Washtenaw Dairy Turns 75

Birthday party for ice cream hangout on May 30, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Washtenaw Dairy Ann Arbor Michigan

Washtenaw Dairy T-shirt with design drawn by Chris Frayne.

On Saturday, May 30, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. the Washtenaw Dairy will throw a 75th birthday party for itself.

Jim Smith, president of Washtenaw Dairy, didn’t send out any special invitations to people – everybody’s welcome to come enjoy the free hot dogs, 25-cent milkshakes, and entertainment from “Elvis Presley” and “Buddy Holly.” Not even Bill Martin – president of First Martin Corp. and athletic director of the University of Michigan – got a special invite.

So when Martin dropped by the dairy on Thursday, and a tableful of morning regulars wanted to know if he was coming to the party, Smith wasn’t buying the “Nobody invited me” excuse that Martin was selling. “We don’t send out invitations!” admonished Smith. “Well, you didn’t call!” replied Martin. Martin wound up saying he’d try to attend, asking, “About what time are you guys going to be there?”

The Chronicle didn’t hear anyone take advantage of the obvious opening for a wisecrack: “Are you asking so as to avoid us, or what?”  Missing that chance was a rare exception judged against the hour we spent on Thursday soaking up the atmosphere at the corner of First and Madison on the west side of Ann Arbor. 

The morning regulars at the Washtenaw Dairy dish out their wit as generously as the ice cream cones get dipped in the evenings. Topics on Thursday ranged from Big Ten baseball to attitudes on egg salad and its idiosyncratic gastrointestinal effects [here we discretely redact], to a sudden nationwide enthusiasm for the Three Wolves and the Moon T-shirt that’s reputed to increase the wearer’s attractiveness to women.

Washtenaw Dairy Ann Arbor Michigan

A morning routine is to assemble the donut trays. The flat boxes get folded up with a staple in each corner, then nested together in an alternating pattern.

The dairy offers its own T-shirts for sale – but as far as the Chronicle is aware, they enjoy no special powers of attraction. Smith told us the dairy’s shirts were designed by a Zap Comix artist in the ’70s – Smith thought his last name sounded like “frain” or “frame.” With help from erksnerks on Twitter, The Chronicle has concluded the artist was probably Chris Frayne, after whom an Ann Arbor Film Festival prize for animation is named.

And on Thursday morning it was a pink Washtenaw Dairy T-shirt that Lara Aljammali was after, which she put on right away. Why the need to wear the shirt? Aljammali is a student at Dicken Elementary, and she’d written a report on the Washtenaw Dairy that she was presenting to her class that same day.

Aljammali wasn’t the only person at the dairy on Thursday with whom we felt some kind of writer’s bond. Morning regular Tom London told us about a monthly features publication he’d given a four-year run back in the ’70s called “Did You Know?” Some of the stories he wrote included ride-alongs with hot-air balloonists and skydivers.

Back to Bill Martin. It was only briefly that he dropped by the dairy that morning – in fact he departed saying, “I’m a public employee and I’ve got to get my butt back to work!” What was he doing there in the first place? He’d printed out a page from Flickr with a photograph of the hopper railroad car that’s displayed down next to the new First Martin building at 201 Depot Street. On that photo there’s a comment left about a year ago by Flickr user Wystan:

Jim [Rees], I met John Siller, the retired Ann Arbor building contractor, at the Washtenaw Dairy this morning. Siller, who is 75, is an old pal and sailing buddy of Bill Martin (68), and he tells me that he located this hopper car for him. He found it parked on a siding in Durand, and brought it to town on the Ann Arbor Railroad. It was he who made sure that it got welded to the track.

Washtenaw Dairy Ann Arbor Michigan

The baseball mitt wall inside the Washtenaw Dairy.

Siller, who’s one year older than the Washtenaw Dairy,  was sitting at the table on Thursday, too. He told The Chronicle that he drops by the dairy most days when he’s in town.

So Martin was there to set the record straight and give his buddy a friendly hard time. Siller was not the guy who’d located the hopper car, Martin said, and it was brought down on a flatbed truck, not on the railroad.

Martin said that his son was the one who’d gone up to find the hopper car – ahh, but it was him, said Siller, who told Martin’s son to go!

Throughout the hour or so The Chronicle spent at the dairy, plenty of people stopped in for coffee and donuts and left with their refreshments, as some morning regulars filtered away from the table, and others filtered in to replace them.

As The Chronicle headed out the door, we passed a vaguely familiar face, and by the time we hit the sidewalk at First and Madison, we had pieced it together. So back inside the dairy we went to tell Jim Rees, the photographer who’d posted the photo of the hopper car on Flickr: “Bill Martin was just here with a printout of your picture.”


  1. By mr dairy
    May 29, 2009 at 7:40 am | permalink

    Happy Birthday, Washtenaw Dairy!

  2. May 29, 2009 at 12:35 pm | permalink

    Thanks for the plug, Dave.

    At one time Chris Frayne was quite a celebrity around town. Among his many projects he painted earless Mickey Mouse heads on the sidewalk on Liberty and Washington downtown. At night the streetlights would cast shadows from the double-headed parking meters, producing ears to go with the heads. He also was part of a group that brought a streetcar from Lisbon to town where the plan was to run it in a loop like the AATA Link but on tracks. It was parked for a while on the AARR siding at First and William. His brother George was better known as Commander Cody, and Chris did many of Cody’s album covers. He also did the Fleetwood Diner T-shirt. His early death of MS in 1992 was a tragedy.

  3. By James C. Crawford
    May 29, 2009 at 2:13 pm | permalink

    Chris Frayne also produced the original Blind Pig T-shirts. Didn’t know his brother, George, was Commander Cody! Awesome! Jim, it has always been a pleasure to see the photos you’ve taken of the Fleetwood Diner and the stories and photos of the not so far past history of Ann Arbor. sI applaud your good work, it is much appreciated.

  4. By Wystan
    May 29, 2009 at 3:38 pm | permalink

    Jim, I was active on the periphery of that 1970s streetcar project. It was spearheaded by Mary Lou Slater and R. William DeBrooke. Mary Lou probably still has the several hundred slides that I took of the car and its display at the Art Fair and other venues, when we were trying to drum up public enthusiasm. The public seemed to go for it, but city council never was persuaded. Eventually the car was sold to Detroit, which already had some old-timey trolleys from Portugal, running on Washington Boulevard. Then for a while Ann Arbor tried a double-decker London bus, as a shuttle on Liberty Street from Main to State and back. I hope Mary Lou will scan those slides some day, and post them on Flickr.

  5. By Alan Goldsmith
    June 1, 2009 at 1:57 pm | permalink

    The irony is if the Washtenaw Dairy wanted to start as a business today, the Old West Side, Planning Commission, etc. would never let it get off the ground.

  6. By Alan Goldsmith
    June 1, 2009 at 1:58 pm | permalink

    Or I’m doubting if the Ann Arbor Art Commission would have accepted Chris Frayne’s work with open arms either.

  7. By Susan
    June 1, 2009 at 10:34 pm | permalink

    @Alan – If it involved tearing down historic buildings, was big and ugly and the neighbors hated it, planning commission and council would bend over backward to make sure the developer got his way…and btw, I don’t remember the OWS ever complaining about Jefferson Mkt…

  8. By Susan
    June 2, 2009 at 9:22 am | permalink

    ok, fine. Now Dave’s made me feel bad about the sarcasm…..

  9. By Alan Goldsmith
    June 2, 2009 at 12:01 pm | permalink

    Was this sarcasm?