Our story of the Gilbert family – of fortunes won and fortunes lost – of dreams that turned to nightmares – continues after the death of Major John Gilbert, who died at the age of 86 years on January 19, 1860 at his modest brick home at 301 North Grove Street.
As the tale was told in Part I of The Gilbert Family Saga, published in the spring, 2013 issue of The Gleanings, Major John Gilbert, for all of his hard work, determination and skills, lost his fortune in a bank fraud, and was being supported by his two sons, George and John Jr. from the mid 1840s until his death in 1860.
This is the story of his son, John Gilbert, Jr., and how he regained the family’s wealth and status. It also relates to the legacy his family left to the city of Ypsilanti. John Jacob Gilbert Jr. was born in Manlius, Onondaga County, New York on January 6, 1820. As a young lad of 11 years old he traveled with his family to Ypsilanti, Michigan from New York State. Though not college educated, John was able to glean many skills from his father, which included expertise in mill building and operations, buying and selling grain and grain products, town planning and development, train operations, and manufacturing of metal products.
By the time he was eighteen years old, John was manager of a store next to his father’s flour mill on the Huron River at the Chicago Road (now Michigan Ave.) and Water Street, which provided not only various goods to citizens living nearby, but supplies to those building the new Detroit to Chicago line of the railroad. By 1840, due to poor investing, this once wealthy family lost the mill and the majority of their land and business holdings, and John, Jr. and his brother supported their parents, their sister Emily, and Emily’s daughter.
We know that John enlisted in the Ypsilanti Guards of the 6th Regiment of the Militia of Michigan and in May, 1844 was elected Captain, and received his commission from Governor John S. Barry. He left Ypsilanti in 1846 and moved to Detroit. In a memorial report of the “Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society Collections,” published in 1896, we learn that like his father, John Jr. became a Mason, and in January, 1851 was one of the founding members of Detroit Commandery [sic] No. 1.
We also know that in 1851 he was employed as a conductor for the railroad that went through Ypsilanti from Detroit. In his obituary, it is written that John saw the first train pass over the line from Detroit to Ypsilanti. He was conductor on the train in 1851 when some of the unscrupulous officials who built that line were carried back to Detroit for trial. At that time, John Jr. was employed on the section that ran from Detroit to Jackson.
The year 1857 was an important one for John. His leadership ability was recognized by fellow Masons when he was elected in Detroit as the First Grand Commander of the Grand Commandery [sic] of the State of Michigan. It was also the year that John moved to Chicago and with James Bailey as his partner, started a commission business called John Gilbert and Company. The business was involved in buying and selling grains and most likely John’s earlier experience, both working at the mill his father owned and selling flour and supplies, provided him with the education he needed to succeed.
Another milestone in the year 1857 is that John came back to Ypsilanti in order to marry Harriet Amelia Heartt on November 11, 1857. The service was conducted in St. Luke’s Episcopal Church by Reverend John A. Wilson. In her obituary, we learn that Harriet was born in Troy, New York on May 26, 1830. Her parents were William and Elvya W. Dunn Heartt. When she was 15 years old, her father, who had been a riverboat captain on the Hudson River, brought his family to Ypsilanti. They lived on a farm a short distance from the city. John brought his young bride to Chicago and they remained there for three years. We can assume that this business was successful because by 1860, John and Harriet returned to Ypsilanti and a year later moved into the elegant and stylish 13-room mansion they had built at 227 North Grove Road.
On September 3, 1859 Harriet gave birth to a baby boy who died the same day. On December 2, 1860 a daughter, Alice Haskins, was born in Ypsilanti. On May 30, 1863, another son, John Thomas, was born followed by his brother William Heartt born May 17, 1865. Finally, two daughters followed: Harriet Eliza, born February 25, 1867 and Margaret Edmunds, born January 15, 1870. The beautiful oil painting of their five children, which was once proudly displayed in the happy home, now hangs in the Gilbert Residence on South Huron Street, found abandoned in what was once the Swift family barn on the property in 1963.
The young family prospered in their elegant home, which was noted for its flowered mansard roof, the first of this style of short, steep roofline in Ypsilanti. We can imagine the grandeur of the home by the descriptions provided in Colburns “The Story of Ypsilanti” added to by Ilyne Sari, who lived across the street and as a child often played there. There were five chimneys in the house, which was surrounded by four porches covered by flowering vines. The slate roof was patterned with a flower motif. After entering the mansion through heavy front doors there was a mosaic patterned tile floor in a broad hall with a curving staircase. Most rooms had a fireplace, oak floors and decorative plaster.
The grounds themselves were fabulous - more like a park than the lawn of a family home. The large seven-acre lot, surrounded by High, Grove and Park Streets was deeded to John by his father, Major John Gilbert, before the family’s financial collapse. In a newspaper article from the Ypsilanti Daily Press, August 10, 1961, some of the features of the landscaping were described. There was an ample playground with a teeter-totter and swings, enjoyed not only by the five Gilbert children, but other children who were welcome to play there. Flowers, especially roses and lilies, were planted everywhere, and flowering vines cooled the ample porches. In the winter, spring and fall, flowers were always in bloom in the greenhouse, which was built onto the building, and Mrs. Gilbert was generous in providing these for church displays, weddings, funerals and other events.
As daughter Margaret got older, she taught painting to neighborhood children under the towering pine trees on the property either on Saturdays or during her summers off from teaching art in the city schools. The article goes on to describe the hospitality of the family in welcoming others into their beautiful home. “Mr. Gilbert always made a big thing of the Fourth of July and took all the children of the neighborhood to the top of the tower at the rear of the house to watch fireworks ‘uptown’ at night. Evenings as a rule found the children of the area playing Hide and Seek. In the wintertime the place was still the center of attraction with an artificial lake providing safe skating. The lake had its beginning when the Michigan Central Railroad track was built. Soil was scooped out in quantity and the hole eventually became a small lake fed by streams, which also provided water for a swimming pool nearer the house. A splashing fountain south of the residence provided an attractive water feature of those days.”
Another water feature was a clear pool near the back door of the home, which was spring fed and provided delicious cool drinking water for the family and visitors. Major John Gilbert not only brought his family from New York State but brought with him four pear trees which his son used to begin a little orchard near a vineyard and vegetable garden on the property. Small boats were available for fun in the little lake, and a stable on the property provided further diversion to children visiting the home.
Mrs. Gilbert was considered a generous and kind woman and was one of the founders of The Home Association, which provided for the needs of the poor in Ypsilanti. Colburn tells us more about the purpose of this charity, which was founded in 1857 to help only three families. By 1907 the numbers of those assisted had risen to an average of 81 each year. “A wife and child abandoned and helpless…within a day were discovered, clothed, comforted and provided with railway tickets to the distant home of a relative. Necessary surgical operations were provided for the poor. Modest pensions were given some aged and suffering people.” Before the city was persuaded to provide wood for the poor, stacks of it would be piled in members’ yards to be distributed as needed.
Harriet was also an active member of St. Luke’s parish and their charity work. In the Ypsilanti Commercial newspaper of June 22, 1878, we get a glimpse of the hospitality of the Gilbert home in an article that stated: “An immensely pleasant festival and lawn party was given by the “Ladies Aid Society” of St. Luke’s Church at the residence of Mrs. John Gilbert on Friday evening of last week. The spacious and elegant grounds were enjoyed by all present and as an additional attraction several boats plowed the waters of the beautiful artificial lake. In a financial way, the social was also a success, a gain of about thirty dollars being the result.”
It is said that passengers on the train of which John Gilbert, Jr. was conductor would gasp with awe while passing his beautiful home and ask him what that wonderful building was, and he would say, in jest, that it was the Gilbert Insane Asylum. It seems strange to think that the builder and owner of this magnificent mansion merely worked for the railroad, but he had other sources of income as well. Once, when asked by a census taker, what his occupation was, he stated that he was a Capitalist.
In Colburn’s book, John Gilbert Jr. is credited as “contributing much to the development of the East Side. He built stores on the north side of East Cross Street and the factory building on Grove Street, later owned by the National Foundry Company, and was interested in many early industries. His home on Grove Street was long one of the city’s beauty spots. Mrs. Gilbert, his wife, is well known in The Story of Ypsilanti as President, for years, of The Home Association. The Gilbert Home is the fine old mansion at the corner of Grove and High Streets, with its extensive gardens covering the block and surrounded by a high wall.”
In the City Directory of 1873-1873 John’s profession is given as a manufacturer of milk and cheese safes, probably produced in his factory on Grove Street. These were metal containers which could be cooled with ice or placed in a well or spring that would keep these dairy items fresh, the precursor to the ice box.
It is possible that he also planned to manufacture one of his inventions – a self-locking coffin, which he had patented in 1876. In his patent application, he provides us with this description: “My invention has for its object to so construct a metallic coffin that when a corpse is placed therin [sic] and the lid is closed down, the coffin cannot be again opened…it consists in providing the coffin lid with internal self-acting fastening – hooks, which will lock the lid to the coffin when placed in position.” At that time, The University of Michigan and other medical schools provided a “cottage industry” of sorts for unscrupulous people who would search various cemeteries for fresh graves from which bodies would be dug up and supplied, at a good price, for students to dissect and study. They were called “resurrections.” It was not uncommon for families of the newly buried to camp out at the cemetery and guard the grave for several weeks until it was certain that enough decomposition had taken place in the corpse to make the body worthless to medical schools.
Not only was this imaginative and energetic man involved in making money, but he was active in local and state affairs as well. We read in his obituary that he was a “staunch Democrat and in 1863 was elected supervisor of his district, continuing to serve until 1868. In 1865 he became a member of the executive committee of the Michigan State Agricultural Society and remained on the board for 12 years, acting as chairman of the business committee for a large portion of the time.”
After a long life filled with challenges met, John Gilbert Jr. had become a rich man in his own right. He died in his beautiful home on September 14, 1894. We learn more about his last few years in his obituary: “By an unfortunate accident Mr. Gilbert lost an eye, after having had a successful operation upon it for cataract, and it not only deprived him of his sight, but wrecked his nervous system almost completely, so that for over two years his life had been one of suffering. He had lately been looking forward to a more successful result of an operation upon his remaining eye and was even daring to anticipate meeting some of his old friends at the coming State Fair. But it was not to be, and a short but severe illness proved too much for his weakened system and he passed peacefully away from the sorrow and suffering of this life to the joys of the better land.” Copying the closing words of his father’s obituary we may say of him:
”Mr. Gilbert has gone down to the grave leaving to his children the heritage of a stainless name.” John Gilbert, Jr. joined his father and his beloved son, John Thomas, to lie in rest at nearby Highland Cemetery in the family plot in Block 45.
Even though John and his wife, Harriet Amelia Heartt Gilbert, had six children, only two outlived their mother, who died at her home on October 6, 1910. Their infant son died on the day of his birth in 1859. Sadly, while the oil painting of the five Gilbert children was being painted, John Thomas, who was only 7 years old, died in 1870. In 1888, their daughter, Harriet Elvya, died at the age of 21. Daughter, Margaret Edmunds, who had worked as an art teacher in Ypsilanti, married lawyer Charles Taylor of Chester, Pennsylvania, and died on September 8, 1905 in childbirth with twins. Her body was brought back to Ypsilanti from Pennsylvania to be buried in the family plot at Highland Cemetery, and the twin babies came to live with their grandmother and Aunt Alice in the Gilbert family mansion. Love and tender care could not save them and they died before they were 11 months old and were buried with their mother.
The remaining children, William Heartt Gilbert and Alice Gilbert, lasted long after their mother’s death, and were alive when the City of Ypsilanti honored their family with the naming of Gilbert Park This small plot of land, which was at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Park Street, was actually one of two Gilbert Park’s in the city. Another park, which stood between Huron and Washington Streets, was a gift of land to the city made by Kate Gilbert in her will. She is no relation to the John Gilbert family and was a teacher in Ypsilanti. Her husband died from wounds suffered in the Civil War and Mrs. Gilbert bestowed this land to the city. It had ceased being a park shortly before 1923.
Most likely Gilbert Park was formed sometime after the park system of Ypsilanti began in 1892. In the early development of Ypsilanti, in the 1830s, this land was undeveloped because it was what we would call wetlands today – marshy and muddy. It had also been part of a large Indian campground where tribes would stop on their sojourn to Canada each year to camp on the river bank. This is described in the previous article on the Gilbert family. During the Civil War, it was used as a town green where new recruits would learn to march in formation and was considered part of the city commons. It had also been used as a market square and wood lot.
Gilbert Park was a pleasant few acres and served as the staging point for the 100th birthday of Ypsilanti which was celebrated in 1923. There was a traditional bandstand, drinking fountain, and play areas for children as well as picnic tables and benches, trees and shade. In 1961 the original 2.3 acre park land was traded by the city for a similar sized lot on the river by a developer who built a small shopping center. The new facility was also developed as a park with ball fields, a children’s playground, picnic tables and benches.
William Heartt Gilbert, the surviving son of John Jr. and Harriet, married Mary Winsor Silver on November 8, 1905 in Church of the Covenant, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and they moved to Battle Creek, Michigan where he was employed by the Michigan Trust Company. He was also a realtor and it seems was able to accumulate his own wealth. They had no children. He died in 1933 and his wife died a short time latter.
Alice lived in the Gilbert mansion until 1920 when she sold it and moved to a large home at 314 West Forest. Daniel Smith, who made the heaters which were installed in Detroit street cars, purchased the property and had the swimming pool cemented over. By that time, the small lake and pool on the property had been destroyed by a city water project which redirected the springs that had supplied water for them. The City of Ypsilanti came into possession of the home and grounds for non-payment of taxes during the Great Depression, after Mr. Smith’s death. It was first used as a community center, then a canteen during World War II, and in1961 became home to the Boys Club. When a new building for the Boys Club was built on the spacious property in 1974, it became briefly a Girls Club, until the girls joined the boys in the newer structure. By 1982, the once beautiful home had become quite dilapidated and city voters were given the opportunity to decide its fate. The building was eventually sold for $1 and has now been restored to much of its former glory, and people are again living in its luxury apartments.
Alice continued in the activities which she had been involved in with her mother, most of them devoted to the benefit of the needy. She died on December 16, 1946, just past her 86th birthday. In a scrap of paper found in the archives, there is a typewritten few sentences which must have been delivered to an audience of some sort. It states: “It is with real sorrow that I note the passing of Miss Alice Haskins Gilbert, a very estimable and kindly lady. The Gilbert family has been prominent in Ypsilanti affairs for over a century and she was a worthy member of that family. She was a veritable well of information on early Ypsilanti. I understand that her last act was to feed her friends, the birds, in her doorway.”
Her obituary tells us more about Alice’s life of service. Like her mother, Harriet, before her, she was active in the Ypsilanti Home Association which provided assistance to the poor of Ypsilanti in terms of food, clothing, housing, heating fuel, and medical care. Help was given in a way that retained the dignity of the recipient. Both Alice and her mother were particularly concerned about the many needs of the elderly in Ypsilanti, many of them having to live in poverty without a source of income.
She was very active in the activities of St. Luke’s Church and its auxiliary Guild. Her published obituary from an Ypsilanti newspaper stated, “she herself carried on when all her family passed away and her liberality and kindliness were notable. For years she entertained the Home Association at its first fall meeting, and was devoted to St. Luke’s Church and its Auxiliary Guild. Her kindness and liberality often helped young people.”
Not only was Alice concerned about the less fortunate in Ypsilanti during her life, but in her death too, and her good deeds continue to aid others and are evident today – nearly 70 years after her death. In a newspaper article of December 28, 1946, the will of Miss Gilbert is published. The report reads: “Known in Ypsilanti for kindness and generosity during her long life, it appears the late Miss Gilbert chartered a similar course after her death.” In her will, nearly 70 persons and organizations were listed as dividing her personal estate, which is estimated at $250,000… “Benefiting most from the bequests were the Gilbert Old Peoples Home, Beyer Memorial Hospital and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. A $500,000 trust fund for the establishment of a home for the aged in Ypsilanti was set aside by the will of William H. Gilbert, brother, who died in 1933. The fund was to be available upon the death of Miss Gilbert, last remaining sister. Miss Gilbert augmented this fund by leaving one half of her estate’s financial residue…and the balance of her personal property after all other provisions in the document have been met…to the Gilbert Home.”
It was the wish of Alice and William that this fund – an enormous amount of money to have survived the Great Depression - would be a way to honor their family and especially the work of their kind and devoted mother, Harriett, and continue the unending crusade to aid the poor and elderly in Ypsilanti. In a paper entitled “History of the Gilbert Residence”, we read “Mr. William Gilbert wished to honor his mother who had been active in the Ypsilanti Home Association.” In his will, he pledged half of his estate to fund and start a home for impoverished men and women unable to maintain themselves. During the 1930’s through the 1950’s, the group functioned as a foundation, using proceeds from investments as direct support for local seniors. Initially, in accordance with Mr. Gilbert’s will, the group was called the Gilbert Old Peoples Home of Ypsilanti. The mission was “to found, endow, and maintain a home for the care and support of such aged and impoverished men and women as may be unable to maintain themselves.” In an undated newspaper article, probably from the late 1950s, we read that the trust fund had increased past the quarter million dollar mark while still serving the poor. “Through valuable aid of the Ministerial Association of Ypsilanti, trustees of the Gilbert fund have been able to bring relief to highly deserving senior residents of the community. Recommendations are made after careful investigation and financial aid that would not otherwise have been available has lightened closing years for some who are no longer living as well as for those who are still active but in need of help.”
In the late 1950’s, the board of trustees of the Gilbert Old Peoples Home of Ypsilanti made the decision to purchase the beautiful Swift Home at 203 South Huron Street from the elderly owner, Miss Harriet Swift, who would be able to continue to live in the large home. It was turned into an “old people’s home.” The first residents were required to be able to walk and served as a retirement community, rather than a nursing facility, but as people living there grew older and had health issues to deal with, the board of trustees determined that a more suitable one-story building was needed.
In 1959, the Swift home was demolished, and a new Gilbert Residence was built in its place. In 1972, part of this new structure was converted to a nursing home facility to meet the needs of the residents and today expansion is under way to enlarge and expand the care for the residents of Ypsilanti.
The Gilbert Family, who came to the wilderness of Ypsilanti in the cold and bleak winter of 1831, was not only instrumental in helping to build a town, but their legacy is still working today through the Gilbert Residence in providing an exceptional quality of life to the old and infirm of the area.
(Janice Anscheutz is a long-time member of the Ypsilanti Historical Society and a regular contributor to the Gleanings.)
3. The Gilbert children, painted about 1870. The painting was found in a barn on the Swift property. Back row - left to right: John Thomas (1863-70) and Alice Haskins (1860-1946). Front row – left to right: Harriet (1867-1888), Margaret (1870-1904) and William Heartt (1865-1933).
6. The Swift house, from about 1930, was purchased with funds from the estates of William and Alice Gilbert and was torn down when the current Gilbert Residence was built on the lot. The Swift house was surrounded by gardens and trees and the original owner became one of the first residents of the then-called Gilbert Old Peoples’ Home.