The Ann Arbor Chronicle » Ypsilanti history it's like being there Wed, 26 Nov 2014 18:59:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 In the Archives: Huckleberries and Trains Sat, 16 Jul 2011 16:09:12 +0000 Laura Bien Editor’s note: As discussion of major investments in commuter rail service continues in the Ann Arbor region, Laura Bien’s local history column this week takes a look back to efforts more than a century ago to establish rail connections in the region. Does southeastern Michigan have the wherewithal to enhance existing connections and establish new ones? Or is all that just a huckleberry above our persimmon?

railroad map

This 1895 plat map shows the Huckleberry curving from northern Ypsilanti towards Washtenaw Avenue. (Images link to higher resolution files.)

By the 1980s, the century-old train tracks had been torn up. Now occupying the former roadbed are new Eastern Michgan University buildings, the Washtenaw Avenue Kmart, the abandoned Carpenter Road mini-golf park just south of Thrifty Florist, and Pittsfield Township homes. But only a few years earlier, a sleepy southbound rail line with only one slow train rumbling by a day, was an ideal route for rural nature walks, south of the rail crossing on Washtenaw just east of Golfside.

Onetime Ypsilanti Press linotyper and history columnist Milton Barnes remembered. Barnes was blind. Yet in an early-1980s column for the Press, he helped others visualize a summer ramble.

“Strolling-just a-strolling, down these tracks in late August,” Barnes wrote, “we found a bed of wild strawberries, just a few of them, but as sweet as can be. The spring crop of polliwogs had grown into lively green frogs. There was a bit of water in the ditches along the tracks, with buttercups and cowslips … When we stroll along, and hop from tie to tie, every cow, lamb, dog, pig, and rooster watches. So do the farmers from their back doors, and some wave a cheery ‘How be ye?’ greeting.”

A century earlier, the July 4th inaugural voyage of the slow little “Detroit, Hillsdale, and Indiana” steam train from Ypsilanti to Saline and beyond was cause for citywide celebration.

railroad map

The Huckleberry Line, seen here as the diagonal line between Ypsilanti and Bankers, Michigan, also stopped at Pittsfield Junction, Saline, Bridgewater, Manchester, Watkins, Brooklyn, and a few other stops before its terminus 64 miles southwest of Ypsi.

“[F]rom 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. a constant stream poured to the [Ypsilanti] Depot,” reported the July 9, 1870 Ypsilanti Commercial. “The first train carried 600 of our citizens … [t]he morning was lovely, a gentle breeze; the train went just fast enough to enable the excursionists to enjoy the ride. The Ypsilanti Tin Horn Band enlivened the occasion.”

It’s likely that more than one farmer south of Washtenaw Avenue looked up from chores at the sound of distant metallic tootling to see the small traincars creeping over the horizon, on their leisurely way to Saline.

“Arriv[ing] at Saline we found thousands waiting to welcome us,” the Commercial continued. “A beautiful arch erected over the track … was wreathed in flowers [spelling out] ‘Saline’ and ‘Ypsilanti’ clasping hands and the word ‘Welcome’.”

The attendees listened to a welcoming address, gave three cheers, enjoyed the Saline Cornet Band “discoursing soul inspiring music,” and proceeded to Risdon’s Grove for a lavish banquet under the trees, followed by ceremonial orations.

The “D. H. & I” was not the first rail line to visit either Ypsi or Saline.

The Michigan Central arrived in Ypsi in 1838, and the Michigan Southern arrived in Saline in 1843. But a rail line uniting then-remote agricultural Saline to the nearby urban markets of Ypsi and Ann Arbor was a boon to farmers. The line’s name changed in a series of buyouts. – first to the Detroit, Hillsdale, and Ypsilanti line then the Detroit, Hillsdale, and Southwestern. Finally, it became a minor branch of the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern network.

The Ypsilanti Commercial’s fiery editor C. R. Pattison had led the fight (at least in his view) to secure the Ypsilanti-Hillsdale County railroad. Throughout late 1869 and early 1870, the Commercial published a series of editorials boosting the merits of the proposed line, in an era of feverish and competitive railroad-building.

Officials in Detroit and Ypsi conferred and decided to donate municipal funds. “Hillsdale subscribed $100,000 [1.7 million dollars today], Ypsilanti voted $50,000, and all the villages and townships on the proposed route voted or subscribed large sums of money,” wrote Charles Chapman in his 1881 History of Washtenaw County.

The state took note, and objected that this wasn’t a legal way to raise money for a railroad, according to the Michigan constitution. Through a series of twists and turns that included a case going to the U.S. Supreme Court, the matter was finally settled and the track began to be laid, via rights-of-way on farmland ceded by local farmers between Ypsi and Saline.

The farmers weren’t just being altruistic. Having a nearby rail line meant an easy way to quickly ship goods to market. The Hillsdale line was the single most important factor in boosting Saline into a then-primary hub of agricultural exports to southeastern Michigan. The Saline depot hummed with commerce, as livestock, logs, finished lumber, apples, wheat flour, ironwork, and wool from local sheep farmers were loaded onto cars and shipped out.

The line carried passengers, too. One was a family member of Superior Township Scottish immigrant farmer-poet William Lambie. In August of 1875, he noted in his diary, “Found a swarm of bees on the trunk of a small hickory tree-brushed them down to the hive and they stung fiercely. Went to the Depot with Bell. She and Willie Campbell started for Brooklyn on the Huckleberry [as the line was nicknamed].”

One favorite destination on the line was Watkins Lake, halfway to Hillsdale. One turn-of-the-century diarist, quoted by Milton Barnes in another column about the Huckleberry, detailed an end-of-school outing for 1894 Normal School [EMU] graduates.

“[T]hey started late because the class president and his partner had a hard time carrying a basket of lunch across the fields of the [Ypsi] depot.” The article went on to say that the dean of women checked each girls’ attire to make sure it was suitably modest and kept a sharp eye on the grads as they journeyed south to Watkins’ Lake. Canoes were rented and some grads wandered off hand-in-hand, the article said, to gather wild strawberries. “At the picnic tables there wasn’t enough potato salad and some of the chicken and cheese sandwiches were made by girls who got low marks in domestic science.” The canoe rides made up for that, and the happily worn-out group returned to Ypsi at sunset.

After the turn of the century, automobiles slowly grew in popularity – in 1913, one in 47 Washtenaw residents had one – and farming began to decline. The old Huckleberry Line to Saline carried less freight and fewer passengers, and the frequency of trains was cut back. A January 17, 1908 Ypsilanti Daily Press article reported, “The most serious change in the new schedule is the cancelling of two passenger trains on the Lake Shore. These are the morning train from Hillsdale which ran through to Detroit [borrowing the Michigan Central track for the run between Ypsi and Detroit], and the afternoon train from Detroit to Hillsdale. In place of this fine service a passenger coach will be attached to the local freight from Hillsdale. Its arrival and departure are more uncertain than April weather.”

By 1923, Harvey Colburn nearly mocked the residual rail line in his “Story of Ypsilanti.” “The magnificent dreams of the original promoters have vanished,” he wrote. “Today, more than fifty years after the incorporation of the road, two plug trains a day … each train composed of a short string of freight cars with an ancient passenger coach on the end, pull out of [the Ypsi depot] and gently amble down the Huckleberry Line.”

Passenger service was discontinued in the 1930s, and freight service stopped in 1961. In an era of car ownership, the old Huckleberry Line was obsolete, its tracks soon scrapped – but not its memory. Around 1972 the Huckleberry Party Store opened for business near the onetime railroad spurs that used to cross Washtenaw just east of Golfside.

In a simpler time, the tracks were nearly the stuff of poetry.

“Sometimes on our strolls,” wrote Milton Barnes, “a farmer would lean over his fence and want to talk. He would tell us just where along the tracks in June would be found the best patches of wild strawberries … [h]e would also tell us that the roots of the cattails which grew in the trackside ditches were good to eat, somewhat like a sweet onion …”

The railroad’s countrified nickname came about as it was said the train was so slow (around 20 miles per hour, according to railroad surveys) that a passenger could hop off at one of its many stops and pick huckleberries – or, as Barnes and the Saline Historical Society claim, strawberries.

Today part of the onetime line is the paved east-west bicycle path – part of the county’s Border to Border trail – between EMU’s Rynearson Stadium and Collegewood Drive. The shady forest path links the campus with Hewitt Road and the Convocation Center. About halfway down the path at an undisclosed location stands a giant thicket of blackberries – currently in season. It may be that some nostalgic bicyclist recently retraced this section of the Huckleberry Line and, hopping off the imagined train, stood in the sun, gazed down the “track,” and gorged on berries like the riders of long ago.

Thanks to Preservation Eastern director Deirdre Fortino and Saline Historical Society member Robert Lane for research assistance.

Mystery Artifact

Russ Miller and Cosmonicon correctly guessed last column’s Mystery Artifact. It’s the stump of a tree turned into a mortar for pounding corn into corn meal. “Ordinary conveniences were few in the settlement [of Woodruff's Grove]” writes Harvey Colburn in “The Story of Ypsilanti,” “and most of what was needed had to be made on the spot.


Mystery Artifact

There was one oven, that constructed by Woodruff, in his yard, built of stone plastered over with mud. A staple food was corn … [w]ith the demand for meal, two mills were fashioned by burning holes in the tops of sound oak stumps, and scraping them smooth and clean. Over these makeshift mortars hung pestles suspended from a spring pole … the noise of their thumping was heard every winter morning.”

This time we’re faced with a rather scary Mystery Artifact.

Now, I cheated a bit in trimming away the explanatory text around this object that gives it away. But what is it? Good luck!

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In the Archives: A Coldwater Doll Fri, 10 Jun 2011 01:47:18 +0000 Laura Bien Editor’s note: Laura Bien’s look back into the archives this time around is not really about trains. But there’s a public transit titbit that will likely stand out for readers who’ve been following The Chronicle’s coverage of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority’s effort over the last year to develop a transit master plan for Washtenaw County.

Thirteen-year-old Ida ran upstairs into the bedroom and opened the closet. Such beautiful things – skirts, dresses and blouses – which one to pick? She selected a long brown skirt of light, glossy brillantine and a brown wool shirt stitched in red silk. They would look lovely with Ida’s brown hair. The clothes were too large, but so much nicer than the drab blouse, faded blue skirt and worn, over-the-ankle black shoes she had on.

Coldwater School 1874

Coldwater Public School as it appeared at its opening in 1874, with the administration building in the foreground and children's cottages in the rear.

There wasn’t much time – she quickly changed.

“Ida!” called a woman from downstairs. “Suppertime!”

It was the eve of Halloween in 1905, but Ida wasn’t selecting a costume, or playing dress-up before Saturday dinner. She was planning an escape.

And although she lived with Mr. and Mrs. Curson* in Ypsilanti’s prosperous Normal Park, she wasn’t their daughter, or even a relative. Ida’s relatives had abandoned her.

That night, her place at the table remained empty.

Local newspapers in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor later pieced together the story. Ida walked downtown and took the 5:45 interurban to Ann Arbor. She went to Mack’s, a large department store on South Main Street, and bought a fancy collar and an elaborate hat. Then Ida traveled to Detroit and checked herself into a hotel near the downtown Campus Martius area. She used $10 [about $240 today] she’d taken from the Curson home.

The next day, Ida went shopping in Detroit. She bought a plain, unclothed doll, a fancy shawl for it, and a length of silk intended for doll clothes. For herself, she bought three hair combs, a pair of gloves, and some ribbons. Sunday night she checked back into the hotel.

On Monday evening, local papers later said, Ida started back to Ann Arbor where she’d seen a help-wanted sign. She got as far as Ypsi before tiring out at 10 p.m. Disembarking at Ypsi, she was recognized by interurban agents.

Ida was hard to overlook. Not only were her fancy clothes (sized for a grown woman) ill-fitting for a 13-year-old girl, she wore them strangely. Her blouse flopped loosely outside her skirt instead of being neatly tucked in according to the custom of the day. Her new collar looked incongruous and her elaborate hat was suitable for a 50-year-old society matron.

“[T]he manner of donning the dress was, if modish, decidedly new to Ypsilanti,” joked the October 31 Ypsilanti Daily Press, calling it “recherché.”

There was a reason, unexplored by the newspaper stories, why Ida wanted beautiful things – and why she had no idea of how to wear them. She was a Coldwater girl.

Located in Branch County’s town of Coldwater, Coldwater State Public School was Michigan’s institution for abandoned or resourceless children. Established in 1871 by a legislative act and opened in 1874, the school took in children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Some were children living in – and sometimes born in – county poorhouses. Some had mental deficiencies or behavior disorders that some families, given the scant resources of the day, found too difficult to handle, or else thought that the public school could better address to help their child. Officials had taken some children from families judged unfit. And some, like Ida, were those whose foster placement with relatives had failed – Ida’s aunt and uncle had sent her to the school.

When she arrived, the school consisted of 160 acres with an elegant Second Empire administration building, nine “cottages” for the children, a school, chapel and dining room, hospital, and working farm.

Coldwater wasn’t meant to be residential. It allowed children to be adopted out, or contracted out under a work indenture plan with both the school and the child receiving payment. The school’s agents, one for each Michigan county, logged much time on the train assessing the homes of those who’d requested a child, checking up on previously placed children, and transporting children from bad situations to Coldwater.

By the time Ida arrived at Coldwater around 1904, 5,790 children had been received at the school since its opening, according to Reverend Henry Collins’ 1906 history of Branch County. Of these children, 1,207 were indentured out, 687 were legally adopted, 589 were restored to their parents, 749 were returned to their home counties, 360 aged out, 186 married, 172 remained in Coldwater, and 1,613 became self-supporting. Roughly one in 25 – a total of 227 – had died, either at the school or at the host home.

Coldwater School 1904

Views of the school as Ida saw it, taken from a biennial school report of 1904.

“While the maintenance of children in orphan asylums costs other states from fifty to one hundred dollars per year for each child,” Collins wrote, “the large number who are successfully indentured into good homes by the ‘Michigan plan’ as it is generally known, has reduced the average expense to the state per child from year to year to less than twenty-eight dollars, and the ‘Michigan plan’ places children in that best of all places for their successful growth to the ideal manhood and womanhood, the homes of its people.”

Those who didn’t share Collins’ roseate view of “placing-out” included Coldwater’s superintendant from 1875 to 1883, Lyman Alden. In 1885 he read a paper at the National Conference of Charities and Corrections titled, “The Shady Side of the Placing-Out System.”

Lyman was an idealist, and judging from his writings, he both hoped for and worked to create the best possible conditions for Coldwater children. In one annual report to the state legislature, he indirectly criticized that body for failing to provide toys. “While no provision has yet been made by the Legislature for the purchase of playthings, such as croquet sets, carts, balls, etc., etc., still the children have managed to extract considerable fun out of pretty scanty material … a base ball club has been organized.”

Lyman was also a realist, with a clear-eyed view of the deficits of “placing out” and the integrity to be blunt about it. He began his conference paper, “It is well known by all who have had charge of the binding out of children that the great majority of those who apply for children over nine years old are looking for cheap help.” Lyman went on to quote no fewer than seven prominent child welfare officials who agreed.

“Now, all this does not prove, nor is it intended to prove, that many good homes cannot be found for children, if proper care is taken,” Lyman continued. “I know that thousands of such homes have been found, where the children are treated with affectionate consideration.”

Many families found a Coldwater child to love and raise to a successful adulthood, as they weathered the normal worries and trials of parenthood along the way.

Ida, captured and in Ypsilanti police custody, wasn’t as lucky.

The police consulted with the Cursons and with Coldwater’s Washtenaw County agent, Mr. Childs. A decision was made.

Ida returned to Coldwater. It’s doubtful she was allowed to keep her doll.

Ida would remain at Coldwater until she was at least 18, two years beyond the school’s original age limit of 16. At that time, she was one of 172 wards, 46 of whom, like Ida, could read and write.

In 1910, Ida was the oldest ward at Coldwater.

One hopes that the apparent absence of records for Ida after age 18 is explained by her “growth to ideal womanhood” of the day: She left the school, married, and changed her name. There’s at least a good chance that the resourceful gumption of the 13-year-old who successfully navigated around Detroit on her own for a few days helped Ida succeed in later years.

One also hopes that Ida enjoyed a happy adulthood, with enough money to now and then buy some beautiful thing of her own that no one would take away.

*Name changed due to living descendant.

Mystery Artifact

Last column, Imagine and cmadler correctly guessed the Mystery Artifact: a gaiter, or, protective covering for the lower leg and upper shoe.


Mystery Artifact

They’re still around. Imagine noted, “We still use gaiters today, but they look somewhat less form fitting, and are used to keep snow or scree out of your boots. Mine are for x-country skiing and keep the snow out. They’re made of gore-tex… instead of buttons, mine come with velcro fastenings.”

This time we’re faced with a weird circular object. Hint: It’s something that likely Ida never owned. What is this odd device?

Take your best guess and good luck!

Purely a plug: The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our columnists and other contributors. 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: As the Coffee Grinder Turns Thu, 03 Feb 2011 00:08:49 +0000 Laura Bien Editor’s note: In Laura Bien’s first local history column written for The Chronicle, she told the tale of a cigar maker’s son, who invented a combination device that would roast coffee and heat irons for pressing clothes. This week, she returns to the subject of coffee roasting … and grinding.


Cassius Hall invented increasingly sophisticated coffee roasters, culminating in this model in 1880.

At a recent antique show at the Washtenaw Farm Council Grounds, my husband and I bought a cute wood and copper coffee grinder. “Cool – I can do it like they did it in the 19th century!” I thought.

At home, I poured store-bought roasted beans into the grinder’s cup and turned the handle. Fifteen minutes later, I was still turning.

The following morning I tried to Huck-Finn the kitchen chore onto my husband. “Try it! It’s pretty fun!” I enthused, while sidling back to the still-toasty bed. Within a week, the grinder was occupying a space in my collection of copper kettles atop the fridge, and we’d returned to using the good old can of ground coffee from Meijer. We gave up on the related idea of attempting to home-roast the beans. Phew.

Yet between 1867 and 1882, 13 different home coffee-roasters were patented in Michigan, seven of them in Ypsilanti. One Ypsilanti manufactory shipped several different models nationwide, and employed a traveling salesman to sniff out new markets.

The popularity of coffee roasters around the 1870s could be attributed to the coffee providers’ greed, ingenuity, and deceit.

In Michigan’s early days of pioneer privation, raw coffee beans could be roasted in a cast iron pan or Dutch oven. Whether in the hearth or on the stove, the method didn’t work very well, resulting in uneven roasting and burnt beans.

It didn’t work too well for Michigan soldiers in the Civil War, either, who received rations of unripe beans. The men roasted their coffee beans in camp kettles. Some made small pans by removing the circumferential lead solder from a canteen.

“In Civil War re-enacting, coffee, prepared from raw beans, fire roasted and ground in a cloth bag smashed between a rifle butt and a rock, is the authentic method used when serious hard core preparation is called for,” notes local reenactor John Delcamp. “Although not a coffee drinker, I completely enjoyed my cup from the captain’s kettle one frosty morning. It was the only thing available to drink, and was I thankful to get it.”

Roasting and smashing the beans was laborious, but few men would willingly forsake their cup of coffee. Some were tasting the beverage for the first time.

After the war, those new coffee-drinkers and their fellow soldiers returned home. As trade across the reunified country normalized, the demand for coffee grew. Some local households purchased labor-saving pre-roasted, pre-ground coffee in paper sacks. There was only one problem with that – but it was a big one, and not a new one.

“Look Out For Ground Coffee,” warned the October 16, 1843 issue of Michigan Farmer and Western Agriculturalist magazine.

Our readers are probably some of them aware that coffee packed in papers, and ready for immediate use, is offered at many of the groceries and shops of the dealers in such articles. Occasionally a good article may be offered; but to show of what a large portion of this ready made coffee is made, we make the following extract from the London Shipping List. ‘It has been ascertained that sawdust from mahogany, to the amount of more than 800 tons, has been used in the adulteration of what is called ready prepared coffee’.

Sawdust was but one of the myriad substances used to adulterate coffee. Roasted peas, chicory, acorns, corn, and grains were blended in, sometimes in excess of 75 per cent of the mixture’s volume, minimizing the actual coffee content and maximizing profits. In Michigan, adulterated ground coffee became the norm, and pure coffee a rarity.

One University of Michigan pharmacy student, Ypsilantian Samuel Crombie, put eight samples of ground coffee he’d purchased from local shops under his microscope. He examined the cellular structures of the samples, sketched them, and compared them to the actual cellular structure of coffee. His findings were published in Ann Arbor-based Physician and Surgeon magazine.

Samuel examined Centennial Coffee, Gillie’s Gold Medal Java, and ground coffee bought in bulk. All, without exception, were adulterated. Gillie’s, he said, “contained but very little coffee and was composed of wheat in great quantities, much of it unground, [as well as] chicory, corn, and peas.”

He continued:

Inquiry was made and in every case investigation showed that there is but very little sale for coffee in any other form than in the unground berry, it being very generally recognized that coffee put upon the market in packages or in the ground form is almost certain to contain adulterations, and the fact that only eight of over thirty stores visited keep it on sale is evidence that there is very little demand for it.

Roasting beans at home was still an imperfect solution. Into this breach stepped Cassius Hall, the single most prolific coffee-roaster inventor in Michigan history.

Cassius Hall's inaugural coffee roaster was a Mystery Artifact of some weeks ago

Cassius Hall's inaugural coffee roaster was featured as a Mystery Artifact in December 2010.

Born in Michigan in 1847, Cassius invented his first coffee-roaster at age 28. It was a simple pot whose base fit into one of a cast-iron stovetop’s normally lidded holes. Inside the pot was a horizontal wire mesh cylinder whose axial rod was supported at each end in grooves in the pot’s rim, with a handle at one end of the rod. Coffee beans placed in the cylinder could be rotated in the hot air rising from the stove. ["In the Archives" featured this first coffee-roaster as a Mystery Artifact in December 2010.]

Cassius was granted a patent for his roaster in March of 1876. His employer, Parsons Brothers, began producing and shipping his roasters.

Cassius did not rest on his laurels. Over the next four years, he patented four increasingly sophisticated iterations of his roaster, culminating in his masterpiece. It featured an enclosed heating system, a sort of Archimedes screw to move the beans back and forth, and a tilting chamber that poured the roasted beans neatly out. His employer advertised the device as the “Peerless.”

One of Cassius’s inventions doubled as a peanut roaster, and other Michigan-created roasters did double or triple duty. Daniel Denison of Troy invented a coffee roaster that also popped corn. George Merrick of Adrian created one that roasted coffee, popped corn, and roasted peanuts. Mathias Stein of Ypsilanti outdid them all with an intricate and fussy contraption that claimed to simultaneously roast coffee and heat sad-irons.

Mathias kept his day job of cigar-maker.

As coffee roasters became more commonplace in 1870s homes, the market for ground coffee, as Crombie had noted in 1882, dwindled away.

Coffee merchants, however, devised a new gambit to boost sales, borrowing a trick from across the pond, where the practice had a history so pervasive that laws were passed against it.

In 1891, an enterprising Philadelphia manufacturer began mailing samples of his product to grocers.

Dear Sir:

Herewith we present for your inspection a sample of coffee compound.

It contains nothing but the best of pure and healthful ingredients, and is made only in the bean shape.

By blending with the natural coffee bean you can improve it, and bring it within the reach of those unable to purchase at the present high price of coffee.

… In ordering, send sample of roast, so that we can match your goods …

Yours, etc.,


The Dowling beans were made of glucose, water, and rye flour mixed into a paste and pressed into a mold, then dried and roasted. Some counterfeiters made fake beans in machines that resembled contemporaneous candy machines.

Another bogus bean maker wrote:

Dear Sir:

I send you by this mail a sample of “imitation coffee.”

This is a manufactured bean, and composed of flour; you can easily mix 15 per cent of this substitute in with genuine coffee that ranges in price from 20 to 22 cents, and it will improve the flavor of the same; it granulates the same as coffee. If you deal with us it will be in the most strict confidence.

…  By the use of our bean you can increase your profits to 11 cents per pound and improve the flavor …


L. H. Hall

[p.s.] I would not show samples even to employees.

“Years ago,” said a New York Tribune article reprinted in the December 4, 1886 Scientific American, “all the coffee was ground in the grocery, but adulteration was carried on so extensively that the practice was established of buying the whole bean. This led some inventive Yankee humanitarian, who believed that too much coffee is bad for the nerves, to bring out the flour bean.”

The article said:

The grocer is not a foolish man. He does not sell these flour beans for coffee. This would give the business away. But when trade is dull, and the grocer must have something to occupy his mind, it is a pleasant recreation for him to mix a quantity of the flour beans with the genuine coffee. Then it cannot be easily detected. Only just enough of the flavorless bean is used to make a little profit. This is not quite one-half. When the honest housewife who buys whole coffee so as to get it pure grinds up this mixture, and the odor steals out from the mill, her eyes snap, and she laughs at the people who are foolish enough to buy the coffee which is ground at the store, and can be easily adulterated.

Finally, Michiganders had had enough. In 1895 the state passed an act “to prohibit and prevent adulteration, fraud, and deception in the manufacture and sale of articles of food and drink. The act mandated that items marketed as butter, cheese, lard, liquor, fruit jelly and butter, canned fruits and vegetables, or coffee beans be pure, and clearly labeled.

Michigan’s pure foods act predated by 11 years the Sinclair Lewis-inspired federal Pure Foods act of 1906. Adulterated foods continued to appear for a while in Michigan after the 1895 legislation. But the era of labor-intensive coffee made from bogus beans soon after faded away.

Mystery Artifact

Another item that has faded away is this small, 5-inch-square tin truncated pyramid.

Mystery Artifact

On opposite sides, spring-loaded M-shaped clamps are found. The Ypsilanti Historical Museum item is light and hollow. What might it be? Take your best guess and good luck!

Congrats to last column’s guessers George Lessard, cmadler, abc, and Jim Rees who correctly guessed that the item in question was a theodolite.

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In the Archives: A Path Less Traveled By Sat, 18 Dec 2010 17:53:58 +0000 Laura Bien Editor’s note: We live in a time where women, and men, can easily and safely navigate any woods filled with dangerous wild animals, say in a helicopter, armed with a hunting rifle. Think Sarah Palin. In simpler times, people walked through the woods. And they just hoped not to stray from the path, to find themselves in the company of a literal or figurative grizzly bear, or – as Laura Bien describes in this installment of her local history column – wolves.

Mary McDougall's grandchildren often begged her to retell her story of her walk among the wolves.

In the early 1800s, thick forest covered much of the land south of Ypsilanti.

The virgin forest nourished huge flocks of passenger pigeons on migratory routes passing north. Often they passed low enough to be knocked from the air with sticks. After one such harvest, according to one Ypsilanti city history, “at dinner that day, there was a tremendous pigeon pot pie, sufficient to satisfy everybody, although there were twenty at the table.”

But the forest also held danger. One large swamp in Augusta Township was named Big Bear Swamp, and wolves and panthers roamed in our county.

Into this wilderness in 1828 came Andrew Muir with his family. They had fled an economic recession and spiking farm rents in Scotland and immigrated with other relatives to America. Members of the McDougall family also made the trip.

After the weeks-long Atlantic crossing, 26-year-old Mary Muir and 29-year-old George McDougall married in Rochester, New York on Halloween in 1828.

The families traveled by boat and overland to Michigan. Andrew Muir bought a small farm near the intersection of modern-day Stony Creek and Bemis roads, about 6 miles south of Ypsilanti. He invited his daughter Mary and son-in-law George to share the property. However George, who had worked as a miller back home in Ayrshire, chose to settle just south of the small Ypsi settlement and work at its flour mill there.

Mary often walked down to her father’s farm late in the week to see her parents and stay overnight. On Sundays, George would travel down to visit and he and Mary would return to their home.

One winter day, Mary prepared to visit her parents. She set the table for her husband and made sure his dinner was ready for his return from the flour mill. Mary adjusted her pretty new calfskin shoes, tied her plaid wool scarf over her dress, and left the house.

She set off on the faint Indian trail that wound through the six miles of forest to her parents’ farm.

The days were getting shorter and it was shady under the trees, but Mary knew she could reach her parents’ home before nightfall. Snow covered the forest floor, blanketing fallen logs and the crunchy layer of leaves.

In the distance, Mary saw it: an enormous fallen tree blocking the path. There was no climbing over it – she had to go off the path to find a way around.

The fallen tree trunk extended far into the surrounding trees. Mary picked her way to its end, working her way around. The afternoon light was fading.

On the other side, Mary searched for the path. That must be it – she set off again.

Mary walked on. This was odd – it was twilight and she should have been at her father’s farm. And the path looked strange. It dawned on her that at the fallen tree, she’d stumbled on a different path – one that was leading her into the wilderness.

Night was coming on. Mary guessed she must be close to her father’s farm and decided to leave the path. She picked her way through the forest. Under the dark treetops the snow glowed a soft white.

Some time later, Mary knew she was lost. She decided to return north to Ypsilanti and safety. Mary looked up through the bare branches and found the Pole star.

Mary pushed away branches and stepped over logs. The temperature was dropping. She glanced up at the star. Mary tripped and fell, scraping her shoe.

She ran a finger over the side of her shoe. She felt a rip where the stitching had split.

Mary was exhausted. She decided she would see better next morning. There was no help for it but to try and rest. She found a nook between a log and a tree trunk and sat down. She unfolded her shawl and draped it over herself, curling up on the frozen ground. Tiredness overtook her.

Mary’s eyes flew open and she sat up. Then she heard it again – a distant wolf howl. Silence. There it was again – and another. A third.

Should she run? She might fall again in the dark. Better to stay. Perhaps they didn’t know she was here. Was it near morning? Mary took out her husband’s watch and tried to read it. She hadn’t taken the key to wind it – it had stopped at one o’clock.

Hours later she saw a faint dawn light. She got up stiffly and began walking. The sun passed overhead. The rip in her shoe had widened, and the front sole slapped as she walked. The insole on the other shoe was fraying, letting in snow. It was late afternoon.

Mary heard a dog bark.

She altered her course toward the sound. Suddenly she came upon two cows in a clearing. Mary nearly collapsed with relief. She couldn’t see their farmhouse and couldn’t go any further. But the cows would return home for milking-time.

Mary propped herself against a tree, facing the cows. She dozed.

When she awoke, they were gone.

Mary jumped up and looked around. She heard a twig crunch and ran a few steps. She saw the flick of a tail among the twilight trees. Mary ran after it.

At the farmhouse three miles south of Saline and fifteen crow-miles from Ypsi, the farmers welcomed Mary. They fed her, tended her feet, and put her to bed. They told her that if she’d walked in a slightly different direction, she’d have been nowhere near a settled piece of land.

The next day, they drove her in their wagon back to Ypsilanti.

Sources: (1) Harvey Colburn, The Story of Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Historical Society (reprint), 1923, p. 50;  (2) Beakes’ “Past and Present of Washtenaw County;” (3) Chapman’s “History of Washtenaw County;” and (4) “An Incident of Pioneer Life,” Mary McDougall, published in the 1894 “Aurora” Eastern Michigan University yearbook.

Mystery Artifact

Last column’s Mystery Artifact featured a pot-like object with a rotating inner cylinder. Irene Hiebler correctly guessed that this is a coffee bean roaster. It was made in Ypsilanti in the 1870s or thereabouts by the Parsons Brothers. “Parsons Bros. is one of the most enterprising firms in the city,” reads an article in the September 21, 1878 Ypsilanti Commercial.

Mystery Artifact

“They always have some new patent which they are about to try, and … the next new article of manufacture is to be a noiseless wind-mill … [they are also making] a cheap and easy spring bed … In 1873 Parsons Brothers sold $10,000 worth of washing machines … the greatest novelty, however, is the ‘O.K.’ coffee roaster.”

Today’s Mystery Artifact is something that Mary McDougall never owned. It’s likely Andrew Muir and George McDougall didn’t, either, though they may have liked to. What might it be? Take a guess and good luck!

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

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In The Archives: Accidental Photographer Thu, 23 Sep 2010 20:39:56 +0000 Laura Bien The sitting woman smoothed a tiny wrinkle in her lap. She glanced up at the large skylight partially screened with gauzy curtains. It was a May day in 1872. Large fluffy clouds sailed silently behind the glass. The photographer was taking a while adjusting something on the camera. Finally it was ready. “Look at me, please,” said the photographer. Click.

A portrait of Mary from circa 1880, photographer unknown.

“That was very good, thank you,” said Mary Parsons, Ypsilanti’s only 19th-century female studio photographer.

Born in Vermont in January of 1838, Mary Elizabeth married John Harrison Parsons when she was 21 and he 25. The couple followed other western-bound migrants, and during the Civil War both taught in Ohio. By war’s end the couple had two sons, Dayton W. and Frank John.

The conflict had decimated the student-aged population of young men. In 1865, John and Mary came north to Ypsilanti. John bought the equipment of retiring photographer J. A. Crane and created his own studio. It occupied part of the top floor of Ypsilanti’s post office building, then on the west side of North Huron next to Pearl Street. It was a good location near the bustling downtown on Michigan Avenue. Mary helped run the business and kept house in the family’s apartment, next to the studio.

Five years into the work, the couple were supporting a family of six that included nine-year-old Dayton, five-year-old Frank, 3-year-old Viola, and the baby, Ina. Mary was pregnant with another child.

After New Year’s Day of 1871, she gave birth to a son, naming him John, Junior.

The baby’s namesake was deathly ill. He was diagnosed with consumption, or tuberculosis, Washtenaw County’s leading cause of death in the late 19th century. The disease accounted for 15% of all county deaths.

After a struggle, John died on February 24. On May 13, Mary’s new baby John also died of consumption. Mary did not have relatives in the area. She had to forge ahead or see her remaining children suffer. She became a professional photographer.

“For the benefit of any sister seeking a place among the limited situations for our sex, I would say that women can succeed in any department of the photograph business,” Mary wrote in a letter to Martha Louise Rayne, who published it in her 1884 book “What Can a Woman Do: Or, Her Position in the Business and Literary World.”

Mary continued: “… I should not have chosen it as a life-work had not circumstances pressed me into service. My husband and myself were both teachers when we were married. He was a teacher of a commercial school when the war broke out and took so many of the class of young men that were beginning a business education that he dropped his professorship and took up photography. I learned printing of him, and afterwards, as his health failed, I assisted in different departments, and when he finally died, leaving me with a family of five little ones, I took his advice, and have carried on the work successfully enough to support my family ever since.”

Mary concluded: “I hope you will make it a successful medium in giving encouragement to our sex, compelled by adverse circumstances to support themselves, for all cannot be teachers, clerks, or seamstresses.”

The 1873 Scripps, Clark, and Polk’s Michigan State Gazetteer and Business Directory lists 195 Ypsilanti business concerns and businesspeople. Only 10 businesswomen are listed. Mrs. Baker and Mrs. Case were milliners [hat makers] on Cross Street, Mrs. Curtis and Mrs. Shrieves were milliners on Huron, Mrs. Earing was a milliner in the Hewitt block, and Mrs. Martin was a milliner on Michigan Avenue. Miss Coe was a milliner on Huron and Miss Rogers was a milliner on Michigan Avenue. Miss Cramer was an agent of the Howe sewing machine on Michigan Avenue. Miss Casey was a manufacturer of “rats,” the colloquial term for women’s hairpieces.

The information is at least two years out of date: John Parsons is included in the listing as a photographer, when by that time Mary was operating the shop. She did it well, and ran an ad in the June 13, 1874 Ypsilanti Commercial:

“PHOTOGRAPH GALLERY. Mrs. Parsons has been making improvements in the sky-light of her gallery, giving much quicker time in the taking of negatives and a nice effect for ‘shadow pictures.’ She is trying to keep up with the times in all that will help to improve the art. Those wishing a good picture give her a call.”

The reverse of one of Mary's 1870s-era cartes-de-visites shows her studio logo.

Mary produced cartes-de-visites and cabinet cards. Cartes-de-visites were portraits about the size of an elongated baseball card and were a very popular keepsake to trade with friends and relatives. One of the cartes-de-visites Mary made bears her colophon on the reverse, in the elaborate style of the day. Cabinet cards were photographs whose larger size of 4 1/4 by 6 1/2 inches soon made them more popular than the older cartes-de-visites. Both techniques used albumen prints mounted on stiff board.

By the time Charles Chapman published his History of Washtenaw County in 1881, Mary merited a mention. “Since the death of her husband, Mrs. Parsons has carried on the photograph business. The work in the operating-room is done by an assistant, but the finishing and printing she does herself. Her business has increased and been generally successful.”

A dozen years into her work, Mary received a marriage proposal from Erastus Samson, a fellow native Vermonter and the owner of Ypsilanti’s first drugstore, where he also sold whiskey, gin, and some dry goods. Erastus had lost his wife Georgianne in 1882. On March 30, 1883, Mary and Erastus married. She was 45 and he was 61. Mary moved into the Samson home at 302 Cross Street.

Mary sold her studio and all the equipment she and her husband had accumulated over the years since the business’ beginning almost 20 years ago. Her career as a photographer was over. She settled in to a comfortable life.

Erastus and Mary remained married for 22 years until his death at age 83 in 1905. Mary lived to age 80 and died in 1918. Her photographic legacy is housed in various family albums in the Ypsilanti Archives.

Mystery Artifact

This biweekly column features a Mystery Artifact contest. You are invited to take a look at the artifact and try to deduce its function.

JR Roberts correctly guessed last column’s item. He or she wrote, “a tacking iron for dry mount photo tissue (essentially paper impregnated with hot-melt glue). You’d use this to heat, and thereby hold, the tissue in place on the back of your photo; trim them both at the same time; position the photo on matte board; tack the tissue onto the board; then put the assembly in a dry mount press, which would heat the glue in the tissue, and flatten the photo at the same time.” Roberts added, “This was also handy for hot waxing cross country skis.”

Vivienne Armentrout noted, “Yup, I gave away a dry mount iron like that a few years ago too.”

This time we don’t have it so easy, I daresay. This is a new acquisition by the Ypsilanti Historical Museum. It’s a 3-inch-cube container with a removable lid. It is an item so weird, so impractical, and despite its tiny size so dangerous that you don’t wonder why they stopped making them. Dream up the craziest application you could think of for this doodad and you’ll likely hit it on the nose. Take a chance and good luck!

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

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In The Archives: Bonnet-Starching Tips Fri, 27 Aug 2010 14:07:36 +0000 Laura Bien Editor’s note: Laura Bien writes a bi-weekly history column for The Chronicle. This week she describes her experience reenacting the role of an anonymous turn-of-the-century scrubwoman at Ypsilanti’s Heritage Festival, which took place Aug. 20-22.

My rained-on bonnet flopped over my face like a dish towel. I could see only a sliver of sidewalk. What had been a neatly starched head-shield this morning had been ruined by the Saturday rain.

Ypsilanti Heritage Festival Laura Bien

The author made a rag rug in between visitors to Grandma's Trunk.

My long skirt hem was wet, too, and catching on my ankles as I stomped back to the historical museum on Ypsilanti’s Huron Street where our props had been staged overnight. My sleeves were soaked and I was on the verge of tears.

I looked ridiculous. Why, why, had I been so driven to be a historical reenactor at the Ypsilanti Hertitage Festival? Did I even know what I was doing?

Back in the park, the antique trunk I’d borrowed the week before sat under a historically inaccurate blue tarp, waiting for the drizzle to end. I returned from the museum to our staging spot with a basket containing a thermos of water and some bread and cheese concealed under a pillowcase.

My husband had scooped out a rectangle of sod, stored the sod-plank by a nearby tree, and was preparing his firemaking-with-flint-and-steel-and-char-cloth demo. Grey clouds covered the sky.

Both of us had scrabbled our costumes together at the last minute. In Value World the week before, I’d selected a sundress with an old-timey black and white check pattern. I cut off the bodice and hand-hemmed it into a skirt. I combined this with a man’s shirt, with the pointed collar carefully cut off. I trimmed off a few inches worth of material from the shirttail and hand-sewed a floppy pleated collar.

My husband’s costume consisted of a pair of faded Value World dungarees paired with an oversized muslin shirt belted with braided rawhide strips. For his headwear, I cut the hemmed border from my summer straw garden hat, roughened the edges Huck Finn-wise, tied more rawhide around the crown, and stuck in a goose feather for good measure. He topped off his costume with worn Value World brogans, bought for a dollar or two.

Fire-starting at the Ypsilanti Heritage Festival

Fire-starting at the Ypsilanti Heritage Festival.

I borrowed a bonnet and an apron from the Ypsilanti Historical Museum, where I volunteer. When the apron proved to be too small, I hand-sewed my own from an old green T-shirt. Aprons from my approximate time period did not have a neck-strap, but were pinned to one’s bodice, likely to aid nursing mothers. I carefully pinned the apron bodice over my chest with straight pins.

My character was of an anonymous scrubwoman. When someone during the festival quizzed me as to which era I was reenacting, I improvised: “About the turn of the century.” The truth is I hadn’t aimed for any one era. I knew only that I was presenting something other than fancy starched crinolines, mounds of snowy petticoats, or dainty pleated collars.

I was enacting the lowly scrubwoman who likely starched those crinolines, scrubbed the petticoats, and pleated the collars. My “washing machine” near the antique trunk consisted of a galvanized wash tub purchased a few days earlier at Lowe’s for $14.98, an antique scrub board I bought off of a fellow museum volunteer who snagged it off of eBay, and a wooden drying rack supporting a few clean rags.

My scrubwoman persona arose from my irascible irritation with the sanitized portayal of Ypsilanti history as presented in such canonical works as Harvey Colburn’s “Story of Ypsilanti.”

Written in 1923, the book sketches, decade by decade, a slow yet sure rise of “progress” from the city’s beginnings in the 1820s until the 1920s. “Story” by and large portrays well-off Ypsilantians and their favored organizations – the Rotarians, the Masons, and the Ladies’ Home Association, a pre-welfare Christian charity group comprising the city’s society ladies ministering to the poor.

But anti-myth leanings or no, what authority did I have to portray a common scrubwoman? I was an inexperienced reenactor whose tenuous claim to historical cred lay in a former stint leading a laborious session of candle-dipping over a wood-fired stove at Cobblestone Farm, motivated by a then-crush on a Cobblestone employee (ah, the places our heart will lead us …). Nevertheless, here I was in a homemade costume, wet as a drowned dog, guarding an antique trunk under a tarp 50 feet from Mike the Beermaker.

Mike turned out to be a nice guy. He loaned us some tent spikes and ropes to convert one of my blue tarps into a functional lean-to that protected the trunk from drizzle. I felt abashed to be the unprepared newbie next to his professional beer-cauldron presentation, complete with authentic white canvas tent. Mike talked about how he made beer, and how he used to give tastes to former historical presenters. “I don’t give it to just anyone,” he said. My heart sank, sure that we, inept first-timers, would not qualify as beer-worthy.

The rain let up by 4 p.m. I had abandoned my bonnet and hung it on my chair. I tied a red bandanna on my head and engaged the kids who stopped by with their families. Traffic was light, and for much of the afternoon I sat on my chair, working on a rag rug and watching the passing human parade on the path 100 yards from my lean-to. Passers-by shuffled along the path. The sun fell across the western side of the park.

At home that night, I Googled ways of starching a bonnet without starch. One website advised soaking the garment in a half-and-half solution of white glue and water. I did so and draped my bonnet over my bike helmet, then aimed the floor fan directly upon it. In a couple of hours, I had a perfectly starched bonnet.

The next day dawned clear and promised to be sunny. We retrieved our goods from their museum storage and loaded the trunk on a dolly. We pushed the dolly over the asphalt park paths and set up our area once more.

Kids scrubbin on the scrubboard

Kids scrubbed on the scrub board.

Folks stopped by. “And behind me, my husband is demonstrating how to start a fire with a flint and steel,” I told visitors, who invariably went back to my husband’s area. Kids scrubbed wash rags on my scrub board and wondered at the “mystery artifacts” in my beautiful antique trunk.

The best part unfolded when kids were looking at trunk items while new folks came up. I told the kids, “You were so good at guessing and you learned so much – would you like to tell these new people what these items are?” Invariably the children would hold up an item and ask the new folks, “Do you know what dis iz?” Smiling, and seemingly as charmed as I was, the new visitors would guess.

The church bells from River Street chimed at 6 p.m. on Sunday. That was the official ending time for the festival. My husband and I watched the six bouncy castles slowly deflate, highlighted by the giant inflato-shark sagging into a garish puddle.

Mike invited us into his tent for a moment of refreshment.

The church chimes continued over the emptying festival. Traffic was thinning and cars began inching down into the park to load up displays to haul out. We took a last look around, folded our tarps, and loaded up our dolly and wash tub.

Two days later we visited the park after dinner at a Depot Town café. We walked around the park’s asphalt path.

Riverside Park was empty. We found the rectangle of sod that refilled the spot where my husband had demonstrated fire. It was lush and green, regrowing.

Our time in the park was past; Ypsilanti history had moved on.

Mystery Artifact

Mystery Artifact

This biweekly column features a Mystery Artifact contest. You are invited to take a look at the artifact and try to deduce its function.

Last column’s Mystery Artifact elicited some good guesses that tagged the item for what it was; a commemorative chest-label for members of the onetime Ypsilanti German worker’s club, similar to the onetime Ann Arbor Arbeiter organization.

This week’s artifact is the item that proved to be the single most challenging mystery artifact from Grandma’s Trunk at the Ypsilanti Heritage Festival. Only two people during the entire span of the festival correctly guessed it. Ironically, it is an item that my husband and I use almost every morning. Can you guess its function? Good luck!

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

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In the Archives: The Girl Who Burned Thu, 27 May 2010 14:24:15 +0000 Laura Bien Editor’s note: At its May 20, 2010 meeting, the University of Michigan board of regents approved a $17.7 million expansion of the University Hospital’s emergency department, aimed at reducing overcrowding and patient wait times. In 2009, the hospital’s ER had over 77,000 patient visits. A potential visitor to a UM ER back in the early 1900s would have been Bertha Thorn, the subject of this installment of Laura Bien’s local history column.

The house at 160 North Washington stood dark on the night of December 7, 1908.

The 19-year-old servant girl woke up in her attic room around midnight. She sighed, realizing that she would have to get out of bed and get the chamber pot. It would be cold from the chilly room. Bertha wore a union suit under her nightgown.

girl that burned

Bertha's room was likely in the attic.

She got up and sleepily felt for the kerosene lamp on her bedside table. She lifted the glass chimney and lit the lamp.

The chimney slipped. Bertha grabbed for it. Her nightgown sleeve caught fire.

Bertha jerked back. Her sleeve snagged the lamp. It tumbled and broke on the floor, sending splattered fuel and a column of fire up Bertha’s back. As flames roared up her nightgown, Bertha screamed and ran for the stairs.

“The girl ran shrieking, a pillar of fire, to the hall below,” reported the Dec. 8, 1908 Ypsilanti Daily Press, “where Miss Scovill aroused by her screams overtook her and succeeded with rare presence of mind in wrapping her in a couch throw and extinguished the flames. A physician was summoned and it was found that she was burned from her neck to her feet, the flesh being literally baked on her back, arms, and limbs, although not so severely burned across her chest. The fact that she wore a union suit of heavy underwear made the case more serious as it was almost impossible to remove the garments.”

The paper continued, “The unfortunate girl suffered intensely through the night and this morning on the advice of the attending physician she was removed to the Homeopathic Hospital in Ann Arbor where it is said her chances for life are very slight because of the extent of the surface burned over and the depth of the burns.”

Bertha Thorn was a farmer’s daughter. Born July 28, 1889, she grew up with eight siblings on her parents John and Anna’s farm near Willis in Augusta Township. Bertha attended the nearby one-room schoolhouse. Her education stopped there.

In the fall of 1904, she was 15 years old, of an age to enter high school. She never went – nor did 90% of the children of her generation. In 1901, only 10% of children nationwide attended high school. By 1910, that figure had risen to only 14%, with only 3% obtaining college degrees. A quarter of the population received fewer than 5 years of schooling.

Had she gone, Bertha likely would have attended the nearest high school, in Ypsilanti, and boarded there. She would have graduated with the class of ’07. None of the Ypsilanti High School yearbooks from 1904 to 1907 include her name in the freshman through senior classes.

In the summer of 1908, Bertha found a job in one of the few professions then open to women. She worked as a servant in the home of Henry Scovill, who owned a large lumberyard on Frog Island that, flooded out, later moved nearby to Huron and Jarvis.

It was a humble position but a respectable one. Only a few months into the job came the fire and the agonizing trip to Ann Arbor for help.

Skin grafts in 1908 were done using three methods. Zoografting used skin from a “frog, chicken, pig, dog, cat, rabbit, or guinea-pig,” wrote Stuart McGuire in his 1908 book “Lectures on Principles of Surgery.” McGuire was surgery professor at Richmond’s University College of Medicine (now Virginia Commonwealth University) and later its dean and chair of surgery.

The autograft method used a small section of skin taken from another area on the patient’s body. For the immense burn covering Bertha’s back, this would be impossible.

The last method was heterografting, which used skin from fresh cadavers. “They usually grow well and should be employed when they can be secured from a satisfactory source,” said McGuire in “Lectures.” “They entail the danger of infecting the patient with syphilis, and other diseases which must be carefully guarded against.”

McGuire then reflected on a question that many other surgeons wondered about in his era, a question that reveals the frightening lack of knowledge of surgeons then performing skin grafts. Using language of his day, he wrote, “The question of the necessity of the graft being of the same color as the skin of the patient on which they are planted is still unsettled. It is claimed that a negro’s skin grafted on a white person will lose its pigment and that a white skin grafted on a negro will become pigmented.”

It seemed almost a cruel joke to predict that Bertha would survive. On April Fool’s Day, 1909, she was released from the hospital to rest at home.

Bertha rode a wagon over washboard dirt roads back to Willis. “She stood the journey very well,” said the April 1, 1909 Ypsilanti Daily Press.

The paper continued, “Since she has been in the hospital she has submitted to several skin grafting operations, one being on her right arm. During her illness she has suffered intensely and has been obliged to lie on her face all the time because of the injuries to her back.”

On April 11, 1911, Bertha married John Wagner. She had her first child, James, eight months (minus one day) later.

The Wagners moved to Milford where John worked as a farm laborer. Bertha had a son, George, in 1915 and a daughter Angeline in 1919. A year later son Fred was born, with Russell following in 1924, when Bertha was 35. She had one more son, Frank, who did not survive.

The family moved back to Ypsilanti, where John worked for years at the Central Specialty Company, which produced metal parts and plumbing fixtures. The couple bought a house on Holmes Road just northeast of the city.

Patched together long ago with cadaver skin in an era of often questionable medicine, Bertha outlived her husband. Nearly a half-century after Ann Arbor doctors had saved her life, Bertha died on August 9, 1955, at 66 years old.

She is buried in Union-Udell cemetery.

mystery object

Mystery Object

This biweekly column features a Mystery Artifact contest. You are invited to take a look at the artifact and try to deduce its function.

In the last column cmadler and ABC correctly guessed that the Mystery Artifact was an automated milk delivery note. Instead of leaving a note in a milk bottle on the porch for the milkman to see, the device, stuck in the neck of a milk bottle, allowed you to display selected tabs indicating extra dairy items you wanted this week.

Lots of folks chimed in with quite charming memories of milk chutes in old-time Ann Arbor.

This week’s Mystery Artifact pays tribute to those long-time residents with an artifact that veteran Ann Arborites will likely recognize (though it’s the Ypsi version). Take your best guess and good luck!

Laura Bien is the author of “Tales of the Ypsilanti Archives.” Contact her at

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In the Archives: Ypsi’s Submarine Diver Thu, 13 May 2010 13:43:06 +0000 Laura Bien Editor’s Note: On April 20, 2010, an explosion on an oil rig 50 miles off the Louisiana coast left 11 workers missing and presumed dead. Efforts are now focused on the underwater challenge of trying to cap off the oil well on the sea bed. Local history columnist Laura Bien takes a look back 150 years into the past to recall a Lake Erie underwater challenge resulting from a different tragedy.

In the summer of 1852, $36,000 in cash and gold bars lay in a locked safe 165 feet deep on the floor of Lake Erie.


Many of the overloaded ship's immigrant passengers slept on the deck, as there was no room below.

Worth $920,000 today, the riches lay within the wreck of the steamship Atlantic. So did more grisly testimony of the shipwreck’s victims, estimated as ranging from 130 to over 250. The deaths represented about a third of the 576 travelers packed onto a steamship meant to accommodate far fewer.

The era’s stream of immigrants pouring west made a profitable trade for passenger steamers traveling the Great Lakes. The Atlantic was the fastest one of all, speeding to Detroit from Buffalo in just 16-and-a-half hours. A towering steam engine churned huge paddlewheels on either side of the vessel. Despite her power and 267-foot-long brawn, the Atlantic succumbed when she was struck on the night of Aug. 20, 1852, by the Ogdensburg, a ship from a rival ferry line.

In the chaos and panic that ensued as the Atlantic began sinking, several of the lifeboats swamped when they hit the water. Some passengers grabbed cushions or anything buoyant and jumped in the water. The Ogdensburg circled back and picked up about 250 survivors from the water.

Immigrants among the rescued traveled on into the new world with no possessions, and some, according to survivor Amund Eidsmoe, one of the 132 Norwegians on board, went in a half-naked state to Milwaukee. In that city, a collection was taken up for their benefit. Eisdsmoe received $30 and a suit of clothes.

Another of the surviving Atlantic passengers wrote a letter home to Norway that included a newspaper account presenting the incident as sabotage by the Atlantic’s captain. The heads of the two steamship companies went to court in a case that ultimately was decided by the Supreme Court, which ruled that both vessels had been at fault.

The gold remained at the bottom of Lake Erie. Several divers tried, and failed, to get it. The treasure lay deeper than it was thought anyone could dive.

Elliott Harrington tried in 1856.

Born in Westfield, N.Y., just a few miles from Lake Erie, Harrington had previous experience in Michigan – attempting to recover the body of a farmer from an inland lake. In 1855, Scio Township sheep farmer William Briggs drowned while washing his sheep in a small lake near his property.

submarine schematic

In 1844, Lodner Philips built this 10-foot-long wooden submarine, and nearly drowned in it.

“All efforts to recover the body being fruitless,” reported an early June edition of the Ypsilanti Sentinel, “Messrs. Harrington and Philips were sent for to search with their submarine armor.”

Harrington’s partner, Lodner Philips, was a Michigan City, Ind. shoemaker who invented and built submarines – one 85 feet long – in his spare time.

The paper continued, “[T]hey made numerous descents, at various depths, discovering most singular irregularities of bottom, and curious formations. In some places the plummet will strike bottom in a short distance. A few feet off, down it goes to an almost unfathomable depth. Sometimes upon arriving at what seemed to be the bottom, the diver’s feet rest upon nothing, and down he goes into impenetrable darkness and a soft mass of mingled water and sediment, until prudence warns him against further progress.”

Harrington’s efforts were not successful – the body was never found. Still, a gravestone for William Briggs stands in Ann Arbor’s Forest Hill Cemetery.

A one-time lake adjoining Briggs’ former property in section 34 of Scio Township is no more, except for several tiny ponds. Houses and a subdivision occupy the site, at the southeast corner of West Liberty and Zeeb roads.

A year after the Briggs search, Harrington dove for the Lake Erie treasure from the Atlantic.

Philips had already tried, and failed, with another submarine of his that he called the Marine Cigar. It was nicknamed the “Fool Killer.” On an unmanned test dive to the shipwreck, the sub was lost. It rests today with the Atlantic in Lake Erie.

The sub was one of the sights Harrington saw on his own attempt. Others were described in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper of July 12, 1856.

“A submarine diver from Buffalo has at last succeeded in raising the safe of the American Express Company, which was lost when the steamer Atlantic was sunk off Long Point, in 1852  … The diver was protected by copper armor, and was under water forty minutes, during which time he had some strange adventures.”

The paper continued, “When the diver alighted upon the deck, he was saluted by a beautiful lady, whose clothing was well arranged, and her hair elegantly dressed. As he approached her, the motion of the water caused an oscillation of the head, as if gracefully bowing to him. She was standing erect, with one hand grasping the rigging.

“Around lay the bodies of several others as if sleeping. Children holding their friends by their hands, and mothers with their babies in their arms were there.”

Harrington found the safe in the ship’s office, maneuvered it to the deck, and attached chains. He and the safe rose to the surface.

The safe contained five thousand dollars in gold and $31,000 in cash. Harrington ultimately lost all but a fraction of the money in court.

Perhaps out of pique, Harrington then moved to Iowa with his wife Emaline and his children William, Forest, and Allie. The 1860 census lists him as a carriage maker in St. Charles Township in Floyd County, Iowa.

He served with the Union Navy during the Civil War. Harrington allegedly had a Confederate price on his head ranging, various sources say, from $5,000 to $8,000 because he discovered the gap in the Union naval blockade around Charleston where Confederate blockade runners were slipping through.

He survived the war and moved back to the Great Lakes area, settling in Ypsilanti. He resumed his profession of submarine diving. The family lived in one of the nicer homes on Prospect Street near Prospect Park. Later it appears that he moved to Detroit and that Emaline died there.

Harrington’s father had died in 1872, and his mother in 1878. They are buried in the Volusia cemetery near Westfield in New York. After a lifetime of excitement and adventure (except maybe for Iowa), Harrington ultimately returned home. He died there on his birthday – April 19, 1879.

mystery artifact

Mystery artifact.

This biweekly column features a Mystery Artifact contest. You are invited to take a look at the artifact and try to deduce its function.

Last week Lisa Bashert correctly guessed that the M.A. in question was a child’s bicycle seat. The lack of context made the item somewhat tough to figure out.

To compensate for that, this week’s Mystery Artifact is a bit easier. Made of paper, this 6-inch-long item has a movable fan of tags on top. How was it used? Take your best guess and good luck!

Laura Bien is the author of “Tales of the Ypsilanti Archives,” available on Amazon and at local stores. Contact her at

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In the Archives: The Toad Survey of 1910 Mon, 15 Mar 2010 00:25:26 +0000 Laura Bien Editor’s note: Leslie Science and Nature Center is soon launching its frog and toad survey after holding a kick-off orientation meeting on Feb. 24. Other Leslie frog-related events include Frog Fest on May 15, 2010. Partly in that context, local history columnist Laura Bien takes a froggy look back.

Michigan’s inaugural 1996 Frog and Toad Survey started strong. “I have talked with coordinators in other states,” wrote state frog and toad survey coordinator Lori Sargent in the survey report, “and most are finding it difficult to find enough people to volunteer. Perhaps that says a lot about Michiganians – we care about our natural resources.”

Frog Island Ypsilanti

Ypsilanti's Frog Island, seen here looking north along the present-day eastern side of the running track, was the site in 1895 of Henry Scovill's lumber yard.

So much so that Ypsilantians have been surveying frogs and toads for over a century … off and on.

“Five years ago as we sat on our porch one summer evening a toad hopped out from around the corner to the concrete walk,” was the way one resident was quoted in the July 9, 1907 Ypsilanti Daily Press. “We watched it ‘walk’ down to the street sidewalk and within half an hour or so back it came.”

The Normal Park resident continued, “The next night as we were again sitting on the porch, one said, ‘I wonder whether our toad will be out tonight?’ It was but a few minutes when out it hopped and started down the walk. Within the hour it came back.”

Over time, affection grew. “Then it came to be a common occurrence, but as the days passed our interest in the toad deepened, and rarely did the toad disappoint us as we sat and watched for its evening ramble.”

“The second summer it returned, and during the third year a little toad made its appearance, and the two took their evening stroll down our walk together.”

Then tragedy struck.

“This is the fifth year the elder toad has visited us. You can’t imagine how pained we were when the puppy pounced upon the elder toad, flinging it upon its back. We fear that it was fatally injured. We have not seen it since.

“It was two nights later before the little toad made its appearance. It ventured timidly out. Now it takes its walks alone.

“If its heart is half as sore as ours how sorrowful it must feel!”

That toad of yore might have been Bufo americanus, the common Eastern American Toad, one of Michigan’s 13 species of frogs and toads collectively known as “anurans.”

The name of another Michigan anuran, Blanchard’s Cricket Frog, honors University of Michigan herpetologist and zoology professor Frank Nelson Blanchard, a onetime student of Museum of Natural History director Alexander Ruthven, who also served as UM president from 1929 to 1951.

Regarded in his time as the nation’s leading snake expert, Blanchard identified several new species – and named one for Ruthven, the king snake Lampropeltis ruthveni. After one collecting trip that netted 457 snakes from Lake Michigan’s Hog Island, near the tip of the lower peninsula, a colleague dubbed Blanchard “The St. Patrick of Hog Island.”

Blanchard died in 1937. He did not name his own frog; naturalist Francis Harper did that when identifying it a decade later. Presumably the naming was a tribute, though the criteria Harper listed as identifiers of the animal included a warty head, a fat snout, and a bulky, mottled underbelly.

Blanchard’s Frog is currently a “species of concern” in Michigan, and the state is especially interested in survey volunteers’ reports of its cricket-like call.

Less elusive is Michigan’s bullfrog, named for its resonant cow-like bellow, audible from a quarter mile away. The “lion of the swamp,” bullfrogs stealthily stalk and devour insects, fish, crayfish, birds, mice, and other bullfrogs. They are a source of edible frog legs. Michigan’s frog hunting season, which overlaps with the spring and summer Frog and Toad Survey season, begins on the Saturday before Memorial Day (this year that’s Sat., May 29) and lasts until Nov. 15.

Equally recognizable as the bullfrog’s bellow is the Green Frog’s boingy twang, like a plucked banjo string. Its name is Rana clamitans, Rana being a genus name for “frog” and “clamitans” from the Latin “clamo,” to cry aloud or bawl. Less clamorous is the Leopard Frog’s snorelike call, the Western Chorus Frog’s rusty-hinge creak, and the Fowler’s Toad’s piccolo wheeze.

Scientific names of the other Michigan anurans often give identifying tips. Pseudacris crucifer, the spring peeper, has a species name referring to the cross-shaped marking on its back. The Pickerel Frog’s name, Rana palustris, refers to “frog [of] a reed or cane,” as in its swampy habitat. Rana sylvatica, the Wood Frog, means “frog growing among trees.”

Higher in the trees live Michigan’s two species of tree frog, Hyla versicolor and Hyla chrysoscelis, which have the gecko-like suction toes of their more familiar tropical counterparts.

The last, and one of the rarest, of Michigan’s anurans is the Mink frog, Rana septentrionalis, whose “kuk kuk” call resembles knocking. In a plant or animal scientific name, “septentrion” signifies “northern.” How? The term, which dates back to Roman times, means “seven oxen,” referring to oxen on a threshing floor, walking in a circle to thresh out the grain. And the “seven oxen” refer to the seven main stars of the Big Dipper, ever-circling the North Star.

On one occasion, Ypsilanti toads didn’t wait for residents to survey them, but set out to survey residents. “An interesting exodus of toads from the swamps of the Huron River to summer homes about the town is taking place,” wrote the June 3, 1910 Ypsilanti Daily Press. “The area occupied in the winter by the skating rink, on the west bank of the river north of the Congress street [Michigan Avenue] bridge, has made a capital breeding place for the useful little creatures …

“These diminutive creatures, for whom a postage stamp would be a voluminous umbrella, have been seen in thousands coming alongside the Masonic Temple [Riverside Arts Center], crossing Huron Street and hopping cheerfully up the alleys and streets on their trip to the west.”

As early as 1910, the toad’s ecological role was recognized: “This visitation is looked upon with immense satisfaction by naturalists and by those who understand what a valuable service the toad renders lawns, gardens, and farms. These thousands, even millions of toads which are scattering themselves throughout the town are prepared to render a greater blessing to the growing things of the community than an equal number of birds which man now understands quite universally should be cherished.”

That “now understands” may be an oblique reference to the then-recent disappearance of the passenger pigeon from Ypsilanti skies. One of the last passenger pigeons in Michigan, according to W. B. Mershon’s 1907 book The Passenger Pigeon, was shot in Ypsilanti in 1893.

In contrast, Ypsilanti’s toads were still so numerous in 1910, the Daily Press article revealed, that the city was a toad supplier to less fortunate communities. “An onion grower in Chelsea a few seasons ago paid two cents apiece for toads, and the boys in Ypsilanti so indefatigably caught and shipped the toads out of town to Chelsea that when Mr. Hedge, the naturalist, came to the Normal College that summer to give lectures, he was embarrassed for want of them, so appreciably had the supply been lessened here …”

The annoyed Mr. Hedge did not mince his words. “[H]e said that a course in nature study without toads was no nature study course at all.”

Mystery Object

"Mystery" Artifact

This biweekly column features a Mystery Artifact contest. You are invited to take a look at the artifact and try to deduce its function.

Last week’s Mystery Artifact was correctly guessed by Al Feldt, who wrote: “hetchel … It is used in preparing flax for spinning. After the flax is retted (soaked in a local pond) it is bundled into small sheaves and slammed down on the nails of the hetchel repeatedly. This breaks the stalks and separates the linen fibers from the rest of the plant. After some further cleaning and currying it is then spun into linen thread for later weaving and sewing.”

It is said that the word “heckle,” as in “heckling the comedian,” originates from this bed-of-nails tool. Linen-making gave us other words as well. Flax retted in water turns a golden-cream color; that and the softness of the worked fibers gave rise to the term “flaxen-haired” (maiden). And the short flax bits left in the hetchel was called tow, as in “tow-headed boy.”

This week’s Mystery Artifact is about 7 inches long and made of metal. Take your best guess and good luck!

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

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In the Archives: Paper Pennies of Ypsi’s Past Sun, 28 Feb 2010 20:28:03 +0000 Laura Bien Editor’s note: As a feasibility study on local currency gets underway in Ann Arbor, local history columnist Laura Bien takes a look at how local currencies were used in the past. Bien’s new book on local history, “Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives (MI): Tripe-Mongers, Parker’s Hair Balsam, The Underwear Club & More (American Chronicles)” can be ordered through Amazon.

Local currencies are nothing new to either Ypsilanti or Ann Arbor. In addition to 19th-century municipal banks, both cities created local currencies about 80 years ago. They weren’t created to boost local spending or civic pride. Ypsilanti created her local currency, called scrip, in the fall of 1931 because the city had no other money to pay municipal employees.

Ypsilanti Scrip Money

Ypsilanti "Time Scrip Money" was used to pay for municipal work. (Image links to higher resolution file.)

The currency included paper pennies.

“It was really just an IOU,” recalled Paul Ungrodt, in an April 15, 1975 Ypsilanti Press article, one of a Great Depression retrospective series. “[T]here was no money; hardly anyone could afford to pay taxes, so we made do with the scrip.” In the summer of 1929, Ungrodt was proud to have secured the prestigious job of Ypsilanti Chamber of Commerce secretary. A few months later, the stock market crashed.

Ypsilanti’s slide into the Depression wasn’t immediate, but two years after the crash, conditions were grim. Little federal help was available, aside from a few shipments of federal flour and Red Cross cloth. Ypsi Boy Scouts led door-to-door clothing drives. The used clothes were taken to the city welfare office at Michigan Avenue and River Street, “renovated,” and given to the poor.

Church and social groups held canning parties and put up thousands of quarts of food, some for distribution to the poor. One September 1932 Ypsilanti Daily Press article reported that Lincoln schoolgirls in the seventh, eighth, and ninth grades canned peaches, tomatoes, and pepper relish for winter use in their own cafeteria. The girls also put up 65 quarts of concentrated grape juice, made from grapes grown by boys in the school’s “agriculture department.”

In 1931, one city council member proposed that municipal employees in the “streets and parks departments should be put on a four day shift after Oct. 1,” reported a Sept. 22 Daily Press article, “and unemployed men put to work under them in shifts to keep the work done and provide labor for those whom the city must help. These unemployed will be paid in scrip which can be used for specified groceries in any city store.”

To get the streets and parks jobs, the unemployed had to apply for an identification card. Aside from standard questions about age and address, the applicant had to provide the name and address of their previous employer, whether they were in debt on their furniture, car, or anything else, and whether they had received any other aid in the past.

The city received 400 applications. Roughly three-quarters were married men, about half were over 40, and about half were white. Fewer than half owned a home, but rented an apartment, lived in a boarding house, or rented a single room. Almost a third of applicants were the sole supporters of their family, and almost a quarter had more than two dependents. Two women applied.

The number indicated a want that was more pressing than some believed to be the case. “It should be understood,” Paul Ungrodt was quoted in an Oct. 30, 1931 Daily Press article, “that many of these unemployed who have registered, although the total is apparently great, are not hard pressed. Many have relatives and the condition of many others is not serious because they have had work until recently. Furthermore, there are numerous instances where more than one in a family registered.”

As a representative of the city’s economic health, Ungrodt may have felt a need to downplay the problem. Years later in the 1975 Press retrospective article, he characterized the times more negatively. “If your business failed either you were lucky enough to find someone else to work for or you simply did nothing,” he [said]. “But there weren’t jobs for most people. It wasn’t a pretty picture by any means.”

This 1837 currency from the Bank of Ypsilanti features cows, a sheep, and a beehive.

This 1837 currency from the Bank of Ypsilanti features cows, a sheep, and a beehive. (Image links to higher resolution file.)

In preparation for the work program, city officials decided “the city will profit more and the poor as much by a program of work which will be of permanent benefit rather than the creation of odd jobs of no lasting value,” according to an Oct. 10, 1931 Daily Press article. City officials planned a 390-foot sewer as the first project, to be followed by work whose cost in scrip and materials could be covered by bonds issued by the city. City clerk Harvey Holmes designed the scrip, and it was printed in town.

The article concluded, “‘[A]ll who expect dole from the city will be required to give work in return,’ Mayor Matthew Max has insisted.”

Later that month, “[t]he first issue of scrip money by the city of Ypsilanti was made,” said the Oct. 21, 1931 Daily Press, “when City Clerk Harvey Holmes paid seven men a total of $89.25 [$1,250 today, or an average of $180 each].

“Scrip will be accepted only for the articles printed on the back of the money,” continued the article, “and each piece must be signed by the man presenting it. If he cannot write, the merchant accepting the scrip signs for him, and his thumb print is made on the scrip. There will be no change made in either cash or scrip. Persons using it must purchase the full amount they present.

“Scrip is issued in denominations of 1 cent, 5 cents, 10 cents, 25 cents, or $1.”

The list of items scrip could buy was restricted, the article said, to “coal, coke [fuel], bread, navy beans, bacon, baking powder, corn meal, corn starch, canned soup, canned peas, canned tomatoes, canned hominy, canned corn, coffee, crackers, flour, lard, matches, milk, macaroni, oleo, oatmeal, onions, potatoes, pepper, prunes, pancake flour, rice, soap, sugar, salt, [baking] soda, salt pork, tea, and yeast.”

Fresh meat and fish, butter, eggs, cheese, and fresh fruits and vegetables were not allowed.

A year and a half later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the Federal Emergency Relief Act which granted money to the poor. FERA was followed by other New Deal programs that addressed unemployment. Ypsilanti scrip was phased out.

Today, the surviving examples are only a reminder of the onetime local currency, earned with a pick and shovel, that put food on Ypsilanti tables.

Thanks to Gerry Pety and Derek Spinei for help with images. Images courtesy of Ypsilanti Archives.

Mystery Item

Mystery Artifact

This biweekly column features a Mystery Artifact contest. You are invited to take a look at the artifact and try to deduce its function.

The previous Mystery Artifact was guessed correctly by Larry Works: a glue pot. He added, “Most likely used by woodworkers to put on hide glue in the last millennium. Had to be heated over a fire in order to soften the glue before it could be applied.” That may be – the Ypsilanti Historical Museum information for this artifact indicates that its inner chamber could be removed to add hot coals into the outer chamber.

This week’s Mystery Artifact, about two feet wide, bristles with a square of pointed metal teeth. Take your best guess and good luck!

“In the Archives” is a biweekly series written for The Ann Arbor Chronicle by Laura Bien. Her work can also be found in the Ypsilanti Citizen, the Ypsilanti Courier, and as well as the Ann Arbor Observer. She is the author of “Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives.” Bien also writes the historical blog “Dusty Diary” and may be contacted at

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