The Ann Arbor Chronicle » Laura Bien it's like being there Wed, 26 Nov 2014 18:59:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 In the Archives: Criminal Girls Fri, 02 May 2014 22:29:43 +0000 Laura Bien In the fall of 1883, delegates from almost every state attended the National Conference of Charities and Corrections in Louisville, Kentucky. Penologists, prison officials, and representatives from state institutions for the blind, deaf, orphaned, insane and “feeble-minded” gathered at Louisville’s Polytechnic Institute for eight days of presentations and discussions.

Emma Hall's 1883 talk, delivered at the National Conference of Charities and Corrections in Louisville, Kentucky, analyzed the best methods of reforming girls.

Emma Hall’s 1883 talk, delivered at the National Conference of Charities and Corrections in Louisville, Kentucky, analyzed the best methods of reforming girls.

On the morning of Sept. 26, Ypsilanti resident and Normal School graduate Emma Hall faced a distinguished audience. “The reformation of criminal girls,” she began, “is no longer a doubtful experiment.”

Born February 28, 1837 on a farm in Lenawee County’s Raisin Township, Emma was the second of her parents Reuben and Abby’s eight children. Most of the family relocated to Ypsilanti around 1870. Reuben’s teaching background and Abby’s upbringing as a Congregational minister’s daughter may have influenced Emma’s career as a prison reformer. She became Michigan’s first woman to lead a state penal institution, and was later made a member of the nation’s top prison advisory committee.

After graduating from the Normal in 1861, Emma taught recitation at Professor Sill’s Seminary for Young Ladies in Detroit, for a yearly salary of $550 [about $10,000 in 2014 dollars]. Emma met Detroit House of Corrections prison superintendent Zebulon Brockway. Beginning with his work at the Detroit prison, which opened in 1861, Brockway would become a nationally-recognized though controversial prison reformer.

In 1868, Brockway opened the House of Shelter. This adjunct to the Detroit House of Corrections offered a radical experiment for women prisoners, many of whom had been arrested for prostitution. Instead of barred cells, the House of Shelter offered a comfortable group home in which each woman had her own bedroom. The home was furnished and decorated as a well-to-do middle-class home.

Brockway made Emma its first matron. She moved in and lived full-time with the women.

Emma instituted a program of domestic arts education and cultural activities designed to impart marketable skills and a refined character. Family-style meals were shared at a table set with good china and table linens. The women learned sewing techniques and attended evening school and religious instruction. Recreation included singing, playing the parlor organ, embroidery, and a Thursday night tea with prose and poetry recitations. At least one woman learned to read at the house.

Detroit's House of Shelter, Emma's introduction to prison reform methods.

Detroit’s House of Shelter, Emma’s introduction to prison reform methods.

State officials praised Emma’s work in their 1873 report “Pauperism and Crime in Michigan in 1872-73.” They said, “Culture of this kind, amid such surroundings, cannot fail to be productive of great good in preparing those who receive it for useful home life, and we cannot but regard the House of Shelter as one of the best agencies for saving those likely to fall that it has been our province to find.”

A new supervisor at the Detroit House of Corrections took a dimmer view of the venture. In 1874, Emma and Zebulon resigned from the House of Shelter. The new supervisor converted the onetime sanctuary into his private residence.

But Emma’s devotion and energy had won the attention of state officials, and she was appointed matron of the state public school at Coldwater, Michigan’s institution for orphaned or disadvantaged children.

Here Emma first encountered a recurring nemesis to her drive and vision: a supervisory board of inexperienced members who encountered not obedience but authority from Emma. She resigned after only a short term at Coldwater. In a letter to Michigan governor John Bagley, she wrote of her resignation, “I would not be a tool in the hands of the local board.” The resignation did not slow her career; she was appointed matron of the School for the Deaf and Dumb in Flint, and remained there for several years.

In 1878, Mary Lathrop read her essay “Fallen Women” at the annual meeting of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in Grand Rapids, a small event that would sweep Emma into a new role. Far from a quaint anti-tippling society, the WCTU offered vote-denied 19th-century women one of their most effective avenues into some measure of political power.

Discussions about Lathrop’s topic coalesced into a goal to erect a women’s and girls’ reform school. The plan led to an energetic WCTU-initiated petition drive across the state for the legislature to create such a school. Completed petitions, with dozens or hundreds of signatures, began pouring into Lansing. “Early in the session of the Legislature of 1879 these [petitions] began to fall around the members like autumn leaves,” notes the 1881 edition of the Joint Documents of the State of Michigan.

In 1879 the Michigan legislature approved funding for a girls’ reform school in Adrian. Governor Charles Croswell appointed Emma to its board of directors, and then made her supervisor, the ultimate authority for every facet of the Industrial Home for Girls and its highest-paid staff member, with a $1,000 annual salary [$24,000 in 2014 dollars]. The three members of the school’s board of directors, including president Arthuretta Fuller, lacked Emma’s experience in managing state institutions.

County agents across Michigan began to send girls to Adrian. Criteria for selection included prostitution, homelessness, a sordid home environment, or a determination that a girl was in some way “wayward.” The girls were examined by a doctor on arrival. Many had untreated medical issues and sexually transmitted diseases. The average age was just over 13.

Emma housed the girls in the campus’s four cottages that were meant to create a less penal, more homey “family style” similar to the House of Shelter. Nearby, a farmhouse on the grounds became the residence of the school doctor, engineer, handyman, housekeeper, and of Emma.

Emma organized a regular schedule for the girls, from 5:30 a.m. to a quarter to nine at night. During a typical day, the girls attended about 2 and half hours of school and 3 and half hours of sewing class. Together with staff, the girls sewed 4,650 items in one 14-month period, including all of the bed linens, carpets, and clothing required by the school. The output included machine-knit stockings and an undergarment that combined a chemise and pantaloons, called a “chemiloon.”

In the school’s 1882 biennial report the supervisory board noted, “the influence of Miss Hall upon the girls is manifest in their love for her, and in their steady improvement under her management.” Emma’s former boss at the Flint Institute for the Deaf and Dumb remarked, “during the many years she was connected with [this] institution, her knowledge of the duties of her position, executive ability, and habits of industry made her administration most successful. The same qualities have enabled her to organize and put in operation one of the best institutions of the state.” Zebulon praised her accomplishment in an 1882 letter: “It is in advance of anything I know in the same department of benevolent endeavor.” But in another letter of the same year, he cautioned Emma, whose zeal he had seen firsthand. “The average . . . supervisor will by and by complain that the comforts and care given to your girls is greater than that enjoyed by the children of such families as his own, and may therefore be hesitant to supply you funds.”

That Christmas the school featured a program of music and recitations, a dinner of chicken pie, and a welcome visit from University of Michigan alumnus Reverend Joseph Estabrook, president of Olivet College. A Christmas tree was covered in presents for the 91 resident girls. Additional presents that the girls’ family members sent were distributed – though not many. Emma later noted in a report, “Some girls [were] remembered.”

The following fall, Emma was invited to read her paper before the delegates at the Louisville convention. Shortly thereafter, National Prison Association secretary William Round, asked Emma to serve on its board of directors and advise on issues affecting penal institutions nationwide. Her colleagues on the board included former President Rutherford Hayes and future president Theodore Roosevelt. Emma wrote in reply, “To be associated with such distinguished and successful workers in the interest of humanity and to be one of two ladies chosen first gives me new courage and inspiration.”

This high honor may have sparked a different reaction in Adrian. The following spring, the school’s board of directors unanimously asked Emma to resign. Emma did so on April 14, 1884.

One hint that this action may have resulted from petty politics lies in an April 27, 1884 letter from Emma’s friend Theresa Burrows, apparently in reply to a letter that Emma sent to her. Theresa wrote from her home in San Bernardino, “How could, even as vindictive, unprincipled and selfish a woman as [board president] Madam Fuller accomplish such a fatal thing to all their interests as your resignation!”

Emma's school in Albuquerque as it appeared shortly after she died there." (public domain photo)

Emma’s school in Albuquerque as it appeared shortly after she died there.”

The following day, Emma received a sympathetic letter from onetime Ann Arbor resident Reverend George Gillespie, chairman of the state’s Board of Corrections and Charities. He told Emma that in such cases with an inexperienced board of managers the supervisor often receives the blame. His letter was followed by a “letter of esteem” signed by numerous Adrian residents. Written in an elegant, almost calligraphic script, the letter had been hand-carried to each person who signed it, judging by the signatures’ varying pen nib effects and ink colors.

Emma left Adrian and embarked on a tour of the Western states. Within a month she was writing postcards and letters to her family in Ypsilanti, marveling that she was 2,600 miles away and praising the comfort of Pullman cars. Her July 7, 1884 diary entry reads only, “Yosemite!”

Emma secured a position teaching at a boarding school for Native American children in Albuquerque, a lowly job compared to Adrian. Teachers were paid little, housed poorly, and even had to purchase some of their own food. Emma wrote to her family in November, “I did not expect ease or many comforts hence am not disappointed.”

Emma’s situation was worse than was apparent. She experienced heart trouble. Her diary entry for November 29, 1884 reads only: “Could not get up.” The next day: “Not able to get up.”

Most of her letters to her family had heretofore been signed “Your affectionate Emma” or “Your loving Emma”; on November 30 she signed one “Goodbye, with love to each one.” In tiny script at the bottom of this letter Emma wrote, “Some things are intolerable.”

Among her surviving papers is a receipt from Albuquerque’s Sloan and Mousson Co. for “one oak air tight case, embalming, &c., $95.” After her December 27, 1884 death, Emma’s body was returned to Ypsilanti.

Her many friends sent letters of condolence to her family. Henry Hurd, medical superintendent at the Eastern Michigan Asylum wrote with his wife Mary, “We sympathized with her in the undeserved trials of the past year.”

Local lawyer C. R. Miller said, “It affords me some consolation to think I was not entirely useless to her and her work while she was at the head of the reform school. I gave her what aid and strength I could because I thought she was right and was doing a good work well.”

Reverend Joseph Estabrook recalled “the Christmas day of two years ago, a part of which I spent with her in the girls’ reform school in Adrian. Her work was a grand and glorious one there. No one can compute the good which she accomplished while there, and the immense loss to the state when she was removed. No mistake could have been more sad, and my sense of the great wrong done to her and to the unfortunate girls of Michigan was never so keen as now.”

The history of the Adrian school darkened after Emma’s departure. Conditions deteriorated and rumors of cruelty spread, so that the school was investigated by state officials in 1899. Twenty years later it had reached its nadir, and the Michigan legislature heard horrific descriptions of neglect, solitary confinement, and vicious abuse that at least resulted in a thorough overhaul of the incompetent staff.

Emma Hall had created a much different reality for her girls, and earned the respect of prestigious colleagues. It is an honor to the people of Ypsilanti and Washtenaw County that she rests in our Highland Cemetery.

Mystery Artifact

The last column featured a simple, once common device that readers guessed correctly.

Mystery object.

Mystery object.

Yes, it’s a pair of ice tongs, once used to transfer a block of ice into the ice compartment of one’s icebox.

Patti nailed it! TJ, I thought your guess of “canning tongs” was really good, as well.

I don’t know enough about canning to imagine or describe how canning tongs might be shaped differently – perhaps a kind reader can help. Good guess!

This time we’re looking for the identity or function of this odd device.

It’s rather strange and complicated; take your best guess!


Laura Bien is a local history writer. Reach her at

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In the Archives: When The Press Fed Us Wed, 02 Apr 2014 13:46:51 +0000 Laura Bien We Ypsilantians are losing our last nominally-local newspaper.

Screenshot of March 26, 2014 note to readers announcing the changes at Heritage. Image links to the article.

Screenshot of March 26, 2014 note to readers from publisher Jim O’Rourke announcing the changes at Heritage. Image links to the article.

As of April 10, the Ypsilanti Courier, which currently maintains its office in Saline, will be amalgamated with the Chelsea Standard, Dexter Leader, Manchester Enterprise, Milan News-Leader, and Saline Reporter to form a media entity called Washtenaw Now. The weekly Ypsilanti Courier usually runs around 24 pages, according to its advertising department. Though it will combine six similar local newspapers, the weekly Washtenaw Now likely won’t contain 144 pages; by comparison, 120 pages made up last Sunday’s New York Times.

Compared to 20th-century Ypsilanti newspapers, our community coverage will inevitably be reduced – to a level that could fairly be regarded as a homeopathic dilution. The University of Michigan used to have a homeopathic college. It closed. Aside from a possible placebo effect, homeopathy doesn’t work.

But in the early 1930s, the full-strength Ypsilanti Daily Press provided a powerful remedy to ailing residents. It galvanized Ypsilantians to join a massive two-pronged community project that united clubwomen, farmers, the destitute, church ladies, storekeepers, city officials, and myriad other community members.

Because of the paper’s intervention and leadership, hungry Ypsilanti children ate nutritious food the following winter.

Ypsilanti's First National Bank took out a triumphant quarter-page ad when they processed a single transaction with an exotic 'foreign country'. June 9, 1931 Ypsilanti Daily Press.

Ypsilanti’s First National Bank took out a triumphant quarter-page ad when they processed a single transaction with an exotic ‘foreign country’. June 9, 1931 Ypsilanti Daily Press.

As the Depression deepened in Ypsilanti, limited resources existed for the poor or unemployed.

There was no federal unemployment insurance, Social Security, or food stamp program.

In the spring of 1931, a year and a half after the stock market crash, President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs did not yet exist to help out-of-work Ypsilantians.

In addition, just a few years earlier, the majority of Americans lived in rural areas. Even such urban areas as Ypsilanti remained insular.

One period ad from a downtown Ypsi bank describes the astounding novelty of a single transaction it conducted involving a “foreign country.”

Because of these conditions, relief for the poor had long been locally organized.

Commissioner of the Poor was a long-standing city job; in the early 1930s it was held by Ralph Southard, who was also police chief.

When the Depression created privation, the city drew on this local tradition.

Led by the Ypsilanti Daily Press, the city of 10,300 devised its own solution.

Local Gardens

“Social Service Worker, Daily Press, Sponsor Home Gardens,” read an April 1, 1931 headline in the Ypsilanti Daily Press. Municipal social worker Inez Graves and the paper asked property owners to allow disadvantaged neighbors to create vegetable gardens on vacant property. Residents could call the paper or drop in to its downtown office at North Huron and Pearl, opposite the now-Riverside Arts Center, to register their open land. Graves was in charge of matching needy families to available lots, wrote the Press. It was one of many roles Graves would assume for the Home Gardens project.

Residents responded immediately, noted the Press. Lots near Recreation Park, another on Davis Street, and one near Ecorse Road were immediately donated, with 124 additional lots to follow including one three-acre swath. Lots were not requireed to be within city limits, said the paper, as Graves would assign more distant lots to families with some means of transportation.

Between 40 and 50 gardens were soon under cultivation, according to the June 3 Press, with gardeners guided by advice from Ypsilanti High School agricultural instructor Charles Osgood. Residents without property to lend could help in other ways. Some gave money. A local greenhouse donated cabbage and tomato plants. Ypsilantians were also asked to donate any extra vegetable seeds. For some Ypsilanti families in poverty, like those who kept children home from school for lack of adequate clothes to wear, there was no money for a packet of seeds.

Despite donors’ generosity, a few lots remained unclaimed. The June 4 Press advised, “People who called upon the city for help during the winter, but who failed to help themselves during the summer, can scarcely expect sympathetic consideration if next winter they again find themselves without food.” Many, however, took advantage of the chance to grow fresh food.

Local Canning

In September, the second part of the city’s effort to feed hungry residents began. Residents and local farmers were asked to bring surplus vegetables and fruits to the Board of Commerce offices at Michigan Avenue and Adams street throughout September and early October. The bushels of tomatoes, potatoes, beets, carrots, peaches, and apples collected there would be redistributed by a dedicated city truck to local groups for numerous canning sessions.

The Press asked local churches and clubs to help with this massive canning venture by scheduling one canning bee each. The Press asked the public to contribute any canning jars, canning lids, sealing paraffin, sugar, salt, or money to the effort. The paper asked each participant to bring her own paring knife, at least a pound of sugar, and as many Mason jars as she could donate.

The Baptist Church led the endeavor with a squadron of women canning for four hours in the church’s kitchen on a mid-September Saturday afternoon. Peaches, plums, pears and tomatoes were canned, according to the Sept. 19 Press. Capping off 156 finished quarts of canned food, the energetic Baptist ladies volunteered to do an additional bee. The local Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic and Congregational churches held their own canning bees, as did the Daughters of Veterans, Order of the Eastern Star, other clubs, and a group of teachers in the high school kitchens.

“Every Day a Canning Day for Ypsilanti This Week,” read a Sept. 22 Press headline. One of many donors, the Kiwanis gave $25 [$380 in 2014 dollars] to the effort. Boy Scouts joined members of the Women’s Study Club on drives into the country to ask for additional donations of surplus vegetables and fruit, which, said the paper, were gladly given. The entire community contributed to the titanic effort, as the Press continued to publish appeals for donations and thanks to participants and donors.


It is interesting to note the apparent ubiquity of canning skills.

During the Depression, Ypsilanti piano dealers the Grinnell Bros. branched out into ammonia refrigerators. The units were expensive and could be bought on time.

During the Depression, Ypsilanti piano dealers the Grinnell Bros. branched out into ammonia refrigerators. The units were expensive and could be bought on time.

Presumably the preservation process was second nature to many women. Home refrigeration beyond the small, primitive icebox was an emerging technology in the early 1930s. The Press carried numerous ads for home refrigeration units in the summer of 1931. The majority of units operated not with the familiar electric compressor but with a small fuel burner.

These were absorption refrigerators, the kind still found in RVs. Unlike modern compressor refrigerators, absorption refrigerators use a nonmechanical thermochemical closed-loop system that exploits the evaporation of ammonia to draw heat from the food chamber. The system is quiet with no moving parts. As it requires no electricity, it was marketed to rural residents. Rural electrification had yet to arrive to much of Washtenaw County. However, absorption fridges are less efficient than compressor types. In terms of home refrigeration, fuel-powered fridges were a short-lived transitional technology.

At the end of the city canning bees, the finished jars of food were collected from sites throughout town and transported to City Hall, then located in the former Quirk mansion at 304 (now 300) North Huron. Special shelves were built to hold the winter treasure, sorted by type of food. Ypsilantians had turned their hallowed hall of governance into a giant pantry.

The final tally was 2,080 quarts of canned food. A quart Mason jar with lid is 6 and a half inches tall. If laid end to end, the colossal production of the citywide canning effort would have extended for the better part of a quarter mile – and far into the coming winter for neighbors in need.

The success came thanks to the efforts of the invaluable, now-vanished onetime local newspaper.

Mystery Artifact

Many readers correctly guessed last column’s artifact, which is a miner’s carbide lamp that could be clipped onto his helmet.

Mystery artifact.

Mystery artifact.

A quantity of the chemical calcium carbide was placed in the lower chamber, and water in the upper chamber. A controlled drip of water falling on the calcium carbide produced acetylene gas which could be ignited to produce light (and heat). A legend on top of the lamp reads “GUY’S DROPPER,” with a patent number.

Congratulations to Jim Rees, Cosmonican, Ray Hunter, Fred, Vivienne. Ray also shared a great anecdote: “When I was a kid growing up in a small mining town in Pa, we would use carbide to make our own 4th of July firecrackers. Just take an old empty gallon paint can, put a nail hole in the lid, put a few grains of carbide in the can along with a little bit of water … then shake the can … touch a flame to the nail hole and BOOM!”

This time we have a simple artifact related somehow to something mentioned in the article. The color is not natural; it’s a bit rusty. What might this be? Additionally, does the fact that I keep picking mystery artifacts from my own magpie stash of junk treasures mean it’s time for a garage sale? Nah, there’s room for one or two more things, isn’t there? Thanks for reading!

Laura Bien is a local history writer unskilled at canning. Reach her at

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In the Archives: Soap a Sign of Spring Wed, 26 Feb 2014 22:15:57 +0000 Laura Bien In spring the Washtenaw pioneer farm wife prepared for arguably the smelliest, most dangerous, and most tiring chore of the year. Along the way, she could suffer chemical burns, ruin her clothes, or accidentally start a grease fire. The process was hours long, involved seemingly endless stirring, and often failed.

Ypsilanti merchant Charles Stuck solicited newspaper readers for ashes.

Ypsilanti merchant Charles Stuck solicited newspaper readers for ashes.

Her first step was to gather scraps of skin and fat left over from last fall’s butchering and the grease and bones saved from months of cooking. Often rancid and mixed with dirt and animal hair, the fats were combined with water in a big iron kettle outdoors and boiled over a fire. Upon cooling, the congealed floating layer of somewhat cleaner fat was skimmed off and saved.

Along with fats, wood ashes had been conserved for some months. Ashes went into the outdoor wooden ash hopper. The hopper was a large V-shaped trough, a barrel with a hole in the bottom, or even a hollow log set upright. A pad of straw at the bottom of any style of hopper helped retain the ashes. Water poured over the gray powdery mass seeped through to become caustic alkaline lye that trickled out into a collection bucket.

Lye was the wild card in this endeavor; upon its strength depended the success of seat-of-the-skirt pioneer chemistry. Lacking pH test strips or a digital scale, the pioneer woman tested the lye by dropping in an egg or potato – if it floated, the lye was thought to be sufficiently caustic. Another test involved dipping in a feather; if the lye dissolved the feathery bits from the quill, it was dangerous enough to be useful. In an era before rubber gloves or cheap safety goggles, even a small spill or splash could cause severe skin or eye damage, with hospitals, if any, perhaps miles distant.

The fat and lye was put in the kettle and heated and stirred for some hours until the combination thickened into a soft brownish soap, a process called saponification. The process sometimes failed. “Much difficulty is often experienced by those who manufacture their own soap,” noted the November 21, 1835 issue of the Rochester, New York-published Genesee Farmer. “Often when every precaution has been apparently taken, complete failure has been the consequence; and the time is not long past when some have even declared that they believed their soap was bewitched.”

Cooled and packed in stoneware crocks or barrels, the soft soap would serve as the family supply for the coming year. Bar soap could be made by adding salt to the cooking soap, pouring it into wooden trays, allowing it to set, and cutting the hardened slabs into bars. Given the added expense of salt and time, most pioneers opted for soft soap. Its slipperiness led to the figurative use of the term “soft soap” to mean “flattery” as early as 1830, per the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms.

Charles Stuck was an early soft-soap retailer.

Charles Stuck was an early soft-soap retailer.

Considering the difficulties associated with soap making, it’s small wonder that larger-scale soap manufactories were among the county’s first industries. As early as 1843, just two decades after a handful of settlers drifted into Woodruff’s Grove, Ypsilanti merchant Charles Stuck was placing ads in the Ypsilanti Sentinel requesting ashes and offering soft soap by the gallon or barrel. In 1844, Ypsilanti storekeepers Norris and Follett accepted ashes, barrel staves, firewood, “and other country produce” as the equivalent of cash for items in their store.

In 1855 Andreas Birk, an immigrant from the onetime German Empire’s southwestern state of Wuerttemberg, established a soap and candle factory on the corner of Madison and Main streets in Ann Arbor, piping in water from a nearby spring. By 1881, according to Chapman’s History of Washtenaw County, the building was two stories tall and measured 30 by 93 feet. In 1880, he had $1,500 invested in the business, employed four people, and produced $4,000 worth of product (about $94,000 in today’s dollars). Birk had a satellite office in Ypsilanti and a circulating ash-wagon.

Ypsilanti merchant Mark Norris, unlike today's Meijer or Target, accepted wood ashes as cash payment.

Ypsilanti merchant Mark Norris, unlike today’s Meijer or Target, accepted wood ashes as cash payment.

For decades Birk was one of two Ann Arbor soapmakers, the other being Daniel Millen at the northern end of State Street. In 1880, Millen’s soap and candle works represented a $1,800 investment, employed three men, and produced $2,480 worth of soap and candles ($58,000). Birk’s factory was eventually named the Peninsular Soap Co., and Millen’s the Ann Arbor Soap Works. In the mid-1880s Ypsilanti the would-be water baron Tubal Cain Owen also began manufacturing soap, using his much-touted mineral water. He adorned his hefty bars of Salicura Soap with ornate wrappers.

By the late 1880s, new advertisements portended change. The first ads for Cincinnati-made Ivory and Chicago-made Santa Claus soaps appeared in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti papers. In contrast to plainer local ads whose graphic design consisted largely of varied fonts, the new soap ads looked slick and professional, with elaborate images and in Ivory’s case, bubbly doggerel.

One Ivory ad in a September 1889 issue of the Ypsilanti Commercial depicted washerwomen near a clothesline and contained an endorsement by onetime UM chemistry professor James Langley. He had resigned from the university some months prior. “A direct practical experiment in a laundry has proved to me that the ‘IVORY,’ tested against a certain well-known brand of laundry soap, has the same amount of cleansing power and one and two-thirds the lasting capacity,” wrote the Harvard graduate. “I therefore consider the IVORY a very good laundry soap.”

 From the elite ivory tower of the University of Michigan, an ardent Ivory Soap booster.

From the elite ivory tower of the University of Michigan, an ardent Ivory Soap booster.

Others apparently did as well, and local soapmakers suffered. By 1897, the Glen V. Mills city directory for Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti listed no local soap manufacturers. A state gazetteer of the same year listed only 18 soapmakers for the entire state, with eight soap makers in Detroit, four in Grand Rapids, and one each in Albion, Bay City, Houghton, Jackson, Portland, and Saginaw.

Michigan continued to contribute to the soap industry, though in an unusual way – as the wreckage left behind by rapacious lumbering became a salable product. The Sept. 1, 1892 issue of the “American Soap Journal and Perfume Gazette” noted, “[T]he manufacture of [wood ashes] is still carried on . . . [in] the forests of Northern Michigan, and in portions of the Provinces of Canada, this substance is still systematically manufactured the year through. The hardwood stump lands from which the timber trees have been cleared are thus made to contribute a second time to the benefit of the settlers.”

Soap was one of the first mass-produced, nationally-advertised products, along with cigarettes, baking powders, and canned foods. Its success allowed such manufacturers as Colgate-Palmolive, the British Lever Brothers (later Unilever) and Ivory manufacturer Procter and Gamble to be early and prominent sponsors of the 1930s radio dramas called “washboard weepers” or “soap operas.”

Ypsilanti mineral water entrepreneur Tubal Cain Owen emphasized that his Salicura soap contained beneficial substances from his miraculous murky water.

Ypsilanti mineral water entrepreneur Tubal Cain Owen emphasized that his Salicura soap contained beneficial substances from his miraculous murky water.

Modern-day craft soap making can be a dramatic production as well. Even given such conveniences as mail-order food-grade lye of a known concentration, cheap-ish Costco canola and olive oil, and library books with time-tested recipes, the aspiring soap maker must assemble quite a suite of ladles, scrapers, bowls, molds, oils, safety equipment, measuring cups, colorants, essential oils for fragrance, Solo cups for color-mixing, old towels, candy thermometers, a digital scale, a non-aluminum stock pot, a stick blender, a giant tub to keep it all in, and a tolerant spouse. Many items can be gleaned from dollar or thrift stores – bravery concerning the lye must be summoned from within.

The end result in this author’s fumbling foray was a barely-solid slab with a hue less leafy freshness than a moldy pallor. The scented slab, due to a slight measuring error, reeks with a lilac gut-punch that nearly makes the eyes water. The eyes of pioneer foremothers, were they to see this saggy soap, would likely water as well, with laughter. No fancified folderol was needed for the resourceful local ladies, whose determination transformed moldy bacon and a handful of ashes into a squeaky-clean home, wardrobe, and family.

Mystery Artifact

Last month, competition really heated up and guessers cooked up intrigue!

Mystery artrifact

Mystery artrifact

Clearly Cosmonican, ABC, Ray Hunter, and Philip Proefrock knew that the item in question was a stovepipe flue or damper.

Stovepipes used to be custom-made from sheet metal, often by the hardware store proprietor, and the flue was inserted as the pipe took shape.

The movable device helped regulate the draft, or upward current of air, that affected the rate at which the stove burned. Congratulations to the guessers (and thank you for the puns)!

This time we have a small brass object that has modern analogs still in use. How would this have been used in the past, and by whom? Take your best guess and good luck!

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

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In the Archives: Dynamite Baseball Catcher Wed, 29 Jan 2014 17:37:58 +0000 Laura Bien Editor’s note: Laura Bien’s local history column appears in The Ann Arbor Chronicle usually sometime around last Wednesday of the month. This month’s column draws upon the archives of The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s namesake – a 19th century University of Michigan student newspaper called The Chronicle-Argonaut. In its era, The Chronicle-Argonaut maintained a rivalry with the Michigan Daily – in the form of a “base ball” game. So it’s fitting that Bien’s column this month also highlights University of Michigan baseball from that time period.

Moses with his 1882 UM teammates.

Moses Fleetwood Walker with his 1882 UM teammates.

He smashed the color barrier in major league baseball. During his lifetime, Congress passed sweeping civil rights legislation. No modern baseball player can wear his team number on a uniform. And unlike Jackie Robinson, he was a University of Michigan alum.

Moses Fleetwood Walker was born Oct. 7, 1856 in Mount Pleasant, Ohio. His parents may have settled there due to the eastern part of the state’s long association with the Underground Railroad.

Moses, or Fleet as he was later called, was the fifth or sixth of seven children born to physicians Moses and Caroline Walker. The 1860 census lists two three-year-olds, Moses and Lizzie. The little girl, possibly Moses’ twin, does not appear in the 1870 census.

Soon after Moses’ birth, the family moved to nearby Steubenville, 40 miles west of Pittsburgh. Their neighbors there worked as bricklayers, dyers, pattern makers, tinners, and laborers. Moses attended an integrated school and at graduation chose Oberlin College, one of the first colleges in the nation to admit black and female students. When Oberlin formed its first baseball team in 1881, Moses joined as a catcher.

It was a tough position to play in that era. The catcher had no body protection or face mask. He didn’t even have a glove, but caught barehanded. In addition, in 1881 the pitcher’s throwing position was not 60 feet and six inches from home plate as it is today, but only 50 feet (and before that 45 feet). Pitchers for a time were even allowed to take a running start. Common catchers’ injuries included broken ribs and fingers, facial injuries, and concussions.

Baseball at University of Michigan

In March of 1882 Moses transferred to the University of Michigan to study law. He was accompanied by his wife of four years, Arabella. Moses joined the university’s baseball team, the first varsity sport to be organized on campus. UM baseball operated without a coach from its inception in 1865 until 1890. The sport also operated without oversight by or funds from an as-yet-nonexistent Athletics Department; the first athletics director, Charles Baird, wasn’t installed until 1898. The team had to pay for its own equipment and travel with money begged from fellow students – receipts were often meager.

Financial challenges were plain in 1882 when the UM team planned to play a distant rival. “A more than sufficient sum of money had been pledged for the use of the nine [team members],” wrote the June 24 issue of the UM student paper The Chronicle, “and we supposed that at least $125 could be raised . . . [w]hat was the surprise and disgust of the committee when it was found that the largest amount that could be raised was about $35.” The disappointed team stayed in Ann Arbor.

The team listing as printed in the UM Palladium.

The team listing as printed in the UM Palladium.

But The Chronicle took note of Walker’s performances. “Walker played a brilliant game,” reported one article, “catching without a passed ball, making five runs, and two base hits, besides three singles. The game was witnessed by a large crowd . . .” In the fall of 1882, The Chronicle predicted a strong season: “Dott, Fleet Walker, Packard, Bumps, Hawley, Davis, Allmendinger, are all back and alive to the necessity of keeping up our ball spirit,” reported the Oct. 21, 1882 paper. “Then we have had added to the list Weld[a]y Walker, a magnificent fielder, safe batter, and phenomenal base runner…” Moses’ younger brother had followed him to Michigan and had joined the team.

Other campus papers praised Moses’ performance, and bemoaned the team’s financial struggles. As if anticipating Walker’s incipient departure, the May 5, 1883 Argonaut wrote, “Montgomery as catcher is a worthy successor to Fleet Walker . . . the baseball committee hopes to get through the season without circulating the deadly subscription paper.”

Despite the accolades, by the fall of 1883 Moses had moved on. “Walker of base-ball notoriety is not back this year,” the Oct. 10, 1883 Chronicle informed its readers. Moses had signed with the minor-league Toledo Blue Stockings. The Blue Stockings soon joined the American Association, a two-year-old professional major league formed to compete against the existing National League. Nicknamed the “Beer and Whiskey League” because it served alcohol at games, the American Association was regarded as boorish by its more staid nemesis league. In addition to the Blue Stockings, American Association members included the Washington Senators, the Cincinnati Kelly’s Killers, the Cleveland Spiders, and several surviving teams that include the Cincinnati Red Stockings (Reds), the St. Louis Brown Stockings (Cardinals), and the Pittsburgh Pirates.

By all accounts Moses had played good baseball on campus and earned the respect of his fellow students. He ruined his debut professional performance, however, by flubbing four at-bats and committing four errors. His performance may reflect the possible reception he received from an audience who had never seen a black baseball player. Reactions from his new teammates were mixed, ranging from racism to friendship. As he would throughout his life in a variety of situations, Moses persevered.

During the summer, Moses’ brother Welday also played with the Blue Stockings. Moses was injured during a game, and on Sept. 4, 1884, he played his last game with the team. Though Moses was a pioneer in integrating major league baseball, his Blue Stockings number was never retired – or even recorded, as uniforms of this era generally didn’t have numbers.

UM students had not forgotten Moses, and hopes rekindled that he would return. “[T]here is good reason to believe too that the nine is to be strengthened this year by the return of Fleet Walker,” noted the Oct. 4, 1884 Michigan Argonaut. If nothing else, at least the team finally had some cash. “It is especially gratifying to note that the base ball association stands on a sound financial basis. We are assured that there are fifty dollars in the treasury and no debts outstanding.”

Recovered from his injury, Moses entered the minor leagues and played for teams in Cleveland, Syracuse, and Waterbury, Connecticut. As he worked to advance himself and develop his talent, his ambitions were countered by a worsening national racial climate.

Race Relations

In 1866, when Moses was just 10 years old, Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act. It countered the post-Civil War “Black Codes” that Southern states had enacted to limit the rights of newly free black citizens. The Act was strengthened in 1868 and 1870 by the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments. Taken together, these actions sought to ensure federal protection of the rights of all male citizens, black and white, to make contracts, have and transfer property, vote, file lawsuits, and enjoy equal protection of the law.

Legal challenges, however, exploited overlooked loopholes and began to erode federal power, returning control to the states in defining and often limiting black citizens’ civil rights. By 1896, the Supreme Court’s Plessy vs. Ferguson decision allowed for a broad definition of “separate but equal” accommodations that served to enable discriminatory “Jim Crow” laws.

Before this tumultuous era culminated in Plessy vs. Ferguson, Moses had been let go from the Syracuse Stars. The minor-league International League banned the hiring of new black players. The American Association and the National League agreed sub rosa to exclude black players. The racial barrier would last until after World War II.

Patents: Dynamite Artillery Shells, Movie Projectors

Moses returned to Ohio and purchased a hotel in Steubenville and a theater for showing films and hosting live events in nearby Cadiz. He worked as a postal clerk, and at one point was accused of embezzling money. Moses managed his properties and with his younger brother published a short-lived newspaper. Arabella died in 1895, leaving three children: Cleatho, Thomas, and George. Three years after Arabella’s death, Moses married Ednah Jane Mason.

Before he lost his first wife, Moses filed for and received the first of his four patents. In 1891 he patented a refinement for a dynamite-loaded artillery shell.

Moses tweaked the dynamite bomb.

Moses tweaked the dynamite bomb.

Dynamite guns were a makeshift late-19th-century transitional technology. For most of the 19th century, black powder was the only explosive substance available. When dynamite was patented in 1867, it offered far more destructive power. Inventors scrambled to adapt this technology for military use.

One slight problem with this plan was that dynamite’s explosive force is activated not with a fiery fuse, but with percussion. The shock wave of the firing gun could explode the dynamite-loaded shell while it was still in the gun barrel. Moses designed an artillery shell that contained a suspended piston filled with dynamite. The piston was cushioned by air as the shell was fired from the barrel, to explode on impact with the target. Theodore Roosevelt experimented with dynamite guns; he and his Rough Riders found the machinery too fussy. Superior technology soon made these ingenious yet terrifying armaments obsolete.

Moses had other, less destructive ideas to patent. In 1918, he filed three patents for improvements to movie projectors. His experience with his theater’s film projectors had shown him shortcomings in projector technology. He was granted patents on projector improvements that made it easier to secure film to its metal reel and to tell when one roll of film was near its end.

Moses commissioned a metal-stamping company to make his improved reels, but never turned his creation into a business.

Thoughts on Race

Moses did, however, turn his reflections on race relations into a 47-page 1908 book: “Our Home Colony, a Treatise on the Past, Present, and Future of the Negro Race in America.” His book concluded that the white and black races cannot live harmoniously in the United States. Black Americans, he advised, should shun the de facto American caste system and establish a new settlement in Africa.

“What Negro parent,” wrote Walker in his treatise, “can have the audacity to hold up before his beloved son the possibility of him ever becoming President of the United States?”

Moses’ wife Ednah died in 1920. Two years later he retired. Moses passed away on May 11, 1924.

His still-extant hometown paper, the Steubenville Herald-Star, gave him a lengthy obituary and placed his listing first. The obituary highlighted his career in baseball, detailed his varied occupations thereafter, and expressed community respect. It concluded, “He was a very interesting man to meet in conversation and he had many friends here who will regret to hear of his death.”

Moses Fleetwood Walker is buried in Steubenville’s Union Cemetery.

Mystery Artifact

Mystery Object

Mystery Object

The mystery artifact from the last column is a collection of objects that may be viewed in the current iteration of the Yankee Air Museum. Within the current exhibit hall, there’s a display case that contains sample soldiers’ field rations from several wars. The collection pictured here represents field rations for WWII soldiers, or, “K rations.”

Jim Rees and Cosmonican guessed correctly; congratulations!

Today for your consideration is a rather large Mystery Artifact that’s appropriate for the season.

It’s heavy and a little wobbly when it’s set on a table. It’s in quite nice condition, though, with no evident chips or scratches. What might this odd thing be? Take your guess and good luck!

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

The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to help remind readers of those who’ve been forgotten. If you’re already supporting The Chronicle, please encourage your friends, neighbors and coworkers to do the same. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle.

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In the Archives: Woodlawn Cemetery Fri, 01 Nov 2013 16:29:38 +0000 Laura Bien Editor’s Note: Laura Bien’s regular column this month would be suitable for publication as a Veterans Day column, on Veterans Day itself – which is observed on Nov. 11. But we’re publishing the piece in Bien’s regular rotation as a way of noting that it’s not required to wait until Veterans Day to remember the service of veterans.

A rumble builds into a growl. Silver flashes between treetops and a leviathan emerges into open sky. The magisterial craft draws gazes below, as it did seven decades ago, but this time without fear. Leaf-rakers in eastside Ypsilanti yards pause to watch its unhurried passage.

Marion Frierson's grave in Woodlawn Cemetery, Ypsilanti.

Marion Frierson’s grave in Woodlawn Cemetery, Ypsilanti.

In its periodic passenger flights ($425 per person) and summer airshow circlings, the B-17 bomber passes within sight of 150 additional upturned faces. Beneath the roar of the polished martial icon lie some veterans, now silenced, and seldom remembered as part of the Greatest Generation. Their ambitions and bravery were likely scorned in their day and largely forgotten in ours.

They were laid to rest in a now-abandoned, segregated cemetery.

Just south of Ford Lake and east of the Ypsilanti Township Civic Center lies Woodlawn Cemetery. To drivers on Huron River Drive, it flits past as a grassy field. The adjacent dead-end dirt road Hubbard extends to the cemetery’s far southern end.

From that vantage point, only two man-made features rise above the site’s uneven surface. One is a homemade wooden cross bearing worn cream paint and stick-on mailbox letters spelling “BERTHA CAMPBELL.” The other is a small American flag. A brass military grave marker underneath is labeled “MARION F. FRIERSON” followed by Army acronyms and dates.

The land where Frierson lies was purchased in 1945 by local Second Baptist Church pastor Garther Roberson Sr. [and Rhonenee]. The location “was convenient and close to the main road,” recalls Roberson’s son Garther Roberson Jr., current pastor of Ypsilanti’s Mount Olive Church, in a personal phone call. The site lay near Second Baptist and Ypsilanti’s south side, where for at least the first half of the 20th century black citizens of Ypsilanti were redlined.

Oral histories collected by distinguished onetime Ypsilanti historian A. P. Marshall offer many examples of racist restrictions placed upon black Ypsilantians. Job prospects for blacks were largely limited to menial labor, as decades of Ypsilanti census forms attest. “When we were growing up,” said Garther Roberson Jr. in an oral interview he gave in 1981, “it was understood that a store would not hire black people to be cashiers, salespersons, or managers.” Many male black residents tried to earn money as day laborers or factory workers.

Often families, especially if new in town, lived several to a South Side home, another reality visible on old census forms. Ypsi banks would not give mortgages or even home improvement loans to black residents, a fact mentioned by Roberson in his oral interview and in those of other black residents. This financial bottleneck continued well into the 1950s. Ypsilanti also had more than one explicitly whites-only subdivision. The 1941 deed to the College Heights subdivision, for example, stipulates that “No person of any race other than the Caucasian race shall use or occupy any premise . . .”

Several oral histories in the Marshall collection attest to Garther Roberson Sr.’s strong influence in obtaining jobs for black residents and working with white and black Ypsilantians to improve the community. Part of this effort was his purchase of Woodlawn, so as to offer black residents, as his son told the author, “a place where people of color could have a decent and dignified burial.”

The records of Woodlawn interments were lost in a fire years ago. After the 1955 death of Garther Roberson Sr., whose grave marker lies at the site’s center, the cemetery association he formed went bankrupt. In 1970, an inspector from the State Cemetery Commission, who was investigating reported neglect, estimated that Woodlawn contained 150 graves. In 1981, three members of the Genealogical Society of Washtenaw County, Kenneth Coe, Martha Kacanek, and Karen Walker, conducted a cemetery reading. They recorded 76 names. As of mid-October of 2013, various other grave readers’ 2007-2013 contributions to the Woodlawn section of totaled 29 visible graves. When my husband and I visited in late October of 2013, we found only 21.

Among the holdings of the National Archives are the original forms used to request a military grave marker for a deceased veteran. The collection includes 14 marker requests for black veterans buried at Woodlawn (the National Archives acknowledges that its records are not complete; there may have been more requests). Of these 14 markers, eight were seen by the genealogical group in 1981. Four of those eight are visible today. As the stones continue to disappear, it is worth remembering the veterans for whom the markers were requested.

Seaman recruit Maurice Marshall enlisted in the Navy July 16, 1952. He was honorably discharged from his service during the Korean War on November 9, 1955. His wife Florence survived his death in 1962. Another Korean War soldier, Army Private First Class Paul Davis, served from November 1951 to August 1953. (Garther Roberson Jr. is also a Korean War veteran).

Among the cemetery’s WWII vets, Private Haywood Brown, Jr. served at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. A few months after he enlisted, the last class of black pilots graduated and the base was deactivated the following summer. Though Brown could not become a pilot, even serving at the Tuskegee air base is today regarded as so prestigious for its era that there is a special term for anyone who served on the base, pilot or no: DOTA, or “documented original Tuskegee airman.”

Private Marion Frierson also served in the Army Air Force, the WWII-era direct predecessor of the modern Air Force. He served for two years on an airbase in Marianna, Florida.

Marion Frierson's widow Annie sent this form in 1960 to request a grave marker for her husband

Marion Frierson’s widow Annie sent this form in 1960 to request a grave marker for her husband

Private First Class David Atkins served in the 25th Chemical Decontamination Company. After two years of service at this dangerous work, he died in 1949 at Walter Reed Hospital.

Private First Class Bennie Cartwright and Private Paul McCarter both worked for quartermaster supply companies in Mississippi and Alabama respectively, which were Army units that provided food and supplies to soldiers. Cartwright received a Good Conduct medal.

Private First Class Ulysses Webb was also stationed stateside, in Missouri. So was Private First Class Fred Carter, who served as a truck driver in North Carolina. Black soldiers were disproportionately assigned to stateside service for the first part of WWII due to a prevailing misconception that they were not as capable of standing the rigors of combat. Because of this stateside bias, fewer black soldiers had a chance of earning many medals.

Staff Sergeant Paul Cunningham did travel overseas – but was relegated to a laundry corps. Nevertheless, he was honorably discharged with a good conduct medal, a World War II Victory medal, one medal whose acronym defied this author’s research, and a European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign medal with 5 Bronze Stars indicating participation in five overseas campaigns. The Victory medal and the EAME relate to time of service, but the good conduct medal is one of merit, and it should be further noted that many black soldiers who did fulfill the terms of time-of-service medals still never received them after the war.

The oldest military graves in the cemetery belong to WWI vets. Private Lander Bennett served in a Kentucky quartermaster corps; his widow survived him and requested the grave marker. Corporal George Thomas served in a motor pool at Fort Sheridan, Illinois. Private Cleo Cummings served in the 157th Depot Brigade in Alabama. Private William Brooks was stationed at Michigan’s Fort Custer in the 160th Depot Brigade. Even in an era that saw a deterioration of the treatment of black Americans and the second rise of the KKK – which included local mass “klanvocations” in Flint, Jackson, and a proposal for one in Ypsi – Brooks was so intent on joining the Army that he added a year to his birthdate on his enlistment form so as to meet, barely, the age requirement.

Bennett’s and Brooks’ Armistice Day occurred almost one century ago. Now called Veteran’s Day, the commemorative holiday on November 11 is a fitting time to remember those who responded to discrimination, the threat of violence, and grave disservice – with service.

Mystery Artifact

Last column three readers correctly guessed that the item in question was a shoemaker’s last, or form: Rebecca, Jim Rees, and cmadler.

Mystery Artifact

Mystery Artifact

Jim commented that the iron last looked exceptionally small, noting “a woman’s shoe with a 7.5-inch last would be a size 1.5.”Perhaps it was a last for making children’s shoes.

This time we have artifact with several component parts.

This artifact may be seen somewhere in Washtenaw County within an interesting display, but where? Take your best guess and good luck!

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

The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to help remind readers of those who’ve been forgotten. If you’re already supporting The Chronicle, please encourage your friends, neighbors and coworkers to do the same. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle.

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In the Archives: The Friendless Dead Tue, 01 Oct 2013 17:48:37 +0000 Laura Bien Willie Brown ended his days among strangers, his body submerged with theirs in a large vat of preservative liquid in the basement of the onetime University of Michigan medical school that stood on the east side of the present-day Diag.

Origin points for each of the over 100 cadavers donated to the UM in 1881. Map compiled by author from Anatomical Donations Program records.

Origin points for each of the over 100 cadavers donated to the UM in 1881. (Map compiled by the writer from Anatomical Donations Program records. Image links to complete map.)

The 22-year-old had never married or had children. If he kept a diary it apparently was not preserved in a public archive. His parents were from New York state, but even this meager detail was forgotten by the author of his death certificate. Willie was a hired farmhand, without distinctions like membership in the Pioneer Society of Washtenaw County. That group counted as a member his employer, successful veteran Pittsfield farmer Jefferson Rouse.

Ignored in life, Willie commanded intense attention after death from the medical students dissecting his body. They examined and took notes on the body that had helped shear Rouse’s 350 sheep, tend his dozen pigs, and harvest the hops, potatoes, apples, wheat, and Indian corn on Rouse’s 560 acres between Saline and the present-day Ann Arbor airport.

The students may have dissected Brown’s lungs to look for signs of the tuberculosis that killed him. When Willie got sick, he apparently wasn’t cared for on the farm, at least not for long. He went to the county poorhouse, at what is now the southwest corner of Washtenaw Avenue and Platt Road. There among the other nearly 70 residents in 1881, he died.

No friend or relative claimed him, and he wasn’t buried in the unmarked poorhouse cemetery just west of the poorhouse. His body was placed on a wagon that traveled from the poorhouse up the dirt road of Washtenaw Avenue to the medical school. Medical science owed Willie’s contribution to a new 1881 state law that strengthened the up-till-then largely-ignored proviso that the bodies of the unfortunate could be legally delivered to the UM for study.

The medical school as depicted in Andrew McLaughlin s 1891 book, The History of Higher Education in Michigan. The left side of the building is facing East University Ave.

The medical school as depicted in Andrew McLaughlin’s 1891 book “The History of Higher Education in Michigan.” The left side of the building is facing East University Ave.

A similar proviso had entered Michigan law as early as 1867, as “an act to authorize dissection in certain cases, for the advancement of science.” It allowed that local officials could donate the bodies of deceased prisoners or “such persons as are required to be buried at the public expense . . . preference being always given to the faculty of the medical department of the University of Michigan … ” This proviso was cancelled if the dying person requested a burial or if a relative or friend claimed the body within 24 hours.

Despite the law, and two slightly-altered reiterations of it in the 1870s, the public’s general distaste for dissection, in lieu of a decent and Christian burial, led many to claim to be a “friend” of a friendless person, and recover the stranger’s body for burial.

This helped cause a chronic shortage of anatomical specimens at UM, leading to the university’s well-known under-the-table dealings with shady “resurrectionists” in order to obtain bodies. These deals were performed out of necessity and far less cavalierly than is often sensationally portrayed in histories of the medical school.

The university’s ties to grave-robbers were known in the 19th century, and social censure weighed upon those in the anatomy department. In 1880, the “Demonstrator of Anatomy” in charge of procuring bodies was William Herdman. He complained at a June 28, 1880 UM regents meeting.

Herdman spoke regarding the “recent and remote instances of grave-robbing which have come to your attention and to the notice of the public … which have justly excited indignation on the part of all law-abiding citizens and have been the cause of great annoyances to all friends of the University and especially to you, [the regents] … ”

Herdman asked the regents to consider the difficulty of his responsibility to obtain 90 to 100 anatomical specimens per year for the medical school. His method, he told them, was to exhaust all legal means of obtaining bodies first, and when in special need, “to draw from the pauper and friendless dead at our county-houses and asylums with the consent of the proper authorities if such consent could be obtained … [i]s it therefore asking too much that [the pauper's] body, unclaimed by friends, cared for by none, useless to himself, be made to contribute to the welfare of his fellows who have given freely of their substance to provide for him in comfort and health during his natural life?”

The December 1878 UM student-produced magazine the Palladium included a comic strip satirizing Herdman and his helper Naegle. The strip references a 1878 incident in which the body of one Augustus Devins, buried in Ohio, mysteriously surfaced in the basement of the medical school. The two gentlemen at left are out-of-state officials seeking the corpse of Devin.

The December 1878 UM student-produced magazine the Palladium included a comic strip satirizing William Herdman and his helper Patrick Naegle. The strip references a 1878 incident in which the body of one Augustus Devins, buried in Ohio, mysteriously surfaced in the basement of the medical school. The two gentlemen at left are out-of-state officials seeking Devins’ corpse.

“Though not strictly legal, I have endeavored … to secure this pauper material from different parts of our own state for dissection,” said Herdman. “You know full well the character of many of the men we are compelled to employ in this clandestine business.”

Herdman’s unsavory task was made easier by the 1881 law. The original 1867 act had mentioned only prisons as possible sources of specimens, with an additional vague reference to those in the community who died without financial resources. But the 1881 act built upon 1870s amendments to clearly specify that the deceased in poorhouses, workhouses, jails, or any charity supported by public funds could legally be sent to the UM. The UM would be in charge of distributing the bodies equally among three schools: the UM, the Detroit Medical College, and Detroit’s Michigan College of Medicine.

One of the 1881 law’s requirements was that detailed records be kept of each body donation. The ledger that lists, in a graceful and careful hand that is likely Herdman’s, the 1881 donations to the University has survived to the present. It shows that 108 bodies were donated to UM in 1881 from poorhouses throughout the southern half of the lower peninsula. The greatest number came from Wayne County, which had a poorhouse, prison, and insane asylum. The furthest came from Big Rapids in Mecosta County, about 130 miles as the crow flies.

No bodies came from north of a horizontal line extending from Bay City westward to Big Rapids. Few poorhouses existed [map] in the less-populated northern lower peninsula, with only 3 in the U.P. In addition, the enforced waiting time for body identification plus time spent packing and shipping the deceased by train brought into play sanitary considerations.

Willie Brown was the first recorded donor, in August of 1881, from the Washtenaw County poorhouse. Over the remainder of that year, five more bodies from the county poorhouse made the journey up Washtenaw – those of 38-year-old Stephen Pomare, 58-year-old Wesley Freer, 49-year-old Edward Cresson, 38-year-old Charles Williams, and 25-year-old Pat Monahan.

The afflictions that killed these five men were sunstroke for Pomare and Freer, tuberculosis for Monahan and Cresson, and a fistula for Williams. The men were relatively young, but mortality rates at the poorhouse were over 10 times higher than in Washtenaw County as a whole. In 1880, the county had 41,779 citizens with an additional 66 (at census time) in the poorhouse. The county suffered 496 deaths that year, or just over 1% of its population; the poorhouse saw 9 deaths, or 14% of its group.

Some county residents lost their livelihood due to illness, and entered the poorhouse with a pre-existing condition. In addition, 1880s-era Michigan poorhouses were by and large unhealthy environments. Many consisted of poorly-repurposed farmhouses or hotels and the majority lacked bathing facilities. Crowding of inmates, some with then-poorly-understood communicable diseases, was common. The general atmosphere could be disturbing or depressing as well, as those with physical and those with psychological disorders were often housed together. Sufferers of mental disorders were in some places treated gently and humanely and involved in activities, and in other locations, or in severe cases, were confined in locked cells. In one Ingham County case, state inspectors found a mentally ill resident chained to an outdoor fence.

Found a man of about 24, idiotic, said to be inclined to escape, and so tied, without shelter, to a fence near the house, where he had worn a path at the end of his rope, like a chained animal. The effect upon other inmates, of constant exhibition of a human being in this condition, chained like a bear to the fence, must be to degrade and brutalize. Upon suggestions made to the superintendents to the poor, he will, no doubt, be differently cared for hereafter. [Biennial report by the Michigan State Board of Corrections and Charities, 1881-82.]

Washtenaw’s poorhouse was one of the state’s best. It offered bathing facilities with a requirement to bathe once a week, adequate clothing year-round, a Protestant and a Catholic chapel (any chapel was a rarity among poorhouses of the era), and a varied diet, much of it drawn from the 119-acre poorhouse farm. Some inmates helped slop the 11 pigs, feed the 80 chickens, and milk the farm’s 8 milch cows. They picked peaches and apples, and tended the wheat, oats, and Indian corn. The farm sold many of these products, helping offset the weekly average maintenance cost of $1.25 (about $30 in today’s dollars) per resident.

The original poorhouse building and farm are long gone. The cemetery remains unmarked and is at least partially covered by Washtenaw Avenue. The residents’ names are largely forgotten. The final contribution of some of these weakest and humblest of onetime county residents helped to strengthen and make prominent the name of the University of Michigan.

One small part of that luster is due to a 22-year-old farmhand, someone’s son, who thought, dreamed, laughed, and worked the fields over 130 years ago.

Mystery Artifact

The last column’s Mystery Artifact featured a floating barrel meant for a carp pond.

Mystery Object

Mystery Object

The device was, as Tim Durham correctly guessed, meant to be a beaver trap, meant to safeguard one’s home-made dams. Great guess, Tim!

This time we come closer to home with an artifact one could easily have found in the olden days in Ann Arbor. It’s an odd little shape from an almost completely vanished trade. It also has a forgotten and specific name – who knows it?

Last time Tim was the last to guess, but the first to identify the beaver trap; sometimes a guess that’s last is correct! Good luck!

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

The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to keep readers up to date on the quick and the dead. If you’re already supporting The Chronicle, please encourage your friends, neighbors and coworkers to do the same. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle.


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In the Archives: Last Train to Carp-ville Wed, 01 May 2013 16:39:00 +0000 Laura Bien Berlin-born Sonoma, California aquapreneur Julius Poppe chaperoned his group of 83 passengers on board a steamer moored in Bremen, Germany. The 12-day journey to New York that summer of 1872 proved deadly. After arrival and a two-day quarantine, only 8 of Poppe’s charges survived.

German/scale/common carp: The German or common carp was the variety most widely spread in Michigan.

German/scale/common carp: The German or common carp was the variety most widely spread in Michigan.

Poppe settled them onto a train. The Transcontinental Railroad linking the West Coast to Iowa and the eastern rail network had been completed only three years earlier. Despite Poppe’s best efforts for those in his care, two more died in San Francisco, and another died on the boat from San Francisco to the coast near Sonoma.

Five had survived the nearly 7,000-mile journey – only the youngest, each about the size of a pen. Poppe placed them in his pond that August, hoping for their survival.

By the following May, the five German carp, also known as scale or common carp, had spawned 3,000 young. They also helped spawn a short-lived nationwide carp craze. In Michigan, state fish officials’ initial enthusiasm turned to alarm as the non-native’s depredations became another one of the state’s late 19th-century ecological disasters.

Poppe sold carp for food and for breeding to his neighbors as well as to Honolulu and Central America. News of his successful venture spread.

U.S. Fish Commission

The U.S. Fish Commission had been created the previous year in order to investigate “the causes of decrease in the supply of useful food-fishes of the United States, and of the various factors entering into the problem; and the determination and employment of such active measures as may seem best calculated to stock or restock the waters of the rivers, lakes and the sea.”

In the commission’s 1872-73 report, commissioner Spencer Baird noted:

 Sufficient attention has not been paid in the United States to the introduction of the European carp as a food fish, and yet it is quite safe to say that there is no other species that promises so great a return in limited waters. It has the pre-eminent advantage over such fish as the black bass, trout, grayling, &c., that it is a vegetable feeder, and, although not disdaining animal matters, can thrive very well on aquatic vegetation alone. On this account it can be kept in tanks, small ponds, &c., and a very much larger weight obtained, without expense, than in the case of the other kinds indicated. It is on this account that its culture has been continued for centuries. It is also a mistake to compare the flesh with that of the ordinary cyprinidae of the United States, such as suckers, chubs, and the like, the flesh of the genuine carp (Cyprinus carpio) being firm, flaky, and in some varieties almost equal to the European trout.

The “genuine” carp encompassed three varieties: the mirror carp, the leather carp, and most commonly, the German carp. The federal fish commission imported carp from Germany in 1877. Some were placed in Baltimore ponds, and others in the Babcock Lakes, a series of ponds adjoining the Washington Monument before the creation of the National Mall. In 1879, over 12,000 federal carp were taken from both sites and distributed to various states and territories, likely including Michigan.

In subsequent reports Baird listed the admirable qualities of carp: they were fecund, hardy, adaptable, and had rapid growth. Carp also showed a “harmlessness in its relation to other fishes,” the “ability to populate waters to their greatest extent,” and “good table qualities.”

By 1870, Michigan fish populations had declined as a result of overfishing, dam construction, pollution, and such habitat destruction as that caused by the timber industry. The waterborne transport of thousands of logs often scarred and eroded riverbanks, Sawmill sawdust dumped into waterways could blanket and choke a fish feeding or breeding ground.

Michigan Board of Fish Commissioners

The Michigan Board of Fish Commissioners formed in the spring of 1873. It did not have regulatory power. The Board could not compel commercial fishermen on Lake Michigan to stop decreasing the size of the holes in their nets, a strategy that led to the capture of immature whitefish before they could breed. The Board could not change timber industry practices. Its strategy was to hatch and distribute fish – those used for food – to replenish depleted populations and introduce new varieties thought beneficial.

The Board opened the state’s first hatchery in Pokagon, Cass County, in 1873. The following year, the hatchery produced whitefish, Atlantic salmon, king salmon, and carp. Aside from restocking commercial fishing areas in the Great Lakes – most notably the lucrative whitefish fishing grounds – the Board also offered shipments of young fish to farmers around the state. Originally the shipments were made in ordinary milk cans loaded on trains.

Railroading Carp

In 1888 the Board secured a specialized railroad car, the Attikumaig (an Ojibwe word meaning “whitefish.”) It combined space to transport fish, five sleeping berths for the men looking after them, a kitchen, and an office. The car traveled between 20 and 30,000 miles per year between February and July, distributing trout, whitefish, black bass, pike, and carp. It was eventually rebuilt and renamed the Fontinalis. Another fish car, the Wolverine, was built in 1913; a replica can be seen at the Oden fish hatchery in Alanson, Emmet county.

Carp were on the Attikumaig for a reason. “Several marked advantages are claimed for the German carp for profitable cultivation,” noted A December, 1880 issue of the Marshall Daily Chronicle. The article continued:

Any kind of a pond, no matter how restricted, can be used. Difficulties of temperature or purity of water are scarcely factors in carp culture. Providing the water is not too cold, carp thrive rapidly. In fact, no natural water has yet been found too warm for them. Being vegetable feeders, carp thrive on plants growing in the water, or may be given offal, like pigs, or boiled grain, like chickens. A large pond may be dug on arable land, allowed to grow carp for two or three years, the fish marketed and the ground brought under cultivation again.

In the same month and year the Kalamazoo Telegraph chimed in. “The farmers of Michigan should prepare ponds for the German carp which the fish commission is introducing into this country. It is one of the most prolific of fishes and among the best that can be supplied to the table.”

The table was a big one at the 1887 annual dinner of the American Carp Culture Association, based in Philadelphia. The group’s secretary noted:

 “The caterer carried out our instructions to the letter, and the result was that a select party of acknowledged epicures not only tasted but ate several pounds of carp without condiments or seasoning of any description whatever. The verdict seemed to be unanimous that carp raised and treated according to the system prevailing in this region is a first-class food fish … their flavor will be second only to the salmon family, certainly fully equal to the far-famed shad …

Perhaps the most enthusiastic carp-booster was Alliance, Ohio editor and publisher Lambelis Logan (he preferred the abbreviation “L. B. Logan.”) Logan was editor of the monthly magazine “American Carp Culture,” published from 1884 to 1888. Chapter 3 of Logan’s 1888 book “Practical Carp Culture” was titled “The Economic, Philosophic, Patriotic, and Sanitary Reasons for Carp Culture.” The chapter trails off before probing the connection between patriotism and carp, but it does extol the benefits of having a farm pond.

American Carp Culture

Ohio editor Lambelis Logan was a driving force behind the monthly magazine “American Carp Culture.”

Aside from raising carp, “water farming,” wrote Logan, provides beneficial vapors that “will moisten and purify the air, destroy disease germs and contribute to better health.” The pond supplies emergency water during a drought, he added, gives beauty to the farm, and provides a place to bathe, to ice-skate, and to harvest ice for the ice-house.

Logan went on to detail the multiple-pond system used in European carp culture, including the hatching pond, the stock pond for older carp, and the market pond for mature fish. A series of carp ponds was a feature, for example, of a Cisterian Catholic monastery, founded in 1186, in Reinfeld, a German town in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein. The Reinfeld town crest displays a carp to this day. Though the abbey was destroyed in the sixteenth century, the carp-ponds once tended by monks are still visible.

Reinfeld was the town that Julius Poppe had visited in 1872. He procured his fish from a town miller and carp culturist. Poppe had left Sonoma on May 3, 1872, traveled through the Panama Canal to New York, and crossed the Atlantic twice and the entire American continent once on an expensive three-month journey. He had faith in German-raised carp. Europe had had centuries to refine the art of breeding and maintaining carp in a controlled series of ponds.

Reinfeld's coat of arms displays a silvery German carp

Reinfeld’s coat of arms displays a silvery German carp

Michigan farmers would have to learn on the fly.

“A method of systematic carp culture in a series of proportioned ponds as detailed in the preceding pages would be entirely too extensive and costly a luxury for beginners, as most farmers must be,” wrote Logan in “Practical Carp Culture.”  “… [In this case,] a single pond must answer all the purposes.”

Leon Cole agreed in his 1905 book “German Carp in the United States.” “With a few possible exceptions carp culture has never been attempted in this country after the lines which it is carried on so extensively in Germany,” he wrote. “[Most carp culturists] merely dumped the fish into any body of water that was convenient, or into any pond that could be hastily scraped out or constructed by damming some small stream, and thereafter left them to shift for themselves . . . “

Cole was a 1901 graduate of the University of Michigan. As a junior, he already worked for the school as a zoological assistant, living nearby at 703 Church Street. After receiving his bachelor’s, he stayed on at the university to conduct zoological research, some involving carp that he maintained in an aquarium. Cole later received his doctorate from Harvard and became a zoologist and professor of genetics at the University of Wisconsin.

Carp Falls out of Favor

By the time Cole graduated, carp had already fallen out of favor in Michigan. Their habit of eating by slurping up tidbits on the bottom of a river or pond and spitting out detritus made the water turbid. Such native predator fish as the pike had difficulty seeing prey through haze. In feeding, carp dislodged or damaged aquatic vegetation, a food source for some waterfowl and shelter for other fishes. They could cause riverbank erosion in scouring for food. Sportsmen suspected that they were crowding out more desirable fish. By the turn of the century, the carp’s reputation was in tatters.

The Jan. 1, 1897 Marshall Daily Chronicle said, “German carp are becoming more numerous in the Kalamazoo river each season, and it is feared that they will sooner or later drive out all other species of fish. There should be no restriction placed on their destruction. They bring but two cents a pound in the market.”

“Some years ago the cries went up all over Michigan that the German carp be planted in our rivers,” wrote the August 24, 1899 Benton Harbor Daily Palladium. “Now that we have them the lovers of game fish are wishing they could be exterminated, for it is said that they are destroying the spawn of our best river fish, and that they themselves are scarcely fit to eat. Carp are depopulating the Kalamazoo River of its best fish.”

In “German Carp in the United States,” Cole summarized possible reasons why carp culture had failed. People had rushed into the venture without knowledge of the procedures involved. They ate carp during the spring spawning season, when the flesh was of poor quality. It was cooked incorrectly, without the European techniques that rendered it palatable. Finally, escaped carp became so numerous in waterways that it wasn’t necessary to maintain a private pond.

Carp Compared to Sturgeon

The story of carp in Michigan is roughly a mirror image of the history of Michigan sturgeon. The sturgeon is indigenous; the carp is invasive. The sturgeon needs many years to mature before breeding; the carp is fertile at a young age. The sturgeon was originally regarded as a trash fish and later as extremely valuable due to its eggs, made into caviar. The carp arrived in this country lauded by government fish experts and is now considered a trash fish.

The sturgeon’s decline and the carp’s ascent crossed paths in the 1880s. The 1887-88 Michigan Fish Commission report notes that there is “an increasing demand for carp” – there were 3,485 applicants for state hatchery carp in 1886 alone. In addition, between 1880 and 1890, over 50,000 federal carp had been planted in Michigan waters. The state report also noted “one of the most valuable fish is the worthless sturgeon of a few years ago, and so assiduously is it sought for that the supply will become exhausted in a very short time …”

Not so the carp. As a speaker at the 1901 meeting of the American Fisheries Society said, “We hear a great deal from sportsmen’s clubs and from other sources as to how the carp can be exterminated. It cannot be exterminated. It is like the English sparrow; it is here to stay.”

Mystery Artifact

In the last column, I stupidly neglected to obscure the patent number on the patent drawing of the mystery artifact.

Mystery Artifact

Mystery Artifact

Commenters (adept Internet-scourers all!) wrestled with the moral dilemma this posed, but proved honorable of course – no one spilled the beans!

That means I have the pleasure – it is was shepherd’s crook invented in 1884 by one Sumner D. Felt of Jackson, Michigan.

Because this column’s Mystery Artifact is about as obscure as a Mystery Artifact could be, I feel bound to drop a hint. This is something you could use in conjunction with the carp pond on your farm, in order to protect your investment. I look forward to your guesses!

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

The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to keep readers up to date on historic aquapreneurian adventures. If you’re already supporting The Chronicle, please encourage your friends, neighbors and coworkers to do the same. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle.

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In the Archives: Michigan Merinos Thu, 28 Mar 2013 19:13:42 +0000 Laura Bien Washtenaw County owes a long-forgotten debt to Napoleon Bonaparte.

The famed Ypsilanti underwear factory processed local merino wool as well as other fabrics.

The famed Ypsilanti underwear factory processed local merino wool as well as other fabrics.

In the chaos following Napoleon’s first invasion into Spain in the early 19th century, the Spanish crown lost control of a resource it had jealously guarded since its acquisition from the North African Berber people in the 11th century.

For centuries, Spanish royalty forbade this resource to leave the country, and Spain steadily accumulated wealth from the commodity it produced. One expenditure of this wealth funded a young Italian explorer on his 1492 journey to what he apparently expected would be India.

This possession was the royal flocks of merino sheep, and the commodity was arguably the finest, softest, most luxurious wool on the planet.

Some American statesmen in Europe in the early 19th century took advantage of the post-invasion upheaval to smuggle out these esteemed sheep.

One was the Lisbon-based American consul to Portugal, William Jarvis. Around the turn of the 19th century, he shipped a dozen merino sheep to America. They sold for $15,000 [$216,500 in today’s dollars].

When Madrid-based minister David Humphrey’s term ended, he asked if instead of the usual parting gift of 100 bars of silver he might take home a few merinos. His request was granted sub rosa. The minister to France, Robert Livingston, obtained a few. So did George Washington. More were smuggled in for Thomas Jefferson, who began a merino breeding program at Monticello. When Jefferson was elected president, his merinos accompanied him to Washington, pastured on the White House lawn.

The merino craze was on.

Some eight decades later, the descendants of sheep from the Jarvis and Humphrey flocks were raised on the Ypsilanti farm of J. Evarts Smith.

The ideal merino possessed a wrinkly skin affording maximum surface area for its top-quality wool.

The ideal merino possessed a wrinkly skin affording maximum surface area for its top-quality wool.

The war of 1812 enforced a blockade of cheap British textiles and helped to spur a “merino bubble” akin to the Netherlands’ tulip mania of the 1630s. When the merino bubble collapsed around 1815, some animals sold for $1, and wound up on the dinner table.

Despite the collapse of the merino craze, the animals were nevertheless a valuable producer of good wool. The first record of Spanish merinos in Michigan dates from 1828, according to an 1892 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Stephen V. R. Trowbridge, of Oakland County, began with a flock of 18 sheep, and without purchasing any, and killing and selling 500, had in 1851 over 450. They were full-bodied Spanish merinos, and were found to thrive above all other sheep.”

When Trowbridge obtained his sheep in 1828, Michigan had a population of about 31,000 settlers. Many pioneers hewed their farms from woodlands. These stump-littered plots were ideal pasturage, it turned out, for the merino. Though its wool was delicate and fine, the animal itself was well-insulated for Michigan winters, and did not require special food during the growing season, as it could feed itself solely on foraged plants.

Around 1836, the merino was introduced to Washtenaw County by Saline’s Thomas Wood, according to the same federal agricultural report. Wood’s first ram, imported from New York, led to a sheep empire of sorts and helped make the county one of the state’s leading merino hotspots.

Four years later, one Captain Lowry of Lodi Plains in Lodi Township imported some merino ewes. The breed was catching on and would eventually become the dominant breed of sheep in the lower half of the lower peninsula.

In those early days – with settlers scattered about the state combined with a scarce infrastructure of woolen mills to process their “clip” – most farmers raising sheep sent their clips to Detroit. In 1841, Detroit exported 20,000 pounds of wool. Just three years later, the harvest had increased by more than elevenfold to 230,000 pounds. By 1847 it was a million pounds

In 1840 and 1850, Michigan was fourth in the nation in sheep population. In 1860 it was top-ranked, and maintained that Number One ranking for the next 50 years. Within that half-century, the leading decade was the 1880s – the golden era of Michigan sheep husbandry.

In 1880, the Michigan Merino Sheep Breeders’ Association formed. The group’s reports listed purebred registered flocks and pedigrees of individual sheep. Ewes were denoted by numbers only, but rams bore names such as “Gold Drop,” “Premier,” “Sweepstakes,” or “Greasy Bill.”

To take a snapshot of that year, it is worth perusing the 1880 census agricultural report for Ann Arbor Township. Almost all Washtenaw County farms of the era were mixed-use farms. The monocultural farms of corn or soybeans seen in modern-day rural lower-peninsular Michigan did not yet exist. The farmers of 19th-century Michigan hedged their bets by farming a wide variety of livestock and crops.

Of the 279 farms listed for Ann Arbor Township in 1880, 93 included sheep, or 30%. Thirty farms, or 9.3%, had herds of over 100 sheep. The leading sheep farmers were Isaac Dunn with 415 sheep on his 50-acre farm, Richard [Newland] with 415 on 200 acres, and Oscar Ide with 380 on his 200 acres.

Dunn was an experienced sheep farmer. In 1863, he produced over a ton of wool, garnering a mention in the Ann Arbor Argus that was reprinted in the July 1863 issue of The Michigan Farmer magazine. He “delivered his clip of wool on contract in this city last week. He brought it (2,100 pounds) at one wagon load. It was purchased by P. Balch, at 60 cents per pound. Nearly $1,300 [24,000 in today’s dollars].”

By 1880, Dunn’s wool production was up to 3,700 pounds, if the census-taker’s scribbled handwriting can be trusted [One does wish the federal government gave handwriting tests to census-takers!] That year, Dunn also earned revenue from the 500 pounds of butter produced from his 8 cows, as well as the 50 dozen eggs from 20 chickens, his 6 acres of “Indian corn,” 4 acres of oats, 8 acres of wheat, a quarter-acre of potatoes, 10 acres of apple trees, 10 pounds of honey, and 30 cords of cut firewood. Dunn’s sheep roamed his farm acreage located just off the present-day Nixon Road between Pontiac Trail and Plymouth Road.

Annual competitive sheep-shearing festivals became popular across Michigan, usually held in April. Many occurred in Washtenaw County, such as the April 22, 1882 shearing festival in Manchester, the April 15 and 16, 1886 shearing at Ann Arbor, and shearings at Saline as well as throughout the lower half of the lower peninsula.

In 1885, 207 merino flocks were registered with the Michigan Merino Sheep Breeders’ Association. By 1889, the number of flocks grew to 297, and by 1897, 350. That year, Washtenaw County led the state in number of sheep and pounds of wool, followed by Eaton, Jackson, and Calhoun counties. The top ten lower peninsular counties produced half of Michigan’s wool. Saline and to a lesser extent Ypsilanti led the county in wool production.

Washtenaw County sheep were exhibited at the celebrated 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, as noted in the October 13, 1893 Ann Arbor Argus. “In the Michigan awards at the World’s Fair,” the paper reported, “… Washtenaw county stands well up in the list … W. E. Boyden, of Webster, gets the first award on merino ewes, three years old or over, while A[rthur] A. Wood, of Saline, gets the third award … Washtenaw is still a sheep center.”

The merino sheep’s dominance in Michigan sheep husbandry began to fade after the turn of the 20th century. In 1899, the majority of Michigan counties show a decrease in the production of merino wool, and the 1909 Michigan Merino Sheep Breeders’ Association Register lists only 127 flocks.

Over time the “fancy” merino faded from fashion. To this day, however, Washtenaw County leads the state in heads of sheep, according to the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture figures.

The onetime possession of Spanish royalty, transported over an ocean to rough-hewn frontier farms, helped shape the future of Washtenaw County and the state as a whole.

Mystery Artifact

Last column, Jim Rees correctly guessed the mystery object.

Mystery Object

Mystery Object

Rees described it like this: “The object in the diagram is obviously a telephone. A very old one, with a ‘non-metallic’ or ‘earth return’ connection. These were very susceptible to lightning, and Fritz is right, the toothy thing is what we would today call a ‘surge suppressor’.”

Also, Fritz Passow correctly guessed that this is “a diagram for how to keep lightning from blowing up your phone, or at least not burning down your house when it does. The pair of close-spaced toothy things on the left is the gap the lightening is supposed to jump on the way to Earth.”

Disclaimer: Fritz is my husband but did not receive any hints about this artifact.

This column, we have an obscure patent related to SE Michigan. What might it be? Take your best guess!

Contact Laura at

The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to keep readers informed about Washtenaw County’s dominance in sheep farming. If you’re already supporting The Chronicle, please encourage your friends, neighbors and coworkers to do the same. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle.

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In the Archives: Lightning Rod for Swindles Wed, 27 Feb 2013 14:29:19 +0000 Laura Bien Editor’s note: Laura Bien’s most recent “In the Archives” column highlighted a 19th century scam involving oats. That column briefly mentioned a lightning rod scam. In this month’s column Bien provides a bit more background on lightning rod swindles.

Edward Roes 1904 "How to Do Business" warned readers to be wary of itinerant agents.

Edward Roe’s 1904 “How to Do Business” warned readers to be wary of itinerant agents.

Scams and swindles proliferated in the late 19th century, despite a sometimes idealized modern-day view of the period. “Work at home” offers targeted housewives in an era with very few opportunities for women to gain respectable work outside of the home. The candidate had to purchase a sample embroidery kit or small artwork, complete it, and return it to the company. Invariably, the finished work was never acceptable – because the companies made their money not in farming out work to home-based workers, but in selling samples.

Patent medicines were rife. Food adulteration was common. Fake doctors took trains from town to town, offering miraculous cures. Promissory-note shenanigans took place.

One little-known yet strange swindle, which affected Washtenaw County farmers, the state as a whole, and elsewhere, involved no more than a simple metal stick – a lightning rod.

Swindling Fraternity

“Next to the substitution of saw-dust packages for counterfeit money, and the sale of brass jewelry, the business of putting up lightning rods is a favorite field for the operations of the swindling fraternity,” wrote John Phin in 1879. Phin was a onetime faculty member of New York’s People’s College and the University of Pennsylvania. In addition to publishing a Shakespeare encyclopedia, several works on microscopy, a treatise on “Open Air Grape Culture,” and a primer on the “Preparation and Use of Cements and Glue,” Phin also published “Plain Directions for the Construction and Erection of Lightning Rods,” from which the above quote is taken. At an 1871 meeting of the American Institute of the City of New York for the Encouragement of Science and Invention, he was regarded as the reigning expert on the subject.

From beyond the grave, Ann Arbor's Dr. Alvan Chase warned readers of the dangers of the lightning-rod men.

From beyond the grave, Ann Arbor’s Dr. Alvan Chase warned readers of the dangers of the lightning-rod men.

The swindling fraternity to which Phin referred consisted of itinerant lightning-rod men plying backroads in a wagon. When they visited farms they used one of at least three methods of trickery.

Ann Arbor’s own Dr. Alvan Chase, author of the popular 1896 book “Dr. Chase’s Recipes, or, Information for Everybody” described one such tactic in his posthumous 1894 book “Dr. Chase’s Home Advisor and Everyday Reference Book.” “The scheme is to sell the lightning rods, and to take pay, usually in the form of a swindling note or contract, which is placed in the hands of an innocent third party, and can be collected.” In other words, after securing a promissory note from a farmer, the swindlers could cash it at a bank. The farmer then had to contend with the authority of the bank – perhaps the one that held his mortgage – as the bank attempted to redeem the note for cash money.

Another scheme involved altering the contract presented to the farmer. After taking an order from a farmer and filling out a contract, the swindler would alter it. “After the contract is signed, the sharper inserts a 5 before the 7, making the amount per foot 57 instead of 7 cents,” noted Edward Roe in his 1904 book “Safe Methods, or, How to Do Business.” He continued, “And there being nothing said in the contract as to the number of points, vanes, etc. to be used, the lightning-rod man throws them in ‘good and plenty,’ so that instead of the business costing [the farmer] about $28 as he expected, he finds that the bill runs up to $185 …”

“Two men are working a new swindle among the farmers,” reported the Sept. 21, 1888 Marshall Statesman. “They claim to represent the National Tube lightning rod company and [have been] sent out by an insurance company to inspect lightning rods.” After the rods were “tested,” said the paper, invariably they were found defective. The men offered to replace them. “It’s the old story after that,” continued the paper. “[T]he farmer who signs obligates himself by a sleight-of-hand trick of the agents to pay two or three times the value of the rod.”

Fire Insurance

Lightning rods served as a lever for swindles for several reasons. One was the lack of reliable rural fire service and telephony. Washtenaw County towns had municipal fire services. Ann Arbor organized a primitive one in 1836 when the city was a village with only two small wards, according to Chapman’s 1881 “History of Washtenaw County.” Ypsilanti organized a fire department in 1873. Dexter followed suit in 1877, Manchester in 1883, and Chelsea in 1889. The farmer in a distant township, however, was largely on his own.

Some farmers forewent the expense of insurance, though many plans were available from a variety of states. The 1890 Polk’s Ann Arbor city directory lists 52 insurance companies in all: one exclusively for plate glass, three for life insurance, three for accidents, and 45 for fire insurance. Many local policies were sold by James Bach from his office at 16 E. Huron Street, among other agents.

In contrast to these stockholder-based insurance companies, Washtenaw farmers organized at least four local mutual farmers’ insurance cooperatives. The Ann Arbor-based German Farmers’ Mutual organized in 1859, as did the Ann Arbor-based Washtenaw Mutual. The Manchester-based Southern Washtenaw Farmers’ Mutual formed in 1872, and the Dexter-based Northwestern Washtenaw Farmers’ Mutual began in 1898. Regardless of this panoply of choices, some barns still burned to the ground uninsured.

In 1905 the secretary of Washtenaw Mutual gave a summary of his company’s recent claims, as reported in the September 7, 1905 issue of the Western Underwriter. “The largest number of losses, thirteen, occurred in November, seven by fire and six by lightning. July was second with ten losses, all lightning . . . [f]or some reason not fully understood, the number of lightning losses is on the increase.”

Lightning was a leading cause of fires in the era. Turn-of-the-century annual reports from the Michigan Insurance Bureau categorized seven causes of fires: lightning, steam threshers, incendiary [arson], field or forest fires, defective chimneys or stove pipes, unknown, and miscellaneous. For both 1886 and 1903, lightning was the second-largest cause of all fire claims submitted to Washtenaw Mutual, exceeded only by faulty stove pipes. In 1886 Washtenaw Mutual paid out $1,712 for lightning claims, the equivalent of $43,000 today.

One additional possible reason for farmers’ vulnerability to fraud was a general lack of information. Without reliable access to news, including communication technologies or the local turn-of-the-century institution of rural delivery mail routes (which also delivered newspapers, many of which were printing warnings against the swindle), farmers may have been at a disadvantage.

Some farmers had little tolerance for the marauding lightning-rod men, as depicted here from the 1907 book "Swindling Exposed, from the Diary of William B. Moreau, King of Fakirs."

Some farmers had little tolerance for the marauding lightning-rod men, as depicted here from the 1907 book “Swindling Exposed, from the Diary of William B. Moreau, King of Fakirs.”

Regardless, some farmers rebelled against the traveling agents. “A farmer in St. Clair County settled a note given to a lightning rod swindler,” said the February 6, 1878 Owosso American, “by grabbing the note when it was presented for payment and kicking the swindler off his premises.” The July 9, 1906 Marshall Daily Chronicle reported, “[One] farmer was given a second ‘contract,’ to which he affixed his signature. The swindlers were unable to cash the note in the vicinity, and one farmer got rid of the slick chaps by threatening to use a shotgun.”

The widespread fraud took its toll. “According to the Bureau of Standards it has been estimated that not more than fifteen or twenty per cent of the buildings in the United States which are liable to damage by lightning are protected in any manner against it,” reported the January, 1921 issue of the National Fire Protection Association Quarterly. “The lack of protection is charged largely to swindling lightning-rod agents of thirty or forty years ago, who prospered greatly at the expense of a credulous public.”

Over time the stigma faded. The swindlers drifted off – only to resurface in 2011 in Kansas, last May in Pennsylvania and last November in rural Wisconsin. Here’s hoping the local sheriff “conducted” the swindlers out of town.

Mystery Artifact

Jim Rees correctly guessed last column’s mystery artifact.

Mystery Object

Mystery Object

It is a “Dice Box” patented by Ann Arbor’s Eugene Gregory in 1894. Talk about a great guess!

See if you can suss out this column’s mysterious 1892 diagram. What does this depict? Take your best guess!

Contact Laura at

The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to keep us from falling prey to lightning rod scams. If you’re already supporting The Chronicle, please encourage your friends, neighbors and coworkers to do the same. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle.

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In the Archives: Sowing Bogus Oats Thu, 06 Dec 2012 01:12:04 +0000 Laura Bien The well-dressed stranger standing in the driveway certainly had the farmer’s attention. The stranger’s eyes flicked over one of the farmer’s suspenders fastened to faded trousers with a nail as he described his generous proposition. The farmer glanced at the visitor’s handsome buggy – this was a gentleman of means, offering a poor man a shot at paying off the mortgage. After a handshake, the stranger retrieved some papers from his buggy and held out a pen.

Threshing Oats

This late 19th-century public domain stereoscopic image shows threshing in Illinois.

In the mid-1880s, one fraudulent scheme snookered thousands of Michigan farmers across the lower half of the lower peninsula, including many in Washtenaw County. As the fraud spread like a storm over sixteen Michigan counties, it left farmers crushed by debt, newspapers issuing shrill warnings, and a rising tide of lawsuits that crested not once but several times in the Michigan Supreme Court.

The miracle product responsible for ruination was the fabled “Bohemian oats,” a variety of oat touted as far more valuable than the regular oats then for sale from 35 to 50 cents a bushel in southeastern Michigan.

Scamming Oats

With minor variations the proposition was this: the “oat company agent” offered to sell the farmer 10 bushels of Bohemian oats for $10 per bushel. The farmer would grow and harvest the crop, at which time the agent would buy 20 bushels of the oats for $10 per bushel, minus a reselling percentage. For an investment of $100, the farmer would make nearly $100 in pure profit. One-hundred dollars in 1885 Michigan – equivalent to $2,500 today – was enough to buy a decent farm horse

If the farmer agreed, the agent would present him with a contract with an “abundance of red and green inks, [a] very broad seal (intended to look like gold, but . . . only Dutch metal) and the bold signature of a secretary [of the agent’s purported oat company] . . . ” according to the March 1886 issue of the American Agriculturist. The farmer signed the bond – the agent did not. The farmer rarely paid in cash, but with a promissory note to be paid one year later, when he received the agent’s payment for the oat crop.

It was at this point that the scheme took one of several paths.

Sometimes the agent showed up at harvest time, collected the oats, and paid the farmer not in cash but in his own promissory notes, which turned out, at the bank, to be worthless.

Other times the agent, instead of holding the promissory note for a year, would sell it to a bank. An unsuspecting bank customer might buy it for face value, trusting in the farmer’s good name, and later try to cash it. But the farmer couldn’t redeem the note prematurely without the largesse from the oat crop.

He had to either sell off some stock animals, perhaps the very ones that enabled him to plow, or plead unable to pay, which often led to a lawsuit from the note’s purchaser. A third option for less scrupulous farmers was to try to pawn off the oats to his neighbors, perhaps while brandishing the gloriously colored and impressive certificate from the agent, to demonstrate the oat company’s authenticity.

Marketing the Oat Scam

A third strategy extended over the span of two years, as detailed in Willard Tucker’s 1913 book “Gratiot County Michigan.” The agent breezed into the county and signed up several of the more prominent farmers for the oat deal. When the crop was harvested, the agent duly paid per the agreement

Then he published an ad touting testimonials from these respectable and prosperous men. One Robert Smith was quoted as saying that Bohemian oats were “the best and most profitable branch of farming that they had ever engaged in.” The ad was read with interest by numerous other Gratiot county farmers.

The ad did not go unnoticed by newspapers. The Nov. 20, 1885 Marshall Statesman wrote, “The Bohemian oats agents in Gratiot county are so audacious that they actually advertise in the local papers the list of their victims.”

“And the farmers fell over one another in their anxiety to get some of those oats,” continued Tucker, “and to give their notes for them at $10 a bushel.” The farmers showered the agent with promissory notes and planted their crop.

This time, the agent quietly laundered the pile of notes at a bank and wafted away.

Newspapers all over Michigan watched this ongoing pillage of local farms with mounting frustration. Editorial after editorial had gone for nought.

The March 12, 1886 Marshall Statesman wrote: “Parties about Morenci [Lenawee County] who have been duped by the Bohemian oats scheme into giving notes have banded themselves together to resist payment of said notes. It is wonderful how many dupes the swindlers can make in this reading age, when the papers have so long been filled with exposure.”

A May 1886 issue of the Ovid [Clinton County] Union, which had railed against the scheme, said, “[Some farmers who] thought they were too poor to pay 75 cents a year for the Union  . . .  will have to pay Bohemian oat notes to the extent of several hundred dollars. You see the point?”

Women v. Bogus Oats

Not everyone fell for the scam. Some starry-eyed farmers were dissuaded by flinty-eyed wives.

In his 1907 memoir “Swindling Exposed, from the Diary of William B. Moreau, King of Fakirs,” the author wrote of his experience shilling Bohemian oats. “The first farmer we came to listened to us, and there is little doubt of our bagging him were it not for his wife, who called him one side, and then the jig was up. We never tried to work a man after he consulted with his wife, unless she also fell into the trap, which was seldom the case. Rather cast down in spirits, [we] drove away . . . ”

An illustration from Moreau's book hints at the despondency suffered by farmers who were fleeced.

An illustration from Moreau’s book hints at the despondency suffered by farmers who were fleeced.

The Feb. 11, 1887 issue of the Marshall Statesman reported, “The fact that Farmer Courtright, who lives near Lansing, is confined to his bed by serious illness, did not prevent a Bohemian oats agent calling this week, and demanding payment of a $160 note. Nor was Mrs. Cartwright prevented from settling the business by catching the agent by the slack of his coat, getting possession of the note and tearing it into fragments, and then walking the fellow out of the house, too quick.”

Other schemes of the day evolved to target women. One Mrs. R. F. Johnston gave a Jan. 23, 1885 talk at the Monroe Institute about the deceptive nature of work-at-home schemes marketed to housewives. One of these was the processing of silk cocoons. “Those who have tried it report very hard work, no play, and very poor pay. The money seems to be gathered in by those who have the silkworm eggs and the Russian mulberry for sale,” said Mrs. Johnson. “When the cocoons are spun and steamed and packed, and express charges paid to Philadelphia, and the association fails to remit at all, or pays only half schedule value, one is inclined to believe there must be some ‘Bohemian oats’ about the scheme.” The term had become derisive slang.

Origin of Bogus Oats and Beyond

Other farmers figured out for themselves that Bohemian oats were a scam. As noted by the February 6, 1885 Marshall Statesman: “Bohemian oats fiends undertook to convince farmer Graves of Washtenaw county, that he needed a supply of their choice seed. Farmer Graves meandered to the house, came out loaded with a shotgun and other implements of war, and informed the fiends that he was subject to fits of temporary insanity, whereupon they left for parts unknown quickly and without ceremony.”

The culprit may have been one Alfred Hammer, who in 1884 organized a company called the Ypsilanti Bohemian Oats and Cereal Company, a mysterious concern that is not listed in mid-1880s Ypsilanti city directories. Hammer’s venture was short-lived; he was arrested in Flint for oat fraud and after a two-day-long trial, sentenced to either two years in prison or a $250 fine. Hammer paid the fine.

An illustration from Moreau's book depicts him and a confederate out to sell Bohemian oats."

An illustration from Moreau’s book depicts him and a confederate out to sell Bohemian oats.”

Many other lawsuits filled Michigan courts at the local, circuit court, and Supreme Court level. The Michigan legislature acted and in 1887 with the approval of Governor Luce passed the “Bohemian Oats Bill,” which made it a felony for anyone to take a note or receipt for the sale of grains at a “fictitious price,” defined as twice the going market rate or greater. Iowa and Ohio passed similar laws.

By the late 1880s when the scheme had petered out, the loss was counted in hundreds of thousands of dollars to Michigan farmers. Berrien county farmers paid $1,000 for oats in 1885 [$25,000 in today’s money]. Farmers in Eaton Rapids lost $35,000 [$863,000]. Livingston County farmers lost $100,000 [$2,500,000]. The Ypsilanti company is said to have cleared a tidy $100,000.

Michigan was not the only state affected. Similar Bohemian oat swindles were reported from Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, Missouri, Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, Kansas, Nebraska, and a few in Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Dakota Territory. Even Connecticut and Maine, hardly grain belt states, each reported one fraud case.

When Bohemian oats had run their course, swindlers turned to other ingenious schemes. Some involved other exotically-named strains of barley, oats, and wheat. Others branched out into other farm products. “The Bohemian oats scheme has recently been o’ershadowed by a new scheme, which for unadulterated, galvanized ‘cheek,’ is entitled to the first prize,” said the April 16, 1886 Marshall Daily Chronicle. “An oily-tongued individual offers for sale Plymouth Rock eggs for $75 per dozen, and agrees to buy all chickens hatched from these eggs for $100 each. The fact that these eggs are pretty thoroughly boiled does not seem to interfere in the least with the sharper’s success.”

One well-known scam throughout the Midwest involved lightning rods. A salesman promised to install lightning rods on a farmer’s house and barn for a fixed cost. A tiny clause in the contract stipulated an extra fee if the collective length of the rods happened to accidentally run a bit over the agreed length. One Indiana farmer who signed up had second thoughts and ran to town to consult an attorney. “Upon returning,” said the Oct. 26, 1895 Goshen Weekly News, “he found his buildings bristling with lightning rods so that a bolt could not get between them to the buildings.”

The ingenuity of scoundrels perpetrates scams to this day, but 19th-century Michigan farmers also had their full share.

Mystery Artifact

In the most recent column, Donna Estabrook guessed that the item in question was kitchen tongs.

Mystery Object

Mystery Object

That is what I believe they are. I’m not 100% sure, however, and if corrected would be grateful for the information.

This Mystery Object was invented by an Ann Arborite, but what might it be? Take your best guess and good luck!

Laura Bien is assistant editor at Michigan History Magazine. Contact her at

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