In the Archives: When Work Was Walkable

People mostly lived near their work in 1910 Ypsilanti

Editor’s note: Next month, in May, Ann Arbor’s getDowntown program will promote its annual commuter challenge – an effort to encourage downtown workers to try an alternative to driving a car to work. This week, local history columnist Laura Bien takes a look back to “commuting” habits of Ypsilantians a hundred years ago.

Ypsilanti commuting 1910

The work commutes of: (1) bank janitor Charles Anderson; (2) bank cashier Daniel Quirk Jr.; (3) paper mill worker Henry Dignan, (4) ladder company president Melvin Lewis; (5) farm equipment vendor O. E. Thompson; (6) streetcar conductors Jay English and Wilmer Gillespie; (7) Scharf box factory foreman W. Henry de Nike; and (8) ladder factory secretary G. E. Geer.

A tiring commute to a job sometimes far from home is taken for granted today.

In 1910 Ypsilanti, commuting for work outside the city was almost unknown. The few exceptions included traveling salesmen, one or two businessmen with interests in other cities, and a scattering of “factory girls” who commuted by rail to a Detroit mill after the local underwear factory closed.

Aside from that small number and farmers coming into town from Augusta, Superior, and Ypsilanti townships to sell produce, eggs, and dairy items, the city was a largely self-contained unit of local labor. Nearly every working resident commuted to work nearby within town. Most went on foot, with many returning home for lunch (a welcome break in what was then a standard 10-hour workday). The pattern was the norm for everyone from bank presidents to day laborers.

Who were the Ypsilantians of the walk-to-work era?

A century ago, 58-year-old Charles Anderson worked as a janitor in Ypsilanti’s First National Bank on the southeast corner of Michigan Avenue and Washington, next door to a tiny sausage factory and a nickelodeon. Anderson, a black man born in Ohio, and Julia, his white wife of 30 years, lived on the northern end of the historically black neighborhood on Ypsilanti’s southwest edge. His job was typical of the extremely circumscribed types of menial labor available to the black Ypsilantians of his day. Nevertheless, Charles saved enough money to own his own home and support Julia without her having to work.

Most of Charles’ neighbors worked as day laborers, such as his next-door neighbor at 409 Adams, 48-year-old Canadian-born black laborer Manchester Roper. It’s likely that both men walked the short distance to their respective work each day.

At work in the bank, Charles likely encountered Daniel Quirk, Jr., who worked there as a cashier. The son of one of the bank’s founders, Daniel came to work from his elegant 1863 Italianate-Colonial-Georgian home at 206 N. Huron, a few doors down from his father’s 1860 Second Empire mansion, which stands to this day next door to the Ypsilanti Historical Museum.

Daniel also served as secretary and treasurer of the Peninsular Paper Mill at Huron River Drive and Leforge Roads. When Daniel visited the mill, he may have been driven by his coachman, Manchester Roper. By 1910, Manchester had been hired as one of the two servants in Daniel’s household.

In 1910, the Peninsular Paper Mill was in operation around the clock. On the north side of the complex stood the vast beater rooms. Here workers shredded rags from an adjacent storage room in a cutter and dumped them into five enormous bleaching vats. Other employees worked in the nearby machine room, the calendar room (the “calendar” was the name of a piece of machinery) or in the basement’s carpentry shop and box factory.

The mill employed 18 female and 90 male workers, many of whom walked to work along the train tracks between Depot Town and the factory. One man operating part of the mill machinery was 38-year-old Henry Dignan. The Michigan-born son of Irish parents, Henry lived with his wife Katherine and their six children on Norris Street, near the current-day Corner Brewery.

Norris Street in 1910 was a small working-class neighborhood. Henry’s neighbors included 38-year-old Archie Harrison, a woodworker for the railroad, 34-year-old factory laborer Ralph Le Munyon, Scharf box factory foreman W. Henry de Nike, 22-year-old carpenter Myron Bennett, and 50-year-old factory worker George Bridgers.

George’s sons both held jobs near their home. Twenty-five-year-old son John worked as a fireman in the Cross Street firehouse, and George’s 21-year-old son George walked a few hundred yards each morning to his job as a laborer in the Michigan Ladder Company on Forest Avenue.

Management of the ladder company also lived within walking distance. Vice president Charles Deist lived on nearby Maple. President Melvin Lewis’s home stood at 615 West Forest Avenue, near the Michigan State Normal College. Treasurer Alton Lewis lived near Melvin at 505 Hamilton, and secretary G. E. Geer boarded at 313 West Cross Street with his widowed mother Addie.

Further west on Cross just past Depot Town stood the massive Thompson building at Cross and River. Its proprietor, O. E. Thompson, lived until his 1910 death just two houses east, in a home now subdivided into apartments.

South of the Thompson building on River Street lived several men who worked for the interurban and streetcar company the Detroit, Jackson, and Chicago Railway. Its vast car barns and powerhouse belched forth plumes of sooty smoke from East Michigan Avenue between the Huron River and River Street.

D. J. & C. conductors Jay English and Wilbur Gillespie lived with their wives at 215 River. Chief engineer Ralph Ensign’s home was at 231. Myrton Hodnutt at 106 River worked for the company. Three other employees also lived on the street and section hand Charles McFall, lineman Hubert White, and laborers Sidney Case and Floyd Worth lived on adjoining streets.

The interurban’s days were numbered. It wouldn’t be long before the novelty of “auto barns” – early garages – appearing in the backyards of the well-off in Normal Park would multiply to render obsolete the many small personal stables and carriage houses there.

Today, aside from a fortunate few, Ypsilantians no longer set out en masse each morning to stroll to work within their city.

Mystery Object

Last column Cosmonican pegged the odd object: it was indeed a harnessmaker’s vise.


Mystery Object

This time we’re wandering to another second-floor room in the Museum to examine this 3-inch-tall bird-shaped object. Odd little thing; what might it be? Take your best guess and good luck!

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


  1. April 14, 2011 at 8:52 am | permalink

    Mystery object looks like the original version of this replica.

  2. By Dave
    April 14, 2011 at 10:52 am | permalink

    The mystery item is a seamstress sewing clamp, usually held a pincushion as well. I believe the birds beak held the cloth in place while the item was being pinned and stitched.

  3. By Fritz
    April 14, 2011 at 1:36 pm | permalink

    I love history as a reference for a lower-energy future. Using a limited amount of energy (which came from renewables and some coal), a certain population density can achieve a certain standard of living. We know it can be done because it has been done.

    If we can replace the coal with more and better use of renewables, then the system can run forever.

    And if we can find modern ways to have more fun with the same amount of energy, then the standard of living can be even higher.

    I like this way of thinking better than starting with the current world and taking things away.