A Talk on Ypsilanti’s Vanished Gardens

March 24, 2011 by  
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We walked up the three grey wooden steps of the stately-on-a-small-scale Grecian-style home and opened one of the narrow, tall storm doors. We’d come to the right place: lights yellowed the windows in the chilly March dusk. We pressed down the thumb-latch of the heavy inner door and eased it open.

It was our first visit to the Ladies’ Literary Club building on Washington, and a talk was scheduled here tonight. Under darkening indigo clouds and sheltered from a chilling wind, attendees would learn about vanished gardens of Ypsilanti’s past.

After chatting a bit with the speaker, James Mann, we greeted the three or four people who had already arrived and wandered off to explore the home’s first floor.

Once a private family home belonging to the Grant family, James explained, the paterfamilias had willed it to his son provided that he never marry during his mother’s lifetime. The son never did. Neither did he ever gain his father’s skill in real estate, James continued, but squandered money on “good living and bad investments.” After the mother died, the son was reduced to selling off the furniture piece by piece. He also dressed daily in formal tails and was known to hang around downtown on Michigan Avenue. He’d stare into a store window, James continued, for a good fifteen minutes, motionless, then move on to the next one. Eventually the son moved to a small second-story Michigan Avenue flat. He sold the house in 1913—luckily, the Ladies’ Literary Society bought it, thus helping to preserve the building to the present day.

The home’s caretaker, a cheerful, friendly woman, moved the coat rack blocking the stairway and said we could look around upstairs. We peered into a small bedroom and a larger one facing Washington, passing two locked doors.

Everywhere in the house, fancy woodwork bordered doors and windows, complemented by ornate plaster coronas of scrolling leaves around the bases of ceiling light fixtures. Money had been lavished on the interior in subtle ways: the slight zigzag in the carved window molding, the curious and dainty wooden vertical blinds, the generously wide stairway. From the outside, the home was simple, even austere. In the interior, however, no expense had been spared to create subtly luxurious surroundings.

James began his talk on vanished local gardens by discussing the gardens that once graced the city jail, now an artist’s studio, at 6 Cross Street. At one time the garden land sloped down to the river from behind the small jail building, but much of it was washed away in a 1905 flood, said James.

Mention of these gardens reminded me of a memoir, recently unearthed in the Archives, written by George Jackson’s granddaughter Minnie Lewis. She wrote, “No. 6 Cross Street was a show place all the years that Grandpa lived there. Its long flight of stairs lead down the east side of the building to a garden so pretty and old-fashioned that passers-by would pause, lean on the sidewalk railing, and admire his several flower-beds of multicolored varieties . . . his own make of lawn furniture, including two hammocks and swings seemed to invite the town folk to rest a spell, which many did.”

James turned to the well-trod territory of the gardens that once bordered the eastern side of the tracks near the Depot. They were the creation of onetime Scottish-born gardener John Laidlaw. Laidlaw created such floral extravaganzas as a replica of the battleship “Maine,” a log cabin rendered in sod, and a model of a locomotive crossing a bridge over Niagara Falls—with even the surging falls recreated in waves of flowers. James said that Laidlaw maintained all of the station gardens up and down the railroad in other towns and that Laidlaw’s Ypsi greenhouse harbored all of the plants required for every other station.

Neither claim is correct. Railroad gardens were maintained locally in each town. Niles, in particular, had gardens far more extensive than Ypsilanti’s, with a series of greenhouses maintained by its own gardener John Gipner. It is also clear to anyone with any gardening experience that Laidlaw’s lone greenhouse is not large enough to supply plants for any garden other than the one in Ypsilanti.

The Ypsi greenhouse stood until the 1950s, said James, when it was either torn down or disassembled. “The foundation is still there,” he added.

James last addressed the onetime science gardens on the grounds of EMU, in which students received their own plot for botanical experimentation. The gardens were later covered by the erection of Hover Hall. Next mentioned was the onetime EMU fountain that stood near Cross Street within sight of the Water Tower. This ornate iron creation, said James, was the gift of the class of 1888 (actually 1898), and was removed in 1961 to a fate unknown. James showed a photo of onetime natural sciences professor and garden director William Scherzer standing in front of a bank of spiky flowers. Whispers of “iris—those are iris” wafted among audience members.

Soon the talk was over, and the audience rose to chat in clusters and move to the refreshment area set up in the home’s vast dining room. Outside lay the cold March darkness. Long gone were the railroad gardens, the campus garden, and the riverbank garden behind the old City Hall. Yet walking back to the car, in a yard dimly lit by a pink-orange streetlight, I glimpsed a clutch of stubby pointed shoots of tulip.

Laura Bien is the author of “Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives” and the upcoming “Hidden Ypsilanti.”

Don’t Fall for the ‘Bohemian Oats’ Swindle

March 11, 2011 by  
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“Say there, brother, don’t mean to interrupt your threshing. Got a minute? Nice to lean on this fence for a minute after going around the township all day.

“Now, sir, what would you say if I told you that these here seeds in this little vial could get you ten dollars a bushel? I know. Sounds ridiculous. Twenty, thirty cents a bushel for oats is the norm around here. But this here seed is that new strain of oats—maybe you’ve heard of them–Bohemian Oats.

“Now, I ain’t about to sell you no junk. These oats are serious business. Lotta farmers got rich on these. Take a look at these testimonials. Here, take a look at this contract. Got your official notarized gold seal right there. You can see for yourself what it says. I do hereby agree to purchase, next fall, the crop of Bohemian Oats you raise, and pay ten dollars a bushel, minus a 25 per cent service charge. Yes sir, we’re talking ten good American dollars. What do you say? From the looks of your fine farm here, I’m sure you have an extra acre or two to try it. You can’t lose—anything you grow I’ll buy for ten bucks a bushel. OK, sign right here.”

In the 1870s and 1880s, numerous Michigan farmers fell for the Bohemian Oat swindle. Silver-tongued salesmen singled out the area’s leading farmers and approached them to extol the merits of the miraculous oat.

The swindle was elaborate, stretching over two years. After securing a signature on a contract, the salesman gave the farmer a supply of Bohemian oat seeds to plant.

The following fall, the salesman came back to buy, as promised, the farmer’s crop of Bohemian oats at the fabulous price of ten dollars a bushel—minus the salesman’s cut.

Except that by this time, the farmer’s neighbors, perhaps less successful and eyeing the money, clamored to buy the crop as seed for their own lucrative crop of Bohemian oats.

The salesman agreed. A flurry of fancy contracts, signatures, and the entire crop was sold, doled out in small portions to the farmer’s neighbors, who anticipated huge profits when the salesman came back next fall.

The salesman thanked the new farmer-investors, pocketed his bankroll, and hightailed it to the nearest depot, to hop on the next train.

He never came back the following fall.

One of the many Bohemian Oat companies was incorporated in 1884 and headquartered in Ypsilanti. At least, it claimed it was based here. It never had a brick and mortar office downtown. Nor did it advertise in local papers. In fact it appeared to be a rather vaporous concern until its president was arraigned on charges of fraud, as documented in the December 15, 1887 Pinckney Dispatch.

“The first conviction in Michigan of a Bohemian oats agent, for obtaining a signature to a promissory note, under false pretences, occurred in the circuit court, for Genesee county . . .” said the paper. “The case was that of the people vs. Alfred W. Hamner, representing the Bohemian oats and cereal company of Ypsilanti. The complaining witness was Abram Tittsworth, a well-known and well-to-do farmer of Atlas township. The case occupied two days in trial and excited widespread interest . . .”

This Ypsilanti company did not limit itself to fleecing Michigan farmers, but ventured far afield, as far as New York State. “A curious case of speculation has been brought to light here by the arrival in the city of W. H. Clark, a wealthy farmer of Groveland, Mich,” reported the December 1, 1886 edition of The American Florist, reprinting a Rochester, New York newspaper article. “Clark, it appears, was induced to enter with others into a large grain speculation two years ago, buying a large quantity of oats of an agent of a concern calling itself the Bohemian Oat and Cereal company, located at Ypsilanti. The agent sold the grain to Clark for $10 per bushel, and gave him a bond that the company would this year sell for him double the quantity he purchased at the same price per bushel. About a month ago the agent appeared and sold the double quantity to other farmers. The company cleared 33 and 1/3 per cent, profit in cash, and Clark was given notes which he has found to be nearly worthless. Clark pursued the officers of the company to this city, and intends bringing the matter into the criminal court. The same scheme has been worked extensively in western New York, and interesting developments are expected. The company cleared over $100,000 by its scheme in Michigan.”

“The farmer is induced to buy ten bushels of the oats for one hundred dollars, by the hope of selling twenty bushels for two hundred dollars,” reported the March, 1886 issue of the American Agriculturalist magazine, “and he thinks that this is guaranteed to him by a ‘bond,’ given him by the seller. This ‘Bond,” in spite of its abundance of green and red inks, its very broad seal (intended to look like gold, but is only Dutch metal), and the bold signature of a secretary, this ‘bond,’ so-called, has no more binding effect than a mere memorandum.”

Coverage of the Bohemian Oat swindle began surfacing in numerous other agricultural journals in the late 1880s, with exhortations to area farmers to eschew the golden promise of the miraculous oat and its accompanying fancy contracts and gilded promises.

Bohemian Oats even surfaced in Michigan Supreme Court proceedings in 1890. The complicated case centered on the issue of fraud surrounding the issue of notes, the then-equivalent of checks. Boiled down into a nutshell for the sake of sparing the kind reader the dizzying particulars, the whole Bohemian Oats scheme failed the smell test, and the lucrative scam died away.

By the turn of the century, the Bohemian Oats scam was extinct. Plenty a smooth-talking sharper had made his pile and disappeared, and plenty a greedy farmer had fallen for the swindle. But what was true in the 1880s is no less true today—there’s no free lunch. Reader, if some honey-tongued salesman leans over your fence and promises you an exorbitant return with a miracle seed, and flaunts some fancy-looking contracts with gleaming golden seals, you’d be best off sending that con man down the road on his merry way.

Don’t fall for those old Bohemian Oats.

Ypsilanti’s Venerable Ark

February 25, 2011 by  
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The Ark stood across the street from the present-day Deja Vu.

The Ark stood across the street from the present-day Deja Vu.

Think back for a moment to the long-ago days of Sunday school. Quiz: Name a large and ancient wooden structure that had something to do with water, that contained extremely varied contents, and that moved from one place to another. It ended up on higher ground than its starting point. Near the end of its journey, it served as a launch pad for exploratory birds.

This description applies to the Biblical boat you thought of and to the huge onetime secondhand store at Washington and Pearl called, by weirdest coincidence, “The Ark.”

The Ark was built in 1837, the same year Michigan became a state. Its original site was on the now-vanished Water Street just east of the river. It was originally intended to serve as a tannery, where cowhides could be processed into leather.

Its site was in those days well removed from the few buildings that would grow to become downtown Ypsilanti. The site was likely chosen on purpose. Tanneries were smelly places, where piles of cow skins were scraped of their remaining flesh and soaked in vats of chemicals in order to process them into leather. A location downstream from downtown meant that meat scraps and used-up chemicals could be drained into the river without creating a stench in the stretch of river traveling through town.

In the mid-1800s, John Howland opened another tannery on the northwest side of the intersection of Forest Avenue and the railroad bridge, today the site of the Farm Bureau silo. Like the Water Street tannery, it was located on the fringe of settlement, for good reason. “The stench around [Howland’s] tanneries was terrible,” reads an undated local newspaper article from the Archives. “The odor often penetrated into the district surrounding Forest Avenue.” Howland’s tannery began producing leather goods in the 1870s, notes the article, up until 1918, when the Farm Bureau took over the site.

It may be that How land’s tannery siphoned business away from the Water Street site, or it may just be that the Water Street site never became fully operational. Perhaps the financial troubles of “The Panic of 1837” played a role. In either case, sometime before 1851 the building was disassembled, moved into the downtown area, and reassembled on the southeast corner of Pearl and Washington.

Shortly after its move and reassembly, the huge fire of 1851 swept through downtown Ypsilanti. “The city made heroic efforts to stay the flames,” wrote Harvery Colburn in his “Story of Ypsilanti.” “Ropes were fastened to the building known as ‘The Ark’ on the southeast corner of Washington and pearl, and futile efforts were made to pull it down. The fire, however, did not reach the building.”

The Ark stayed in business for the next 70 years. For a while it served as a blacksmith shop. Eventually it became what it is remembered for, a secondhand shop selling furniture, household goods, and a wide variety of other items.

The century turned and the Ark still stood in its historic spot. By now it was looking a bit decrepit, with ill-fitting window frames, missing panes of glass, uneven siding, and shreds of old posters dangling from its exterior. On the front of the building near the roof, a mannequin of a man dangled, wearing a sign advertising Smith Brothers’ cough drops. The Ark’s day was almost over.

Its swan song came in the form of pigeons.

“Joe Sim of 364 16th Street, Detroit, is interested in carrier pigeons,” said the June 19, 1911 Ypsilanti Daily Press.

“To teach them to fly long distances and return to their home, he brings a basket full of them, about 20, out to Ypsilanti, and lets them loose,” continued the paper. “Several people were seen Sunday morning standing by the ‘Ark’ intently looking up into the ethereal blue. It was about 8 o’clock. The pigeons were circling higher and higher above the city. They refused to light on the ‘Ark’ or return to it. These sensible birds, Joe says, will take about fifteen minutes to get their bearings. They were released at 7:45 and sure enough at 8 o’clock Joe announced, ‘They’re off, they will be home by 9.’”

Just a year after the pigeons’ departure, the Ark was torn down and a new building was built on its site. One of the city’s longest-surviving buildings was no more.

Weird, Vanished, and Forgotten Jobs from 1892 Ypsilanti

February 9, 2011 by  
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The west side of North Huron, 1893.

The west side of North Huron, 1893.

Could we time-travel to 1892 Ypsilanti and stroll around town, we’d notice differences in the streetscape and in the fashions. But the single largest difference would be in the sphere of work.

For example, almost no one commuted out of the city limits to their job each day. The majority of men and women with a job walked a few blocks or just across town to reach their place of employment. Many went home for lunch.

Another major work-related difference was the number of manufactories in town. These included four boot and shoe makers, three bakeries, a book bindery, a box factory, a stone carver, and a foundry.

Also included were makers of gasoline furnaces, painted portraits, cabinets, furniture, harnesses, copperware, carriages, clothing, wagons, cigars, candies, dresses, saddles, tinware, carpets, dress stays, handles, guns, hats, and beer.

Yet another thing we’d notice on an 1892 walk around town would be the number and nature of full-time jobs that have vanished.

Starting our walk at River and Forest Avenue, one can see the large malt-house next to the ornate red brick home of Frederick Swaine, maltster. In the malt-house, Frederick soaked grains in water, preparing them for conversion into alcohol. Today the malt-house is gone, but the Swaine home remains, rescued from demolition some decades ago.

Walking west on Forest and crossing the river, the little brick structure housing the city’s electric company comes into view (today the office of Ypsilanti’s Department of Public Works.). The building has a row of windows along either side. Peeking in, one can see an enormous metal frame supporting a huge circular structure. This is the dynamo that creates the city’s limited electricity supply. And peering at a control panel is a man in work clothes. It’s Charles Hyzer, the dynamo tender.

Born in New York, Charles moved to Ypsi with his parents sometime before the late 1880s. He lived alone at 24 East Michigan Avenue but moved in with his family by 1900. Single at 43 that year, he shared a home with his 69-year-old father Joseph, a teamster, and 66-year-old mother Martha on Olive Street.

Charles walked the short distance from Olive to the dynamo-house each day. Sometimes the neighborhood kids would come by to visit him and press their pocket knives on the dynamo to make them magnetic.

Leaving the dynamo-house and heading to Huron, the giant knitting mill and underwear factory on the left is impossible to miss. Just southwest of the Forest Avenue bridge, the mill employs dozens of women, most of them in charge of one large floor-mounted knitting machine.

Heading south on Huron, one passes Cross Street, where lives the city’s only female mail carrier, Miss Nannie Sewell at 215 East Cross. Continuing on, Pearl Street comes into view. At 517 Pearl is the home of 63-year-old city watchman Henry Boutell. A former farmer and a Civil War veteran who was wounded in battle, Boutell was promoted to brevet captain before mustering out in 1865. He lives with his son Henry from his first marriage, his second wife Catherine, his father-in-law Horace, and a servant, Rickie Frick.

In his patrols around the downtown area, Henry regularly passes the Dress Stay Manufacturing Company at 101-105 Huron just north of Pearl. The company made thin steel rods ranging from a few inches to a yard long, tucked into fabric sleeves and sold to be sewn into dresses to give them shape.

Hattie Allen was one of the 1892 workers at the factory, walking to it each morning from her home at 230 Grove Road. She lived on Grove with her parents Hiram and Elizabeth, her sister Jessie and Jessie’s husband Adam, and the couple’s daughter Lyleth. After the dress stay factory closed shortly after the turn of the century, Hattie remained in the family home. Her parents and brother-in-law died. By 1920, only Hattie, 50 and unemployed, lived there with Jessie and Lyleth. One of Hattie’s near neighbors was DeWitt Matthews at 159 South Grove, a successful apiarist and gardener who sold honey, fruit, and beekeeping supplies.

While passing the dress stay factory and heading towards Michigan Avenue, a man walks by with large papers rolled under his arm and carrying a bucket containing a brush. His clothes look old and worn. It’s Charles Bowerman, local bill poster. His job was to glue up posters and notices around town.

Charles’ pay was meager, and he shared a home with his father David, stepmother Kaziah, and David’s adopted daughter Etta. David worked odd jobs, Kaziah took in washing, and at age 15 Etta cut tags at the Scharf Tag, Label, and Box Company. The family scrimped to get by.

Turning east on Michigan, a clanging sound grows louder. It’s from John Lang’s blacksmith shop at 25 East Michigan Avenue. Just around the corner is his home at 9 River, not far from his neighbor Alexander Fee, a worker at the short-lived Ypsilanti Condiment Company in Depot Town.

Born in Germany in 1847, Lang emigrated in 1853, married fellow emigrant Jane, and had 4 children. At his shop, John worked iron and made horseshoes, and nailed them on his customers’ horses.

But he seems busy at the moment—though he won’t be for much longer—so we’ll leave him for now, after this short glimpse at the vanished jobs of 1892.

Laura Bien is the author of “Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives.” Have an idea for a story? Contact her at [email protected]

The Candy-Man’s “Shotgun Divorce”

January 23, 2011 by  
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At first it was just a job in the candy store at 15 North Huron, and an easy and safe one for a girl in 1911, compared to the jobs for girls in the recently-closed knitting mill over on Forest Avenue or even those in the box company around the corner on Pearl. Carrie had to make sure the boxed candy was displayed nicely, keep the cigars replenished, check that the fruit was fresh, and make an occasional ice cream soda for a customer at the counter. It was pleasant, and it was exciting to work in the city instead of being stuck at home on her father’s farm east of town. The money helped her family and gave eighteen-year-old Carrie a feeling of independence.

Perhaps too much independence, at least by her father’s standards.

ice-creamThe store, on the east side of Huron just north of the present-day Dalat, was managed by 32-year-old Andrew Pastorino, who had immigrated from Italy in 1902. A short man of medium build with brown eyes and black hair, Andrew rented rooms above the store. He shared them with his 21-year-old nephew Salviatra Annrelare, who’d immigrated in 1908, and his 18-year-old niece Mary Annrelare, who’d come the year after Salviatra.

Andrew appreciated his clerk Carrie. As time passed, he began to find her attractive. Soon he was thinking of her after hours, in his rooms upstairs. He was in love.

Although she was roughly half his age, Carrie was aware of and reciprocated his feelings. She knew her family wouldn’t approve. Andrew and Carrie’s feelings for each other deepened. They made a decision: they would elope.

The couple discussed how to sneak out of town for a Detroit wedding. Carrie would board the eastbound interurban at the downtown waiting room at 13-15 North Washington a block from the candy store (site of the recently-closed Pub 13). Further east on Michigan Avenue, Andrew would board the car at the car barns just east of the river. Then the couple would travel on to Detroit and the clandestine wedding.

Carrie’s father had other plans.

On the morning of February 8, 1911, Carrie waited nervously in the interurban waiting room for the 8:45. She spotted city policeman Officer Pierce, who on seeing her, abruptly strode off.

candymanCarrie’s father had come to town early that day, hitching his horse at the Hawkins House hotel at 216 West Michigan Avenue. He was keeping an eye on the departing cars to see if his daughter would show up to board one.

Now here he came into the waiting room with Officer Pierce.

“‘Why, hello, Daddy!’” Carrie said, as quoted in the February 8, 1911 Ypsilanti Daily Press. “‘I’m just going to the grocery store!’” The paper continued, “[She] hurriedly made for the Huron Street crossing thinking that she could avoid her father and yet catch the car. But her father overtook her at about the middle of the block and the car passed on. The groom was seen getting on at the car barns but alas, as the story goes the trip was made alone . . .”

Carrie was whisked home in her father’s buggy.

The next day, Andrew was behind the counter at the candy shop after his lonely ride home on the interurban. He was on the phone, and nearby customers eavesdropped. One of more of those customers would later phone or scurry to the Ypsilanti Daily Press around the corner at 301 West Michigan Avenue and dispense a tidbit of gossip regarding the candy-man’s telephone conversation. The paper ran another story on the thwarted couple.

“‘You can’t see me.’ ‘But I must see you. ‘No, I tell you, you can’t see me; if you come out here father will shoot you.’”

The February 9, 1911 paper continued, “It was at a candy kitchen on Huron street that one part of this conversation is reported to have been overheard this morning. The assurances pro and con came and went over the telephone to the amusement of the parties who chanced to be present . . .”

The paper went on to say, “The distracting experience of boarding a limited D. J. & C. car on which he had so fondly hoped to find a pretty fiancée and being forced to ride some distance alone on account of the unforeseen appearance and intervention of the fair maiden’s papa, seemingly proved a painful event for the candy manufacturer and the telephone was the best medium of consolation to which he could resort. Just what the next step will be is a difficult problem to solve but friends say that neither of the interested parties are of the disposition to give up easily and further interesting developments are still expected.”

“Father seems to have a gun and according to gossip, would be quite inclined to use it, so that the poor merchant’s position is apt to be either sad or perilous, or possibly it may be both.”

The Press was not finished with this story. On the following day, it published a third article about the affair which included responses from Carrie’s father, Allen Stewart. Allen claimed that he’d been in town that fateful morning just by coincidence. He denied that he knew of any business with Andrew, and denied he had a gun. He told the Press “[N]othing was really said about shooting.”

Carrie never came back to the candy store.

But Andrew’s broken engagement would not leave him a bachelor long. In about a year’s time, he married one Evelyn. Carrie also married soon after. The candy-store romance with its attempted elopement was over, though it was likely, by either Carrie or Andrew, not forgotten.

Laura Bien is the author of “Tales of the Ypsilanti Archives.” Contact her at [email protected]

Depression-Era Ypsilanti Cooperates to Combat Its Children’s Rickets

January 17, 2011 by  
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Some of the Depression’s hardest-hit victims in Ypsilanti were its youngest.

In 1933, the city’s municipal Welfare League and the Red Cross provided needy families with food, stove fuel, small emergency stipends, ready-made clothing, and cloth yardage with which to sew clothes. Occasional shipments of federal flour arrived, and many area farmers donated surplus produce to the “city barn” behind the then-City Hall at 206 North Huron (the Showerman/Quirk residence). But the assistance, though sincere, was ad hoc–and the supplies unpredictable.

It would be two years before Franklin Roosevelt created federal welfare programs, including assistance to children. However, the government did have a Children’s Bureau, headed by social worker Grace Abbott. She estimated that in 1933, 20 percent of the country’s children suffered from inadequate medical care, housing, and food.

When cases of rickets began appearing in Ypsilanti children that year, it was clear an extra effort was needed.

Rickets is a dietary disease caused by a vitamin D deficiency which inhibits calcium absorption by bones. Children with rickets can develop a bow-legged look due to weakened leg bones. Left untreated, rickets can lead to permanent bow-leggedness, an increased risk of bone fractures, and even seizures and breathing difficulties in severe cases.

rickets-adOn February 7, 1933, the Ypsilanti Welfare League took out a large ad in the Ypsilanti Daily Press. It featured an image of two disconsolate children superimposed with the words “Gee, I’m hungry.” The ad said that of 425 children of city welfare families, 150 were preschoolers. The ad also said, “Several cases of Ricketts [sic] have been reported to health authorities in the city because of undernourishment.”

The Welfare League’s plan was to stage a night of fundraising carnivals held at local schools. Admission was to be 25 cents [$4.10 today]. The money would be pooled to purchase milk from local dairies to supply to needy children. Vitamin D-enriched milk had been available on the market beginning in 1931.

Participating schools included Roosevelt High School (now EMU’s Roosevelt Hall), Prospect School (now Adams Elementary), Central High School (now Cross Street Village), Harriet School (now the Perry Child Development Center) and the stately Woodruff School (now demolished).

Each school planned a different program of entertainment. After paying admission, attendees could visit multiple venues, not unlike Ypsilanti’s onetime New Year’s Jubilee festival.

“Prospect School’s program will be in the form of a Depression masquerade,” said a February 13 Ypsilanti Daily Press article. “Old time and modern dancing will be provided” to live orchestra music, with prizes for best mask.

Roosevelt School also planned a program of modern and old-timey dancing to live music, the paper said, as well as an additional performance by acrobats.

Harriet School planned a musical program with performances by the Harriet School band, the Golden Leaf Jubilee Singers, and the Charles Hughes Tap Dancers and Musical Revue. There would also be a minstrel show. Other performances among the schools included comedy skits, vocal soloists, and accordion music.

rickets-ad22On the night of Monday, February 13, Ypsilantians flocked to the schools, with quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies in hand. “There was a generous response Monday evening to the call of [the] Ypsilanti welfare committee,” said a February 14 Ypsilanti Daily Press article. The paper noted that many people unable to attend had nevertheless bought tickets, to aid the effort.

The milk fund drive was a success, raising $315.91 [$5,200 today]. The Welfare League met and “arrangements were completed to immediately begin distribution among undernourished children of the city over 5,300 quarts of milk,” said a February 18, Ypsilanti Daily Press article.

The article said that city welfare director Fred Older, city nurse Helen Firestein, and city social worker Inez Graves would be in charge of arranging the milk purchase. “Several milk dealers in Ypsilanti have already declared their willingness to sell the regular standard grade of milk and deliver it in bottles for six cents a quart . . . exceptional care will be exercised in making up the list inasmuch as the fund must be made to reach as far as possible.”

At six cents a quart, 5,265 quarts could be purchased (1,316 gallons), close to the Welfare League’s estimate of “over 5,300 quarts.” If the milk was distributed only to the 425 welfare family children mentioned in the Welfare League’s initial ad, each child would receive about three gallons.

For some children, the milk’s arrival may have been too late to arrest or ameliorate their rickets. For others, it was the first sip of milk they’d had in over four months–and, when the 3 gallons was gone, their last, perhaps until spring. That was when the Welfare League planned another fundraising event, one that would again reveal the milk of human kindness.

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

The Trials of a City Directory-Writer in 1883

December 30, 2010 by  
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Depot Town-area grocer George Neat's ad touted a variety of sugars and canned goods.

Depot Town-area grocer George Neat's ad touted a variety of sugars and canned goods.

In the days before online people-finding search engines or even the yellow pages, yearly city directories offered information on business and residential addresses. For many years the Detroit-based firm of Polk’s compiled directories for Ypsilanti.

In 1883, however, a different company compiled the city directory—Coldwater-based Wendell Directory Company.

Unlike any of the Polk guides, the Wendell directory was prefaced by a poem about Ypsilanti that offers an outsider’s view of the city the company investigated.

Poets are numerous now-a-days, and so
It’s not surprising we should cut a caper
In noble verse; it don’t cost much you know,
For pens and ink are cheap and so is paper,
And even if we do hunt Webster thro’
What matters it if we can make it do? . . .

Ypsilanti has thriven, and is now a city,
Numbering about six thousand population—
(There should be ten, but is not more’s the pity—
A census always is an aggravation,
Which, instead of giving cities a fair showing,
Seems made on purpose to retard their growing!)

Many small local factories and mills of the day ran on hydropower. Wendell’s poem took note of that, and mentioned in passing the onetime strategy of dust control for the town’s many dirt roads. In later years, Ypsilanti’s dirt roads were treated with oil, in an effort to tamp down the ever-present dust.

Its greatest feature is its water power,
Which is magnificent and very fine.
And one that is as good and rich a dower
As nature could bequeath; it proves a mine
Of untold wealth, a bank that cannot “bust,”
And one effectual for laying dust!

The poet took note that local businesses were full of entrepreneurial vim.

Its merchants are most enterprising men,
And don’t believe in sticking in the mud;
Their maxin’s go ahead, excepting when
Being stationary does them the most good!
Taking them all in all they know their “biz,”
And never call things pop unless they fizz.

Such merchants in 1883 included the Huron Street Hardware store. Their November 10, 1883 ad touted the “Iron Acorn” stove, the “Union Churn,” and the “Bench Wringer” for wringing out freshly-washed clothes: “It makes the Wash Women Smile.”

According to another 1883 ad, the Ypsilanti Bazaar on North Huron offered tin and glassware, photo albums, lamps, ladies’ and gents’ underwear, hoopskirts, corsets, and stationery.

Down at the Depot, George Neat’s variety store sold sugar, tea, coffee, and canned goods that included vegetables, lobster, whitefish, trout, and mackerel.

Cleary’s school of penmanship downtown on Michigan Avenue offered “Superior Advantages to Gentlemen and Ladies who are desirous of acquiring a rapid, graceful style of writing, either for business advantages or for successfully teaching Spencerian and Ornamental Penmanship.”

On the present-day Water Street site, the onetime Parsons Brothers lumberyard advertised lumber, flooring, moldings, fencing, and “Scroll Sawing neatly done with our new Deflecting Scroll Saw.”

An 1883 ad for the Opera House invited patrons to see a spiritualist.

An 1883 ad for the Opera House invited patrons to see a spiritualist.

And the Opera House on Michigan Avenue advertised an evening with a spiritualist. “An evening in the Spirit World,” said the November 17 ad. “Prof. Chas. N. Stein will give a Religious Illustrated Lecture, assisted by the Empress of Mediums, Mrs. Martha E. Steen, Presenting the whole of Modern Spiritualism in open light. Is it true or false? Come and see.” Admission was 25 and 35 cents [$5.70 and $8 today].

Getting around to these and other places, however, wasn’t always easy for a directory-man trying to catalogue the city. Some of the outlying streets weren’t labeled with street signs, a condition that must have been frustrating to anyone attempting to collect addresses.

For instance, there are streets within the city
Unnamed, or if they are the name’s unknown,
Especially in the suburbs food for pity
In this particular. We all must own
There’s much occasion for a man to swear,
When hunting for a street which isn’t there!

Equally vexing to the directory-man was the somewhat haphazard house numbering system. Some years later downtown residence and business numbers were overhauled and renumbered in a more systematic fashion. In 1883, however, a random element made things difficult.

Again the numbers on the houses are
A little mixed, and no one can be sure
But what is “sixty” is a “forty-four,”
In fact it may be less, or may be more;
It isn’t nice to hunt for “nine” you see
And have ’em say, “why, this is fifty-three!”

Of course not, consequently we suggest
A revision of the system, all throughout it,
The cost is trifling, and it’s the best
To have a thing correct, when one’s about it,
And then, how nice, to feel securely sure,
That number forty-eight ain’t twenty-four.

As the directory man tramped through town, perplexed by absent street signs and mixed-up house numbers, his quest wasn’t made easier by the somewhat rough sidewalks.

There also are some sidewalks here and there
That somehow like to have you “take a seat,”
The trouble is, it looks so awful queer,
That no one cares to do it in the street;
Its not “in style,” and people have a passion
For doing nothing but what’s “in the fashion.”

And so we think (we’re very fond of talking)
Another kind of walk would better please,
One that confines its usefulness for walking,
And not for sitting down, as some of these!
Still, we can truly say there’s very few Bad sidewalks in the city, but one or two.

After the information had been laboriously collected and returned to Coldwater for printing and binding, the directory man in his poem bade farewell to Ypsilanti.

Just so. And now our book being ended,
There’s nothing left to do but bid good-bye,
With thanks to those who have our work befriended,
We take our leave with a regretful sigh,
And in the words of foreign lore—Au Revoir,
Because we hope again to meet your eye.

Have an old-time story to share? Contact Laura at [email protected]

Ypsilanti’s Glaswegian Cobbler-Inventor

December 15, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

Archibald's signature on his 1874 patent application for "Mcnicol Cement."

Archibald's signature on his 1874 patent application for "McNicol Cement."

The Scottish-born immigrant contribution to 19th-century Ypsilanti life is undersung. Farmer-poet William Lambie published numerous poems in the Ypsilanti Commercial and shared a correspondence with Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier. Helen McAndrew was a doctor maintaining her own hospital in an era when few women worked outside the home. Archibald McNicol did not allow his humble occupation of cobbler to prevent him from becoming an inventor.

Born in Glasgow on February 8, 1839, Archibald apprenticed as a shoemaker. He emigrated at age 27 just after the American Civil War. After stints in Canada, Detroit, and Romeo, Michigan, he settled in Ypsilanti. He married Michigan-born Helen Treat in 1872 at age 33.

As a cobbler, Archibald spent his days cutting shapes from leather, stitching scraps together, and nailing on soles. However he had a creative and problem-solving mind. Two years after his marriage he filed a patent for an invention connected with his trade. He named his creation after himself.

“McNicol Cement” was compounded of India-rubber, gutta-percha, balata, and chloroform. The concoction was a glue for leather and a waterproofing agent.

The antique terms deserve explanation. “India rubber” is probably most familiar to old-timers as gum elastic, derived from a tropical tree and at one time common in pencil erasers. Gutta-percha and balata were other forms of rubber also derived from trees. The chloroform Archibald mixed into his concoction was likely purchased from a downtown drugstore.

“To cement pieces of leather together,” read Archibald’s patent description, “skive [pare down] each piece of leather to a wedge-like edge, apply the McNicol cement to both pieces, and after lapping them together pound slightly with a hammer or mallet to bring the pieces into close contact, and give ten minutes to thoroughly dry.” Skiving the edges of the leather before gluing them together increased the surface area and made for a smooth joint without a ridge.

McNicol Cement seems to have had some success. In his 1881 book “History of Washtenaw County,” Charles Chapman included mention of the cobbler-inventor. “In 1867 he came to Ypsilanti,” said Chapman, “and soon after invented the well-known McNicol cement, and traveled and sold the county and state rights for over 11 years.” However, Archibald did not abandon his occupation of shoemaker.

By 1880, Archibald and his one-month-older wife Helen were 41. They lived on Summit Street with their 7 year old daughter Jeanie and their 3 year old son. Helen’s 79 year old mother Sarah shared their home, as did a 28 year old apprentice shoemaker, Wentworth.

Archibald wasn’t through with inventing. In 1886, when he was 47, he filed a patent for a “door check,” a spring-loaded device that slowed the closure of the door upon which it was mounted, preventing it from slamming.

At the turn of the century, Archibald was 61. He continued to work as a shoemaker and along with his son, who worked as a grocer, supported an entire household that included Archibald’s wife Helen, his 23 year old son and his son’s wife Maud, Archibald’s 17 year old daughter Helen, and Maud’s 6 month old infant, also named Helen. Archibald owned the home, at 717 Congress Street.

He shared a shop downtown at 128 East Michigan Avenue with the candymakers Schiappacasse and Bullo and with insurance agent Edmund Hewitt. The shared shop’s neighbors included the F. C. Banghart meat market and the Senate Saloon.

In his 60s, Archibald was still not finished with inventing. In 1902, he filed for a patent for his improved hook and eye fastener, an intricate wire contraption that appears to have been intended for use on clothing, not shoes. Soon afterwards, Archibald turned 70. The art of shoemaking that he’d learned as a boy in Glasgow had enabled him to make a living, maintain a downtown shop, and successfully support a family in America for many decades.

Archibald’s wife Helen passed away and was buried in Highland Cemetery. Shortly after his 71st birthday, Archibald fell ill. He was taken to Ann Arbor’s Homeopathic Hospital and there died.

On Archibald’s death certificate, the coroner wrote as cause of death “autointoxication.” The period term did not refer to alcohol but to a theory of the day that self-poisoning resulted from incorrect nutrition or malfunction of the digestive system. Archibald’s daughter Jean signed the death certificate.

Archibald was buried with Helen in block 54 of Highland Cemetery.

Have an old-time story to share? Drop Laura  a line at [email protected]

Ypsilanti Thanksgivings During World War Two

November 29, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

Wiedman's Ford dealership stood in the downtown bus station parking lot on Pearl Street.

Wiedman's Ford dealership stood in the downtown bus station parking lot on Pearl Street.

“Any prisoners confined in the jail on Thanksgiving Day will be served the usual menu of bologna and bread,” said the November 20, 1941 Ypsilanti Daily Press in an article about Thanksgiving Day menus in the city’s public institutions.

The article went on to say that Beyer Hospital, the Ypsilanti State Hospital southwest of town, and Leland Sanitarium north of town could expect the traditional turkey dinner with all the trimmings. Beyer also planned to serve celery and pear pickles and Leland would serve tomato bouillon and celery hearts. At the State Hospital, staff received a turkey dinner but patients made do with pork chops and mashed potatoes.

But the austere jail repast, served only about two weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor, was an augury of rationed Thanksgiving meals to come.

Food was not the only item that people were asked to cut back on.

Food was not the only item that people were asked to cut back on.

Sugar was the first food to be rationed in May of 1942, and would be the last item to leave the ration list in 1947. By the fall of 1942, the price of turkeys was soaring. “The housewife shopping for turkey and trimmings today is realizing the high cost of being thankful,” noted an article in the November 25, 1942 Ypsilanti Daily Press. “Turkeys are fine this year, but high! They’re also plentiful but not for civilians. The Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Marines, WAACS and WAVES have gobbled up so many gobblers that many markets in the larger cities won’t have a turkey left on Thanksgiving eve.”

The article continued, “You can be thankful if you have coffee on hand otherwise tea will top off your meal as all coffee sales are frozen this week.” Three days later on November 28, 1942, coffee joined sugar on the ration list, to be purchased with stamps from one’s personal ration book.

The Ypsilanti Archives safeguards former Ypsilanti Press editor Eileen Harrison’s World War II ration books. At the time, Eileen was 40 years old, single, and living at 413 Washtenaw. The Archives contains her gas ration book, showing that she had an “A” rating for her 1935 coupe. This was the smallest ration (about 3 or 4 gallons a week) and was allotted to those whose driving was deemed nonessential to the war effort. “B” and “C” ratings offered greater amounts of gas, “T” was given to truckers, and “X,” the category allowing unlimited use of gas, was given to civil defense workers and public safety officials.

Eileen Harrison's food ration book

Eileen Harrison's food ration book

The Archives also contains Eileen’s ration book for food (at left), with an array of blue stamps used to buy processed and canned foods. Red stamps were used to buy meat. Stamps could not be saved up for a big Thanksgiving meal. Every week the Office of Price Administration in charge of the rationing program published lists of the specific stamp numbers that could be used that week and that week only to purchase specified quantities of food such as coffee. The office was trying to prevent hoarding.

“Enough coffee will be available during the life of the first coupon, but if everyone tries to redeem all of his stamps, the first day or the first week, there simply will not be enough to go around,” said an article in the November 28, 1942 Ypsilanti Daily Press. “Because of the perishable nature of the roasted and ground bean, the administration pointed out that excessively large household stocks would mean that people would be drinking stale coffee.”

On March 29, 1943 the rationed-foods list added many more foods, including cheese, butter, edible fats, canned fish and milk, processed foods, and just about every imaginable variety of fresh, frozen, smoked, canned, or preserved meat, including turkeys. The March 12, 1943 Ypsilanti Daily Press listed the new weekly limits per person:

“Meat—2 to 2 ¼ lbs.
Butter—4 ½ oz.
Lard—4 oz.
Margarine—1 1/3 oz.
Cheese—slightly less than 2 oz.
Shortening—3 oz.”

The paper pointed out that this was far more than was being rationed to the British, who could get only 1 ¼ pound of meat and 2 ounces of butter per week.

"Have you every seen a child of Hitler?" asked the ad. "They're thin, scrawny children . . ."

"Have you every seen a child of Hitler?" asked the ad. "They're thin, scrawny children . . ."

Ads in the Ypsilanti papers reflected food concerns. A March 12, 1943 ad for the Savage Community Store off Holmes Road says, “Don’t waste food: store it properly, prepare it carefully, buy it sensibly.” In the same edition, a Morton’s Salt ad proclaims, “Salt on grapefruit makes it sweeter.” A November 26, 1943 ad for Warner Dairy at 928 West Michigan Avenue said, “Hitler’s Children Don’t Get Milk Every Day—Be Thankful That You Do!”

Ypsilantians preparing for Thanksgiving that month were helped by an easing of meat point requirements. “Despite the fowl shortage,” said an article in the November 25, 1943 Ypsilanti Daily Press, “Ypsilanti’s soldiers and civilians apparently have not suffered and Thanksgiving menus today appear equal to those of previous years with roast turkey the favorite . . .”

It wouldn’t be until Thanksgiving of 1945, months after the surrender of German and Japanese forces, that the two-and-one-half-year federal rationing of meat ended, on November 24. For some Ypsilantians that post-war Thanksgiving was likely the first lavish meal in years.

At other homes, the feast table had empty chairs.

Ypsilanti merchants planned an end-of-November Christmas shopping event. “‘The lights will be on again’ marking the end of wartime restrictions,” said an article in the November 27, 1945 Ypsilanti Daily Press. “Ypsilanti merchants will do their utmost to make this a real old-time Christmas. Toys are here in profusion, and gifts for adults too, in such quantity and assortment as the limited market permits.” The event would feature strolling musicians, a performance by the Drum and Bugle Corps, the Boy Scout Drum Corps, and a torchlight parade to the Post Office where Santa would hold court.

After privation and sorrow, worry and loss, rations and restrictions, the city was thankful for peace.

Laura Bien is the author of “Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives.” Have a WWII story to share for a future column? Contact her at [email protected]

Thank Goodness for Laundry

November 15, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

When was the last time you were thankful to do laundry?

laundry3Right after World War II, electric washing machines were an exciting new possibility for Ypsilanti families. Detroit Edison advertised them in its November 26, 1945 Ypsilanti Daily Press ad. Next to the image of a presumed housewife’s face, the ad copy read, “My electric life is wonderful—and it will be still better.”

The war was over. During it, production of consumer appliances had all but ceased, in favor of steering raw materials to bombers, tanks, and soldiers’ supplies. At war’s end, many of the appliances in Ypsilanti homes dated from the Depression, or earlier.

Factories reverted from wartime production to consumer goods. Metals, rubber, and other resources again became available to domestic manufacturers.

The washing machine in Detroit Edison’s Press ad resembled a barrel. “A peek into my basement,” reads the ‘housewife’s’ narration, “would reveal . . . an all-electric laundry that washes, rinses, and damp-dries [spins] my clothes . . .” Clothes still had to be hung on the clothesline or a rack to dry. But the electric washer was a big step up from hand-cranked wooden washing machines resembling a lidded half-barrel, such as the one in the Ypsilanti Historical Society’s kitchen.

Electric clothes driers, also from Detroit Edison, wouldn’t appear in Ypsilanti newspaper advertisements for another decade. “For the price of a laundry basket you can do 50 loads in your electric clothes dryer,” read a September 4, 1956 Ypsilanti Daily Press ad. “No more heavy clothes baskets to lug outdoors. Just turn the dial to get soft, fluffy laundry every time. No wonder smart homemakers say: ‘You can live Better . . . Electrically.’”

The electric washer wasn’t the only new postwar appliance advertised in the 1945 Detroit Edison ad. Another was a home freezer that offered “fresh foods at any season of the year,” as opposed to seasonal eating. Mention was also made of a “safe” refrigerator.

This echoes earlier ads for GE refrigerators, whose cylindrical compressors on top led to the public’s nicknaming them “Monitor Top,” due to the visual similarity to the famed Civil War ironclad vessel the “Monitor.” One 1927 Monitor Top ad read that it is now “safe to be hungry,” suggesting that food spoiled relatively quickly in old-fashioned iceboxes.

The other two appliances in the 1945 Detroit Edison ad are a “clean” electric range (as opposed to a sooty wood or coal stove) and an air conditioner that is the size of a modern fridge and dishwasher combined. The ad also read “No more worrying about hot water in the morning, for my husband’s shaving, or during the day for the hot water needed for a thousand and one chores, and at night for the refreshing baths we all look forward to so much.”

gas3Reliable hot water that didn’t need to be heated on a stovetop was also a selling point for the Ypsilanti City Gas Department. The YCGD, headquartered at 111 Pearl Street (now the site of Congdon’s Hardware) also jumped into the postwar business of selling appliances. Its April 23, 1946 Ypsilanti Daily Press ad promises, “all the hot water you need from an automatic GAS water heater on 24-hour service for kitchen, laundry, bath.” This device was an early iteration of what is now known as a tankless water heater.

The gas company ad’s main selling point, however, was that the kitchen would be cooler without a cast iron stove.

The electric or gas range wasn’t new. As early as 1933 electric ranges were advertised in local papers. “Enjoy these advantages of Electric Cooking!” read one November 6, 1933 Detroit Edison Ad in the Press. The ad listed the five virtues of electric cooking. The first was “clean.” “There is no smoke or soot to blacken utensils or soil kitchen walls or curtains.” The next benefit was “waterless cooking.” “With your electric range you use no water for roasts and only half a cup for vegetables.” The remaining 3 virtues were “modern,” “healthful,” and “full flavored.” The ad offered a trial period of six months for a dollar a month, after which the user could buy the range or have it removed from the home at no expense.

Even earlier, in 1907 the Washtenaw Light and Power Company held its “Great Free Electric Cooking Demonstration” downtown, as noted in an article in the April 18, 1907 Ypsilanti Daily Press.

“The audience at the cooking demonstration grows larger with each succeeding day and each lady who has attended is greatly enthused over the wonderful things that are being accomplished with the agent electricity.”

The article continued, “The demonstration of cooking is made at a very attractive booth, and here also are exhibited and used the different utensils, such as combination liquid beaters, cereal cookers, coffee percolators, chafing dishes, broilers, frying pans, and ovens, all of which are extremely serviceable. A huge Japanese umbrella, studded with variously colored electric lights, is suspended above the booth, giving the display a brilliant appearance. Attendees sampled tomato rarebit, tapioca pudding, coffee, and cake.”

But electrical devices didn’t find widespread acceptance in town until the post-WWII period. Then, the new crop of mechanized household aids put money in Detroit Edison’s pocket and gave housewives some reprieve from long days of backbreaking labor.

It’s hard to imagine being grateful for laundry. But after the long desperation of the Depression and the food and fuel rationing and shortages of World War Two, the postwar tide of new home helpers gave new freedom to Ypsilanti housewives.

Something as prosaic as an electric washing machine was a miracle for which to be thankful.

Laura is the authos of “Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives.” Have an idea for a column? Contact Laura at [email protected]

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