Stories indexed with the term ‘In the Archives’

In the Archives: Criminal Girls

In the fall of 1883, delegates from almost every state attended the National Conference of Charities and Corrections in Louisville, Kentucky. Penologists, prison officials, and representatives from state institutions for the blind, deaf, orphaned, insane and “feeble-minded” gathered at Louisville’s Polytechnic Institute for eight days of presentations and discussions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Archives: When The Press Fed Us

We Ypsilantians are losing our last nominally-local newspaper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Archives: Soap a Sign of Spring

In spring the Washtenaw pioneer farm wife prepared for arguably the smelliest, most dangerous, and most tiring chore of the year. Along the way, she could suffer chemical burns, ruin her clothes, or accidentally start a grease fire. The process was hours long, involved seemingly endless stirring, and often failed.

Ypsilanti merchant Charles Stuck solicited newspaper readers for ashes.

Ypsilanti merchant Charles Stuck solicited newspaper readers for ashes.

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

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

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

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

In the Archives: Dynamite Baseball Catcher

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

Moses with his 1882 UM teammates.

Moses Fleetwood Walker with his 1882 UM teammates.

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

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

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

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

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

In the Archives: Woodlawn Cemetery

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

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

Marion Frierson's grave in Woodlawn Cemetery, Ypsilanti.

Marion Frierson’s grave in Woodlawn Cemetery, Ypsilanti.

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

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

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

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

In the Archives: The Friendless Dead

Willie Brown ended his days among strangers, his body submerged with theirs in a large vat of preservative liquid in the basement of the onetime University of Michigan medical school that stood on the east side of the present-day Diag.

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Archives: Last Train to Carp-ville

Berlin-born Sonoma, California aquapreneur Julius Poppe chaperoned his group of 83 passengers on board a steamer moored in Bremen, Germany. The 12-day journey to New York that summer of 1872 proved deadly. After arrival and a two-day quarantine, only 8 of Poppe’s charges survived.

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

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

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

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

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

In the Archives: Michigan Merinos

Washtenaw County owes a long-forgotten debt to Napoleon Bonaparte.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The merino craze was on. [Full Story]

In the Archives: Lightning Rod for Swindles

Editor’s note: Laura Bien’s most recent “In the Archives” column highlighted a 19th century scam involving oats. That column briefly mentioned a lightning rod scam. In this month’s column Bien provides a bit more background on lightning rod swindles.

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

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

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

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

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

In the Archives: Sowing Bogus Oats

The well-dressed stranger standing in the driveway certainly had the farmer’s attention. The stranger’s eyes flicked over one of the farmer’s suspenders fastened to faded trousers with a nail as he described his generous proposition. The farmer glanced at the visitor’s handsome buggy – this was a gentleman of means, offering a poor man a shot at paying off the mortgage. After a handshake, the stranger retrieved some papers from his buggy and held out a pen.

Threshing Oats

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

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

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

In the Archives: Diary of a Farm Girl

Soaring over Washtenaw County’s Superior Township on Google Maps gives the illusion of eagle-eyed omniscience. The plat map book lying open next to the computer shows that the meticulously-drawn maps of 19th-century farms correspond in good measure to the present-day brown and green patches on the screen.

This group of 19th-century schoolchildren from Morgan School may give a general idea of Mamie's Fowler School class size.

This group of 19th-century schoolchildren from Morgan School may give a general idea of Mamie Vought’s Fowler School class size.

Look – there are the outlines of the old Philip Vought farm on Ridge Road in eastern Superior Township. A fleeting sense of connection dissolves with the realization that the outline is only that – the chance to understand the lives of onetime residents is gone.

Would I have enjoyed growing up on the Vought farm?

What did a typical day involve?

How foreign and slow would a childhood be – measured not in miles per gallon but in wagon rides and footsteps?

Thirteen-year-old Mamie Vought left us her 1886 diary to let us know. [Full Story]

In the Archives: On Keeping Your Pants Up

Offered at Ypsilanti clothing store Sullivan and Cook almost exactly 100 years ago – in July of 1912 – were invisible suspenders.

Invisible suspenders

Invisible suspenders were patented in 1900.

On absorbing this tidbit of information, the perplexed reader may justly wonder how on earth one could pick out a particular style of said accessory – or would style even matter? At a 2-for-1 invisible suspender sale, how would a buyer know he’d received both pairs? What if the invisible suspenders were mislaid around the house, never to be found again?

Such questions are justified, if slightly surreal, for anyone unacquainted with this clothing item once widely available in Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor, and across the nation.

From obscure elastic hangs a tale of changing worlds.

Far from being a passing fad, invisible suspenders were a tiny signifier of vast inexorable social change in early 20th century America, and as iconic in their humble way as the Model T. [Full Story]

In the Archives: “Freedmen’s Progress”

Editor’s note: Laura Bien’s In the Archives column for The Chronicle appears monthly. Look for it around the end of every month or sometimes towards the beginning.

A recent Ward 1 Ann Arbor city council candidate forum included some discussion of the African American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County, to be located on Pontiac Trail. In this month’s column, Bien takes a look at one piece of African American history with an Ann Arbor connection – the 50th anniversary of the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. 

The interior of Henry Wade Robbins' Ann Arbor barber shop at 117 Ann St.

The interior of Henry Wade Robbins' Ann Arbor barber shop at 117 Ann St.

Ann Arbor barber Henry Wade Robbins is one of many Washtenaw County residents singled out for commendation in a largely forgotten but historically invaluable book assembled in just three months in 1915. “Mr. Robbins has completely negated the popular fallacy that in order to be successful in the barber business the boss was required to draw the color line in his patronage,” says the work’s biographical entry for Robbins.

“This Mr. Robbins has never done. He treated all gentlemen alike and catered to high-class trade, both white and colored, and he has numbered and still numbers among his patrons many of the best-known white people in Michigan …” Robbins owned his own shop and its upstairs apartments at 117 Ann St. where he, his wife Martha, and their son and daughter lived.

The book’s data on employment, home ownership, and achievements by black Michiganders was collected and compiled by a panel of Michigan African Americans selected by Michigan governor Woodbridge Ferris. Their work was compiled into the “Michigan Manual of Freedman’s Progress” (MMFP), which offers a cross-section of successful black Michiganders in the early 20th century.  [Full Story]

In the Archives: Lit by Kerosene

Editor’s note: Laura Bien’s In the Archives column for The Chronicle appears monthly. Look for it around the end of every month or sometimes towards the beginning.

On a May evening in 1866, 15-year-old Ann Arborite Maria Benham got ready for bed in her Third Ward home, which also housed her cabinetmaker father Warren, her mother Rachel, and siblings George, Menora, and Alice.

Maria was a grammar school student at the Union School at Huron and State Streets, later the site of Ann Arbor High School and eventually renamed the Frieze Building. The school year was almost over, and the annual yearbook was about to be printed.

Non-explosive lamp, kerosene

Advertisement from the Dec. 25, 1869 Ypsilanti Commercial.

When it came out, Maria’s name had an asterisk.

Maria removed the glass chimney of her kerosene lamp and flipped her apron at the flame to puff it out. Instead, the lamp exploded, enveloping her in flames. Maria ran downstairs towards the cistern. Someone spotted her and threw his overcoat over her flaming body, suffocating the fire.

Maria had severe burns over her entire body. After an agonizing night, she died at 6 a.m. She would have been sixteen that August.

Her story, originally reported by the Ann Arbor Argus, was reprinted by papers in Hillsdale, Marshall, and elsewhere in the state. Unfortunately, it was a familiar tale. Kerosene lamp explosions were tragically common in 19th-century Michigan. It seems odd, because kerosene is a relatively stable, non-explosive fuel, far less volatile than such lighter petroleum products as gasoline or naptha. A lit match thrown into a cup of room-temperature kerosene will simply go out.

Maria had been born in 1850, around the dawn of the domestic oil industry. Many unscrupulous oil refiners of that era pursued profits at the cost of lives like hers. [Full Story]

In the Archives: Poison Pages

A second-floor shelf of University of Michigan’s Buhr book storage facility contains Michigan’s single most dangerous book.


One of the arsenical wallpapers in "Shadows".

It is one of only two known copies to exist in the state. If not for its historical importance, even the most fervent bibliophile might agree: the fewer copies in the world the better.

“Shadows from the Walls of Death” is dangerous not in the sense of a book containing radical ideas. Nor is it dangerous in the way a bomb-building manual might be. In fact, after the title page and preface, the following 86 pages, each one measuring about 22 by 30 inches, contain no printed words at all.

Michigan State University holds the other copy of “Shadows” in its Special Collections library division. The volume is sealed in a protective container, and each page is individually encapsulated.

Prospective “readers” of “Shadows” at the Buhr building must wear blue plastic protective gloves. During a visit to the Buhr some days ago, the book was wheeled out slowly on its individual cart. The marbled pattern on the cover showed through a protective thick-gauge plastic bag.

I held my breath as I gingerly eased open the cover, and while “reading” the pages I was careful to avoid any skin contact. “Shadows” is saturated with a deadly amount of arsenic. [Full Story]

In the Archives: Purebred Michigan

Editor’s note: Laura Bien’s In the Archives column for The Chronicle appears monthly. Look for it around the end of every month or towards the beginning, if things slide a bit – like this month. 


A 1914 ad for the Livingston County Holstein-Friesian Association shows a cow with familiar markings.

Ypsilanti has never lacked for beauties, as any conductor on the onetime Packard Road interurban could have told you. Hordes of University of Michigan boys crowded the streetcars on weekends en route to their belles at Ypsilanti’s Normal teacher training school (which became Eastern Michigan University).

On the way, the young men unknowingly passed the home, at Packard and Golfside, of another belle more famous than any Normal girl. She was quiet and stocky, yet viewed as beautiful.

She had numerous relatives at the insane asylum at Pontiac, which in her case was regarded as a prestigious lineage. Thousands statewide knew her name. Many owned her children.

Pontiac De Nijlander was the state’s epitome of cow excellence in an era characterized, in the agricultural sphere, by what could be called Michigan’s turn-of-the-century “Holstein fever.”

A typical big-bodied black-and-white-splotched Holstein, Pontiac De Nijlander lived at Ypsiland. The 180-acre farm extended from Packard to Ellsworth, bordered on its east side by Golfside Road and owned by brothers Norris and Herbert Cole. Norris eventually bought his brother’s share and became sole proprietor of the farm, whose principal business was breeding top-quality Holstein bulls and cows. [Full Story]

In the Archives: From Cordwood to Caviar

Editor’s note: Laura Bien’s In the Archives column for The Chronicle appears monthly. Look for it around the end of every month. Subsequent to the appearance of this article, Bien was interviewed by Interlochen Public Radio about Great Lakes sturgeon. Listen to the interview online via the Interlochen Public Radio website.

Twenty thousand dinosaurs live in the river system bordering Detroit. They’re rugged descendants of the few who survived one of Michigan’s worst ecological disasters, against which one University of Michigan  professor battled – in vain. His efforts were crushed by Michigan’s short-lived yet feverish caviar industry.

Lake Sturgeon

The snaggletooth scutes along the lake sturgeon are visible on this depiction of the lake sturgeon (public-domain image).

Among the most primitive of fish, sturgeon first appeared when the Earth had just one continent. Millenia later the lake sturgeon thickly populated the Great Lakes and was fished by native peoples.

A young adventurer of noble French birth described the fish in his 1703 bestseller whose English title is “New Voyages to North America.” Baron de Lahontan’s book detailed the experiences gleaned from a decade of travel in New France, the onetime colony that encompassed most of present-day eastern Canada and the U.S. He wrote of Lake Erie, “[I]t abounds with sturgeon and whitefish, but trout are very scarce in it as well as the other fish that we take in the Lakes of Hurons and [Michigan].” [Full Story]

In the Archives: Helping the Deserving Poor

Editor’s note: Laura Bien returns this month after a three-month hiatus from her In the Archives column for The Chronicle. Look for it in the future around the end of every month. For this column, she reviewed around 1,500 pages worth of meeting minutes from the Ypsilanti Home Association. 

Nellie Smith* heard someone coming up the stairs and sat up in bed. She could see her breath in the late-winter afternoon light. Perhaps he had left something behind. She glanced around the room. There was nothing on the table, the chair, or the stove with the broken leg propped on a brick.

Knocks sounded. Nellie stood, shook out her ragged nightgown, and opened the door an inch. The friendly gaze of a middle-aged woman in a trim winter coat and long dark skirts met Nellie’s cautious look.


Harriet Gilbert as she looked around the time she was first elected Ypsilanti Home Association president in 1875, an office she held for over 30 years.

Lizzie Swaine introduced herself, apologized for the intrusion, and said there’d been word of a little difficulty at this Washington Street address. It felt cold here, she said – did Nellie have any fuel in the house? No, said Nellie, nor food either. Lizzie asked a few more questions, reassured her that help was coming, thanked her for her time, and left. Likely the women’s interaction was similar to this imagined scene.

What is a matter of record is that some days later Lizzie joined twelve other women for the May 1896 Ypsilanti Home Association meeting at Lovina Briggs’ Huron Street home. As Lizzie described Nellie’s plight, she may have noticed some raised eyebrows. The ladies discussed the case. Later, Association secretary Cleantha Dickinson paraphrased the talk in the 1896 meeting minutes logbook.

“Mrs. Swaine came to present the case of Mrs. Smith,” she wrote, “whom she found without a fire and about to be turned out of her rooms because she could not pay her rent.”

She continued, “Investigation among the ladies proved that the woman had a father and brother in comfortable circumstances who would not help the woman unless she behaved herself … it was found that she had been under arrest for keeping a disorderly house,” a euphemism referring at that time to prostitution.

She concluded, “The ladies decided they could not help her while she persisted in wrong doing.” Luckily, Nellie was an exception – the group helped most of those cases that came before it.  [Full Story]

In the Archives: Normal for Girls to Smoke?

Editor’s Note: Eastern Michigan University first opened in 1853 as Michigan State Normal School, later becoming the Michigan State Normal College. In days gone by a “normal school” was a teacher training college. The inaugural edition of a new Chronicle column by David Erik Nelson describes his schoolteacher wife as a “greedy, terrible, pregnant, unionized public servant.” It makes one wonder how she would have fared among the women students at the normal school in the early 1920s. Laura Bien sketches a picture of their travails in this week’s edition of her local history column. [Full Story]

In the Archives: A Postmaster’s Gamble

Editor’s note: Laura Bien’s column this week features two aspects of modern culture that a hundred years from now may have completely disappeared from the landscape: newspapers and the regular mail delivery. The battle she describes – between the press and the postmaster – is ultimately won by the postmaster.


William Lister in his fraternal-order finery, circa 1904.

Overnight, he’d become the most hated man in Ypsilanti. A series of editorials in the Ypsilanti Daily Press condemned his actions and character. The paper even published a jeering cartoon, among large headlines detailing his disgrace.

William Lister wasn’t a murderer, rapist, or adulterer. With his wire-rimmed glasses and prim expression he resembled a rural schoolmaster or Sunday School teacher, both of which he had been. But his steady gaze hinted at a steely character with greater ambitions, which was also true. In the fall of 1907, William tangled with one of the most powerful groups in town, risking his reputation and his lucrative government job on a matter of principle.

William Noble Lister was born in a log cabin in Iosco township in Livingston County on the last day of 1868. His cabinetmaker father drowned when William was two. William’s mother Frances remarried and the family moved to Ypsilanti in the spring of 1882.

In 1887 William graduated from Ypsilanti High School. For a year, he taught in a rural school in Livingston County’s Unadilla. He returned to Ypsilanti to obtain his teaching degree from the Normal teacher training college. After another stint as a teacher in the western Upper Peninsula, William became Saline school superintendent from 1891 to 1895 – a first step to greater things. [Full Story]

In the Archives: Retrospective Lip Smacking

“In the opinion of very many persons … the word ["student"] signifies a young fellow who smokes, chews, drinks, plays billiards, and perpetrates undignified jokes,” reads an October 12, 1867 article in the University of Michigan student newspaper the University Chronicle. “But as has been said many times, the reputation of students in this respect is owing only to the exceptional few. We hope, for their sake, that they may not reap the whirlwind.”


In its August 1909 article on student hazing, Hearst Illustrated magazine published A. S. Lyndon's 1908 photo of students jostling around a flagpole, intent on removing the banner.

The article concerned a developing tradition on college campuses across the country, including UM: an autumn clash between freshmen and sophomores known as “rush.”

The late 1860s appear to be when UM’s tradition of an annual October rush began. The practice would survive for decades despite hospitalizations, expulsions, and several bans against rushing by student government and university officials.

“A rush is a miscellaneous row between two classes, generally freshmen and sophomore, who meet in any of the college halls or grounds,” reads a May 16, 1868 University Chronicle piece on student slang, “and in our own institution is seldom anything more than a good-natured trial of strength between the opponents.”

The article also included slang terms for freshman hazing practices. These included “pumping,” or dousing a frosh in a public water pump, “shaving,” or a less than careful haircut, and “smoking out,” or invading a freshman’s room en masse and lighting pipes till the room was choked with smoke and the new student was nauseated. [Full Story]

In the Archives: U. of M. Too Vulgar?

Editor’s note: This column is offered a week before University of Michigan’s home football opener against Western Michigan University on Sept. 3 – as a public service to news outlets who are new to the UM football beat. It’s important to know how properly to shorten the university’s name. Nowadays, in most official communications the University of Michigan seems to use “U-M” as a shortened version of the full name. Here at The Chronicle, our preferred style is “UM” – we apparently don’t have a budget for extra hyphens. If we accidentally insert a hyphen, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. For heaven’s sake, though, there are alternatives that should absolutely be avoided – even people 100 years ago knew that.

Abbreviation for University of Michigan

The 1890 inaugural issue of the U. of M. Daily, later the Michigan Daily (public domain image from Wikipedia).

The University of Michigan was once disgraced with a nickname so disreputable, so slangy and vulgar, that an essay was published protesting its use. Even a newspaper in another city ran a disapproving editorial.

That nickname was “U. of M.”

In the April 1903 issue of The Michigan Alumnus, a former grad fumed against “the continued and persistent use of the compromising appellation, ‘U. of M.’” He found it coarse – unworthy of a great university.

“In the first place it is not distinctive enough, as there are several other ‘U. of M.’s,’ Maine, Minnesota, and Missouri being the most conspicuous,” he began, going on to excoriate the sloppy abbreviation.

He was not alone. [Full Story]

In the Archives: Muzzling Rabies

Editor’s Note: The Washtenaw County’s public health department web page, updated on Aug. 12, 2011, shows three cases of rabies found in Washtenaw County bats so far this year. Since 2004, most years show 2-3 cases of rabies in bats. In 2009 there were none; but in 2007, 11 cases of bat rabies were recorded. Since 2004, no cases of rabies in dogs have been recorded in Washtenaw County. This week local history writer Laura Bien takes a look back to the early 1900s, when rabies was more prevalent.

Newspaper article

A 1935 Ypsilanti Daily Press article reflects concerns over rabid dogs.

The severed head of a small white poodle was sent from Ypsilanti to Ann Arbor in the summer of 1935.

It wasn’t a grisly threat or an act of revenge. The head’s recipients were neither surprised nor disgusted. Severed dog heads were their stock in trade.

The poodle had belonged to Herbert Wilson of Ypsilanti’s northside Ann Street. The dog was “so vicious,” according to the Aug. 6, 1935 Ypsilanti Daily Press, “that even after being wounded by the officers’ rifle fire, [Officer] Klavitter had to strike him with the gun to protect himself. The blow bent the rifle barrel and the officer had to use a nearby tree limb to finish killing the dog.”

The dog had bitten 5-year-old William Himes on his right arm and leg, in an era when a dog bite could lead to an agonizing death.

Dogs in Ypsilanti that August were under quarantine, meaning that they had to be contained within the owner’s home or property. Dogs that broke loose or wandered into the street could be shot on sight by police. In earlier years, anyone was welcome to take their rifle or shotgun into the street and play Atticus Finch with mad dogs. [Full Story]

In the Archives: August Emancipation

Editor’s note: On this, the last day of July, many residents will be thinking ahead to the second day of August, when Ann Arbor voters will select Democratic candidates in city council elections for three of the city’s five wards. Local history writer Laura Bien gives us a reason to pause and ponder the first day of August, too.

Excerpt from Abba Owen's diary entry for Aug. 1, 1888. (Image links to larger file.)

Largely forgotten today, August 1 was once an annual holiday for black residents of Washtenaw County: Emancipation Day.

The day commemorated Britain’s 1833 Slavery Abolition Act, which a year later ended slavery in most of the British empire. That included Canada, of course, from which many early local black settlers emigrated.

The day was distinct from and older than Juneteenth (also often called Emancipation Day), a holiday that commemorates the belated announcement of the end of slavery in Texas on June 18, 1865. This year, Ann Arbor observed Juneteenth in Wheeler Park, near the city’s historically black Kerrytown-area neighborhood.

Organized by the Ann Arbor branch of the NAACP, local Juneteenth celebrations date back to 1994. [Full Story]

In the Archives: Huckleberries and Trains

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.” [Full Story]

In the Archives: Alaska Trumps Michigan

Editor’s Note: Laura Bien’s local history column this week relates a familiar tale of a gold rush expedition that did not actually lay claim to any gold – but it’s through some elegant prose from an Ypsilanti teacher-turned-prospector’s diary.

A single personal belonging of onetime Ypsilanti teacher Frederick Boyd survives today: a diary preserved in Alaska. With Frederick, the tiny book crossed mountain passes, frozen snowfields, and part of the Pacific ocean. The book details Frederick’s struggle as a miner in the turn-of-the-century Klondike gold rush.


Beginning in the summer of 1897, Klondike travel agents began advertising in Ypsi papers. This ad is from the Jan. 27, 1898 Ypsilantian.

Frederick had likely read the stories in his hometown paper warning against Yukon hardships – stories that also detailed the luck of a fortunate few. Frederick had a secure job, a wife, and an infant daughter.

On the morning of March 6, 1898, the 33-year-old teacher stepped from the Ypsi depot platform onto an eastbound Michigan Central train. As it began to pull out, he saw his 27-year-old wife Celia on the platform holding their daughter Daphne. Frederick was leaving behind his classroom, his friends, his and Celia’s home, and his hometown. [Full Story]

In the Archives: A Coldwater Doll

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. [Full Story]

In the Archives: Faint Footprints

Swastika slippers made in Ypsilanti were once openly advertised in national magazines – including Collier’s and Cosmopolitan. In its day, the footwear didn’t cause outrage, or taint the city as sympathetic to Nazis – even though two other Ypsi companies made similar items. The fringed footwear pre-dated Hitler’s rise by around 20 years.

Shoe advertisement

A 1910 model featured a prominent design.

The swastika slipper was made in the Indian Shoe Company’s little third-floor factory at 17-21 Cross Street, above the present-day Fantasy Attic costume store. In the high-ceilinged space full of light from large south-facing windows sat an array of shoemaking machines with tough leather-penetrating needles, operated by about a dozen women and a few men.

Benjamin Boyce managed the company, but soon moved on to become the bookkeeper for the Peninsular Paper mill. His lengthy December 12, 1956 Ypsilanti Daily Press obituary makes no mention of his involvement with the Indian Shoe Company. [Full Story]

In The Archives: Story Makes Full Circuit

Editor’s note: In her most recent local history column written for The Chronicle, “When Work Was Walkable,” Laura Bien described a series of relationships that existed 100 years ago between people who lived within walking distance of their work. She included the following lines: “When Daniel [Quirk] 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.”

A Chronicle reader recognized that his grandmother had been the other servant. That reader contacted Bien. And Bien got permission to explore the family archives. This month’s column grew out of that research. Fair warning: There’s a bit of ground to cover first before you’ll learn the identity of that reader. But as always with Bien’s text, it’ll be worth the wait. Keep your eye on Mabel.

As 1900 began, 77-year-old York Township farmer Horace Parsons knew that his wife Maria was gravely ill.

His first wife Margaret had died half a century earlier, three years after their New Year’s Day wedding. Horace married his second wife Mary Ann on New Year’s Day, 1850. Just months later, his mother Rebecca died. The following year, Mary Ann died, possibly in childbirth, and Horace’s father Orrin died.

Horace had seen them all laid to rest in Saline’s Oakwood Cemetery.


Mabel as a child. (Image links to higher resolution file.)

Horace married his third wife Maria on May 14, 1860. Over their four decades together, Horace and Maria shared the hardships of 19th-century Michigan farm life. They lost one of their children. They survived lean years early in their marriage, selling off sheep, pigs, and farm machinery. Unlike some neighbors, they hung on to their mortgage, expanding the farm from 30 acres to 50 in 1870 and 66 a decade later.

That year Horace’s restored flock of sheep was up to nearly 80 head and 30 lambs, plus cows and pigs. He grew oats, beans, wheat, potatoes, and Indian corn, and tended 2 acres of apple trees. His and Maria’s place was the typical mixed-crop, mixed-livestock Washtenaw County farm of the era. The heterogeneity of their farm and those of their neighbors was insurance against the not uncommon disasters that regularly struck down one or another animal or crop.

Now his and Maria’s time together, he could see, was ending.

Horace hired a local girl to help. Mabel was a teenager, though neither the term nor the concept existed when she came on as a servant on Horace’s farm. Mabel was the oldest child of brickyard worker and general laborer Orson Pepper and his wife, homemaker Myrtie. The young mother had been a schoolgirl only shortly before Mabel’s birth in 1884. [Full Story]

In the Archives: When Work Was Walkable

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? [Full Story]