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Peck Street: A Story of Broken Dreams!

Peck Street: A Story of Broken Dreams! image Peck Street: A Story of Broken Dreams! image Peck Street: A Story of Broken Dreams! image Peck Street: A Story of Broken Dreams! image
Janice Anschuetz
Rights Held By
Ypsilanti Historical Society
OCR Text

All that remains of the hopes and dreams of a family of 19th century English immigrants to Ypsilanti is a brick building, used as a garage since the 1920s, and an adjoining brick wall. If those remaining structures could talk, they would tell an interesting and sad tale of misfortune that must sound familiar to many investors and business people today. The small garage, now standing about 100 feet east of the old historical home at the northeast corner of River Street and East Forest, started life as the second school founded in Ypsilanti. Built in 1839 by Joseph and Sophia Peck, and named the Peck Street Primary, it was situated a small distance across from the original Peck homestead built in 1824. The Peck home was located on what was then called Peck Street, now a driveway off North River on the property of the historical home later constructed there. Reportedly, Sophia Peck had served as a “school marm” in the Pecks’ native state of New York, and, believing in the value of a good education, had encouraged her husband to build the school in Ypsilanti. As it happened, the Peck Street Primary flourished, and in 1850 it was sold to the 4th Ward School District for $40. It then became one of the first “graded” schools in Michigan, which meant that students attending it advanced from grade to grade based on performance standards, rather than simply using textbooks to learn skills at their own pace. By 1866, the small graded school was bursting at the seams with 99 pupils, and the school board decided to replace it with a larger four-room building at the corner of Prospect and Oak. That new school, named the 4th Ward School, was eventually built in 1878. The story of the original Peck Street Primary continues with a man named George George, who had immigrated with his family to Ypsilanti from Kent, England in 1863. George purchased the defunct Peck Primary and, with the help of his son Worger George and son-in-law Leonard C. Wallington, converted it into a small malt house. Ypsilanti was home to several breweries at the time, and malt was essential to the industry. It was made from barley bought from nearby farmers, which was sprouted in the malt house, with the help of steam equipment, and dried. The resulting malt was then supplied to the breweries, where it was combined with yeast, hops, and other constituents as a basic ingredient for brewing fine beer. A further turn in the story came with the arrival of a visitor to the George family from the town of Dorset, in Kent, England. This was a “cousin” of sorts by the name of Frederick John Swaine, who had come to the United States to “seek his fortune.” Taking a shine both to Ypsilanti, and to the daughter of George George, a young beauty named Eliza (called Lizzie), Swaine decided that this was the place he wanted to stay and invest his inheritance. He married Lizzie in 1874, became a partner in the malt business with her family, and built a fine home just west of the malt house. That home is now proudly occupied by the writer of this piece and her husband, nearly a century-and-a-half later. From Orphaned Baby to Successful Businessman and “Father of Classical Music in Michigan” Frederick Swaine was orphaned as a one-year-old baby and raised by relatives in Kent, England, where he was well educated. He spent part of his childhood living with an uncle in a palatial homestead -- Lympne Castle, near Romney Marsh, in Kent. His father and grandfather were considered to be among the finest brewers in Great Britain, and had been licensed for several generations to brew beer for the royal family. It was no wonder, then, that young Frederick found himself drawn to the George family and their malting business. In them he could make real his dreams of winning his fortune in America. After their marriage, Frederick and the former Lizzie George moved from the George/Wallington residence at 627 North River to their fine new home at what is now 101 East Forest. There they soon became pillars of Ypsilanti’s gentile society. Frederick bought out his partners in the malt business and greatly enlarged the malt house. The new structure, which measured 50 x 94 feet and was three stories high, now fronted East Forest Avenue rather than Peck Street. What had once been the entire Peck Street Primary had become the steam room for the malt house. On stationary and business cards, Frederick Swaine presented himself as “Maltster and Dealer in Barley, Malt and Hops.” The Swaine business thrived. With his savvy, drive, and investment capital paving the way, Frederick increased the sales of beer grains from 11,000 bushels in 1874 to 40,000 by 1880. In addition, his education, talents, and interests added much to the growing Ypsilanti community. He became a good friend of Frederick Pease, who founded the music program at the Normal College (now Eastern Michigan University). The relationship was so close that, after Pease had carefully selected a fine rosewood square grand piano for the Normal school, Frederick Swaine purchased an identical one for the parlor of his home. [That piano has since been restored by the present owners of the home and still stands in the same parlor in all its original stately grace.] By the end of his life, Swaine’s influence on the music program at the Normal College, his patronage of local concert halls, and his various roles as a gifted actor in Gilbert and Sullivan plays in the Ypsilanti Opera House had brought him such recognition that he was characterized in his obituary as “The Father of Classical Music in Michigan.” The Dreams are Shattered Regrettably, as we see happening all around us today, economic vicissitudes have a way of shattering the dreams of even the best businessmen. Frederick Swaine would come to suffer the same fate in his day. His malt business continued to thrive until the mid-1890s. But its future was always uncertain, since it depended on the willingness of local breweries to pay a price for his products high enough to cover the costs of the barley and hops he bought from farmers, and still allow a profit. In Frederick Swain’s case, it happened that, when his huge three-story malt house had been gorged with produce purchased with money borrowed from the Ypsilanti Savings Bank, a supplier in Kansas City, Missouri offered the breweries in the area grain products at a price three cents a bushel less than Frederick could sell them for. The breweries quickly changed suppliers and left him in dire economic circumstances. He had borrowed heavily from the bank to fill the malt house, and now found himself $16,000 in debt. He died suddenly soon afterwards, without a will, in April, 1897. Swaine’s obituary tells us much about his death, as well as his life. The cause of his death at the age of 47 is cited as “nervous prostration.” This was a Victorian term for a nervous breakdown, which was then thought to have a physical basis as a “disease of the peripheral nerves.” Most likely, this successful young man died from great frustration and worry caused by his inability to figure out a way to save his home, business and family from a weighty burden of debt. In the obituary, which was published in the local papers of the time, Frederick is described as an honest man, well read, interested in politics, charitable, an initial organizer of the Ypsilanti Musical Union, choir director of the German Lutheran Church, an actor and singer, a student of the German language, and a devoted husband and father. The obituary states that “While Mr. Swaine has not been well for months, he did not finally give up until the Sunday before his death, at which time it was found impossible to build up the nervous system. Nervous prostration, resulting in congestion of the brain, was the immediate cause of death.” The Ypsilanti Savings Bank appointed its own Robert Hemphill as administrator of the heavily indebted estate. Hemphill quickly published a newspaper article indicating that he would continue to operate the business of buying and selling grains for brewing. “As administrator of the estate of the late Frederick J. Swaine,” Hemphill wrote, “I am requested by the heirs of the estate to say that the business of buying barley and manufacturing and securing malt will be continued by me for them, so that parties having barley to sell can depend on getting the highest market price at the old stand, corner of Forest and River street, Ypsilanti, and orders for malt will at my hands receive prompt attention, and customers may depend on the same courteous treatment in the future as in the past.” This newspaper article was dated one week after Swaine’s death – April 21, 1897. The business continued under Hemphill’s supervision until November, 1904, when it was “closed out” with the sum of $4,000 still owed to the bank. This sad story of broken dreams continues with a court case against Robert Hemphill brought by Frederick’s widow, Lizzie, and his two daughters. The women argued that the amount of $4,000 supposedly owed the bank was fraudulent and should be set aside. They contended that Hemphill either should have sold the business when Frederick died or run it year by year only if there were a profit and not a debt. The case eventually went to the Michigan Supreme Court, where, on May 8, 1911, its opinion was rendered and published. The summation of the case indicates that Mrs. Swaine put the entire amount of the insurance money granted to her after her husband’s death - $5,650 – into the business, and, further, that the business paid out to her and her daughters nearly $9,500. It also notes that men employed at the malt house did work at the Swaine home and that the home was heated by the malt house (probably excess steam). The judges determined that the Swaine women and Mrs. Swaine’s brother were aware that the business had lost money in the fourth year, but were part of the decision making process to continue to operate the business, along with Hemphill, and so they were equally culpable in the loss. The published decision in the case states that “the losses during the latter part of the operation appear to have been caused in part … by competition with large manufacturers of malt, who sold at prices so low that this small plant could not make a profit of it .…” It further describes the widow’s efforts to save the situation: that she daily traversed the one-hundred feet from her home -- which she was in danger of losing to the bank -- to the malt house, in order to inspect the books, and that she had asked her brother, also in the malt business, to come from Kansas City to try to help save the business and the livelihood it provided. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court decision denied both the case brought by the Swaine women, and any claims made by Swaine’s widow, in favor of Robert Hemphill, who had once been a friend of the family. In an insurance map of 1909, we find that the building that had originated as the Peck Street Primary and then become a malt house is in use as a storage area for ladders – probably by the nearby ladder company on East Forest Ave. In 1912, the same property, then owned by a carpenter, George Jackson, was torn down, except for the part that was the original Peck Street Primary, and the bricks sold and used to build the interurban barns on Michigan Avenue near River Street. The two lots on which the expanded malt house once stood were sold, and Sears and Roebuck homes were built on them by the Lidke and Bortz families. In a final change, what was once the Peck Street Primary school, which educated hundreds of Ypsilanti children, was turned into a garage, and a brick wall now defines what had been the west wall of the building. Frederick Swaine’s widow Eliza and her two daughters, Florence and Jesse Swaine, were able to save their home and enjoy it for the rest of their long lives. Jesse died in the same room and bed in which she had been born some 89 years earlier. Both daughters, who grew up on the same property as the Peck Street Primary, became teachers and influenced many a young life in Ypsilanti, Wayne and Detroit, helping make good on the vision of Joseph and Sophia Peck when they first opened Ypsilanti’s second school. The son of Worger George (Frederick Swaine’s brother-in-law and former business partner), Edward Shutts George, was also interested in education and served on the Ypsilanti School Board for many years. George School, on Ecorse Road, is named for him. As a child, Edward would have played with his cousins, Florence and Jesse Swaine, at the site of the Peck Street Primary, which had been founded in 1839 to provide a basic education to children in the frontier wilderness of Ypsilanti. If buildings could talk, the modest brick structure that still remains about 100 feet east of the Swaine House at Forest and River – though three walls have fallen down and been replaced, and it now serves only as a prosaic garage -- would have a poignant story to tell. Hearing it, we could surely learn even more about the hopes and dreams of English immigrants to the new world, and of fortunes won and lost. (Janice Anschuetz is a local historian who is currently researching and writing her third book – a history of one of her ancestors and their role in the shaping of England and America.) PHOTO CAPTIONS: Photo 1: Peck Street Primary at the left with the daughters of Frederick Swaine’s partner, L. C. Wallington – Maude and Ethel May, with Florence Swaine on the right

Photo 2: Maude and Ethel May Wallington outside the Malt House in the snow

Photo 3: The Malt House fronting East Forest. Worger George in front with a shovel

Photo 4: Eliza (George) Swaine

Photo 5: Frederick Swaine

Photo 6: Lympe Castle and Church in Kent where Frederick Swaine grew up as a boy

Photo 7: Malt House connected to Peck Street Primary. Part of the West wall remains as a brick wall today, as does the Peck Street Primary. This shows the first cement sidewalk in the City of Ypsilanti that the town cows liked to walk on while going to pasture at the river

Photo 8: Florence and Jesse Swaine and friends outside the Malt House in a donkey cart.
The Swaine house is to the left