The landmark that shaped the village
Perched on the edge of the bridge in the center of Manchester, the Manchester Mill visually defines the town. Historically, the mill is the reason for the village's existence.
In 1826, John Gilbert bought the land that would later become Manchester. He contracted with Emanuel Case and Harry Gilbert to build a mill on the River Raisin in 1832. Since then, there has always been a mill on that site—although the building has burned down twice and the dam has been rebuilt twice.
According to Chapman's 1881 History of Washtenaw County, Case built a gristmill and a sawmill. Those mills, plus one on the east side of town (now the site of a Johnson Controls factory), furnished the power that made Manchester a leading nineteenth-century industrial town, served by two railroad lines. Case also built the first hotel in Manchester and was the village's first justice of the peace, office in his hotel.
Out of the three mills, the grist the only one that has survived—and it has had to be rebuilt repeated mill burned for the first time in 1853.
Though an exact cause was never determined, fires were common in mills because of the high flammability of grain dust. With wooden buildings and low-tech volunteer fire departments, they would spread quickly. The 1853 fire swept half of the downtown, destroying fourteen businesses and one dwelling before being brought under control.
In 1875 and again in 1908. the River Raisin flooded and washed out the dam. After the second flood, a temporary dam washed out again just two months later. It was replaced with sixty-foot-wide poured-cement structure, which has lasted to this day. Don Limpert, present owner of the Manchester Mill, believes the dam one of the oldest poured-cement structures in the state.
The mill burned for the second time in
By the time the night watchman
red the fire and sounded the alarm,
were shooting through the sides of
ding. The mill was rebuilt again,
it opened for business in January of 1926, it no longer ground flour, just feed for livestock.
Although Henry Ford bought most of the mills in the area, including the one on the east side of town and mills in Saline and Dexter, he decided the Manchester Mill, at a price of $6,000, cost too much. The high price probably reflected the fact that the mill was still in use, unlike the abandoned mills he usually purchased.
E. G. Mann and his two sons, Willard and Earl, bought the mill in 1940. E. G. had been in the mill business since 1927, when he bought a feed mill in Bridgewater, which is still run by his descendants. In 1976, Willard's son, Ron Mann, who had been working at the Manchester Mill, took over. Ron remembers that in the 1960s, the mill was open from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and that the workers were grinding all day. But by the time he became the owner, grinding was only about five percent of the business, and more of a service than a moneymaker. The surrounding farmland was being steadily sold off until there were hardly any livestock farmers left. (Today there is only one full-time livestock farmer in Manchester Township.)
In 1981, Mann decided to end the milling part of his business; at the time, it was the oldest operating mill in continuous use on me same site in the entire state. By then, he had expanded into lawn and garden supplies and premixed animal food. He moved this part of the business to the west side of town, where it is still running, under a new owner.
After Don Limpert bought the old building from Mann, he removed the mill equipment, some of which had to be taken out through the roof by a crane. Limpert, who has restored numerous other buildings in Manchester, divided the mill into smaller spaces, starting with an apartment at the top that he calls "Manchester's high-rise." (Bill Farmer, a former member of the Raisin Pickers string band, lives there.) The remainder of the space is rented by stores and businesses. One of the turbines is still in place and could be used to generate electricity if ever needed.
A feeling of the old use still pervades the mill. One of the turbines is used for a coffee table in the Red Mill Cafe, and an original corn-shucking bin empties into the office of the Manchester Chronicle, where editor Kathy Kueffner looks out at the River Raisin while she writes her copy.
Photo Caption: Through fire and flood, Manchester's mill ground grain from 1832 to 1981.
Dexter citizens aren't waiting for the U-M to decide the fate of Gordon Hall.
The fate of Gordon Hall is on hold as far as its owner, the University of Michigan, is concerned, but not in Dexter, where children and adults are raising money to buy and renovate the house that the town's founder, judge Samuel Dexter, built in 1841. Recently Dexter kindergartners raised almost $900 with bake sales, while second-graders held a contest that brought in about $5,000 in pledges.
Last October the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners designated Gordon Hall and sixty-seven acres around it as a historic district. But those who thought that the vote meant the village can now use the house for a museum were jumping the gun. Historic protection means only that changes to the outside of Gordon Hall or to the grounds have to be approved by the county historic district commission. The commission would certainly reject such egregious changes as condos on the front lawn—but if a new owner wanted to use it as a country estate or a corporate retreat, that would be legal as long as the owners respected the integrity of the property.
No one knows whether the university will try to sell Gordon Hall on the open market or whether it might be willing to give the village favorable sales terms. Diane Brown, a spokesperson for the U-M's office of facilities and operations, says officials have been too busy with other projects. The leases for the four rental apartments in Gordon Hall have expired, so the house is now empty. The university is discussing having someone live there to keep an eye on it and is working to keep up with maintenance, interior painting, and repairing winter damage to the roof.
Village activist Paul Cousins, former owner of Cousins Heritage Inn, met with then-interim U-M president Joe White, whom he knows from catering events at the U-M business school when White was dean. Cousins reports that White listened very sympathetically to his vision of village ownership of Gordon Hall. But the views of new U-M president Mary Coleman about Gordon Hall are unknown.
In 1940 Katharine Dexter McCormick, granddaughter of Samuel Dexter, hired Emil Lorch, dean of the U-M architecture school, to renovate Gordon Hall. But after he had worked on it for ten years, she suddenly gave it to the university, which scooped out the historic interior and divided the building into apartments. No one knows exactly why she made the donation, and it is not clear whether she knew what the U-M was going to do with the building, but the speculation is that she had problems paying estate taxes after her husband died. Connie Osler, Lorch's daughter, recalls, "Dad was devastated when she gave it to the university. He was so mad."
Even if the university were to return the favor and give Gordon Hall to the village, it's not clear how much money would be needed to renovate it for a museum. But Dexter citizens are continuing to work on the project.
Photo Caption: To help save Gordon Hall, Cornerstone Elementary gave the Dexter Historical Society's Gil Campbell nearly $900 in bake sale profits.
The asking price is $2 million for a Dexter landmark.
Does anyone want to buy a historic 1843 Greek Revival mansion for $2 million? That's the University of Michigan's asking price for a Dexter landmark that lots of folks would rather see preserved than put on the market.
Gordon Hall needs plenty of interior work, but from the outside it looks much as it did when Samuel Dexter built it on a hill overlooking the town he founded. It has not just sentimental value as a village landmark but historical importance as well. Dexter and his sons were conductors on the Underground Railroad, and there is strong evidence they hid escaping slaves in the basement.
The U-M, though, views the building mainly as a financial asset. The university has owned the home since 1950, when Dexter's granddaughter, Katharine McCormick, donated the house and grounds. She had been working for ten years with Emil Lorch, dean of the U-M's architecture school, to restore the house—yet, puzzlingly, her gift to the U-M included some money to have the inside gutted and turned into four apartments. One of them was subsequently occupied by Alexander Ruthven, retired president of the university.
In November 2000 the U-M regents voted to sell the house. They had asked the county board of commissioners to designate it as historic, preventing any changes to the exterior. But the county went too far for the U-M's taste. Jim Kosteva, the university's director of community relations, lobbied hard but failed to stop the commissioners from including the property's seventy acres in the protected district. The historic designation prevents any development of the surrounding property without permission of the Washtenaw County Historic District Commission.
Kosteva's announcement of the asking price shocked many people at a recent meeting organized by Alice Ralph, a local architect and member of the county historic district commission. Attending were many interested citizens plus representatives from Dexter Village, Scio and Webster townships (the property straddles the boundary between them), the county parks commission, and the Huron-Clinton Metroparks, plus two county commissioners. Kosteva said the university would accept bids from September 1 through November 15. but only cash offers. He held out some slight hope for compromise only by saying the university was not obligated to accept the highest offer.
Ralph is trying to figure a way for the county to acquire Gordon Hall. Paul Cousins, a member of the village council, is hoping that the Dexter Area Historical Society could end up owning it. Both are finding plenty of people who agree with the idea of community ownership, but coming up with the money is a daunting task. The U-M's time frame leaves room for a possible millage vote, but while Cousins says something like 0.1 mills for restoring and maintaining Gordon Hall might pass, he doesn't think it's likely voters would approve a tax measure large enough to buy the building.
What if no one buys the property? Says Cousins, "If the university changes their mind and has a soft spot in their heart and wants to give us Gordon Hall, we'll take it." So far, though, the university has ignored such appeals—despite the widespread interest in saving Gordon Hall and the building's landmark status for Dexter villagers. Joining other community leaders and official bodies in a preservation effort doesn't seem to be on the U-M's agenda.
Photo Caption: Alice Ralph and Paul Cousins are finding support for community ownership of Gordon Hall.
A May fund-raiser offers a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see how the Davenports and Curtisses lived
The Davenport-Curtiss mansion and its grounds take up a full block of land right on Michigan Avenue in downtown Saline. The house is so impressive that someone I know assumed it must be a public building—only when he was rebuffed at the door did he learn to his embarrassment that it is a private residence. Built in 1876, the mansion has served as a home for two presidents of the Citizens Bank of Saline, William Davenport and Carl Curtiss, and is still owned by the Curtiss family.
Davenport (1826-1909), the bank's founder, built the house, hiring prominent Detroit architect William Scott to design it. (Scott, trained in England, also designed the 1882 Ann Arbor fire station—now the Hands-On Museum.) The Curtiss family still has the blueprints, which are written on linen and include the instruction that "only finest materials available will be used."
Scott designed the house in the Second Empire style (named for the reign of the French emperor Napoleon III), with a tower and a mansard roof. It was one of the first homes in the city with indoor plumbing. Quality wood—walnut, maple, tulipwood, and butternut—was used throughout, and Davenport furnished the house with pieces purchased at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, an international trade fair held the year it was built. Outside he built a matching carriage house and stable, and he landscaped the grounds with rare trees.
Davenport had earned his fortune as the owner of Saline's largest general store, which segued into a bank. His father died young, and Davenport began working when he was twelve, starting as a clerk in Caleb Van Husen's store in Saline. He was just twenty-five when he opened his own store in partnership with H. J. Miller, whom he bought out two years later. The business thrived, selling everything from sewing supplies to food to wool, and in 1863 Davenport built a new three-story store on the northwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Ann Arbor Street.
Since Saline's only safe was at the new store, people often asked Davenport to store their cash and other valuables. As the town thrived, especially after the arrival of the train in 1870, Davenport's financial transactions increased. In 1885 he formally organized the bank, which he initially operated out of a comer of his store. Davenport and his wife, Zilpha, were civic leaders. She helped organize the Saline library. He organized the volunteer fire brigade and donated much of its equipment, personally traveling to New York to purchase a hand-pumped fire engine that drew water from cisterns dug under the streets. Davenport "has been prominently identified with all Christian, moral and benevolent movements," a local historian wrote effusively in Charles Chapman's 1881 county history, "and is well noted for his kindness and generosity."
Davenport's son Beveriy (1852-1930) graduated from Detroit Commercial College and succeeded him as bank president after his death in 1909. In 1917, Beverly Davenport remodeled the bank's interior, hiring a New York architect who specialized in financial institutions.
Beverly Davenport died without an heir (his only son, Edward, predeceased him). But luckily there was an employee, Carl Curtiss, who was more than capable of taking over. Curtiss was born in 1883 in Camden, a small town southwest of Hillsdale; he started working at the bank as a teller in 1908, shortly after graduating from Hillsdale College. When William Davenport died, Curtiss was promoted first to assistant cashier and then to secretary of the board and cashier—the posts formerly held by Beverly Davenport. After Beverly's death, Curtiss succeeded him as president of the bank and inherited the Davenport mansion.
When Curtiss moved in, the house had been unoccupied for quite a while and still contained all of its original furnishings. (Beverly had had his own house on Henry Street, just behind his father's.) Curtiss admitted in a 1952 Ann Arbor News interview that he had been tempted to tear the mansion down when he first glimpsed the interior. It was over fifty years old by then, and the plaster was cracked, the fixtures old, and the rooms drab and dirty.
Curtiss's friend Henry Ford convinced him that the house was worth saving, and sent experts from Greenfield Village to help him figure out how to restore the building and furnishings. Curtiss didn't take all of Ford's advice, however—for example, he refused to keep the walnut bathtubs with their copper linings, preferring the convenience of a modem bathroom.
Ford also sent over some of his men to plow up the yard for gardens. In the Curtiss era the house became known for its rows of peonies, hundreds of rose bushes, and thousands of tulips. Curtiss's granddaughter, Mary Curtiss Richards, remembers that the gardeners used to dig up the tulip bulbs every year and dry them on screens for replanting.
While meticulously restoring his house, Curtiss was also earning the respect and gratitude of the community by the way he was running the bank. Though he took over at the beginning of the Great Depression, he dealt with people in a humane way, which also turned out to be good for Saline's future economy. Mary Richards tells how he survived the 1933 bank "holiday," when a panicked run on assets caused many banks to close. "He stood on the steps of the bank, cash in hand, and handed it out," says Richards. "After a few [depositors got their money], they stopped asking to take it out and started putting it back." Some area farmers remember to this day that Curtiss lent them money when their crops failed, and according to Richards, he never foreclosed on any property.
After World War II, loans from Curtiss helped start new businesses, most notably Universal Die Casting, which became Johnson Controls. Curtiss also continued the Davenport tradition of civic involvement. He served on the city council and school board and, during World War II, on the draft board. He donated to countless local projects, including the Saline Community Hospital and the Saline Methodist Church. He paid for high school band uniforms and for much of the land for Curtiss Park. He was a charter member of the Saline Rotary Club.
Curtiss and his wife, Vera, participated in the social life one would expect from a big banker. Richards remembers that they were regular attendees at the musical May Festival in Ann Arbor. "Grandma would get a new dress and dress to the nines," she recalls. "Sometimes she'd get a new piece of jewelry for that, too."
Asked whether it was hard being the granddaughter of the big banker in town, Richards laughs and says, "No, not at all. We were proud of him. We never heard anything bad about him."
Curtiss served on the National Bank Board, and when he went into Detroit for meetings, he and Vera would often take in a play afterward. They sometimes entertained in their house, often in connection with some philanthropic project. Being strict Methodists, they didn't serve anything stronger than ginger ale.
At the time, Richards lived with her parents, Bliss and Vera (her mother had the same name as her grandmother), and her brother Carl in a house her grandparents had built when they first came to Saline. But Richards says she was invited to the Davenport-Curtiss mansion "all the time." Most of her memories of the house are of family events, such as watching movies in the basement (Curtiss had his own projection room, and Richards's family still has some of his movies), or eating her grandmother's waffles on the maid's night out.
Curtiss never retired from the bank; he continued working until his death in 1967 at age eighty-four (Vera had died ten years earlier). In 1964, he oversaw the replacement of William Davenport's original bank building with a new Citizens Bank facility. While in the hospital for his last illness, he was worried that he would spoil his perfect Rotary attendance, so his fellow Rotarians offered to meet in his hospital room. He. died before the time of meeting, leaving his record intact.
Richards's parents moved into the mansion after Carl Curtiss died. A few months later she married, and her parents hosted the reception on the grounds. "It was the last big event [held there]. There was a band, a tent. They went the whole nine yards," says Richards. Her mother kept the house immaculately clean, and even though they regularly hired cleaning help, she insisted on cleaning the Czechoslovakian crystal chandelier herself, still climbing on a stool to do it until she was well into her nineties.
Bliss and Vera Curtiss opened the house to one homes tour in the 1970s. But since then the family has maintained strict privacy, except for letting Saline fourth-grade teacher Audrey Barkel bring students through on tours. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience for those kids to be in there," says Barkel, who has been taking kids through for about twenty-four years.
This spring Bliss and Vera's son Carl, with his sister Mary's help, will open the house to the public again for a very special event: a garden party to benefit Arbor Hospice, which took care of Vera so that she was able to die at home in 1998 (Bliss had died in 1977). The fund-raiser will be held May 21 from 1 to 4 p.m. Docents will explain the history of the home and garden, and refreshments and a booklet about the house will be available. Tickets, limited to 250, will cost $50, and will be available at Arbor Hospice and various Saline merchants, including the Calico Cat. For more information, see Events, p. 53.
Phoenix Packaging has revamped his one-room Saline schoolhouse.
Henry Ford knew how to run a car company, and he thought he knew how to run the country. In his view, the rural values of his childhood, including education in a one-room schoolhouse, represented America at its best.
In 1935 Ford turned Saline's Schuyler Mill, on Michigan Avenue, into a soybean processing plant. Soon after, he moved a dilapidated old school from Macon Road to a site directly across the street. He intended it for the children of the men who were producing plastics and paints at the restored mill (today Wellers' banquet facility).
Ford spared no expense to restore the school, complete with cloakroom, potbellied stove, and two-person desks. He even installed two outhouses (modernized with real plumbing and heating). On September 7, 1943, Ford attended the opening of the school.
Many of the thirty-five students, who ranged from kindergarten through eighth grade, had tenuous connections to Ford, or none at all. Allen Rentschler's father was farmer, although his uncle, Carl Bredernitz, worked at the soybean factory. Bob Cook's father was a Chevrolet dealer. Thelma Wahl Stremler's dad worked at Bridgewater Lumber.
Like the physical structure, school ac- tivities were a mix of modern and old-fashioned. "We had the latest books, the latest teaching methods," recalls Cook. The older children often served as teacher aides. "I helped the younger ones read, but I felt I was just having fun," remembers Stremler.
Each day started with a chapel service that included recitations by students and hymns led by Stremler on the piano. At recess children of all ages joined in games such as kickball and softball. Ford furnished the school with looms of various sizes.
For students and parents, one attraction of the school was free medical and dental care. Both Rentschler and Stremler got their first eyeglasses thanks to Ford.
The Saline school was one of several Ford built near his small plants. Don Currie, the first teacher, moved on after a year to become principal of Ford High School in Macon. Clare Collins, later a shop teacher at Saline High School, took over from Currie.
The one-room school didn't last long. In 1946, Ford, in failing health, decreed that all his schools would close at the end of the semester. The students returned to public schools; they had little trouble adjusting. Ford died a year later at age eighty-three.
The Saline public schools were not interested in the building, so it was sold to Elizabeth and Bruce Parsons. The Parsonses moved the entrance to the side, added a two-story wing with four bedrooms, and divided the schoolroom into a kitchen, dining room, and living room.
By 2002, when Patricia and Chris Molloy bought the building, a series of owners had let it deteriorate. The Molloys wanted to turn it into an office for their company, Phoenix Packaging. After some negotiations with the city, the Molloys agreed on a historic-preservation easement in exchange for business zoning. In the future, the exteriors of the buildings may not be altered without the city's permission.
The Molloys carefully preserved and restored what was left of the original school, including the hardwood doors, floors, and wainscoting. The first floor is their office; they rent the upstairs to attorney Russell Brown and a separate shed to architect Dan Kohler.
The Molloys have a collection of Ford School pictures on the wall. They acquired an old potbellied stove but then learned that the Saline Area Historical Society has the school's actual stove. The Molloys have agreed to a swap. Now they are keeping their eyes out for one of the old two-seater desks.
The American Legion Hall was originally the home of an eccentric cabinetmaker
Henry Vinkle, original owner of the historic Vinkle-Steinbach House, is said to have built his own casket, and napped in it every day until he died and was buried in it. His house, built in 1840, is now the headquarters of Dexter's American Legion.
Vinkle, a trained cabinetmaker, set up business sometime before 1832 on the west side of the millpond, near Dexter's two mills and the main shopping area. For his shop, he used a barn that town founder Samuel William Dexter had built in 1826. Like other nineteenth-century cabinetmakers, Vinkle not only made coffins, he also doubled as an undertaker. Prior to the Civil War, funerals were held in homes, and the undertaker's job was to take the casket to the family and lay out the body. Soon Vinkle was handling funerals for miles around Dexter.
By 1840, Vinkle's business was prospering and he built an elegant Greek Revival home. "The house was built back in the time when there were very few nails," said Leon Agan, son-in-law of one of the home's later owners. The builders used "big logs," Agan said, and did the foundation and flooring by hand.
According to Agan, the three pillars in front of the house—which he always found "rather pretentious"—were "the outstanding edifice as far as the people going by were concerned." The year after Vinkle built his house. Judge Dexter built a very similar house not far away—with six pillars.
From the time the Vinkle family lived in the house until the time the American Legion occupied it, the home had only three other owners, all related: first Henry Jones; then his sister Helen Laney and her husband, Zerah Burr; and lastly Helen's daughter Mary Laney and her husband, Henry Steinbach. (Agan was married to the Steinbachs' daughter Frances.) Two weddings took place in the mansion: Adeline Vinkle to William Boston in 1869 and Mary Laney to Henry Steinbach in 1902.
Zerah Burr farmed on land that ran south of the property. His son-in-law, Henry Steinbach, worked as a traveling salesman, selling leather belting and leather supplies, mainly to steel mills in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. Steinbach always traveled by train because he hated car travel. Although the train tracks went right by his house, he had to board the train at the station, four blocks away. (Once, though, the train stopped in front of his house because of an obstruction, and he just got off there.)
The Steinbachs built a swimming pool between the house and Mill Creek. Their children, Frances, Charles, and Burr, all enjoyed it, as did their friends, including the children of the Bates family, who lived just up the road. Harry Bates (now a member of the American Legion) and his sisters, Dorothy Bates and Jeanette Bates Turner, remember Mary Steinbach giving them cookies and milk after school.
The Bateses remember that Henry Steinbach, a small man, "a bantam rooster," liked to relax with a cigar in his leather reclining chair in a nook in the living room. Mary Steinbach and her mother hosted many Methodist church functions, including quilting bees. It was a large enough home to set up the quilting frame and to lay out a potluck lunch inside.
Dexter war veterans organized a chapter of the American Legion in 1948 and bought the Vinkle-Steinbach house for their headquarters the next year. They filled in the pool and tore down the barn, replacing it with a picnic pavilion. Two additions to the house were built: a meeting room to the east in 1957, and an enlargement of the lounge on the west in 1984. The additions are placed far enough from the front house line so as not to obscure the pillars nor alter the majestic look of the house. The inside, however, has been totally remodeled with an open room plan, wood paneling, a new fireplace, a bar, ceiling fans, and three televisions.
Today 290 members enjoy the house, relaxing in the lounge, attending meetings in the hall, and working on a wide variety of service projects for the community and for other veterans. "We're proud of what such a small community can do," says Legion adjutant Larry Stalker. The old Vinkle-Steinbach House not only serves all their needs, but is much more homey and cozy than a new building would be. According to Legion member Harry Bates, "This is about as good as Dexter has to offer."
Photo Caption: Henry Vinkle's colonnaded home aroused the envy of Judge Dexter himself.
Dexter residents want to save Gordon Hall—and its vista.
The University of Michigan plans to sell both historic Gordon Hall and its surrounding seventy-acre estate, which offers a prized and unobstructed view of the village. Built in 1841, the colonnaded mansion on a hill northwest of town is the only surviving residence of village founder Samuel Dexter. Now local residents are banding together to try to save not only the home but its grounds as well. Future generations of Dexter residents "should be able to get the view from the top of the hill that Judge Dexter could see," contends Paul Cousins, former village council member and founder of Cousins Heritage Inn.
The U-M, which announced its decision to sell Gordon Hall last November, has asked the Washtenaw County Historic District Commission to give the mansion a historical designation before the house goes on the market. However, the request applies only to the building itself and a rectangular area around the house extending 250 feet in front, 100 feet in back, and 75 feet on either side - not to the full acreage of the original property. So while the historic home would be legally protected, its prime view of Dexter would not.
Cousins and other community leaders, including former village president Paul Bishop and Dexter Historical Society president Gil Campbell, hope to raise the funds needed to buy the house and its "viewscape" from the U-M, which has owned the building and its surrounding property since 1950. Their goal is to purchase the mansion and the original property, restore the house, and furnish it as it would have been during Judge Dexter's occupancy, gathering back artifacts dispersed to the Dexter Area Historical Museum and the Washtenaw County Historical Society. In addition to its great educational value, the organizers believe, the house could lure history-minded visitors to Dexter. "It could outshine the bakery as a reason to come here," jokes Bishop.
Gordon Hall, named in honor of Samuel Dexter's mother, Catherine Gordon Dexter, is a magnificent example of Greek Revival architecture. "In the eighteen forties it was one of the places to see in Michigan," Campbell says. Moreover, it was almost certainly a stop on the Underground Railroad—Dexter has been identified as a "conductor," and there is a place in the basement where fugitive slaves may have hidden.
The home was sold after Dexter's widow died in 1899, and it fell into disrepair. In the 1930s U-M architecture dean Emil Lorch and U.S. senator Royal Copeland - a Dexter native - persuaded Dexter's granddaughter, Katharine Dexter McCormick, to buy it back (Community Observer, spring 2000). McCormick paid Lorch to repair and restore the mansion, hoping that the Dexter Women's Study Clubs, which used it for meetings, could take it over. But the clubs could not afford the upkeep, so in 1950 McCormick gave it to the university. Much to Lorch's dismay, the university demolished part of the building and divided the rest into apartments—stripping away much of the elegant interior detail in the process.
According to Bishop, "It would be nice if the U of M would give it back to us; we could use the money [raised for the purchase] to undo what they did." But the village's hope that the house might be sold for a minimal amount will apparently go unfulfilled. The university plans to sell Gordon Hall in the usual bid process. "We have a fiduciary responsibility to the public taxpayer," says Jim Kosteva, U-M director of community relations. "We don't have the ability to offer special deals."
This isn't the first time that the village has mobilized to try to save one of its founder's residences. Dexter built his first home in the village on Huron Street in 1826 and moved to another house on Huron when the railroad was built nearby in the 1830s. In 1939, when his second house was about to be torn down, three Dexter women tried to raise $1,000 to save it but failed. Bishop, Campbell, and Cousins - who face a far greater financial challenge - are hoping the same fate won't overtake what Lorch called "in many ways the most important of all Michigan homes."
The heart of Fredonia
"I'm surprised at how many people say, 'I met my husband at a dance at your dad's place,' or 'I met my wife at a dance there,'" says Billie Sodt Mann, whose father owned the Pleasant Lake House from 1925 to 1943. A bar and restaurant now known as the Aura Inn, the Pleasant Lake House was the center of Fredonia, a hamlet that in the nineteenth century was large enough to have its own post office. Many people in the area have happy memories of swimming, fishing, picnicking, and dancing there.
Situated on Pleasant Lake, in the middle of Freedom Township, the inn began in a two-story house that was built about 1880 by German immigrant Jacob Lutz. Since Fredonia was a pleasant stopping point between Ann Arbor and Jackson, and the lake an enjoyable place to relax, Lutz turned the front part of his house into a saloon and grocery store and rented upstairs rooms to travelers.
The next owner, David Schneider, added a dance hall upstairs. In the early 1920s, when guests began arriving by automobile, he dismantled the barn and used the wood to build a bigger dance hall, with a high, beamed ceiling, down by the lake. The hall boasted a hardwood floor, a loft where bands played, tall windows to let in light, and two wood stoves in opposite corners for heat.
Manny Sodt bought the inn in 1925 and moved the dance hall next to the house (it took a whole summer, with relatives and volunteers helping) and added electricity and central heating. The spot by the lake became a campground and boat rental; abandoned waiting rooms for the interurban trains, which had recently been discontinued, were moved to the site and made into vacation cabins. A former policeman (he was Ann Arbor's first motorcycle cop), Sodt enforced rules of good conduct. "No one did anything bad. You'd quiet down or you knew where you were going: to jail," recalls Mann.
On weekends the grounds were used for all-day picnics, weddings, or family reunions, with dances in the evenings. "Friday was old-timers' night. They did square dances and waltzes," remembers Mann. "On Saturday it was more modern. The bands didn't have a name; it was 'this guy and that guy.'" The Friday night crowd tended to live nearby; Saturday night dances attracted younger people from farther away. Mann sold tickets while her older sister, Ginnie, helped their mother sell hot dogs and coffee during intermission.
In failing health from a weak heart, her father sold his place in 1943. He died the day the papers were signed. The new owner, Ray Hoener, installed an antique bar—which is still there—in the dance hall. Rich Diamond, the present owner, took over from Vicky and John Weber, who owned the place from 1965 to 1978.
County commissioner Mike DuRussel worked for the last two owners. "I learned my diplomacy cracking heads and pouring drinks," he jokes. The Webers were deeply rooted in the community, and they attracted a crowd of locals with lunch specials and weekly euchre and pool tournaments. They also sponsored a Pleasant Lake Inn baseball team—most of the players drove beer trucks for a living—that won several championships in the Manchester league.
Rich Diamond and three of his friends bought the bar in 1978 and renamed it the Aura Inn ("Aura," he says, is short for "An Unusual Roadside Attraction"). They dispensed with lunch, opened at 4 p.m., and hired loud rock bands. In the early 1980s, DuRussel recalls, the inn was very popular—"There'd be people five deep at the bar"—and too noisy for him to hear customers' orders. "We had to read lips," he says.
With an increased awareness that drinking and driving don't mix, the partygoers have tapered off, and the bar is now more the neighborhood place it once was. The kitchen was closed a lot while Diamond was negotiating a possible sale of the inn. But the deal fell through in May, and Diamond is now reopening the inn as a full restaurant.
New owners are restoring the digs of Chelsea's most notorious figure—and villagers are pitching in.
For almost a century after Frank Glazier left Chelsea in 1910 to serve a term in Jackson State Prison, his huge house at 208 South Street went downhill. Despite Glazier's notoriety in local history, Chelsea residents did nothing to save it beyond occasional complaining.
Last January Todd and Janice Ortbring bought the twenty-one-room mansion, complete with tower, despite an eleven-page inspection report that mentioned termites, foundation cracks, and faulty wiring, among other problems. "We're probably crazy for doing it," says Todd Ortbring. "But we saw the opportunity to save a house that needed saving pretty darn quick." A lifelong resident of Chelsea, Ortbring appreciated Glazier's importance. His great-grandfather played in Glazier's band, and his grandfather owned the drugstore that Glazier had inherited from his father.
Glazier is without doubt the most important person in Chelsea's history after the founding Congdon brothers. In 1895 he started a company that manufactured cooking and heating stoves, and he was soon selling stoves worldwide. A civic leader, Glazier benefited Chelsea in countless ways—bringing electricity and water to town, providing jobs, and erecting landmark buildings that still define Chelsea, including the Clock Tower, the Welfare Building, the Methodist church, and a bank that is now 14A District Court. He was also a leader in state and local politics; in 1906 he was elected state treasurer and was being mentioned as a possible governor.
But at this peak of his prominence, his financial shenanigans were exposed: putting state money in his own bank, and taking out separate loans from banks all over the state using identical collateral from his stove company. Forced to resign as treasurer, Glazier spent two years in Jackson Prison before his sentence was reduce for good behavior. He spent the last ten years of his life at his cottage on Cavanaugh Lake.
Even today, reactions to Glazier are mixed. Some condemn him. Others excuse him by saying that what he did was common practice in those days and that he was being squeezed by the nationwide financial panic of 1907.
Glazier's house was divided into four apartments. For a long time it still looked beautiful from the outside; in the 1970s, however, an owner put up an ugly concrete-block addition for a fifth apartment, totally obscuring the elegant wraparound porch held up by fluted pillars.
The Ortbrings aim to make the house a single-family home again. Years of use as apartments obscured its original functions; it now appears that the house is actually two houses pushed together. The Ortbrings found a treasure trove of elements in a basement room—front porch columns, wooden doors with metal hardware, leaded glass windows, banisters, wooden benches, and two boxes of wooden pieces for the disassembled parquet floor—that are all elements of the puzzle.
Exactly when Glazier built his house is not clear. In 1895 a photo of it as a smaller house without a tower appeared in the Chelsea Headlight, a publication of the Michigan Central Railroad. Graffiti in the tower, written by Glazier's daughter Dorothy, are dated 1899. Ortbring believes the front was added to the back, but others say the back, the tower, and the front porch might have been the additions.
The Ortbrings have assembled a group of experts to help them, such as builder Bob Chizek and Chelsea architect Scott McElrath. Their strategy is to first replace the roof and paint the exterior. They plan to attack the inside apartment by apartment. The Ortbrings are living in the second-floor rear apartment and renting out three units while working on the apartment below them, which contains the original dining room. Taking off paneling and dropped ceilings, they found pocket doors, parquet floors, ceiling moldings, and a fireplace.
Restoring a house is almost like living with an original tenant. Todd Ortbring pictures the dining room as it was in Glazier's time. "Glazier was a man who liked to eat," he says. "The dining room would have been the most important room in the house, the site of many parties." Ortbring also imagines many meetings of civic and business leaders there. "They'd close the doors, smoke cigars, eat, and plot."
The Ortbrings hope to be done with their restoration by the time their sons, eight-year-old Blake and seven-year-old Grant, graduate from high school. They haven't ruled out someday turning it into a bed-and-breakfast or renting out a part of it.
Lots of Chelsea residents have offered to help in various ways, with information, labor, and even money. Recently the Ortbrings hosted a community open house. The huge turnout on a rainy day suggests that the people of Chelsea are prepared to forgive, or at least forget, Frank Glazier's misdeeds and celebrate all that he brought to the village.
Photo Caption: Todd and Janice Ortbring, with builder Bob Chizek (right), are restoring the Glazier home, which has changed a lot since 1895.
When home was upstairs
In December, the DDA Citizens Advisory Committee hosted a loft tour to get people interested in living upstairs over downtown stores. When Elsa Goetz Ordway was a girl, it was common. From 1905 to 1913, when the Goetz family ran a meat market at 118 West Liberty (now the Bella Ciao restaurant), they were just one of many families who lived downtown where they worked.
Ordway's parents, George and Mathilda Goetz, were born in Wurttemberg, Germany, and came to the United States in 1899. After five years working for a relative who owned a hotel in Niagara Falls, New York, they moved to Detroit, where George Goetz worked as a butcher. A year later they came to Ann Arbor with their sons, Willie and George. They opened the Goetz Meat Market on the street level of the Liberty Street building and moved into the top two stories. Daughter Elsa was born there a year later, with a Dr. Belser in attendance.
The Goetz's family life was intertwined with the store. Mathilda Goetz prepared the family's meals in the workroom behind the shop where her husband made bologna and other meat products. The family's dining room was on the first floor, too, so that they could take care of customers who came in while they were eating. The Goetzes worked long hours—until almost midnight on Saturdays. In those days before refrigeration, people shopped on Saturday night for Sunday dinner. On Sundays the shop was closed, but it was not unusual for a customer to phone and say they were having unexpected company and could they please come over and get some meat?
Ordway's brother Willie, who eventually took over the business, helped his dad make the products then considered standard fare for butcher shops—lard, breakfast sausage, bologna, knockwurst, and frankfurters. Ordway remembers, "My dad would slice the bologna and look at it to see whether it was done right—like a person at a fair looking at cake texture." He made his frankfurters with natural casings, "just so," and was upset when people overcooked them and they burst.
Brother George, in delicate health because of a congenital heart defect (he died at twenty-two), was a photographer. He took pictures of excellent quality despite the slow film and glass negatives then in use. Many of his photos are reproduced today in local histories. He was also knowledgeable about electricity; the family had the first electrically lighted Christmas tree in Ann Arbor. To help his dad, who often carried heavy things up and down the cellar stairs, he wired the cellar lighting to switch on and off when someone stepped on the upper stair tread. When the light began to be on when it should have been off, and vice versa, they finally discovered the culprit: the family cat.
Ordway was too young to work in the store, but she kept busy. She played on the roof of the back room, which was reached from the second-floor living quarters. Her friends in the neighborhood included Bernice Staebler, who lived in her parents' hotel, the American House, now the Earle building, around the corner (Then & Now, May 1993). Riding her tricycle up and down Liberty, Ordway got to know all the store owners, buying penny candy at the grocery store or a ribbon to put around her cat's neck at Mack and Company. She recalls that "an employee of Mack and Company made me a set of large wooden dolls, one of the Ehnises gave me a hand-tooled leather strap for my doll buggy, and Miss Gundert, the principal of Bach School, taught me how to make outline drawings of people and animals when she came to buy meat.
Store owners even knew their customers' pets. Dogs were given free bones, and in those days before leash laws, some came in by themselves to pick them up. Ordway's cat was well known, too - fortunately. As she explains, "One afternoon a customer who worked for the Ann Arbor Railroad came into the store after work and said, 'I see your cat is back.' We hadn't known she'd been away. He told us that he had seen my cat in a boxcar in Toledo and - as that train had been headed for a very distant place - he had carried her over to a boxcar headed [back to] Ann Arbor."
The Goetz family took good care of their customers, too. The meat was never prepackaged, but hung in quarter sections, to be cut to customers' exact specifications. Children who came in with their parents were usually given a slice of bologna. In those days before cars were common, many customers phoned in their orders, which were delivered by the horse-drawn wagons of Merchants Delivery, a company that served the smaller stores that didn't have their own delivery services.
In 1913, wanting a break from the store, the Goetz family moved to a house they had built at 549 South First Street and rented the store out, first to Weinmann Geusendorfer, then to Robert Seeger. They rented the upstairs living quarters to relatives. George Goetz kept a hand in the meat business, filling in at other butcher shops and helping out their owners by making bologna. He also supplied veal to meat markers, traveling around in a horse and buggy to buy the calves from farmers. He died in 1929. Willie, called Bill as an adult, took over the store about 1923. He renamed it Liberty Market and ran it until he retired in 1952. Since then the building has housed restaurants—first Leo Ping's, then Leopold Bloom's, Trattoria Bongiovanni, and now Bella Ciao. The former living quarters are now used as a banquet room (second floor), offices, and storage (third floor).
A return to the practice of living above one's own business will probably not happen in these days of chains, franchises, and large corporations. But the upstairs lofts over downtown businesses can still be made into very desirable apartments. Proponents point out that using downtown's upper stories in this way can keep the area both more vibrant and safer (with more people out and about around the clock). And downtown residents have the advantage of being within easy walking distance of shops, restaurants, and entertainment. Children's author Joan Blos, a member of the DDA advisory council and herself a downtown resident, says of downtown lofts, "Their somewhat eccentric charm appeals to many persons of quite different lifestyles and requirements. Renovated lofts have the potential to provide a useful socioeconomic bridge between the upscale housing of newer buildings and the affordable housing often associated with the downtown area."
About 1923, Bill Goetz (far left, next to partner Frank Livernois) took over the former family store and renamed it Liberty Market. He ran it until he retired in 1952; after passin through many uses, the building today is the Bella Ciao restaurant.
Elsa Goetz (later Ordway) about 1910. Born upstairs from the family meat market, she grew up with Liberty Street as her playground. She bought penny candy and ribbons from nearby stores and one of the Ehnises contributed a leather strap for her doll's buggy.