And the Wind Says…Ypsalveo

November 1, 2010 by  
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ypsalveo2Ypsilanti is the nation’s birthplace of the Automatic Toast-Butterer, the breakfast cereal Wheat Hearts, and an improvement in stilts. All of these received patents. Though they may not have survived to the present day, they speak to the personality of their inventors and to an age of fervent experimentation.

One tiny item, so humble it never received an official patent, can be added to the wide range of inventions, agricultural implements, milling parts, paper, boxes, underwear, and other products once made in the city.

The item’s birthplace was the turn-of-the-century drugstore that once occupied the present-day space of the Rocket novelty store, on the southwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Huron.

David Morford and William Hyzer ran the City Drugstore. Hyzer had begun work there as a clerk after graduating Ypsilanti High School in 1881. David rented a room from a downtown family. Hyzer had married Mary Corkins two years earlier and lived at 417 Adams. In 1892, David was 26 and Hyzer 29.

That year, City Drug Store was one of five drugstores in the downtown area. The shops had different specialties. City Drug Store stocked drugs, perfumes, wallpaper, paint brushes, and varnishes. Another of the druggists, Fred Davis, stocked a wide range of patent medicines. He offered for sale such concoctions as “Johnson’s Magnetic Oil,” the “Japanese Pile Cure,” and “Dr. E. C. West’s Nerve and Brain Treatment.” It was a golden age of patent medicines, soon to come to an end under the Pure Food laws of 1906.

The other downtown druggists included Frank Smith, C. W. Rogers, and E. R. Beal. The five stores had a rotating agreement to cover Sundays. Only one shop stayed open all day. Cards in the other stores’ windows directed shoppers to the open shop, in case patrons desired a health-giving quaff of Sulphur Bitters, perhaps in the privacy of the backyard privy, on the Lord’s Day.

ypsalveoAs well as cooperating, of course the five shops were in competition. In 1892 David and William dreamed up a new product that seemed to fill a niche and offer a panacea for winter weather. The partners mixed ingredients (using a recipe now lost to history) in the back of their shop. Finally they found the right combination. This new product, they hoped, would bring streams of new customers to the City Drug Store. David and William packed their creation into containers for sale, stocked it in their shop, and took out a large ad in the Ypsilanti Commercial.

The miracle product was Ypsalveo.

Likely pronounced “Ip-SAL-vee-oh,” the substance was a lip balm that also could be used as a skin cream. “YPSALVEO is very healing and softening,” says a November 11, 1892 Ypsilanti Commercial advertisement, “for use on lips, hands, and face. Will cure chapped lips and cold sores, or any irritation of the skin. Price 25 cents per box [$6 today].”

fred-david1The ad was a large one, right next to fellow druggist Fred Davis’s even larger one advertising his dubious nostrums. The Ypsalveo ad continued to run for several more weeks, as David and William kept manufacturing the balm.

Ypsalveo could have joined the ranks of Atlantis mineral water or Ypsilanti Underwear as a famous city product. It’s conceivable that even today, instead of Chapstick and hand cream, Ypsalveo could have become a common household product. (Possible jingle: “For tender skin and lips aglow/Apply and try Ypsalveo!”)

But in a few weeks the Ypsalveo ads vanished from the pages of the Commercial.

Then a strange event in the shop seemed to presage disaster. In the summer of 1896, David and William found two partially burned boxes of matches in their shop. The partners “are congratulating themselves on a narrow escape from a conflagration,” said the August 10 issue of American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record. “They now devote their leisure time to speculating on the possible way in which the matches became ignited.”

Unfortunately, with the failure of Ypsalveo, the two had perhaps more leisure time than they needed. The days of the City Drugstore were near their end.

In 1896, Morford signed up to serve in the Spanish-American War. Joining Company G of the First Infantry, he was promoted to corporal, and reenlisted. He earned the ranks of sergeant, second lieutenant, and was honorably discharged as captain in 1901. He did not return to the drugstore.

Also in 1901, William sold his interest in the store to Hillsdale druggist F. A. Hodges. Hyzer soon moved with his wife Mary to York Township in western Washtenaw.

After his return from military service, the 35-year-old David rented a room in the Hamilton Street home of 45-year-old town grocer John Lamb, who lived there with his 35-year-old wife Minnie, his 54-year-old sister Jane, and his 6-year-old son Charles. David found a job as an insurance agent. The dream of owning his own store was gone.

The insurance agent job didn’t last. By 1903, David was working as a traveling salesman. He lost that job as well. Two years later, he was working as a common laborer, one of the lowest-status jobs then available. As a sign of the racism of the times, it was one of the very few jobs, along with barber, sign-painter, railroad worker, and junkman, that black men in the city could hold.

David then disappears from available records. Not even his death seems to be locally recorded.

The only apparent memorial to David and his ambitions, a humble one, is hidden: in a November Ypsilanti Commercial Ypsalveo ad, shrunken to a tiny size, halfway through a roll of microfilm stacked alongside other rolls in one drawer of one cabinet in the microfilm area on the third floor of Halle Library.


Laura Bien is the author of “Tales of the Ypsilanti Archives.” Have an old-time story to share? Contact her at

When Air Raid Sirens Sounded over Ypsilanti

October 17, 2010 by  
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On a summer evening nearly six decades ago, Ypsilanti went dark.

It was a citywide blackout—on purpose. No cars moved on the streets. Homes and businesses were quiet. Families brought their newspapers, books, and sewing to their homes’ “blackout rooms,” whose windows were lined with heavy fabric to block any leaking light.

During World War II, Ypsilanti residents, like those in other Michigan cities, took precautions for hometown civil defense should enemy planes appear overhead. Of course the city seemed like an especially vulnerable target due to its nearby bomber plant.

Not long prior to the city’s first test blackout, the City Council had passed an ordinance detailing the rules relating to blackouts and air raid procedures. The ordinance specified that all lights within a home must be extinguished. It   also said that for any home displaying light under blackout conditions, police had the right to enter the home “using no more than reasonable and necessary force” in order to extinguish the illumination. Violators could be fined $100 [$1,300 today] or jailed for 90 days, or both.

Furthermore, citizens were barred from making any siren or horn sound similar to the air raid signal siren.

The main air raid siren stood on top of the Hotel Huron, now the Centennial Center at Pearl and Washington. It consisted of four large horns pointed in four different directions. The Hotel Huron’s horns were augmented by hand-operated mobile sirens at such outlying locations around the city as Prospect and Forest streets.
The air raid sirens sounded one of four signals as mandated by Michigan’s State Director of Civilian Defense.

The initial “Blue Warning,” signifying that an air raid was probable, consisted of a two-minute steady blast of horns, sirens, or whistles. Civilian defense personnel were mobilized, lights were turned out, and traffic switched to low-beam headlights.

Next could come the “Red Warning,” meaning that an air raid was imminent. The horn would sound a series of short blasts. All lights had to be extinguished, traffic except for emergency vehicles had to stop and turn off lights, and the public was to take shelter.

If the immediate danger was past, another alert, also confusingly named a “Blue Warning,” would be sounded. This signified that “Raiders May Return,” and although traffic was allowed to move again, with low-beam lights, homes and factories remained dark.

The all clear signal was three one-minute blasts, at which sound lights could be relit and normal conditions resumed.

For local Civil Defense workers, the U.S. Citizens Defense Corps of Michigan prepared a booklet of “Tactical Training Operations.” The work consists of sixteen scenarios involving war strikes in various parts of the city and were meant as mental training exercises. The apocalyptic scenarios likely approximated some city residents’ fears.

A crude hand-drawn map accompanied the first scenario.

A crude hand-drawn map accompanied the first scenario.

It is 2:15 a.m. Ypsilanti is in blackout. The [pictured] map above shows the area which you are patrolling.

A bomb has exploded on the pavement of Woods Road at the corner or intersection of Summit Street, blocking Woods Road entirely. An incendiary bomb has started a fire at 117 Linden. A bomb exploded in the lawn beside Woods Road, where a party had been in progress. At least 20 people were known to [have been] in the house. A corner of the house is blown in. No fire. By the light of an incendiary burning on the street nearby you can see the building might collapse. Women scream behind the wreckage. You cannot tell if anyone is injured.

Another scenario reads,

A raid is in progress. It is 2 p.m. Traffic has stopped and the only people to be seen are two air raid wardens bravely making their rounds. One of then suddenly stops as a man calls to him from the doorway of 603 Emmet Street, shouting, “We’ve been gassed!”

A wind is blowing from the South. The warden notices a strong, very pleasant smell in the air, like the fragrance of green corn or new mown hay. Another man in the house begins vomiting. He appears dopey, and cannot tell what is the matter. A neighbor rushes up and offers the sick man a drink of whiskey as a stimulant.

A third reads,

Bombs exploding at the intersection of River and Cross Streets have demolished the building on the southwest corner. Rubble blocks the railroad tracks, a section of which is torn up. Windows are broken from the O. E. Thompson building and a small fire is starting at the bottom of the railroad watchman’s tower.

Each scenario ends with the question, “What would you do?”

On the night of Thursday, June 25, the city made a trial blackout run. The newspaper had run instructions the day before, including the warning to refrain from smoking a pipe, cigar, or cigarette where it could be seen from the air.

At 10:27 p.m. the initial signal sounded. Citizens had three minutes to make sure all was dark by 10:30. Drivers pulled over their cars and shut off their lights. Air raid wardens, who had met a half hour ago at the 20 air raid stations around the city, set off walking on inspection rounds to ensure compliance.

Finally, at the all-clear signal, cars were restarted and windows lit up. The sound of a radio came drifting through a screen door.

But for fifteen minutes, the city had been still and dark, practicing for the dread sound of approaching bombers in an enemy air raid which thankfully never came.

Have an old-time story to share? Contact Laura at

The Mystery of the Bell Street Bones

October 4, 2010 by  
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With Halloween on the horizon, local author Laura Bien spins a tale of a skeleton–four, actually–in Ypsilanti’s past.

As seen in this 1915 plat map, Belle Street began at the conjunction of Grove and Prospect roads.

As seen in this 1915 plat map, Belle Street began at the conjunction of Grove and Prospect roads.

On a chilly January day in the depths of the Depression, a macabre find by city sewer workers excited the curiosity of an entire city.

“Discovery of a human skeleton three feet below the surface of the ground on Bell Street this morning has given rise to numerous guesses as to how it came there,” read the January 17, 1933 Ypsilanti Daily Press.

Bell (earlier spelled “Belle Street”) was a onetime route wending east from the intersection of Grove and Prospect towards Belleville. Today the street is called Tyler Road. On a modern Ypsilanti map, it appears as three discrete sections, chopped into pieces over the years by the construction of I-94 and the Willow Run bomber plant. Bell Street first appears on 1864 Ypsilanti plat maps.

The paper continued, “The bones were of an adult person of large build and were discovered by a workman digging on the sewer. Tom Smith [found] the first bones and discovered they were in no order, skull and jaw bones lying next to those of the thigh and the legs.

“A box had evidently contained the remains at one time, as rotted fragments were uncovered around the bones. That burial had taken place not so many years ago was indicated by the fact that bits of rusted metal which appeared to be screws were found imbedded in the wood . . . although cavities were located in the teeth, no dental work was evident.”

The paper went on to say that the placement of the bones was all the more strange as a sewer main ran directly under them. Hadn’t the former sewer diggers found the grisly objects?

The find was the talk of the town. The following day’s paper suggested that the bones might not have been discovered by the former sewer diggers because they had used a tunneling technique that bored beneath the bones, leaving them undisturbed, instead of digging a ditch that might have uncovered the remains.

On January 19, an expert was called in to assess the site: U-M anthropology professor W. B. Hinsdale. Hinsdale was known for his 1927 book The Indians of Washtenaw County, Michigan in which he discussed area burial mounds and identified many Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti roads as onetime Indian trails.

The bones “are those of four persons, two men and a woman, and a child,” according to Hinsdale, reported the January 19 Ypsilanti Daily Press.

“No implements, jewelry, or other trinkets were found with the bones and their position in the earth led to the belief that the bodies may have been crowded into a small box in a cramped position and buried in that way.”

The paper continued, “Dr. Hinsdale states that the bones of several individual were frequently buried together by the Indians of this region, and only a few months ago a large quantity of bones of men, women, and children were discovered together on property near here owned by the Ford Motor Co. The presence of the fragments of board, however, is a disturbing element.”

Finally a local old-timer came forth to contribute information. “An explanation of the mystery of the bones in the box that has aroused local imagination since Tuesday was offered today by Robert Simons . . . The bones were placed where they were found on Bell St. by workmen about thirty-five years ago according to Mr. Simons. He stated that they were first found when the ditch for the water main was being dug . . .”

“Mr. Simons was foreman of this crew and said he thought the main was installed around 1896. There was something of a mystery about the discovery at that time, as the bones were found directly in the center of the road. Mr. Simons says that he had lived in Ypsilanti since shortly after 1860 and the road which is now Bell Street was there at this time.

The paper reported local residents’ speculation that the bones could be those from an Indian burial, but added “No trinkets, trophies, or weapons commonly associated with Indian burials were found in the grave.”

And then the story faded from the paper.

No further mention was made as to whether the bones had been collected, taken to U-M by Hinsdale, or reburied.

Not once in this series of newspaper articles was there any mention that the Prospect and Grove intersection was the onetime site of Woodruff’s Grove, the original 1823 settlement that predated Ypsilanti. A plaque tucked within the intersection of the two streets marks the settlement’s approximate spot.

Woodruff’s Grove had its own small graveyard, on land later known as the Foerster Farm, overlooking the river. Several early Grove settlers succumbed to “chills and fever” or “fever and ague” (malaria) and other diseases and were buried there. The land lay just south of Bell Street and the intersection of Prospect and Grove, and extended to the riverbank. Many years later much of Foerster’s Farm was flooded by Henry Ford’s 1933 damming of the Huron leading to the creation of Ford Lake.

Were the Bell Street bones the remains of Woodruff’s Grove settlers? Perhaps those of Benjamin Woodruff himself? A grave marker stands for Woodruff in Ann Arbor’s Forest Hill Cemetery—but Woodruff died in 1837, long before Forest Hill was dedicated in 1859. There’s speculation that this grave marker is just a cenotaph, a memorial erected in honor of a deceased person whose remains lie elsewhere.

Do the aged Bell Street bones still lie beneath Tyler Road near the meeting-point of Prospect and Grove?

Ypsilanti may never know.

Laura Bien is the author of “Tales of the Ypsilanti Archives.” Have an idea for a column? Contact her at

Beauties in Boarding Houses: The Daily Life of a 1907 EMU Student

September 19, 2010 by  
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A cartoon in the 1915 Aurora depicted boardinghouse "hash" as comprised of buttons, safety pins, and paper clips.

A cartoon in the 1915 Aurora depicted boardinghouse "hash" as an appetizing blend of buttons, safety pins, and paper clips.

EMU students in 1907 didn’t have campus dorms, personal transportation, or on-campus meal plans. A humor article in the 1907 “Aurora” yearbook illustrates how different—and in some ways, how timelessly similar—were students’ lives.

“A Day at the Normal” [EMU was then known as Normal College] is a chronological account that kicks off in early morning.

6 A.M.: Loud ringing of alarm clocks.
6:05 A.M.: Yawns and groans.
6:10 A.M.: General getting up.
6:30 A.M.: Mad scrambling to get to the boarding-house.
6:35 A.M.: Waiting for breakfast.
6:40 A.M.: Waiter appears with a dish of sawdust in one hand and some chopped hay in the other.

By and large students rented rooms in family homes throughout the city for living quarters. The school coordinated the placement of students with homeowners willing to house a student or students of either gender—co-ed houses were not allowed (a rule that in later years was relaxed). School officials kept an eye on the homes in order to make any necessary changes to their “approved homes” list.

A few such private homes also provided meals, but most students subscribed to a meal plan at a separate boarding house, whose name derives from the “board,” or table. The term “boardinghouse reach” originates from this era, evoking a tableful of hungry diners but only one salt shaker. At this time, a week’s worth of three daily meals at a boarding house cost students around $2, about $50 today.

After leaving their rooming houses and eating breakfast at their boarding houses, students headed to school.

7:00 A.M. Seniors slowly amble towards the Library.
7:50: General evacuation of the Library. Many collisions in the hall. Great crowd of boys at the social corner causes traffic to cease for a time.
7:59: Empty corridors. Re-echoing footsteps in the distance.
8:05: Janitors sit down on the steps for an hour’s visit.
8:07: [Psychology] Prof. Laird: “I shall keep all these people who are late, after school.”
8:10: [French and German] Prof. Ford: “How many of you people have had your breakfast this morning?” (Half of the class look silly).

The Normal was a teacher training school with an on-site grade school where senior Normal students practiced teaching classes, under the eye of the dreaded supervising “Critic Teacher.”

8:50: Seniors rush to the Training School, pleasant (?) anticipation in every feature.
9:05: Critic teacher comes in, notebook in hand.
9:06: Courage flies out of the window.
9:30: Student teacher drops lifeless to the floor.
9:32: She is pushed out of the door to make way for another victim.

After morning classes came the mad scramble to return to the boarding house for lunch, with student couples tending to lag a bit behind. If lunch was eaten expeditiously, there might be time to enjoy another stroll back to school with one’s sweetheart.

11:50: Normal doors are burst open by vast crowds of students. They rush for the boarding houses at break-neck speed.
12: Grub.
12:30 P.M.: Groups of well-filled (?) students issue forth and go down the street in the following order: Miss Ronan and Mr. Engle; Miss Warren and Mr. Miller; Mr. Caswell and a bunch of seven or more; Hugo and Clara; Withenbury and Louise; Roy and Brice; C. P. and Anne; “Doc” and his pockets.

In the afternoon came class observation time for student teachers, and other classes that included music lessons and student teaching feedback critique sessions.

12:55 P.M.: The ‘one o’clock’ gong sounds. Groups of light-hearted [grade school] children skip toward the Training School, while here and there a solitary senior wends his weary way thither to “observe.”
1:30 P.M.: Unearthly screeches from the Conservatory denote the fact that someone is taking a lesson.
3 P.M.: Critic Meeting. Every one hustles to get there and learn how to receive the worst “slams” with a smiling countenance.

In the afternoon, sports practices began, occasionally interrupted by the diversion of a wondrous contraption then rare in the city.

4 P.M.: The Tennis Courts are full of people bobbing around picking up white balls. The baseball boys trot around after [Coach] Schulte.
4:15 P.M.: An automobile goes down Cross Street. All occupation ceases.
4:20 P.M.: Occupations are again resumed.
5:15 P.M.: “The studious people in the Library are requested to ‘bring books to the desk and get reserved books.”

The school day was over. Students could return to their boarding house for dinner.

5:30 P.M.: “Hash time” has arrived. The odors issuing forth from the doors and windows proclaim the ingredients.

Those ingredients were lambasted in a satirical “Menu from a Leading Boarding House” article, published in the 1918 Aurora’s jokes section.

Corn Flakes, Toasted
Diluted Fluid of Bovine
Encrusted Doughpiles, Browned
Meat, in absentia
Essence of H2O, Filtered
Mock Coffee, with condemned milk

DINNER [Lunch]
Soup in bowls
Bread, individual slices
Vegetables sometimes
Roast Beef a la tuffo
Essence H2O refiltered
Mock Coffee heated
Pie Filet de Vacuum
Napkins, Folded

SUPPER [Dinner]
Beef, resurrected
Potatoes, with eyes
Hot Canines, deanimated
Aqua pura, in glasses
Mock Coffee again
Dried apricots, bonded vintage 1763
Cookies, a la hardtack from Plymouth
Napkins, Refolded

After dinner, the students’ evenings were free for study, or less scholastic pursuits.

6 P.M.: Pear [a joke on “pair,” or couple] time again.
6:30 P.M.: The beauties of the Huron are viewed by twilight.

Visiting another rooming house was allowed, but supervised. All too soon the rooming houses’ curfew of 10 P.M. would arrive, and visitors had to leave their charming companions. Tomorrow was another school day.

10 P.M.: Many doors are opened and young men come out.
11 P.M.: The streets are quiet. The High School clock and the moon keep a silent watch over the slumbering town.

Laura Bien is the author of “Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives,” available on Amazon. Have an idea for a column? Contact her at

Native American Graves Found on Water Street Property

September 5, 2010 by  
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Every Ypsilantian is familiar with the story of Indian artifacts and bones that have been found over the years along the western bank of the Huron River from roughly the location of the Museum to south of Michigan Avenue. Less well known are other discoveries of burial sites throughout the city, suggesting a much wider scope of Indian burials in the area.

Modern-day Ypsilanti was once the site of the intersection of several Indian trails, including the Great Sauk Trail (now Michigan Avenue). Four tribes are thought to have lived in the area: the Huron (also called Wyandot), Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potowatomi.

In 1927, Wilbert B. Hinsdale published his study of the area’s indigenous people, “The Indians of Washtenaw County Michigan.” A former U-M internal medicine professor and dean of the school’s Homeopathic Medical College, Hinsdale’s lifelong interest in archaeology led him into the field after his 1922 retirement from medicine. He was put in charge of U-M’s archaeological collections and eventually became known as the “Father of Michigan Archaeology.”

The 1927 Hinsdale map showed a burial site north of Washtenaw, marked by a circle with a cross.

The 1927 Hinsdale map showed a burial site north of Washtenaw, marked by a circle with a cross.

“The Indians of Washtenaw County” contains a map indicating several burial sites in Washtenaw County that include Saline and Ypsilanti. The symbol for the Ypsilanti burial site on the small-scale map is placed north of Washtenaw within the westward curve of Huron Street as it turns to the northern edge of the EMU campus. This placement, if accurate, suggests that burial grounds extended further north along the river than the Riverside Park area, possibly into the modern-day EMU campus.

In 1970, onetime EMU student Edward Heyman wrote a one-page memoir, preserved in the Ypsilanti Archives, of his encounter with a purported Native American burial site. As a student, he volunteered to help with a 1920s pine tree planting program on the then-northwest corner of EMU’s campus (now the site of the Student Center). “I was interested in the area,” wrote Heyman, “and especially in the fact that Professor William H. Sherzer, head of the Department of Natural Science, told us that the area was the site of an early Indian cemetery.” The group planted what later became known as Pine Grove.

In the 1940s, when the university planned to cut down some of the pines in order to build the Pine Grove Terrace Apartments, alum Heyman returned to look at the site. “Seeing the pine trees, which I helped plant years before, being cut down and basements being dug, I walked over to the area to see what was happening. In the debris of the digging were a dozen of more old, old bones. The man in charge of the excavation said they were Indian bones, that the digging had uncovered remains of several graves.”

The Pine Grove Terrace apartments were demolished in the early 2000s to clear space for the Student Center. The Center’s Kiva Room rises over the approximate location of the onetime graves.

There’s other evidence that the burial sites were not confined to the Riverside Park area. In 1914, burial sites were discovered in the Water Street area, at Parsons and Lincoln streets. In 1914, the Westfield and Fall River Lumber company had a lumberyard there. Behind it lay a gravel pit, where the graves were discovered.

“Men who are drawing gravel from the pit on what is known as the Jan Williams place back of the [lumber yard] for the state road have come upon three Indian skeletons,” said the June 11, 1914 Ypsilanti Daily Press. “”Monday morning Mr. Platt, who is in charge of the work, found a large copper kettle which was filled with seeds resembling pumpkin seeds but upon trying to get the kettle from the ground it fell to pieces. “This morning the men found two more smaller kettles which were extremely heavy and a few minutes later they unearthed three skeletons deeply embedded in the sand.”

The term “kettle” refers not to a teakettle but to the wide-bottomed copper cooking bowls found in numerous indigenous burial sites in Michigan and throughout the Midwest and Northeast.

The paper continued, “Upon the bones of two of these they found two bracelets and in the graves they found small white beads which were still fastened to a loose woven cloth. These also fell to pieces. A large double cross and a smaller cross was found, also two silver ornaments which resembled a whisk broom holder, the large one with a picture and the words ‘King of Spain,’ a small brush which showed the trace of color upon it and many other small silver pieces with fancy ornaments upon them. A spoon was among the collection.

“One of the skeletons was in perfect condition and the workmen scraped the sand away but when they attempted to move it, it fell in a heap.

“Professor Jefferson from the Normal College was on the ground and made several photographs of the skeletons and the various ornaments.

The Water Street location corresponds with local onetime county surveyor Charles Woodard’s 1893 memoir, which includes his childhood recollection of Ypsilanti in the early 1830s.

“At times hundreds [of Indians],” he recalled, “might be seen camped out on the banks of the Huron near the East Public Square [a onetime city park on the southwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Park Street] but I do not remember ever hearing of anyone ever being molested by them or even troubled by their begging food. . . They were better off than their white brothers, being better hunters.”

The site was neither studied or preserved using modern archeological protocols.

“Early this morning students from the Normal College as well as others began to arrive on the scene to gather relics,” reported a front page story in the June 12 Ypsilanti Daily Press.

“One small boy had several teeth which he had taken from one of the skulls; another had a collar bone, and still another a piece of the spinal column. Bert Vealey, one of the workmen, decided that if there was to be anything left to show, it would be a wise idea to take steps to care for the bones so he procured a box and placed them in it, and took them to his home on South Street.

The paper continued, “Oscar Lawrence found three bracelets, a silver crown, a silver heart, and two copper kettles. Lewis Green found a whistle made from a buffalo horn. Frank Fletcher found a large cross made from silver about ten inches in length. James Carer found a bracelet [and] silver buckle. Verne Vealey found a knife handle made of bone, also some quill shields. Ben Singer found a breast pin with three crosses attached and ornamented with two small silver bells.”

Although the site was destroyed, a memorial remains to the onetime indigenous Ypsilantians whose graves were found in the gravel pit.

The gravel was used in 1914 to build the state road M-23. Later, this road was called US-112 and subsequently US-12, or Michigan Avenue.

The road workers unwittingly commemorated in concrete the route that the Native Americans found in the Ypsilanti gravel pit may have traveled many times: the Great Sauk Trail.

Laura Bien is a local history writer. Have an idea for a column? Email her at

The 1927 Hinsdale map shows a burial ground (circle with cross) north of Washtenaw.

The Photographer Who Inherited a Dead Frog

August 8, 2010 by  
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William Cooper's device helped simulate a live frog swimming.

William Cooper's device helped simulate a live frog swimming.

When in 1909 they read the will of Chicago businessman William Cooper, father to Ypsilanti photographer Charles Cooper, it turned out that Charles had inherited a dead frog.

Or, rather, the rights to William’s patent: a complicated bit of fishing tackle that pinned a frog in a lifelike pose.

The “Fisherman’s Friend,” as it was called, consisted of a trident-shaped bit of wire roughly four inches long. The dead frog rested on a little platform on the trident’s center wire, front legs dangling down. The two outer prongs of the trident held the frog’s legs extended backwards. A big hook curled up over the frog’s back. When the contraption was cast on a fishing line and reeled in, the frog would appear to be “swimming” through the water in a lifelike way, to tempt large game fish.

William Cooper had patented his invention in 1906. The patent application said that he had “invented certain new and useful improvements in Fishing-Hooks . . . the invention in this instance resides more particularly in the simplicity of the combination and construction, arrangement, and adaptation of the parts, with the added advantage of cheapness in the manufacture of the device.”

Though it seems a bit complicated, the three-year-old wire device was popular and already being sold around the country. In Ypsilanti, the “Fisherman’s Friend” was sold for fifteen cents [$3.50 today] at E. D. Carpenter’s hardware store at 124 Congress (Michigan Ave) and Shaefer Hardware at 23 Huron.

In 1909, Shaefer’s, on the west side of Huron, was just a few doors south of Cooper’s studio. Cooper’s photographic studio at 39 North Huron occupied the second floor of the onetime post office, at the southwest corner of Huron and Pearl streets. Cooper’s other neighbors on the west side of Huron included the cigar-maker Mathias Stein, the Weinmann-Matthews drugstore, the milliner Marian Clarke sharing a space with the dentist George Mills, and the offices of Ypsilanti physician Ellen Murray. Cooper’s studio was popular—there are many photographs in the Ypsilanti Archives that have the imprint of his name and business.

At his father’s death, Cooper moved all of the machinery used to manufacture the fishing device from Chicago to Ypsilanti, and installed it in the rear of his studio. He intended to carry on his father’s legacy. The local newspaper crowed about this exciting new Ypsilanti business in a front-page, above-the-fold story.

“Within a short time, the city of Ypsilanti will have added another industry,” said the April 27, 1909 Ypsilanti Daily Press.

“Mr. C. E. Cooper, the photographer whose place of business is situated over the post office was bequeathed a patent by his father and intends to start manufacturing on a large scale in the near future.”

Charles had reason to do so—the device was popular. The Press said, “Cooper’s patented snap swivel or the ‘Fisherman’s Friend’ as it is called, has been manufactured for the past three years in Chicago under the direction of Mr. Cooper’s father.”

The article continued, “The Sears-Roebuck Co., of Chicago, probably the largest mail order concern in the world, recently placed an order with Mr. Cooper for 400 gross.

“The Simmons Hardware Co. of St. Louis, Missouri, in a recent letter to Mr. Cooper declared that within a year, their corps of salesmen could handle the entire output of the Cooper company.

“The little contrivance has a decidedly bright future and Mr. Cooper intends to push it extensively within the next year [1910].”

At this dawning of Charles’ fishing tackle empire, tragedy struck.

Charles Cooper became ill in early March, 1911. The doctors summoned could not help him. He took to his bed for six weeks as his wife Matilda tried to help. It was no use. Charles Cooper died on April 18, 1911.

His death certificate says that Charles died of Bright’s disease, a onetime catchall term for several different kidney ailments. Charles was buried in Highland Cemetery.

His widow Matilda lived until 1931. She is buried with Charles in section 49 of Highland.

The cemetery overlooks the Huron River. It’s possible that long after Charles’ death, local fishermen were still enjoying the device patented by his father and sold in Ypsilanti, the “Fisherman’s Friend.”

Laura Bien is the author of “Tales of the Ypsilanti Archives.” Have an old-time Ypsilanti history story to share? Contact her at

The Disappearance of Lula Kohlasch

July 26, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

Lula disappeared in the summer of 1905.

Lula disappeared in the summer of 1905.

When Lula Kohlasch abandoned her husband and children in the summer of 1905, the only thing she left behind was her wheelchair.

The July 19, 1905 Ypsilanti Daily Press said, “If any question as to the metropolitan character of Ypsilanti is still entertained, it will promptly be set at rest by the discovery that the city has its sensations as well as the larger cities. All this came to light this morning by the report of Mr. Kohlasch, a respectable and hardworking man, whose wife, Mrs. Kohlasch, is and has been for some time an invalid and a cripple.”

Charles Kohlasch worked as a day laborer. In 1900, 40-year-old Kohlasch lived in Plymouth with his 24-year-old wife Lula. The Press spelled her name Lura, and on various other records it appears as Lola, Tola, Tula, and Jula. The couple lived with their 3-year-old son Walter and infant Rosella. They had married 4 years prior in nearby Northfield Township.

The family moved to Ypsilanti and by 1903 were renting a home at 438 Chidester Street, midway between Catherine and Spring streets. Two more children followed by 1905. Lula likely had a hard time caring for the 4 children ranging in age from 8 to 2.

Mr. Kohlasch, said the paper, had had difficulty securing household help. He eventually found a good candidate in Detroit, and the young woman began working in the house. Everything seemed fine until “a young fellow,” said the paper, “who makes his home on Forest Avenue at his brother’s, saw the girl for the first time, took her walking and the couple forgot to return. They claim that they expect to be married soon, although the ceremony has not yet taken place.”

Kohlasch was again without help. The Ypsilanti Daily Press said that he went to Ann Arbor to ask a young lady who’d previously worked in the house to return. He likely wanted to hire some help before leaving on a short trip that he and Lula had planned. He’d just been paid for the month–$16, or $380 today.

When Kohlasch returned home, his wife and the money were gone.

Also missing were some of her skirts, blouses, and shoes, as well as 13-year-old neighbor boy Carl Pepper, who had wheeled Lula around town in the past.

“Mr. Kohlasch has reported the matter to the police department,” said the Daily Press, “who are endeavoring to locate the couple. The husband is a hard-working man and is well liked by those who knew them. Mrs. Kohlasch has had every comfort lavished on her by her husband and no explanation of her absence can be offered.”

Lula’s wheelchair was found, said the following day’s Press, at John Schaff’s home at 113 Miles Street.

The paper continued, “Warrants which were sworn out by the father of the boy for truancy and for the woman for abandoning her children are still in the hands of the Ann Arbor officials, who have yet not been able to serve them.”

Gossip swirled around town. “Neighbors claim that Mrs. Kohlasch was not so ill as was supposed,” said the paper. “It is said that frequently on Sundays they would have a violin player at the house and dance at these times. Mr. Kohlasch would join in the merrymaking.”

The paper continued, “When asked about this the husband replied that his wife enjoyed the music as much as any one and sometimes would get up and step around to the music just as any one who is full of life.”

Lula, said her husband, “‘was getting to feel more like herself and had been able to do more than for some time.’”

Kohlasch was asked if the couple had had problems. He replied, said the Press, “‘No, we hadn’t any trouble lately; that is to say since I called her down for being too friendly with the boy, but I thought I had a perfect right to do that under the circumstances. She just laughed at me, but their actions worried me some. I hate to think of her leaving her children so and going off in that way.’”

Pepper was in his last week of summer grade school taught at the Normal College, said the paper.

The Press reported that Kohlasch had left the children with a neighbor. It continued, “When asked if he would take her back [he] replied that the matter was entirely out of his hands now, as he had gone before the prosecuting attorney and the crime for which the warrants were issued is punishable by not less than three years or more than ten.”

Town gossip intensified. “The report that Charles Kohlasch does not look after his children, which has been circulated in some quarters, is not true,” said the July 28, 1905 Ypsilanti Daily Press. “Mr. Kohlasch is a hard-working, industrious man, who bears a good reputation among his neighbors for sobriety and honesty.”

The paper continued, “Since the departure of his wife over a week ago in company with a 13-year-old boy, it has been something of a problem to the father to see how he could care for his motherless brood and at the same time earn money with which to feed and clothe them. Kindly neighbors, pitying the little family, came to the rescue and cared for them until the father could straighten out his affairs and find out what to do. At this point the usual busybodies interested themselves in the matter and applied to County Agent Childs to have them sent to the state public school at Coldwater.”

Agent Childs refused the request, said the Press, and when a local priest offered to place the children in a Catholic children’s home, Kohlasch expressed gratitude but said, as noted in the paper, that “he had made arrangements for a housekeeper to come next Monday and that he will try to keep the little family together.”

He succeeded. The couple eventually reunited.

The reasons for Lula’s disappearance remain unclear.

The family soon moved to Missouri, where son Frank was born, and then Kansas, where daughter Fern was born. Eventually Charles and Lula would return to Missouri, where a separation awaited the couple.

For the moment, however, Charles had succeeded in keeping his family together during a sad and difficult time in Ypsilanti.

Laura Bien is the author of “Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives.” Have an old-time Ypsilanti story to share? Contact her at

The Threat to Ypsi’s Local Economy in 1906 (Not Globalization)

July 11, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

flobertCheap goods shipped from distant places hurt the local economy. It’s better—no, vital—to shop locally. It’s also a waste of money to buy a cheap but inferior product from afar when a better, if more expensive local one will last longer.

These were the themes of a talk given at an Ypsilanti business association. The themes sound familiar in a globalized Internet age that offers the choice of whether to buy goods made elsewhere or online, or patronize an Ypsilanti store. “Buy Local” is now a familiar idea.

But it isn’t new. The talk at the business meeting occurred not in 2010 but in 1906. The goods from afar undercutting the local economy weren’t from distant countries or the Internet.

“Last night’s meeting of the Ypsilanti Business Men’s Association in Cleary College reading room was a fine one and the turn out of citizens was magnificent,” said the March 2, 1906 Ypsilanti Daily Press. “The singing of the Pease men’s quartet was a revelation to those that had never heard them and they were heartily cheered by their delighted hearers. The talk given by [downtown clothing store co-owner] Mr. Horner was one that should have been heard by every person in Washtenaw County . . .”

Fred Horner went on to discuss the decline of downtown trade from the farmers around Ypsilanti. “That the rural trade of merchants of Ypsilanti is not what it should be is evident from the fact that the question has been asked, ‘what is the cause of the decline?’”

Horner attributed the decrease in large part to mail order companies. “They scatter their catalogues promiscuously throughout the country quoting prices (that to the customer seem great bargains) and reap a harvest in return, when the same quality could be bought at home for the same, or less, and the freight or express saved, and have the satisfaction of having kept the money at home. It seems like poor policy for any person that has any interest in the welfare of his home market to send abroad for his supplies, even though he could save a few dollars in his yearly purchases . . .”

Most of the large mail order houses, or “catalogue houses,” were in Chicago. Sears, Roebuck & Company with its iconic catalogue dominated them all. Sears is likely the “large catalogue house in Chicago” to which a February 19, 1906 Ypsilanti Daily Press editorial refers.

“The pure food commission of Minnesota recently issued a bulletin disclosing the names of concerns which have shipped adulterated foods into that state,” said the paper. “In this list the name of a large catalogue house in Chicago appears four or five times. The report, which is a scathing denunciation of manufacturers and dealers selling impure foods, shows that catalogue houses sell goods that are not only inferior, but a menace to health, if not life itself.”

The paper continued, “The commissioners declare, and their report is based upon an analysis of samples purchased, that the house referred to sells evaporated milk labeled evaporated cream; wild cherry phosphate colored with coal tar dye; cheese containing borax, and stuff which it advertises as pure fruit jelly, but is a glucose compound artificially colored and flavored. Thus is the secret of the low prices of catalogue houses exposed. They buy inferior goods because they can buy them at a low price, but they advertise them as the best on the market.”

“The agricultural implements offered by catalogue houses never bear the names and brands that are known to the trade, unless there is a deliberate steal of a name or brand, as sometimes occurs. The machines are made from obsolete patterns, hurriedly constructed out of inferior material.” Agricultural implements were manufactured and sold in the city by, among others, O. E. Thompson in the former Thompson Block. The paper continued, “The same thing is true of buggies and carriages.” In years past, the Beach Carriage Company had produced carriages in Ypsilanti.

The article concluded, “The catalogue houses buy these goods at low prices. Why shouldn’t they? But they sell them at high prices, considering their value. When a concern has been convicted of selling inferior and impure foods intelligent buyers should be suspicious of its other lines.”

Or at least some of its lines. The 1902 Sears, Roebuck & Company catalogue has an extensive gun section, featuring rifles bearing the storied names of Winchester and Remington that evoke the romance of the Old West.

It also carried the Flobert.

In all caps, the catalog’s blurb for the gun reads “WE DO NOT RECOMMEND NOR GUARANTEE FLOBERT RIFLES. Buy a good rifle. It will pay in the end . . . We think No. 6R665 [elsewhere on the page] is the best value for the money.”

A genuine Remington rifle on the next page sold for $7.50 [$184 today]. The Flobert went for $1.60 [$39].

Although they carried some iffy products, the catalogue houses also employed many craftsmen in producing worthwhile goods, as noted by one editorial written by a Midwest merchant in the February 23, 1901 Sanitary and Heating Age trade magazine.

“Now, 60 miles east of me is a small stove foundry,” said the writer. “They make a good cheap cook stove. A Chicago house takes their entire output. Can any one, or any association, by entreaty or legislation, or by ‘Influence and wisdom,’ stop this leak for the legitimate dealer? We cannot influence our home customer with the plea that the catalogue houses are putting out ‘shyster’ goods, for they are not. The stove I speak of is a good one, and offered cheaper than I can sell it.”

Despite this assertion, the reputation of catalogue houses was so poor that the 1902 Sears catalogue, in its introduction, said that it would ship goods in unmarked packaging. Merchants reselling the goods would not be stigmatized. “As some of our customers, especially townspeople and business houses, request us to ship our goods in plain packages or boxes, leaving off our name and address, so that no one will know what they have bought or where the goods come from, we have decided to make the transaction strictly confidential.”

Town merchants had demanded the anonymity, but it was likely also a blessing for Sears–at least when shipping out Floberts.

Laura Bien is the author of “Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives.” Have an old-time Ypsi story to share? Contact her at

Ypsilanti’s Failed Breakfast Cereal

June 30, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

An ad for Wheat Hearts appeared in the August 12, 1909 Ypsilanti Daily Press.

An ad for Wheat Hearts appeared in the August 12, 1909 Ypsilanti Daily Press.

Ypsilanti once had a chance of becoming an empire of breakfast cereals, like Battle Creek.

In 1909, electricity was still making inroads into the city. Only some houses were “wired.” Most were heated with coal. Cars were uncommon. Most women were homemakers, and most men’s commute consisted of a walk from home to another part of the city.

Many families got their flour from the Ypsilanti Milling Company on Cross Street near the river. The mill’s ad in the March 2, 1909 Ypsilanti Daily Press read,

“The Ypsilanti Mill is now running and turning out a STRICTLY HIGH GRADE FLOUR.

“Our BLUE LABEL brand is gaining new friends every day. Last week it was just a youngster. This week it is older and you will probably like it better.

“Further, we want you to try our ‘TIDAL WAVE’ brand. It’s a strictly high class patent and worthy of a little assistance from its friends in the way of trial orders.

“Our wagon is still running [for home delivery] and we want you to phone your orders in AT ONCE OR SOONER.”

The hydro-powered mill was an old one, dating from the 1830s. A feature article in the May 23, 1874 Ypsilanti Commercial gave an overview of the city businesses of the time. The piece mentions the city mill.

“[The mill stands] on the east bank of the Huron, above Cross Street bridge. It, or rather the mill of which this is an enlargement, was built in Territorial days [before Michigan became a state in 1837]. In 1865 it came into the possession of the Ypsilanti Woolen Mill Company, and by this company was sold to T. C. Owen, Esq., a nephew of E. B. Ward of Detroit, who is also an interested party. The mill is an immense structure. It contains seven run of stone, and at present is turning out 250 barrels of flour per day. It, in addition, grinds 30,000 bushels of grain per year, for the farmers of the vicinity.  . . A side track from the Michigan Central Railroad runs to the door of the mill.” The side track ran approximately where Rice Street is today.

Ypsilanti poet-farmer William Lambie raised wheat on his farm just north of town. In his poem “A Harvest Hymn,” published in his 1883 book “Life on the Farm,” he lauded the grain:

We see the God of nature in bounteous love bestowing,
In every year of life we reap the seed we have been sowing,
Till our barns are filled with plenty and cups are overflowing,
As we are marching on.
We have entered on a calling that will never know defeat,
For honor and for daily bread we work in summer’s heat,
Ever reaping golden harvests of the finest of the wheat,
When summer days are long.

1909 was a good year for local wheat production. The Ypsilanti Milling Corporation decided to put some of that wheat into a new venture. It milled it into a breakfast gruel similar to Cream of Wheat.

On August 6, 1909 the first ad for “Wheat Hearts” appeared.


“What are they? Well, we’ll tell you. They are our new breakfast food made from the very best wheat grown; viz, that around Ypsilanti, and ground fresh every day. Why buy breakfast foods made away from home when you can get something here which you know is fresh and which will cost you less money. Ask your grocer for Wheat Hearts.
“The Ypsilanti Milling Co.
“East Cross St. Phone 171.”

The ad ran again on August 10, 12, and 16.

Several local grocers also ran ads during that summer, often listing their goods and specials in the ads. Some listed oatmeal and cornflakes.

None listed Ypsilanti Wheat Hearts.

The Ypsilanti Milling Company’s ads for Wheat Hearts vanished by September of 1909. Perhaps no one wanted a hot breakfast gruel in August. Possibly a fall launch of the cereal might have helped it to succeed. At any rate, Wheat Hearts vanished from the scene. The Ypsilanti Historical Museum holds no packaging artifacts of this forgotten cereal.

Had it caught on, Wheat Hearts might have made Ypsilanti a breakfast cereal empire, renowned from Mackinac to Monroe. Trains could have shipped the cereal to cities around the nation. Citizens could have been humming the catchy Wheat Hearts jingle, perhaps along the lines of:

From the fertile Ypsilanti
To the pantry of my auntie,
It’s Wheat Hearts!
For some good starts!

Alas, it wasn’t to be. Wheat Hearts vanished from the 1909 papers and presumably from local stores—if indeed it had ever been stocked.

The only people who remember our failed foray into the breakfast cereal arena are local hermits poring over crumbling newspapers.

And they’re no help in promoting Wheat Hearts. They usually  have just a miserly cup of coffee—black, no sugar—for breakfast.

Laura Bien is the author of “Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives.” Catch her free talk with local historianJames Mann at Ypsilanti’s Senior Center Wednesday, July 7 at 7:30 p.m.. Have an old-time Ypsi story? Contact Laura at

The Perilous Danger of Microbes in the Scalp

June 13, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

The advertisement passed itself off as a legitimate news story.

The advertisement passed itself off as a legitimate news story.

Patent medicine makers sold their wares in Ypsilanti, as elsewhere, using fraudulent sales techniques. In the late 19th and early 20th century, no regulatory agency existed to analyze makers’ “medicines” or question their florid advertisements. One such ad for Rexall’s “93” hair tonic, on sale at the Rogers-Weinmann-Matthews drugstores at 118 Congress Street, 29 Huron, and 509-511 Cross Street, appeared in the January 29, 1909 Ypsilanti Daily Press. Written by Rexall, the ad was presented, as was common at the time, as a “straight” news story. The ad used several classic patent medicine advertising gambits.

One was to capitalize on current health issues or news. Under the headline “Microbes in the Scalp,” the article said, “Professor Unna of Hamburg, Germany, and Dr. Sabourand of Paris, France, share the honor of having discovered the hair microbe.” At the time, an interest in microbes, a term coined in 1897 by French surgeon Charles Sedillot to denote any life form too small to be seen without magnification, had seized the popular imagination. Pasteur and other scientists had made recent discoveries of microbial causes for feared, heretofore poorly-understood diseases such as rabies, malaria, and syphilis. The notion of new, invisible organisms that were ubiquitous and unpredictably lethal mesmerized the public. As a result, microbes appeared in many popular novels, poems, and plays. Mark Twain wrote a 1905 satire “3,000 Years Among the Microbes,” and Hilaire Belloc included his poem “The Microbe” in a 1897 anthology. Writers used such metaphors as “the microbe of love” or “the microbes of boredom.” There was even a drinking song about microbes, and poems such as W. C. Cooper’s 1895 verse “The Scheming Microbe.”

A microbe sat on a maiden’s lip, right an its kissiest part,
And murmered, “I’ll work that young man off in the highest style of art;
I’ll send a raging colony careering through his veins,
And they shall soak his system with a choice lot of ptomaines.

O, I’m of the choleric sort and the epidemic brand,
And you may bet the victim knows whenever I’m on hand;
For I raise a rumpus in his guts, like a slowly bursting bomb,
Which only ends, as a general thing, when he reaches kingdom come.”

Now, him that the grizzly microbe had in its measly, pizen mind
Was a niceish, youthish laddie of the hottest blooded kind;
Who loved the sweetish, youngish girl with an incandescent vim,
Which only found an offset in the way that she loved him.

Well, on the next sweet Sunday night, this niceish, youngish man
Was seated on the same chair with his darling Mary Ann;
And he hugged until he nearly busted her precious diaphragm,
And kised her sixteen hundred times with the zest of a battering ram.

The microbe had been swapped at least one thousand times, and when
The young man left the ornery beast was still with Mary Ann;
When her beau was gone, she finished up by kissing “Puggy Wee,”
And the next day that devoted pup most died of diarrhee.

Another advertising technique was to invoke “foreign experts,” whose citation combined Old World gravitas and (in those days) difficult-to-check credentials. It is likely that Professor Unna and Dr. Sabourand existed only in a copywriter’s imagination.

A common ad feature was “junk science.” The Press article said that baldness “is not caused through a few weeks’ work of these hair microbes, but is the result of conditions brought about by their presence. Baldness may not occur until years after the microbes begin work, but it is certain to come sooner or later. The microbes cut off the blood supply. They feed on the fatty matter about the root of the hair, through which the blood is absorbed. Finally the fatty matter is wholly consumed, the food supply of the hair is gone and it starves and finally dies.”

An additional gambit, seen in the Rexall ad, was the iron-clad guarantee. “If it does not grow hair on your bald head, stop your hair from falling out; cure you of dandruff; make your hair thick, silky, luxuriant; if it does not give you complete satisfaction in every particular, return the empty bottle to us, and we shall return every penny you paid for it, without question or formality.” Many nostrum ads similarly offered monetary “rewards” if a disease sufferer could be found who couldn’t be cured by the potion. But since the function of nostrums was to make money, not to cure, there was usually a caveat.

“Of course, you understand that when we say that Rexall “93” Hair Tonic will grow hair on bald heads, we do not refer to cases where the roots are entirely dead, the pores of the scalp closed, and the head has the shiny appearance of a billiard ball.” If a patron said “93” didn’t work, the makers could explain the failure as due to the maladies of “closed pores” or “dead roots.” “In cases like this, there is no hope. In all other cases of baldness Rexall “93” Hair Tonic will positively grow hair, or cost the user nothing. . . Two sizes, 50 cents and $1” [the equivalent of $12 and $24 today].

The proprietors of the Ypsi drugstore and their customers didn’t know that “93” was a useless concoction of boric acid and wood alcohol. But thanks to fraudulent advertising techniques like those in the 1909 ad, such potions were popular and profitable. From its inception the Rogers-Weinmann-Matthews store was an official Rexall franchise, one of the 2,218 licensed distributors of Rexall products in 1909, a number that would rise to 5,877 by 1915. The chain had been founded by Detroit-born patent medicine entrepreneur Louis K. Liggett. A fraction of Liggett’s eventual wealth came from Ypsilanti purchases of items like “93”.

Empty bottles of Rexall’s “93” Hair Tonic likely litter filled-in and forgotten privy pits around Ypsilanti, vanished testimony to an unregulated era when enterprising nostrum-makers hoodwinked Ypsilantians.

Laura Bien is the author of “Tales of the Ypsilanti Archives.” You can reach her at

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