We walked up the three grey wooden steps of the stately-on-a-small-scale Grecian-style home and opened one of the narrow, tall storm doors. We’d come to the right place: lights yellowed the windows in the chilly March dusk. We pressed down the thumb-latch of the heavy inner door and eased it open.
It was our first visit to the Ladies’ Literary Club building on Washington, and a talk was scheduled here tonight. Under darkening indigo clouds and sheltered from a chilling wind, attendees would learn about vanished gardens of Ypsilanti’s past.
After chatting a bit with the speaker, James Mann, we greeted the three or four people who had already arrived and wandered off to explore the home’s first floor.
Once a private family home belonging to the Grant family, James explained, the paterfamilias had willed it to his son provided that he never marry during his mother’s lifetime. The son never did. Neither did he ever gain his father’s skill in real estate, James continued, but squandered money on “good living and bad investments.” After the mother died, the son was reduced to selling off the furniture piece by piece. He also dressed daily in formal tails and was known to hang around downtown on Michigan Avenue. He’d stare into a store window, James continued, for a good fifteen minutes, motionless, then move on to the next one. Eventually the son moved to a small second-story Michigan Avenue flat. He sold the house in 1913—luckily, the Ladies’ Literary Society bought it, thus helping to preserve the building to the present day.
The home’s caretaker, a cheerful, friendly woman, moved the coat rack blocking the stairway and said we could look around upstairs. We peered into a small bedroom and a larger one facing Washington, passing two locked doors.
Everywhere in the house, fancy woodwork bordered doors and windows, complemented by ornate plaster coronas of scrolling leaves around the bases of ceiling light fixtures. Money had been lavished on the interior in subtle ways: the slight zigzag in the carved window molding, the curious and dainty wooden vertical blinds, the generously wide stairway. From the outside, the home was simple, even austere. In the interior, however, no expense had been spared to create subtly luxurious surroundings.
James began his talk on vanished local gardens by discussing the gardens that once graced the city jail, now an artist’s studio, at 6 Cross Street. At one time the garden land sloped down to the river from behind the small jail building, but much of it was washed away in a 1905 flood, said James.
Mention of these gardens reminded me of a memoir, recently unearthed in the Archives, written by George Jackson’s granddaughter Minnie Lewis. She wrote, “No. 6 Cross Street was a show place all the years that Grandpa lived there. Its long flight of stairs lead down the east side of the building to a garden so pretty and old-fashioned that passers-by would pause, lean on the sidewalk railing, and admire his several flower-beds of multicolored varieties . . . his own make of lawn furniture, including two hammocks and swings seemed to invite the town folk to rest a spell, which many did.”
James turned to the well-trod territory of the gardens that once bordered the eastern side of the tracks near the Depot. They were the creation of onetime Scottish-born gardener John Laidlaw. Laidlaw created such floral extravaganzas as a replica of the battleship “Maine,” a log cabin rendered in sod, and a model of a locomotive crossing a bridge over Niagara Falls—with even the surging falls recreated in waves of flowers. James said that Laidlaw maintained all of the station gardens up and down the railroad in other towns and that Laidlaw’s Ypsi greenhouse harbored all of the plants required for every other station.
Neither claim is correct. Railroad gardens were maintained locally in each town. Niles, in particular, had gardens far more extensive than Ypsilanti’s, with a series of greenhouses maintained by its own gardener John Gipner. It is also clear to anyone with any gardening experience that Laidlaw’s lone greenhouse is not large enough to supply plants for any garden other than the one in Ypsilanti.
The Ypsi greenhouse stood until the 1950s, said James, when it was either torn down or disassembled. “The foundation is still there,” he added.
James last addressed the onetime science gardens on the grounds of EMU, in which students received their own plot for botanical experimentation. The gardens were later covered by the erection of Hover Hall. Next mentioned was the onetime EMU fountain that stood near Cross Street within sight of the Water Tower. This ornate iron creation, said James, was the gift of the class of 1888 (actually 1898), and was removed in 1961 to a fate unknown. James showed a photo of onetime natural sciences professor and garden director William Scherzer standing in front of a bank of spiky flowers. Whispers of “iris—those are iris” wafted among audience members.
Soon the talk was over, and the audience rose to chat in clusters and move to the refreshment area set up in the home’s vast dining room. Outside lay the cold March darkness. Long gone were the railroad gardens, the campus garden, and the riverbank garden behind the old City Hall. Yet walking back to the car, in a yard dimly lit by a pink-orange streetlight, I glimpsed a clutch of stubby pointed shoots of tulip.
Laura Bien is the author of “Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives” and the upcoming “Hidden Ypsilanti.”
“Say there, brother, don’t mean to interrupt your threshing. Got a minute? Nice to lean on this fence for a minute after going around the township all day.
“Now, sir, what would you say if I told you that these here seeds in this little vial could get you ten dollars a bushel? I know. Sounds ridiculous. Twenty, thirty cents a bushel for oats is the norm around here. But this here seed is that new strain of oats—maybe you’ve heard of them–Bohemian Oats.
“Now, I ain’t about to sell you no junk. These oats are serious business. Lotta farmers got rich on these. Take a look at these testimonials. Here, take a look at this contract. Got your official notarized gold seal right there. You can see for yourself what it says. I do hereby agree to purchase, next fall, the crop of Bohemian Oats you raise, and pay ten dollars a bushel, minus a 25 per cent service charge. Yes sir, we’re talking ten good American dollars. What do you say? From the looks of your fine farm here, I’m sure you have an extra acre or two to try it. You can’t lose—anything you grow I’ll buy for ten bucks a bushel. OK, sign right here.”
In the 1870s and 1880s, numerous Michigan farmers fell for the Bohemian Oat swindle. Silver-tongued salesmen singled out the area’s leading farmers and approached them to extol the merits of the miraculous oat.
The swindle was elaborate, stretching over two years. After securing a signature on a contract, the salesman gave the farmer a supply of Bohemian oat seeds to plant.
The following fall, the salesman came back to buy, as promised, the farmer’s crop of Bohemian oats at the fabulous price of ten dollars a bushel—minus the salesman’s cut.
Except that by this time, the farmer’s neighbors, perhaps less successful and eyeing the money, clamored to buy the crop as seed for their own lucrative crop of Bohemian oats.
The salesman agreed. A flurry of fancy contracts, signatures, and the entire crop was sold, doled out in small portions to the farmer’s neighbors, who anticipated huge profits when the salesman came back next fall.
The salesman thanked the new farmer-investors, pocketed his bankroll, and hightailed it to the nearest depot, to hop on the next train.
He never came back the following fall.
One of the many Bohemian Oat companies was incorporated in 1884 and headquartered in Ypsilanti. At least, it claimed it was based here. It never had a brick and mortar office downtown. Nor did it advertise in local papers. In fact it appeared to be a rather vaporous concern until its president was arraigned on charges of fraud, as documented in the December 15, 1887 Pinckney Dispatch.
“The first conviction in Michigan of a Bohemian oats agent, for obtaining a signature to a promissory note, under false pretences, occurred in the circuit court, for Genesee county . . .” said the paper. “The case was that of the people vs. Alfred W. Hamner, representing the Bohemian oats and cereal company of Ypsilanti. The complaining witness was Abram Tittsworth, a well-known and well-to-do farmer of Atlas township. The case occupied two days in trial and excited widespread interest . . .”
This Ypsilanti company did not limit itself to fleecing Michigan farmers, but ventured far afield, as far as New York State. “A curious case of speculation has been brought to light here by the arrival in the city of W. H. Clark, a wealthy farmer of Groveland, Mich,” reported the December 1, 1886 edition of The American Florist, reprinting a Rochester, New York newspaper article. “Clark, it appears, was induced to enter with others into a large grain speculation two years ago, buying a large quantity of oats of an agent of a concern calling itself the Bohemian Oat and Cereal company, located at Ypsilanti. The agent sold the grain to Clark for $10 per bushel, and gave him a bond that the company would this year sell for him double the quantity he purchased at the same price per bushel. About a month ago the agent appeared and sold the double quantity to other farmers. The company cleared 33 and 1/3 per cent, profit in cash, and Clark was given notes which he has found to be nearly worthless. Clark pursued the officers of the company to this city, and intends bringing the matter into the criminal court. The same scheme has been worked extensively in western New York, and interesting developments are expected. The company cleared over $100,000 by its scheme in Michigan.”
“The farmer is induced to buy ten bushels of the oats for one hundred dollars, by the hope of selling twenty bushels for two hundred dollars,” reported the March, 1886 issue of the American Agriculturalist magazine, “and he thinks that this is guaranteed to him by a ‘bond,’ given him by the seller. This ‘Bond,” in spite of its abundance of green and red inks, its very broad seal (intended to look like gold, but is only Dutch metal), and the bold signature of a secretary, this ‘bond,’ so-called, has no more binding effect than a mere memorandum.”
Coverage of the Bohemian Oat swindle began surfacing in numerous other agricultural journals in the late 1880s, with exhortations to area farmers to eschew the golden promise of the miraculous oat and its accompanying fancy contracts and gilded promises.
Bohemian Oats even surfaced in Michigan Supreme Court proceedings in 1890. The complicated case centered on the issue of fraud surrounding the issue of notes, the then-equivalent of checks. Boiled down into a nutshell for the sake of sparing the kind reader the dizzying particulars, the whole Bohemian Oats scheme failed the smell test, and the lucrative scam died away.
By the turn of the century, the Bohemian Oats scam was extinct. Plenty a smooth-talking sharper had made his pile and disappeared, and plenty a greedy farmer had fallen for the swindle. But what was true in the 1880s is no less true today—there’s no free lunch. Reader, if some honey-tongued salesman leans over your fence and promises you an exorbitant return with a miracle seed, and flaunts some fancy-looking contracts with gleaming golden seals, you’d be best off sending that con man down the road on his merry way.
Don’t fall for those old Bohemian Oats.