Stories indexed with the term ‘In the Archives’

In the Archives: Women’s Underwear

Editor’s note: The Chronicle winds up March, which is Women’s History Month, with a column from publisher Mary Morgan about Jean Ledwith King, and Laura Bien’s regular local history column, which takes a look at women’s underwear.

Ad for women's undergarments

In 1894, Ann Arbor's Crescent Clasp Works at 39-41 North Main employed 13 women making corsets, waists, and hosiery. They included machine operators Clara and Lillie Scheffold, Minnie and Anna Schneider, Emma Tenfel, Kate Saunders, Eugenia Gauss, Ida Kuebler, Lilly Biermann, Ida Oesterlin, Dora Walz, Jennie Jacobus, and Anna Kuster, plus stenographers Clara Markham and Mary Pollock.

This time last year, census canvassers were going door-to-door, asking their 10 questions about each home’s residents, their individual sex, race, and age, and whether the property was mortgaged.

Imagine if they’d asked each woman about her style of underwear.

Thirteen thousand women were asked that question in 1892 by Michigan state officials.

The officials were male, but oddly enough it was women who were responsible for inserting the undergarment question into the state-funded survey.

The winding road to this naughty quiz began with an 1880s state governor who was concerned about the working class. [Full Story]

Archives: Starting Off on the Wrong Track

Editor’s note: Calamities like the recent Sendai earthquake impose tragedy on a grand human scale. History will undoubtedly document countless individual acts of heroism and bravery amid that tragedy – ours is not a completely cowardly species. It takes a different sort of bravery simply to deal with the result of a private tragedy of your own making – just by trudging forward with your life the best you can. This week local history columnist Laura Bien looks back on a tragedy like that – caused by a poor personal choice of a pedestrian path.


The likely method by which Josef's feet were removed, from Gant's 1886 "The Science and Practice of Surgery."

Josef Panek walked north along the twin railroad tracks leading to the railyard at Depot Town. He was a slender man about 40 years old, dressed in work clothes and a cap and carrying a tin lunchpail. He was headed towards the Ypsilanti Paper Mill.

Thank goodness his brother at the mill had gotten him a job. Josef’s wife Anna was caring for four children, including the newborn Mayme, in their tiny apartment on Michigan Avenue. And after the 12-day trip over the Atlantic three months earlier in April of 1880 on the steamship Baltimore, their savings were gone. But what a thrill it had been to finally see the New York skyline. Despite his and Anna’s lack of English, he had managed to maneuver the family through the city’s bustle and clangor and continue overland and over water to Detroit and finally Ypsilanti.

The job at the mill wasn’t too bad. His brother had helped translate the foreman’s instructions, and the machinery wasn’t too complicated, though the work was tiring.

Josef entered the Depot Town railyard, where the twin rail lines fanned out into numerous tracks. He’d been lucky to find work, and this strange place shared a few things with Czechoslovakia after all. Josef glanced over at the greenery along the river. Even some of the trees were the same, and a couple were just beginning to turn color, just like home.

Ahead lay the Forest Avenue railroad bridge, where the track turned left and vanished behind riverside foliage. Abruptly a whistle shrieked and a train appeared. It was on Josef’s track. Josef scrambled to the next track, away from the approaching thudding and clanging. Possibly someone yelled a warning, in a language Josef didn’t know. He never heard, from the opposite direction, the other train.

He screamed, caught under the enormous wheels. [Full Story]

In the Archives: Pulling a Tale out of the Hat

Editor’s note: We belatedly note that two months ago, in January, Laura Bien completed a year’s worth of her bi-weekly history columns for The Chronicle. We’re looking forward to the next year of her looks back into the archives.

He was born on the eve of the World War, a tiny baby with a fine fuzz of hair. Mac was tenderly cared for and quickly put on weight, soon growing to be a healthy, bright-eyed youngster playing in the grassy backyard.

Malcolm MacVicar Sr.

Malcolm MacVicar, Sr.

The large home at 304 Washtenaw Ave. (at Adams Street) held two generations of the MacVicars, one of Ypsilanti’s many families of Scottish descent.

The 51-year-old widow Loretta shared the home with her three children: 22-year-old James, who was about to move out West with his University of Michigan electrical engineering degree; 27-year-old photograph retoucher Adelaide; and 29-year-old Malcolm, who worked as a traveling salesman for an optical company. It was a job title he shared with two of Loretta’s 50-something brothers, also residents in the house. In addition, three lodgers rented rooms there.

Malcolm carefully fed and cared for Mac. As he grew up, the little one didn’t have the slightest conception of the plaudits and fame that lay in days ahead, after the war. He could not imagine his eventual, and lucrative, popularity with the ladies. He never thought of the future. [Full Story]

In the Archives: Forgotten Phones

Editor’s note: Owners of new phones nowadays are as likely to think about the first photograph they’ll take with it as they are to contemplate the first words they’ll say into it. But Laura Bien’s local history column this week serves as a reminder that sometimes first words spoken into a phone get remembered in the historical archives. Given what she’s unearthed from the archives this time, it’s not clear why Chicago is known as the “city of broad shoulders” instead of the “city of big-footed girls.”

Webster Gillett invented a telephone with four needles tuned to the speaking diaphragm.

Quiz a friend or two about who popularized the type of electricity we use today – go ahead, get your geek on – and a few would correctly name Nikola Tesla. Then ask who invented long-distance telephony.

Probably no one would answer correctly.

It wasn’t Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, or any other celebrated name from the late 19th century’s feverish and fertile age of invention.

Like his renowned contemporary, Tesla, the inventor of long-distance telephony was an electrical engineer. Unlike Tesla’s numerous, sophisticated, and lasting inventions, his were few, crude, and transient.

But they worked – and brought him temporary fame.

Just as Tesla’s brilliance and legacy weren’t fully appreciated until long after his death, so too should be remembered the legacy of his humbler brother inventor whose name once graced the New York Times: Ypsilanti engineer Webster Gillett. [Full Story]

In the Archives: As the Coffee Grinder Turns

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. [Full Story]

In the Archives: Edward Israel’s Polar Sky

Editor’s note: Now that we’ve settled into our season of cold, it’s fitting to remember that Michigan played a role in the polar exploration of the late 1800s.


Edward in college years

In this week’s edition of her biweekly local history column, Laura Bien offers what could be considered a beautiful, if belated, obituary of Edward Israel, a University of Michigan student who perished on a polar expedition.

It was no surprise in the spring of 1881 when a University of Michigan senior was offered the prestigious post of astronomer on a federally-backed polar expedition.

Edward Israel was one of the brightest students in his class, and one of the youngest. He accepted. “The expedition will be absent two years,” reported the April 30, 1881 University of Michigan Chronicle, “so that Mr. Israel hopes to be present at the reunion of his class in ’84.”

He wasn’t. [Full Story]

In the Archives: A Michigan Football Memory

joy miller football scandal michigan

Ypsilanti Daily Press of Dec. 29, 1909

Editor’s note: The game of football is a big deal at the University of Michigan. Recent media interest in the departure of UM head coach Rich Rodriguez is proof of that. And as local history columnist Laura Bien illustrates this week, it’s been that way for at least a hundred years.

The teenager turned up on a Walla Walla fruit farm, his memory gone.

The cheers of the football crowds had faded away. The jokes and camaraderie of the frat brothers were forgotten. When James Joy Miller’s father traveled across the country in the spring of 1910 to claim his vanished son, his son did not recognize him.

A news story from Washington state, printed in the March 24, 1910 Ypsilanti Press, said “James G. Miller of Detroit, father of James Joy Miller, ex-Michigan football captain and star player of last season, arrived here but failed to be recognized by his son. The meeting was most affecting, and Miller senior was unable to account for the strange situation which has overtaken his son.”

Miller had been a ranch hand on a nearby fruit farm for two months, said the story, migrating there from Montreal after fleeing Michigan. “He has no recollection,” said the paper, “of his former surroundings, declares he has never seen a game of football and says he cannot remember what his father or his sweetheart look like, though his father sat before him.”

Perhaps the scandal had been too big a shock. It had broken in late December of 1909. [Full Story]

In the Archives: A Path Less Traveled By

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. [Full Story]

In the Archives: Papered-Over Money Issues

Editor’s note: As municipalities in the state of Michigan start to look ahead to their next budget year, we will likely hear often about the difficult economic times in which we live – and the importance of squeezing every last dime out of the budget. It’s fair to guess, however, that wrangling over Michigan municipal budgets will not include a discussion of who should pay for toilet paper. There was a time, however, when the topic of toilet paper was fair game.

It is wise to choose one’s battles. For one hard-headed 1920 Ypsilanti alderman, the hill he chose to die on was a hill of toilet paper.


In 1919 the original Rest Room opened on the west side of Huron just north of Michigan Avenue.

In that time, the city was halfway between old-timey days and the modern age. Fewer than a third of its 7,400 residents had telephones. The Ypsi phone directory was nine pages long. Due to a limited supply of electricity, many city factories deferred working hours to the night time. And an ongoing “sanitary sewer” project, viewed as a progressive upgrade from noisome urban septic tanks and privies, emptied directly into the Huron River.

Issues before the city council reflected this time of transition. At its Oct. 4, 1920 meeting, the council weighed the street commissioner’s bill for oats for his horse. The bill had been carried over from a previous council meeting when aldermen had struggled but failed to resolve the issue of a horse’s feed.

One alderman was fed up. “Alderman Worden said he had bought oats about the same time for 85 cents a bushel, while the charge for oats in this bill was $1.35,” reported the Oct. 5, 1920 Daily Ypsilanti-Press.

“Profound silence on the part of the other aldermen.

“Finally it was moved that the bill be paid, and the vote was 9 to 1 in favor.” [Full Story]

In the Archives: “United States” Spoken Here

Editor’s note: Many who live in the U.S. are distrustful of other citizens because they speak a different language, dress in a markedly different way, or have other attributes that cause them to be perceived as “not from here.” One such group is Muslims. And anti-Muslim rhetoric reached a point recently that prompted the Ann Arbor city council to pass a resoluton calling for tolerance. In 2010 it may be anti-Muslim talk that predominates among the range of “anti” rhetoric. But around 90 years ago, it was anti-German.

“It must have dawned upon any impartial observer that German is a mighty unpopular language in this country just at present and getting no better fast,” read the June 13, 1918 Ypsilanti Record.

Fritz Metzger's restaurant at 32 North Huron in Ypsilanti (near the center of this photo) was across the street from Shaefer Hardware and the Great A&P Tea Company.

The article described a Ypsilanti-area farmer who stopped in at a downtown Ann Arbor restaurant and overheard two other customers conversing in German.

“He arose and went over to the men and suggested that they make their remarks in plain United States,” continued the article. An ensuing argument turned into a fistfight in the restaurant, and police were called. “When the officer arrived, the farmer walked up to them and said, ‘I guess I’m the man you want,’ and proceeded to explain the circumstances. Whereupon the officers decided that they were not looking for anyone and left.” [Full Story]

In The Archives: The Farmer and the Poet

Editor’s note: In today’s world of Facebook Friends, we befriend folks with a click of a button. We can be “friends” with just about anyone: Ashton Kutcher or Bruce Springsteen or Barack Obama. These are, of course, at best “friendships at a distance.” This week, local history columnist Laura Bien takes a look at the way similar friendships were claimed in a past era. It was a time when a farmer – who was also a poet – could write a letter to his favorite poet and hope to receive a hand-written reply. Even if it was a “friendship at a distance,” the imprint of a human hand seems more authentic than the click of a mouse.


Lambie self-addressed a prepaid postcard to send to his favorite poet.

Well-remembered are Robert Frost’s three sojourns to the University of Michigan in the 1920s, and his house on Pontiac Trail, now at the Henry Ford Museum. Forgotten are the works of Ypsilanti poet-farmer William Lambie.

Lambie belonged to a generation earlier than Frost, but like Frost, Lambie had Scottish blood and took as his subject the natural world. Unlike Frost, he never left the occupation of farming or made much money. Lambie never won anything more for his verses than friends’ approval, with one exception – a penny postcard that Lambie valued as priceless.

The postcard came from another poet whom Lambie admired. [Full Story]

In the Archives: Ale and Beef

Editor’s note: The last half of the 19th century was a golden age of patent medicines – elixirs that were generally not actually patented. The professional medical establishment was on guard against these concoctions. This is the tale of an Ann Arbor physician who spent part of his career debunking the patent medicines of others, but then went on to earn a living developing actual patents for products that began to show a resemblance to good, healthy food.

From one of Preston Rose's advertisements, in the October, 1892 issue of the magazine "Alienist and Neurologist."

Year-old aged beef bouillon blended with Canadian beer was the health remedy peddled by onetime University of Michigan urinalysist Preston B. Rose – after he was kicked out of the university.

A graduate with the class of 1862, Preston entered UM as an assistant chemistry instructor in the 1860s. He married Cornelia Esther Robinson in 1863. Preston departed from his wife and the university to serve in the Civil War with Michigan’s 5th Infantry Regiment. He worked as assistant surgeon, and was discharged due to his wounds, mustering out in 1865.

Back in Ann Arbor, part of Preston’s work involved exposing worthless patent medicines. That work was undertaken with the Washtenaw County Medical Society, which was founded in 1866. The society was mentioned in a 1906 book, “Past and Present of Washtenaw County,” written by Samuel Beakes, who served as mayor of Ann Arbor from 1888-1890. According to Beakes, the society analyzed many patent medicines, “and exposed their worthlessness.”

The Beakes volume goes on to name the man who would ultimately become Rose’s nemesis: “In this creditable work Dr. Silas H. Douglass, Dr. Albert B. Prescott and Dr. Preston B. Rose were chiefly active.”

It was Silas Douglass – Preston’s boss in the new chemistry department at UM – who would cause him no end of trouble. [Full Story]

In the Archives: Earth Closets

Editor’s note: Michigan’s economy in 2010 is in the crapper. So the theme of jobs growth and economic development is a part of political campaigns statewide – from city council contests on up to the gubernatorial race. Yet no candidate has identified indoor non-flushable toilets as a growth industry in Michigan – perhaps with good reason. We tried that before and it didn’t work out.  Local history author Laura Bien deftly treats this delicate topic with her trademark deadpan prose.


Description of William Heap's earth closet. (Image links to higher resolution file.)

In the late 19th century two University of Michigan professors of medicine and an Ypsilanti doctor championed a new sanitation technology. Despite their efforts spanning nearly 20 years, the earth closet turned out to be arguably the least enthusiastically adopted invention in Michigan history.

It was an era of primitive indoor toilets connected to odoriferous privy vaults – if you were lucky. Even elegant urban houses had backyard outhouses – such as Ann Arbor’s historic Kempf House.

Patented in England in 1873 by Henry Moule, the earth closet resembled a wooden box with a rear metal hopper. The hopper was filled with clean dry dirt. After using this commode, the user turned a small handle that dropped a small portion of dirt into the pail, covering its contents and rendering them allegedly odor-free. In time, the pail was removed and emptied, often on one’s garden. Lower-tech earth closets without a hopper had a nearby bucket of dirt on the floor.

It was a 19th-century composting toilet. [Full Story]

In The Archives: Accidental Photographer

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. [Full Story]

In the Archives: Fluffy Sparrow Heads

In the late 19th century, an interloper was committing thievery across Michigan.

Glimpsed now here, now there, the miscreant evaded capture, flitting away. Finally in the late 1880s the state responded to residents’ outrage and levied a bounty on the culprit’s head.

Its tiny, fluffy head: the offender was the English or house sparrow.


The feeble Flobert rifle was dissed by the catalog house selling it.

“This detestable bird is an imported resident,” said Charles Chapman in his 1881 “History of Washtenaw County.” The English sparrow had been introduced in Brooklyn in 1852 in the hope that it would eat harmful insects. It quickly spread across the continent. Wikipedia notes that today it is the world’s most widely distributed wild bird.

Chapman continued: “A few pair first made their appearance here in 1873; the streets of Ann Arbor are now overrun with them, and they are gradually making their way to the country. Wherever they locate they drive out the martin, blue-bird, swallows … They are a seed-eating bird, and in portions of Europe do great damage to the crops of the farmer.” [Full Story]

In The Archives: Bonnet-Starching Tips

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. [Full Story]

In the Archives: Two Worlds

Editor’s note: The new University of Michigan North Quad residential hall, which is opening this fall at the corner of State and Huron, will house the Global Scholars Program among various other initiatives. The goal of the program is reflected in a quote from a participant: “I learned to understand differences as diversity, not strangeness.” Historically, that attitude did not always serve as this country’s educational approach to other cultures – as this edition of Laura Bien’s bi-weekly history column shows.


Navajo student Tom Torlino at his arrival to Carlisle Indian School and three years later.

Eighteen-year-old George Moore boarded the eastbound train on a chill November day in 1898. Several of his schoolmates climbed on. The boys sat near Mrs. Lizzie McDonald, their guardian.

It would be a long journey.

Four days and three nights over the clacketing steel rails lay between his Idaho birthplace and a Pennsylvania boarding school.

Built in 1879, the Carlisle school was led by its founder Richard Henry Pratt, a former Civil War volunteer who after the war served as an officer in the 10th Cavalry. Its members included Buffalo Soldiers and Native American scouts. In western Indian Territory, Pratt’s group was in charge of enforcing reservation borders to protect settlers’ lands; Indians left the reservation to seek food.

Pratt was also put in charge of a group of Native American prisoners whom he treated humanely, comparatively speaking, even giving them sketch pads in which to draw their experiences. Years later in his book “Battlefield and Classroom,” Pratt wrote, “Talking with the Indians, I learned that most had received English education in home schools conducted by their tribal government. Their intelligence, civilization, and common sense was a revelation because I had concluded that as an Army officer I was there to deal with atrocious aborigines.”

However, in his later role as schoolmaster, he also said, “In Indian civilization I am a Baptist, because I believe in immersing the Indians in our civilization and when we get them under holding them there until they are thoroughly soaked.” Pratt had firm beliefs about how and why to educate his Carlisle students. In his era, Pratt’s assimilationist ideas were progressive.

George Moore, who had taken the train and attended the Carlisle School, eventually returned part-way back west – to Ypsilanti. [Full Story]

In the Archives: Victorian Era Death Photos

Editor’s note: Death as a part of life is a theme previously covered by the Chronicle in the form of a column by Jo Mathis: “Letting Go: Many ways to say good-bye to a loved one after death.” And the topic surfaced tangentially at a recent forum for candidates in the Democratic primary for the state House, when they were asked to comment on a state law requiring death certificates to be signed by a funeral director. In her regular local history column for The Ann Arbor Chronicle, Laura Bien takes a look at the role photography played over 100 years ago in documenting the deaths of children.

It was an era without personal cameras, much less digital memory cards storing thousands of shots. The 19th- and early 20th-century family photo albums in the Ypsilanti Archives often contain only one expensive formal studio portrait of each individual family member, or a single economical group portrait.

Obituary in the Ypsilanti Commercial: “DIED: On the 13th inst., Theodore W., only son of J. Willard and Florence Babbitt, aged 10 months.”

Child mortality was high. When a child or other family member died, families would on occasion arrange to have a photograph taken before burial. Sometimes it was the first and last photograph they would ever possess of their loved one.

The fifty-odd family photo albums in the Ypsilanti Archives contain about a dozen examples of these poignant memento mori. [Full Story]

In the Archives: Golden Age of Oysters

Editor’s note: For this installment of Laura Bien’s bi-weekly local history column she takes the Gulf oil spill as an opportunity to drill down into the local area history of oysters.

Detroit oyster packers and restaurants advertised in Ypsilanti papers.

The nation-wide restaurant chain Red Lobster is pulling oysters from its menu. So are other seafood restaurants around the country.

The nation’s oldest continually-operating oyster-shucking company, New Orleans’s P&J’s, has shut down. Nearby is French Quarter neighbor Antoine’s, New Orleans’ oldest restaurant that allegedly invented the sumptuous dish Oysters Rockefeller. The restaurant has kept the recipe secret to this day.

Less occult is that restaurants around the country who rely on Gulf oysters are in trouble. According to NOAA, the Gulf supplied around 67% percent of the nation’s oysters.

Closer to home and over 150 years ago, oysters came from a different coast. Packed in barrels and whisked from New York and Chesapeake Bay to Washtenaw on trains, oysters were a popular area food. [Full Story]

In the Archives: 10 Least Persuasive Ads

Editor’s note: For this installment of Laura Bien’s bi-weekly local history column she counts down a top 10 list of least persuasive advertisements in old time Ypsilanti newspapers.

10. One early cereal offered a transformative experience.

Jim Dumps was a most unfriendly man,
who lived his life on the hermit plan;
In his gloomy way he’d gone through life,
And made the most of woe and strife;
Till Force one day was served to him-
Since then they’ve called him “Sunny Jim.”

Force breakfast wheat flakes were advertised in a 1902 Ypsilanti newspaper with one of the first brand mascots, Sunny Jim. It was only seven years earlier that John Harvey Kellogg had patented his “Flaked Cereals and Process for Preparing Same.” The popular Force ad campaign used six-line verses written by Minnie Maud Hanff and illustrated by Dorothy Ficken.

Jim Dumps asserted, “Too much meat
In summer causes too much heat.
What shall we eat all summer long,
That, without meat, shall keep us strong,
And in the best of summer trim?”
“Why, ‘Force,’ of course,” laughed ‘Sunny Jim.’

Though the poems now seem quaint, in his time Sunny Jim was a popular cultural icon for the cereal that promised “the strength of meat, without the heat.”

(Image links to higher resolution file.)

[Full Story]

In the Archives: The Girl Who Burned

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.” [Full Story]

In the Archives: Ypsi’s Submarine Diver

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. [Full Story]

In the Archives: The Male Suffragette

Editor’s Note: With primary election season starting to warm up, and an exhibit on suffrage planned for this coming winter at Ann Arbor’s Museum on Main Street, local history columnist Laura Bien takes a look back at the history of the local suffrage movement.

“Baby suffrage” is what one Detroit newspaper proposed in 1874. In that year, Michigan voted on whether to remove the word “male” from a part of its Constitution related to voting. The paper sneered that infants voting in polling booths would be the next step if women were given the vote.

Pattison chose as his bold motto  Free to Do Right: To Do Wrong, Never.

Charles Rich Pattison chose as his bold motto for The Commercial "Free to Do Right: To Do Wrong, Never."

Newspapers of that era often served as explicit vehicles for their editors’ opinions and prejudices. As they did with the Temperance issue, papers across Michigan chose a side in the suffrage question in the key year of 1874.

Their pro- and anti-suffrage positions reflected the divided opinions not just on the national level, but, as in Ypsilanti, on a municipal level.

Edited by Charles Woodruff, the Ypsilanti Sentinel was against suffrage for women. It regularly published editorials that disparaged the idea and disparaged the Sentinel’s competing paper, The Commercial, which was led by arguably the most outspoken editor in Ypsilanti history. [Full Story]

In The Archives: Highland Cemetery Redux

Editor’s note: The previous installment of Laura Bien’s local history column was a walking tour of the southern half of Highland Cemetery. This installment takes readers through the northern half.

Highland cemetery gravestones

The Scovill-Jarvis graves provide a good example of a trio of hand iconography.

Arguably the most beautiful spot in Washtenaw County, Highland Cemetery offers an outstanding chance to examine 19th-century grave symbols. The following self-guided 2-hour tour, available as a .pdf, highlights a range of some of the northern half of the cemetery’s most interesting symbols. Numbers in the text correspond to the map.

Visitors can reach the cemetery by traveling down Washtenaw to its terminus on Huron. Turn left on Huron and right on Cross Street through Depot Town. At the remains of the Thompson Building at River, turn left. You will pass Forest Avenue and the ornate brick Swain home on the northeast corner of Forest and River. Continue down River; Highland Cemetery is a quarter mile down on the left.

Inside the main gates, open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. until April 30 and 8 a.m.-7 p.m. from May 1 to Sept. 30, a small parking lot appears on the right. Park here and walk west to Starkweather Chapel at the end of the main driveway.

On the north (right) side of the chapel, three paths diverge. Take the middle path. A few steps down on the left is the grave of Maria Towler (1) with this barely legible poem: [Full Story]

In the Archives: Highland Cemetery Tour

Editor’s note: Laura Bien’s local history column this week is a walking tour of the southern part of Highland Cemetery. Although she’s supplied a printable version with a map, as the gentlest of prods for readers to visit the cemetery, those who settle in to read the description onscreen will find that it hews to The Chronicle’s motto: “It’s like being there.” Bien’s columns come in a bi-weekly rhythm, and the next one will cover the northern part of the cemetery.

Arguably the most beautiful spot in Washtenaw County, Highland Cemetery offers an outstanding chance to examine 19th-century grave symbols. The following self-guided 1-hour tour, available in printable .pdf format with a map, highlights a range of the most interesting symbols in the southern half of the cemetery. Numbers in the text correspond to the map.

Highland Cemetery

An unusual depiction of a ship on a grave marker, seen at the end of the tour.

Visitors can reach the cemetery by traveling down Washtenaw to its terminus on Huron. Turn left on Huron and right on Cross Street through Depot Town. At the remains of the Thompson Building at River, turn left. You will pass Forest Avenue and the ornate brick Swain home on the northeast corner of Forest and River. Continue down River; Highland Cemetery is a quarter mile down on the left.

Inside the main gates, open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. until April 30 and 8 a.m.-7 p.m. from May 1 to September 30, a small parking lot appears on the right. Park here and walk west to Starkweather Chapel at the end of the main driveway. [Full Story]

In the Archives: The Toad Survey of 1910

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.” [Full Story]

In the Archives: Paper Pennies of Ypsi’s Past

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. [Full Story]

In the Archives: Runway to the Future

Editor’s note: At a recent meeting of the Ann Arbor city council, an item in the city’s capital improvements plan to shift and extend the runway at Ann Arbor’s municipal airport generated much discussion.  This installment of “In the Archives” takes a look at Ypsilanti’s airport, which has faded from the landscape.

The delicate blue Waco 10 biplane roared 10 feet over the grass, past the crowd in the stands. Approaching trees at the airfield’s far end, its nose rose and it climbed, becoming smaller and smaller in view.

Waco 10 biplane

An photograph of a Waco 10 from the airshow program. Five aviators at the 1927 Ypsilanti air show competed in the cutting-edge biplane. (Photos courtesy of the Ypsi Archives.)

The gargling buzz of its 90-horsepower engine grew fainter, until the craft sounded like a distant housefly. Watchers from Detroit, Ypsilanti, and Ann Arbor under the 4 o’clock June sun shaded their eyes with their hands.

The buzz stopped: 1,500 feet in the air, the plane was without power.

The biplane arced to the left, trying to loop back towards the field. The crowd watched intently. The biplane curved again, losing altitude. A box of popcorn fell from the hand of a little boy watching, his mouth open. The plane’s wings wobbled. Airplane and crowd were quiet. On a nearby farm, a dog barked.

The plane dropped. Nearing the field, it slowed, its toylike wheels just a yard over the ground. The plane nearly stalled – and then landed as gently as a butterfly. It rolled to a stop. Its nose nearly touched a black and white checkered pylon. The crowd began clapping and cheering as two men ran to the plane and stretched a yellow measuring tape between the plane’s silver nose and the pylon. One yelled a number. The crowd grew louder, some people standing to cheer and whistle.

The pilot grinned and thrust both fists up. He’d won the “dead-stick” engine-off gliding and landing contest at the 1927 Ypsilanti Airport air show. [Full Story]

In the Archives: Bloomers and Bicycles

Editor’s note: At January’s meeting of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board, Ann Arbor’s mayor suggested that the DDA’s transportation committee bring a recommendation to the board to take a position on bicycling on Ann Arbor’s downtown sidewalks.

The fight to keep bikes off of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti sidewalks dates back to the first appearance over a century ago of what many perceived to be “infernal machines.”

Thompson Bike

O.E. Thompson was Ypsilanti's leading seller of bicycles. (Images link to higher resolution files.)

The 1876 Ann Arbor city charter contains no mention of bicycles – it wouldn’t be until two years later that A. A. Pope manufactured the first bicycles in the U.S. The invention spread across the nation, threw city fathers into consternation as they scrambled for their city charters, and incited Ann Arbor’s “Bloomer War.”

It also inspired the creation of a nationwide organization of cyclists, the League of American Wheelmen. Its Michigan chapter’s 1897 edition of their “Road Book” recommended one 271.5-mile jaunt from Detroit to Chicago. Another route circled Lake Erie. The guidebook gave instructions for rides from Ann Arbor to Chelsea, Saline, Whitmore Lake, Pontiac, South Lyon and Dundee.

“Gravel roads will average as shown during entire riding season,” the book stated, “clay ones only in dry seasons.” The L.A.W. received a discount from 66 Michigan hotels ranging from Marquette to Coldwater. In Ann Arbor, the L.A.W.’s hotel was the American House (15% discount), and its Ypsilanti refuge was the Hawkins House (20%). [Full Story]

In the Archives: Ypsilanti’s Waldorf-Astoria

Editor’s note: “In the Archives” is a biweekly series on local area history. In the coming week, on Jan. 19-20, the city of Ann Arbor will interview proposers of different projects for the top of a new underground parking garage at the Library Lot – including some developers who would like to build a hotel there. In this installment of her historical look back, Laura Bien offers a vignette of life just east of Ann Arbor, in Ypsilanti’s Huron Hotel, just after it had opened.

Eula Beardsley and Gladys Huston exited the front door of their Ypsilanti rooming house at Adams and Pearl one late December day in 1924.

Huron Hotel

The hotel opened in 1923, the year that residents celebrated the city's centennial. At left is the Washington Street entrance to the coffee shop and at right is the main Pearl Street entrance. (Image links to higher resolution file.)

“Colder than I thought,” said Gladys. Eula pulled shut the front door. “You’ll warm up at that big lunch today.” The pair walked one block east on Pearl Street, passing shiny rows of black cars in the Wiedman auto dealership to their left.

They crossed Washington, headed towards the door of the elegant new Huron Hotel on the northeast corner of Pearl and Washington.

Two years earlier, the only accommodations the city could offer guests were at the old-fashioned Hawkins House on Michigan Avenue between Washington and Adams. Built in the 19th century, the place had a worn-out and rustic atmosphere. The Ypsilanti Board of Commerce decided the city needed a modern, attractive hotel. It sold shares of stock to city residents, raised $200,000, and built the hotel in eight months, adding two additional floors two years later. [Full Story]