricultural topic.
The people who originally bought shares in the co-op were common stockholders. Common shares, .much in demand because they earned more than bank accounts did, were rarely available. Anyone could be a "preferred stockholder" just by doing business with the co-op. At the end of the year, the customers shared in the year's profits according to how much they bought.
The co-op did well during the Depression and outgrew its facilities. In 1940 it broke ground for a new vitrified-tile building, which the Dexter Mill still uses. To celebrate the building's grand opening on March 8, 1941, the co-op cooked up 100 pounds of free hot dogs and gave away door prizes—knives, pencils, baby chicks. The co-op now had room to stock more agricultural supplies and add new products, such as building materials, hardware, dishes, and kitchen cabinets.
In 1949 a big fire destroyed the wooden grain elevator. The co-op built a new, fire-resistant elevator and a new feed mill where the old house had stood. But the new setup couldn't save the co-op from a decline in family agriculture and a dwindling commitment to the co-op concept. "It was loyalty that kept it going," says Lesser. "The first generation knew the reason for the organization." Later generations were less loyal and more mobile: as farmers got big trucks, they could travel farther and do business for-profit companies that, because of greater volume, could offer lower prices than the co-op did. As the co-op's business declined, it had to buy in smaller volumes, and its prices rose.
In 1969 the co-op board sold the business to Washtenaw Farm and Garden Center, which was leaving its Ann Arbor store in what is now Kerrytown. On March 22, 1980, after the Farm and Garden Center finished paying off its land contract, the co-op held its last meeting to pay off stockholders and close the books. With the help of his wife, Thelma, Bob Mast, who was the last treasurer, was able to find a large number of the original stockholders or their heirs. The co-op made enough from the sale, plus the accumulated interest, to pay $10 a share—the original face value of the stock. "Very few co-ops could do that," says Mast.
John Cares, an agriculture graduate of Michigan State, now runs the Dexter Mill in the old co-op buildings. Cares provides many of the same services the co-op did, making feed, and sells many of the same supplies, such as fertilizer. As full-time farming continues to decline, more of his customers these days are gentlemen farmers or suburbanites with small gardens.
Every now and then people come into the Dexter Mill with old co-op stock certificates, maybe found in Grandpa's attic, and try to redeem them. Cares refers those customers to Mast, who says, "There's not much I can do about it. I tell them to put it on the wall and look at it."
Today, the Dexter Mill provides many of the same products and services that the Dexter Co-op did through the 1960s.
Chelsea Farmer's Supply
It’s still got the feel of its heyday
In 1987, Greg Raye suggested that Chelsea Farmer’s Supply be torn down. Two years later he and his wife, H. K. Leonard, bought the building to keep it from being turned into a parking lot. “I had no desire to run a business,” explains Raye. But today he and Leonard are still running it.
An end to "dead man's alley"?