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Huron River Renaissance: Ann Arbor Rediscovers Its River


When my husband and I were first married in the mid-1960s, we often wandered down to Argo Park, which was only two blocks away from our home on Pontiac Tr. We'd go into what was then Wirth's Canoe Livery, in a building which the family also lived in, and put a dime in one of their nickelodeons or sit on the screen porch and enjoy the view of the Huron River.

We were always the only ones there. After we had our first child, we would take him down to the playground at Longshore Park across from Argo, and again we were always the only ones there.

Outdoor Education: Habitats, Goats, and Bird Feeding

During the warm months of the pandemic, my husband and I took walks in different neighborhoods, often parking in the empty lots next to schools. We noticed that many had nature areas at the edge of their grounds. My interest piqued, I began looking into it and discovered that the Ann Arbor Public Schools were pathfinders in outdoor education--and that much of their success depended on citizen activists who saved and maintained these areas.

Ora Herbert Ellis (1916-2014)

O. Herbert Ellis
O. Herbert Ellis, 1972

Richard Alexander Blake (1951-)

Richard A. Blake
Richard A. Blake, 1990

Rosemarion (Alexander) Blake (1923-2015)


Rosemarion Alexander Blake
Rosemarion Blake, 1967

Fixing The Damn Roads


It's been a challenge for the county road commission since 1919. The problem has always been money.

West Park

One of the things that makes Ann Arbor the city it is are the numerous and diverse parks within its boundaries. West Park is a crown jewel of that parks system, having been for decades a home to recreation of all kinds for the citizens of Ann Arbor. West Park's popularity with people of all types has also brought clashes and the park's history is not without it's dark stories.

Library Threads

For nearly two centuries, volunteers and professionals have connected local readers to a wider world.

From its earliest days Ann Arbor has been a reading town with enthusiastic library supporters. Its first library was launched in 1827, just threeyears after the ci!J was founded. Even so, the history of our libraries is not a straight line from then to now. Different threads, professional and volunteer, paid and free, have woven back and forth ever since.

Today those strands are woven tightly together: we now have the professional Ann Arbor District Library and two independent volunteer groups that work closely with it. The Friends of the Library turns sixty-three this year, and the Ladies Library Association celebrates its sesquicentennial this month -- jointly with the AADL, which is marking its own twentieth year of independence (see Events, October 1).

We know about the 1827 library because in 1830, George Corselius ran an article lamenting its deficiencies. The editor of the Western Emigrant sought "twenty or thirty individuals" able to pay $3 each to expand that small collection into a more robust "circulating library." For that fee, readers could read Fanny Trollope's Domestic Manners of the Americans or the Encyclopedia Americana. Other private libraries followed, as well as reading clubs whose members bought books to share.

It wasn't until 1856 that the city had its first free, publicly accessible library. When the Union High School opened that year at the comer of State and Huron, citizens could use the library in the superintendent's office.

In 1866 the Ladies Library Association was formed as a subscription library. According to the group's history, the thirty-five founders -- "a determined group of socially prominent local women" -- paid $3 to join and $1 a year in dues for the privilege of borrowing books from its collection. They also sponsored lectures, concerts, art shows, and readings.

After renting various places, in 1885 the LLA bought a lot at 324 E. Huron. The club hired Chicago architects Allen and Irving Pond -- whose mother, Mary, was a member of the LLA -- to design the city's first freestanding library there.

Four years later, in 1889, the school board moved the high school library into its own room, and hired twenty-three-year-old typist Nellie Loving as the district's first librarian. She stayed for thirty-nine years and was an energetic advocate. "She even went to the firemen at the station," recalled Elizabeth Stack, a founder of the Friends of the Library. "They were just sitting around. 'Why don't you read something?' she asked." She followed up by bringing them books, which they later returned asking for something "livelier."

Loving's response is not on record, but the ladies of the LLA didn't just want to entertain readers-they saw themselves as "a force for intellectual and moral improvement." The minutes of the group's 1872 annual meeting observe that though the demand for fiction exceeded the supply, "we are happy to state that a large proportion of the books purchased during the year are of a character to stimulate earnest thought and fully meet the needs of the intellectual mind."

From its start, the LLA women wanted a free public library -- but they couldn't get the city to fund it. Finally, in 1902, LLA president and school board member Anna Botsford Bach suggested that the two groups apply jointly for a $20,000 grant from Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate who was building libraries all across America. However, they deadlocked over the location: the school board insisted that the library be in or near the high school, while the LLA wanted a separate site.

The problem was solved two years later, but at a high cost: in 1904, the high school burned down. Luckily students rescued most of the 8,000 books in the middle of the night; they were stored across the street in the Methodist Church's parlor.

The school board applied for and won a new $30,000 Carnegie grant. The library was built alongside and connected to the new high school, but the school faced State St. and had a skin of brick, while the library faced Huron and was finished in stone.

In 1916, on its fiftieth anniversary, the LLA gave its collection of several thousand books to the public library, and its building to the school board. The building was used by the Red Cross in World War I, and later by the Boy Scouts. It was tom down in 1945; its site is now occupied by the fortress-like Michigan Bell building.

In 1928, Nellie Loving's successor, Frances Hannum, separated the school and public collections. She moved the schoolbooks to the third floor and made the bottom two floors a public library, with the lower level the children's room.

In 1953, the city sold the high school to the U-M, using the money to start work on what is now Pioneer High. The university renamed the old school the Frieze Building, after a beloved classics professor. When it was tom down in 2007 to make way for North Quad, the library's Huron St. face was incorporated into the wall of the quad-what preservationists call a facadectomy.

The school's move again brought up the question of where the public library belonged. The Friends of the Library was organized in 1953 to lobby for a downtown site: the comer of Fifth and William, where the old Beal house was for sale. Elizabeth Stack organized the Friends' first fundraising book sale on the grounds of the house. Friends member Bob Iglehart recalled in

The Ladies Library Association built its own "circulating library" on Huron in 1885. a 1995 remembrance that "it was a rather pitiful affair, not a whole lot of books, but there were also homemade cookies, potted plants, and the general aspect of a ladies church affair." And it raised enough money to rent a bookmobile to take books to playgrounds that summer.

The schools did buy the site, and the new library, designed by Midland modernist Alden Dow, was dedicated on October 13, 1957. Clements Library director Howard Peckham said that the shared civic space "added an extra room to each of our houses." The Friends moved their growing collection of donated books out of Stack's garage and into the library's basement, and their sales to its sheltered front porch.

The new library was still run by the school system, so the Friends lobbied for a citizens' committee to advise the school board on the library's needs. Fred Mayer, a committee member in the 1960s, recalls that they dealt with such issues as fees for nonresidents, problem patrons, new programs, and summer reading.

Finances got easier after 1973, when the school board put a separate 1.3-mill tax for the library on the ballot. It got more votes than the schools millage, and in 1974, the library added a 20,000-square foot addition. Designed by architect and book lover Don Van Curler, its high wells of windows and enclosed garden fit with the original Dow design. In 1991 Osler/ Milling designed a second addition, adding two floors to the Van Curler addition, renovating the older part, and updating mechanical systems.

In 1980 the Friends expanded their annual sales into a bookshop in the library's basement. Elizabeth Ong, who organized it, is still an active volunteer. The shop was managed for many years by volunteer Mary Parsons, who stressed in her final report that "the sales should always be considered a community service first." But in addition to getting books into the hands of new readers, the sales also raised a lot of money. The Friends used to sponsor the "Booked for Lunch" speaker series and many other services and amenities such as literacy programs, staff workshops and scholarships, and taking books to hospitals and senior residences. They also advocated for the new branches and led millage campaigns.

In 1994, when the state's Proposal A took away school boards' authority to levy taxes for public libraries, the schools and city council sponsored creation of a new district library. An interim board was created, with Mayer as president, to divide the buildings and land, and reconfigure services that had been provided by the schools.

On June 10, 1996, voters in the Ann Arbor School District overwhelmingly approved a two-mill district library tax, and elected the first library board. Of the original seven members, only Ed Surovell remains today. Twenty years later, he says, "We're dramatically better, with higher attendance and a higher number of programs." He points to advances such as more foreign language books, the incorporation of the county library for the blind, and the construction of three new branches, Malletts Creek, Pittsfield, and Traverwood, plus the expansion of the Westgate branch.

As for the Internet, Josie Parker, director of the library since 2002, says, "We decided, instead of fighting it, to use it as a tool." Parker points out that "the public can now use the library's catalogue 2417 wherever they may be." Reserving or renewing books and getting books from other libraries are also much easier. The online Summer Game attracts 7,000-9,000 players, from children to adults.

Although Ann Arbor voters have a history of supporting library funding, in 2012 they turned down a millage to build a new downtown library. Since then, the AADL has been figuring out how to best use the present building, make necessary repairs, and, in Parker's words, "match the collection with the space." Fiction has been moved to the second floor and magazines and local history materials to the third floor. The first floor still has art prints, DVDs, and new and Zoom Lends books (high-demand volumes that rent for $1 a week), along with art, science and music tools. These are stored on wheeled carts, so a large area can be cleared for special events such as the Maker Faire and a comic book convention. A library board slate running in November (seep. 35) says they'll make a new millage vote a priority.

Like the library itself, the Friends now make greater use of the Internet. In Parsons' time, when they spotted valuable books or documents, they worked at either finding a place to donate them, perhaps to the Bentley or Clements, or sold them. The Internet has made this process much easier. (It helps that many of their sorters are retired librarians or specialists who are good at identifying books of interest.)

When the elevators failed during a routine inspection in 2014, the Friends bookstore moved up to the first floor. Business was so good there that they stayed. The group now annually gives the library $100,000 or more; the money is used mostly for children's activities, including library visits for every second grader in the district. The Friends' former basement space is now the AADL's "Secret Lab," where children can work on messier projects such as cooking or art.

The Ladies Library Association also is still active. One of its earlier members, Alice Wethey, "was a terrific treasurer," says Joan Innes, a member for sixty-three years. "She was a tremendous investor and put our money into blue chip stocks." The LLA's twenty-woman board, which includes both Innes and her artist daughter, Sarah, uses the income to support the library's purchase of art books, framed fine art reproductions that patrons can borrow, and art-themed games for the children's department. As the new branches opened, the LLA also bought original works by local artists to display there.

The library has just hired its own volunteer coordinator, Shoshana Hurand, formerly with the Arts Alliance. "It's a real breakthrough and will offer volunteers a wider variety of opportunities," says library board member Margaret Leary. Parker explains that until now library volunteers have been handled by whoever answered the phone for the specific project. Now one person will see where volunteers might fit-maybe with kids' sewing or art projects, or online help, or in many other ways. The Friends will stay totally separate, although both entities will probably send people to each other.

On October 1 (see Events), the Ann Arbor District Library and the Ladies Library Association will celebrate their twentieth and !50th anniversaries, respectively. The event will feature a talk by Francis Blouin, U-M professor of history and information and retired head of the Bentley Historical Library, entitled "Connecting the City."

"We talk a lot these days about 'connectivity' that now means being plugged into the Internet and all the information it provides," Blouin explains. "But being connected certainly predates the arrival of the smartphone. Ann Arbor in the nineteenth century, though a small town, also wanted to be connected to the wider world." Thanks to generations of avid readers and hardworking library supporters, those connections now are stronger than ever.

[Caption 1]: Founded in 1866 as a subscription library, the Ladies Library Association continues to support library purchases. Artist-member Sarah Innes envisioned an early meeting (left) and painted a group portrait today (below).

[Caption 2]: A $30,000 grant from Andrew Carnegie paid for the city's first dedicated public library. Only its facade survives, on North Quad.

[Caption 3]: The Ladies Library Association built its own "circulating library" on Huron in 1885.

Ann Arbor's Seven Sisters

Fifty years of low-budget goodwill

When President Obama announced in December that he would normalize relations with Cuba, photographer Jack Kenny and retired attorney Kurt Berggren got to thinking about an official visit with Ann Arbor's newest sister city. In 2003, they'd persuaded city council to adopt Remedios, a town of 46,000 in central Cuba. Though both men have since visited, U.S. travel restrictions have prevented the cities from exchanging official delegations.

Most Ann Arborites don't know we have a Cuban sister city, because council didn't want to spend $1,000 to add Remedios to the signs that list Ann Arbor's six other sister cities. Though exchanges over the years have led to close personal and business relationships, the city no longer provides staff support or funding, so it's strictly been volunteer efforts of late.

Contact with Juigalpa, Nicaragua died out in the 1990s. The connection to Dakar, Senegal, began and ended with a single visit in 1997. There hasn't been an official visit with Belize City since their mayor checked out our recycling program in 1999, and the last youth sports exchange with Peterborough, Ontario, was in 2003.

But two relationships, with Tübingen, Germany, and Hikone, Japan, remain strong. It's no coincidence that both countries were America's enemies in WWII.

Sister cities originated in the People to People program, an outgrowth of a 1956 White House conference that promoted friendship between former enemies. Ann Arbor's involvement started in 1965. Georg Melchers, a Tübingen city councilmember, visited that December and was serenaded by Ann Arbor High School students singing Christmas carols in German.

Many Ann Arborites trace their heritage to southern Germany, and from the start, local Germans were active in the relationship, hosting events and visitors. City councilmembers were also drafted into the effort. Mary Hathaway, the widow of attorney and councilmember John Hathaway, was dealing with a colicky baby when her husband announced they would be hosting Hugo and Bertl Raiser. The couple didn't speak English, so "I had to reach down deep for the little bit of German I had inside me," she recalls, but the families have been friends ever since.

In 1969 Carolyn Murphy, a young teacher of German at Pioneer High, visited Tübingen as part of a delegation. Georg Melchers took her under his wing and introduced her to his son, Christoph. They fell in love, married, and still live in Tübingen, where Carolyn remains very active in the sister city program. In

1980 Tübingen invited Ann Arbor to take part in its music festival. Mayor Lou Belcher recalls that city manager Sylvester Murray was given palatial quarters on the top floor of a hotel, with balconies on all four sides and a fully stocked bar, while Belcher had a cubbyhole on a lower floor with just a bed and a desk. It turned out that the Germans, who have several levels of mayors starting with the Oberburgermeister or lord mayor, had assumed that the city manager was more important than the plain mayor. When they discovered their mistake they were very apologetic, but Belcher told them to leave things as they were since Murray was getting such a kick out of the mistake.

On the relationship's fortieth anniversary in 2005, Tübingen's delegation was led by the city's first female lord mayor, Brigitte Russ-Scherer. Mayor John Hieftje led the return visit with his wife, pianist Kathryn Goodson, who gave a concert at a nearby monastery. As they have every year since 1982, Tübingen high school students also came to Ann Arbor during their spring break, and Ann Arbor students returned the visit after school got out for the summer.

Most of the participants in the 2011 and 2012 exchanges were architects or people involved in city planning. In Ann Arbor, activities included walking tours, visits to landmark buildings, and explanations of our green initiatives. In Tübingen, Carolyn Melchers enlisted a group of architects including her husband- to organize a tour of their architectural treasures, from the Middle Ages to the modem.

Tübingen will send two groups this year. This month, twelve adults with developmental disabilities, plus eight helpers, are coming to Ann Arbor and staying in North Quad. They will be hosted by the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living. An Ann Arbor delegation will return the visit this fall. And on June 1, the Ann Arbor City Council plans to reenact the proclamation they passed fifty years earlier. In the audience will be the latest official delegation from Tübingen. Councilmembers Steve Kunselman and Graydon Krapohl will lead a return visit in July, and members of the public are welcome.

In 1968, Michigan adopted the Prefecture of Shiga as its sister state. The following year, Ann Arbor partnered with Hikone, a city in Shiga on the eastern shore of Lake Biwa.

The first visit was a big one: a contingent of high school teachers and students and 100 members of the Musical Youth International Band and Choir. But it wasn't until 1982 that an official delegation made the trip. Mayor Belcher led a nine-member group including Hitoshi Uchida, owner of the Karnakura Japanese restaurant, who served as translator.

The highlight of the trip for Belcher was a visit to Toyota headquarters to encourage officials to expand the company's small Ann Arbor emissions lab. He expected to take the train and to talk to one of the company's economic development people. "I was surprised when a limo showed up at my hotel and drove me the 120 miles to Toyota's headquarters," Belcher recalls. "When we arrived 1 was escorted to [chairman Eiji] Toyoda's office. He dismissed the staff and closed the door and then said, 'So tell me, how are my Wolverines?' " It turned out he was a U-M alum, and he barraged Belcher with questions about U-M sports and various bars. When Belcher brought up the local lab, Toyota answered, "Well, I think we can do sometgubg about that." Toyota subsequently built a major facility in Ann Arbor Township and then an even bigger one in York Township.

Yearly junior high/middle school exchanges began in 1985, organized by Clague teacher Rusty Schumacher. Ann Arbor students visit Japan every other year, and Hikone students come in the opposite years

Larry Dishman, who organizes the exchanges through the Rec & Ed department, says that Hikone has a city employee in charge of sister cities. Though visitors stay with families, the city gives them rail passes and money for travel and lodging when they travel to Hiroshima and other cities. "On our end, we have the JGds pay $2,000," Dishman says, "and then raise more money patchwork style."

Like Hikone, Tübingen has a staffer who keeps track of their partnerships. The German city also provides funding for cultural events and a travel budget that will pay the way for their mayor and two councilmembers to this year's fiftieth anniversary celebration.

In contrast, Ann Arbor eliminated all regular funding during budget cuts ten years ago. This year, its only financial contribution to the Germans' visit will be some bag lunches, and everyone making the return trip will pay their own way.

Relying entirely on the volunteers means that relationships ebb and flow depending on people's changing interests and commitments-especially if the sister city also has limited resources.

That's what happened with Belize City. The relationship was approved in 1967 at the urging of the local People to People chapter. Former mayor Louis Belcher recalls that the late councilperson Jerry Bell, a fan of Belize steel bands, also championed the connection.

A group of Boy Scouts from Belize City subsequently stopped by while in the United States for an international scout jamboree. But a suggested return visit to Belize by a young people's choir and orchestra was politely discouraged in a letter explaining that the city lacked the resources to host such a large group.

In 1968 five Ann Arborites, including then-state senator Gilbert Bursley, visited. Return visits included their national director of libraries in 1969 and a steel band in 1973. In 1975, the relationship was memorialized with the creation of Belize Park at the corner of Fountain and Summit. But there appear to have been no visits since 1999. As former mayor Ingrid Sheldon explains, "It's really people to people-it takes people to keep things going."

The 1983 partnership with Peterborough was inspired by Doug Walker, then head of the Ann Arbor Recreation Department, who suggested the cities set up a Junior Olympics-type exchange. At its height, the Arborough Games brought six or seven busloads of middle school students to Ontario to compete in soccer, baseball, track, volleyball, and basketball, followed by a return delegation from Peterborough the following year. Participants stayed in the homes of the opposing team and enjoyed a big party after the games.

"It was the gem of the recreation department," remembers Larry Dishman. "When it first started, so many kids wanted to participate that we had to have tryouts." But as more opportunities to play sports opened up in Ann Arbor, interest waned. Toward the end "we were so frustrated we would practically hustle kids off the streets of Ann Arbor and tell them they didn't have to pay, just come," Dishman recalls.

The partnership with Dakar, Senegal, was suggested by Richard Ross, who got the idea while visiting a niece who worked for an ambassador in the west African country. City council approved it in 1997.

That October an official delegation visited Ann Arbor including Dakar's mayor, Mamadou Diop. Mary Hall-Thiam, a member of the hospitality committee and the wife of a Senegalese, recalls that the local Senegalese community sponsored a reception in the group's honor. While in Ann Arbor, the delegation observed Ann Arbor's educational systems, economic development, and environmental protection.

An attempt to organize a return visit foundered when Ross couldn't raise enough money. But the connection is not totally dead. Hall-Thiam says the local Senegalese community is planning to organize a twenty-year reunion in 2017.

The partnership with Juigalpa started with a ballot proposal. Activists concerned about American foreign policy in Central America, collected signatures for a proposal to create a sister city in Central America. In April 1987 it won by a two-to-one margin, and council appointed a task force to select a sister city. Several members had been to Nicaragua and had contacts there, so they consulted with the Sandinista government, which suggested Juigalpa.

In November Ann Arbor sent a seventeen-member delegation, including mayor Ed Pierce and state rep Perry Bullard. The group brought twenty-five boxes of gifts, mostly medical or educational supplies. When asked what else the city would like, the mayor suggested a small garbage truck.

After much research, the committee found a company that made the right kind of truck in Alberta. Initiative organizer Gregory Fox picked it up there and drove it to Ann Arbor, where three other members of the original delegation, Kurt Berggren, Tom Rieke, and Kip Eckroad, took over for the two-week trip to Nicaragua. The volunteers took turns with two in the cab, driving and navigating, and one holed up in the back, able to communicate using a walkie-talkie that Eckroad borrowed from his kids.

There were a few later delegations to Juigalpa, but interest died out. "In the '90s, Juigalpa's citizens voted to replace the Sandinista group in city hall," Rieke recalls by email. "People in Ann Arbor did not know the new leaders, who probably thought that we were just Sandinista puppets." However, the garbage truck "was used for about ten years around the clock," says Berggren. "This was in spite of the fact that parts were hard or impossible to get, so they had to somehow figure out ways to make repairs. Finally it ended up as a flatbed truck used for other things."

Berggren got involved in Remedios after seeing Jack Kenny's work on Cuba. Kenny fell in love with the island after visiting with friends in 1996 and returned frequently to photograph its vintage automobiles, crumbling architecture, and people. The book he published in 2005, Cuba: Photographs by Jack Kenny, shows Cubans, although clearly not rich, enjoying life-playing chess, getting their hair cut, riding bikes, or just hanging out.

"Remedios is an untouched, well preserved colonial city," explains Kenny. It's in the middle of the island, about a six- or seven-hour drive from Havana. When Berggren visited, he played chess with their mayor- Remedios has the main chess school on the island.

Since the thaw in diplomatic relations, Kenny and Berggren have been working to confirm that officials in Remedios support the partnership to clear the way for an official visit.

"If we put a group together we could do it," says Kenny, "but first we have to make sure we are recognized in Cuba. This is the time to see Cuba, before it gets overrun."

Photo caption 1: (Left) in 1987 Ann Arborites voted to adopt a sister city in Central America, and raised funds to donate a garbage truck to Juigalpa, Nicaragua. But interest faded in the 1990s. (Right) Ann Arbor mayor Ingrid Sheldon and Dakar mayor Mamadou Di?P in 1997.

Photo caption 2: Ann Arbor visitors enjoy a trip on the River Neckar in 2012. Thanks to strong institutional and volunteer support, relationship with Tubingen, Germany, and Hikone, Japan, continue to thrive.