By Austin, Dorothy, Cindy and Dennis Norton
The Norton family is fortunate to have diaries written by Sarah Jane Knapp Norton. The diaries, starting in 1864 and ending with Sarah's death in 1906, detail the everyday life of the times, and make possible the following brief history of the Norton family's early years in Ypsilanti. These diaries have been put on DVD disks by Sarah's great great grandson, Dennis Norton and a set has been donated to the Ypsilanti Historical Society Archives.
Toward the end of the Civil War, Austin and Sarah Jane Knapp Norton and their young son Charles got the “western fever” as it was called then, and migrated westward from Sharon Springs, New York. They arrived in Ypsilanti on March 10, 1864, to the open arms of Sarah's mother who had already moved to Ypsilanti some years before. Sarah's father, Lucius Knapp had passed away sometime prior to 1862, and Sarah's mother, Zada Jones Knapp then married Timothy Showerman a member of another long time Ypsilanti family. Timothy was the widower of Zada's sister Eunice. Also living in Ypsilanti at the time Sarah and Austin came from New York were two of Sarah's aunts, Lucinda Jones Casey, and Mary Jones Elliott. Lucinda was the wife of Sam Casey who had a large farm on Prospect near Clark Road, and Mary was the wife of Parmer Elliott. A third aunt, Eunice Jones had married Timothy Showerman and was living in Ypsilanti at the time of her death in 1862.
As was not too uncommon in those times, Zada, the widow of Lucius Knapp, and Timothy, the widower of Zada's sister Eunice, married in 1862 and were living in Ypsilanti in 1864. It is interesting to note that Nathalie Elliot Edmunds, a well known Ypsilantian, is a direct descendant of Mary Jones Elliot. So at one point in the late 1850s and early 1860s, four of the Jones sisters, Zada, Eunice, Mary and Lucinda were all living in Ypsilanti, having moved there some years before from Amsterdam, New York, just west of Albany.
After moving to Ypsilanti, Austin Norton worked as a stone and brick mason constructing cellars and chimneys. He built the foundations for many buildings which are still in existence. The diaries list the names of many well known Ypsilanti families for whom Austin built foundations and in some instances entire buildings. These include Elliott, Gilmore, Kirk, Cornwell, Dusbiber, Meanwell, Bassett, Lamb, Ellis, Lawrence and more.
With no television, no telephones, no radios and no shopping malls, the social life of the times consisted mostly of visiting friends and relatives, and entertaining them in their homes for tea and/or dinner. Many times a visit a short distance out of town would necessitate staying overnight as they evidently did not care to travel after dark. Visits in the afternoon often consisted of visiting a friend and leaving a calling card or perhaps staying for tea.
The weekly activities of the churches played an important role in their lives. The women of the family also had a very busy schedule washing clothes, ironing, baking bread, sewing garments, etc. Tending the garden was another important task, providing family with fresh fruits and vegetables as well as flowers for the parlor. It seems they made almost daily trips downtown to the grocer for a pound of butter (18 cents), to the post office, milliner, meat market and to the mill. During one snowy winter day Sarah walked downtown and saw men racing their horse drawn sleighs up and down Adams and Washington Streets. It seems as though times never change as now it is cars that race down Adams and Washington.
Austin and Sarah's second son Frank was born June 1, 1867. After Charles and Frank graduated from high school, their father taught them the art of masonry. Now father and sons could work as a team enabling them to take on jobs not only in Ypsilanti but in surrounding towns including Chelsea, Dexter and Saline. Records show they worked on the Training School at Normal, as well as the Ypsilanti Methodist and Presbyterian Churches. They built the Ypsilanti Congregational Church and finished the tower in time for a July 25, 1899 dedication. An engraved stone plaque still remains on the north side of the building, visible from Emmet Street. It reads “Norton Brothers, Builders” and also names the architect. In Chelsea, the Norton Brothers built the stone Methodist Church and the bank, both of which are still standing today. Austin was well known in the community and was elected Alderman on the Prohibition Ticket.
As noted earlier, Frank Norton's brother Charles and later Charles' three sons Harry, Don and Glen were also masons who often worked on the larger projects with Austin and Frank. A grandson of Charles, Robert Norton, who graduated from Ypsilanti High School in 1941, continued the family tradition of masonry.
Frank Norton attended the Normal School and graduated with a teaching degree in 1889. He worked with his dad through the summer of that year and applied for and obtained a teaching job in Tucson, Arizona Territory. He had a teaching contract for $80 a month and spent three winters teaching in Tucson, returning to Ypsilanti each summer. During these years Frank was courting Lena Eisenlord, a fellow graduate of the Normal who lived in Farmington. The diary notes he rode his “wheel” to visit her there. During the summer of 1891 Frank built the stone cellar for his new home on Lowell Street before returning to Tucson for his last year of teaching. He arrived back home on April 13, 1892. That summer he built a small green-house, the beginning of Norton's Flower business. He grew mostly lettuce and cucumbers that following winter, selling lettuce for 15 cents a pound and cucumbers for 4 cents each to the local grocers, sometimes as far away as Detroit. He grew a few flowers and the next year added another greenhouse to increase his production. During this time he was still working with his father Austin and brother Charles. He also began to construct his own brick home at 735 Lowell Street. He was now able to grow more flowers and he hired a young man to work and watch the greenhouse while he did stone work. The demand for Frank Norton's flowers was growing and he sold carnations for 40 cents a dozen and roses for $1.50 a dozen.
“During this time more greenhouses were built and the entire family worked various jobs planting, weeding and delivering flowers and plants to the area. There were many very cold nights when they worked shifts adding fuel to the furnace to keep the crops from freezing.“
Frank married his college sweetheart, Lena Eisenlord, on September 18, 1895. They lived in Frank's newly completed house at 735 Lowell Street. Lena was in the first class of women to complete a four year course of study and graduated from the Normal at the same time Frank did on June 26, 1889. She taught at Blissfield until her marriage to Frank six years later. They had four children, Austin, born July 4, 1896; Stanley, born June 6, 1898; Margaret, born July 27, 1900; and Dorothy, born November 5, 1903.
During this time more greenhouses were built and the entire family worked various jobs planting, weeding and delivering flowers and plants to the area. There were many very cold nights when they worked shifts adding fuel to the furnace to keep the crops from freezing. In September, 1896, Sarah rented two rooms to four young ladies attending Normal for $1.00 each per month. The greenhouse was prospering and growing and Frank built an office for the business. Lena and Frank's mother Sarah did most of the delivering of flowers and plants. Many of the recipients of flowers were persons whose family names are familiar to this day. Wholesale products were often sent to Detroit on the “cars” as the interurban was called in the diary.
On Saturday, June 13, 1896, a diary entry mentions going to the bicycle races at the fairgrounds. Another favorite pastime for the family and friends was picnicking by the river up near the Paper Mill, a place Frank called Riverbrink.
One day Sarah rode as far as the Baptist Church with Will Meanwell. The Baptist Church at that time was located on the southeast corner of W. Cross and Washington Streets. From there she walked over to Depot Town to pay the meat bill at Smitties; then over town waiting to have a hat trimmed at Mrs. Martin's. The hat was 62 cents; the work on the hat was 33 cents and Sarah furnished the trimmings. During another shopping trip in the spring of 1899, Sarah mentioned in the diaries that she purchased the following: bonnet, $1.48; tablecloth, $1.00; two dresses, $1.35; two aprons $1.00; gloves, 35 cents; perfume 35 cents; stockings, 34 cents; toys for the kids, 40 cents. She was an avid reader and made many visits to the Ladies Library for books and magazines. She mentions reading “Good Old Times” by E. Kellogg.
Sarah notes in the diary that on July 4 1899, the fireworks over the river caught a large oilcloth on fire and rockets and Roman candles went off in every direction. There was a mad rush to leave and many people were injured.
After a lengthy illness Austin died on December 2, 1905. The service was at the house with burial in Highland Cemetery. Eleven months later on November 5, 1906, after a short illness, Sarah died and was buried alongside her husband. With the death of Sarah went the wonderful writer of the diaries telling of our family's early activities and way of life.
The early 1900's were busy times for Frank Norton and his family. Frank was still working on occasion in the mason business with brother Charles but was spending more and more of his time in the greenhouses. In the meantime Lena had started her own business, a photo studio. An advertisement lists the following services: Expert Developing and Printing, Any size roll or pack developed for 10 cents… Prints up to 3 × 4 inches, ½ cents each… Prints up to 4 × 6, 3 cents each… Roll films for sale and cameras to rent, 10 cents a day. In later years Lena became an accomplished painter. This hobby was cut short by blindness caused by glaucoma at age 69. With sublime courage she immediately took up the study of Braille. She soon mastered the system and was able to enjoy all the current books as well as the classics of literature. With the use of a straight edge guide devised by Frank, she continued to write letters and thus carried on a gratifying correspondence with family and friends. During this period she crocheted rugs, helped with mailing at the greenhouse office and had a role in the basic work of making floral sprays and wreaths, the colors of which she was never again to see. She also started composing poetry. Since she could not use a pencil for notes, Lena retained each poem in her memory and would later dictate to someone for a permanent record. These poems were put in book form and each family member is able to enjoy her writings.
“Stanley had become interested in orchids and decided to make that his hobby. He, along with son Austin and two others traveled to Mexico in 1941 to gather orchid plants. It was very successful as several bags of orchids were collected. He found others interested in orchids and with two other men founded the Michigan Orchid Society.“
Frank was active in the community serving as Alderman and also as the Mayor of Ypsilanti from 1912 to 1914. He also enjoyed painting as he and Lena shared their love of the arts together. To this day, the family still enjoys many of these paintings in their homes. Frank was also skilled at taxidermy. He at one time had quite a collection of native Michigan birds along with some he had collected from hunting while in Arizona teaching school. He donated all his birds to the Science Department in Shezer Hall at the Normal College. They were still there, in glass cases on the third floor, when Sherzer Hall was all but destroyed by fire in 1989.
Frank and Lena's son, Austin, was a founding member of the local Boy Scout organization in Ypsilanti which was formed December 12, 1910. The local troop made a demonstration of various skills. A remarkable event of this demonstration was the breaking of the world and scouting record for making a fire by rubbing two sticks together. This fete was accomplished by Austin Norton in approximately eleven seconds. In recognition, he was presented a specially ornamented set of sticks by Ernest Thompson Seton, head of the American Boy Scout organization. Austin also marched with the scouts in Detroit in September, 1911, as the honor guard for President William H. Taft. He was also an accomplished mandolin player and while in high school taught mandolin at University of Michigan.
World War I came along and Frank's and Lena's second son, Stanley, enlisted in the tank corps, serving in France. He returned home in 1919 only to have his brother Austin die of tuberculosis a short time later on June 4, 1919. Stanley's little sister Dorothy, died on August 7 from the flu during the pandemic of 1919. With the loss of two of Frank and Lena's children, it was a sad time for the Norton family.
Upon returning from the war Stanley Norton worked for his dad and attended the Normal College where he met his future wife, Ellen Wallace from Bay City who was a student there. After graduating, she taught school in Capac before coming back to Ypsilanti after her marriage to Stanley on March 10, 1923. They moved into a new home at 737 Lowell Street. It was a beautiful, all stone house and was one of the last houses to be built by Frank. Stanley joined the floral business and it became Norton and Son, Florist. Stanley and Ellen welcomed the births of their two children, Austin (named after Stanley's late brother) on June 15, 1924 and Jean, on August 18, 1926. Austin began working in the greenhouses at the tender age of 9. He called himself the chief weed puller. His pay was 5 cents an hour and Stanley had to teach him the difference between a weed and a flowering plant. By the time he was 12 he had saved enough money to buy a beautiful new bike. It was a Montgomery Ward two wheeled bike with balloon tires and shiny chrome plated fenders. With this bike he was able to set up a magazine route. With the help of his mother Ellen, he enlisted the ladies hair salons selling Colliers, American Home Journal and a couple others. He won a prize for selling so many magazines. The prize was a No. 2 wood golf club called a brassie, the start of a life long love of golf.
In the early 1930's Austin and his cousin Tim Smith, son of Stanley's sister Margaret Norton Smith, worked with their great uncle, Charles Norton building a brick house on the northeast corner of Ann and St. John Streets. Austin and Tim were barely ten years old but could really pound the nails. They can now proudly look back at having worked with one of the men who helped build Ypsilanti.
Stanley's family all became involved in helping out in the greenhouses. Ellen would work in the flower shop and daughter Jean, while of high school age also helped out. Son Austin delivered flowers after school. When he was a junior in high school he took over one of his dad's winter jobs. The heat for the greenhouses was generated by burning coal. The hopper that fed the main boiler held $3/4 of a ton of coal and had to be filled every night at 11 pm, which would last until 8 am the following morning. This became Austin's job while he was in high school. The greenhouses used two rail car loads of coal every winter, and that was a lot of shoveling. Stan, as he liked to be called, was active in the community and like his father and grandfather served on the Ypsilanti City Council.
Stanley and Austin shared the job of fumigating the greenhouses for insects. It took 200 pounds of dried tobacco leaves every few months. The leaves were burned in flat round trays that were two feet across and which were hung in the greenhouses about 20 feet apart. They would begin in the farthest corner from the exit, light them as fast as they could go, and then quickly get out. All windows and doors were locked and shut tight to keep the smoke inside. One day a bunch of neighborhood kids, including Austin, tried smoking it. Boy, did they get sick! They all had a hard time telling their mothers what happened so they covered themselves by saying they had been eating green apples.
Stanley had become interested in orchids and decided to make that his hobby. He, along with son Austin and two others traveled to Mexico in 1941 to gather orchid plants. It was very successful as several bags of orchids were collected. He found others interested in orchids and with two other men founded the Michigan Orchid Society. He went on to become one of the national judges at orchid shows. The Michigan Orchid Society began by holding their first Palm Sunday Orchid Show at Norton's Greenhouses on Lowell Street in the early 1940's. This event continued for many years and became a very popular attraction, not only for local people but those from other areas.
On December 7, 1941, the U.S. declared war after the bombing by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, which changed the lives of everyone in the family. After graduating from Ypsilanti High School in 1942 Austin enlisted in the Navy, but was allowed to attend Michigan State Normal College for one year before going into active duty. He served aboard the aircraft carrier USS Bunker Hill in the Pacific. After discharge he married Dorothy Rice, his high school sweetheart. At this time he decided to go into business with his dad. He and Dorothy left for East Lansing where he enrolled at Michigan State University in the horticulture program. While there a son Dennis was born on May 25, 1947. That same year Frank Norton at age 80, the founder of Norton's Flowers, passed away. Lena Norton, due to her blindness, moved in with Stanley and Ellen who alternated with Lena's daughter Margaret Smith in caring for her. Still sharp of mind she died in 1956 at age 86.
Upon college graduation Austin, Dorothy and young son Dennis moved back to Ypsilanti into grandfather Frank's house on Lowell Street. A year later March 7, 1950 daughter Cynthia was born. After Austin returned to work in the business, Stanley had more time and became a well known figure at orchid shows throughout the country. One of the highlights of their travels was their trip to the International Orchid Convention in Bangkok where they were invited to a banquet at the royal palace.
In the 1950's it became evident that Eastern Michigan University was going to need the Lowell Street property for expansion of their campus. Norton's bought land on Washtenaw Avenue and in 1959 a store and two greenhouses were constructed and the business moved to its new location. The annual Palm Sunday orchid show continued to be a major attraction. At the age of 5 Cindy became an integral part of the family business. During the orchid shows she delighted customers and orchid lovers by greeting them as they arrived at the exhibit and offering paper and pencils to enter the prize drawing.
As young children both Dennis and Cindy have fond memories of traveling with their Dad in the big panel truck filled with geranium plants to the Eastern Market in Detroit. They left at 4 o'clock in the morning and a hot dog breakfast was the fare of the day. They grew up working in the family business. Through the years they pulled weeds, planted seedlings, learned floral design and were indispensable during holidays when the working hours were long. Austin served the community in many ways including his election to the Ypsilanti Board of Education. Austin's wife, Dorothy, having a Cleary College education in business took over the office management plus helping at the retail end when needed.
After graduating from Eastern Michigan University, Dennis entered the business. He already had much knowledge of the floral business working holidays and summers through his school years.
Through high school and after graduating from EMU Cindy entered and learned all the demands of the business: bookkeeping, sales clerk, greenhouse care, floral designer, wedding manager, gift ware buyer, managing day to day operations and becoming Vice President and partner with brother Dennis. Cindy left the business in 1991 when she relocated near New Orleans. Dennis was now sole proprietor of Norton's Flowers in as much as Austin and Dorothy had both retired.
During this time Ellen became ill and for several years Stanley lovingly cared for her. She died one day short of her 87th birthday in 1988. The family had lost a wife, a mother, grandmother and great grandmother, and a great corsage maker. Stanley missed her but continued on living a full life with family and friends. He jokingly said he was just “hanging on by a thread” but the thread was pretty strong. In 1991 at age 93 the thread broke. The greatly loved patriarch of the family was gone.
Dennis had visions of broadening the scope of the family businesses by developing the Washtenaw Avenue property, and went on with perseverance and hard work to oversee the development of Fountain Square Shops consisting of 14 additional stores. The family still owns that shopping center. During the early 80s Dennis and a friend founded the Yankee Air Museum at Willow Run which has become a great attraction for locals and tourists. Currently he is president of Michigan Aerospace Foundation, which is raising funds to rebuild the museum that was tragically destroyed by fire. Through his working years, Dennis volunteered and served on the Board of Directors for many local organizations including many Ypsilanti Chamber of Commerce Committees, the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum Board, the Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce Board, Ann Arbor Visitors and Convention Bureau Board, Ypsilanti Jaycees and many others.
Dennis married, and two children, Sheri and David, both worked in the business during their school years, Sheri in the office and sales and David in delivery and other jobs. Since Dennis's children had moved on to other endeavors and would not be continuing in the floral business, he retired and sold the business in 2001, leaving it in the hands of four of the former managers of Norton's, people who had been his managers for many years. So Norton's Flowers, the business Frank Norton started in 1892 continues on today in three locations, Washtenaw Avenue, Westgate Mall and Plymouth Road mall.
Over the years, the Norton's watched as what was the old Normal College and is now Eastern Michigan University grew up and eventually encompassed the old homestead. After having been located on Lowell Street for 100 years since 1867, all that remains on the original property where the greenhouses and homes were is a large walnut tree planted by Stanley in 1923 when he moved into his new stone house with his bride Ellen.
Austin and Dorothy, retired since 1987, have lived on the west side of Ypsilanti since 1965. Cindy, who presently works for Pfizer, moved back to Ypsilanti a number of years ago and also resides on the west side of Ypsilanti. She is presently on the Board of Directors of the Ypsilanti Area Chamber of Commerce.
Dennis and his wife Carol live just north of Ypsilanti, not far from the original Knapp farm on Superior Road where the first Austin Norton quarried stone for his mason business in the late 1800s. They have three children, Sheri, David and Michelle, and six grandchildren, Kaitlyn, Austin, Taylor, Spencer, Alexa and Sydney. It is fitting that David's sons, Austin age 11, and Spencer age 9, are proudly carrying on the Norton name.