The Ypsilanti Historical Archives date back to the year 1809 when there was no Ypsilanti. That was the year Gabriel Godfroy an early French explorer built a log structure-the first non-Indian building in Washtenaw County-on the west bank of the River Huron 100 yards north of the old Sauk Trail. This was an Indian Trading Post. Gabriel Godfroy, an intrepid explorer, interpretor, citizen of Detroit in the Northwest Territory, had traveled overland and on the rivers, all across the area between Detroit and St. Joseph. The River Huron evidently fascin-ated him, and with two companions, Romaine LaChambre and Francois Pepin, he selected a rectangular area of 2352 acres running west from the Huron, and on June 11, 1811 the United States deeded this area to these Frenchmen, in four strips which are found today on all maps and known as French Claims. Benjamin Woodruff and companions, John Thayer, Robert M. Stitts, David Beverly and Titus Bronson arrived on April 22, 1823 and Woodruff took title to 114 acres on the bluff on the east side of the Huron and nearly a mile south of the Sauk Trail. Here he established Woodruff's Groves.
Judge A. B. Woodward selected the name Ypsilanti for the 253 lots on the registered Plat of 1825 and the Ypsilanti Historical Archives has the Deed for the first lot sold from this Plat, dated September 12, 1825.
The Indians moved out and the settlers moved in bringing with them furniture and artifacts from the place of their origin. Nearly every family had one member who was a letter writer and saved many of their letters.
Churches and Schools were established and some of their old records were received by our Archives, discover-ed in an attic-a record of the Congregational Society when it was with the Presbyterians, showing that in 1834 the Janitor was expected to ring the bell for Church Service, toll it for funerals, keep the lamps in oil and also do the cleaning and dusting, all for $6. per month. There was no central depository for such items. Families scattered, died and letters and records were lost.
However, the Ypsilanti Archives has 135 hand written letters from Sylvester Noble to his mother and sister during his three years of service as Clerk for General Sherman in Atlanta and also in the march to the Sea. Dr. Donald Disbrow of the History Department of Eastern Michi-gan University edited the letters and wrote an article about them which appeared in the March 1968, issue of “Civil War History” magazine. The Noble home was where 212 S. Huron is today but of course the old house is gone.
Many items were brought to light during the 50th Anniversary Celebration in 1873. But again, there was no place for them. In 1874 “Washtenaw County Atlas” helped preservation of the old family homes, farms and places of business. There are 235 sketches in that remarkable old book and a reproduction has been made of it and com-bined with the “Atlas” for 1915. Copies of that combin-ation are for sale in the Museum.
The revival of the Michigan Pioneer Society and those records, plus the publication in 1881 of the Chapman “Washtenaw County History” has kept old memories and re-cords from being completely lost.
Then with the planning for the Centennial Celebration in 1923, Mrs. P.E. Skinner and Mrs. P.R. Cleary gave freely of their materials-scrapbooks, letters, pictures-accumulated and carefully preserved thru their years, with Florence Shultes, History professor at Michigan State Normal College, for guide and consultant, the material was given to Harvey Colburn to assist him in writing the “History of Ypsilanti”, now considered one of the finest in Michigan.
Nearly ten years later, Louis S. White, an office worker for the Michigan Central Railroad, began his metho-dical, tremendous work for Ypsilanti Heritage.
In 1934 at an evening gathering of friends, including Mayor-elect Ray Burrell, the suggestion was made, half in jest, that Ypsilanti ought to have an Historian, a person who would collect and protect historical items, and all those present agreed that Louis S. White was the one to do this work.
Louis S. White was born in Grand Rapids, January 10, 1887 and came to Ypsilanti in 1916. Thru the years he had seen the decline and complete disappearance of the electric Interurban, the rapid rise of the automobile and bus, the building of highways and the great changes everywhere after World War I. His perspective and energy were unusual-his home was filled with historical materials. Mayor Burrell had the City Council make Louis the official Historian as soon as he took office in 1935, and a room on the third floor of the City Hall was used for some of the storage. In 1957, the State Legislature passed Public Act #123 making it possible for cities to “raise and appropiate money…to help any activity or project which tends to advance historical interest in a community”.
The State of Michigan has always been interested in preserving our heritage. In fact it was in 1828 that Lewis Cass, 2nd Governor of the Northwest Territory, es-tablished the Historical Society of Michigan, nine years before Michigan was a State.
December 21, 1959, Louis S. White petitioned the City Council to establish a Historical Committee and appoint a Historian. April 18, 1960, Resolution #60-143 creating the office of City Historian and establishing a Historical Committee was adopted unanimously. The following Historical Committee was appointed to serve five years.1. Rodney E. Hutchinson, Mayor
2. Wesley M. Dawson, Postmaster
3. Ruth L. Shaw
4. Curtiss D. Bassett
5. Yvonne Williams
and Louis S. White, Historian, to serve for an indefinite period. Rodney S. Hutchinson was Mayor, Donald Fulford, Susan B. Hill, Edward Heyman, Edward Nehlsen, Andrew Smith and John Burton were the Council members at that time.
Thru the efforts of Mayor Hutchinson, rooms were re-furbished on the second floor of the Municipal Court Bldg., 206 N. Huron, and the historical material was moved.
With so much material, it was obvious that a system was needed to record and acknowlege the many items being received. Marion Spear a trained librarian who had recently retired from the Ypsilanti Public Library, was hired on a very modest basis to set up our system which meets the requirements of the State of Michigan. Ruth Shaw, charter member of the Historical Committee, was her helper and contributed 1200 obituaries for the autobiographical file and entirely on a voluntary basis.
The Historical Committee formed a Historical Society late in 1960 and the following officers were elected in January 1961: Foster L. Fletcher, President, John Elwell, Vice President, Mrs. Oramel L. Ennen, Recording Secretary, Mrs. Carl Miller, Corresponding Secretary, Harry L. Smith, Treasurer.
Plans were made by the Historical Committee and the Historical Society for a Museum which would be staffed by members of the Listorical Society.
In 1965, the basement of the Public Library at 229 W. Michigan were renovated thru money from the City of Ypsilanti and the physical efforts of William Edmunds, Kenneth Leighton and Society President Phoebe Miller. For the first time it was possible to have material displays and there was a room which could be locked for the safe-keeping of the Archives. All material in the displays came from the Archives.
On the authority of W. Robert Semple, City Manager, Mrs. Donald W. Disbrow was hired as our first Archivist on a part time basis, beginning February 23, 1965. Mrs. Disbrow is a typist and had been a manuscript reader for several years with the J.B. Lippincott Company.
Louis S. White died in 1963 and left not only a gap in our historical ranks but the had left an impressive collection of historical material; 1631 films, an auto-biographical file with 30,000 names, census records from the Burton Collection in Detroit, maps of the area and so much material that will not pass this way again.
In 1966, Foster L. Fletcher was appointed City Histro-ian and it was his duty to go on with the preservation of material collected by Louis S. White. Fletcher is a life-time resident of Ypsilanti and brought with him for the task, his wife Mary S. Fletcher, a graduate as a History Major from the University of Wisconsin. It was a special project of the Fletchers to set up streetguides for the oldest city directories and then to have pictures of sites and structures with as much history as possible for as many of the streets as possible.
Mrs. Fletcher cied in August 1968 before the project was completed but the files that were completed are the ones most in use for histories in the Archives. Research-ers from both of our local Universities use the files and recently a student from the School of Architecture, Lawrence Institute of Technology, who is writing his doctoral thesis on the old houses along route 12, used this file and expressed his opinion that it was the most comprehensive gathering of house files he had found in any of the towns along the route. It is used frequently by home owners, local architectural firms, the Ypsilanti Sesquicentennial Committee, the Ypsilanti Festival Committee, the Ypsilanti heritage Foundation, the Depot Committee and the local newspapers.
John Burton was Ypsilanti's first black Mayor and at that time he was one of only two black Mayors in the United States. Burton was Mayor in 1967–68 and it was at that time he offered the Barnes-Ross house which the city owned at 220 N. Huron, to the City Historian Fletcher as a real place for the Museum and Archives. John Burton is the man we must always remember as the one who made it possible for our Museum and much better quarters for the Historical Archives.
Architect Zack Gerganof did a study of this old mansion and wrote a description of what would be necessary to repair and remodel the building estimating the cost might be as much as $14,000. City Manager John Cartwright agreed with the suggestions and asked that the money be spent over two fiscal years. The Historical Commission with Arthur J noward as Chairman, readily agreed and the change from eight apartments to a Museum building was accomplishea with most of the house being used as a Museum and the Archives still very cramped for space.
The handsome brick structure had been built about 1860 and had four fireplaces which had been preserved thru the years.
The Historical Commission and the historical Society were fortunate in having two City Managers who were sympathetic with the Museum plan and both Robert Semple and John Cartvright were able to persuade the City Council of the importance of preserving our heritage and establishing a use where displays could be made.
The name Florence Smalley babbitt is well known in the State Historical Archives and we hope to have Ypsilanti recognize Florence Babbitt (1847–1929) as the greatest collector and preserver of Americana in Michigan. One of Mrs. Disbrow's first duties was to catalog the huge Babbitt collection in the home of the late Mr. Lugene Elliott, wife of a former President of Eastern Michigan. This collection had been given by Mrs. Babbitt to the old “Normal” when the city could find no place to store it. The Ypsilanti Archives coes contain many of her items and displays in the Museum exhibit some of her treasures which we are fortunate enough to have.
Ruth McIntire Allen has added much to the Museum with the unusual display of the infamous Andersonville Prison items, the paper published somehow by the soldier prisoners from the Union troops and a roster of section of the prison. Mrs. Allen gave the funds for the large display case where the Andersonville items are on display with other Civil War pictures and documents, cherished by us and sought by State and other archives. Ruth has also deposited many items now in the Archives and promises much more from her store of historical pictures, newspaper clippings and documents having to do with the Ypsilanti area.
Marna Osband (1870–1947) daughter of William Nerritt Osband (1836–1916) publisher of the old Ypsilantian was an unequaled source for both oral and written stories of early days and events.
The Ypsilanti historical Museum was opened in 1971 with a schedule of 2–4 every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and staffed by volunteers whose total number was 131, forty six of them taking turns each month as Guides for the Museum. Miss Eileen Harrison was President as that time and Miss Doris Milliman was the Museum Director serving for three years on a voluntary basis.
With the Ypsilanti Sesquicentennial celebration beginning to make plans for 1973, our Archives were the basis for all information for the events and more and more people could see the importance of the Archives and the need for more space. After the Sesquicentenial was over and the Committee cast up their accounts, Bradley marris as Historical Commission Chairman and Historian Fletcher were successful in have $2,300. given for use as needed in the historical Archives.
William Edmunds, then President of the historical Society and with help from his Councilwoman wife, Nathalic Edmunds, obtained funds for the alteration of the last apartment in the Barnes-Ross Building, at last to house the Archives.
Architect ward Swarts drew the plans for the three rooms giving us 1800 square feet of space for files and working arca. City Manager Joseph Warren, always having a great appreciation for historical material agreed to the project and in 1974, forty years after Louis S. White began his prodigeous collecting, the Archives are housed in pleasant rooms which can be locked and which have an outside entrance.
Architect ward Swarts served for 14 years on the staff of Colonial Williamsberg, Virginia, and Ypsilanti is most fortunate in having Ward and his talented wife, LaRea, return to live in the community. LaRea Swarts became Director of the Museum in 1974 and has charge of all the displays. She not only is inbued with a thorough knowledge of antiques but also knows how to scrub floors, clean glass cases and keep an experienced housekeeping eye on the entire building. The resource talent available to us and given so generously, of the hard Swarts couple, is something that could not be hired.
The City of Ypsilanti Council allows an annual budget for the upkeep of the building, the utilities, and other items necessary for the Archives and operation of the Museum. In return for the City investment, the Museum represents something the entire community can show off and visit with pride. The Historical Society is doing an outstanding job in taking care of the mansion with material encouragement from the Archives and the histor-ical Commission. The historical Commission is a part of the city government.
The brick mansion at 220 N. Luron is not just a house furnished with antique or old furniture but a very real Museum with varied displays. The Archives represents one of the few places in the County where documents and historical items can be deposited and have an excellent chance of being preserved.
The newsletter edited and compiled by Historian Fletcher and Archivist Disbrow, is titled “Ypsilanti Gleanings-Past Scenes and Oldtimes” and is published six times a a year, representing items from the Archives and news of the Historical Society.