Monday, January 10, 2011

My Modern Suburban City Was Once a Village of the 19th Century

I'd like to give you a little history of my hometown of East Detroit/Eastpointe, a city where I have lived since I moved here with my family back in 1968 when I was seven. It is a suburb of Detroit and has quite a history.

A little country church - St. Peter's Lutheran Church built in 1859 and located at 9 Mile and Gratiot (where Big Boy Restaurant and the gas station now sit on the corner).
~note the graveyard on the side~

The area now known as Eastpointe was founded in the early part of the 19th century by the European immigrants who came to establish homes in the New World. Originally known, in 1837, as Orange Township, by 1843 the area was renamed Erin Township, both names indicating that the earliest settlers were Irish. The Irish were followed by pioneers from Bavaria, Macklenburg, Saxony and other provinces of Germany. The German migration began in the early 1830's and soon became the majority of the settlement.

The school, church, and tavern were the centers of the social life in this community of the 19th century. Quilting bees, box socials, and spelling matches were the main events for entertainment. Corn husking bees, sleigh rides, and square dancing added variety to the rural life in the fall and winter. On the 4th of July a picnic was held on the grounds at 9 Mile and Gratiot, and a Dutch band from Detroit provided the music. This band also made a practice of going house to house and serenading the occupants, receiving coins in return. (taken from the Halfway / East Detroit Story by Robert Christenson)

What is now Gratiot Avenue (the main thoroughfare that runs through Eastpointe) was once an Indian trail cut through the wilderness. In the early 1800’s, the army surveyed the roadway and shortly after built a plank road. Logs were cut horizontally and laid across to elevate the road above water. This military road led from Fort Wayne in Detroit to Fort Gratiot (now Port Huron). 
This is how what is now 9 Mile and Gratiot looked in the 1850's. Note the plank road.
In 1850, a plank toll road replaced the original road. The toll was one cent for each horse. As the community grew, so did Gratiot's importance, and businesses and homes typical of the times were built along the ever-popular road, including a horse seller and trader, a general store, a church with a cemetery, homes...
...but changes were on the way...
Are you looking to purchase, sell or exchange your horse? Well, you could in Township of Halfway!

The Township form of government lasted until December 8, 1924, when the Village of Halfway was incorporated. The name Halfway was first officially recorded in 1895, with the opening of the Halfway Post Office. This name was given to the community in the early days when the Halfway House, located at what is now the Eastbrooke Commons shopping center at 9 Mile and Gratiot, was a regular stopping place for stagecoaches traveling between Detroit and Mount Clemens. (A personal aside about the Halfway House: when the building was torn down, the bricks were re-used to build a house on a nearby street. It was this house built of 19th century bricks that I grew up in.)
The bricks from this 1890 structure - the Halfway House - were used to build the 1941 house in which I grew up
The phenomenal growth in the village during the next five years qualified Halfway for city status. The name was changed to the City of East Detroit on January 7, 1929, by first a vote of the people followed by the approval of the Michigan State Legislature.
In 1992 the city of East Detroit was once again renamed by a vote of the people to the City of Eastpointe. The association with Detroit was too much for some folks to bear evidently.
Eastpointe today has a few homes from the late 19th century that still stand, but the majority were built from the 1920's through the 1950's. Most of the commercial structures from a hundred or more years ago are no longer around, unfortunately. We have many fine photos, however, that show us what the city looked like in past times.

A threshing machine on the Moss farm. This was located on what is now 8 Mile Road - yes, the very same 8 Mile from the movie of the same name featuring rapper Eminem

And, oh! I want to go back...back in time... and visit!

One of the buildings that we have been fortunate enough to retain is the original 1872 schoolhouse. The following not only gives a fine description of the structure itself, but a little on its history during and after its tenure as a schoolhouse:

History and Exterior Features:
The Halfway Schoolhouse was built in 1872, where it sat facing Grove Street on Nine.

Mile Road (known as 'School Road' during that time due to the numerous schoolhouses that stood along the road's edges) until 1921, the year it closed.

School Road - now 9 Mile Rd. - Notice the schoolhouse on the left. I can tell you 9 Mile certainly doesn't look like this anymore! But, the schoolhouse has been restored and now sits within 100 feet of its original location

It was that same year that Mr. Kaiser, who had recently started his own fuel and supply business with his sons, bought the building and moved it, by way of horses and skids, to the southeast corner on Nine Mile Road and Gratiot; the structure was now used mainly as a warehouse for coal supplies and storage, which lasted from 1921 to 1984. To turn the old schoolhouse into a warehouse he covered the windows, walls, and flooring, thereby preserving local history. It's been said he did this purposely. We are in his debt for having the historical preservation foresight that he did.

In 1984 the East Detroit Historical Society - and more specifically John Gardiner, its then current president and superintendent of the school district - enabled the school system to purchase the building back from the Kaisers and move it back to within 20 yards of the original site on September 4th, 1984. This was when restoration began on the old building.

Now it stands as it once did in 1872 when it was built to accommodate additional children because the "Red" schoolhouse was too small.

The outside of the building has the following features:
  • Cedar shake shingles on the roof , same as the original shingles.
  • Green shutters at all of the windows.
  • Roundel located high above the front door.
  • Plank walk and porch.
  • High roof structure (known as cupola) where the bell is located.
The bell was rung to begin and end the school day. The original 1872 bell is on display inside the schoolhouse. It was cracked during the unloading from a truck when the school was moved. The green shutters were originally closed to keep out the cold. The round badge in front, dated 1872, with the school district noted on it is called a roundel.
Plank walks lead to a porch also made of planks. The windows are very much shaped like those in churches, so the building has a church-like appearance which was common for schoolhouses in those days.

The Interior:
Two doorways lead into the main room of the schoolhouse. The cloakroom, where boys and girls stored their coats and lunches, is to the left of the entrance. Originally, the boys went in on the left of the doorway, and the girls went to the right. The boys sat at desks to the left and the girls to the right. The girls always entered first and stood at their desks and waited for the boys.

The desks are the old bench-type desks with holes for the ink wells. The smaller desks in the front were for the younger children, while the larger desks in the rear were for the older children. Remember, teachers taught children from first to eighth grade, and sometimes to the twelfth grade in one room.

The kerosene reflector lamps along the windows were used for light before electricity was invented in the early 1900s. It wasn't until about 1915 that the upper globe lights were put into the building.
The round oak stove toward the rear of the building was originally located toward the front of the room. In 1872, it had a long stove pipe leading to the chimney.

The well worn, original, 1872 floor has been preserved.
Along the sides of the wall are boards known as wainscoting. The platform to the front is where the teacher's desk was positioned. In those days, teacher's desks usually sat on platforms. Behind the platform is a slate board that both teachers and students wrote upon. The black painted board was the forerunner of the "blackboard" of today.
The clock above the board is the same kind of clock that would have ticked off the hours for those students that attended this schoolhouse. The long bench was used by students "eagerly" awaiting the chance to recite what they learned to their teacher.

Schoolhouse Feature Summary:

*Platform, teacher's desk (1844)
and hand bell of the period.

* Clock above teacher's desk-1844
* Reflector kerosene lamps of the
19th century

Original hardwood floors
Wainscoting around walls
* Globe lights are original--early
1900s prior to closing of building
in 1921

Cathedral-like windows typical of the Victorian period

Two doorways--girls sat on right and boys on left
Bench-type desks with wrought iron decor
Robert S. Christenson Showcase--Author of the Halfway-East Detroit Story.
Bench for reciting typical of the period
The Cupola that original held the school bell announcing the start of school (the original 1872 bell is now on display inside the building)

Bookcase with books of the period (between 1872 and 1921)
* Roundel Round badge located high above front doors identifying the school and date established
Various artifacts of the period
Decorative wood carving around doors and windows typical of the period
Siding put on in 1902. Under current siding is board and batten vertical siding of 1872.

There are other structures in Eastpointe that have been restored, most notably the old Ameis home, built around 1890. To my knowledge, this house and the schoolhouse are the only two buildings from the 19th century that have been preserved authentically.

The Ameis House, built around 1890
~This house has been beautifully restored~
In fact, the Ameis home is now owned by a family who is passionate about history and has restored the house to its former glory. And, yes, they live there, raising their children in the wonderful atmosphere of late Victoriana.
Ameis Hardware around 1900. This was located on the east side of Gratiot and south of 9 Mile

Here's the 1909 reference to Halfway (now Eastpointe) written in the 1909 Detroit City Directory...(even though this is from 1909, it still is a wonderful reference and gives a fine representation of the Village in its early days):
Population 375.
On the Rapid Railway (electric).
In Erin township, Macomb County, 10 miles from Mt. Clemens, the county seat, and the same distance from Detroit.
Mail, daily.  (Mail was delivered to the hotel at that time for residents and businesses to pick up)
Telephone connection.
Herman Hummrich,postmaster.
Ameis Nicholas, hdware and farm ipts.
Blackett, Alfred, gardener,
Corlette, James, physician,
Gerlach, Frank P., wire fence, mnfr.
Goetsch, Emil, gardener,
Hummrich, Herman, General Store and Hotel,
Hummrich, Lulu, music teacher.
Hund, George, saloon and grocer,
Kaiser, Cris, coal
Kerwin, Sarah, teacher
Kerwin, Theresa, teacher
Landenschneider, Henry, potash mnfr
Rein, August, general store
Loell, Rev. John (German Lutheran
Spens, John, general store
Wiessmiller, Rev Lorenz (Ger. Lutheran)

To see Eastpointe here in the 21st, along with too many other towns and villages across the map, most would never know it's rich history. As I said, we are fortunate to have a few old buildings from more than 100 years ago, but that's not enough. In our throw away society, we not only destroy our history, but replace the grand structures of old with cookie-cutter throw away buildings where it's obvious no sense of pride went into the planning or construction.

What a shame.
But, I am proud of what Eastpointe has been able to retain over the years. And, hopefully, we can continue to do so with the many, many homes built in the early 20th century.
Let's hope...
Read (and see) more about the history of the City of Eastpointe in two wonderful books: The Halfway/East Detroit Story by Robert S. Christenson, and Eastpointe, Michigan (Images of America) by Suzanne DeClaire Pixley.

Both books are available through the East Detroit Historical Society

PO Box 110, Eastpointe, MI 48021

And the address of the Schoolhouse is:

15500 9 Mile Road

Eastpointe, Michigan 48021

Or order Suzanne's "Images of America" book from

And visit our Facebook page.

Have you ever checked out your town's history?

(many thanks to the East Detroit Historical Society for the photos!)



Stephanie Ann said...

That "Halfway house" is absolutely beautiful as were all of the photos. This is an interesting post as home never feels as important or exotic as everyone else' homes. :D

Historical Ken said...

Thank you Stephanie.How I wish they would've kept that beautiful house!
It's unfortunate that most of my hometown's history is now relegated to photographs, so, really, except for a few historic structures, it's just another suburb.
Not very exotic at all...

moonshadow325 said...

Great info! I live not too far from you, and a few years ago lived in Eastpointe. I often drive by the school on my way home, but have never been inside. Thanks for posting the old photos, I love looking at what cities used to be.