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The History of Frog Island Park – The Island That is Not an Island

The History of Frog Island Park – The Island That is Not an Island image The History of Frog Island Park – The Island That is Not an Island image The History of Frog Island Park – The Island That is Not an Island image The History of Frog Island Park – The Island That is Not an Island image The History of Frog Island Park – The Island That is Not an Island image The History of Frog Island Park – The Island That is Not an Island image
Janice Anschuetz
Rights Held By
Ypsilanti Historical Society
OCR Text

Frog Island is dear to my heart because it is the reason that my husband consented to purchase our home of 45 years at the northeast corner of River Street and Forest Avenue. When I showed him the aging Victorian house that I wanted to call home, with its leaky roof, water in the basement, crumbling plaster, rotting porches, wheezing furnace and all of its “charms,” he was dumbfounded and thought that I had taken leave of my senses. Then I pointed out that we would be only two blocks from the running track at Frog Island and the beautiful Huron River. That was enough for him, and in the many years that we have lived in the Swaine House, he has run or walked thousands of miles on Frog Island. Like many other Ypsilantians, we have greatly enjoyed Frog Island. Our family has watched soccer games, witnessed historical baseball games, attended jazz festivals, mesmerized when we saw elephants set up circus tents on the island, admired the community gardens, and, in general, experienced the changing seasons of Michigan on the banks of the beautiful Huron River. I would like to share with you the history of Frog Island with the hope that this will add to your appreciation of this charming part of Ypsilanti. Frog Island is not an island anymore, and was not even an island when settlers came to the area in the early 1800’s. When Mark Norris arrived in what was then a wilderness, in 1827, he quickly surveyed the land for possibilities of making money using the natural resources. Water power was valuable, and he purchased water rights to the river from the partnership of Hardy & Reading who had dammed the river on the West side where Forest Ave crossed the river. In the book The History of Washtenaw County published in 1906, we read how the men initially dammed the river: “The obstruction forming this water power being of brush, clay and logs; it would appear to be the work of a beaver tribe, instead of enterprising men; however, the rude barricade, which confined the Huron at this point, was swept away by the flood of 1832.” The mill and river rights were soon after sold to Mark Norris. Norris was interested in building a mill on the east side of the river on Cross Street on land that he owned. In order to do this he needed a mill race to turn the turbines of the mill. He hired men to dig a trench from the river at Forest Avenue to Cross Street and thus what we now know of as Frog Island was born. In 1832, Norris leased additional water power on the mill race to A.M. Hurd and his partner, a man by the name of Sage. The lease gave them two square feet of water power with a fall of five feet and they used this to build and operate a foundry. They built a structure 50 by 80 feet and hired Benjamin Thompson to supervise it. The next year the foundry became a plow factory and then a woolen mill. Within a matter of years it became an iron casting plant. All of these changes occurred within a matter of 14 years! The property was sold in 1844. Timothy Showerman purchased it and converted the building once again. This time it became the Aetna Flouring Mills, which was a rival to the Eagle Flour Mill owned by Mark Norris and his son-in-law, Benjamin Follet. Follet was an attorney and sued Showerman for violating the lease to the water rights stating that the Aetna mill was using too much water power. The flour mill was shut down and Norris and Follet took possession of it and converted the building, still again, to a sash, door and blind factory, taking advantage of the plentiful lumber supply in the area. They expanded the business, which was later purchased by Chauncey Joslin, into a planing mill, gypsum mill, and axe handle factory. However, all was lost in 1854 when a mighty flood washed away all but the heavy water wheels and planing machine. Estimates of value of the loss of the buildings and machinery was over $12,000, which was a great deal of money at that time. This island did not remain vacant for long. There seems to be something about Ypsilanti, and maybe the river, which attracts colorful characters such as Henry R. Scovill, who soon after the Civil War founded a new company there. Scovill was born in Cleveland, Ohio on January 28, 1843. When he was only two years old his family moved to Ypsilanti. As a young man he enlisted and fought in the Civil War and survived the Battle of Bull Run. After the war he returned to Ypsilanti for a short time and then decided to take the railroad as far west as it traveled and then took a boat to Omaha, Nebraska. There he got a job driving a mule team to Salt Lake City, Utah. This took six months. Along the way he told of meeting up with a number of gunmen including the then famous “Quieting Angel” named because of this reputation as a murderer. Scovill earned $30 for his six months as a teamster and used this for passage on a wagon train going on to California. He traveled in the chuck wagon. Once there, he got a job as a ranch hand and hunted for gold in his free time. It seems that Scovill did not “strike it rich” and decided to seek his fortune back in his hometown of Ypsilanti instead. This was not an easy journey at that time. He took an ocean steam ship to Nicaragua, went across the isthmus of Panama by boat, took a pack mule to a ship which would make the journey to New York, and by the time he arrived back in Ypsilanti, the adventures of his youth were over. In 1869, Scovill mortgaged his home for $700, went into partnership with Joseph Follmor who provided an additional $1,000 and started a lumber business renting the island where a lumber mill had once stood. There were still the remains of a saw mill and planing mill. The land at that time had been sold to William Deubel, Sr. who ran the flour mill on East Cross Street once owned by Norris and Follett. Legend says that Scovill was responsible for the name “Frog Island” due to the number of frogs residing there on the swampy land between the Huron River and the mill stream. Another version, told to us by Chip Porter in an Eastern Echo article from June 13, 1990, explains the name a different way. Ypsilanti was a town where prominent citizens participated in temperance and when the “town elders started staying out most of the night, and had to make excuses to tell their wives that they were at the island killing frogs”, the name Frog Island was born. Of course the town children also went to the island to catch frogs so perhaps that is how it got its name. In the 50 years our family has been visiting Frog Island and the river bank, I have never seen or heard a frog there. Perhaps they were all caught or killed in the 19th century. Contemporary locals would like us to believe that Frog Island was named after the rare “Smeet Frog”, with fur and being capable of flying, but that legend seems to be related to the creative imagination and incredible sense of humor of Tom Dodd, one of the optimistic people who brought Depot Town in Ypsilanti back to being a vibrant part of the community in the 1960s. “Town Elders” would have to spend more than one night on the island if they went in search of the Smeet Frog. After Tom’s death, a plaque was placed in his honor on the tridge reminding us to remember Tom and the Smeet Frog legend. Instead of hunting for gold or frogs on Frog Island, Scovill and his partner were using another natural resource to form a business and make a living – standing timber. In the 1860s, the area was filled with trees of many varieties – basswood, oak, maple, beech, ash, walnut, maple and hickory. As soon as the ground froze and snow covered the roads in the winter and the crops were harvested for the year, farmers would pile wagons high with logs. By Spring, the east bank of the mill race would be piled high with thousands of feet of logs which had been bought by Scovill and Follmor. One of the most popular types of wood used for building at the time was white pine, which was not readily available in the Ypsilanti area. So Scovill would go by train to various destinations in northern Michigan where he would hire a livery to go to towns such as Bay City, Flint and Saginaw to purchase trees. Then the lumber would be shipped to his mill, which was a short distance from the railroad track freight yard and depot. Large open flat cars, each carrying about 10,000 board feet would be used for this purpose. Scovill and Follmor built a planing mill to cut the lumber into finished products on the west side of the island east of the Woolen Mill, located across the river, and made famous by Ypsilanti Underwear. They shared power from the same dam which was located in the river as opposed to the mill steam. This water power was controlled by the Deubel Mill on Cross Street and the Woolen Mill Company. In the 1890’s Scovill bought out his partner and continued the business by himself. The business was often hampered by high water and floods, which often did a great deal of damage, especially the monumental flood of March, 1903. The high water poured down the race from the river and washed away hundreds of feet of lumber and timber. Water poured over the banks of the river and the workmen had to be taken off the island by boat. Like the captain on a sinking ship, Scovill was the last man to leave the island and by then the water was so dangerous that his boat was overturned and he struggled to get to safe land with the river raging. Even though water power was a cheap way to run machinery, much cheaper than steam or electricity, Scovill decided to move his operation to higher land and settled at the nearby property at 298 Jarvis St. in 1903. Even by 1910 Scovill still delivered his lumber in horse drawn wagons. In an article published in the Ypsilanti Press on September 3, 1962, we read about this interesting man who was elected major of Ypsilanti for 3 terms in 1881 and again in 1890 serving 2 terms. “He was probably the last consistent horse driver in Ypsilanti. Each day he went to and from the lumber company in a wagon so punctual that residents could set their watches by the time he passed.” Unfortunately he died the way he lived – but at a ripe old age. His horse and carriage was hit by a car on Forest Avenue and he died almost immediately. Scovill’s business was eventually taken over by his son and his daughter closing after 93 years in 1962. And what of the island he left behind? Detroit Edison purchased the water rights and was persuaded by Dr. Edward George, then president of the Ypsilanti School District, and others to deed the land to the City of Ypsilanti and the public school district. Dr. George along with his friend, Fielding Yost, drew up plans to transform this once industrial landscape into “Island Park” which contained a running track, baseball field, and football field. Because of his dedication to the transformation of the island, it was jokingly referred to as George Island Park by his friends, instead of Island Park, which was the name that it was given. Island Park was the athletic field for the nearby Ypsilanti High School on Cross Street. Students would walk from the school for their track, football, and baseball activities. During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) built the cement bridge connecting what was then known as Island Park to Cross Street. By 1962 the mill stream was all but gone, deliberately filled in by Ypsilanti’s garbage and trash. A sliver of it can be seen today looking to the east of the cement bridge but the water is supplied by a drainage pipe from the nearby parking lot instead of the river. By the 1970’s Island Park was deeded to the City of Ypsilanti by the Ypsilanti School District when the new high school was built on Packard complete with ample athletic fields. The island, whose name was now officially Frog Island, and not Island Park, soon looked unkempt and deserted, perhaps by all except the few who enjoyed fishing in the river and those running the track. Then, the Depot Town Association and Eastern Michigan University formed a team, and in 1981 the island came alive again with a jazz competition which was part of the Heritage Festival. In 1983, the Frog Island Music Festival rocked the island, and this became an annual summer event for several years. Sadly, severe storms several years in a row bankrupted the festival and it ceased to be. The 1980’s, however brought some improvements to this park. Trails around the high banks were built and a bridge was constructed to allow a beautiful connection to Riverside Park as well as Cross Street and Depot Town. A small stage was built and soccer fields sprouted in the midst of the running track. Cement steps now went from the high flood wall banks to the fishing shore of the river. A recycle center was located on the island around 1987. More improvement plans were drawn up with grants applied for and some approved for funding by the state, but, by the 1990s the city was unable to come up with the matching funds. Today, Frog Island remains a jewel, with its own charming personality, in the string of parks along the river in Ypsilanti. It is part of the Border to Border Trail which will connect Frog Island to Riverside Park to Water Works Park to North Bay Park and beyond, as far as the Wayne County line, in the near future. The park has recently been adopted by a hard working team of volunteers, and community gardens grace the land that was once a foundry. Soccer games with cheering fans play there weekly during the season and the track is now used by more than just a few hardy individuals like my husband and others in the neighborhood. Not just neighborhood boys are fishing the river. From its shores, fly fisherman can be seen sporting in the waters. Sometimes herons and eagles are spotted, less often a deer. I hope that this brief history of the island, that is not an island, will add to your enjoyment of one of the prettiest places to live and enjoy in the great city of Ypsilanti. (Jan Anschuetz is a local history buff and a regular contributor to the Gleanings.)

Photo Captions: Photo 1: A bird’s eye view of Frog Island in 1865.

Photo 2: A bird’s eye view of Frog Island in 1890.

Photo 3: Scovill Lumber Company on Frog Island c1895. Note the pile of logs on the right bank.

Photo 4: Scovill Lumber Company Race in c1895.

Photo 5: Damage from the floods in 1918.

Photo 6: Scovill Lumber Company letterhead.

Photo 7: Baseball game on Frog Island on May 18, 1940.

Photo 8: Athletic Field on Frog Island in the Spring of 1941.

Photo 9: Henry R. Scovill