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Walter B. Hewitt: A Success Story Worthy of Dickens

Walter B. Hewitt: A Success Story Worthy of Dickens image Walter B. Hewitt: A Success Story Worthy of Dickens image Walter B. Hewitt: A Success Story Worthy of Dickens image Walter B. Hewitt: A Success Story Worthy of Dickens image Walter B. Hewitt: A Success Story Worthy of Dickens image
Jan Anscheutz
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Ypsilanti Historical Society
OCR Text

Good historical research and writing do not die; they just “fade away.” They may in fact stay hidden in an Ypsilanti Historical Museum archives file until they are rediscovered, read, and republished more than a century later. Such is the case with a fascinating obituary that pays tribute to the life of Walter B. Hewitt, one of Ypsilanti’s most important business, political and cultural pioneers.

Published anonymously in the Ypsilanti Commercial of September 10, 1886, the obituary recounts Hewitt’s life as if he were a character in a novel by Charles Dickens – an immensely popular author at the time of Hewitt’s death. Like David Copperfield, Hewitt rose from poverty and misfortune to riches and glory by remaining true to the virtues of honesty, integrity and hard work.

What follows is the story of the life of Walter Hewitt, exactly as it appeared 126 years ago as an obituary in the Ypsilanti Commercial. It has been transcribed in its entirety from a hand-written version.

“Walter B. Hewitt died in this city Saturday, September 4, 1886. The subject of this sketch was born at Stillwater, Saratoga County, New York, February 4, 1800. His father’s name was Elisa, who emigrated from Connecticut to New York.

The ancestors of Mr. Hewitt came from England and participated in the early struggles of this country. Mr. Hewitt was named after his grandfather, Walter, who was actively engaged in the Revolutionary War, and during the hours of destitution, when Washington’s soldiers were leaving those bloody tracks in the snow, he braved the dangers of Indian and British warfare and carried to the starving army many a load of provisions. His grandfather, Edmund Johnson, was also distinguished for his love of liberty, his powerful strength, and great daring. He was a captain in the Revolutionary War and so agile was he that he could easily leap over a yoke of oxen.

Cynthia Johnson Hewitt (his mother) was left a widow when he was but two years old. The farm was sold and sometime afterward she married George Ardres Downing, a skilled mechanic.

Mr. Hewitt’s early life was spent as were the lives of boys of those early days. He began school at seven, and his extreme bashfulness made it a great event in his life. He attended the village school, taught by a Mr. Brush, and his instruction included a little geography and sums in “Pike’s” arithmetic. At this time most problems were solved in pounds, shillings, and pence, and in this study he became proficient. In the school of his early days, blackboards and globes were unknown. The maps in geography were regarded as useless and the instruction was of the most arbitrary character. Although punishment by force was common, he escaped that disgrace.

His winter days were spent in school. During the summer he helped make quilts or assisted in the general housework. Judged by our standard, the conveniences of his early days were few. There were no shoe or tailor shops, but itinerant shoemakers would spend a day or a week at the various houses supplying the needs of the inhabitants. To him, his first pair of shoes formed a great event in his history (and a real pair of shoes did not come till he was twelve years old) and so careful was he of them that when he came to a dusty place in the road he would take them off and wrap them in his handkerchief.

His mother was a woman of great mental power, and as he was then much in her society, she made a powerful impression on his life. She filled his young heart with stories of Revolutionary days, and while he turned the (spinning) wheel, she inculcated those principles of integrity for which his life has always been distinguished. His mother was a woman of firm religious conviction, and though she lived many miles from the Baptist Church, when Sabbath came she would gather her children together and struggle through the almost impassable woods to the place of worship. The intellectual stimulus which he got from his mother showed itself in his desire for study and improvement. So when his next teacher came, a man by the name of Grosvender, he was a boy active in body and mind. To swim a mile was almost a daily occurrence, and one day he challenged his teacher to a foot race. This was unfortunate, for during the struggle he fell and injured his knee. For months he was confined to his bed, but his energy conquered. He arose finally and determined he would have an education – and for a year he walked two miles to school daily, dragging his useless limb after him. Although it took him two hours to hobble over as many miles, his time in school was well spent. It was a proud moment for him when the teacher gave public testimony to his superiority as a scholar. At this time too, he was a fine penman, and copies from his hand were sought after by the scholars.

When Deacon Munger came from an adjoining district for a teacher, Mr. Grosvender recommended the boy with the best principles, and with the best record as a scholar. He successfully fulfilled the duties of a teacher for several terms, and received $12 a month and ‘board around.’ He had a month of advanced scholars, who were nearly his equal in arithmetic, but they never knew it, for many a fortnight found him by the fireplace pouring over his books by the pitch pine light. The knowledge which he thus obtained was lasting, much of it being as vivid as ever seventy years afterward.

After finishing his school, he went to work in a brickyard and then learned the tanner and currier’s trade of his brother, Edmund J. Hewitt.

In 1825, he married Polina Childs, and then came to his ears stories of the West, an almost unknown land. He resolved to leave the conservative East and face the pioneer struggles of the West. In those needy times he found a strong helpmate in his wife. She had been a school teacher at fourteen, receiving six shillings a week, and for a number of years had charge of a large family of younger children. These struggles had brought out her mental and moral powers. She cheerfully faced many hardships, and when in the solitude of Michigan forests, financial loss, and disease threatened destruction, her spirit rose triumphant and dispelled the fear of failure. Of her, he always loved to speak, and during his last days, when the subject of his early trials was mentioned, and she was referred to as being of undaunted spirit, he said with all the vigor he could use, ‘Yes, to her I owe all that I am.’

The Erie Canal caused a stream of immigration to flow to Michigan and in 1826 he joined the westward pushing emigrants and landed at Detroit when it had a population of but little more than 2000. At this time the people were mainly gathered on Woodward and Jefferson Avenues. The French largely predominated and obtained most of the land in the vicinity of the river. St. Ann’s and a Presbyterian Church were the only ones built. Gristmills were run by oxen and the town had the appearance of a frontier post. He held dear recollections of Larned Cole, A. C. McGraw, Frazer and of Father Richard and the first printing press.

After landing, he obtained an Indian guide and started through the pathless forests to find land upon which to build a house. He finally located at Walled Lake and here underwent all of the privations of pioneer life. For weeks every one of the party was prostrate from fever. There were none to tend the sick, none to provide food, and it was here that he shed the first tears of despair. He crawled from the house, that was filled with the sick and sat down upon a log, almost wished that death would bring them relief, and it was here that Polina Hewitt showed the strength of her character. Half dead herself she encouraged him until the fever abated its fires. Foreseeing that a life here would be intolerable he disposed of what little land he had and returned to Detroit.

Here he went into business, but a good opening presented itself at Ypsilanti, and in 1831, he came to the city that has since been his home. He rented a building on Main St. and soon had a prosperous shoe shop in operation. He, unaided, did the cutting for twenty two men while his wife did all the stitching for the shop besides doing her household duties and boarding twelve men. Such work naturally brought success. He bought farming lands and building lots and soon erected a store on the corner of Congress and Washington Streets. Naturally a man of integrity and business ability would be called upon by his fellows to transact their business and so we find him filling various offices of public trust. He was one of the trustees under the first village ordinance, was town clerk before the village was incorporated, was treasurer in 1839 and president in 1840 and in 1842 was elected to the State Legislature. He was not a public speaker and did not seek political honors. He sought results rather than theory.

He was very active in Masonic works and was the first secretary of the Lodge of Freemasons. His relations with his fellow men were peculiarly happy. During his last hours, he recalled with pleasure that as far as he knew, he had never wronged a person willfully. He was one of the very few who, amid a variety of business transactions, was never the party to a lawsuit.

With regard to his religious views, he was always reserved. He never scoffed. He never condemned. A conversation with him but a few weeks before his death showed that he stood as high on the mountain that gives the glimpse of immortality as is given most of us to stand. Conscious of his own impending death, he was calm and hopeful of the future, no doubts followed to darken his declining moments. He had been a kind father, a tender husband. He had honored his fellow men and had received their esteem. He had nothing to regret, all to hope for, and, as he looked back over the past, he could say in the language of him who sat at his post in the Legislative hall, ‘This is the last of earth. I am content.’ Reverend T. W. MacLean conducted the funeral exercises Tuesday from the late home.”

Founder of Walled Lake and Ypsilanti Pioneer
Although this is a wonderfully written life story, pieces are missing that made me want to find out more about Hewitt and his life and legacy, misfortune and triumph. Several books, including the History of Oakland County by Samuel Durant, published in 1877, and History of Oakland County Michigan..., written by Thaddeus D. Seeley in 1912, credit Walter Hewitt with being the founder of the community of Walled Lake. Though trained as a teacher, tanner, and shoe and boot maker, at the age of 25, in June, 1825, Hewitt built a log cabin in the wilderness surrounding what came to be called Walled Lake, and attempted to establish a farm in the swamps. However, after several years without much success, he moved with his young family to Detroit, where, it seems, he worked as a shoemaker. There his wife presented him with a son, Edmund, who was born November 14, 1829.

Hewitt worked four years in Detroit in the boot and shoe trade. Then, according to his biography in the History of Washtenaw County (published in 1881), he and his young family decided to seek their fortune in the growing village of Ypsilanti, to which they moved in 1831. Traveling from Detroit to Ypsilanti in those days was an adventure in itself. In The History of Ypsilanti, written by Harvey Colburn in 1923, the author gives us a sense of what was involved: “The road was almost impassable to an ox team and it sometimes took three days to make the thirty-mile trip. For years after its opening, the Detroit road ran through seas of mud and over miles of jolting corduroy; no teamster thought of leaving home without an axe and log chain to cut poles to pry his wagon out of the mud. For a time the road was so impassable that travelers had to come from Detroit by way of Plymouth and Dixboro.”

Unfazed by such challenges, however, Walter, his wife Polina, and their young son Edmund completed the trek to Ypsilanti, where Walter again took up the business of tanning and making shoes and boots.

A Political Pioneer and Champion of Law and Order
In the History of Washtenaw County, Michigan we read: “As early as 1829 the township of Ypsilanti was organized, under authority of a Legislative enactment approved Oct. 1, 1829. Three years later the villagers of Ypsilanti assembled within the shop of John Bryan, to carry out the provisions of another Legislative enactment, which provided for the organization of their village. This meeting was held Sept. 3, 1832, and resulted in the return of John Gilbert as Village President; E. M. Skinner, Village Recorder; Ario Pardee, Village Treasurer; and Abel Millington, Mark Norris, Thomas R. Brown, James Vanderbilt, Walter B. Hewitt, Village Trustees.”

The Trustees’ job was to decide what improvements were needed in the village, such as new roads and operating statutes, and then to make sure these were implemented by committees they appointed. After serving as a village Trustee, Hewitt played an expanding and important role in establishing Ypsilanti. He was made town treasurer in 1839 and elected president of Ypsilanti in 1840. In 1842 he was elected to the State Legislature.

Hewitt’s service to the community went far beyond politics, however. In the early 19th century, Ypsilanti, like America’s Wild West, seemed to attract a criminal element, and Hewitt and other law-abiding citizens sought to make their village safe for women, children, and families. The History of Washtenaw County tells us that “During the year 1838 many malcontents paid visits to the settlement, committed many robberies and depredations, and created a panic of no usual character. To remedy such an evil, the citizens assembled at the house of Abiel Hawkins, considered well a proposition to organize a committee of defense, and at a second meeting held at Mr. Hawkins’s house, Dec. 15, 1838, decided to form a society known as The Ypsilanti Vigilance Committee.”

Hewitt was an active member of the Vigilance Committee. In Past and Present of Washtenaw County, written by Samuel W. Beak in 1906, we learn more about the committee’s efforts to restore law and order in Ypsilanti: “The meetings of this society were of the most secret character and their methods of work were carefully guarded. But they showed results, for before the end of the year 1839, one hundred and twelve men had been convicted, $10,000 worth of stolen property had been recovered, and a number of bad characters had been driven out of the community.”

During this decade the Hewitt family grew rapidly. Edmund was born on November 17, 1832, and was followed by a sister, May. On February 23, 1834, Lois joined the family. Charles was born on October 3, 1836, and Walter Jr., the youngest, on September 29, 1839. Still another child died in infancy.

Hewitt supported his family by tanning leather and making shoes and boots. His business was first located on Congress Street (Michigan Avenue), but, according to reports, was destroyed by a major fire in downtown Ypsilanti in 1851. Polina (sometimes spelled Pauline or Paulina) not only helped her husband by sewing shoes all day, but also ran a boarding house with as many as 12 boarders. The boarding house may possibly have been the Hewitt residence at 201 Pearl Street, in the area of present-day Washington and Pearl Streets.

As the family accumulated money, Hewitt was able to purchase a farm in the area that now bears the family name - Hewitt Road. We read in the History of Washtenaw County that “In 1850 he bought a farm near Ypsilanti which has occupied a share of his attention since. He lost about $4,000 in 1851 by a fire consuming his building and stock which were only partially insured.” That same year, during the great fire that destroyed most of downtown Ypsilanti, his business was also burned down. In the city directory for 1873-74, Walter’s occupation is listed as “farmer.”

A Contributor to Culture and Community
Not to be discouraged by his misfortunes, Hewitt continued to work the farm and built an even grander business and store at the northeast corner of Congress and Washington Street. The address is now 126, 128 and 130 West Michigan Avenue. This was a three-story building that housed not only his shoe and boot factory and store, but an auditorium named Hewitt Hall, which provided a venue for local talent and added much vitality to the growing community. This was the place where Ypsilanti’s Frederic Pease staged concerts and operas, and introduced his operetta “Enoch Arden,” and where plays such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin brought the audience to tears. It was the place, too, where Ypsilanti men were recruited for the Civil War and where, at the end of the war, the entire community celebrated with speeches, flag waving, and poetry.

Among the performers who entertained Ypsilanti at Hewitt Hall were Tom Thumb and his wife, and the poet Will Carleton. Frederick Douglas spoke there three times, in 1866, 1867, and 1888. People came from far away to attend various events, and were able to stay overnight down the street at the Hawkins House Hotel. In 1893, after the building of the Ypsilanti Opera House, Hewitt Hall was rented by the Ypsilanti Light Guard. In 1914, it became a roller rink, which was much damaged by a fire that year. By 1937, both Hewitt Hall and the entire third floor of the commercial building were razed, possibly due to deterioration.

Perhaps the exposure to musicians and performers at Hewitt Hall were the basis for the love of music and talent pursued throughout his life by Hewitt’s son, Walter, Jr. The latter became a published composer, a celebrated organist, and a professor of music at the Normal College.

Walter B. Hewitt’s efforts to uplift the community with entertainment and enlightenment at Hewitt Hall were not his only contributions to Ypsilanti culture. Playing an instrumental role, he joined with others in his church congregation in 1856 to build the beautiful First Presbyterian Church on Washington Street. According to Samuel W. Beck, author of Past and Present of Washtenaw County, Michigan, the building committee of which Hewitt was a part was responsible not only for helping to plan the building with the architect George S. Green, but for raising the entire cost of $16,000 and making sure the new building met all specified standards.

By the time the church was built, Hewitt and his family were living just a few blocks away from both the church and his booming store and factory, at 442 North Huron Street. There, the hard-working, good-spirited Polina Childs Hewitt, who was the sixth child of Mark Anthony and Hannah Childs, died on February 1, 1873, at the age of 71. Walter lived on as a widower for 13 years and died in his home in 1886.

Here this narrative comes full circle, back to Walter B. Hewitt’s obituary. Perhaps, as you drive down Hewitt Road, you can now better appreciate how much all of us owe to the brave young men, such as Walter Bernard Hewitt, who, with fortitude, courage and faith, helped not only to build Ypsilanti, but to give it shape as a vital community.

(Janice Anschuetz is a local historian who is a regular contributor to the GLEANINGS.)

Like David Copperfield, Hewitt rose from poverty and misfortune to riches and glory...

[Photo caption from original print edition]: Walter Hewitt & Polinda Childs Hewitt

[Photo caption from original print edition]: A Christmas trading card with the inscription: “Presented by Hewitt & Champion, Fine Boots and Shoes. Ypsilanti, Mich.”

[Photo caption from original print edition]: An Easter trading card: “Presented by Hewitt & Champion, manufacturers and dealers in Boots, Shoes and Rubbers, fine work a spe- cialty, Ypsilanti, Mich. (Patent applied for)”

[Photo caption from original print edition]: The three story building at 126, 128 and 130 West Michigan Avenue (the current address) housed Hewitt’s shoe and boot factory and store, and also an auditorium named Hewitt Hall

[Photo caption from original print edition]: Hewitt played an instrumental role in 1856 in the planning and building of the First Presbyterian Church on Washington Street

[Photo caption from original print edition]: Walter & Polina’s son Edmund with his granddaughter Gladys taken in 1912