A motionless windmill marked the gardens of a renowned landscape architect
For many years, a huge deserted windmill north of Saline puzzled those who passed by it on Ann Arbor-Saline Road. Neighborhood children said it was haunted.
The windmill never ground grain. It was actually built as a tearoom for the Gunther Gardens, a formal garden and nursery that operated from 1927 to 1939. Developed by Edmund Gunther, a brilliant but eccentric landscape architect, and his hardworking wife, Elsie, the gardens covered 160 acres.
The "windmill" was an inspired piece of recycling: it was built around the remains of an old silo. The tearoom's sixty-five-seat dining room, which occupied an addition around the base, was furnished with Arts-and-Crafts-style handmade furniture and wrought iron lantern-style lamps. The silo itself contained the kitchen, bathrooms, and a stairway that led to a balcony. From the balcony, visitors could see the gardens spread out below them and the vanes of the windmill rising above them.
"It didn't rotate; it was just for looks," explains the Gunthers' son, also named Edmund.
Why did Gunther build it?
"When you live in Europe, you have different ideas," says Gunther's daughter, Viola Hall.
The tearoom was not open to the public but was used for special events. Groups such as garden clubs or university organizations would book special events at the tearoom. They'd come for a catered meal, a talk by Gunther, and a tour of the gardens.
Because of the windmill, many assumed that Gunther was from the Netherlands, but actually he and Elsie were born in Germany. He studied landscaping in Zurich before immigrating to the United States and attending theology school in Rochester, New York, to become a Congregational minister.
"During World War I, he couldn't preach," says Hall. "They thought he was a German spy. So he moved lo East Lansing and got a degree in the [MSU] landscape program." Gunther worked at a botanical station in Florida and then moved to Ann Arbor to work as a landscape architect.
In 1926 the Gunthers bought a dilapidated farm outside Saline and developed their gardens. They filled in a swamp with loads of dirt. Elsie Gunther, who had learned gardening from her father, supervised the crews and selected the plants. Edmund was the dreamer. "His head was always up in the clouds," recalled Elsie in a 1976 interview.
Edmund Gunther's specialty was wild gardens, so his showpiece featured plants native to the area. Artesian wells on the property fed a kidney-shaped pool with a waterfall in front of the teahouse, and an artificial lake behind Gunther's office. He created rock gardens and sunken gardens, to give potential buyers ideas of what could be done with the plants he specialized in. He increased the variety in his designs by changing the temperatures in his greenhouses, forcing plants to bloom early or holding them back. He went to Indiana to collect dogwoods, to the Carolinas for rhododendrons, and to northern Michigan for cedars.
Gunther's unusual designs brought him awards and wealthy customers. He landscaped factory sites, Hillsdale College, a park in Adrian, and residences in most of southeast Michigan's affluent suburbs. In 1927, he won first prize at the North American Garden Show with a wild garden exhibit. He won again the next year, this time with an octagonal garden. He created a ten-acre flowering meadow for Detroit industrialist William Knudson, and a lavish garden to set off a display of new Chryslers. He also worked for Henry Ford—once designing a rose garden for Ford's wife, Clara—and Ford visited periodically to talk about soybean farming.
Gunther Gardens was a critical success, but not a financial one. During the Great Depression, landscape gardening was a luxury few could afford. The Gunthers tried every way they could to keep the business afloat, including renting out some of the land to farmers. The younger Edmund Gunther recalls that at the end, his dad was working with a religious group in Cleveland to re-create the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, trying to develop a synthetic rubber out of milkweed (in anticipation of World War II), and building dormitories behind his house in hopes of offering classes on landscaping.
But the Gunthers couldn't make the payments on their land contract, and their endeavor ended inelegantly. The sheriff's deputy evicted them, throwing all their possessions out on the road.
The Gunthers were devastated. Their marriage ended, and they both went through hard times for a while. Edmund remarried and returned to the ministry at a small church in Gibraltar, south of Detroit. Elsie moved back to Ann Arbor and ran several boardinghouses, with the financial help of Clara Ford. She showed her gratitude by baking Clara coffee cakes.
After the Gunthers left, the gardens became overgrown, but the windmill remained standing until 1965, when it fell over in a storm. About five years ago, Ann Arbor's Guenther Building Company—no relation to the Gunther family—bought the land and developed it into a subdivision. It was also named Gunther Gardens in honor of the family. In a touch that Edmund Gunther himself would surely have appreciated, the company built a faux-historic covered bridge at the entrance.
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.
The village's broad avenues reflect his ambitious vision
Samuel William Dexter arrived in Michigan from New York in 1824. A Harvard graduate and a practicing lawyer, Dexter came from a prominent eastern family (his father was a U.S. senator, secretary of war under Adams, and secretary of treasury under Jefferson). He chose to settle on the Michigan frontier. Dexter wrote to a cousin, "to get rid of the blue devils, or to speak more politely of the ennui which like a demon pursues those who have nothing to do."
Dexter spent the first four months exploring southern Michigan, traveling 2,000 miles on horseback with Orange Risdon, a surveyor and the founder of Saline (see p. 60). He finally chose the spot where Mill Creek runs into the Huron River. After buying a large amount of land in the area that would become Dexter Village, Dexter dammed Mill Creek and built a sawmill on one side of the creek and a grist mill on the other. He was appointed the village's first postmaster, and in 1826, when Washtenaw was formally organized as a county, he was chosen its first chief justice. From then on, he was known as "Judge Dexter."
The earliest houses in the village were clustered along the river; it was not until 1830 that Dexter laid out the town's streets. Years later, John Doane, who assisted in the project, wrote that Ann Arbor and Central streets were both laid out without instruments: Dexter simply pointed out which trees should be taken down for the center of the street, then had Doane pace out three rods on each side. Soon, both sides of the street were filled with stores; but being constructed of wood, with wooden sidewalks in front, all were eventually destroyed by fire. In the mid- to late-nineteenth century, the original stores were replaced by the brick storefronts that still form Dexter's main shopping area.
In 1839, Judge Dexter donated land for a Baptist church. Soon afterward, he also donated land to the fledgling Michigan Central Railroad. The railroad reached town in 1841 amid great rejoicing. The trains not only made it easier for the agricultural products of the surrounding area to reach market, but they also brought hordes of prospective immigrants, often more than there were seats on the train. The first train depot, on the north side of the tracks, was replaced in 1886 by one on the south side. It is still there, now owned by the Huron Valley Railroad Historical Society.
When he first arrived, Dexter shared a log cabin with another family, but soon he had a large house built on what is now Huron Street. After the railroad cut through that property, he built a mansion just west of town, which he named Gordon Hall, after his mother's family. It still stands today, now divided into apartments. (The Huron Street house was torn down in 1939 despite efforts of historic-minded citizens to save it.) Another elegant early house, the present-day American Legion, was built in 1840 by Henry Vinkler, the village's first cabinetmaker and undertaker. Vinkler reportedly napped regularly in one of his caskets, and when he died he was buried in it.
Dexter peaked in the nineteenth century. According to Dexter historian Bruce Waggoner, the town was "really more of a farming community in the twentieth century." Today, he says, "Dexter is developing into a bedroom community. Around a thousand new residents, in apartments, condos, and private homes, have been annexed into the village." But although only nine miles from Ann Arbor, Dexter has kept its separate identity. Its downtown is still filled with stores providing necessities to residents, including Hackney Hardware, Dexter Pharmacy, and the Dexter Bakery. And the village still has a strong core of active citizens concerned about its future, 250 of whom recently contributed to install an antique-style clock at the comer of Main and Broad streets.
Jeff Schaffer was still in his twenties in 1976 when Manchester's village president, David Little, recruited him to join the village council.
"He knew a lot about construction," recalls Little. "He was a young guy, but so was I."
At the time, Manchester was building two bridges and overhauling its sewer and water systems. Schaffer worked at Wolverine Pipe Line, a company that pipes gas from Texas, and Little wanted the benefit of his experience.
At the next election. Little stepped down as village president. Schaffer succeeded him, staying two terms. During Schaffer's time in Manchester government, the village separated its storm and sanitary sewers, upgraded its sewage treatment plant, built a water tower, and added new fire hydrants.
Last March Schaffer was again elected village president, twenty years after his first stint. Today Manchester's main issue is growth—another good project for a man who takes pride, as Little puts it, in "physical acheivements."
Schaffer has lived in the Manchester area all his life, except for a brief stay in Ypsilanti while he attended Cleary College. His grandfather owned a dairy farm west of town at Austin and Sharon Hollow roads, and also co-owned a lumber yard where the Manchester Township Hall now stands. Schaffer says he grew up to value community service after seeing how his grandfather was always willing to help his neighbors.
"He'd say to someone who lost a barn and couldn't afford a new one, 'Don't worry, we'll give you the lumber,'" Schaffer recalls.
In the years between his two stints as village president, Schaffer served on Manchester's school board, and he and his wife, Connie, raised two children, Dawn and William. After twenty-seven years at Wolverine Pipe Line, he is now in charge of above-ground maintenance on Wolverine's systems from Kalamazoo to Detroit to Toledo.
Although Schaffer is a grandfather, he's still slender and still blond. He wears jeans, a T-shirt, and cowboy boots to work and treats colleagues and customers with small-town politeness—he addresses people as "ma'am" and "sir." His style, both as a boss and as a village leader, is to work as part of a team. "I encourage people on council to talk," he says.
In the last twenty years, Manchester has changed in many ways. There is no longer any active farming within the village limits. A few new industries have moved in. A village manager, Jeff Wallace, now runs day-to-day operations.
But Manchester is still a small town, and Schaffer says he appreciates the values that come with that—"the closeness, the willingness to be a good neighbor."
Still, he says, growth is a fact of life. Two housing projects are being built in the village, the homes and condos of Manchester Woods and the River Ridge apartments. Several other housing and light industry projects are in the discussion stage. "I'm not adverse to growth," explains Schaffer, "but we need to control growth, shape it so it's a good deal."
Appropriately, Schaffer uses a construction metaphor to describe his work as village president. "I keep laying the bricks in the foundation," he says. "It'll be here when we're long gone."
Spite spurred a rivalry that still benefits Chelsea
Chelsea is fortunate that an undertaker's twenty-one-year-old son beat Frank Glazier in the 1893 vote for village president. Otherwise, the town wouldn't have its two respected family-owned funeral homes, Cole and Staffan-Mitchell. Glazier, who later become Michigan state treasurer and Chelsea's most famous business and civic leader, was so enraged at losing to George P. Staffan that he convinced Samuel Mapes, a relative, to give up a successful steam laundry and start an undertaking firm to compete with the Staffan family's.
In the nineteenth century, caskets were made by local carpenters—a number of whom, including Frank Staffan, ended up in the funeral business. Staffan arrived in Michigan in 1847 at age fifteen from Alsace-Lorraine and built many of Chelsea's important buildings, including the township hall, two churches, and many of the downtown shops, using skilled stonemasons from the Eisele and Eder families, whom he had summoned from his native land.
Staffan and his wife, Lena, and their six children lived at 705 South Main and ran their contracting and funeral businesses from their home, as was the custom in those days. Their house still stands, although the stables, a storage building for the carriages and hearses, and the workshop are long gone.
A Democrat, Staffan served on the village council and the township highway and drain commissions. His political involvement, successful businesses, and relationship by marriage to prominent local families such as the McKunes and Keusches made him and his family a threat to Glazier, a Republican businessman with lofty political ambitions. By 1898, at Glazier's urging, Mapes had set up his rival undertaking business right behind Glazier's drugstore at the northwest corner of Main and Middle.
In 1906, however. Glazier undermined his own desire to drive the Staffans out of business when he donated land and money for a Methodist old age home. From that time on, there was plenty of business for both funeral homes, and their rivalry was gradually replaced by mutual respect.
When Frank Staffan died in 1915, the business passed to his son, George P. Staffan—the man who'd beaten Frank Glazier for village president more than twenty years earlier. George P. moved the funeral business to a second-floor spot above a tavern on Main Street, using the space to display caskets and to store equipment for funerals. He made his own embalming fluid, which he sold to other undertakers.
George P.'s son, George L. Staffan, is still active in community affairs at ninety-two. George L. remembers the days when funerals were held in the deceased's home. People usually hung a wreath, called a "door badge," to let people know there was a death in the family. His father would bring a folding couch to the home to embalm the body. The family would pick out a casket, and the Staffans would deliver it to the home. Mourners often put potted palms and a screen around the casket. The Staffans would bring a portable organ and folding chairs for the funeral service.
In the early 1920s the Staffan family moved to a big house at 124 Park that had belonged to a doctor. The former examining room on the side of the house was turned into the funeral office. In 1930 the office was torn down and replaced with a chapel, since by then many people wanted funerals outside the home.
For a time the Staffans also ran an ambulance service, using a converted sedan and their hearses. They often had runs out to the three-lane highway between Jackson and Ann Arbor, where the shared passing lane caused frequent accidents.
George L. Staffan took over the business in 1950 after his father's death. In 1981 he sold it to John and Gloria Mitchell, who had run funeral homes in East Lansing and Rochester. Staffan offered to buy it back if the new owners didn't click with Chelsea, but his generosity proved unnecessary—Gloria Mitchell became so involved in local service projects that she was named the village's citizen of the year in 1997.
The funeral business Frank Glazier instigated also flourished. In 1906 the Mapeses moved to a house at 214 East Middle, using the downstairs for offices and the upstairs for living quarters. A succession of owners sold the funeral business to younger partners—Bruce Plankell, Martin Miller, and Lou Burghardt. In 1977 Burghardt sold it to Don Cole. Cole's son, Alan, and Alan's wife, Wendy, have operated the Cole Funeral Home since 1999. They still run the business out of the house on Middle, although they don't live upstairs.
Recently the Mitchells agreed to a village request that their place be torn down for parking. Gloria Mitchell says the decision was hard, "but now we look back and wonder why the struggle." The new Staffan-Mitchell Funeral Home, less than a mile north of town, has all the latest conveniences, including sound and video systems and a children's play area. Like the founders of the business, the Mitchells live in an attached apartment. Many artifacts from earlier days were moved to the new location. A display cabinet contains such accoutrements of mourning as a vial used to catch a widow's tears, black-bordered handkerchiefs and calling cards, dull black mourning jewelry, and bottles that held George P. Staffan's embalming fluid. And in the garage is an old Staffan horse-drawn hearse. It's occasionally pressed into service, with rented horses, when customers request it.
PHOTOS: FAMILY & HEARSE, CARINE LUTZ; STREET VIEW, COURTESY U-M BENTLEY HISTORICAL LIBRARY
Caption:The Mitchells (above) still have a horse-drawn hearse that can be used for burials, if families request. At one point the Staffan Funeral Home was in a storefront above a tavern on Main Street.
The state's oldest
Manchester has the oldest township library in continuous use in the state of Michigan. Established in 1838, just two years after the township was organized, it has been located for the last sixty-four years in an 1860s-era house on the village square.
During the first years of the library, township clerk Marcus Carter Jr. kept the collection at his house. On Saturdays, from 2 to 4 p.m., people could borrow books stored in a case that sat on a black walnut table. (The library still has the table, now used as a computer stand.) The library continued under the care of succeeding township clerks for the rest of the century.
Manchester thrived as a commercial center in the nineteenth century, assuring a living standard that gave women time to organize literary societies. By the turn of the century, they included the History, Saturday, Shakespeare, and 20th Century clubs. (The last two still meet.) The club ladies—whom Manchester historian Howard Parr describes as "a combo of high caliber, literary, educated-minded people"—decided Manchester should have an independent library with a trained librarian; they began organizing to make it happen.
In 1906 the first librarian was hired: a Miss B. M. Brighton. In 1909 the library moved to the second floor of the Conklin building, near the comer of M-52 and Main Street. It later moved downstairs in the same building, and then to the Mahrle building (now the Whistle Stop restaurant), on Adrian Street. "I remember that library," recalls ninety-one-year-old Glenn Lehr. "I'd read every book in it by the time I was fourteen. It was a long building and dark inside. There was a pot-bellied stove in the back."
When the rent on the Mahrle building was raised in 1934, the ladies of the literary societies decided it was time to buy permanent quarters. They bought the Lynch house, a handsome cube-style Italianate in a perfect location on the town square. It had been built around 1867 for James Lynch, doctor and druggist, by his father-in-law Junius Short. Descendants of the family sold the house for the reasonable price of $1,200 because they believed the library was a worthwhile project. The $15 monthly mortgage payments were less than the rent the library had been paying.
The whole community pitched in to clean, paint, build shelves, and put in a chimney so central heat could be added. The federal Works Progress Administration paid for some of the materials and labor, the Boy Scouts moved the books to the new location, and local churches put on a benefit play.
Shortly after the move, Jane Palmer, who had been librarian from 1909 to 1918, returned to her old job. She stayed on until she retired in 1958 at the age of seventy-eight. "She was gingham as well as satin," says Parr. "She was a farm woman, helped with the threshing, but was practical and erudite." Palmer converted the upstairs of the library into an apartment and moved in. Many of the perennial flowers she planted on the grounds still bloom today.
When the library opened, only the west side of the downstairs was used. Today the whole building is filled with the library's 14,000 books, plus magazines and videos. Palmer's old kitchen upstairs is now the office of the library director, Dorothy Davies. "It's reached the point," says Davies, "that every time we get something new, we have to get rid of something." Eventually, citizens will have to decide whether to add onto the building or erect a new one.
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A surveyor found his own town site on the Chicago Road
In the mid-nineteenth century, surveyor Orange Risdon mapped thousands of square miles of Michigan wilderness for the federal government. He picked the site of Saline to start his own town.
Risdon first saw his future town site in 1824, while surveying for the road that would link Detroit and Chicago. In addition to its location on the Chicago Road—today US-12—the spot was surrounded by prime agricultural land and had the Saline River to provide water power.
Risdon bought 160 acres the same year the road survey came through. In 1829, he built a house on a hill overlooking the river. Now converted to apartments, the house still stands on Henry Street, where it was moved in 1948 to make room for an expansion of the Oakwood Cemetery.
Risdon was appointed Saline's first postmaster and the first justice of the peace. In the early years, his home served not only as the town's post office but also as its polling place, a hotel for passing travelers, and even a general store—Risdon rented his parlor to storekeeper Silas Finch until Finch was able to complete his own building at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Ann Arbor Street.
Risdon continued to develop Saline until his death in 1876 at age eighty-nine. For the most part, the town's economy in his day was based on supplying and servicing the surrounding farm community. When a spur of the Detroit, Hillsdale, and Indiana railroad reached town in 1870, Saline became an important shipping point for grain and livestock. The original 1870 railroad station, recently restored by the Saline Area Historical Society, is now being used as a museum and meeting place. When the town began to thrive, thanks to the railroad, William Davenport, who owned the general store, organized the Citizens Bank of Saline. In 1876, the prosperous banker bought an entire block in the center of town and built a mansion that still stands at 300 E. Michigan.
Saline's pioneer era ended in about 1880, according to local historian Wayne Clements. For the next eighty years, the town hardly grew at all, he says. "There were infrastructure problems, and although Saline had a railroad, so did Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti." The hiatus helped preserve Saline's small-town character.
Saline's economic resurgence began in 1937, when Henry Ford bought and restored the old Schuyler Mill and started a soybean processing plant there. (Today the old mill is Weller's banquet facility.) In the 1940's, R & B Machine Tool and Universal Die Casting built factories, and in 1966 Ford Motor Company returned to Saline, building a huge instrument and plastics plant.
Surrounded by fast-growing residential areas. Saline today is no longer the self-sufficient small town of a few decades ago. Many residents now commute to jobs outside the community. And though 1-94 has replaced it as the main route to Chicago, US-12 still generates a lot of traffic. Downtown Saline, which once catered exclusively to local farmers, now draws customers from around the region with its antiques stores, gift shops, and destination restaurants.
A hands-on historian
Wayne Clements, president of the Saline Area Historical Society, has mobilized the community to save Orange Risdon's livery barn, open the Depot Museum and acquire a caboose for it, and buy and restore the Rentschler farm. It's quite a series of accomplishments for a quiet, unassuming man who in his younger years did not even seem interested in history.
Recently, at Clements's fifty-year high school reunion, his old homeroom teacher pointed out that irony. But for Clements, history comes alive when it's about the community around him instead of the faraway and long ago. "I didn't know King George, but I know Alberta Rogers and the Brassows," he says.
Clements still lives in the Textile Road farmhouse where he grew up. He attended the Lodi Plains one-room school and graduated as salutatorian from Saline Union School. He went to Michigan State University, where he majored in agricultural engineering. Saline Township supervisor Bob Cook was his roommate.
"Even his family kept old things," Cook recalls. "Wayne had a little old twenty-two [rifle] that went back to his grandfather."
At MSU Clements met his wife, Jane, from Grosse Pointe Woods. (They have one grown daughter, Penny.) For nineteen years, he was away from Saline. He served a stint in the army, including a year in Korea; worked as a research engineer in Ford's agricultural division in Birmingham; and later moved to South Bend, Indiana, to work for Wheelabrator. He returned to Saline twenty-five years ago to be nearer his aging parents. He found work with an industrial cleaning franchise, Captain Clean, which he now owns.
In 1987 Alberta Rogers, then president of the historical society, recruited Clements to join. "He was involved from the word go," she recalls. He started out with mechanical work, putting a donated, Saline-made windmill back together. More hands-on jobs followed: two showcase homes that needed considerable work. He also found and mapped all the former one-room school sites in the Saline school district. He became the historical society's president in 1990.
When a livery barn that had been owned by Saline founder Orange Risdon was about to be torn down, Clements organized the society to save the structure. He launched an ongoing partnership between historic preservationists and the city government, getting permission to relocate the livery near the old railroad depot. That led to the project of turning the depot into a museum. The partnership with the city continues today with the purchase and historic restoration of the Rentschler farm.
Clements has worked to make it as easy as possible for people to get involved in the historical society's projects. He cut back on boring business meetings, replaced the traditional slate of officers with a team, and doesn't insist that volunteers join the society. He says he has no patience with groups that just sit around and talk. "It attracts people when we have things to do," he says.
Clements's leadership style impresses former mayor Rick Kuss.
"He listens," Kuss says. "He takes everybody's ideas and tries to bring his ideas and everyone else's together so we can move forward. And he doesn't get involved in politics.
"Saline is a mixture of new, been-here-awhile, and old-timers," says Kuss. "Wayne bridges that gap." •
That seems to be one of Clements's main goals. History is "a common thread that keeps us together," he says, adding that a hands-on project "gets people interested who do not have roots in Saline."
Clements is excited about his current project: he and Saline High history teacher Jim Cameron are developing a curriculum of local history classes that will be held at the Depot Museum and the Rentschler Farm Museum.
"I like to tell the kids, 'Someday you'll take my place, or be mayor or superintendent of schools, and you need to understand how we got there.'"
"The puppeteers looked like giants"
During Meredith Bixby's career as a puppeteer, which lasted from the 1930s to the 1980s, up to a quarter million children a year saw his shows. The Saline resident wrote the scripts, created the puppets, sets, and props, trained other puppeteers, and booked his shows. His wife, Thyra, made the costumes.
Before taking his productions on the road, Bixby would put on annual preview shows for Saline kids at his studio in the Saline Opera House on South Ann Arbor Street.
"We'd come into the room and sit facing the black curtain," laughs Lisa Laramee. "The lights would go off, and I'd watch entranced as marionettes performed The Wizard of Oz, or The Magic Fish.
"When it was over, the lights would go on and the puppeteers would emerge to take a bow. So real was the experience that the puppeteers looked like giants"
Schools all over the country booked Bixby year after year. "They didn't worry," says Bixby. "They knew they would get classic stories with carefully chosen classical music."
Now in his late eighties, Bixby has been spending his time repairing his puppets, which will go on permanent display soon at the Saline Area Chamber of Commerce office at 141 East Michigan Avenue. He lives in a modest ranch in Saline, a house filled with art and books. His enthusiasm for his life's work is apparent in his conversation.
He still has a booming voice, which he would modify in performances so that it "could be the youngest boy, or the biggest, or the meanest, and reach to the last aisle."
In the early days, Bixby traveled all over the country to put on live performances. But as requests grew, he limited his bookings to nearby states. Life also got easier after he began taping his shows because then others could put them on. He enlisted family members, as well as local notables such as WAAM's Ted Heusel, to do the voices.
"You just followed the tape," remembers Bob Zorn, who took a break from college in the 1960s to work as a puppeteer and put on a Bixby show for a season. "But you had to be coordinated. The set was complicated and weighed about half a ton." Zorn traveled with one other puppeteer, towing a minivan with the equipment, and putting on two or three shows a day. Bixby showed up now and then to make repairs or just to see how things were going.
Creating the shows took both artistic and engineering skill—Bixby had both. He started college at Wayne State University studying engineering, but liked drawing better, so he switched to art. While attending the Art Students League in New York, he worked at the public library. One day, while perusing the shelves, he came across a book of plays for puppet shows. For fun, he made the puppets for Dr. Faustus. During a month's vacation, he gave a few performances. "People were just fascinated," Bixby recalls. "I decided to become a professional."
After World War II, Bixby moved to Saline, where his grandfather had lived, and where his dad, a dentist, had practiced for fifteen years. He read widely—classic children's literature, fairy tales, folk tales — to get ideas. While the crews were on the road, he created the next season's show. He designed posters and scenery and created incredible puppets: jugglers who really juggled, cossack dancers who lifted their feet in unison, fish that swam in and out of coral reefs, and a puppet who smoked.
Bixby retired in 1982 with a farewell show in his studio. In the final years of his career he filmed his shows, and videos of them will be included in the permanent exhibit of his work.
People often told Bixby that given his success at promoting his shows, he could have made more money as a salesman. But he wasn't interested. "I was one of the few people who made a living [at puppetry], and I loved doing it," he says.
From Methodist church to Saline gift shop
A gift shop and a place of worship may seem to be totally opposite functions for a building. Yet the Calico Cat, located in Saline's former Methodist church, manages to an amazing extent to incorporate the church's atmosphere into a retail establishment. Light streams in through the stained glass windows, the original woodwork and sconces are found throughout, display shelves are made from the wood of old pocket doors and railings, and owner Marcia Duncan's office is in the mezzanine that once held the organ pipes.
The Calico Cat building was actually the fourth church built by the Saline Methodists, who trace their roots back to 1833. Their first two churches did not fare well. The original log structure on the corner of Henry and Lewis, built on land donated by Saline's founder, Orange Risdon, was hit by lightning during a service. Two parishioners were killed, and the church burned to the ground. The second church was built with ill-fired bricks that crumbled so badly it was called the "old mud church." After nine years, the members decided it was unsafe and had it torn down. Finally, in 1858, local carpenter Edwin Ford, who also built churches in Mooreville and Dixboro, built the Methodists a church on Ann Arbor Street just south of Michigan Avenue. This church, a white New England-style edifice with a tall spire, served the congregation until they outgrew it at the end of the century.
On June 13,1899, the Methodists laid the cornerstone for their fourth church on the same site. The congregation met in the opera house next door while the new building, designed by dark and Munger of Bay City, was under construction. The church was completed in November. Not even standing room remained for the first service.
William Davenport, the Saline banker who headed the building committee, lured organist Fannie Unterkircher from the Presbyterian church by offering to buy a new organ. The two went into Detroit, where Davenport bought a Vocalion for $1,200. Unterkircher served as the church's organist and choir director for the next thirty-four years.
Hollis Carr, in a paper presented to the church in 1988, remembered the organ, which had to be pumped by hand: "There was a large screen to the right of the organ behind which the man sat who did the pumping. During his idle moments he would peek around the edge of the screen, and other children and I in the pews would squirm to the outer end of the pews to get a glimpse of him." In 1929 the organ was replaced with a more modem, electric-powered one.
Carr's wife, Virginia, who joined the church in 1938 as a young bride and later became the church secretary, fondly remembered the study group she and Hollis were in with other young married couples. The group held monthly potlucks, she recalled in the paper, and one time there were six pots of baked beans and one cake. "We always closed the gathering by forming a circle, joining hands and singing 'Blest Be the Tie That Binds,'" she wrote. "To this day whenever I hear the hymn, I can close my eyes and see the group standing in a circle, most of whom are no longer with us except in memory."
When Virginia Carr joined the congregation, the church "was less than forty years old, but it appeared like an old church to me, and quite small." The congregation fought the space problem for the next fifty-some years, digging out more of the basement in 1949 and adding an education-fellowship hall in 1975. In the mid-1980s, the space crisis was again debated. Although some argued that the old church could be modernized and the overcrowding problem solved by holding two worship services, the majority opted to move. In 1990 the congregation took the church's 1,500-pound bell and two of the stained glass windows—the most religious ones, which wouldn't be appropriate in a building with a secular use—to a new building on the corner of Ann Arbor Street and Woodland Drive.
The city of Saline purchased the old church, planning to use it as a court facility. But the voters turned down a bond issue, and the city had to sell the building. Marcia Duncan, who had been in the gift shop business for fifteen years, saw the possibilities in the building and moved the Calico Cat there from its previous location on Michigan Avenue. Her family teases her about saying in the beginning that the place "just needs a little touch-up." Instead, renovation took nine months: solving a water problem in the basement, bracing the walls, tuck-pointing the brick, putting new floors in the basement and first level (where the floor slanted down to the altar), and installing new furnaces, wiring, air conditioning, and drywall.
"She kept the best parts," church historian Jack Livingstone says. "Someone familiar with the old church can walk in and recognize it."
Photo Caption: The 1899 church served Saline's Methodists well for ninety-one years.