Weird, Vanished, and Forgotten Jobs from 1892 Ypsilanti

February 9, 2011 by  
Filed under Columnists

The west side of North Huron, 1893.

The west side of North Huron, 1893.

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 ypsidixit@gmail.com.

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