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.
Built about 1855, Farmer’s Supply is one of the oldest buildings in Chelsea. A classic Greek Revival structure with a low roof and gable returns, it originally faced Main Street. It looks as though it had been built as a residence, but at some point it became Chelsea’s first hotel, the Chelsea House. In 1888 the Chelsea House moved into a new, brick building, and the old building was moved to its present location at 122 Jackson. There a woman named Line Downer and several subsequent owners operated it as a residence hotel for ¬thirty-seven more years, renting rooms to railroad employees and workers at the nearby Glazier stove plant.
In 1925 the building was remodeled as a feed mill. An awning was put on the front and a one-story wing added on the west. At the time most local farmers raised cattle and brought their pickup trucks to the mill to get their grain ground into feed. Ransom Lewis owned the mill until 1936, and for the next eight years it was run by Vincent Ives.
In 1946 Anton Nielsen, a forty-year-old Danish immigrant, bought the store. He ran it for the next forty-five years. Nielsen’s father was a farmer who became a hotel operator. When he was twelve, Nielsen started an apprenticeship to be a clerk; later he went to business school. At age eighteen he emigrated to Canada and did farm work. Two years later he moved to Detroit and worked in an automobile factory and then a paint factory. At a dance in Detroit he met his future wife, Dorothy.
Nielsen served on the Chelsea Village Council and was elected village president four times. For several years he headed the community fair, and he was active in the local Kiwanis Club. He enjoyed vegetable and flower gardening and the many cats who made their home in his store.
Longtime employee Allen Broesamle was devoted to the store and often ran it when Nielsen was ill or traveling. Broesamle’s widow, Ruth, says her husband never wanted a title or ownership, even though Nielsen offered to sell him the place.
Allen Broesamle grew up on a farm in Sylvan Township. His younger brother, Roy, says Nielsen originally offered the job to whichever boy wanted it. Roy chose farming but helped in the store when needed.
When Nielsen bought the store, the main business was the feed mill operation. “Some days he’d start the grinder at seven and never shut it off all day,” Roy Broesamle recalls. “Farmers were lined up all day.” The store made most of its money selling feed additives, such as salt, minerals, and vitamins. Current Farmer’s Supply employee Jeff Weber says Nielsen sold everything from an office in the front: “You’d tell him what you wanted, and he’d go and get it.”
Ruth Broesamle remembers that her husband greased the grinder daily and repaired it often. “The equipment was old, and it was hard to find parts,” she recalls. Each type of feed presented its own challenges. “Hog feed was not a fine grind. It gets into everything,” she says. Weber remembers coming in with his grandfather in the 1960s. “Grandfather would bring in corn or wheat,” he says. “In half an hour he’d be back at the farm.”
By the 1970s many farmers had moved away from the livestock business, while others had begun to grind their own crops or had switched to commercial feed. Farmers who diversified and needed smaller amounts of lots of things became Nielsen’s customer base. Nielsen began selling more supplies such as seeds and fertilizer, and he branched out into nonfarm items such as pet food. To make more room for the additional inventory, he and Allen Broesamle built a lean-to on the back of the building, using lumber from a former railroad freight house that stood where Heydlauff’s parking lot now is.
The wider inventory necessitated more trips to pick up and deliver supplies. Broesamle drove all over southern Michigan for seed corn, feed, fertilizer, and other items, and he made deliveries to farmers as far away as Northville and Plymouth.
When Nielsen was eighty-five, he sold the store. Broesamle stayed to help Greg Raye with the transition but retired after the first summer. Nielsen died in 2001 at age ninety-six.
In his 1987 University of Michigan master’s thesis in architecture, Raye had outlined a plan to turn the area around the Chelsea railroad depot into a pedestrian mall. His wife’s parents, Walter and Helen May Leonard, published the Chelsea Standard and Dexter Leader in the Welfare Building just across the tracks from Farmer’s Supply. Once a bustling commercial center, it became a largely ignored area when passenger trains no longer stopped in Chelsea. Raye suggested that the Farmer’s Supply be replaced with a new building to be used for retail.
But when nearby Longworth Plating eyed the store for a parking lot, Raye stepped in and bought it. Contrary to his original intent, Raye became not only the rescuer of the Farmer’s Supply but also its proprietor. He and his wife have tried to keep the store much the way it was when Nielsen ran it, complete with rough-hewn studs in the walls and air bubbles in the old windows. They’ve retained most of the decor too, keeping the metal signs and the blue ribbons that come with cattle bought at auction at the community fair. The biggest change they’ve made is opening up the lean-to, which had been used only for inventory storage, as sales space.
When Raye and Leonard first bought the store, they continued to run the feed mill. But “it made the whole building shake,” Raye recalls. “It was loud and dusty. The neighbors didn’t like it.” When it broke and they couldn’t get replacement parts, they stopped operating it. They’ve kept what’s left—gears, bins, belt drives—as artifacts.
Raye and Leonard have expanded the stock too. They still serve commercial farmers, but their customers also include hobby farmers and gardeners. An animal lover, Raye has vastly expanded the pet supply department, and he caters to serious bird-¬watchers. Chelsea Farmer’s Supply also sells locally made products such as honey and maple syrup.
Fresh eggs brought in by Allen Broesamle were a staple during the Nielsen years. The new owners have carried on that tradition: now Roy Broesamle supplies them.
An end to "dead man's alley"?
When the Ann Arbor Farmers' Market opened in 1919, the vendors brought in their produce by horse and wagon and displayed it around the old courthouse. Little could they have dreamed that someday their celebrations would be handled by an advertising agency, or that a national expert would be called in to advise on their market's future. But in the twenty-first century, that's exactly what's happening: the market's eighty-fifth birthday party this month is being planned by Steppe Solutions, and a master plan is being developed by Johnson Hill Land Ethics, (JHLE) with input from David O'Neil, a Philadelphia-based expert on farmers' markets.
In the late 1930s, WPA crews constructed steel sheds for the market in the old Luick Lumberyard between Fourth and Fifth avenues. The market has hardly changed physically since. With vendors' fees covering basic maintenance and the manager's salary, it has operated fairly independently under various city departments, more recently the city treasury, with some additional oversight by a market board.
That changed in 1999, when the city's parks and recreation department took over the market. Parks staff began looking for ways the space could be improved both as a farmers' market and as a community resource. For example, says planner Jeff Dehring, "we could utilize it the times when the farmers aren't here or rent it for other festivities such as Earth Day or music fests." (The market has hosted Earth Day for the past two years.) Besides making better use of the space, Dehring says, renting the market would bring in revenue that could lessen the economic burden on the vendors.
The one remaining house on the market property was razed after its last occupant, Mary Kokinakes, died in 2002. (Kokinakes and her husband had sold it to the city many years earlier, with the provision that they could live out their lives there.) The time seemed right for reassessing the market's situation.
For the last year and a half, JHLE principals Mark Johnson (son of a cofounder of JJR) and Chet Hill (formerly with the city parks department) have been working with project manager Jamie Brown to develop a plan to use the new space. David O'Neil, who is also working on plans for Detroit's Eastern Market and the Toledo Market, has visited twice. Several of his suggestions--based on his theories that customers like to shop in a circular pattern and that markets need a clearly defined entrance--have been incorporated into the phase 1 plan.
Vendors had assumed that the land where the Kokinakes house stood would be used to extend the market's middle "leg." Because that leg ends in the middle of the market unconnected to anything else, some shoppers avoid it--it's been nicknamed "dead man's alley." But instead, JHLE has suggested that part of the house site be turned into a "bioswale," a planted basin used to collect and filter storm-water runoff from the market. JHLE would solve the problem of "dead man's alley" by removing it, using the space for parking, and replacing the lost stalls with a partial row along Fourth Avenue.
The new layout is supposed to encourage customers to circle the entire market, as well as making the market more visible from Fourth. JHLE proposes equipping the new spaces with the latest market amenities--radiant heat, electricity, water, and phone lines for authorizing credit card payments, as well as deeper parking stalls and wider aisles--and says the changes would result in a net gain of six stalls and five parking spaces.
Other suggestions include adding a historic-style brick entry at both ends of the Detroit Street row, rain barrels at downspouts to collect water for farmers' plants, and customer pickup spaces on Fourth and Detroit. The cost for these improvements, estimated at $400,000 to $500,000, would be paid from un-earmarked park funds, with grant matches if possible. The parks staff also plans to organize a "Friends of Farmers' Market" group that would sell bricks to help raise money.
Later phases could include another twenty or thirty stalls along Fourth Avenue to complete the loop. Another improvement, at present still in the realm of dreams, would be to remove the central parking area and turn it into a parklike space--but only if alternative parking can be found. Asked whether the farmers don't need the parking space, Jamie Brown replies that many markets function fine with a drop-off system. He points out that the vendors on the Detroit Street side already drop off their produce--and that area is considered the best location at the market.
A more immediate change will be the arrival of a new market manager. Louise Wireman, who took over from longtime manager Maxine Rosasco, stepped down in July after two years on the job. A Toledo resident (she was formerly in charge of the Toledo Market), she says that at this point in her life she prefers to work where she lives. "I've attained my goals. I improved the operating systems, hammered out ground rules," she says.
Longtime vendors rent stalls by the year, but assigning coveted "daily" rentals can be tense. Wireman says that she reduced conflicts between farmers and artisans over the daily stalls by listing them strictly on the basis of seniority. At press time, the city parks staff was interviewing potential successors.
The next step is to get input from those directly affected--the annual vendors, the daily vendors, the artisans, the neighbors, Kerry town-area merchants, and the general public. The first group to see the phase 1 plan, the annual vendors, were not overjoyed with it. "I like the existing market as it is," says Alex Nemeth, who has been coming to the market for seventy years. He thinks the main objection was to moving the stalls from the middle aisle to Fourth Avenue.
The market's Eighty-fifth Birthday Bash on August 14 (see Events) will include displays explaining the phase 1 plan and asking for input, as well as a booth to "sell" fund-raising bricks. Live radio coverage is planned, and visitors will be able to view archival photos, listen to live music, and take part in old-fashioned activities, such as making Mr. Potato Heads with vegetables from the market. If all goes well, work on phase 1--or some modification of it suggested by the stakeholders--could begin as early as this winter.
[Photo caption from original print edition]: Eighty-five years of the market (counterclockwise from lower right); vendors outside the old courthouse on Fourth Avenue; the current market sheds under construction in the 1930s; grower and customer in the 1950s; JHLE's phascil proposal, which includes a "bioswale" and a new, circular layout.