Think back for a moment to the long-ago days of Sunday school. Quiz: Name a large and ancient wooden structure that had something to do with water, that contained extremely varied contents, and that moved from one place to another. It ended up on higher ground than its starting point. Near the end of its journey, it served as a launch pad for exploratory birds.
This description applies to the Biblical boat you thought of and to the huge onetime secondhand store at Washington and Pearl called, by weirdest coincidence, “The Ark.”
The Ark was built in 1837, the same year Michigan became a state. Its original site was on the now-vanished Water Street just east of the river. It was originally intended to serve as a tannery, where cowhides could be processed into leather.
Its site was in those days well removed from the few buildings that would grow to become downtown Ypsilanti. The site was likely chosen on purpose. Tanneries were smelly places, where piles of cow skins were scraped of their remaining flesh and soaked in vats of chemicals in order to process them into leather. A location downstream from downtown meant that meat scraps and used-up chemicals could be drained into the river without creating a stench in the stretch of river traveling through town.
In the mid-1800s, John Howland opened another tannery on the northwest side of the intersection of Forest Avenue and the railroad bridge, today the site of the Farm Bureau silo. Like the Water Street tannery, it was located on the fringe of settlement, for good reason. “The stench around [Howland’s] tanneries was terrible,” reads an undated local newspaper article from the Archives. “The odor often penetrated into the district surrounding Forest Avenue.” Howland’s tannery began producing leather goods in the 1870s, notes the article, up until 1918, when the Farm Bureau took over the site.
It may be that How land’s tannery siphoned business away from the Water Street site, or it may just be that the Water Street site never became fully operational. Perhaps the financial troubles of “The Panic of 1837” played a role. In either case, sometime before 1851 the building was disassembled, moved into the downtown area, and reassembled on the southeast corner of Pearl and Washington.
Shortly after its move and reassembly, the huge fire of 1851 swept through downtown Ypsilanti. “The city made heroic efforts to stay the flames,” wrote Harvery Colburn in his “Story of Ypsilanti.” “Ropes were fastened to the building known as ‘The Ark’ on the southeast corner of Washington and pearl, and futile efforts were made to pull it down. The fire, however, did not reach the building.”
The Ark stayed in business for the next 70 years. For a while it served as a blacksmith shop. Eventually it became what it is remembered for, a secondhand shop selling furniture, household goods, and a wide variety of other items.
The century turned and the Ark still stood in its historic spot. By now it was looking a bit decrepit, with ill-fitting window frames, missing panes of glass, uneven siding, and shreds of old posters dangling from its exterior. On the front of the building near the roof, a mannequin of a man dangled, wearing a sign advertising Smith Brothers’ cough drops. The Ark’s day was almost over.
Its swan song came in the form of pigeons.
“Joe Sim of 364 16th Street, Detroit, is interested in carrier pigeons,” said the June 19, 1911 Ypsilanti Daily Press.
“To teach them to fly long distances and return to their home, he brings a basket full of them, about 20, out to Ypsilanti, and lets them loose,” continued the paper. “Several people were seen Sunday morning standing by the ‘Ark’ intently looking up into the ethereal blue. It was about 8 o’clock. The pigeons were circling higher and higher above the city. They refused to light on the ‘Ark’ or return to it. These sensible birds, Joe says, will take about fifteen minutes to get their bearings. They were released at 7:45 and sure enough at 8 o’clock Joe announced, ‘They’re off, they will be home by 9.’”
Just a year after the pigeons’ departure, the Ark was torn down and a new building was built on its site. One of the city’s longest-surviving buildings was no more.
Could we time-travel to 1892 Ypsilanti and stroll around town, we’d notice differences in the streetscape and in the fashions. But the single largest difference would be in the sphere of work.
For example, almost no one commuted out of the city limits to their job each day. The majority of men and women with a job walked a few blocks or just across town to reach their place of employment. Many went home for lunch.
Another major work-related difference was the number of manufactories in town. These included four boot and shoe makers, three bakeries, a book bindery, a box factory, a stone carver, and a foundry.
Also included were makers of gasoline furnaces, painted portraits, cabinets, furniture, harnesses, copperware, carriages, clothing, wagons, cigars, candies, dresses, saddles, tinware, carpets, dress stays, handles, guns, hats, and beer.
Yet another thing we’d notice on an 1892 walk around town would be the number and nature of full-time jobs that have vanished.
Starting our walk at River and Forest Avenue, one can see the large malt-house next to the ornate red brick home of Frederick Swaine, maltster. In the malt-house, Frederick soaked grains in water, preparing them for conversion into alcohol. Today the malt-house is gone, but the Swaine home remains, rescued from demolition some decades ago.
Walking west on Forest and crossing the river, the little brick structure housing the city’s electric company comes into view (today the office of Ypsilanti’s Department of Public Works.). The building has a row of windows along either side. Peeking in, one can see an enormous metal frame supporting a huge circular structure. This is the dynamo that creates the city’s limited electricity supply. And peering at a control panel is a man in work clothes. It’s Charles Hyzer, the dynamo tender.
Born in New York, Charles moved to Ypsi with his parents sometime before the late 1880s. He lived alone at 24 East Michigan Avenue but moved in with his family by 1900. Single at 43 that year, he shared a home with his 69-year-old father Joseph, a teamster, and 66-year-old mother Martha on Olive Street.
Charles walked the short distance from Olive to the dynamo-house each day. Sometimes the neighborhood kids would come by to visit him and press their pocket knives on the dynamo to make them magnetic.
Leaving the dynamo-house and heading to Huron, the giant knitting mill and underwear factory on the left is impossible to miss. Just southwest of the Forest Avenue bridge, the mill employs dozens of women, most of them in charge of one large floor-mounted knitting machine.
Heading south on Huron, one passes Cross Street, where lives the city’s only female mail carrier, Miss Nannie Sewell at 215 East Cross. Continuing on, Pearl Street comes into view. At 517 Pearl is the home of 63-year-old city watchman Henry Boutell. A former farmer and a Civil War veteran who was wounded in battle, Boutell was promoted to brevet captain before mustering out in 1865. He lives with his son Henry from his first marriage, his second wife Catherine, his father-in-law Horace, and a servant, Rickie Frick.
In his patrols around the downtown area, Henry regularly passes the Dress Stay Manufacturing Company at 101-105 Huron just north of Pearl. The company made thin steel rods ranging from a few inches to a yard long, tucked into fabric sleeves and sold to be sewn into dresses to give them shape.
Hattie Allen was one of the 1892 workers at the factory, walking to it each morning from her home at 230 Grove Road. She lived on Grove with her parents Hiram and Elizabeth, her sister Jessie and Jessie’s husband Adam, and the couple’s daughter Lyleth. After the dress stay factory closed shortly after the turn of the century, Hattie remained in the family home. Her parents and brother-in-law died. By 1920, only Hattie, 50 and unemployed, lived there with Jessie and Lyleth. One of Hattie’s near neighbors was DeWitt Matthews at 159 South Grove, a successful apiarist and gardener who sold honey, fruit, and beekeeping supplies.
While passing the dress stay factory and heading towards Michigan Avenue, a man walks by with large papers rolled under his arm and carrying a bucket containing a brush. His clothes look old and worn. It’s Charles Bowerman, local bill poster. His job was to glue up posters and notices around town.
Charles’ pay was meager, and he shared a home with his father David, stepmother Kaziah, and David’s adopted daughter Etta. David worked odd jobs, Kaziah took in washing, and at age 15 Etta cut tags at the Scharf Tag, Label, and Box Company. The family scrimped to get by.
Turning east on Michigan, a clanging sound grows louder. It’s from John Lang’s blacksmith shop at 25 East Michigan Avenue. Just around the corner is his home at 9 River, not far from his neighbor Alexander Fee, a worker at the short-lived Ypsilanti Condiment Company in Depot Town.
Born in Germany in 1847, Lang emigrated in 1853, married fellow emigrant Jane, and had 4 children. At his shop, John worked iron and made horseshoes, and nailed them on his customers’ horses.
But he seems busy at the moment—though he won’t be for much longer—so we’ll leave him for now, after this short glimpse at the vanished jobs of 1892.
Laura Bien is the author of “Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives.” Have an idea for a story? Contact her at email@example.com.