Mark Norris is considered by many Ypsilanti historians as the father of Depot Town. If that is so, then his wife Roccena is the mother, and together they are the parents. In this article I hope to tell the story of how they combined to do so much to influence the enterprise, activity and fabric of not only Depot Town but also of River Street. Together, but in their separate ways, they helped to build a sturdy foundation for a successful town in which businesses could thrive and families could prosper. Many of his contemporaries would agree that Mark Norris was an enterprising, energetic man who probably founded more businesses and did more to improve the daily life of Ypsilantians than any other man in Washtenaw County in the mid 1800s. Roccena, his wife, spent tireless hours helping to shape the moral character of the community by encouraging religion, education, literacy, and helping the poor of the community. Mark Norris was one of 14 children born in a town which later became known as Peacham, Vermont, on February 16, 1796. He was educated there and once taught at Lima Seminary. Mark learned the trade of land surveyor and left home to move to Covington, New York, sometime before 1819, where he opened a business running a country store. He also built and ran an ashery where potash and pearlash were made. He was appointed postmaster in 1824. There, Mark’s life changed forever when he fell in love with the spirited Roccena Vail. She had been born in Delaware County, New York, in 1798, the oldest daughter of James and Helena Compton Vail. Education was valued in their household and Roccena was taught to read at an early age by her favorite uncle. She grew up surrounded by the books that she loved, as her father founded the town library. Her teacher also lived with the Vail family. According to Roccena’s granddaughter, Maria Norris, the Vail family lived on the banks of the Delaware River and the young girl rowed a canoe across the river to school. Roccena’s father’s sudden death, when she was only 15 years of age, quickly changed the life of her family. Roccena and her aunt traveled together to the wilderness of Pike, New York, to find land that her widowed mother could afford. Indians still lived in this area and the curious young girl would visit with them in their nearby wigwams. Rocenna’s family soon joined her and her aunt, and a log cabin was built for them to live in. Roccena found a job as a teacher. Her small salary provided much of the support of her family. Food was scarce and Roccena’s heart went out to the starving Indians and poor people in the community. Because she was sometimes paid in peas and new potatoes, her family had enough food and they shared what provisions they had with the less fortunate. Mark and Roccena met at a church in Covington, New York, which was the town she taught in seven miles from her own family home in Moscow, New York. They married in her mother’s log cabin during a fierce two-day snow storm in January, 1820, and moved to their own log cabin. Mark and Roccena invited her mother and the rest of her family to join them three months later, adding two rooms onto their house to accommodate them. Mark’s businesses did well and they were soon able to move from their log cabin to a substantial frame home, which their granddaughter Maria described as a “modest mansion.” The family had grown by then and Mark and Roccena were blessed with two children, Elvira and Lyman Decatur. Mark Norris was a Mason and at that time there was a great deal of anti-Mason sentiment in New York, which seems to be the family’s primary reason for seeking a more tolerant and free environment in a new territory. He first traveled to what is now Ypsilanti, Michigan, in 1827, and we can read about his journey in pages from his diary: July 9, 1827 – Left Buffalo on steamer Marie Antoinette, Captain Whittaker, for Detroit, which was reached July 16, only a seven days’ passage. July 18 – After waiting a day for the stage, I started on foot for the interior. Walked as far as Springwells, when I took a due west course of about six miles. Crossed the Rouge, a sluggish, dark muddy stream, with plenty of rich land on either side, and rich in fever and ague too, I should judge. Traveled about 24 miles. Stopped all night at Andrew’s Tavern on Togus Plains. Ypsilanti, Friday, 28 – Have spent most of the day in viewing the village. Nature and art have combined to make it a place of business. It is situated on the Huron, nine miles below Ann Arbor, and four miles above the landing, where boats of twenty-tons burden arrive from the lake to unload. Land is already valued very high. Saturday 29 – To-day bought two village lots (half an acre) for which I paid $100 and returned again to Ann Arbor. Sunday, 30 – Spent most of this forenoon in searching for a man lost in the woods, and supposed to be dead. Made no discovery. There is no church and no preaching here to-day. It seems to be a place for lounging and gossip. In the afternoon attended a wedding and saw Mr. Higby united in “hymen’s gentle bonds” to Miss Ann Gorham. Monday, July 31 – Went with Dr. W. to Saline. Fine good land but somewhat broken and I believe sickly. Returned by way of Ypsilanti, a fine country of land between the Saline and Huron. Tuesday, Ypsilanti – This day I have been viewing the lands in the vicinity of this village. Concluded to purchase within a short distance of the village. The lands on the Chicago road, now being built from Detroit west, and mostly taken up by speculators, and also on the river. Aug. 5 – Staid in this village last night. This morning took a deed for the farm purchase yesterday and returned to Ann Arbor. Aug. 6 – Left Washtenaw for Detroit. Traveled to the Rouge within six miles of Detroit. Retired to bed very much fatigued, but the mosquitoes would not let me sleep. They attacked on larboard and starboard, and raked me from “stem to stern.” I fought them until my patience, if not my ammunition, was exhausted, when I arose and prepared for flight. Started about 12 o’clock for Detroit. The first three miles met with no incident worth mentioning, after which I was assailed by an army of dogs at every house. Arriving at Detroit I went to the inn, where after receiving a long lecture from the landlord for being out at that time of night, I was permitted to go to bed again, and slept until a late hour the following morning. Men, who are not pioneers are allowed in hotels now minus a landlord’s lecture. Surprisingly, after all he had endured on his first venture to what is now Ypsilanti, Mark returned to Covington, disposed of his business, store, and home and began the return journey with his two young children and wife the next year, 1828. In 1874, son Lyman spoke at Ypsilanti’s Semi-Centennial and told about his family’s trip to Michigan. It was not an easy one either physically or emotionally for the small family. In The Story of Ypsilanti, written by Harvey C. Colburn, published in 1923, Colburn summarizes Lyman’s speech. In their company was a Mrs. Curtis who was on her way to visit a son in Superior Township. The Norrises arrived from Detroit by way of Plymouth and Dixboro. In the city they had secured a horse and a two-wheeled gig. Anson Brown with a one-horse wagon travelled with them, taking the children with him in the wagon while the ladies rode in the gig and Norris walked. The road was all but bottomless and it was after thirty-eight hours that they arrived in Dixboro, having stopped one night at a wayside tavern. In Dixboro they remained over night with a family by the name of Martin, then having parted from Brown, followed the road to Ypsilanti, the children riding in the gig. As they reached the bluff where now is Highland Cemetery, Norris cried “There’s Ypsilanti.” Half a mile distant, they saw a wreath of smoky vapor rising from the bushes and caught a glimpse of the unfinished frame structure which was to be Perry’s Tavern. Mrs. Norris leaned her head against a stump, wearied and lonesome, and burst into tears. Then, Norris being urged to go forward and procure some manner of lodgings, the mother and two little ones slowly followed. Arriving at the bank of the Huron, they found a narrow foot-bridge, newly erected, spanning a clear, swift stream. The opposite bank up which the road climbed was very steep and at its summit stood the tavern then kept by Judge Oliver Whitmore. It seems that the young family soon set about to become positive members of the sparsely settled town. Their first year was spent at the rear of the Ely home, which was situated on the southeast corner of the Chicago Road (now Michigan Avenue) and Washington Street. Their granddaughter Maria Norris described the modest living quarters as consisting of two rooms and a pantry on the ground floor, a store operated by Mr. Arden Ballard in front, and two rooms above. This did not stop Roccena from using one of the rooms as a school for the pioneer children in the vicinity. There was no church at the time, so she assisted in organizing the first Sunday School in a log building on the Chicago Road for people of any denomination. Circuit riders were always welcome guests at her home, which later housed many visiting ministers. By the next year, 1829, Norris built the first frame home on the east side of the river. Some believe that it was in the area of 501 North River Street. The same year, he opened a dry goods store made of logs with huge cracks in the rough wood floor. This was situated east of the Chicago Road Bridge, on the south side of the street. It was not an easy matter to equip his store. He purchased goods from New York which were then shipped to Buffalo on the Hudson River, then through the Erie Canal, where they were transferred to a boat which stopped in Detroit. Word was spread to Norris that the boat with his order was about to land in Detroit, so he had to quickly secure seven, two and four horse teams and urge them through the heavy mud on the road towards Detroit. There was no vessel in Detroit when he arrived, so he rented a row boat, rowed down the river, found the boat with his goods on it, and finally rowed back to Detroit to await its arrival. From there, the wagons were loaded and 31 days from the time that they left New York, his shelves were packed with products for sale. Building and equipping a store and a new home in one year was not enough for Mark. He was appointed postmaster and eventually served two terms under President Andrew Jackson. He knew that the wealth of this new community was to be connected to the water power that it offered, and soon set about harnessing and selling that water power of the river by building substantial dams to replace the primitive ones that resembled beaver dams. Mark rented out the water power from at least one of the dams, and he also imported carding machinery to open a woolen mill to process wool and create cloth. During the next twenty years, he would become a partner in a number of mills on the Huron River including the woolen mill, a saw mill, and several flour mills. Mark was also concerned about the moral climate of his new community. In 1829, he became one of the founding members of the Temperance Society – devoted to eliminating alcohol in this rough pioneer community where drunken men and woman were often involved in brawls and lawless activities. He became a partner in two distinct businesses designed to make Ypsilanti a center of trade and which would allow raw and trade goods to be brought into the town and also shipped out of it. In 1831, he purchased stock and became director of an ambitious railroad line called The Detroit – St. Joseph Railroad Company which was to run between Detroit and Chicago. However, after making little advancement, this company was bought out by the Michigan Central Railroad six years later. In 1833, Mark became involved in another imaginative but failed venture with other citizens in Ypsilanti. He was a shareholder in a large boat designed to navigate the Huron River and bring goods into and out of town. Unfortunately the “Enterprise” as the boat was optimistically named, was soon wrecked and Mark’s investment lost. As testimony to his financial success with his store and mills, around 1833 Mark built a large brick home for Roccena and his children. The family left their frame structure and moved south on River Street to a beautiful, large home on the Huron River, the same river which had contributed to Mark’s wealth as a mill builder and owner. Roccena was able to again enjoy living on a river as she had as a young girl in New York. She quickly made the house into a home, planted gardens, furnished rooms, and began entertaining both local citizens and travelers. The Norris home was referred to as “The Minister’s Hotel” because of the number of clergymen and their families who stayed with them. Her beloved mother moved from New York and lived with the family in their large home. Norris continued to purchase and sell land, especially on the east side of Ypsilanti. Between 1834 and 1852, sometimes working with partners, he accumulated a great amount of land on the east side as additions to the city including what is now the area bounded by River, Prospect, Forest and Cross Streets. Believing that the growing town needed a source of capital to invest in new business ventures, Mark joined with other leading citizens of Ypsilanti to charter the Bank of Ypsilanti in 1836. The bank operated for three years before going bankrupt. Norris has been honored by both friends and historians as paying off all debts even though the amount of money owed far outweighed his income. By 1838, Mark Norris owned and operated the flour mill in Depot Town and helped influence the building of a train station in the area of Cross and River Street, thus founding Depot Town. He built a large brick structure, The Grand Western hotel and tavern, on a triangular piece of ground just west of the Michigan Central train station. The magnificent building opened in 1839 with stores on the ground floor and the hotel above. During this time, Mark’s wife Roccena continued to earn a place in the heart of the community as well. She made sure that her two children were well educated by sending them both out of town to complete their education. (More will be written about Elvira and Lyman in another episode of “The River Street Saga”). When the state of Michigan was investigating a town in which to build a college for teachers, Roccena and Mark donated $1000 to the fund collected by the generous people of Ypsilanti to ensure that the college would be built in Ypsilanti. When the college opened, their daughter, Elviria, was among the first students. In 1838, Roccena helped form a library association in town, as her father had done in New York. She was a founding member and president of the Ladies’ Home Association, which served the needs of the poor and the unfortunate in Ypsilanti, providing to their needs with dignity and generosity. In 1839, Norris was one of the founding members of a secret society called The Vigilance Committee. Its purpose was to try and curb illegal and dangerous activity in the community. The group met on a regular basis in secret locations to try to stop crime and protect the citizens of Ypsilanti. With all of his enterprise and interests, Mark Norris was noted for being an indulgent father and a caring husband. One example, in 1838, occurred when his wife and daughter Elvira returned from a visit back East, they found a new carriage waiting for them at the depot, and when they arrived home were surprised by a beautiful pianoforte in their parlor. He loved what he called his “Old House by the River.” Many of his letters to family, friends, and business associates are tenderly saved and available at both the Bentley Library of the University of Michigan and the Ypsilanti Historical Society archives. In one, he offers advice to a somewhat homesick daughter who has married and moved to New York. In the letter dated November 10, 1841, he writes “Now, Elvira… you (now) live in Alexander, don’t you (?) Well, now, you must not say one word against the town or its inhabitants. Speak well of the town and its inhabitants. If all would try to find some good quality in everyone they meet or see and would, if it became necessary to speak of them at all, speak of those good qualities…how much better it would be.” Both Mark and his wife were involved in the Presbyterian Church in Ypsilanti, which by 1856 was in need of a new facility. Mark Norris took the lead, as a trustee, and not only served on the board to oversee the construction of a beautiful new structure, but the Norris family contributed $1,000, which was a sizable amount of money at the time. Like her husband, Roccena was interested in the world around her. In the sermon given at her funeral, she was described by Reverend Tenall as “…blessed with a wonderful memory. This connected with her wide range of general reading made her one of the most entertaining of friends. She seemed to know something of almost everything – perhaps no subject could be started in conversation concerning which she could not furnish some scrap of literature, and she was always learning, always reading…Her desire for knowledge and her interest in educated persons was unabated to the end of life.” Roccena was an advocate of woman’s rights and a noted reader and writer of letters. Indeed, many of her letters and papers are in the Norris Family Collection at The Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, including correspondence with early feminists such as Caroline Kirkland and Electa Stewart. About the year 1860, The Michigan Central Railroad needed the land that the Norris hotel was built upon to expand. Mark used his skills and imagination to deal with this challenge. He arranged for the bricks from the hotel to be moved across the street from the northwest corner of Cross and River Street to the northeast corner. There he constructed the magnificent and imposing Norris Block which opened in 1861. It was bought by O.E. Thompson in 1869, who painted his family name across it and has since been known as “The Thompson Block.” Few remember now that for the first eight years, this imposing three-story structure was called “The Norris Block.” Mark Norris had time to prepare for his death at the age of 66 in 1862. Because of his father’s failing health, Lyman moved back to Ypsilanti in about 1854 and along with Mark’s son-in-law, Benjamin Follett, took over the business enterprises with which his energetic father was involved. Mark Norris died at his beautiful home on River Street, a block from Depot Town, in an area that he not only lived in, but founded. He left behind a grieving family with two married children and nine grandchildren of which more will be written about in the next article in “The River Street Saga.” Eight of his fourteen siblings were still alive when he died. His wife, Roccena, continued to live in her beautiful home, very actively involved with her family, church, and community to the very end of her life. She was surrounded by her entire family when she died at the age of 79 in 1876. Both now rest together in eternal peace on River Street at Highland Cemetery, sharing the same view that they first had upon arriving in Ypsilanti as a young couple. (Janice Anschuetz is a long time member of the Ypsilanti Historical Society and a regular contributor to the Gleanings.)
Photo Captions: Photo 1: The Norris home that was built on River Street near the Huron River in c1833.
(Author’s note: I fell in love with River Street on my first trip to Ypsilanti as a 21 year old in 1964 when we visited the area to find a place to live. My husband had just signed a contract to teach English at Eastern Michigan University and we were living near Wayne State University in the inner city of Detroit. We drove down Michigan Avenue, and when we realized we were in the town of Ypsilanti, by chance, we turned right onto River Street, and that was the moment when we knew that River Street was where we wanted to live. We passed beautiful Victorian mansions, smaller Greek revival homes, 1920’s bungalows and small cottages. We glanced at Depot Town, saw the train station (where trains still stopped several times a day), passed the Hutchinson House high on a hill, drove by the Swaine house on the corner of Forest Avenue, and marveled at the vegetable and flower gardens. We saw a chicken or two and even a goat in the large yards as we approached Highland Cemetery. We gazed at the hills, the vistas, and the woods that surrounded us. We had seen enough. Turning the car around in search of a real estate office, we met a realtor and told her that we wanted to live on River Street. “No you don’t honey,” she drawled. “You can’t.” We assumed that she was telling us that homes on that amazing street were out of our very limited budget. We followed her car down River Street again and turned right on Clark Road and within two hours we had signed a purchase agreement on an FHA repossessed house with a large park behind its backyard with woods beyond. However, River Street was still calling to us. Five years later when we bought the beautiful, but needy, Swaine House at the corner of East Forest and North River, I finally understood the realtor’s statement. The reason she said that we couldn’t buy a home on River Street was because the area was redlined and it was nearly impossible to either get a mortgage or insurance for a home on River Street. The zoning made it a haven for slum landlords buying on land contract. As the saying goes, “where there is a will there is a way.” With four children under the age of five and another on the way, we followed our hearts to live happily ever after (most of the time) in our River Street home. I think that I needed River Street and perhaps River Street needed me. I used what I had learned from my Master’s Degree in Social Work in Community Organization from the University of Michigan, and joined with other long-term residents and new neighbors who were also in love with our area. We worked together to change the zoning, clean up blight, fight the slum landlords and drug dealers, restore our homes, and place our beautiful neighborhood on the local, state and national historic registries. More importantly, we all helped to make this part of our city a desirable place to live. River Street and the ghosts of River Street still call me. I have researched and written articles for the Gleanings about many River Street residents such as the Peck family, the George and Swaine families, the Hutchinson family, and even Walter Briggs, who was born on River Street. In this series, which I will call The River Street Saga, I am researching and writing about even more people who have made their homes on River Street. It should be noted that there are many more community leaders whom I have written about who rest for eternity at beautiful Highland Cemetery on River Street. These include Frederick Pease, Walter Hewitt, Samuel Post, and their families. I hope that you will enjoy reading The River Street Saga as much as I have enjoyed researching and writing it. River Street and the people that have lived there are calling me to tell their story.)