|Washtenaw County Historical Society|
|History of the Washtenaw County Historical Society|
When I first started this project, I wondered how on earth I was going to fill a half-hour. Thanks to the research done by Ralph Beebe, who handed me an inch thick folder of material, I had to decide how I could fit it all into a half-hour.
SIGNIFICANT DATES IN SOCIETY HISTORY
On December 17, 1857, 19 citizens of Ann Arbor called for “a county convention for the purpose of forming a County Historical Association” to be composed of anyone from the townships who cared to attend. The meeting was held at the Court House for the purpose of organizing a Washtenaw Historical Society. John Geddes became the chair of a committee consisting of one representative from each township plus the city of Ann Arbor. The committee was appointed to draw up a constitution “to awaken an interest in the towns.” The group met again on January 13, 1858 to adopt the constitution and elect officers. The Honorable Munnis Kinney of Webster Township was elected president. The object (what today would be called a mission statement) was “to collect and preserve the history of the first settlement and growth of Washtenaw County, and to publish the same from time to time as shall be deemed advisable.” No records of meetings beyond 1862 have been found to date. It appears the organization continued and that artifacts and archival material continued to be collected but the Civil War may have been the reason for the suspension of meetings.
In April 1873, the state legislature passed a resolution calling for the collecting and preserving of historical information relating to Michigan which resulted in the formation of the Historical Society of Michigan. This probably led Gen. Edward Clark, President of the Ann Arbor Pioneer & Historical Society to call for a meeting on Aug. 19, 1873 to reactivate the county society. A constitution and by-laws were adopted that same day and we became ‘The Pioneer Society of the County Washtenaw.” Alpheus Felch, ex-governor of Mich., former Justice of the Peace, former U.S. Senator and a UM law professor was elected president. The object stated this time was “to cultivate social relations, collect and preserve biographical sketches, statistics and historical facts and reminiscences, and to preserve and transmit the same to future generations.” Members had to be a resident of the county for at least 20 years and dues were 25 cents a year.
In 1876 the Society was incorporated under state law, dues were to be no less than 25 cents and no more than $3.00, members had to be “not less than 40 years of age, who had resided in the county 25 years.” At a meeting in 1883, the Honorable E.P. Allen of Ypsilanti stated, “We are now living in the high noon of the last civilization the world will know until it is burned up, and I do not believe the progress of the fifty years to come will be equal to that of the past half century.”
Meetings were held in various locations around the county—at first in alternate months, then quarterly and finally only annually and on special occasions such as the 4th of July. Meetings were an all day affair with a business meeting in the morning, lunch prepared by the local ladies, and then reports and, if time, reminiscences of members. The Society necrologist, keeper of the death list, would read the list of members who had died since the previous annual meeting. The year 1879 was an especially bad year because, at the January 1880 meeting, necrologist Charles Chapin read a list of 72 names with a short bio for each. Some who died in that year were William Dancer, Thomas Peatt (his name will come up again later), the Honorable James Kingsley, Sylvester Noble (home was an underground railroad stop) and Calvin Fillmore, builder of Gordon Hall and brother of President Millard Fillmore. It appears that no meetings were held after 1925.
In 1929, the third constitution was drawn up. A new constitution was necessary because the organizers discovered that the old charter had expired in 1906. By this time the pioneers were getting fewer and fewer. The age and residency requirements were dropped and the name was changed to Washtenaw Historical Society. It was felt that the word county limited the activities of the Society. The objects stated this time were “to foster interest in the history of the Washtenaw Area, and to assemble and preserve in permanent collections all materials relating to that history.” In 1943, the dues were $1.00 or one could get a lifetime membership for $50. By 1947, the lifetime membership cost had dropped to $25. There were 24 lifetime members in 1950.
Upon expiration of that charter, the Society reincorporated in 1955. When that charter expired in 1985, we were reincorporated in perpetuity as a non-profit organization and the name was changed to Washtenaw County Historical Society.
Through all of that time the Society never had a home. The need for a permanent site was first expressed in 1874 by William Gregory of Saline. In 1930, Dr. Carl Guthe, president of the Society, stated that “the development and fostering of community memory is the function of the WHS” and “the Society is making definite plans for securing an adequate home for the county’s memory.” Over the years, many locations were mentioned and some discussed at length.
In 1942, Marie Louise Douglass, daughter of Dr. Silas H. Douglass, bequeathed her home at 502 E. Huron along with real estate owned on E. Washington to the Regents of the University of Michigan “being it expressly provided, however, that it be known as the Washtenaw Historical Museum” and “that the enterprise be conducted as a joint museum for the display of the property of the Washtenaw Historical Museum, under the supervision of the Regents of the University of Michigan, with such cooperation, between the groups as may be desirable to effectuate that purpose.” The Society was not specifically mentioned but most interpreted the will to include the Society because many of her personal items were left to the Society. The Regents tentatively accepted the terms and the Society held a special meeting to discuss the proposal. It was felt that $150,000 would be needed. Due to the war, most funds were going to the war effort and the Society decided they could not obtain the needed money so they declined. The committee noted that there were a number of other suitable residences in Ann Arbor that might be purchased or donated with an endowment for upkeep.
In 1955, the Society launched a drive to purchase Cobblestone Farm. They needed to raise $40,000 but were unable to do so.
Other sites mentioned were Kempf House (too small), Danforth House at 303 E. Ann (demolished), one of the empty store fronts on Main St. Tuomy House was explored in 1967 (and again in 1996 and yet again in 2005). The fire house was considered but rejected due to lack of parking (sure doesn’t seem to be a problem for the Hands-On Museum).
In 1974, Dave Pollack offered to purchase four acres of land on Fleming Creek from Fred Matthaei, Jr. which would include the grist mill and land to build a museum. The Society decided it would be too expensive. The spot, Parker Mill, is now run by the County Parks Commission.
One site that almost was successful was the Barton Dam Powerhouse. In 1977, the Society signed a lease for the Powerhouse and three acres of land. One problem was the access which was off Barton Shore Drive, a private road in Barton Hills. The city agreed to build a new access road off Whitmore Lake Rd. on land that it would purchase. The access problem, the dampness issue, and the inability to raise the money, not to mention the fact that the city decided to reclaim it to generate electricity, resulted in the loss of yet another potential site. We did hold an exhibit at the powerhouse as a fund raiser.
The final chapter in our search began in the late 1980s when the University decided to demolish a home at 1015 Wall St. for a parking lot. . When Susan Wineberg heard about it, she wrote a letter to the university planner, Fred Mayer, explaining the significance of the house and asking if they would consider moving it. The original lot on Wall Street was sold to Thomas Peatt by Anson Brown’s widow and subsequently sold to Dan Kellogg and Ethan Warden. The rear section of the house was built in 1835 by Dorr, Dwight and Dan Kellogg. The front section was added in 1839 when Charles and his wife came from New York state.
The university offered the house to the city which accepted, then decided six months later that they had no use for it. At that time, Thelma Graves, a board member, suggested to the society president, Karen O’Neal, that the Society try to acquire the house from the University. Through Karen O’Neal’s determination, the support of the university ,the city’s agreement to lease the land and in spite of setbacks, including a determination by the DNR that the soil was contaminated by the gas station previously on the site, the project became a reality. On Sunday, June 10, 1990, the Society’s first home, the Museum on Main Street, rolled across the Broadway bridge and was set on cribbing, 133 years after John Geddes called for the formation of a society.
Once on the site, the real work began. Nine years of restoration! After restoration, a grand opening was held in May 1999. It was decided early on that it would be and exhibit museum with changing exhibits not a house museum because it would be a better use of our collection. The first exhibit ‘In the Good Old Summertime’ opened in the summer of 2000. Since 2000 we have held three to four exhibits each year including “Delivery Days” and “Weddings of Yore”. Each year at Christmas time we have a holiday exhibit with a theme. In 2003, we featured toys and dollhouses. In 2004, the exhibit was ‘A Taste of the Season’ and featured the Bach china service.
Other groups have mounted exhibits at our facility. These include the Mason’s, Northfield and Pittsfield Township, Saline, a joint exhibit with the African American Museum featuring the story of the county’s participation in the Underground Railroad combined with the quilts from our collection. Our director, Alice Cerniglia, was hired in January of 2004. One of her jobs is to mount exhibits which have included “Women’s Work and Style 1837-1914”, and “The Sewing Arts.”
Work on the museum is never done. Last summer, Ed Rice, graduate of EMU Historic Preservation program and an instructor at McComb Community College, worked through the hottest days with his volunteers to repaint the fence and house. He had previously scraped and repainted the front door removing many layers of paint.
WHERE WAS OUR ‘STUFF’ DURING THOSE 133 YEARS?
Papers and artifacts were collected from the beginning. One of the oldest items in the collection is a mortar and pestle identified as belonging to Ephram Smith, “a ‘physicker’ in the U.S. army during the entire war of revolution.” Things have been stored in members’ basements, in barns, in various city and county buildings. In 1879, the Society was given a room on the third floor of the Court House, moved to the basement in 1882 and then back to the third floor sometime after that. In 1916, most of the archives and paper goods were given to the Michigan Historical Collection housed in Rackham (later moved to the Bentley Historical Library) and some were sent to the State Museum in Lansing. The rest of the artifacts stayed in the Court House until 1924. In the 1940s, things were at the University Museums Building, then back on the upper floor of the Court House, then at Bach School and then at Fritz school on N. Maple. From the Fritz school, things went to the third floor of the City Hall Annex and next went to the Tuomy house barn and to Poole’s barn on Scio Church Rd.
In 1975, nearly everything was moved to University storage facilities at Willow Run—not an ideal location but better than barns. They filled five rooms and eventually grew to seven rooms. When I first saw the collection in 1993, every room was piled floor to ceiling with boxes, furniture, paper goods that had been returned by the Bentley when they ran low on storage and who knew what. Collection chair, Nancy McKinney, and a small but dedicated group began to conduct an inventory to see what was there. (the previous inventory was done in 1975 when the things were moved there).
Not everything was in storage all the time. From time to time, artifacts were taken out of storage and small exhibits were set up in various locations which not only generated interest but more donations. Also, we have many items on loan all around the county—at Kempf House, Cobblestone Farm, Hack House in Milan, the Dexter Area Historical Society, a piano in the Stearns collection and also some items retained by the Bentley.
When the basement was dug for the Museum on Main St., the plans called for a height of nine feet to give us plenty of storage space. As a result of a donation by Doris Anna Bach, we were able to install state-of –the art moveable storage shelves and our collection has finally found a permanent resting place. In addition, we have a wonderful climate controlled, accessible storage area at Sweepster on Zeeb Rd. for large items. Now our things are only a floor or, at most, five miles away as opposed to the 20 miles to Willow Run.
HOW DO WE REACH OUT TO THE PUBLIC?
Offsite exhibits are placed around the community. We have had two exhibits at University Hospital as part of the Gift of Arts series. In March I took a small exhibit of farms and farm tools to the first annual Project Grow Seed Swap. Next March, a part of the Women’s Work and Style exhibit will be on display in the Mallett Creek branch of the Ann Arbor District Library.
We have two loan boxes , “From Hats to Spats” and “Life Before Electricity”, that are rented to teachers. Each contains artifacts, books, lessons and a teacher guide.
Our newsletter, Washtenaw Impressions, is published seven times a year. The first Impressions came out in 1943 and were just a printout of the program from the meeting. Many of them were published by Lela Duff. In 1975, Alice Ziegler became the editor and the first pictures were included. Alice resigned after 25 years and Susan Wineberg took over. Our current editor is Laura Bien.
We have two "What’s It?" games that can be taken to organizations, clubs, scouts, schools upon request. There is a version for children with 12 artifacts and an adult version with 20 artifacts. Participants are encouraged to look the items over and fill out a multiple-choice questionaire. Then the answers are given with comments about each artifact. We have the adult version with us today. You are invited to look it over and I will give the answers after the break.
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