Schneiders' corner has been a fruit farm, a gas station, and a haven for hungry police officers
In 1903, blacksmith John Schneider sold his shop on Washington Street near Ashley and bought a fruit farm and a farmhouse on South Main Street. The family remained in business on the corner continuously until last summer.
When Walter Mast went into business for himself in 1942, there were nine shoe stores on the street. Today, Mast's is the sole survivor.
When Walter Mast opened his shoe store on Main Street in 1942, friends warned him he would never make a go of it. Not only were there eight other shoe stores nearby, but he sold only one line. Now, forty-nine years later, Mast's is the last shoe store on Main Street.
Once the object of neighbors' wrath, Lustron homes have emerged as winsome modernist antiques.
Lustron homes were one of the most innovative solutions to the post-World War II housing shortage. Nine of them can still be found in Ann Arbor, in close to their original condition despite dire predictions at the time of their construction (1948-1950) that they would soon be a pile of rust.
Except for the cement slab they rest on, Lustron homes are made entirely of steel. The outside walls consist of two-foot square, porcelain-finished steel panels in either yellow or tan. The roofs are made of interlocking steel tiles. The inside walls are also of steel, as are the doors, ceilings, and the built-in furniture. A clever room layout of halls, sliding doors, and large windows makes maximum use of the space, and the 1,025-square-foot, two-bedroom houses feel much roomier than they are. Jane Barnard, owner of the Lustron at 3060 Lakeview, says, "The use of space is perfect. There is nothing I would change."
Lustron homes were the brainchild of Carl Strandlund, an industrial engineer who worked for a Chicago company that manufactured porcelainized steel panels for gas station exteriors. Strandlund's great inspiration was to use essentially the same material for housing.
For start-up money, Strandlund got a $15.5 million loan from the federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation, followed by several other loans. He used the money to take over a huge, twenty-three-acre factory in Columbus, Ohio. There he set up his sheet-metal presses, high-speed welding rigs, enamel sprayers, and drying ovens. His house kits, designed to be set up like giant Erector sets, began coming off the line in 1948. Each kit consisted of 3,300 individual parts and weighed 10 tons. The original price was $7,000.
Lustrons came to Ann Arbor through the efforts of visionary businessman Neil Staebler, who heard about them while working in Washington for the Federal Housing Administration in the years just after the war. He recalls, "I thought they were a swell idea. Lustron promised to be a durable material, which it has proved to be." When he returned to Ann Arbor to live, he applied for the local Lustron franchise.
In all, Staebler was able to arrange for nine Lustron homes to be built: at 605 Linda Vista; 3060 Lakewood; 1121,1125, and 1129 Bydding; 1711 Chandler; 800 Starwick; 1910 Longshore; and 1200 S. Seventh. All but one were put up by Clarence Kollewehr, a carpenter who went on to become the business manager of Local 512 of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. Kollewehr and his crew, which consisted of two other carpenters and two laborers, had some trouble erecting the first few Lustrons, but soon became so adept that they hardly had to refer to the building manual. If there were no snags, they could erect a Lustron home in less than a week.
Kollewehr has fond memories of the Lustrons, which he describes as "an engineering monument when you consider how they were built." The only problem he remembers is that the outside panels would sometimes get chipped while being pounded in. But the kit was so well designed that it even included enamel paint in the color of the model, so that the crew could do quick touch-ups at the end of the day.
The Lustrons' practical, progressive aura appealed especially to people at the U-M. But probably the best-known Lustron buyers were Ray and Olive Dolph, builders of the Dolph mansion in the Lakewood subdivision off Jackson Road. When they decided to move to a smaller house, leaving the mansion for their son, Charles, and his family, the Dolphs chose a Lustron, appreciating its nice house plan and new materials. Says Charles's ex-wife, Marge Reade, "We were liberal about those things."
Few people, it turned out, were as liberal as the Dolphs. "The city didn't care much for [Lustrons], or the neighbors either," recalls Clarence Kollewehr. "There were comments wherever we worked. The neighbors were not tickled." After selling nine Lustrons, Staebler decided to switch to more conventional prefabs, finding the opposition to Lustrons "a hornet's nest." Lustron was going out of business anyway. Although the houses were well designed, the company never became financially stable and went bankrupt in 1950.
During the Lustron bankruptcy hearings, it was revealed that Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, one of Carl Strandlund's staunchest supporters in his loan requests, had been paid $10,000 by Lustron to write a 36-page article explaining how veterans could get housing loans. Although a direct connection between payment for the article and McCarthy's support for the Lustron loans was never proved, many found it curious that McCarthy earned more per word than Winston Churchill, whose war memoirs then held the record.
In spite of the scandal and the warnings of early death by rust, ihe local Lustrons and others around the country have held up remarkably well. Ron Hin-terman, a former owner of the Lustron on Seventh, says, "It looks the same now as it ever did." Of the Lakewood Lustron, Marge Reade says, "It looks as good as it first did. It will be recorded by history as quite a little card."
Some Lustron owners have had to endure quite a bit of teasing. Rachel Massey, who recently moved from the Lustron on Chandler, says her friends dubbed it "the little Fleetwood." Richard Sears, who lives on Bydding, says his friends compare his home to a refrigerator, asking him if a light comes on when he opens the front door.
When Bob Preston moved into the Lustron on Linda Vista, his friends threw a housewarming party. Most of the gifts were magnets, plus a can opener that came with a note: "In case you forget your house key."
Owners find Lustron maintenance relatively easy once they get used to it. The outside is easily cleaned with a garden hose, while the inside walls respond nicely to soap and water. Rust is a problem only when the walls chip, and then it can be treated with a car-body product such as Rustoleum or Bondo. Over the years, owners have also taken highly divergent approaches to interior decorating. Massey had fun with Art Deco. Claire and Paul Tinkerhouse, the current owners of the Lustron on Linda Vista, have painted the walls with textured paint and decorated with antiques to downplay the shiny steel look. Jane Barnard keeps her decor clean and open so as not to let the lines dividing the steel panels make the house seem too fussy.
Jazz musician Ron Brooks, owner of one of the Bydding Lustrons, moved one of the walls to enlarge his living room and added dry wall. (Brooks was intrigued to hear of the Staebler connection, since his jazz club, the Bird of Paradise, is located in the garage that was part of Staebler and Sons car dealership, a business begun by Neil Staebler's father.) The only current owner not to sing the praises of his Lustron is artist Richard Sears. "It's not terribly efficient, hard to insulate," says Sears. "If I could afford it, I'd tear it down and donate it to the landfill." Sears has also made the most dramatic interior changes of any Lustron owner: he's removed all but the bathroom walls so he has room to stand back and view his paintings.
[Photo caption from original print edition]: The innovative all-steel Lustron kit house made the cover of Architectural Forum in June 1947. When production started in 1948, the ten-ton, 3,300-piece prefab houses sold for just $7,000.
[Photo caption from original print edition]: Lustrons' diverse room layout made the small homes feel surprisingly roomy. "The use of space is perfect," says owner Jane Barnard. Barnard's Lustron in the Lakewood subdivision was built as a retirement home by Ray and Olive Dolph; they moved into it from the nearby Dolph mansion.
Eighty years later, they’re back in the spotlight.
Ann Arbor’s oldest surviving apartment houses, built between 1923 and 1930, were glamorous affairs designed by the area’s leading architects. Many included such amenities as doormen, on-site maids, cafes, and beauty parlors. Even so, they drew mixed reactions: some Ann Arborites welcomed them as elegant and cosmopolitan additions to the city, while others deplored their size and their effect on existing neighborhoods.
Now they’re back in the political spotlight. Since 1994 the city has been fighting to protect the buildings, one of which was demolished by the U-M in 2003. Meanwhile, as city planners look for ways to expand downtown housing, they’re confronting many of the same issues raised by the original apartment-building boom eighty years ago.
In the nineteenth century the U-M campus was surrounded by student rooming houses. Apartment buildings as we know them today, where each unit has its own kitchen and bath, didn’t arrive in significant numbers until after World War I.
As the U-M’s enrollment and employment swelled in the 1920s, multistory apartment buildings were a good solution to the housing crunch. But the idea took some getting used to.
The city hired the Olmsted Brothers, son and stepson-nephew of the famous landscape architect and city planner Frederick Law Olmsted, to make recommendations for Ann Arbor’s future development. Besides encouraging street improvements, more parks and playgrounds, and scenic drives, the Olmsteds’ 1922 report urged the city to enact a zoning ordinance. Council responded by dividing the city into four zoning categories: single residential, residential, local business, and industrial. Apartment buildings were permitted only in the “residential” district near campus.
That zone included one existing apartment building: the twenty-unit Cutting, built in 1906 on the southeast corner of State and Monroe. “For its time the Cutting was a remarkable structure, one of very few apartment buildings in the city, where rich people lived and where elegant old ladies sat looking out on the world through lace-curtained plate-glass windows,” recalled Milo Ryan in his 1985 memoir View of a Universe. “A carriage was usually to be seen waiting at one of the three entrances.”
Florence Mack, widow of department store owner Walter Mack, lived in the Cutting with her son Christian. Broadcaster Ted Heusel, who as a boy lived nearby, recalls that Christian “was so spoiled he used to take a cab home from the Blue Front, two blocks away.” The Cutting was torn down in 1962 for a parking lot. “People lived there forever,” recalls veteran Ann Arbor real estate agent Maynard Newton. “When it was to be torn down, they tried to sue, saying they had a proprietary right because they’d been there so long.”
The 1920s apartment houses followed the example of the Cutting: they were elegant buildings designed in the latest styles, mainly Tudor and Spanish Revival. And, as in the Cutting, their tenants made up a who’s who of Ann Arbor.
The Anberay, built in 1923 at 619 East University, was the first of the postwar apartment buildings. U-M architecture professor J. J. Albert Rousseau designed it in a U shape around a court. The light brick, zigzag roof, and balconies on each of the three levels, often filled with flowers, give it a Spanish flavor.
Early Anberay tenants included grocery heiress Elizabeth Dean, whose bequest to the city continues to bankroll the tree-planting Dean Fund; Palmer Christian, U-M organist; and Francis Kelsey, the archaeology professor whose finds from the Near East make up a large part of the Kelsey Museum’s fabulous holdings. This illustrious tenant mix continued into the 1960s, when then-tenant Ray Detter recalls his neighbors included Herbert Youtie, an expert on the Dead Sea scrolls; Renaissance scholar Palmer Throop; and Jacob Price, a U-M history professor who ran for city council.
Washtenaw Apartments, at 322 East William, dates from 1925. Although a simple red-brick building, it has elegant touches, such as a decorated stone entrance and stone wreaths on top. Carl Wurster, who grew up on Division Street around the corner, remembers his dad saying that the place was being constructed from very shoddy materials and would never last--but almost eighty years later, it still stands. When finished, the building didn’t impinge very much on the lives of Carl and his sister, Elizabeth. Carl delivered papers there, and tenants occasionally rented spaces in the Wursters’ garage. The only person Elizabeth and Carl knew in the building was their math teacher, a Miss Shipman.
The 1926 Hildene Manor, at 2220 Washtenaw, looks from the outside like an English manor house with classic Tudor details--dormers, half-timbering, nine-over-nine windowpanes, and heavy wooden doors. Inside are eight six-room apartments, plus common areas and a three-room caretaker’s flat. Set back on a wide expanse of lawn, “it was the apartment in Ann Arbor--the most expensive and the best,” recalls Ted Heusel.
The Wil-Dean, 200 North State, and Duncan Manor, 322 North State, are perfect mirror images of each other, except the first is faced with light brick and the second with red brick. Harold Zahn and Dugald Duncanson hired recent U-M architecture grad Gardiner Vose to design the buildings, and construction on both started in 1928. Zahn took ownership of the Wil-Dean, which he named after his son Dean William; Duncanson claimed the other, naming it Duncan Manor. Asymmetrical, with balconies, tile work, and casement windows, the buildings fit in with the best of the Tudor apartment houses.
The 1929 Kingsley Post, at 809 East Kingsley, a Spanish/Moorish Revival design by R. S. Gerganoff, is nothing like the architect’s most famous Ann Arbor building, the Washtenaw County Courthouse. With its elaborate ornamentation--tiles, rounded windows, wrought-iron decorative balconies, arched entrance--the Kingsley Post stands in striking contrast to the comparatively drab post–World War II apartment buildings flanking it.
In the early 1950s, when they were first married, Ted and Nancy Heusel lived in a third-floor efficiency in the Kingsley Post. Jimmy Murnan, manager of the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater, lived on the same floor but in a more luxurious apartment overlooking the river valley and the railroad tracks. Murnan, a big circus fan, would invite the Heusels over to watch circus trains unload.
The Planada, at 1127 East Ann, opened in 1929. It catered to employees at the then new University Hospital a block east--the 1931 city directory lists nurses, therapists, interns, and research assistants among the residents. Like the Kingsley Post, it was a Spanish/Moorish Revival design, but less symmetrical. The Observer’s Eve Silberman, who lived in the Planada in the 1980s, recalls that “the apartment definitely had more character than any I’ve rented before and after.” Silberman particularly liked the gargoyles in the lobby. She moved, however, because she did not like sharing her apartment with a mouse.
Forest Plaza, 715 South Forest, was built the same year as the Planada. Although there had already been a number of successful apartment projects and its site was in the “residential” zone, the original plan for the building set off a storm of controversy. The older apartment buildings were three and four stories high; Forest Plaza’s developers wanted to go up nine stories--a sketch that appeared in the Ann Arbor Daily News shows an elegant tower that would have looked at home on New York’s Park Avenue. The “Spanish Renaissance” design was expected to cost $400,000, including the land.
Presaging future controversies, neighbors led the fight against the new building while real estate agents and businessmen defended it. U-M professors Frederick G. Novy and Charles Cooley, who lived in houses on either side of the site, argued that the new structure would block their light and air and would increase congestion in the neighborhood.
After much discussion, a compromise was reached: Forest Plaza was scaled down to five stories and set far back on the lot. The resulting building, while not as ornate as originally proposed, still has many attractive details, including Spanish tiles, terra-cotta decorations, and rounded windows. The increased setback actually adds to its elegance, making it reminiscent of glamorous apartments on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C.
Like other apartment houses of the era, Forest Plaza provided homes for many upper-level university people. A 1930 Michigan Alumnus photo essay mentions that Forest Plaza was the home of Harry Kipke, football coach and later regent. Mark Hildebrandt recalls being taken there as a child to visit his parents’ friends Jan Vandenbroek, a U-M engineering professor, and his wife. Hildebrandt remembers Vandenbroek’s apartment as “classy but comfortable, with soft dark-red carpeted floors, Spanish irregular plaster, wrought-iron sconces.”
Forest Plaza’s current manager, Chris Heaton, says long-term residents have told him that the building used to have a doorman who would park cars for the few residents who owned them, and a maid living on the first floor, who was available to do housework.
The debate over Forest Plaza led to new ground rules for apartment construction. Part of the compromise allowing it to be built was an agreement that city council would revisit the zoning law, which it did. At a public hearing, a speaker called for more limits on apartment buildings, citing several instances in which “the homes next door to apartment houses have stood vacant since the construction of the larger building, being of value neither for a single home nor for another apartment house, as the one apartment is usually enough to care for the district.”
On May 5, 1929, city council voted that future apartment buildings could be no more than three stories or forty-five feet high. Clothier and theater owner J. Fred Wuerth dissented, protesting that “the growth of the city would be held up by discouraging outside capital.” Supporters answered that the law would encourage developers to construct a larger number of smaller buildings, and so would help preserve the city’s residential character.
Neither side realized that the apartment boom was already essentially over. Only one more apartment house, Observatory Lodge, was built before the Great Depression, followed by World War II, virtually halted construction in the city.
If Observatory Lodge was the last apartment house of its generation, it at least was a spectacular expression of the best of the age. Built in 1930 at 1402 Washington Heights, Observatory Lodge, like the Planada, was just a few steps from the 1925 University Hospital. One admirer calls its design “a feast of Tudor Revival details,” including oriel windows, heavy Tudor-style doors, half-timbering, and a quirky squirrel weathervane. Inside are stained-glass windows, beautiful tile work, and a lobby fireplace. Residents in its thirty-four units also enjoyed the services of a beauty parlor and barbershop. And it must have been approved before the 1929 height limit went into effect: it’s four stories high.
Apartment construction resumed in the 1950s and 1960s, when U-M enrollment more than doubled. This time around, apartment developers created buildings catering to U-M students as well as staff.
Maynard Newton recalls that when he came back from the Korean War in the mid-1950s, students still rented rooms in boardinghouses--“big, comfortable houses, run by a landlady usually called ‘Ma’ something, such as Ma Guenther on Oakland or Ma Jeffries on Monroe. These ladies thought the value was in the house,” Newton recalls. “But savvy Realtors realized the land was what was valuable.”
Developers began buying up old houses around campus and downtown, demolishing them, and building modern-style apartments on the lots. A few, like the Nob Hill complex off South Main, were thoughtfully designed and integrated into their neighborhoods. Most, however, were bare-bones cubes derisively dubbed “cash boxes”--both because of their flat roofs (unlike the peaked roofs of the surrounding older houses) and because they were built to squeeze as many rental units as possible onto their lots.
In 1963 city council amended the zoning ordinance to limit apartments to bigger lots, and to require that they be set farther back from their lot lines. These two provisions, followed by the formation of historic districts in and around downtown, virtually eliminated teardowns of existing structures to build apartments.
The 1963 zoning change also abolished the height restriction for apartment buildings, instead setting limits on the “floor-to-area ratio” (FAR). Two high-rise apartment projects, the eighteen-story University Towers on South University, finished in 1965, and the twenty-six-story Tower Plaza, at William and Maynard, approved in 1965 and finished in 1969, were built under the new regulations. Tower Plaza was particularly controversial.
The Tower Plaza debate echoed the one nearly forty years earlier over Forest Plaza. Proponents saw the high-rise as an asset to the city, opponents as an affront to downtown’s existing scale. Eunice Burns, who was on council when Tower Plaza was approved, recalls that she and the other three Democrats were called antidevelopment because they voted against it. (With the backing of council’s Republican majority, it passed anyway.)
In classic Ann Arbor fashion, council then appointed a study committee and hired a consultant. The resulting report, Central City High-Rises and Parking, suggested a system of premiums, allowing developers more height in their buildings if they added amenities such as public space in front, parking, or landscaping. These changes, plus further increases in minimum apartment lot size and setbacks, were enacted in 1967.
It would be impossible to build a high-rise like Tower Plaza under the current FAR limits. Still, residents who have arrived since the 1960s take Tower Plaza for granted. Some even admire its clean lines and appreciate that the landlord included a cutaway first story and shopping arcade, even before the system of premiums was enacted.
The 1923–1930 apartments, also scoffed at by some when they were new, today look very elegant next to the cash boxes abutting the Kingsley Post, or the monolithic Mary Markley dorm near Observatory Lodge. “They are a good example of apartments of that era,” says Heather Edwards, Ann Arbor’s historic preservation coordinator. “They gave people the chance of living in the downtown vicinity in buildings pleasing to look at that also met all their needs.”
Four are already in historic districts: the Wil-Dean, Duncan, and Kingsley Post are in the Old Fourth Ward, and the Washtenaw is in the East William Street district. The historic district commission has worked to preserve the other five, but the process has been slow. In 1994 city council voted to designate 120 buildings as “individual historic properties” (IHPs), a classification intended to protect historic buildings that are outside of historic districts. Included in the list were the An¬beray and the Planada, both then owned by the Draprop Corporation.
Draprop sued, claiming the city had no legal right to designate buildings as IHPs without the owners’ permission. The circuit court upheld the city’s right to do so, but in 2001 the Michigan Court of Appeals declared Ann Arbor’s IHP district invalid. “They said it didn’t meet the definition of a historic district—that it didn’t hold together geographically or thematically,” explains Louisa Pieper, historic preservation coordinator at the time.
At the recommendation of the state historic preservation office, the HDC divided the original IHP list into thematic sublists—apartments, of course, but also churches, early homesteads, industrial and commercial structures, landmark homes, schools, and transportation—and appointed study committees to research each area and decide which properties were the most significant.
The apartment committee recommended protecting all five surviving early apartment buildings that weren’t already in historic districts—the Anberay, Forest Plaza, Hildene Manor, Observatory Lodge, and the Planada. Any city restrictions would not apply to the last two, however, since the university owned them.
Observatory Lodge, in need of repairs, was closed several years ago but is now being converted into offices. A sadder fate awaited the Planada: when the university bought it, the report to the regents warned that “the building will be demolished and the site integrated into the adjacent campus.” It was torn down in fall 2003, and the U-M plans to build a parking structure on its site.
While the legality of the IHP is being investigated, the issue of height of buildings is also part of an on-going discussion. The eight-story Corner House Lofts on the corner of State and Washington is the tallest new residential building in the city in more than thirty years. And like its predecessors in the 1920s, it has been controversial. The city planning commission voted against approving the project, only to be overruled by city council.
The passage of the greenbelt measure November 2003 gave even more impetus to the height debate. A number of people--even some who had been no- or slow-growth advocates--began asking whether preserving more green space around the city obliged Ann Arbor to accept greater population density within its boundaries. Mayor John Hieftje enthusiastically supports the idea of more downtown density, although he says he began thinking about it independently of the greenbelt.
Noting that only about 200 new residents moved into downtown Ann Arbor in the 1990s, Hieftje says he’d like to see 1,000 more arrive in the next decade. He argues that an increased downtown population would provide the economic base for the return of practical stores, such as food markets, and would ease parking and congestion problems, especially if the new residents also worked downtown. While this increased density would obviously require more multifamily dwellings, Hieftje says they would probably be condominiums rather than apartments.
Does Hieftje mean Ann Arbor will see a new generation of high-rises? “Taller buildings would upset the delicate pedestrian balance downtown,” Hieftje replies. “I’m protective of Main Street and a block or so off it, as well as State Street. But I can see them maybe on Thompson, Maynard, or Huron.” Eighty some years after Ann Arbor’s first apartment-building boom, the town is still debating how and where future generations of downtown residents will live.
Dixboro, a small village on Plymouth Road just a few miles northeast of Ann Arbor, probably owes its survival to its location. Serving travelers between Ann Arbor and Detroit gave the crossroads settlement an economic basis that sustained it while other nearby towns, such as Brookville and Geddesburg, dwindled to mere names on old maps.
Dixboro’s founder, Captain John Dix, was only twenty-eight years old when he came to the Michigan Territory, but he had already led a remarkable life. Born in Massachusetts in 1796, Dix had gone to sea at age sixteen, fought in the War of 1812, and been shipwrecked in New Zealand. He bought the site that would become Dixboro in 1824, the same year that John Allen and Elisha Rumsy founded Ann Arbor.
Dix laid out his new town on both sides of a Potawatomi Indian trail that was being used by settlers moving west from Detroit. He set aside a village square with sixty-four lots around it and built himself a house just east of there, about where Durbin Builders is today. His house doubled as Dixboro’s post office and general store. As soon as he was settled, Dix dammed Fleming Creek to power a sawmill and a gristmill.
After nine years, Dix left, resettling in Texas. Dixboro continued to function but never rivaled Ann Arbor. Some believe this was because Dix’s departure deprived the town of strong leadership; others point to the fact that the railroad followed the Huron River instead of coming through Dixboro. Dix sold most of his holdings to brothers John and William Clements. They continued to run the store, the post office, and a tavern. Rival stores and taverns started up as well, along with a few other small businesses—two blacksmiths, a cider mill, a cooper shop, and a steam-powered sawmill.
Dixboro never incorporated as a city. It has always been governed as part of Superior Township. But for more than a century the village had its own one-room schoolhouse on the public square. The first school, built sometime between 1828 and 1832, was replaced in 1888 with the red brick building that still stands. In 1858, a church, now the Dixboro United Methodist, was built behind the school. The two institutions served as the center of village life. “Everyone took part in the [church] functions, even if they didn’t go to church every Sunday,” recalls Richard Leslie, who grew up in Dixboro between the two world wars. “The church really ran the town.”
Dixboro was surrounded by farmland, and many of the town’s residents were farmers. Lifetime resident Tom Freeman compares Dixboro to a European town where people live in the center and go out to their farms during the day. His mother, Carol Willits Freeman, who wrote the village history, Of Dixboro: Lest We Forget, grew up in a house in the center of town, on Plymouth Road between Dixboro and Cherry Hill roads. Yet her family had three cows, a horse, a few pigs, and some chickens and grew crops to the south of their house.
The Leslie family, who lived on the same street as the church, farmed in many of the fields to the north and kept eight or ten cows. One of Richard Leslie’s jobs as a boy was to take his family’s cows across Plymouth Road to their grazing land behind Oak Grove Cemetery. In the days before automobiles were ubiquitous, only occasionally would a passing car slow their progress.
In 1924, Plymouth Road was paved. The project took two years: one summer to widen and grade the narrow dirt road, and one to pour the cement. Gravel for the project was taken from the Cadillac Sand and Gravel Pit, near today’s Humane Society headquarters, and was transported by a little train, called a “dinky,” that moved on a temporary track. Dixboro men got jobs helping with the road, while their wives earned extra money serving meals to the workers.
Much of the paving was done by convict labor. Carol Freeman, interviewed for a video made by Dale Leslie, the son of Richard Leslie, laughingly recalled, “They all told us they were in for bootlegging.” Dale Leslie himself recalls a story told by his great aunt: when she asked one of the convicts why he didn’t work faster she was told, “Lady, I’ve got twenty years to build this road.”
The paved road gave Dixboro an economic boost. The Dixboro General Store, which was built sometime before 1840, was sold in 1924 to Emmett Gibb. Counting on increased business from the improved road, Gibb modernized the store and put on an addition to the east. The extension created a big room on the second level, which was an excellent place for community dances. “We’d shake Mr. Gibb’s groceries off his shelves,” recalls Harvey Sanderson, who played banjo in the Parker Orchestra. It played for the dances from 1924 to 1930; the Parker family supplied most of the orchestra’s members (Sanderson’s wife was a Parker). The Parkers owned the old Parker mill on Geddes Road, today a county park.
Several other businesses opened in response to the increased traffic on Plymouth Road. The gas station (now Gibbons Antiques) sold Dixie Gas and became an evening hangout for men in the neighborhood. As late as the 1950’s, recalls Gavin Smith, now Superior Township Fire Chief, “it was a fun place to go and get the gossip.” The Farm Cupboard restaurant opened in 1928 in what had been the Frank Bush home. After a fire destroyed the house in 1935, the Bushes’ barn was moved onto the site and converted into a restaurant; it survives today as the Lord Fox. Other road-oriented businesses followed in later years--the Prop Restaurant (now a chiropractor’s office), a second gas station on the corner of Ford and Plymouth (now an empty lot), and the Red Arrow Motel, which is still there, but not used for that purpose. On football Saturdays, traffic was so heavy that residents couldn’t cross the road, and even the church got in on the action. From 1926 to 1961, church women raised money by selling chicken dinners to the passing throngs of U-M sports fans.
For more than a century after the village was founded, most of the houses built were for children or grandchildren of long-term residents. Carol Freeman and her husband, Glen, had a house on Church Street that included five acres of land. Later they rented out the house and built a newer one next door. Their children built houses on the remaining land and have recently been joined by a married grandchild. The Leslies did the same thing with three of their children building homes next to the cemetery on family land.
Dixboro’s first major expansion came in 1951, when the Dixboro Heights subdivision was built in what had been a cornfield farmed by the Leslies. Dixboro Heights was filled with veterans starting families and the community soon outgrew its one-room school. A two-room school was built in 1953, and then in 1958 Dixboro joined the Ann Arbor school system. In 1974, after a large addition was completed, the school was renamed the Glen A. Freeman School, after Carol Freeman’s husband. Today Dixboro children are bused into Ann Arbor, and the former Freeman School is used by Little Tigers day care and Go Like the Wind Montessori school.
Traffic on Plymouth Road decreased in 1964, when the first phase of M-14 was finished. While it hurt some of the businesses (the first casualty was the gas station at Ford and Plymouth), it did no harm to Dixboro’s residential attractiveness. Since Dixboro Heights, three other subdivisions--Ford Estates, Autumn Hills, and Tanglewood--have been built, and houses have filled in a few empty lots in the older part of the village. The new Fleming Creek subdivision adjoins the village to the southwest.
The church is still the center of Dixboro life--residents meet there, for instance, to discuss the effect of new developments on the area. And although the population is large enough that people no longer know everyone else, there is still great community spirit. Every winter, townspeople set up an ice rink in the former village green. “There’s no committee,” Tom Freeman says. “Each fall it just happens.” For years, the merry-go-round on the school playground--like the upkeep of the cemetery--was a Boy Scout project. One year Ron Smith, now a township firefighter, repaired it as part of an Eagle Scout project. He has continued taking care of it ever since.
On the eve of World War I, German Americans Built a virtual Palace of ethnic solidarity
The Schwaben Halle at 215 South Ashley was sold several years ago, but the Schwaebischer Unterstuetzungs Verein (“Swabian Support Association”), the group that built it, is still alive and kicking. Better known simply as the “Schwaben Verein,” the club was founded in 1888 by recent German immigrants. Although the local German community is by now pretty well assimilated, the Verein survives, in large part because of the fun the members and their families have sharing their common ancestry. “Eat, drink, and dance. What else do Germans do?” laughs member Walter Metzger. At the spring Bockbierfest, says president Art French, “the food is different, but we still eat and drink and dance. Any excuse for a party.”
Swabians, who take their name from a medieval kingdom in southern Germany, began immigrating to Ann Arbor as early as 1825, usually when there were economic or political problems in Germany. The 1880 immigrants were escaping the effects of Bismarck’s rule, as well as an economic depression, choosing Ann Arbor because Germans from earlier migrations were already here. But although other Germans in town helped them get established, the new arrivals felt a need for mutual support in the new country.
Tailor Gottlieb Wild, who was born near Stuttgart and served a four-year apprenticeship before coming to America, brought the idea of a Swabian club to Ann Arbor. His story, as related in Samuel Beakes’s 1906 Past and Present of Washtenaw County, is like that of many other Ann Arbor German immigrants: “He came to America when but seventeen years of age, and made his way to Ann Arbor, having relatives in this city, who had come to the New World in 1835.”
In 1887 Wild moved to Toledo to work as a journeyman tailor. He became involved with a Swabian social group there, and when he returned to Ann Arbor the following year to open his own shop, he encouraged his fellow Swabians to form their own association. (Wild’s tailor shop, like the Schwaben Verein, proved impressively durable--it evolved into a popular campus-area men’s store that survived until 1988.)
The Schwaben Verein’s official purpose was to provide a primitive kind of mutual health and life insurance: members paid a $1 initiation fee and 30¢ a month in dues, and in times of need the group would help out with hospital or burial expenses. But from the beginning, the real attraction was the camaraderie. “It was a way to be with people who spoke their language, followed their customs, who had the same outlook on life,” explains president French.
The group’s first meeting was held June 22, 1888, on the second floor of Wild’s tailor shop. Business was conducted entirely in German, a tradition that would continue for nearly a century. Many of Ann Arbor’s retail establishments were owned and run by Germans, so as the group grew they easily found other places to meet. They moved from Wild’s shop to rooms in Michael Staebler’s hotel, the American House (now the Earle, at Washington and Ashley), and when that in turn proved inadequate, to rented rooms above Arnold’s Jewelry Store on Main Street.
In 1894, just six years after its founding, the group was financially secure enough to purchase a building, the former Wagner’s blacksmith shop on Ashley between Washington and Liberty. All seven members of the executive committee signed the mortgage. They reserved the second floor for their meetings and rented the downstairs to blacksmith Henry Otto (who was better known locally as the leader of Otto’s Band).
In 1908 the Schwaben Verein bought a second property: the Relief Fire Company Park, south of Madison and west of what is now Fifth Street, then on the outskirts of the city. (Since 1888 the fire department had been changing over to professional firefighters, and volunteer companies were phased out.) The park was used for open-air events. “Parades and picnics were memorable occasions,” the Ann Arbor News reported. “Entire families turned out, the children to enjoy games and sports while their elders talked on and on about the ‘old country’ and the occurrences in their lives in their adopted land.”
Hardware store owner Christian Schlenker, who was president of the Verein at the time, is credited with spearheading the construction of a permanent headquarters. “Entirely due to his persistence and influence, they decided to build the new Swabian Hall,” W. W. Florer states in volume 1 of Early Michigan Settlements (1941).
The key was a deal between the group and Mack & Co., then Ann Arbor’s largest department store, at 220–224 South Main. Walter Mack agreed to rent most of the planned structure, including the two upper floors and part of the basement. Mack, though the son of a German immigrant, was not a member of the Verein (“Mr. Mack was never affiliated with any fraternal organizations but has concentrated his energies and attention upon his business interests and family life,” writes Beakes), and he did not help with construction costs. However, he agreed to build a steam heating plant, pay fire insurance for the whole building, and provide water for the sprinkler system.
In May 1914 the blacksmith shop was torn down, and construction began on the new building. Local historian Carol Mull, who has done extensive research on the building, finds it probable that some of the brick from the blacksmith shop was reused in the new building. Architect George Scott designed the Schwaben Halle, and Julius Koernke, a German immigrant who had settled in Ann Arbor in 1890, served as contractor.
Enclosed walkways connected the third and fourth floors with Mack’s Main Street store, and the buildings’ basements were joined by a tunnel. Mack used the basement for storage and the upstairs for a dining room, a beauty shop (the holes from the plumbing were still there when the Verein sold the building), and a big toy display at Christmas. The Ashley Street storefront was rented to Hagen and Jedel Men’s Clothing.
The Verein reserved the second floor for its own activities. A large front room was used for dancing and banquets; it had a stage at one end for plays and performances. There was a dressing room behind the stage and beyond that the bar and kitchen. Beautiful woodwork, tin ceilings, a fireplace, and a stained-glass front window with the Schwaben name on it all added to the hall’s beauty. In 1988, to celebrate the Verein’s hundredth anniversary, some of the members donated stained glass for the side windows and transoms.
During World War I, when other German groups were fading out or switching to English, the Schwaben Verein kept meeting and didn’t experience any overt harassment. “The society subscribed to war loans throughout the war and helped in every deserving war charity brought to its notice,” wrote the Ann Arbor News in 1922. While admitting a little defensively that the group was “still carrying its German name,” the paper insisted that “the organization is essentially American and stands for everything which is American.”
The war and subsequent anti-immigrant fervor, as well as Prohibition, cut into the activities of many German groups, but the Schwaben Verein emerged stronger than ever. Helping German war victims from the Württemberg area gave it an additional reason for existing. And although Prohibition lowered attendance at the park, the club met the challenge by selling the land and using the proceeds to help pay off its Ashley Street building.
Member John Hanselmann bought the park and divided it into house lots. The club continued having picnics at Hanselmann’s Grove on Waters Road off Ann Arbor–Saline Road or at members’ farms, such as Walter Aupperle’s property on Frains Lake Road. (The German Park organization on Pontiac Trail is a different group, although there is some overlap in membership.)
In 1922, just eight years after finishing the Halle, the group was able to celebrate paying off the mortgage. “On the eve of Thanksgiving day a gathering of 100 men stood in a darkened room of the Schwaben hall and in hushed stillness watched the mortgage on the building disappear in flames,” reported the Ann Arbor News. “The flickering light of the flames showed up solemn faces and glimpses of the Star Spangled banner which decorate the room. As the last shred of paper fell and the flame died out lights flooded the room and 100 voices rose in acclamation.”
The Verein paid off its mortgage just in time to be ready for the next wave of immigrants. “They came from the very same villages as the men of the eighties and of former decades,” writes Florer. “A revival of interest in plays, concerts, and other social activities began and has continued ever since.”
One of the 1920s immigrants was Gottlob Schumacher, who until his death in 2001 was the group’s oldest living member. Schumacher first visited the Schwaben Halle three days after his arrival in Ann Arbor in October 1923. Staying at the American House, Schumacher was introduced to a fellow Swabian named Gottlob Gross, who brought him over to the club. In a 1988 interview Schumacher recalled that since it was Sunday the hall was supposed to be closed, so the men went up the back stairs from the alley. They rang a bell, and the barman looked through a sliding window before letting them in. Although it sounds like a scene from a Prohibition-era movie, Schumacher insisted that the bar offered nothing stronger than hard cider--although even that was illegal during Prohibition.
Schumacher officially joined the Schwaben Verein three months later. One of his favorite activities was acting in plays the group wrote and performed in Swabian dialect. Walter Metzger, whose parents emigrated from Swabia, recalls that a huge crowd always attended these plays, put on near Christmas. “They filled up the Schwaben Halle, sitting in folding chairs and the benches around the side,” he says. The programs would consist of two or three short, sitcom-like sketches: “There would be a married couple. They would bicker and make fun of each other,” Metzger explains. “Then others would come in--neighbors, relatives. They were humorous. You had to laugh the entire time.” In between the plays, the audience could buy sandwiches and beer at the bar.
The cast were all amateurs, just members who enjoyed that sort of thing—Schumacher, Anton Vetter, Hans Meier, Martin Rempp. Bill and Fred Wente, who worked at Herz Paint Store, did the sets. Bill Staebler, who owned a beauty shop, did the makeup, and members’ wives sewed the costumes. Metzger was just a boy then, but he was put to work with his older brother Hans, who could drive, delivering advertising placards to outlying towns such as Manchester and Bridgewater that had large German populations. Metzger also served as a curtain puller and once even had a nonspeaking role.
In 1938 the Schwaben Verein had been in existence for fifty years. One hundred and fifty members and guests celebrated the anniversary at a banquet at the city’s biggest hotel, the Allenel (where the Courthouse Square apartments are now). After dinner they reconvened at the hall for a program that included music by the Lyra Männerchor (men’s chorus), followed by dancing and a radio program of Swabian folk tunes and songs--broadcast live via shortwave from Stuttgart especially for the occasion.
The plays stopped during World War II, but the group weathered the war, just as it had survived World War I. It no doubt helped that many of the young men leaving to fight the war were themselves of German ancestry. Although local German Americans were firmly on the Allied side, they didn’t forget their relatives in Germany. “We had our own CARE program, helping individually in areas we knew about,” explains French.
The war triggered one last influx of German immigrants. The Schwaben Verein continued a full schedule of activities, including Kirchweihe (literally a church dedication festival, observed as a harvest festival, with strings of radishes, beets, turnips, and cabbage serving as decorations), a children’s Christmas party, an anniversary dinner, and the Bockbierfest, featuring a special beer traditionally made for Lent. For years a group of women, headed by Karoline Schumacher, who was chef at the Old German when she and her husband owned the restaurant from 1936 to 1946, would make and serve such German specialties as liver sausage, roulades, goulash, spaetzle, sauerkraut, and German potato salad. And of course beer was the drink of choice for most events.
German bands from Toledo or Detroit with names like Langecker’s Wanderers, Tyrolers, Dorimusikanten, or Eric Nybower provided the music for dancing. Sometimes the Schuhplattler, a group affiliated with German Park, would perform traditional German dances. For its centennial in 1988, the Verein imported a band from Germany named Contrast.
People who regularly attended these functions became very close. Art French met his wife, then Kathy Rempp, at a Schwaben event. And Kathy’s parents, Mina and Martin Rempp (who, like his son-in-law, was a long-term president), met at a Schwaben event in Toledo.
“We still call each other our extended family,” says Marianne Rauer. “We are our own psychiatrists.” Fritz Kienzle, the group’s flag bearer, once dropped out for three and a half years but missed it so much he went back. “You’ve got to have that gravy on your potatoes,” he explains.
The Schwaben Verein has changed as the local German community has become more assimilated. Originally members had to be from Swabia, but later the group accepted anyone who spoke German. Today, members just have to have some German connection.
Most in the group now are American born, although there are still fourteen German-born members. “The meetings were mostly in German until about twenty years ago,” says French. “There are less and less who can converse in German, so we have to keep translating in order not to keep them out. But we still open and close the meetings in German.”
Though the Verein is still officially an all-male group, in the 1970s, with no change in the rules, women started coming to the hall during meetings. Wives of members who drove their husbands to the meetings, or who just didn’t want to be left alone at home, came up and waited in the bar area, visiting and playing cards until their husbands finished the meeting and joined them.
After Mack & Co. closed during the Great Depression, the first floor was rented to other tenants, including a bar called Mackinaw Jack’s, which left the facade covered with fake logs. Most recently, Hi-Fi Studio, an electronics repair business, packed the space with old TVs and stereos. Even the second-floor meeting room was rented out when the Verein wasn’t using it. Over the years it’s hosted everything from the local Jewish congregation (in the early 1920s) to sports clubs, sister city events, and weddings and other private parties.
French says the group currently has seventy members, of whom twenty or twenty-five regularly attend bimonthly meetings. The average age is about fifty. “Lots join with their dads,” explains Harriet Holzapfel, whose husband, son, and father-in-law were all members. “There’s an age gap,” says Rauer, “but once they are married and have kids they come back. They want their kids to have the Christmas party and family events.”
But the group’s desire to keep the large hall waned, especially since the rest of the building wasn’t producing the rental income it once had. Art French says he’d been looking for a long time, but “I couldn’t get tenants. Everyone wanted to buy—no one wanted to rent.” So in March 2001 the Schwaben Halle was sold to Bill Kinley of Phoenix Contractors and Ann Arbor architects Dick Mitchell and John Mouat.
The new owners removed the fake log-cabin siding from the front of the building and restored the facade as closely as possible to its original look. Inside they made changes to meet current standards, such as wider, fire-code-compliant stairs and an elevator for handicap access.
Meanwhile, the Schwaben Verein members meet just down the street at Hathaway’s Hideaway. “We’re still active, still accepting new members, we still have the activities. We just don’t have a building,” says French. For big events they rent space at either Links at Whitmore Lake or Fox Hills golf course on North Territorial.
Many in Ann Arbor’s German community were sad to see a building that encompassed so much of their past sold. “It was like the soul of the German community, such a beautiful place,” says Marianne Rauer. But Fritz Kienzle points out that the Schwaben Verein was always more that just a building. “People said when you sell you lose all your heritage,” he says. “But the heritage is in you, in your memories.”
Once a thriving industrial town, it never recovered from the tornado of 1917
On summer weekends, many Ann Arborites escape to Delhi Metro-park, five miles west of town on the Huron River. Picnicking on the riverbank or jumping from rock to rock in the river, few realize that the rapids that make the park so impressive contain the foundation stones of five nineteenth-century mills, or that the small settlement nestled southwest of the park was once a thriving village.
When Michigan was settled, water was the main source of energy, so most early towns were founded on rivers. Delhi, where the Huron River drops steeply as it rounds a bend, was a particularly good place for mills. At its peak in the 1860s and 1870s, Delhi was a small industrial village, with two grist mills, a woolen mill, a sawmill, and a plaster mill; its own post office (called Delhi Mills); and a railroad station with four scheduled train stops per day.
The first to see the possibilities of the location was Jacob Doremus, a shoemaker who emigrated from New York state in 1831. He bought a tract of land along the river, built a small sawmill, and started clearing the land and selling rough-cut lumber to local farmers. In 1836, he platted a town, which he called Michigan Village, and began selling lots. He built a primitive dam with timber, stone, and earth. A local resident, Isaac Place, built a millrace on the north side of the river to channel the water.
Taking advantage of the increased water power, Doremus replaced his original sawmill with a better one at the end of the Place race and then built two additional mills, also on the north side of the river--the Ithaca Flour Mill and a four-story brick woolen mill that he named the Doremus Carding and Clothing Works.
Doremus was one of the founders in 1833 of the Webster Church (still extant, it is the oldest continuously used church in Michigan) and an organizer of the local school. In 1846, he tried to change the name of the town to Doremusville, a move that Delhi historian Nick Marsh theorizes may have been to honor his wife, Esther, who died that year. But the other residents objected and decided to rename it Delhi after the dells and hills in the area.
Doremus died the next year, and the mantle of town leader was passed to his younger partner, Norman Goodale. Goodale built a new flour mill on the south side of the river, which he called simply the Delhi Mill. (A millrace, called the Church race, had already been built on that side of the river for a short-lived scythe factory.) The new mill, four stories high, with an unusual indoor water wheel, could be seen for miles around.
With Goodale's death in 1869, ownership passed to his nineteen-year-old son, Frank, and his partner, John Henley. Frank was the senior partner since he owned more of the stock, but Henley, who knew more about the business, continued to run the mills.
By then, however, the rise of steam power was freeing industry from its dependence on flowing water. Small mills like Delhi's were already facing competition from large urban factories that bought and sold on a national scale. The woolen mill was the first to go: it closed in 1874, done in by competition from larger clothing mills in the East that were being supplied by larger sheep herds in the West. After Henley died in 1881, the other mills' profits also began to go down drastically, due to a combination of hard economic times and Frank Goodale's inexperience. In 1889, Goodale and his mother lost ownership of the remaining mills.
In 1900 the Delhi mills merged with the Michigan Milling Company, which razed and sold for scrap the Ithaca Flour Mill, the sawmill, and the plaster mill. In 1903, the company closed the last operating mill, the Delhi Mill, and dismantled it in 1906.
Delhi had lived on water power, and it withered as water power became unnecessary. In 1903 the post office closed, replaced by Rural Free Delivery out of Ann Arbor, and the railroad station was torn down and replaced by a shed, where the occasional passenger flagged down passing trains.
Much of what remained of industrial Delhi was devastated by a tornado on June 7, 1917. The storm, the worst in half a century, destroyed the school, the wrought iron bridge, what was left of the Delhi Mill and the woolen mill, and many houses. Future Ann Arbor parks superintendent Eli Gallup, then a young graduate of U-M's forestry school, was living in a rented house in Delhi when the tornado hit. The house was demolished and his Ford was thrown to the other side of the road.
Luckily, no one was fatally hurt in the storm, but with little reason to rebuild, many of the remaining residents moved away. The town continued to be home for a handful of families who lived in the remaining houses on two streets, one parallel to the river and the other perpendicular, running straight from the bridge. Many of the residents were tradesmen who worked elsewhere--carpenters, railroad workers, American Broach employees. "We enjoyed living there," says Richard Darr, who grew up in Delhi in the 1930s. "Nobody was wealthy, but we knew everyone and took care of each other." His brother Bob remembers, "In the spring we would take off our shoes and leave them off all summer."
In the suburban migration after World War II, Delhi began to grow again, with small ranch houses built mainly along Railroad Street and a few spurs. The long-timers called the new homes "the subdivision." Today a second building boom is occurring, this time with much larger and more expensive houses, filling in the area to the west up to the river.
In 1957, the fifty-acre Delhi Metropark opened, east of the bridge in what had been a cornfield. The park is part of the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority, which was organized after World War II to save some southeast Michigan land for parks before it was all filled by development. A third Darr brother, Arnold, remembers that when the park opened it consisted of just a few roads and some benches by the river. There are now picnic tables, playground equipment, a shelter, fishing sites, and canoe launching and rental.
Today Delhi has forty-nine houses and an estimated population of 123. The Goodale house burned down, but the Henley house is still there, albeit with a different roof. The schoolhouse still stands, although it hasn't been used as such since Delhi consolidated its schools with Dexter's in the 1960s. Crossing the wrought iron bridge (built about 1889 and replaced after the tornado, using some of the old parts) one can easily make out the two millraces. Also still discernible are faint traces of a mill on either side of the river, plus some stones from the dam--the last testaments of the mills that ceased operating almost 100 years ago.
In the years before the Civil War, a handful of local abolitionists helped fugitive slaves make their way to freedom in Canada.
A few days since we had the rare pleasure, in connection with many of our friends in this place, of bestowing our hospitalities upon six of our brethren, who tarried with us some sixteen hours to refresh themselves, on their journey to a land of freedom.
--Signal of Liberty, May 12, 1841
The Signal of Liberty was the weekly newspaper of the Anti-Slavery Party of Michigan. "This place" was Ann Arbor, where editor Guy Beckley produced the paper from an office on Broadway. The Signal of Liberty was one of a series of Michigan papers that in the years before the Civil War called for the abolition of slavery in the United States. On May 12, 1841, it also provided a rare glimpse into Ann Arborites' practical efforts on behalf of escaped slaves: an article by Beckley and Theodore Foster recording an escape on the Underground Railroad.
"Believing as we do that it is morally wrong to continue our fellow beings in involuntary servitude, it is with the utmost pleasure that we aid and assist them in their flight from southern kidnappers," Beckley and Foster wrote. They described the fugitives as "from twenty-one to thirty years of age--in good health and spirits and apparently much delighted with the prospect of a new home, where the sound of the whip and clanking of chains will no longer grate upon their ears and mangle and gall their limbs."
According to a follow-up story on May 19, the escaped slaves successfully completed the final leg of their journey to freedom in Canada. "We take great pleasure in announcing to our readers that they have all landed, as we intended they should, safe on British soil," Beckley and Foster wrote. Today's Canada was still a group of British possessions then, and slavery had been abolished in all British territories eight years earlier, in 1833. In Michigan, slavery was illegal, but slaveholders still had the right to apprehend escapees; in what is now Ontario, however, the attorney general had ruled that any person on Canadian soil was automatically free.
That promise made Canada the destination of choice for blacks who escaped slavery in the South. The Underground Railroad was a network of sympathetic northerners who helped the fugitives on their way once they reached the free states. There are several stories about the origin of the Underground Railroad's name, but all point to situations in which slave hunters had been hot on the trail of fugitives, only to have the prey disappear as completely as if they had gone underground. Extending the metaphor, the escapees were referred to as "passengers" or sometimes "baggage," while the helpers along the way were "conductors" and the stopping points "stations."
Susan Hussey, the daughter of Battle Creek conductor Erastus Hussey, explained in a 1912 interview, "Passengers over the Underground Railroad were of one class--fugitive slaves. They traveled in one direction--toward Canada. There was no demand for return trip tickets."
Two of the railroad's "lines" crossed in Ann Arbor, and from the Signal of Liberty article and other sources we know that fugitives passed through here on their way to Canada. But beyond that, there is much we do not know and probably never will.
Of the millions of slaves held in the southern states, only a tiny fraction escaped to freedom. There is no record of how many reached Canada; the generally accepted figure is about 40,000. Yet this comparative handful of people played a critical role in bringing the tensions between North and South to a head. It was one thing for northerners to know in an abstract way that southerners kept slaves. It was quite another to be compelled by federal law to send fellow human beings back into servitude.
"Worse than horse thieves"
A very early act of the U.S. Congress, in 1793, set down procedures for identifying escaped slaves and returning them to their “owners". As the abolitionist movement gained strength in the North, a number of states passed laws intended to hinder enforcement of the federal "fugitive slave" law. Nonetheless, helping a slave escape remained a federal crime until 1864.
Presumably for that reason, Beckley and Foster were vague about where the "six brethren" stayed and exactly who assisted them. Had the helpers been caught, they would have faced fines or jail sentences. The fugitives would have been returned to slavery in the South, where they would probably have been severely beaten in a warning to other slaves.
Beckley and Foster also knew that their neighbors in Ann Arbor were divided over abolition. An Anti-Slavery Society was formed in 1836, and some religious groups, particularly Quakers and Wesleyan Methodists, were devoted to the cause. Ann Arbor's First Congregational Church was founded in 1847 by former members of First Presbyterian, who broke away in part because they wanted to take a stronger stand against slavery. But there was also a significant number who were not supporters of the cause.
"Our neighbors accuse us of being 'worse than horse thieves,' because we have given to the colored man a helping hand in his perilous journey," Beckley and Foster wrote. "We are also held up as transgressors of the law and having no regard for the civil authority."
As late as 1861, a speech by Parker Pillsbury, a noted abolitionist, was broken up by a mob. Speaking at a church at 410 North State Street (still standing, the building is now a private residence), Pillsbury had to escape out a back window, followed by his audience. The attack so unnerved other area churches that most of them closed their doors to another anti-slavery speaker, Wendell Phillips, when he came to town later that year. (The Congregationalists agreed to let him speak, but only after a special vote of the trustees.)
Despite those mixed feelings, no record has been found that Ann Arbor residents ever returned a fugitive slave. Slaves were in more danger from their former owners, and from bounty hunters, who sought to collect large rewards for their capture. The situation worsened after 1850, when a new Fugitive Slave Act was passed. It swept away all due process for blacks accused of being runaway slaves, increased penalties for helping escapees, and made it a crime for local law enforcers not to return slaves.
Even free blacks, of whom there were 231 in Washtenaw County in 1850, were not safe from the slave hunters. Laura Haviland, an abolitionist from Adrian, wrote about one such case in her 1881 memoir, A Woman's Life. In the 1840s, Haviland writes, she helped a fugitive couple named Elsie and William Hamilton. The Hamiltons left Adrian after their former owner appeared and tried to recapture them, moving to several other places, including "a farm near Ypsilanti for a few years." According to Haviland, the Hamiltons had left Ypsilanti by 1850, but their former owner, believing they were still there, sent his son north to capture them. The son didn't find the Hamiltons, but he did find a family of free blacks, the David Gordons, who came close to the description he had of the Hamilton family. Claiming the Gordons were the Hamiltons, the slave owner's son demanded their arrest. Antislavery activists helped the Gordons confirm their freedom.
Paths to freedom
Most of the fugitives who passed through Michigan came from states directly to the south. (Slaves escaping from the more easterly southern states could go through Pennsylvania and New York, or on a ship along the coast.) "The fugitives came from various localities in the slave states, but most of those who passed on this line were from Kentucky, some were from Missouri and occasionally from the far south," reminisced Nathan Thomas, the conductor from Schoolcraft, south of Kalamazoo, in a letter he wrote in 1882. In another 1841 article, Foster and Beckley mention a fugitive "from the lead mines of Missouri."
The line Thomas was referring to went east and west across the state, roughly along the route of today's 1-94. Fugitives usually came north from Quaker settlements in Indiana to Cassopolis, near Niles, where there was another Quaker settlement. They then traveled east through Battle Creek, Jackson, and Ann Arbor. A north-south route came from Toledo (where James Ashley, founder of the Ann Arbor Railroad, was an active member) to Adrian, an important hub where Haviland and a group of fellow Quakers ran a school, the Raisin Institute, for students of all colors. Refugees traveled from Adrian to Clinton and thence through Saline to Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti. From Washtenaw County, fugitives went on to Detroit, where they would cross the Detroit River at night in rowboats. Later, when the Detroit River was too closely watched, the route shifted northward to cross the St. Clair River.
By the time the fugitives hooked up with the Underground Railroad, they would have done the hardest part by themselves: getting out of the South. "Their travel with some rare exceptions was entirely by night and generally on foot until they passed from the slave to the free state," wrote Thomas. "[They] generally received friendly aid to only a limited extent from persons residing in the slave states. But success depended mainly upon their own efforts. They obtained food at night from the Negro quarters during their passage through the south."
Once fugitives arrived in free states, help was easier to get, although they still had to avoid bounty hunters. "They did not bring much property with them; and their clothing was generally barely sufficient to cover them from suffering. The most destitute cases were relieved by their friends after their arrival in the free states," Thomas recalled. Stations were at intervals that could be covered on foot in one night, usually every fifteen or sixteen miles. There conductors could hide the refugees or arrange for others to do so, feed them, and see to their passage to the next station.
Slaves had been escaping during all of their captivity, but the number rose after the War of 1812, when returning soldiers spread the word about how close Canada was. According to Thomas, the line he worked on did not help its first fugitive until 1836. "The second [fugitive] in the fall of 1838 came from the far south through the Quaker settlements in Indiana," Thomas wrote. "He spent the winter with old father Gillet [Amasa Gillet of Sharon Township] in Washtenaw Co. and went to Canada the following spring. Others followed and the underground railroad was gradually established through the state." According to Thomas the line had no overall president, but the management was entrusted to one person in each area. He went on to list them, including Guy Beckley in Ann Arbor.
Erastus Hussey of Battle Creek, interviewed in 1885, explained that he was recruited as a conductor in 1840. He named the other major conductors on his line, including those in Washtenaw: "At Dexter we had Samuel W. Dexter and his sons. At Scio was a prominent man, Theodore Foster, father of Seymour Foster of Lansing. At Ann Arbor was Guy Beckley, editor of the Signal of Liberty, the organ of the Liberty party [an antislavery party that ran candidates in 1840 and 1844], who published the paper in connection with Theodore Foster. At Geddes, was John Geddes, after whom the town was named and who built a large flouring mill there."
Turning to secondary sources, we can add more names to the list of participants. Starting in 1892, Wilbur Siebert, a professor of history at Ohio State, interviewed as many survivors of the Underground Railroad as he could find. His 1898 book, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom, includes a list of stationmasters by county. For Washtenaw he lists, besides those already mentioned, Moses Bartlett, Ira Camp, Joseph Fowler, Jotham Goodell, Harwood, John Lowy (probably the afore¬mentioned John Lowry), and Ray. Chapman's 1881 History of Washtenaw County adds more: Asher Aray, Richard Glasier, James Morwick, Sylvester Noble, Russell Preston, and Eber White. Research by Carol Mull, underground railroad historian, has revealed that Rray” and “Asher Aray” were the same person.
Twentieth-century sources in newspapers, articles, and oral traditions include still more names and places, but many of these are not verified--and people's very fascination with the railroad is largely to blame. Its history combines the drama of life-and-death pursuit with reassuring images of interracial cooperation and white resistance to slavery. Because the idea of the Underground Railroad is so compelling, many stories have been told about it that appear to rest on little more than imaginative speculation.
History and myth
In Ann Arbor's one-time black neighborhood north of Kerrytown, it's common to hear that the Brewery Apartments at the corner of North Fifth Avenue and Summit Street were a stop on the Underground Railroad. Twenty-five years ago, there was even an unsuccessful campaign to locate a museum there. Yet, no nineteenth-century evidence links the building to the railroad. The story appears to have arisen when neighbors noted the cellars extending from the building in the direction of the Michigan Central tracks, and speculated that they might have been dug to smuggle fleeing slaves to and from passing trains. Though escaped slaves occasionally traveled by train, the extensive cellars were built for a much more mundane purpose: storing beer.
There are many similar stories, in which a family tradition or a physical quirk in a building is cited as evidence of participation in the Underground Railroad. Most are probably groundless. When it comes to the Underground Railway, "unfortunately it seems very clear that there's a lot more mythical belief than reality," EMU historian Mark Higbee told the Ann Arbor News in 1996.
"The Underground Railroad is the sort of thing that in the 1880s and 1890s people liked to say they were involved in, or their parents were involved," adds another historian, John Quist. "It's just hard to find contemporary verification and there's a lot of embellishment going on."
The Underground Railroad did exist. Clearly, escaped slaves passed through Washtenaw County, and some were helped by people here. However, it is impossible to go much farther with definite details of when they came, who they were, where they went, how many there were, or where they ended up. Reconstructing the local Underground Railroad is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle when some pieces are missing and the remaining pieces can be put together in several different ways.
In evaluating the historical evidence, first-person accounts written at the time are assumed to be the most accurate source of information. Unfortunately, because of the railroad's clandestine nature, few records were kept. In rare cases, conductors kept notes and hid them, but none have been found in Washtenaw County except for some references in the Signal of Liberty, which are intentionally obscure.
Next in value are accounts written by participants after the fact, including those of Hussey, Thomas, and Haviland. Written many years after the events described, these tales may have been embellished in retelling, but there's nothing to suggest that they were made up out of whole cloth. It adds credibility that the three memoirs do not contradict one another.
Last in the order of reliability are stories passed on by word of mouth and deductions based on physical evidence. But while such stories in themselves prove nothing, they should not automatically be assumed false, either. Like Bible stories used to prompt archaeological digs, they can help direct research in useful ways, even if the original tale is not confirmed.
With specifics so cloudy, trying to assess the size of the Underground Railroad locally is largely guesswork. No nineteenth-century source tried to estimate how many fugitives were helped in Washtenaw County. The nearest number comes from Erastus Hussey, who claims in his memoir to have helped about 1,000 fugitives who reached Battle Creek.
Some of the people Hussey assisted presumably stayed in the free black communities of mid-Michigan. Most, however, would have continued east through Washtenaw County on their way to Canada. Since an unknown additional number arrived by the southern route, it seems reasonable to take 1,000 as a working figure for Washtenaw County as well.
The movement was at its peak from the mid-1830s to the mid-1850s. Dividing the 1,000 figure evenly over that twenty-year period suggests that an average of fifty escaped slaves a year may have passed through Ann Arbor with the aid of the Underground Railroad. But who helped them, and where did they stay?
Conductors on the railway
He was considered by many to be at least a very eccentric character, but as history has shown since, it was the entire American nation that was more eccentric than good, old John Lowry.
—Judge Noah Cheever. describing a Saline farmer active in the Underground Railroad
After the Civil War, many people wanted to claim connections with the Underground Railroad. When the railroad was active, however, only individuals with strong convictions and considerable courage were prepared to aid escaped slaves in defiance of both social convention and federal law. So it's wise to view the lists of local participants compiled after the fact by Siebert and the county history with some caution. Whether from boasting, forgetfulness, or confusion, some names on the lists may be inaccurate. At a minimum, though, they provide a picture of the people who were believed in the late nineteenth century to have been part of the Underground Railroad.
Dr. Charles Lindquist, director of the Lenawee County Museum, has done a lot of research on his county's role in the Underground Railroad. He suggests the best strategy to identify participants is to "find corroborating evidence--if they lived in places supposedly involved, if they were Quakers, if they subscribed to the Signal of Liberty, if they were active in the Anti-Slavery Society.
"It was definitely illegal, so they were very secretive," Lindquist adds. "It was impossible for there to be just one place [for fugitives to stay in each town]. They'd have to have different places, not a pattern, or they'd get caught." Lindquist also notes that it would have been easier to hide in the country than in town.
The list below is an educated guess about the local participants in the two Underground Railroad lines that passed through Washtenaw County, compiled through use of the Siebert and county history lists and Lindquist's rules of thumb.
The East-West Route
Amasa Gillet: When fugitives entered Washtenaw County from the west, Gillet's farm in southern Sharon Township may have been their first stopping point. Nathan says that Gillet sheltered the second person to pass down this line of the railroad. The 1881 county history calls him "an anti-slavery man" and concurs that "his house was known as a station on the 'Underground rail way.'" Gillet was active in the Anti-Slavery Society and was an important member of the local Methodist church.
Samuel Dexter: The founder and namesake of Dexter village is identified as a conductor by Erastus Hussey. Local Quakers enjoyed the irony that the Dexters could entertain visitors on the porch of their southern-style mansion while hiding fugitives inside. The Dexter house, known as Gordon Hall, still stands on Dexter-Pinckney Road just outside the village.
Theodore Foster: Foster's antislavery work is well documented. A schoolmaster and store owner in the hamlet of Scio, where Zeeb Road crosses the Huron River, Foster was an active member of the Anti-Slavery Society, was editor with Guy Beckley of the Signal of Liberty, and was named as a conductor by Hussey. In the 1950s. Foster's grandson, also named Theodore, set down a story he had heard from his father, Seymour, about a game of hide-and-seek when Seymour was a boy. "Some youngsters ran into the basement and attempted to tip over an oversize barrel or hogshead," Foster recounted. "Upon doing so, they were much surprised and frightened to discover a colored man squatting there. The frightened children ran to their mother with tales of their discovery and Mr. Foster's children became aware of the meaning of their father's night rides and calls by strangers at the back door. They often heard someone knock at the door after dark and their father would hitch up the horse and be gone most of the night." The Foster home is no longer there.
Eber White: A farmer and one of the founders of Ann Arbor's First Methodist Church, White lived on what was then the western edge of the city. According to the county history, "in slavery days [he] was a prime mover in the underground railroad, and many a slave after reaching Canada has thanked God for the help given him by Eber White and his trustworthy friends." White's house at 405 Eberwhite (on the corner of Liberty) has been replaced by a modem house; the land he farmed is now the neighborhood around Eberwhite School.
Sylvester Noble: The county history says that Noble was a member of the Underground Railroad, as does his obituary, which states that "during the days of slavery his sympathies were strongly engaged on the side of the oppressed and his house was frequently made a station on the underground railroad." His home at 220 West Huron is no longer standing.
James Morwick: "During slavery days he was a prime mover in the famous Underground Railroad," according to the county history. An architect, Morwick lived at 604 East Washington, in a house that is now a student rental.
Robert Glazier: Glazier (sometimes spelled Glasier) "was considered one of the best 'conductors' on the route," according to the county history. "He has assisted in passing many a slave into Canada where they would be safe from their cruel master. His 'route' lay from Ann Arbor [east] to Farmington and on one occasion he made a trip to Adrian with William Lloyd Garrison." Supporting evidence is that Glazier was a member of the Michigan Anti-Slavery Society and a devout Quaker. Glazier's house, which began as a log cabin, still stands at 3175 Glazier Way.
John Geddes: Hussey names Geddes as a conductor. His role was challenged almost as soon as Hussey's 1885 interview appeared, however, when an Ypsilanti newspaper article asserted that Geddes "never had anything to do with it [the Underground Railroad]." Historian Quist, whose U-M doctoral dissertation looked at antislavery efforts in Washtenaw County, found no record that Geddes was an active abolitionist.
Besides Hussey’s mention, the main other evidence is that Francis Monaghan, who worked for Geddes as a farmhand and bought the property in 1885, passed on to his descendants stories he heard from Geddes about his involvement in the Underground Railroad. But in recent years, both Geddes’ letters and diary have come to light and people who have read them say they contain no references to the underground railroad or abolitionism or slavery or even radical politics.
Guy Beckley: Beckley published the Signal of Liberty from an office above the store of his brother, Josiah Beckely, on Broadway, across the street from the Anson Brown Building on Broadway (which today houses the St. Vincent de Paul store). His home, just a few blocks away at 1425 Pontiac Trail, is the Ann Arbor structure most identified with the antislavery cause; it's where school buses stop on historical field trips. A specific spot for hiding fugitives has never been found in his house, although a back part has been torn down. It's possible that because Beckley was so publicly identified with the Underground Railroad, fugitives were hidden elsewhere if a danger was perceived. An ordained minister, Beckley moved to Ann Arbor in 1839, remaining active in the abolitionist cause until his death in 1847.
Josiah Beckley: A farmer and brick maker, he was supposed to have played a less active role in the anti-slavery movement than his brother, helping mostly with funding. His two Ann Arbor houses are strong possibilities for Underground Railroad sites:
* 1317 Pontiac: Former owner Fran Wright says her deed research established that Josiah Beckley bought the land in 1835 and probably built the house the next year. Present owner Jack Kenny says that there is a hiding place at the back of a downstairs closet big enough for three or four people. Jerry Cantor, who grew up on the north side, said that when he was a boy he was told that fugitive slaves hid in the barn on this property.
* 1709 Pontiac: Former owner Deborah Oakley says that her deed research established that Josiah Beckley bought the land in 1827, the year he came to Ann Arbor, and built the house sometime between 1831 and 1843. Josiah probably built the house in the late 1830s, moving there from 1317 Pontiac. We know he resided there when he died in 1843. Present owner Martha Wallace says there is a false wall in the basement "made with brick the same generation as the house--old and crumbly" that may have concealed a hiding place for fugitive slaves.
The Southern Route
Prince Bennett of Augusta Township is not mentioned in any of the nineteenth-century accounts of the Underground Railroad, but a strong oral tradition suggests that he was a conductor. Barbara McKenzie, Bennett's great-granddaughter, says that she was told that "Underneath his front porch there was a trapdoor that led to a room where you could put runaway slaves." Bennett, whose home on Tuttle Road no longer stands, certainly was an abolitionist: a founder of Augusta's Evangelical Friends Church, he was active in the Anti-Slavery Association, and his obituary describes him as "a prominent anti-slavery man of olden times."
John Lowry: In 1899, Judge Noah Cheever, who had been in Ann Arbor since 1859, published a book called Pleasant Walks and Drives about Ann Arbor. Cheever recommended stopping at the farm of John Lowry [probably the John Lowy listed in Siebert], explaining that "Mr. Lowry's house was one of the stations to the underground railroad and he assisted a great many slaves on their way to Canada. ... Mr. Sellick Wood, lately deceased of our city, told me that when he was a young man he drove a number of loads of fleeing negro slaves from Mr. Lowry's home to the Detroit River and saw that they were safely carried across to Canada." Lowry's house, now gone, stood on the west side of Ann Arbor-Saline Road, near Brassow.
The route to Canada
From Ann Arbor, the next stop to the east was Ypsilanti. A. P. Marshall's Unconquered Souls: The History of the African American in Ypsilanti, includes a discussion of the city's involvement in the Underground Railroad. Marshall says that George McCoy transported fugitives in wagons with false bottoms and gave them shelter in his barn, while Helen McAndrew hid them in either her octagon house or her barn. Both of these homes have been torn down. "The only house we can absolutely verify is the Norris house," Marshall says. Mark Norris lived at 213 North River Street and was a prominent early settler whose role in the Underground Railroad is documented in letters retained by his family. Others have suggested that fugitives were hidden in Ypsilanti's black church, but Marshall is doubtful. "The church was in an old livery stable and didn't have a basement. It's the first place [slave hunters] would look."
Going north out of Ann Arbor, up Pontiac Trail from the Beckley houses, or straight north from the Geddes and Glazier houses, fugitives would pass the hamlet of Salem. While no contemporary evidence has been found that Salem residents aided the fugitives, The History of Salem Township, published in 1976, lists seven possible Underground Railroad sites, based on older documents and stories told by local residents. The hamlet's support for abolition is indisputable: in the 1840 election it led the county in voting for the antislavery Liberty party, giving the abolitionists sixty-three votes, compared with fifty in Ann Arbor and twenty in Ypsilanti.
From Ypsilanti, the former slaves originally traveled east through Plymouth, River Rouge, and Swartzburg to Detroit. When that route became too closely watched, the line shifted northward, passing through a string of towns--Northville, Farmington, Birmingham, Pontiac, Rochester, Utica, Romeo, Richmond, and New Haven--on the way to the St. Clair River. Finally, the fugitives were smuggled across to Canada by boat.
It is estimated that 40,000 former slaves and their families were living in Canada at the time of the Civil War. About half of them eventually moved back to the United States. They came over a period of decades to rejoin family, to return to a warmer climate, or to pursue jobs or education. In her memoir, Laura Haviland mentions a former slave named John White who after emancipation "removed to Ann Arbor, Michigan to educate his children."
Many Ann Arbor families trace their descent to these black Canadians. The local black Elks Lodge, according to member William Hampton, "was formed by a group mostly from Canada." Several well-known historic figures, including Charles Baker, co-owner of the Ann Arbor Foundry, and Claude Brown, who ran a secondhand store in the Main Street building that now houses Laky's Salon, came to Ann Arbor from Canada.
At least three Ann Arbor families have connections with North Buxton, a remarkable settlement in the middle of southwestern Ontario, near Chatham. North Buxton was founded in 1849 by William King, a minister who married the daughter of a southern plantation owner. When King's wife inherited her family's fifteen slaves, King freed them, buying land in Canada for them to resettle. They became the nucleus of a black community whose residents grew a wide range of crops, owned and operated businesses, ran hotels, organized churches, and published a newspaper. Their schools were so good that white people from neighboring communities sent their children there. And they claimed a number of firsts, including the first black Canadian elected to public office.
Ann Arborite Ruth Spann's great-aunt came from North Buxton, and Lydia Morton's great-grandfather lived in nearby Fletcher. Viola Henderson's great-aunt, Mary Ann Shadd Gary, ran a school in Windsor for black refugees. After the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act made life more dangerous near the border, she moved inland to North Buxton, where in 1853 she became the first black woman in North America to edit a weekly newspaper. After the war, she returned to the United States, where she was the first black woman to graduate from Howard University Law School.
Dwight Walls, pastor of the Greater Shiloh Church of God in Christ in Ypsilanti, is descended from John Freeman Walls, a former slave from North Carolina, and Jane Walls, the white widow of his original master. The Wallses escaped the South, reached Canada by boat from Toledo, and settled in Puce, Ontario. Dwight Walls's grandfather moved to Detroit to work after World War II, but his family still has many Canadian connections. He reports that a number of black Ypsilantians have Canadian roots, including the Bass, Perry, and Kersey families, as well as the Grayer family of his mother.
Descendants of the original settlers still live in North Buxton, although only two families still farm and the children go into Chatham for school. Artifacts from the original settlement, including King's bed and many photographs, can be viewed in the Raleigh Township Centennial Museum. In Puce, Walls's cousins run the John Freeman Historic Site and Underground Railroad Museum, which includes the log cabin his ancestors lived in and the graveyard where they are buried.
Amherstburg, where many fugitives arrived by rowboat, honors their place in black history with the North American Black Historical Museum and Cultural Centre. These and several other sites--including the homestead of Josiah Henson, the man believed to be the model for Uncle Tom in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin--form the African-Canadian Heritage Tour.
Sites in Michigan are harder to find. In Battle Creek, the store where Erastus Hussey once hid runaway slaves is gone, its place noted by a historical marker. Another marker tells the story of the Merritts, a Quaker family who hid slaves. In nearby Schoolcraft, Nathan Thomas's house still stands. Privately owned, it is periodically opened to the public. In Cassopolis, there's a historical marker on the former site of the Quaker meetinghouse, once a key center for fugitives entering from Indiana.
Researchers A. P. Marshall and Charles Lindquist, and Mary Butler, archivist for the Historical Society of Battle Creek, all speak of the frustration of working with such ephemeral evidence. But more information may come to light through a U.S. Parks Service project to identify and mark Underground Railroad sites on which the Guy Beckley home has been listed. The larger than expected attendance at the National Underground Freedom Center, which opened in Cincinnati in 2004, also shows that there is an increasing interest.
The period of slavery is an enormous blot on American history. The Underground Railroad was a heartening exception, in which people of all races worked together to help slaves to freedom. Retelling the story, we celebrate the courage and ingenuity of those who escaped, the kindness of both blacks and whites who helped them on their journey, and the ability of the fugitives to start life over in Canada--and, for many, yet again in the United States.
Grub for the workingman
Back in the days when Courthouse Square was the center of town, Prochnow's Dairy Lunch, at 104 East Huron, was strategically placed as a casual eatery for the many workingmen in the area. "Everyone in town ate there," according to Derwood Prochnow, second cousin of Theodore Prochnow, the owner of the restaurant from 1902 to 1929 and 1937 to 1940.
The county's Victorian courthouse (1887-1955) sat in the middle of the block surrounded by grass and trees, and it had identical entrances on all sides—Main, Ann, Fourth, and Huron. Anyone leaving from the Huron Street door could see Prochnow's Dairy Lunch right across the street. An interurban stop, a row of busy stores sandwiched between the Allenel Hotel and the Farmers and Mechanics Bank, the courts and other government services all drew people to that block. Morrie Dalitz, driver for and later owner of the Varsity Laundry (on Liberty where the Federal Building now stands), remembers Huron Street between Fourth and Main as "busy and vibrant."
Prochnow's Dairy Lunch was tucked in behind the Farmers and Mechanics Bank in a building so narrow that there was no room for tables, just a horseshoe-shaped counter. However, the restaurant boasted many accoutrements that today are de rigueur for fancy yuppie restaurants: pressed-tin ceiling, ornate cash register, marble counters, wainscoting on the lower wall, and fancy mirrored coat racks.
Theodore Prochnow is remembered by his cousin as "not tall, about five-nine or five-ten. He walked with a limp because he was crippled in one leg, but he was a strong man. He ran the Dairy Lunch for years as the number-one operator." The kitchen was in the back. Dalitz remembers the sight of Prochnow cooking away, a cigar hanging out of his mouth.
Prochnow opened the restaurant in 1902, when he was only twenty-seven years old. He began in partnership with Otto Schaible, but by 1909 he was the sole owner. He operated the restaurant until 1929 when, tired of the daily grind, he sold it and started the Prochnow Food Specialty Company. But in 1937 he was back at the restaurant. The interim owners, first Fred Slade, then Raymond Smith and Thomas Fohey, weren't able to make a go of it during the Depression.
Prochnow served full meals, mainly breakfasts and lunches, but nothing fancy. There was no liquor, and it was not the sort of restaurant people went to evenings or on dates. In fact, it was "men only," according to Bertha Welker, who remembers the restaurant well because her older sister dated an employee, Ben Oliver. "It was a men's luncheon place," Welker explains. "Women didn't go out much in those days."
Derwood Prochnow describes the fare as "food the workingman wanted, food that filled his ribs"—meat, potatoes, gravy, and vegetables. He reports that Prochnow "didn't monkey with salad." Dessert was homemade pies. Overall, he rates the food as "good grub."
Dalitz gives a dissenting opinion: he remembers once finding a cigar butt in his oatmeal. Feeling sick, but not wanting to offend Prochnow (who was a good Varsity Laundry customer), Dalitz just stepped out for some air until he felt better. "I couldn't eat oatmeal for a long time after that," he recalls.
Dalitz remembers that pancakes, both regular and buckwheat, were Prochnow specialties. He also remembers revolving specials according to the day of the week—for instance, "terrible liver on Thursday." According to Dalitz, the draw of the restaurant was the low prices.
Of course, a mainstay of this kind of casual restaurant was coffee. Derwood Prochnow says that the Dairy Lunch was famous for having "the best coffee east of the Mississippi." His cousin bought it in barrels from a supplier in the East and put his own label on it. One of the main offerings of Prochnow's specialty food business was the coffee.
The Dairy Lunch customers were mainly people working or doing business in the area—at the courthouse, the Farmers' Market (then located on the Fourth Avenue side of the courthouse), or the many businesses on Prochnow's side of the block. These included two telegraph offices, two cigar stores (one reputed to run a betting operation on the side); a photography studio, real estate offices, a barber, a tailor, and a cab company.
Dalitz remembers other customers: farmers coming to town for the day, truck drivers, milk wagon operators, construction workers, and policemen who worked nearby in the old city hall at Huron and Fifth (kitty-corner from the present one). While there were other food places on the block, they were not in direct competition. Court Cafe served more snack-type food, like sandwiches and hamburgers, while Candyland's specialties were sweets and ice cream treats like banana splits and tin roofs.
Prochnow finally left the business for good in 1940. He died four years later. During the years he was feeding Ann Arbor, other Prochnows were also making their marks. His cousin David, father of Derwood, owned the Prochnow Grocery Store at 208 South Ashley, next to Hertler's. Another relative, Walter Prochnow, started Ann Arbor Buick in 1923.
Today, the block where Prochnow's Dairy Lunch was once part of a busy business district has been swallowed up by two monumental buildings, the First of America Bank, facing Main, and the Courthouse Square Senior Apartments facing Fourth. The small gap between them where Prochnow's once stood is now First of America's parking lot.