The Ypsilantian’s Patented Corncob

May 16, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

Food companies’ patenting of plants and seeds is a hot topic these days. Detractors say that patents should not be granted for the stuff of life, and proponents argue that the painstaking and expensive research and development going into allegedly improved crops justifies the patent.

Over a century ago, one Ypsilantian was doing the same. In 1882, painter James H. Davis patented a corncob.

However, he wasn’t patenting a genetic tweak or a resistance to herbicides. He called his device a “fire kindler,” and it was meant to save housewives’ fingers.

Davis’ corncob kindler was a corncob soaked in any one of a variety of flammable petroleum products, coated in varnish, and fitted with a wick. It was a handy firestarter for cold morning cookstoves.

His invention wasn’t new. Corncobs dipped in kerosene were a familiar fire-starting trick.

The 1913 book Audel’s Household Helps, Hints, and Receipts said, “A corn cob dried and soaked in kerosene will kindle a fire as quickly as a fire brick.”

Fiery corncobs were also useful in battling tent caterpillars in trees. “A corn cob soaked in kerosene and placed on a long pole makes a very convenient torch for burning the nests,” notes a 1910 agricultural bulletin from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Care should be taken not to injure the branches of the tree by allowing the blaze to come in contact with them too long.”

The cobs had other uses as well. Corncobs soaked in kerosene attached to a wire connected to a rope dragged by a horse were a good way for Western ranchers to ignite controlled burns on the prairie and encourage new growth.

And you could use one to pep up a cold Model T in winter. “When it refused to start on a subzero morning,” recalls Reynold Wik in his book Henry Ford and Grass-Roots America, “we took a corn cob, stuck it on a wire, dipped the cob into the gas tank, touched a match to provide a torch and heated the manifold.”

With such widespread use of the corncob torch, what distinguished Davis’s corncob?

“Be it known,” said his July 4, 1882 patent application, “that I, James H. Davis of Ypsilanti . . . have invented certain new and useful improvements in Fire-Kindlers . . . my object is to improve kindlers of this kind, first, by inserting in one end of a corn-cob a wooden plug which is adapted to receive and hold firmly in place a wick.” The wick was also dipped in a flammable material, and the cob was coated with varnish to prevent the evaporation of the flammable liquid saturating it.

Davis had made a corncob torch that would not leave a housewife’s fingers smelling of kerosene, or burned from a quickly-igniting cob.

It seems to be the only invention Davis ever made in his career. In the 1860 city directory, James Davis is listed as a drayman, someone who carted goods around town on a wagon for a fee.

By 1873, he had become a sign and carriage painter, living on Michigan Avenue near Hamilton.

In 1883, his occupation changes from painter to traveling salesman, possibly for his new and improved 1882 corncob.

If that is the case, his corncob venture didn’t succeed; in the ’88 directory he is once again listed as a painter, possible at the Beach Carriage Manufacturing Company where his brother Clawson worked as a blacksmith.

Davis appears to have married late in life. Though he was a registered voter in the county as early as 1868, it is not until the 1901 city directory that he is listed as married, to one Sarah J. The couple lived on Michigan Avenue and in ’01 had the telephone number 354-2r.

Their neighbors there were harness-maker George Schaffer, doctor George Hull, traveling salesman Charles Mansfield, the widow Ann Skinner, blacksmith Thomas Hughes, and White Laundry worker Elmer Hayden.

Davis’s invention was created just as the urban need for them was waning. One ad in a city directory of this era says, “Get a Gas Range and Enjoy Life.” Coal and wood kitchen cook stoves were on the way out.

By the 1903 city directory, Sarah is listed as a widow.

Davis is one of the many unsung Ypsilantians who took out patents on devices they thought might catch on, earn some money, and improve the lives of their users. Though his patent never made him rich, it remains in the public record as testimony to the ingenuity and ambition of an ordinary man.

Laura Bien is the author of Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives. Have an interesting story about old-time Ypsi? Reach her at

Davis's 1882 patent brought the humble corncob to new heights.

Davis's 1882 patent brought the humble corncob to new heights.

I Never Knew There Was So Much Dirt in Ypsilanti

May 2, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

The horse team clopped north over the cobblestones on Huron Street. They pulled a wagon containing a two-foot-thick layer of leaves, sticks, old newspapers, bottles, and tin cans. The handle of a bent black umbrella stuck out. One man drove the horses and two others walked behind the wagon, carrying pitchforks.

Ypsilanti mayor John Kirk began the tradition today known as Pride Day.

Ypsilanti mayor John Kirk began the tradition today known as Pride Day.

The team pulled up next to a five-foot-high pile of trash next to the street. Broken glass and bits of metal in the pile glinted among a heap of shrub and tree trimmings–and one 1907 calendar. “Whoa, there,” said street commissioner William Lewis. He stopped the horses and the two men began shoveling the pile into the wagon. “This is the biggest one yet,” said one. The other put his pitchfork in the wagon bed and pulled out a shovel to scoop up some broken bricks.

Lewis craned around to look at the filled wagon. “We’re going to have to go dump her out and come back,” he said. “Hop on.”

All the way down Huron, other large piles lay ahead of the wagon team, and the day had just begun.

It was Ypsilanti’s first “Pride Day,” on May 1, 1908.

The city had no municipal trash pickup service. Residents tossed broken dishes or empty whiskey bottles into backyard privies or transported trash themselves to the city dump. Flammable items were burned, either in the kitchen stove or a bonfire. The stream of household waste was small, compared to today. Packaging for fresh items like produce did not exist and plastics, for containers and personal and household items, wouldn’t come along until after WW II.

The idea of a citywide cleanup had come from a statewide group. Organized in 1899, the League of Michigan Municipalities was a union of Michigan cities, towns, and villages.

Its purpose was to provide members with a means of sharing information about how to run a municipality. Members, who were city officials from their respective cities, traded such information as the legal aspects of special tax assessments, or whether street paving was worth the expense, or the going price of sidewalks, so as not to be cheated by a contractor.

“[T]he League of Michigan Municipalities has designated Friday, May 1, 1908 as City Cleaning Day,” said a letter from Ypsilanti mayor John Kirk printed in the May 1, 1908 Ypsilanti Daily Press. “[T]he city of Ypsilanti is desirous of taking such action as will tend to improve its condition; it is hereby proclaimed that Friday, May 1, 1908 be designated as ‘City Cleaning Day for Ypsilanti’.”

The mayor instructed Ypsilantians on what to do. “Bonfires are suggested for the purpose of burning all rubbish that can be burned,” he said, “while other rubbish should be placed in the streets and alleys in convenient piles to be carried away in wagons furnished by the city.”

Kirk added, “Do not forget vacant property, as a few unsightly lots will tend to destroy a good work. Property owners must attend to the carting away of ashes as city wagons will not be furnished for such a purpose.”

He concluded, “As this is the first concerted effort on the part of our city, all citizens are earnestly requested to take such vigorous and practical action as will make the effort a success.”

City schools were closed for half a day so that “children may have an opportunity to take part in the work of cleaning up about their home premises,” said a letter from Ypsilanti school superintendent William Arbaugh, printed in the May 1, 1908 Ypsilanti Daily Press. “The idea is an excellent one, and in closing the schools tomorrow afternoon, our purpose is the inculcation, in a practical way, of a commendable civic pride.”

On May 1, 1908, students, their parents, merchants, and other residents raked, cleaned, tossed, and pruned, in the citywide effort. Smoke from burning trash-piles rose from spots all over town.

The next day’s paper said that the day had been a big success. “Street commissioner Lewis had nine wagons busy all day hauling accumulations of dirt.”

The paper quoted one participant. “‘Well, here goes the accumulation of 10 years and good riddance to rubbish,’ said one woman yesterday when the ‘city cleaning wagon’ backed up to her door. There was everything in one heap from tin cans to a broken down baby cart.”

The paper continued, “‘I never knew there was so much dirt in Ypsilanti,’ said street commissioner Lewis. ‘I was on the go since early in the morning in every ward in the city five or six times—and still there is lots to do.’” Eight other wagons in addition to Lewis’s helped with the effort, said the paper, and the mayor’s phone was ringing all day with requests for a trash wagon.

The response was so enthusiastic that the wagons had to finish up the cleanup the next day.

“In all parts of the city lawns were cut and rolled, alleys cleaned, trees trimmed, and an effort put forth to beautify the surroundings,” said the May 2, 1908 Ypsilanti Daily Press. “Mayor Kirk and the committee expressed themselves as much pleased with the experiment and ‘city cleaning day’ is likely to become a permanent feature in Ypsilanti.”

The event was repeated in 1909 and 1910, and became a tradition.

Over one hundred years later, Ypsilanti Pride day in May pays tribute to Lewis’s hard-working teams of long ago and the civic-minded residents that filled his wagons. That same civic-mindedness is evident today in the local nature of the event.

VG Kids designed cheerful yellow Ypsi Pride T-shirts for this year’s Pride day. Local donors of money, supplies, and food for the event’s lunch and afterparty include Aubree’s, Peninsular Place, Bowerbird Mongo, Bombadill’s, Beezy’s, Domino’s, the Ypsi Food Co-op, and others.

The citizens picking up trash, weeding, and planting flowers in Candy Cane Park, Prospect Park, the Gilbert Residence and about 25 other sites this Saturday, May 15 walk in the now-vanished footsteps of Lewis’s horses pulling the wagon with the bent umbrella 102 years ago.

Ypsilanti’s Historic Four-Named Street

April 16, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

The 1895 plat map shows "Race or Pierce" Street, the waterworks, and the old mill-race that used to extend across Waterworks Park.

The 1895 plat map shows "Race or Pierce" Street, the waterworks, and the old mill-race that used to extend across Waterworks Park.

South of downtown lies a street whose tiny length of 1.57 miles bears no fewer than four names: Harriet, Spring, Factory, and Maus.

Beginning at First Street, Harriet travels east, intersecting with Hamilton. At Huron, the name Harriet changes to Spring. At the Catherine intersection, Spring changes to Factory. As the road passes Prospect, the name changes to Maus.

The combination of peoples’ names, industries, geographical features, and the passage of time have resulted in this street so weirdly tetranomial.

A midcentury study of Ypsilanti street names written by one Mrs. Teaboldt and a peek at old plat maps explains the concatenation of names.

The story begins with intersecting Catherine Street, which also bore multiple names throughout its history—though only a mere three. Catherine appears on an 1856 plat map of the city. It does not, as today, curve 90 degrees and end on Factory—Factory street did not yet exist. Instead, it takes a 45 degree angle southeast and ends at a woolen mill on the riverbank. The site is today the southernmost tip of Waterworks Park.

On the 1856 map, the Waterworks Park acreage is labeled as owned by H. W. Larzalere, This was Harriet Larzalere, the widow of John Y. Larzalere. Harriet is likely the person for whom Harriet Street is named.

Harriet’s mother, Catherine Tice Larzalere, was the woman for whom Catherine Street was named. Catherine, in turn, was the daughter of Judge Jacob J Larzalere, who moved to Ypsilanti from Seneca, New York, and bought the land in this section of the city then owned by Detroit judge Augustus B. Woodward. “Catherine” and “Harriet” are the oldest of the two streets’ seven names.

“Judge Woodward’s purchase of six hundred and twelve acres lay mostly south of the Chicago Road [Michigan Avenue],” says Harvey Colburn’s “The Story of Ypsilanti,” “and west of the river. He seems to have disposed of it in parcels, Judge Larzelere being one of the purchasers.” Woodward had purchased the land from Godfroy and LaChambre, “the old French claims” at the very beginning of Ypsi history. Though he never lived in Ypsilanti, Woodward gave it its name.

Independence Island, a remnant of which survives today in the river forming the northern boundary of Waterworks Park, appears much larger on the ’56 map. In 1873, it was large enough to host a 4th of July celebration with speeches and festivities.

Factory Street was originally named Hunter, the name of the man who in 1844 platted two additions to the city. One extended between Cross Street and the present-day Water Street parcel, on the east side of the river. The other, south of the first addition, encompassed Factory Street.

In 1862, city council changed the name from Hunter to Factory, perhaps in homage to Cornelius Cornwell, who in 1856 built a paper mill next to the river just south of Factory. On an 1864 plat map, Factory street appears. From Grove, it travels west, bridges the paper mill’s mill-race, bridges the river, and connects with the angled portion of Catherine. This angled portion is, on the 1864 map, now named Race Street for the large mill-race that ran along it (now the west boundary of Waterworks Park).

The 1874 plat map shows Harriet extending from First Street all the way to Race. Here appear the same two bridges, over the river and over the mill-race for Cornwell’s paper mill. Factory Street extends west from Grove and appears to dead-end in a pond just east of the paper mill. The mill-race next to Race Street appears to have been drained and blocked up. It is labeled “Old Race.” The Waterworks property is still labeled “Mrs. H. W. Larzelere.”
Maus was named in 1892 for Lewis J. Maus, who purchased land in this area and sold off lots, says Mrs. Teaboldt.

On the 1895 map (pictured), the Race portion of today’s Catherine is labeled “Race or Pierce St.” No landowners adjacent to the street appear to have the name Pierce. It may have been named in honor of John D. Pierce, the first superintendent of public education in Michigan. Affectionately called “Father Pierce,” he lived in Ypsilanti for thirty years and died in 1882.

Race or Pierce converges with Harriet at the same double-bridges, and on the 1895 map connect once again to Factory Street. The paper mill building is now labeled “Water Works and Electric Light.” Samuel Barnard owns the Waterworks Park property. Barnard ran a dairy, and it’s possible he pastured his cows on the present-day Waterworks Park site.

On the 1915 map, the same configuration of streets appears. Race Street is once again called Race Street, not “Race or Pierce.” The mill-race along its length has been reopened. The owner of the northern 4/5 of Waterworks Park is now Elmer Brown, who ran a creamery and dealt in lumber. Elmer had a herd of 18 cows that generated 225 pounds of milk a day, says one old agricultural report. Brown also owned a large tract of land just south of Harriet St.

A 1912 inspection by state officials said the condition of his cows was good. They were fed on a diet of feed, hay, ensilage, and beanstalks. His stables looked good, said the inspectors, and his cow-yard was clean and dry. His cows drank from a spring on the property.
Spring Street was named, says Teaboldt, for the multiple springs in its area, though she doesn’t say who named it. As it does not appear on the 1915 map, it is the youngest name of all.

One of these historic names was almost lost in 1989 when real estate developer Robert Allison petitioned City Council to change “Factory Street” to “Spring Street,” according to a July 10, 1989 Ypsilanti Press article. The developer of the Riverside Manor complex, Allison thought “Spring” sounded better.

The move was protested by Jearald Dudley, owner of a collision service on Factory Street. “To Jearald Dudley,” said the article, “the name Factory Street is a symbol of Ypsilanti. Beside, it would cost him money to change his stationery and business cards if the street’s name were changed.”

“‘I would like it to see it stay Factory Street,’ said Dudley,” as quoted in he article. “‘I’ve heard about the investment he’s made. I’ve heard about the investment the state’s made. How about the investment Jearald Dudley’s made?’”

Thankfully, City Council showed good old-fashioned Ypsilanti common sense and refused to allow this historic name to be discarded. As it was in the days of the paper mill, Factory still forms part of the name of our city’s historic four-named street.

Laura Bien is a local history writer. On Saturday April 24 from 1-3 she will be giving a free talk about her new book, “Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives,” at the Historical Museum.
Have an old-time Ypsi story to share? She can be reached at

Surprising Tidbits from Censuses of the Past

March 18, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

A snippet from the 1930 federal census showing Harold Carter's entry.

A snippet from the 1930 federal census showing Harold Carter's entry.

If federal censuses of the past had been similar to this year’s census, one writer would be out of work.

The 2010 census form that just arrived in mailboxes asks only about age, sex, race, home ownership, relationship status, and the number of people in a household, up to 12.

However, past censuses asked additional questions and recorded myriad details about occupations, age at marriage, ancestry, and more. Old census records are, to one local writer, the single best source of information about the past.

The questions on the 23 decennial censuses to date, beginning with the first one in 1790, vary from year to year.

The censuses of 1830-1890 and 1910, for example, recorded information about one’s physical–or mental–condition. In the 1880 census, 30-year-old Prussian-born laborer Andrew Shuda is listed as living in Ypsilanti. He lived with his 35-year-old Austrian-born wife Barbara, his 7-year-old daughter Anna, and his stepdaughters, 12-year-old Barbara and 10-year-old Mary. The girls were all born in Michigan and attending school.

The 1880 census includes columns labeled “blindness,” “deaf and dumb,” “idiotic,” or “maimed, crippled, bedridden, or otherwise disabled.” A fifth column bears a mark that lines up with Andrew Shuda’s name.

That column is labeled “Insane.”

Another question, for women only, appears in the censuses of 1890 and 1900. One column records the number of children born. The second records the number of children living.

The censuses of 1850, ’60, ’70 and 1930 asked for one’s net worth, in personal assets, real estate, or both.

The censuses of 1790-1840 listed only the names of heads of families, recording the other household members with a mere checkmark in boxes sorted by age and race. Not until the 1850 census did the form include the names of all members of the household.

The 1930 census is the most recent full census available to researchers. A 72-year privacy law means that 1940 census information will not be available to the public until 2012.

The 1930 census asked whether a home had a radio. An “R” listed next to a name hinted at financial security, enough to buy this nonessential entertainment item. Aside from implying prosperity, the presence of the radio on the census form also suggests how quiet out-of-town farms were before radio and, in the nights before rural electrification, how dark.

At the outset of research, the subject, perhaps one Harold Carter, is similarly obscure. The census offers the first glimmer of understanding.

A look at one page of the 1930 census reveals that Harold Carter was a 30-year-old black mason living in Augusta Township. His household of four included his 29-year-old wife Corrie, his 8-year-old son Harold D., and his 5-year-old daughter Fern.

According to the census’s “birthplace” columns, Carter, like his children and both of his parents, was born in Michigan. Corrie was born in Tennessee, and the birthplace of her parents is listed only as “United States.”

Carter owned his home. The form listed the estimated value of homes; Carter’s was valued at $2,000 [$25,500 today]. The other homes listed on the page, those of Carter’s neighbors, are valued from $2,500 to $5,000. One neighbor was white saw mill worker Arthur J. Lamkin, who lived with his wife Ida and his father-in-law William in his $4,000 home. Carter’s other neighbor was black truck driver Allen Thompson, who lived with his wife Blanch in his $3,000 home.

The occupations listed for Carter’s other neighbors are not the common Augusta Township jobs of “farmer” or “farm laborer.” Rather, the listed occupations of stoveworker, real estate agent, auto mechanic, and paper mill worker hint that Harold lived close to an urban area, perhaps Ypsilanti.

Carter’s specific street or village within Augusta Township is not written on the page. However, there is a Thomas Hitchingham listed, and a Hitchingham Road exists in the township—that might be a lead. A cross-check using other research materials, including city directories, obituary information, church records, genealogical information, and photographs would be necessary to determine Carter’s location—or try to.

Last, Carter’s neighbor Allen Thompson had a radio. Carter and his other neighbor Lamkin did not, unlike the majority of their neighbors.

Far away in time, this census is like a distant light, illuminating the research subject from behind. Details change the darkness of mystery to a silhouette of a person living in 1930 Augusta Township.

Now it is the researcher’s turn to shine, with details from multiple other sources that will develop this silhouette into a photograph, however dim or indistinct. Thanks to Harold Murray, the census enumerator traveling from house to house one April during the Depression, obscurity can change into an image.

Laura Bien is the author of “Tales From the Ypsilanti Archives,” available in Ypsilanti at Cross Street Books, the Rocket, and Mix boutique, in Ann Arbor at Nicola’s Books, and on Amazon. Bien will be giving a book signing at Mix, 128 Michigan Ave. on Saturday, March 27 from 2-4 p.m.; at Nicola’s in Ann Arbor’s Westgate Shopping Center on Tuesday, April 20 at 7 p.m.; and at the Ypsilanti Archives, 220 N. Huron St., on Saturday, April 24 from 2-5 p.m.

Ypsilanti’s Quaker Inventor

March 5, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

15-year-old Orin followed his father John and his younger brother Charles into the white building on Tuttle Hill road. They headed for the dozen men and boys on the men’s side. On the other side of the center partition, Orin’s mother Mary was already seated, with Orin’s older sister Alice and his two younger sisters, 7-year-old Ettie and 4-year-old Lutie.

Orin's shifting hand-plate signaled a left or right turn.

Orin's shifting hand-plate signaled a left or right turn.

Orin’s neighbor Mr. Alban sat down next to him. He was one of the most successful farmers in Augusta Township. Orin’s father had a good farm too, one of the biggest, with a creek for the five children to play in. Maybe there would be time to help Charles build a dam tomorrow after chores. They could use the rocks from–Orin blinked, and stopped daydreaming.

There had been six children, but Orin’s brother William had died ten years ago, two years and eleven days after his birthday. His death certificate said he’d died of “congestion of the brain,” which may have been bacterial meningitis. Bacterial meningitis can live in an asymptomatic carrier. It can be transmitted when a mother gives her adorable toddler a kiss.

The men sat quietly. Dust motes drifted in the sunlight coming through the open window. Orin felt a breeze on his cheek and smelled the fragrance of the warm field outside. He heard a cough from the women’s side. Time passed. A cicada started its sawing trill, ending in a falling buzz.

Orin was still. But from his mind would come an invention for use in a noisy and dangerous world many decades after 1880.

One of the elders on the front platform stood up and shook hands with her neighbor. That was the signal: Quaker meeting was over. Occasionally no one felt like speaking or quoting the Bible. A silent meeting like today’s was still considered a good one. Orin stood up with the men. Now it was time for the big picnic outside, before evening services.

From the picnic tables, one could see the small white tombstones in the nearby Quaker cemetery. It held the deceased of the numerous Quaker families that had settled in northern Augusta and southern Ypsilanti townships.

Most folks in the area were Quaker farmers, as Orin and Charles became when they grew older and inherited their father’s 190 acres. Orin’s father died in 1909, and was buried in what was by then called Alban Cemetery. Orin’s mother had died of heart trouble, gastritis, and nephritis in 1902, and Lutie had died of pneumonia in 1907.

In 1913, when Orin was 48, his 66-year-old widowed aunt Elma Hewens died of bowel cancer. Her death certificate said that her father had been Orin’s grandfather, also named Orin Bemis, and that her mother was unknown.

Orin, a first son, was named for this paternal grandfather in a slight departure from Quaker tradition. As a loose rule, a couple’s first son was often named for his mother’s father, the second son for his father’s father, and the third son for his father. The first daughter was named for her father’s mother, the second daughter for her mother’s mother, and the third daughter for her mother. The custom showed the importance of the principle of equality to Quakers.

Charles signed Elma’s death certificate as kin. Elma was not buried in Alban Cemetery, but in Stony Creek Cemetery.

The Alban Cemetery’s Quaker farmers’ simple, dignified graves were usually inscribed with unadorned text. One grave, that of Abel Pasco who had died in 1871, was carved with a hand pointing upwards.

Orin watched the sky. He measured snowfall with a ruler, and maintained a rain gauge. By 1910 he was an official weather observer for the Michigan Central railroad. His observations were published, with those of other observers across Michigan, in the state weather bureau’s annual reports. He was 46 years old. He, Charles, and his sister Alice lived together on the old farm. None had married.

The farm was not electrified. After dinner cooked on the iron stove, kerosene lamps lit the evening reading and sewing. Outside was quiet and black. But the world was changing–fast–thanks to Henry Ford’s creations pouring off the assembly lines a few miles to the east.

Orin viewed automobiles as dangerous; he thought he could make them safer. In 1916, he was granted two patents for two turn signal inventions.

The gadgets were to be mounted on the back of a car. The first patent was a machine that when activated, displayed a sign that said “SLOW DOWN.” The user could also manipulate the device to expose a cutout of a pointing hand, signaling a left or right turn.

Orin immediately improved on this design with his second patent. A fan shaped segment with carefully spaced holes moved to expose either the letters “SLOW” or “STOP” from a background printed with “SSTLOOPW.” The driver could also activate a panel of joined hands to expose either half, showing a hand pointing left or right.

Orin proposed to operate this device with a foot pedal. The only drawback was that in the year of his patent, the most popular car on the road was the Model T. The Model T was operated with three foot pedals: the right one for the brake, the center one for reverse, and the left one for the gear lever. There was also a hand lever near the driver’s door for spark timing. Plus a lever on the steering column for the throttle. Orin was proposing to add a fourth foot pedal to what was already an acrobatic driving experience.

It never caught on. In the late 1930s, Orin, Alice, and Charles left the farm and moved together to 415 Pearl Street in Ypsilanti. Orin remained a weather observer until age 72. It wasn’t until the 1940s that turn signals, by other inventors, started to appear on cars. Orin died in 1942 at age 77, four months after his sister Alice and seven years before his brother Charles. He, Alice, and Charles died single.

Their legacy is Bemis road, named for Orin, Alice, and Charles’ onetime farm on the southeast corner of present-day Bemis and Stony Creek roads.

Orin’s elegant invention, an attempt to bring an iota of calm to the world, was never produced. Had it been, he could have seen that when his foot pedal was released, the hidden signal hands, like a benediction, pointed up.

Laura Bien is the author of “Tales of the Ypsilanti Archives,” is available in Ypsilanti at Mix boutique and in Ann Arbor at Nicola’s Books. You can reach Laura at

The DIY Model T Ice Saw

February 19, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

McKie's ice saw was made a long time before MIOSHA.

McKie's ice saw was made a long time before MIOSHA.

Ypsilanti used to have horses that could walk on water. They pulled a plow over the surface of the Huron River. Men with long saws watched, waiting their turn to work.

From the late 19th century until the winter of 1922, the Michigan Central railroad maintained an ice-cutting station just northeast of Ypsilanti, behind today’s St. Joseph Hospital near an old gravel pit called Shanghai Pit.

In winter, the railroad hired men to cut ice from the river. Horses pulling a sort of plow scraped lines on the ice, which were then cut into blocks with hand-saws. The blocks were floated to shore, pushed by men with long pikes. Each 12 to 15-inch-thick block weighed well over a hundred pounds.

For decades, it was dangerous and exhausting work, until in 1920 Ypsilantian Charles McKie had an idea.

33-year-old McKie was a self-employed interior decorator. According to his WWI draft card, he was tall and slender, with blue eyes and brown hair. He painted and decorated the interiors of Ypsilanti offices. McKie owned a home at 213 Huron, where he lived with his wife Dee and his mother Martha. It was a nice neighborhood. One next door neighbor was Normal school music professor and violinist A. J. Whitmire. Nearby lived pastor Harvey Colburn, who would soon write the book for which he is remembered today, “The Story of Ypsilanti.”

McKie was friends with Lee Dawson, who with other family members ran the Martin Dawson Company, which dealt in hay, grain, seeds, coal, and building and painting supplies. Dawson had the contract for cutting ice for the MCRR.

McKie’s idea took him to the Wiedman auto dealership on Pearl Street, at the present-day bus station. He obtained four old Model Ts. The body of each car was cut off and the wheels removed, leaving just the gas engines and the drivetrains to the back axle. McKie mounted each engine on a wooden frame with sled runners. Where the rear wheels had been, McKie mounted two 48-inch-wide saw blades.

The Model Ts were now ice saws.

Transported to Shanghai Pit, they roared into life, with a racketing 4-cylinder, 20-horsepower engine and a swoosh of ice dust thrown up by the blade. They worked so well that although McKie had made four, the ice harvesters only needed one to get the work done. A wooden frame supporting what appears in a photo to be a leather screen was added where the windshield had been, to shield the operator from flying chips of ice.

Pushed to shore, the ice blocks traveled up a wooden ramp on a conveyor belt powered by a steam engine Dawson had rented. They were stored in the railroad’s Ypsilanti ice houses along the Huron and loaded onto boxcars for storage in the railroad’s ice-house in Detroit. Stored in sawdust for insulation, the blocks were used to cool boxcars. ‘The Michigan Central Railroad Company is filling its ice houses at Ypsilanti with fine ice from Shanghai Pond,” said the February 1910 issue of Cold Storage and Ice Trade Journal. “It is 15 inches thick.”

Some of the ice likely was used in Ypsilanti as well. Around the turn of the century, about half of American households had ice boxes. These small wooden cabinets lined with tin or zinc had a storage space for a block of ice and shelves on which to keep food cool. Ypsilantians who couldn’t afford an ice box and the regular home delivery of ice blocks about twice a week could store food in a cool cellar, or do without.

Although the MCRR’s ice harvesting site was upstream of the Peninsular Paper mill, another paper mill near modern-day Superior Road, and the factory waste and other waste that was drained into the river at Ypsilanti, there are hints that the Huron River ice was polluted. The MCRR claimed that it only used northern Michigan ice for consumption in its dining cars. It used Ypsi ice only to cool boxcars.

In 1919, train inspectors were alarmed to see the quality of Ypsilanti water. “[G]overnment inspectors of a train passing through Ypsilanti saw water running from a hose at the Michigan Central Gardens,” says the July 24 Daily Ypsilantian-Press. The men tested the water for purity. “The test was very bad and orders were immediately issued forbidding use of Ypsilanti [city] water.” Later, the inspectors found that the hose was not drawing city water, which came from a well, but polluted river water near a sewer outlet.

Demand for clean ice drove the creation of artificial ice-making factories. In 1906, Wyandotte’s Eureka Brewing Company began manufacturing artificial ice. In 1909, Ann Arbor founded the Artificial Ice Co. Detroit’s General Ice Delivery Co. and other Detroit companies began making ice. In 1918, the Wyandotte Ice Company followed. In 1919, the Ypsi Pure Ice Co. advertised in the Daily Ypsilantian-Press. The ad read, “Our new artificial ice plant is now in operation and we are prepared to supply ice to all consumers in Ypsilanti and vicinity.”

Artificial ice was clean, could be made in precise sizes, and could be made year-round without reliance on unpredictable weather. Except for isolated rural areas far from artificial ice plants, the age of ice harvesting was over.

Perhaps Charles might have made a business out of building and shipping his ice saw to Northern ice harvesting sites. Soon after the collapse of local ice harvesting, his own life took a downturn. He and Dee divorced. She remained in the Huron House, apparently alone: there is no census record of their having had children.

McKie eventually moved into Lee Dawson’s house at 214 South Hamilton. McKie no longer worked as an interior decorator, but at the less prestigious job of outdoor sign painter. His neighbors were laborers, domestics, and factory hands, including Harry Brothers, an auto striper in an auto factory, and foundry worker Newton Cary.

Although artificial ice factories made McKie’s invention obsolete, it would have happened eventually. A very few, expensive models of electric home refrigerators were produced in the 1930s, which became more widely available after WWII.

Today the only places to see iceboxes are antique shops and museums. The Ypsilanti Historical Museum has one in its kitchen. It’s just barely possible that its ice compartment once held a block of ice cut by a young man, gleeful at the controls of his loud, dangerous invention, all those years ago.

Laura Bien is a local history writer and is the author of “Tales of the Ypsilanti Archives.”

The 1926 Modem on North Huron Street

February 5, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

In the fall of 1925, Ypsilantians, and the nation, were transfixed by the romance of a onetime Lower East Side immigrant kid and a telegraph magnate’s daughter. Her wealthy father, Clarence, the son of Comstock Lode multimillionaire John Mackay, strongly disapproved of his Catholic daughter Ellin’s interest in a Jewish man with what he viewed as a disreputable occupation. Clarence refused to give Ellin his permission to marry. The couple waited in dismay for Clarence to change his mind.

Daily Ypsilantian-Press editor George Handy waited as well for the next tidbit of news—his readers loved the story.

The 1926 photo telegraphed from New York to Ypsilanti.

The 1926 photo telegraphed from New York to Ypsilanti.

When in January of 1926 that news came from New York, it was a bombshell. Ellin Mackay had eloped with and married Irving Berlin.

Handy needed a wedding photograph from New York—and fast—this story was too big to wait for the mail. He called New York.

Half an hour later he had a photograph, thanks to the only modem in Ypsilanti in 1926

That modem, half the size of a refrigerator, stood in the Press’s building at 101-105 North Huron. Called a “telephotography” machine, it could receive photographs from telegraph wires.

Telegraphy had a long history in Ypsilanti. The first telegraphic message sent in Michigan traveled from the Detroit telegraph office at Jefferson and Cass Avenues in Detroit to Ypsilanti’s railroad depot on November 29, 1847, through lines strung along the Michigan Central railroad tracks.

The first message sent by the “lightning slingers” (telegraph operators, especially railroad telegraphers) was not without a sense of playful glee.

Detroit sent first. “Detroit presents her compliments to her sister, Ypsilanti, who never promises more than she is willing and able to perform. Our connection by lightning is now complete, and the first flash in Michigan conveying intelligent messages has passed between us; may our ‘current’ never be broken, our ‘batteries’ always in order, and our ‘registers” ready at all times to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

Ypsilanti replied, “Ypsilanti [-.– .–. … .. .-.. .- -. – ..] reciprocates the kind wishes of our lovely sister, Detroit, and as we are now not only on speaking terms, but within speaking distance, she hopes that our intercourse by lightning may be pleasant and profitable to both. So mote it [so be it].”

Continuing from the telegraph station in Ypsilanti, this “Erie and Michigan” line reached Chicago in the winter of 1848. But it wouldn’t be until many years later that photographs began flying along the wires.

In the 1920s, “Telephotography” was not new. As early as 1895, the San Francisco Call newspaper received a simple line drawing, sent by telegraph, of a Los Angeles parade. The message consisted of an alphanumeric code indicating the coordinates of the drawing’s line segments (not unlike the game “Battleship.”) The telegrapher also cabled a text description of the parade. An artist at the Call used the description to sketch details onto the line drawing, creating a detailed picture. The next morning, the paper printed a timely image of the Los Angeles event.

Telephotography made newspapers more seem up-to-the-minute. The technology was also used in law enforcement. Criminals’ pictures could be circulated in minutes, before the lawbreakers traveled too far. Their fingerprints could also be sent by wire. In 1922, the New York Times called telephotography “That Nemesis of Malefactors.” The speed of information transmission was beginning its long, dramatic, and world-changing acceleration.

The modem at the Ypsi Press consisted of a cylindrical metal drum and a tiny pinpoint flashlight, within its cabinet. It was hooked up to a telegraph wire. So was another similar machine, a transmitter, in New York.

In New York, a worker wrapped a photograph around the transmitter cylinder. When the machine was turned on, a tiny beam of light shone on the photo as the cylinder rotated about 100 times per minute, slowly advancing along a threaded axis. The transmitter scanned the photo in one-hundredth-inch sections at 100 lines to the inch; each square inch had 10,000 bits of information.

As the beam of slight scanned a slow spiral down the moving cylinder, a receptor caught the reflection of either dark or light areas of the photo. A photosensitive component translated the “dark” and “light” reflections into differing pulses of electricity. This coded electrical signal was telegraphed to Ypsilanti. The New York transmitter could send, and the Ypsi receiver could receive, 1,800 bits of information per second. A 5 x 7 photo could be sent and received in about 7 minutes.

In Ypsilanti, the receiver machine, whose rotation was adjusted to exactly match that of the New York machine, decoded the electrical signal back into information indicating light and dark areas. The receiver shone light of corresponding strength onto a fresh piece of photographic film attached to the cylinder.

In this way, a photo negative was produced, which was developed and used in the Ypsi paper. The resulting photo had a more limited tonal range than the original. Also, someone had blocked out most of the background in white to highlight the couple. Nevertheless, the photo contained an astounding amount of data.

1,800 bits per second is faster than the first commercial modem, AT&T’s 1962 Bell 103, which transmitted at 300 bits per second (bps). At this time, 300 bits per second equaled 300 baud, the unit of modem speed. Later, computer scientists figured out how to pack more bits into each baud, and bps became a more descriptive term for modem speed.

As much as we associate modems with the term “baud,” the term actually comes from telegraphy. Named to honor the French inventor who created the first teleprinter, J. M. E. Baudot, one “baud” is a unit of telegraph speed consisting of one Morse code dot sent per second.

Since that day when the Press received its New York photo, time moved on. The telephotography machine became an obsolete clunker. Irving Berlin’s father-in-law eventually forgave him and accepted their marriage—a wise move, since Irving would stay married to Ellin for 62 years, until her death in 1988.

Berlin died the following year, shortly before the popularization of dial-up modems, like the one that had transmitted his happy wedding picture all those years ago.

Thanks to Isaac Eiland-Hall for research assistance.

Laura Bien is an Ypsilanti history writer. You can reach her at

Reverend Tindall’s Tellurian

January 21, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

Tindall's tellurian demonstrated an irregularity in the Earth's rotation.

Tindall's tellurian demonstrated an irregularity in the Earth's rotation.

Eleven years into an exhausting workload for a big congregation, in 1874 Presbyterian minister George Tindall was tired. He maintained a grueling schedule of ministerial duties for one of Ypsilanti’s largest churches.

“The Presbyterian is the second church society in regard to age,” said the Ypsilanti Commercial in an 1874 article that summarized business and cultural institutions in town. “The present church building, situated on Washington Street, was dedicated in ’57. It is of brick, and is 55 x 96 feet, with a lecture room in the rear, 23 x 50 feet. The spire is one hundred sixty two feet high. The property belonging to the society is worth $30,000,” (today, over half a million dollars). “Rev. Geo. P. Tindall is pastor, having been called to the position in 1863. The present church membership is four hundred fifty.”

Ypsilanti’s population at the time was around 5,000, so Tindall’s flock represented almost ten percent of Ypsilanti residents. He was responsible for home visits to the afflicted, he officiated at weddings and funerals, and held private meetings to counsel parishioners, aside from three Sunday services for which he wrote sermons every week. He also was expected to attend numerous social functions, such as the annual Christmas celebration.

“The Sabbath school of the Presbyterian Church held a festival in their church on Christmas eve which was the finest affair of the kind ever witnessed in Ypsilanti,” said the January 5, 1867 Commercial. “The exercises were lengthy after the audience were seated but highly interesting to both old and young. . . Rev. Mr. Tindall and [his wife Louisa] were remembered with a magnificent tea set . . . ”

It was all getting to be too much. But for all his work with godly matters, Tindall still found time to analyze God’s creation with a scientific eye. His mind was on the motion of planets. He pondered the Earth’s multiple simultaneous vectors of rotational and orbital movement. One such vector was a phenomenon whereby the Earth, caught between the gravitational pull of the Sun on the Earth’s equator and the force of the Earth’s rotation, wobbles slightly, like a spinning top.

This wobble is called “the precession of the equinoxes,” and in June 6 of 1874 Tindall filed a patent for his tellurian. He had invented a model of the Earth’s rotation that demonstrated the precession of the equinoxes.

The precession of the equinoxes, says EMU physics and astronomy department assistant professor Patrick Koehn, is the slow wobble in the earth’s axis that over 26,000 years, traces an imaginary cone in the sky.

“Usually, when I’m talking to my astronomy students,” said Koehn in a personal email, “I pull out a bicycle wheel that has an extended axle–that is, I can hold onto this axle like a handle and get the wheel rotating fairly quickly. I then place it on the ground in the classroom, and we chat about it. The spinning wheel will eventually start to tip a bit, and the axis of rotation (the axle) will start to sweep out a cone. It looks like the axle is wobbling.”

Explaining that this wobble slowly shifts astronomical navigation points in the sky that are marked by the spring and autumn equinoxes, Koehn said that it “causes the rotational axis of Earth to sweep out a cone in the sky. Since the Pole Star (currently Polaris) is the star that the axis of the Earth points nearest to, if the axis moves, the Pole Star will change with time. It takes 26,000 years for the axis of the Earth to sweep all the way through the cone, so in 26,000 years, the Pole star will again be Polaris. When the Egyptians were building the pyramids, for example, the star called Thuban (in the constellation Draco) was the Pole Star.”

On a more terrestrial note, aside from his weightier duties George likely heard many petty parishioner complaints and dealt with difficult people. However, his imagination was not a small one confined by such quotidiana. His was a mind that ventured to explore subtle celestial motions occurring over vast expanses of space and time.

On October 27, 1874, Tindall’s patent was approved. Just as the patent concerned the Earth’s axis, this approval became a pivot that altered the course of his life. A little over a year later, Tindall submitted his resignation to the church. In it, he said that in October of 1874, he had a physical breakdown due to overwork. He also said that he was leaving the church to take an easier job in Flint. There was more to the story: rumors, origin unknown, said that his small salary had been decreased.

“The report that was circulated that the pastor’s salary was cut down is not correct,” said a December 25, 1875 Ypsilanti Commercial article that included both Tindall’s resignation and the church board’s response. “The facts are that [the church board] fixed the limits that it should not go under nor exceed given amounts.”

In his resignation, Tindall, wielding graceful and calculated language honed through years of sermons, said, “I have been persuaded that I have overworked, and must in some way gain relief. . . the way is open for me to withdraw to the field to which I am invited, where I may, under changed conditions, more nearly meet all the demands of the pastorate.” Tindall made what appears to be one opaque reference to salary when discussing his labors. “[W]ith a church membership of about 500 most of the time, and about 300 families or calling places, [this] has seemed to require all one’s time . . . These more than ordinary, and unremitted labors, year after year . . .”

Tindall left for Flint. It was to be the last pastorate he held before his retirement. He later went to California, and when he died there in 1894, he was remembered in Ypsilanti. Whatever squabbles may have contributed to his leaving Ypsi were not mentioned in the affectionate obituary printed here.

“Many of his parishioners of 30 or 40 years ago are still here,” said the September 21, 1894 Ypsilanti Commercial, “and all hold him in affectionate remembrance for his earnest and beautiful Christian character and the tender sympathy and faithfulness which characterized all of his pastoral and social duties.”

Tindall’s mortal remains were buried in California. His immortal soul—if humans have one–was now free to forever wander the universe, one he had contemplated in quiet moments in his home long ago in Ypsilanti.

Laura Bien is a local history writer. You are invited to visit her Ypsi history blog Dusty Diary and contact her at

Predicting the Internet in 1885

January 7, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

An early airplane flies over Recreation Park, circa 1914.

An early airplane flies over Recreation Park, circa 1914.

“In a paper published every minute, I read that a Prof. Stoneborn had created quite a sensation at Icetown, at the North Pole, by his success in attracting the new comet by electricity . . .” That’s what 18-year-old Vee Cornwell imagined newspapers might be like in her talk “America in 1985,” given at an 1885 city youth talent show.

She described falling asleep while reading Jules Verne, and traveling to the future. Her “paper published every minute” prediction was only a handful of years off from the rise of online newspapers and blogs. Of the other predictions Vee made in her talk, the most interesting ones are those she got wrong; they expose the memes and culture of her day.

Vee Cornwell may have inherited a futuristic imagination from her father, Clark Cornwell, the son of Cornelius Cornwell, who founded the city’s first paper mill. An “early adopter” of technology (and mayor from 1886-1888), Clark was the first person in Ypsilanti to have a phone installed in his home, in 1878. It was linked to Clark’s paper mill at Lowell, northwest of the city, and to another at Geddes.

The phone created a sensation. Even Ypsilanti Commercial editor C. R. Pattison was impressed. “The other day we were in Cornwell & Co.’s paper office, in this city,” he said in the March 2, 1878 paper, “and witnessed the wondrous power of the telephone. Mr. Cornwell held a conversation with the mill at Lowell, giving his orders verbally and receiving immediate audible replies. Great is the telephone.”

Vee predicted another communication breakthrough, as reported in the “paper published every minute.” “I also read that the whole length of the lunar wire had been laid, and that a message from the moon was daily expected.” Her word choice seems odd: “laid” instead of “extended” or “raised.” But just 19 years earlier, the transatlantic cable had been laid. It seems likely Vee modeled her moon wire on the transatlantic cable.

Vee also posited devices that suggest television and radio. While walking in the world of 1985 with her companion, “I did not observe any theaters or churches, and inquired what part of the city they were in. ‘Oh!’ replied my friend, ‘theaters and churches are abolished now, only the stages of the theaters being retained, and by means of an electric dioscope all that takes place on the stage can be distinctly seen and heard by people in any part of the city. Sermons are read in the minister’s study and transmitted to houses by telephone.’”

Vee suggested two methods of high-speed aerial transport, neither of them airplanes. “At last we came to a wide river, and I was looking for a ferry, when my guide pointed to an immense metal sphere and said, ‘Step in’ . . . An authoritative voice now cried, ‘All right! Fire!’ A tremendous concussion followed, and when I regained my breath the door was opened and my fellow passengers were getting out. We had crossed the river.” Astonished, Vee asked a companion “‘I suppose you have railroads still?’ ‘No!’ she replied. ‘Short distances are traversed by bombshells, fired by a substance called chloro-nitrogen, which superceded dynamite thirty years ago. Electric balloons are used for longer distances. The mail balloon starts from New York and arrives in San Francisco one hour and forty-five minutes ahead of the sun.’”

Over a century before Vee’s talk, the Montgolfier brothers had flown over Paris in their balloon, the first men to experience a successful untethered flight in a man-made craft. And although theoretical designs for aircraft dated back for centuries, it would be 13 years after Vee’s talk before Augustus Herring made what is regarded as the first powered “airborne condition,” halfway between gliding and true flight.

Herring flew his compressed air-powered hang glider in St. Joseph, Michigan in October of 1898, several years before the Wright Brothers’ flight. Airplanes were not a reality to Vee, but balloons were, and it made perfect sense to her to add the then-novel power of electricity to create what seemed like futuristic science, the “electric balloon.”
Continuing the scientific theme, Vee took a poke at eccentric Ohio scientist John Cleves Symmes, who proposed in 1818 that the Earth was hollow, inhabitable, and accessible by a hole at the North Pole. “I also learned that an expedition to the north pole had found Symmes’ Hole, and had explored the inside of the earth and annexed it . . . to the United States.”

Vee’s talk also reflected the social movements of her time, which included the often overlapping causes of temperance and suffrage. These were combined into one when she and her companion stopped in a saloon for refreshment. “I rather hesitated, but as she seemed very well bred, I said nothing. We entered an elegantly furnished room, and were handed a bill of fare.” The menu offered water—89 different kinds-that included “Water Charcoal Filtered,” “Mineral Water,” and “Rain Water.” Vee asked her companion, “‘Do they not have any wine, beer, or champagne?’ ‘Hush!’ said my companion, ‘there is a fine of $5 for the mere mention of any of the old poisonous compounds. All intoxicating liquors were abolished when women were admitted to the house of representatives.’”

Towards the end of her talk, Vee discussed an antigravity machine. “Being tired with our long walk, I expressed my surprise that my companion seemed to feel no fatigue. ‘Why!’ said she, ‘I don’t believe you have a negative gravity machine.’ She then told me that this useful article” had been invented by Frank R. Stockton, a popular late 19th-century humorist, novelist, and writer of short stories, some of which were fantastical.

“‘No one ever gets tired walking now,’ said my companion. ‘Don’t you notice that we have no carriages or street cars? Let us go into this store and buy a machine for you.’ I chose one which consisted of a small battery enclosed in a watch charm. No sooner had it been adjusted to my weight than I hardly seemed to touch the ground.’”

Vee was fitting in nicely to the world of 1985 when tragedy struck, according to her talk’s conclusion. “I lost all sense of fatigue, and was stepping lightly along, when—-Crash! I awoke. My book had fallen from my lap.”

Laura Bien is a local history writer. Contact her at

Ypsilanti: Home of the Automatic Toast-Butterer (Update1)

December 3, 2009 by  
Filed under Columnists

no images were found

Ypsilanti has a long history of forgotten inventions. Black Canadian inventor Elijah McCoy’s railroad lubricating cup is locally well-known; his lawn sprinkler and folding ironing board are not. Some locals recall that Alva Worden created a whip-socket, a cylindrical clamp attached to the front of a wagon, in which the driver could conveniently store his horse-whip. Forgotten are his horse net and his “instrument for stretching elastic gaiters.”

Some decades after these men, during the Depression, Ypsilantian Robert Roy Dickerson invented an automatic “toast buttering device” in what may have been one ordinary man’s attempt to secure wealth and fame.

The oldest son of Willis merchant Charles Dewitt Dickerson and his wife Judith Fountain Dickerson, Robert grew up in modest circumstances. Around the time he attended high school, the family moved to a home on Summit Street. Robert attended Normal College (EMU) and graduated in 1913 with a degree in Manual Arts. He was not an athletic student, but participated in the Young Men’s Christian Association, the fraternity Alpha Tau Delta, and the Crafts Club, and was treasurer of the oratory club. His unsmiling senior picture in the 1913 Normal College yearbook suggests a steady, serious young man.

Robert married Hazel Kelly a year after he graduated and the couple left town for California. Robert became a school principal and later a superintendent in the newly settled southern California city of Imperial. His first child, Mark, was born in 1915.

In 1917, Robert registered for the WWI draft. His draft card says that he was a tall man of medium build, with blue eyes, light hair, and “not bald.” He was never drafted. He and Hazel had two more children, Robert Jr. in 1917 and Phyllis in 1919, after which the family returned to Ypsilanti.

It appears that Robert’s parents gave or sold him the Summit Street home upon his return. His parents moved to 509 Forest, where they ran a boarding house. In 1922, Robert opened a small restaurant in the home, at 235 North Summit near the water tower. Robert’s wife Hazel worked as a cook, and in 1922 gave birth to the couple’s fourth and final child, Charles.
When the Depression began with the “Black Thursday” stock market crash in October of 1929, the effect upon Ypsilanti wasn’t immediate. By 1931, however, the situation had worsened in town. In this year, Robert invented his toast-buttering device.

Made of 94 separate metal parts, and about the size and shape of a desktop printer, the electrical device contained a reservoir of melted butter and an overhanging rack supporting several pieces of toast. In his patent application, Robert said “an object of the invention is to provide a simple and comparatively inexpensive device in which slices of toasted bread for instance may be positioned and by a simple manipulation or leverage device [the machine could] raise a tray carrying melted butter [from the reservoir] to contact with one side of the toast.”

Robert thought highly of his intricate toast-butterer. His patent was granted, and he immediately incorporated the “Dickerson Butterfaster Company.” The 1931 city directory lists his occupation no longer as restaurant owner but as “salesman,” likely for the toast-butterer. He probably hoped to initially sell the device to the 2 dozen other small restaurants in town, which included the Wolverine Café at 207 W. Michigan Avenue, the Ypsi Lunch at 2 North Huron, and the stylish orange and black-themed coffee shop at the Huron Hotel (now the Centennial Center) at Pearl and Washington.

Robert’s hopes evaporated as, despite his efforts, he failed to sell his toast-butterer. Perhaps by 1931, Ypsilantians were eating out less and restaurateurs had less discretionary money. It also may be that the issue of speedy toast-buttering was less pressing than Robert had imagined, and that he had invented a solution for a problem that didn’t exist.

Robert abandoned his toast-butterer and his restaurant, and in 1932 opened the Tower Grocery Store, also at 235 Summit. In an era before large supermarkets, there were 34 other small grocers in town, who delivered groceries to homes. Competing with them were the cheaper, upstart “cash and carry” outlets of A&P and Kroger’s, which would later expand and out-compete the traditional small grocers.
From the Tower Grocery, Robert could watch the construction of the Ethel Terrace apartments across the street (now Flo-Mar Apartments). He witnessed many other changes in town as well, since the Tower Grocery stayed open until Robert, at age 60, sold it in 1950 to Thomas Theodoris. Theodoris tried to continue the little grocery but it closed after just a few years.

Robert vanishes from city directories by 1954. He is apparently not buried either in Highland Cemetery or in the Dickerson family plot in Ypsilanti Township’s Union-Udell Cemetery, although his daughter Phyllis, the last of Robert’s children to pass away, was buried there in 2008. It may be that Robert returned to California to live with his son Robert Jr., who was a minister there.

Robert was an ordinary man with a humble dream of popularizing a restaurant appliance. Though he failed, there was ingenuity and dignity in his attempt, and he adapted and switched to running a successful grocery. Permanently preserved in the U.S. Patent Office, his toast-butterer is a reminder of all the ordinary unsung Ypsilantians with the imagination and perseverance to create something new.

[Correction Dec 6, 2009. Elijah McCoy was a black Canadian, not African-American. The error was in reporting.]

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