Out of mixed fortunes, a lasting legacy for Ypsilanti
Part I: The Gilbert Family
The Gilbert name is familiar to most Ypsilanti residents. Many of us can remember going to the beautiful Gilbert Park on Michigan Ave. at Park Street to enjoy the riverbank, to have a picnic, or to cheer on our children playing in Little League baseball games. We keep these images in mind, even as the park today has been overgrown with grass and trees and put on sale by the city as part of the Water Street parcel.
Other landmarks of the Gilbert presence are readily apparent to those who merely visit Ypsilanti, as well as to its citizens. Cars traveling north from the Huron St. exit of I-94 pass by the imposing and currently expanding Gilbert Residence, a senior residence and nursing home founded by the Gilbert family. Those taking a train through town, or walking through the beautiful historic east side, won’t fail to notice the Gilbert House on North Grove St., the former family home of John Gilbert, Jr. Today a stylish apartment house, the building remains a widely admired architectural showplace. For many male Ypsilanti residents, it is also the source of vibrant childhood memories. Few among them nearing the age of fifty will fail to recall fun-filled hours spent in this spacious structure when it served as a recreation center and later hosted a popular Boys Club.
In light of the renown of the Gilbert name in Ypsilanti, and the legacies by which it is remembered, you may have wondered, as I have, who the Gilberts were and what eventually became of them. I hope you’ll find this account of the Gilbert saga informative, and that it will do justice to the honor the Gilbert family is due for its contributions to the enrichment of our Ypsilanti community.
The rise and fall of Major John Gilbert
The Gilbert family history begins with the life of Major John Gilbert, a resourceful man who devoted his many assets of intelligence, energy, skills and money to improving the lot of his family and community. His efforts, however, produced very mixed results of successes and failures, making his life story at once amazing, exciting, and sad.
John Gilbert was born on March 16, 1774 in the town of Lenox, Massachusetts, near Pittsfield, Massachusetts. His mother was Debiah Sweeting, born in 1745, and his father Captain Job Gilbert. The parents had been married in Norton, Massachusetts in 1769 and raised two sons, John and Thomas.
Job Gilbert was well known for his military service in the Revolutionary War. And in the book “Michigan Pioneers and Historical Society Collections,” published in 1896, we learn that he also played a role in the earlier French and Indian War. The publication’s memorial report credits Captain Job Gilbert for his actions as part of “a small band of provincials which under the command of Washington, covered [General] Braddock in his defeat and led his broken column to a place of safety.” In this battle, which took place near Pittsburgh in 1755, British and British Colonial forces had been routed by a party of French and Indians, and General Braddock had been mortally wounded. The then Colonel George Washington had been forced to take over for Braddock and, with the help of Gilbert and others, lead the British retreat.
Captain Job Gilbert was a man of many talents. He was a surveyor, worked on large engineering projects, and was knowledgeable in the operation of iron ore furnaces and the construction of mills using water power. All of these skills he passed on to his son John, who applied them in major undertakings while still a young man. Those projects and Gilbert’s subsequent business ventures are reported in a well-researched online article written by Ray Berg, entitled “Major John Gilbert–The Founder of Manchester” [viz. Manchester, Mich.] We learn that, at the tender age of 18, John assisted his father in surveying and developing a large tract of land in the Rochester area of New York State. He also studied mill operations and civil engineering under his father. And when the Gilbert family settled in what is now Syracuse, New York in 1799, John helped design and build the Onondaga furnace, which was used in manufacturing equipment for the military.
While living in Syracuse, John Gilbert met Susan Ann Haskins (1784-1873), to whom he was married on May 4, 1803. Susan’s father was Captain William Haskins, a wealthy Revolutionary War veteran who had served in that war with Job Gilbert. The young couple eventually had six children: Lavina b. 1805, Harry Hegerman b. 1807, George Washington b. 1812, Emily Louise b. 1816, John Jr. b. 1820, and Susan Ann, b. 1823. It was in Syracuse that John’s career prospered. Applying his skills as a surveyor, land speculator and civil engineer, he soon accumulated considerable wealth.
John also worked with his brother Thomas at the burgeoning salt works in Salina, New York. And, after distinguishing himself as a cavalry quartermaster in the War of 1812, where he was awarded the commission of Major, he was hired by the governor of New York, along with his father Job, to perform both surveying and construction work on the new Erie Canal in the area of Syracuse, Rochester, and Lockport, New York. It was while bringing this massive project (1818-1823) to a successful completion that John met a man with the unusual name of Orange Risdon. John hired him as a surveyor, and also partnered with him in land-speculation activities that earned both men a considerable amount of money.
We learn more about the Gilbert/Risdon partnership in the online article by Ray Berg. In 1824 the United States Congress passed The General Survey Act of that year. The act mandated that the Army Corps of Engineers not only survey but undertake the improvement of a military road from Detroit to Chicago. For this project, Gilbert was hired as a surveyor and Risdon as the survey director. While discharging their nominal duties in the new territory, the two men also took advantage of their positions to purchase some of the best large tracts. Gilbert himself was able to scope out and file land patents on prime areas for the development of mills and towns. Between May 10, 1826 and October 1, 1835 he filed purchase claims on several of these sites, which included what are now the mill pond and downtown area of Manchester, Michigan.
Gilbert also invested in large holdings of land along the Chicago Road, now Michigan Avenue, including those later developed as downtown Ypsilanti and Pittsfield Township. Other land was purchased in Jackson, Hillsdale and Lenawee Counties. Gilbert was especially interested in land that held the potential for running a mill by water power, or that lay along the soon-to-be-improved road to Chicago. In the year 1830, however, both John Gilbert and Orange Risdon returned to New York State and their families.
Migration to Michigan and business success and failures
Though he was glad to be reunited with his family in New York, Gilbert remained excited about his prospects for land speculation and development in Michigan. Moreover, he, like Risdon, was a Mason, vulnerable in New York at the time to a rising wave of anti-Mason distrust and hostility. John quickly decided, therefore, to gather his large family together and pursue his fortunes for good in the new Michigan Territory. The trip proved a challenge for a family with six children ranging in age from seven to twenty-six, who had been used to living the good life in the settled urban center of Rochester, New York.
The family left New York in the winter, traveling with horses over snow-covered roads and crossing the Detroit River in a birch-bark canoe––the unharnessed horses being brought to Detroit later by ferry-boat. While the trip was difficult enough through snow and ice, one can well imagine how much more difficult it might have been in spring, when the roads would be deeply rutted and the wagon wheels prone to sinking in mud. After arriving in Detroit, the family is said to have stayed on a while at the Woodworth Hotel, before completing its journey and finally arriving in Ypsilanti in January, 1831.
A fellow surveyor of the time, C. E. Woodard, wrote a narrative describing Washtenaw County as it looked when he first saw it in the year 1833, around the time that the Gilbert family made Ypsilanti its permanent home. The narrative mentions the Gilbert farm and the Gilbert Park area:
“It was nearly unbroken wilderness. ‘Lo the poor Indian’ had nearly abandoned his happy hunting grounds in these parts and gone west. Except in the fall of the year when he took up his line of march along his well beaten trail towards Fort Malden, Ontario Canada to receive his annuity and return. He was seldom seen. At the time of the Black Hawk War the few scattered settlers were naturally alarmed at the apparent activity among the Indians. At times hundreds might be seen camped on the banks of the Huron near the East Public Square and on Gilbert farm. [NOTES: “East Public Square” was located on the south side of East Michigan at Park Street. This is where Gilbert planned the town square and where Gilbert Park was originally located. Gilbert Farm was located at West Michigan Avenue and Platt Road.] But I do not remember ever hearing anyone ever being molested by them or even trouble by their begging food for the land. Then it was alive with all kinds of wild game and plenty of meat could be had for the killing of it. They were better off than their white brothers being better hunters….
It was always understood that our most important highways--the Chicago Road and others followed the general lines of these main Indian trails, thus admitting the Indians’ skill in their part in Civil engineering, selecting the best ground on which to locate our Highways. The main trail going through Ypsilanti was more or less used as an Indian trail down to 1834 and their camp grounds plainly marked by the ashes of the camp and the then standing of the Poles of the Wigwams. On the Gilbert farm 4 miles west of town, and which became the big Harwood farm was one of these camps near where Mr. Woodard was then living.”
Not only did John Gilbert have a large farm on the Chicago Road near Ypsilanti, but he immediately started developing his other land investments in both Ypsilanti and Manchester. Like other Masons in the village of Ypsilanti, such as Walter Hewitt and Samuel Post, he quickly became instrumental in the planning of the town and was elected the first village president in 1832. Gilbert served in this position for two terms. By 1833 he joined other investors who pooled their money for a shipping boat that would carry goods between Detroit and Ypsilanti. This venture failed, however, and John’s money was lost.
Despite this setback, and while he was still the first village president of Ypsilanti, Gilbert undertook yet another project in 1833, using his surveying and land-development skills to plat out the village of Manchester on land that he owned. His original plans called for one grist mill and one saw mill, fourteen blocks (some of which he named), one store, one house, one barn, and a bridge--all of which were near the River Raisin. In naming the village Manchester, Gilbert probably had in mind the village of Manchester on the Erie Canal in New York State (itself named after Manchester, England) where he had worked as a civil engineer during the 1820s. In any case, he was soon able to sell his platted land in Manchester at a sizable profit.
John’s next venture was to invest $500 in a million-dollar scheme involving a number of investors to build a railroad line from Detroit to the mouth of the St. Joseph River. Surveys were completed, but the scheme fell through before any construction work on the line was started. In 1837, the state of Michigan purchased the surveyed land, as well as all rights for developing and building the railway. This reversal, however, did nothing to diminish John’s entrepreneurial ardor.
Before the first train on the completed line passed through Ypsilanti in 1838, he and his son John Jr. had developed facilities ready to make money from it. By 1835, Major Gilbert, with his partner and soon-to-be son-in-law, Abel Godard, had purchased and rebuilt a water mill and dam on Water Street at what is now Michigan Avenue. The mill, which was used to produce flour, was first called Harwood’s Flouring Mill, and later Huron Flouring Mill. Next to it was a large supply and feed store, run by John Jr. This operation proved profitable in providing goods and food stuffs for the building of the new rail line.
Harvey C. Colburn’s The Story of Ypsilanti, published in 1923, makes clear, however, that not all of Major Gilbert’s planning and development investments were profitable. Perhaps his biggest failure was his vision of a new luxury hotel that he believed would be welcomed by large numbers of weary travelers passing through Ypsilanti on the new rail line. In 1837, John started construction of a palatial four-story edifice at the corner of River Street and the Chicago Road (now Michigan Ave.). Unfortunately, Colburn tells us in his book, “The main part of this hotel fell in before it was quite completed.” When The Story of Ypsilanti was published in 1923, the kitchen of the hotel was still standing, while the opulent spaces and rooms in what Colburn had parodied as “Gilbert’s Temple of Folly” had long before been reduced to rubble.
A curious side note
Here, I might note as an interesting aside a still unsolved mystery that originated less than a mile from the ill-fated hotel at about the time it was being built. The mystery was discovered by John Gilbert’s oldest son Harry, who had become something of a celebrity in the area. Colburn tells us about it in his book:
“In 1835 Ypsilanti came into possession of a mystery which time has left unsolved. Isaac Kimball and Harry Gilbert were hauling earth from the edge of the bluff not far from the site of the present Beyer Hospital [now a nursing home on South Prospect near Michigan Avenue] for the filling of a lot nearby…. Unexpectedly the spades of the diggers struck a buried timber. Curiosity stimulated their labors. More timbers appeared, and planking. The uncovering and removal of one of these planks revealed a dark hole beneath. Into this, a light being procured, the intrepid explorers descended. They found themselves in a well-built subterranean room, ten feet square and eight feet high. Seeking the proper entrance to this room they discovered a burrow leading southerly for one hundred feet, into the ravine, its opening being effectually screened by bushes…. Further exploration of the hidden room revealed a furnace and half a metal shell containing grease in which a wick was floating. These exhibits being placed before the concourse of villagers resulted in much speculation but no tenable theory. No resident, even of the earliest comers, had known of the cave’s existence, or at least would confess to such knowledge. This being the case, it was reasoned that the cave must be referred to the Godfroy period. Perhaps in the days of the old Indian trading post, a gang of counterfeiters had made the place their rendezvous and burrowed out a workshop in the bluff-side. To be sure, this theory did not explain the need for elaborate secrecy in the wilderness nor did it explain how the cave could have remained hidden from Godfroy’s Indian visitors, who must have often passed that way. So the mystery remains.”
A final fall from riches to rags
In 1835, tax records indicated that Major John Gilbert was one of the wealthiest men in Ypsilanti. His first home had been a wooden structure at the corner of Michigan Avenue and River Street, but by 1835 he had moved his family into a brick home, which still stands at 302 North Grove Street.
Unfortunately, John’s fortune did not last long after this. A final business investment proved so imprudent that, in a single plummet, it brought him down from wealthy and powerful, to penniless. In this dealing, he invested not only all the money he had, but money obtained by mortgaging his extensive property holdings, including the mill. The assets were used to purchase shares in a bank started by his son-in-law Abel Godard, husband of his daughter Emily, and by Godard’s brother, Lewis Godard. This proved to be a major mistake.
In his 1985 book Obsolete Banknotes and Early Scrip of Michigan, Harold L. Bowen identifies Lewis Godard as “king of the bank wreckers.” Gilbert’s money was invested in the Monroe and Ypsilanti Railroad Co., of which Lewis Godard was president. “No road was ever built, but provided Mr. Godard with an ample supply of bills to be used in starting new banks,” writes Bowen. With an ironic twist, he offers as an example Godard’s start-up of the Bank of Coldwater: After having crisp new bills printed and with the signatures scarcely dry, “Lewis Godard walked out of the little one-story bank building into a village of wooden stores, wooden hotels and wooden residences. At the Central Exchange he boarded a westbound stage, for the generous purpose of ‘creating specie’.… As the Cashier truly said, ‘They broke the bank the first night.’”
By 1840 John Gilbert’s mortgages were called in and his dreams for wealth and prosperity were shattered. He lost control of the Huron Mills and most of his land holdings. Earlier, he had deeded a few pieces of land to his son John Jr.
At this point in his life, the handwriting was clearly on the wall for John Gilbert. This once ambitious, resourceful, brave, and skilled man, who did so much to develop what are now the city of Ypsilanti and village of Manchester, retired from business and political life. By 1850, as disclosed in the census of that year, he was living in his home on North Grove along with his wife, his daughter Emily, Emily’s daughter, and several others. There is no mention in the census of Emily’s husband, Abel Godard, who seems to have left Ypsilanti along with the Gilbert fortune.
The poignant letter copied below, written in 1849 by Major Gilbert’s son George Washington Gilbert to his brother John Gilbert Jr., gives us a sense of just how far the Gilbert family had fallen. In it, George pleads with his brother to help him find a job in order to support his parents, his sister Emily, and Emily’s daughter. George himself was married to an Ypsilanti grocer’s daughter, Maria Ann King. Here is his letter:
Ypsilanti, March 10, 1849
We have had a very sudden death in our family. Mr. King died yesterday at 12 o’clock as we were walking up from his store to his house, on arriving at Grants corner he was attacked with a fit of coughing and ruptured a blood vessel. He died in about three minutes, there was none of his family present but myself until after his death, it was a sudden and very unexpected blow to his family, the funeral will be attended at 2 o’clock p.m. tomorrow. (Sunday)
If you have an opportunity to help me to a situation on the Rail Road by applying to Mr. Brooks or Mr. McCurd you will be doing me a great kindness as well as assisting our Father & Mother being out of employment at this time and our Father & Mother looking to us for support & Emily and her daughter for assistance it has used up all of my available means. I have nothing to look to nor means to assist them with unless I can get into some employment such as I have stated. If they should wish to employ any more assistants I should ask for references as to qualifications you may refer them to B. Follett, C. Joslin or any of the business men of this place or Ann Arbor.
Yours Truly, Geo. W. Gilbert”
Reduced to near poverty, Major John Gilbert and his wife Susan were still living in their home on North Grove St. when he died on January 19, 1860, after years of poor health. John’s death came just a year before his heart could be gladdened by the revival of the family fortunes achieved by his namesake son, John Jr. That revival remains embodied in the elegant mansard-roofed mansion and park-like grounds of the Gilbert House, which was completed in 1861 and continues to glorify the east-side neighborhood across the street from Major Gilbert’s modest final residence. Susan Gilbert died thirteen years after John in the home of her son George Washington Gilbert in Detroit, and she and her husband now rest together at Highland Cemetery.
[Janice Anscheutz’s story of the Gilbert Family’s rise from ruin to renewed riches will be told in the next issue of the GLEANINGS, when we take up the life of Major Gilbert’s son, John Jr. Anscheutz is a regular contributor to the Society’s GLEANINGS publication.]
1. Gilbert Mansion (no caption)
2. Mill: The Huron Flouring Mill looking south from Congress Street/Michigan Avenue.
3. 302 North Grove Street
4. The Gilbert Family plot at Highland Cemetery
5. Bird’s eye view: From an 1890 panorama view looking north-east: Congress Street is now Michigan Avenue and that’s Riverside Park in the upper left corner, so this is basically the site of today’s still-waiting-to-be-developed Water Street project. The four-story building on the east bank of the Huron River (#45) was the mill owned by John Gilbert at one time.