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The River Street Saga Continues: The Story of Edwin and Alice Follett Uhl

The River Street Saga Continues: The Story of Edwin and Alice Follett Uhl image The River Street Saga Continues: The Story of Edwin and Alice Follett Uhl image The River Street Saga Continues: The Story of Edwin and Alice Follett Uhl image The River Street Saga Continues: The Story of Edwin and Alice Follett Uhl image The River Street Saga Continues: The Story of Edwin and Alice Follett Uhl image
Janice Anschuetz
Rights Held By
Ypsilanti Historical Society
OCR Text

In other installments of “The River Street Saga” published in the Gleanings, we have grown to know and love former residents of these few blocks in Ypsilanti – most of them are now resting in peace at Highland Cemetery on River Street. Men and women such as Walter Briggs, Mark and Roccena Norris, and Benjamin and Elvira Norris Follett lived rich lives and left their mark on Ypsilanti. This segment will tell of two such people, Edwin and Alice Follett Uhl, and their amazing achievements in life. In the Spring 2014 issue of the Gleanings, we learned a little about Alice Follett, a wealthy and well educated child of Benjamin and Elvira Norris Follett, who was born and grew up in a beautiful mansion on River Street between Oak and Maple. Her childhood was filled with fun, family, friends, travel and pets. Her parents made sure that she was able to have a musical education as well as an academic one, and she became an accomplished pianist. Alice was born in 1844 and was the oldest of seven children born to Benjamin and Elvira Follett, who had a total of five boys and two girls. A letter which she wrote to her grandmother, Roccena Vail Norris, when she was only 15 years old gives us a glimpse into her life and her vibrant personality. The letter also helps us picture what life in Ypsilanti was like for a wealthy Victorian girl in the mid 19th century. Ypsilanti, June 28, 1859 - Tuesday Evening My dear Grandma, Since you went away I have been to Detroit. Mother, Auntie and I went in Saturday morning and came out Monday evening. Mrs. Halmer Camerons invited us down to her house to a kind of picnic, only she furnished the provisions. About two hundred went down and she chartered a boat on purpose for us all to go down on, and we had a delightful time, but the fatigue and excitement was too much for Mother and gave her a very hard old fashioned sick headache, so she could not come out on Saturday night but staid over Sunday with Mrs. Howard. We enjoyed our visit with her very much for on Sunday Mother’s headache was all gone… Your girls [servants] were going home on Saturday to stay over Sunday, but they got left in the morning. [Roccena didn’t know this because she herself was visiting friends and not at her lovely home on River Street.] They felt very badly indeed and Flora cried herself almost sick about it. So in the forenoon Grandpa [Mark Norris] let them have your large carriage and they went off visiting… We are going to have a grand time here [in Ypsilanti] on the 4th. Uncle John is to deliver the oration, so of course it will be good. The children of the little Sunday School, just above us in the school house, are to have a picnic tomorrow in our grove. [On River Street between Oak and Maple.] There are about one hundred of them so they will make quite a little gathering in the grove. Tomorrow there is no school and it will be a good day for all as I shall be at home. It is commencement tomorrow in Ann Arbor and a good many of the scholars will go up, I presume… The letter goes on to describe how lonesome Mark Norris is without his wife Roccena and also describes the death and funeral of a graduate of the Normal (now Eastern Michigan University). Alice seemed to have loved her grandmother Roccena very much and when, a few years later in March, 1862, her grandfather, Mark Norris, died after a long and painful illness, Alice and her grandmother decided to go away for the summer. They traveled together to the seashore near Portland, Maine. In the book Pioneer Collections: Report of the Pioneer Society of the State of Michigan Volume 2 we learn that this area was chosen because Mrs. Norris had a friend there. The little vacation soon turned into a trying, difficult, and painful time for Mrs. Norris. We read “Unfortunately, soon after their arrival at the Ocean House, Cape Elizabeth, she slipped and fell upon the rocks, breaking her arm badly, and injuring herself seriously in other ways. Then followed a weary time of helplessness, always the chief trial of such misfortunes to her. But she had the best and kindest care, and when her son came she was surely, if slowly, recovering. No doubt the beauty and quiet of the place, with complete change of scene and association, assisted by wonderful constitution, hastened what was at best a slow process, and the fresh breezes from the Atlantic, whose broad-refreshment none loved better than she, were a great benefit to the poor, bruised body, as well as to weary soul and brain.” Alice and her grandmother were able to return to their River Street homes in October. The next few years were filled with sorrow for Alice and her family. In 1863, her six-year-old brother, Mark Norris Follett, died suddenly of diphtheria, and the day after Christmas in 1864, her beloved father, Benjamin Follett, also went to rest at Highland Cemetery on River Street. Her only sister, Lucy, died at 18 years old, in 1865. That same year, the beautiful, intelligent, lively, and petite Alice married a local man, Edwin Uhl, who was three years older than she was. Edwin F. Uhl was born in Rush, New York on August 14, 1841. At only three years of age, he traveled to Ypsilanti with his parents, David M. and Catherine De Garmo Uhl, to their new farm on the “plains” of Ypsilanti, which was east of the town. We gather that his father was a successful cattle farmer from the undated snippet of a newspaper article found in the Ypsilanti Historical Museum archives: “Several of our farmers raise blooded stock. D. M. Uhl on the plains does so on the largest scale. His stock is the pride of our local and state fairs and sells at fabulous prices.” Edwin showed academic talent and instead of following his father’s lead in becoming a successful farmer, from the ages of 13 to 17 he attended the Ypsilanti Union Seminary. His teachers and classmates did not consider him brilliant, but rather a dedicated scholar who had a gift for public speaking. In 1858 he entered the University of Michigan in “the classical course”, graduating with honors in 1862. He immediately entered the law firm of Alice’s Uncle Lyman, which was called Norris and Ninde. The office was housed in the Follett Block on Cross Street which was owned by Alice’s parents. In January, 1864 Edwin was admitted to the bar of Michigan, before the Supreme Court of the state. On May 1, 1865, Edwin and Alice were married and began what must be considered a full and enriching life together filled with personal successes, public service, and economic gain. Edwin was made a partner in Alice’s uncle’s law firm in 1866. Like his father-in-law before him, Edwin was active in the politics of the community and was elected prosecuting attorney of Washtenaw County in 1870. Shortly thereafter, in 1871, Alice’s uncle, Lyman Norris, moved his law firm to Grand Rapids, Michigan and her husband formed a law partnership in Ypsilanti with another local boy, named Albert Crane, who had been his classmate at the Seminary. Edwin did not run for reelection in 1873. This partnership continued until 1876 when Edwin and Alice moved to Grand Rapids where he again went into practice with Lyman Norris. They practiced law together for the next eleven years and gained the reputation of being one of the best known and highly esteemed law firms in western Michigan with a very large clientage. Alice and Edwin were soon living the life of a well respected, wealthy, and prominent family in Grand Rapids. The photograph of their mansion is evidence of this. Their union was soon blessed with four children: Lucy Follett, David Edwin, Alice Edwina and Marshall Mortimer. While her mother Elvira was alive, Alice would gather the children and spend summers on River Street in Ypsilanti in her childhood home. Her grandmother lived a few blocks away also on River Street. Alice was able to visit with friends and family while visiting Ypsilanti. As her life work reflects, Alice was not only close to these women emotionally, but in their beliefs of service to the community, the importance of libraries, and the fight for women to be able to vote in elections. Edwin, in the meantime, not only continued as a lawyer for 37 years, but, like Alice’s father, was prominent in political affairs and public service. As Alice’s father was elected mayor of Ypsilanti, Edwin was twice elected mayor of Grand Rapids by a large majority. In 1894 he ran for a seat in the United States Senate, but lost the election. And also, like Alice’s father, Benjamin Follett, he served as the president of a bank: the Grand Rapids National Bank, which was one of the largest financial institutions in the state of Michigan. Alice was also very active in the growing city of Grand Rapids, and the impressive St. Cecelia Society Concert Hall, which survives today, is a tribute to her musical talents, interests and, like her mother and grandmother before her, belief in enriching the community she lived in. In the Grand Rapids History and Special Collections Archives of the Grand Rapids Public Library we learn more about this: “Alice Follett Uhl was one of nine Grand Rapids women, talented musicians all, who in 1883 founded the St. Cecilia Music Society, an organization dedicated to promoting the study, performance, and appreciation of music throughout the community. Grand Rapids was growing rapidly in the last decades of the 19th century, and the members of St. Cecilia believed that a proper concert hall was an essential addition to the community’s cultural life. During her years as president of St. Cecilia, from 1888-1894, Alice Uhl played a major role in marshaling the support and raising the funds that would enable the society to build a ‘simple and dignified temple of music,’ complete with a 670 seat recital hall. When it was opened in June 1894, the building was the only such facility in the United States owned and operated exclusively by women. Since then, many of the world’s finest musical artists have performed in the hall, and the building itself has become a community center for performances, lectures, and meetings. In April 1899, the hall was the site of the annual convention of the National Women’s Suffrage Association.” Alice was not satisfied with merely helping to raise funds and build the musical facility. She worked hard to create the National Federation of Women’s Music Clubs, which was the first successful effort to unite musical societies throughout the nation and became its first president. This energetic woman was also active in many national and local organizations. Among them were the Daughters of the American Revolution, and like her mother and grandmother before her, the Ladies Literary Association. Like her parents and grandparents, Edwin and Alice were faithful members of the church, and tried to live their lives with Christian values of service. First they belonged to St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Ypsilanti and then later St. Mark’s Church at Grand Rapids. Edwin Uhl’s reputation as an honest, fair and hard working man traveled as far as to the President of the United States, and President Cleveland, in 1891, asked Edwin Uhl to serve in the War Department. Edwin declined, stating that he had no knowledge of military affairs. In 1893, when the current Assistant Secretary of State resigned, the president asked Uhl to take his place, and Edwin and Alice moved to Washington D. C. Within a short time, then Secretary of State Gresham became too ill to attend to his position and Uhl then became Secretary of State. Uhl was soon faced with some difficult diplomatic tasks, among the most important was arbitrating the boundaries between Brazil and Argentina. The attention to detail, diligence, and hard work of Uhl impressed President Cleveland and other members of government, and the matter was settled as Uhl recommended. During his time as Secretary of State, Uhl traveled abroad, inspecting the consular service and suggesting and directing changes that he thought were necessary. When a vacancy occurred in the post of Ambassador to Germany, the president appointed Uhl to the position in Berlin. He remained in this position until 1897, when President McKinley was elected and Uhl’s service to President Cleveland ended. When the Uhls returned to Grand Rapids, Edwin’s workload doubled. He formed two law firms: one operating out of Grand Rapids and another from Chicago. He also was re-elected president of the Grand Rapids National Bank. This hectic lifestyle could not continue. Alice and Edwin attempted to relax and enjoy their impending old age. He withdrew from his law firm in Chicago and they focused their energies into building a beautiful mansion in Grand Rapids named Waldheim. The columned, stately white home was built on 54 acres on Plaster Creek in 1898. Edwin and Alice’s new home had large porches with French doors leading out to them and giant columns at the front. It was 6000 square feet and noted for oak flooring and woodwork hewn out of trees that had been felled on the property. Sadly, Edwin died four years later. His lifelong friend, Byron Cutcheon, stated “Fifty-eight years of strenuous life had told upon Mr. Uhl’s constitution, and before the end of the year 1900, it became known to his friends that he was no longer a well man. His last few months were months of suffering and decline – of fluctuating hope and despair. Nothing that the tenderest love and most untiring devotion could suggest was wanting to insure his recovery and return to active participation in the affairs of the community of which for more than a quarter of a century he had been so large a factor. But all could not avail. The clock of life had run down, and on Friday, May 17, 1901, he peacefully passed over to the Majority.” Edwin Uhl returned to River Street in Ypsilanti and is now resting with his wife at Highland Cemetery. So honored a man was he that his body was brought home to his birth city, along with his family and friends from Grand Rapids, in a private railway car. School was dismissed and businesses were closed for the day in Ypsilanti. Flags were flown at half staff. Waiting for his body to be returned to River Street, the train station was filled with family, friends and those who admired him. In his obituary published in The Ypsilanti Sentinel Commercial, May 23, 1901, we learn that the coffin was covered in flowers and transported to the chapel of Highland Cemetery where he lay in state from one to two thirty p.m. before a funeral service was held. “As the remains lay in state in the chapel those who had known and loved Mr. Uhl and those who had simple acquainted with his name as a successful man and an honest gentleman took a last look at his countenance, which preserved its nobility of expression even in death.” The monument which Alice later had erected for Edwin and herself is considered one of the most stately in Highland Cemetery and is notable for its classic simplicity and grace. Edwin’s service to his community and county, honesty, and hard work were honored in the Circuit Court of Washtenaw County on May 30th, 1901, as numerous dignitaries and judges gave tribute to him. On June 1st, memorial services in honor of Uhl were held in the United States Court at Grand Rapids as many eulogies spoke of an honest, hard working man who lived his convictions. After the death of her beloved husband, Alice continued to live at Waldheim in Grand Rapids, active in her many interests including women’s suffrage. When a fire destroyed much of the home in June, 1910, Alice and her son, Marshall, set about designing a new home built on the foundation of the previous one. The new house was very similar, but slightly smaller than the original one. The sprite, energetic and imaginative Alice died in Grand Rapids in 1917. The Grand Rapids Public Library recently honored Alice in an exhibit featuring women who have made an impact on the city which was called the “Making a Difference Exhibit.” The exhibit included this statement about her achievements: “More than 110 years after its founding the St. Cecilia Music Society and its landmark building remain integral parts of the Grand Rapids cultural scene, testimony to the vision of Alice Uhl and the society’s co-founders, and the dedication with which they pursued their dream.” Alice is now dreaming away in Highland Cemetery on River Street. She returned to her roots, her home town, and even her childhood street, and left behind the legacy of a life well lived. (Janice Anschuetz is a long time member of the Ypsilanti Historical Society and a regular contributor to the Gleanings.)

Photo Captions: Photo 1: Edwin F. Uhl was born in Rush, New York on August 14, 1841. He traveled to Ypsilanti with his parents when he was only three years old.

Photo 2: Alice (Follett) Uhl was born in a beautiful mansion on River Street between Oak and Maple. She was the oldest of seven children born to Benjamin and Elvira (Norris) Follett.

Photo 3: The home that Edwin and Alice Uhl lived in after they moved to Grand Rapids in 1876.

Photo 4: In 1898 Edwin and Alice Uhl built this beautiful, columned, stately home in Grand Rapids named Waldheim.

Photo 5: The monument Alice erected for Edwin and herself is considered one of the most stately in Highland Cemetery and is notable for its classic simplicity and grace.

Photo 6: Edwin Uhl as a young man.