Any student of Ypsilanti history knows about Harvey C. Colburn and what he wrote. Chances are, though, that very few know little more about the author of the first history of Ypsilanti. Some may know he was the minister of the First Congregational Church during the 1920’s and most of the 1930’s. There is much more to Harvey Colburn. In fact, his personal history is worthy of publication. Colburn was a relative newcomer when he authored the history. He arrived in Ypsilanti in 1918 to assume the ministry of First Congregational. Just five years later he produced The Story of Ypsilanti in recognition of the city’s Centennial. He drafted the book in Charleston, South Carolina, his birthplace. So just how did it happen that a South Carolinian became the city’s pre-eminent historian? It all started with the Civil War. His father, William Harvey Colburn was born in Vermont in 1847. He enlisted in the Union Army in 1861 but was discharged a year later due to a disability. Harvey’s mother, Alice Cade, was born in 1849 in Rochester, New York. Alice’s father was a builder. It is likely that Alice’s father moved his family south shortly after the Civil War in order to take advantage of Reconstruction monies. It is unclear why William Colburn relocated to Charleston. It was there he met Alice Cade and married her October 22, 1874. Harvey was born two years later. His father died when he was three, leaving Harvey to be raised by his mother and maternal grandmother. He grew up in Charleston, leaving when he was about 19 to head north and enroll in Hillsdale, College in Hillsdale, Michigan. He graduated in 1900 and was honored for composing his class poem. He would continue to write poetry throughout much of his life. Following graduation from Hillsdale, he enrolled in Oberlin’s Graduate School of Theology receiving his master’s degree in 1903. He married Mary Scott on May 22, 1907 in Marysville, Ohio. She would be a wonderful life partner. Together they would raise a family of six, four girls and two boys. During the early years of their marriage, they moved several times as Reverend Colburn accepted calls from various churches in Ohio. While serving as the minister in Bellevue, Ohio, he came to the attention of the First Congregational Church of Ypsilanti which was looking for a minister to succeed Lloyd Morris. Dr. Benjamin D’Ooge, a Professor of Classics at the then Michigan State Normal College, visited Bellevue and extended an invitation to Colburn to “visit Ypsilanti to look us over.” Evidently Harvey Colburn and his wife liked what they saw. He assumed the position of Minister on July 1, 1918. First Congregational was a good fit for the Colburns. The congregation was growing; its finances sound and its members were involved in the life of the larger community. Further, Ypsilanti was not only a college town but also a center of manufacturing and commerce. The city established a Board of Commerce in the early 1900s. The Board provided oversight for the City’s Centennial. A Committee on History was established in anticipation of the city’s Centennial in 1923. The compiling of a history preceded the formation of the committee. It seems that Ypsilantians have long taken an interest in the history of their community. The local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution began preparing a series of papers on local history. Helen Jenks Cleary was the Chapter historian. The wife of the founder of Cleary College (now University), Helen devoted herself to research. She combed old newspaper files, reviewed old letters and set about interviewing the older members of the community. Her dedication produced a significant amount of material that was incorporated into The Story of Ypsilanti. Helen Cleary was a member of the Committee on History along with Dr. Carl Pray, the Chairman of History and Social Science, at the Normal. The third member was Florence Shultes, a Professor of History who worked with Dr. Pray. Dr. Pray and Miss Shultes were both members of First Congregational. Dr. Pray held numerous positions in the Church. He is best remembered as the developer of an active youth program that drew young people to the Church. One of these was the author’s father, Don Porter. The Committee had the task of finding someone who had an interest in history and was an accomplished writer. Not surprisingly Harvey Colburn’s name was put forward. Despite his already busy life as the minister of a growing congregation and the father of six children, Colburn took on the task. The history was produced under a tight timeline. It had to be published in time for the City’s Centennial. Colburn had to function both as editor and author. He had a number of prepared papers that he used whole or in part in addition to his own narrative. His aim was to tell a story. It’s likely that Carl Pray provided assistance with structuring the history; each chapter covers approximately a decade with subsections devoted to significant events or trends of that period. For example Chapter IX - 1870 to 1879 - highlights Shops and Stores, The Huckleberry Line, The Town Band, Decline of the Seminary, The Training of Teachers, Churches, and Ypsilanti’s Semi-Centennial. During the summer of 1922, Colburn became ill during a trip with his family. A usually vigorous man, he was slow to recover. His doctor recommended a period of prolonged rest. He chose to return to Charleston to recuperate. However he took with him boxes of materials which he used to write the history. It’s doubtful this was the type of rest his physician had in mind! He later remarked, “I really enjoyed the coordinating of newspaper files, time-yellowed letters and ancient documents with County records and histories.” The writing proved restorative and Colburn returned toYpsilanti with a first draft. Various citizens were enlisted to review the draft and corrections were made. Colburn added a Prelude beginning with the glaciers that moved slowly across our State and area creating its topography and geology. The closing pages are devoted to the upcoming Centennial Celebration with images from the first 100 years. The Story of Ypsilanti was completed April 10, 1923. Harvey Colburn served as minister of First Congregational until August 1, 1937. During his ministry the Church celebrated the 50th anniversary of its founding. Colburn would live to deliver the sermon at the 75th anniversary service. It was a few years later when he announced he had “finally retired.” Between 1937 and 1957, he was the Chaplain of Ypsilanti State Hospital. Oberlin granted him an Honorary Doctor of Divinity in 1930. In 1947 the First Congregational Church of Ypsilanti named him Minister Emeritus. He filled in for then minister Gordon Speer and officiated at weddings and funerals. He also stayed active in the community and was frequently called upon to speak to community organizations. Often his topic was the history of our town. His listeners described him as both informative and entertaining. He particularly liked to tell the story of the short “secession” of East Ypsilanti from West Ypsilanti. He continued to write as well. He wrote and edited a monthly bulletin called Lawn Care for O.M. Scott and Sons. Orlando McLean Scott was Mary’s father and the founder of the business that would grow into Scott Lawn and Garden. Harvey and his wife Mary were avid gardeners. They enjoyed attending garden shows throughout the country. While Colburn’s historical studies and writing included a history of Washtenaw County churches and research on Indian Trails, he was not above participating in the Centennial Town Pageant. He was an Indian Chief complete with an impressive feathered headdress. Harvey Colburn was a “Man for All Seasons.” A poet, writer, scholar, horticulturist and a clergyman, he was the ideal author for the history of Ypsilanti’s first 100 years. How fortunate we are that he agreed to take on this assignment and leave a wonderful legacy for his adopted hometown. Sources: First Congregational Church of Ypsilanti publications, the Ypsilanti Press, History of Eastern Michigan University, U.S. Census Records, Union Army Records. (Margaret Porter is the Assistant Editor of the Gleanings and a regular contributor of articles.) Photo Captions: Photo 1: Harvey C. Colburn. Photo 2: The original version of “The Story of Ypsilanti.” Photo 3: Harvey Colburn portrayed an Indian chief in the historical play presented during Ypsilanti’s Centennial Celebration in 1923.
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