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The History of the Observer's New Home

You wouldn't think a simple 1940s industrial building would have much of a history, but 2390 Winewood, the new home of the Ann Arbor Observer, has a surprisingly diverse past: it has housed a manufacturer of trading stamp gifts, a factory where the first hockey helmets were made, a one-of-a-kind map store, and a remodeler's office.

The address first appears in the 1947 city directory. A motorcycle store was the first tenant, but Automated Products, later known as Kingsware, soon moved in. The company made gift items for Gold Bell trading stamps.

At the time many stores gave trading stamps as incentives to encourage customers to come back--an early version of today's "loyalty" programs. Customers received the stamps based upon the amount they spent; pasted in books, the stamps could be redeemed for gifts at special cash-free "redemption centers." It was quite a business in its heyday: Shelly Byron Hutchinson, founder of S&H Green Stamps, made enough to build the awesome mansion at 600 River St. in Ypsilanti (used today by High Scope).

In an undated aerial photo of W. Stadium, 2390 is visible as a small cement-block building facing Winewood. Presumably, it was Kingsware that added a steel warehouse behind the original structure that connected it to a second cement-block building, with a loading dock, off Maple. John Marchello, co-founder of Danmar Products, recalls that the building had already been expanded to that L shape by the time he first saw it, in the early 1960s.

Marchello says that Kingsware made electric fondue makers, hot plates, and other household appliances. His discussions with Kingsware owner Hugh Garver about painting the ice-hockey helmets that he was developing led to Danmar's moving into the building in 1962. The "Dan" is for Harlan and Josephine Danner, who joined with Marchello to form Danmar, which manufactured safety products for sports and medical uses. Marchello developed the products, and the Danners oversaw their production.

Marchello, a U-M art and design major and a member of the U-M wrestling team starting in 1954, had worked with his coach, Cliff Keen, to develop better ways to protect competitors from the hematomas known as "cauliflower ears." From wrestling headgear, he moved on to develop a plastic ice-hockey helmet; up until then, players' only head protection was a pair of soft pads connected by an elastic strap.

With a $300 loan from Keen, Marchello began manufacturing hockey helmets in his garage in New Hudson. He soon had enough orders to repay Keen's loan. Meanwhile, the Danners had moved back to Ann Arbor from Venezuela in order to rear their children in the United States and were looking for a business to become involved in. Harlan Danmar had also wrestled for the U-M, in the 1930s, and his mother was a landlady who often rented rooms to wrestlers--including, during his college years, Marchello. The sports connection soon led to a business partnership.

It turned out to be a good time to start a helmet business. Besides hockey headgear, Danmar made special helmets for motorcycle riders and police departments. And when bigger competitors took over those markets, Danmar found a new niche in medical safety products.

During Danmar's infancy, Marchello had continued doing freelance design work. One of his customers suggested that he create a helmet to protect the heads of institutionalized people, some of whom are prone to falling. Soon, other customers began asking Danmar for various medical safety products.

"There was a big need not being serviced," explains Marchello. Health care professionals had "been trying to jury-rig things to work. We'd talk on the phone, and they'd send rough drawings." Products for people with special needs included face guards, apparatuses to help hold forks or crayons, headrests, chest and head supports, and wheelchair accessories. Ruth Harris, U-M professor of physical education, contacted Danmar to suggest they build a flotation device that would allow physically handicapped people to play water sports, and thus was launched a line of swim aids.

In 1978 the Danners retired, and Marchello became Danmar's sole owner. Ten years later he sold the business to general manager Karen Lindner, but continued to work for the company. That same year, Danmar moved the company to roomier quarters at 221 Jackson Industrial Dr.

The company now has thirty-three employees, tripled since its Winewood days, and is still making medical safety equipment, much of it one-of-a-kind items. They've also seen a bit of a return to sports equipment; for instance, some teams come to them to make helmets with logos that don't easily peel off, as decals do. At age seventy-six, Marchello still comes into work every day.


John Roumanis, who was then running the Cottage Inn Pizza delivery chain, bought the building from Marchello to store supplies for his company's commissary, which at the time was located across Winewood. (For Roumanis's latest project, see Marketplace Changes, p. 45.) He rented out the part facing Winewood to Don Wagman for his map store, Geography Ltd. Wagman remembers that Cottage Inn employees stopped by many times a day, to retrieve food stored on pallets in the metal building or to get foods out of the walk-in freezer in the very back, but he says they didn't bother him because they used different doors.

Wagman sold anything having to do with cartography--maps, atlases, globes, even astronomy paraphernalia. His maps were of every kind imaginable and from all over the world--topographical, reproduction antique, road and railroad maps, street plans, and literary maps, to name just a few. When Cottage Inn moved out a few years later, Wagman had the whole building to himself, so he spread out into the unused space. "To call it ramshackle would be being kind," laughs Wagman. His biggest sellers were Michigan topographical maps, used in summer by vacationers, in fall by hunters, and year-round by engineers and environmental consultants. Wagman stayed for fourteen years but closed in 2004, no longer able to compete with online sales and web mapping services.

Contractor Paul LaRoe bought the building in 2006. By then it was in pretty rough shape, but being a remodeler, he knew what to do. "I could see that it had a good structure and was full of possibilities," LaRoe says. He gutted and cleaned the inside and, working with architect Ed Wier, installed new offices, bathrooms, and windows. He says his goal was to make the interior feel "warm and cozy, like a home," a theme echoed by a new facade with hints of a traditional peaked roof.


Observer owners Patricia Garcia and John Hilton bought the building last summer. LaRoe did such a good job on the front part that it needed only minor changes. The metal building, though, got a complete overhaul that added windows, plumbing, and heating and cooling systems. The Observer is also using part of the back building, but still has some warehouse space on the Maple side that it hopes to rent out.

The Observer spent twenty-one good years in the Marketplace Building near Kerrytown. But when ad sales fell during the recession, the company had to sublet part of its space, and what remained was uncomfortably cramped. The magazine's staff is enjoying having room to spread out again and plenty of parking (rented from Eberbach Corporation across Winewood). They do admit to missing downtown but are pleased to discover how many locally owned businesses are within easy walking distance on the west side. Says publisher Patricia Garcia, "We've traded Zingerman's [Deli] for the Roadhouse."


This article has been edited since it appeared in the February 2013 Ann Arbor Observer. The spelling of John Marchello's name has been corrected. (end of article)

Saline's Plymouth Rock
A playful dog rediscovers a long-lost salt spring.

Saline's name and identity are tied up with salt, yet the actual salt springs that once bubbled up along the Saline River south of town hand't been seen since the area was drained for farming in the nineteenth century. But last year, Jim Peters accidentally discovered a slat spring that is still active!

Peters and his dog Bonnie, a gentle but energetic pit bull terrier, were hiking on undeveloped city land near Saline's wastewater treatment plant. Bonnie pulled Peters toward a muddy puddle to get a drink. "As she got close, she sank in up to her chest in muck. Before I could pull her out, she had backed herself, out," he recalls.

Peters washed the grayish mud off Bonnie in the nearby Saline River, then went back to take a closer look at the puddle. “I noticed very few plant varieties growing nearby and that the mud was covered with deer tracks.” That’s when Peters, then a city councilmember, had his “aha” moment: Why were the deer drinking there when they could have used the river? And why was the puddle in a clearing with no trees and substantially less vegetation than anywhere else nearby?

Peters collected some of the watery muck in a plastic bottle he found and took it to the city lab to be tested. “When the report came back that it was as salty as sea water, I was like a kid at Christmas,” recalls Peters. He double-checked these findings using a cleaner bottle and another lab. Again the same results came back.

As soon as his suspicion was confirmed, Peters contacted Saline historian Bob Lane. The two men began working together, Peters researching the salt springs’ prehistory and Lane putting the more recent Saline history in context.

Peters research revealed that Saline’s salt springs are part of an ancient sea bed formed about 600 million years ago, which extended from present-day New Jersey to Wisconsin. (Detroit’s salt mines are part of the same system.) When the Ice Age was over, about 12,000 years ago, animals and people began moving into this area. Prehistoric animals came to drink at the salt springs. Remains of mastodons and mammoths have been found nearby.

Native Americans followed, drawn by the good hunting and also because they too liked the salt. Their remains have also been found. According to the 1881 History of Washtenaw County, Michigan, “Early seekers for relics did not hesitate to open shallow graves and the ground was strewn with the bones of departed warriors.” Lane has identified the location of two Indian burial mounds near the salt springs. One has been leveled for the Crestwood subdivision--people remember finding bones and relics at the time it was being built in the 1960s. A hill west of the DNR Fisheries is believed to be the other. The most recent Indian residents, the Potawatomi, who came to this area in the sixteenth century, used six paths, still there, that converge at the springs. They were known to trade salt with neighboring tribes.

Frend explorers gave the Saline River its name in the 1600s. The first European visitors also appreciated the salt springs. Trappers used the salt to preserve beaver pelts, which were in great demand in Europe for hats. The springs were first pinpointed on a map in 1819 by surveyor Joseph Francis in section 12 of Saline Township.

In 1826, the first permanent settler in Saline Township, Leonard Miller, built his home near the salt springs. Others built nearby. In 1829, F. A. Dewey, a pioneer travelling to Tecumseh, wrote of taking the United States Military Road “west through the Saline River near the salt springs.” This road, the first across the state, ran from Detroit to Chicago following an old Indian trail; it's now Michigan Avenue. In 1832, Orange Risdon, who'd surveyed the road, laid out the town of Saline on high ground north of the salt springs.

The 1881 County History told of an attempt by a group of local men to manufacture salt in 1863. “A building was erected, a derrick put in place, and boring commenced. After three unsuccessful attempts to sink a well, the project was abandoned. There has always existed a doubt in the minds of many whether the contractor engaged to sink the well acted in good faith. The charge is boldly made that he was bought off by rival interests,” they reported.

Evidence of this failed endeavor was found in 1944, when a farmer named Harry Finch was plowing for corn and felt his plow sink down. Investigating, the site he found evidence of the former salt wells. The late Ray Alber, who farmed on land marked as part of the salt springs, once told Lane that he remembered that he and other farmers used to pick up salt clumps that they’d give to their animals.

Lane worked out the wells' location on the west side of Macon Road and has shown it to people as part of historic tours. and has shown it to people as part of historic tours. He has also, with the land owner’s permission, gone over the ground with a metal detector but found nothing left of the would-be salt works.

The 1863 mining attempt is the last reference to active salt springs. When the County History was written eighteen years later, the authors felt the need to offer proof that the salt springs had even existed: “That salt has been made here in years gone by cannot be doubted. Iron kettles have been found which were once doubtless used for this purpose."

So Peters’ delight at his find is easy to understand. The spring presumably escaped discovery for so long because it's in an overgrown area that people rarely visit. Even if another dog had dived in as Bonnie did, only someone well versed in Saline history would have realized what the muddy puddle might be.

Last October, Peters sponsored a bill to create “Salt Spring Park” on the land where he found the active spring. It passed unanimously. “A forgotten parcel of city-owned land in the Saline River valley will now be available for all to enjoy as a unique park dedicated to our local heritage," explains Peters. “It will allow us to provide proper stewardship of our salt springs, enjoy nature and reconnect with Saline’s distant past.” Lane is equally enthusiastic, explaining “There is nothing now in town that explains why we are called ‘Saline.’”

Peters' council term ended last year, but he's continuing to work on the project as a member of the parks commission. His vision is to leave the site as natural as possible but to improve the trail and build an observation deck with signage at the spring, so people won’t get as muddy as Bonnie did. He would like someday to see the spring connected by a walking trail to Curtiss and Millpond parks-- he says that could be “a beautiful, safe, free from car traffic path, much of which is along the river.” He knows all this will take money, which he hopes can be provided with grants. The local Eagle Scouts have already volunteered to clear the overgrown path.

Peters worries that the muddy puddle would underwhelm some people. He compares the spring to Plymouth Rock: “It’s just a brown rock to some – but it’s what it stands for, not what it looks like.” But so far, the reaction fromt he public has been very positive. "People find it fascinating," he reports.

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Real Estate Transfers

Frank J. Inward to Chas S. Smith, Ypsilanti, $1,865.
Hiram Fairchild to Chas. S. Smith, Ypsilanti, $500.
John Blakeslee, Adm., to Burt Lawnsburg, York, $735.67.
Anneth M. Lazell to Mary E. Stoner, Bridgewater, $2,000.
Nelson P. Hill to Jerry W. Walsh, Ann Arbor, $850.
C.H. Kempf to Adam Bohnett, Chelsea, $110.
Sarah M. Joslyn to A.L. Parker, Ypsilanti, $350.
Racheal Ring to Miriam Gallagher, Ypsilanti, $500.
Delos Townsend to Phebe Townsend, York, $1,500.
Dorothy Frey to Herman Hardinghouse, Ann Arbor, $1,382.
John Frey, by ex. to Herman Hardinger, Ann Arbor, $6,000.
John Frey, by guardian of heirs, to H. Hardinghouse, Ann Arbor, $620.
Jonathan S. Gould to Abraham Maybee, Augusta, $2,000.

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