Sunday, January 22, 2012

Victorian Detroit (Detroit Wasn't Always the Motor City)

The Motor City. Motown. Murder City. Car Capital of the World.
Yep - that's the Detroit I know...

~~~~~Detroit - A Victorian Metropolis~~~~~

Yep. Detroit, this industrialized Rust Belt grunge town was once at the height of Victoriana.
Gas Street Light on Gratiot Avenue 1882
A frontier town in what was considered the west at the turn of the 19th century, Detroit grew in size as the decades progressed. And as the town slowly turned into a city, the frontier town atmosphere continued to prevail and "a system of plank roads leading out of Detroit was established. They follow precisely the paths of today's main arteries - Michigan Avenue, Grand River, Woodward, Gratiot, and Jefferson. There were fine residential areas on its approximately ninety streets...
In 1851, gaslights began to replace the use of tallow candles or lamps which burned lard and whale oil, (and) the curfew bell rang at six in the morning, noon, and six and nine at night to give the citizens the time."
The first signs of major industry emerged in the 1840's and 50's as the value of Michigan's timber, iron ore, copper, and other natural resources became apparent. With all of this progress, it was only a matter of time that Detroit would get the modern transport system of horse-drawn streetcars, which made their first appearance in 1863 on Jefferson Avenue.

But Detroit proper was also surrounded by small villages - not unlike the suburbs of today - villages that eventually became part of the city itself. I'd like to tell of one in particular:

Leesville, a tiny hamlet built upon a cucumber farm owned by someone named Howcroft in 1853, was on the outskirts of the much larger *metropolis* of Detroit. The search for a church site led to the start of this village in the area of intersection of Harper (called Butler at the time) and Gratiot. Englishman Charles Lee is credited with founding the village with a Methodist church and a school. The church served the residents of Leesville for a number of years, and sources tend to affirm that this is the same church that was commonly known as "Lees Chapel," located at Gratiot and what is now Georgia Street. In those early years, church was a simple decision for the residents of Leesville: Protestants went to Lees Chapel and Catholics went to Assumption Grotto (built in 1832 and is still standing) in the nearby village of Connor's Creek.
Lees Chapel was among the few country-style churches of its time in this area.
A number of years later, talk of building another church occurred when a group of residents, dissatisfied with the Methodist faith, began discussion of the formation of an Episcopal mission in their town and planned to start their own small Episcopalian church. This is said to have taken place as early as the mid-1860's. The Church of Our Savior was officially founded in 1874, with Thomas Lee among the founders. The church building, located two blocks over from Lee's Chapel, was completed in 1875, and was designed by William Cooper, the eldest son of Henry Cooper, who supplied the bricks for the building. William Cooper was not a trained architect, but had worked in the building trades and trained himself to design and build. This is the small building in the classical church style that you see in the picture (that I took in January 2012) below. This brick church—now painted white—was designed and built by William Cooper who was, presumably, a resident of this area.
It is certain that the Church of Our Savior is the last remaining building of the town center, which included, among other things, a general store, butcher shop and a sawmill.

The former Church of Our Savior: the only remnant left from Leesville still standing
By 1876, Leesville had more than 100 homes and many large farms. Bricks for many of the Detroit area's new homes were made at the Leesville and Peter Hunt brickyards.
Leesville, as stated before, was built on the site once belonging to a cucumber farmer, and that reputation stayed with the area well into the later part of the 19th century. In fact, a road in the village was named Cucumber Lane. The name was later changed to Georgia.
This early village was also a major interurban and streetcar stop, eventually becoming the site of the Detroit United Railway (DUR) streetcar barns at the turn of the 20th century. It also had its own postmaster from the 1870's through the 1890's.
Leesville got its first electric street lights in 1902, and by 1915 became part of the ever-growing city of Detroit, though some sources say it became absorbed by Detroit as early as 1896. Maybe it did at the earlier date but change and acceptance was slow in coming. Just an assumption...
There were many early villages such as Leesville on what was then the outskirts of Detroit proper - more than 40, in fact - and they all sooner or later were swallowed up and became part of Detroit itself. I chose to write a bit about the village of Leesville for personal reasons: this was where I was born and spent almost the first decade of my life, though, as you may have guessed, it was no longer Leesville by that time. The best part? Our home was on Cucumber, Georgia Street.

I found another wonderful description of the motor city when it was still the carriage city:
"Detroit in 1889 was still seven years shy of the first automobile appearance on its streets and a full decade away from the opening of its first auto factory. Hundreds of companies, large and small, produced an array of products: shoes, stoves, varnishes, paints, drugs, cigars, patent medicines, boats, railroad cars, steel rails, brass fittings, soap....
Huge elm, maple, and chestnut trees shaded the streets, and gracious homes, most of the frame and painted either white or dark green, gave the new residential areas an air of comfort and well-being. The streets were paves with cobblestones and cedar blocks, and the sidewalks were made of wood. 
Photo taken on Jefferson Avenue in the late 19th century. Note the wood-plank sidewalk

The widespread use of electricity was literally just around the corner - garish 125 foot towers illuminated intersections throughout the city - but in 1889 homes and businesses still used gaslight, and trolleys still were drawn by horses."
(From the book Detroit Land by Richard Bak)
And it was only four years later - in 1893 - that the city's first electric streetcar ran along Woodward Avenue.
In 1889, Detroit celebrated its industrial growth and growing prosperity by holding an International Fair and Exhibition, located on 70 acres of land in the early village of Delray located just south of *Historic* Fort Wayne (which, like Leesville, would eventually become part of the city of Detroit in the late 19th or early 20th century). The main exhibit building was, at the time, the largest in the world, with a frontage of 500 feet and an exhibit area of 200,000 square feet. According to local historian David Lee Poremba, "there was 4.5 acres of glass in its walls to illuminate examples of Detroit's manufacturing might. Special trains and streetcar lines brought thousands of visitors to the fair. Steamship lines brought people from Canada and Port Huron to see the many events" which ran from September 17 through the 27th.
A bird's eye view of the Detroit Fair and Exhibition - 1889
The visitors had never seen anything such as this before. Stations for everything from a ladies temperance union to a racetrack were situated inside the fairgrounds. There was also a jail, a post office, a bandstand and "buildings drip(ing) with gingerbread bargeboard and colorful bunting...which were illuminated by soaring towers topped with electric lamps." (Richard Bak).
Local businesses set up shop as well, including retailer Mobley & Company, Detroit Soap Company (which sold there ever-popular Queen Anne Soap), and the shoemaking Pingree & Smith. There were hot air balloonists showing off, a wild west show, a carousel - it was a real carnival atmosphere. Again, Mr. Bak in his book  Detroit Land describes it best: "There was so much to take in: threshing machines, presses, and other machinery, and a seemingly endless succession of mechanical and industrial halls. Features included a palm garden, a floral palace, and miles of stalls displaying horses, sheep, cattle, pigs, poultry, and pets. There were band concerts and piano recitals and competitions of all sorts: yachting, riding, shooting, track and field, horse racing, baseball, and lacrosse. Attendees could gaze at giant prize squashes and pumpkins while being entertained by a clarion player performing an aria from Rigoletto or sit on the veranda of the main hall and try to bounce peanut shells off a passerby's derby.
The ascension of the great balloons was a major draw, as you can see from an actual photograph taken at Detroit's fair in 1889

The grounds were open daily except Sundays, from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Admission was fifty cents for adults, a quarter for children. Steamboats and trolleys disgorged visitors to the exposition in five minute intervals. Keepers of boardinghouses cashed in by lodging strangers everywhere from the cellar to the garrett."
I wish I could have attended. Unfortunately, we were on the other side of town and had our cucumber farm to attend to. But what a time those folks must've had...


George Washington Stark, born in 1884 and grew up near historic Elmwood Cemetery, noted in a Detroit News article that Elmwood “gave me my flair for the historical scene.” In 1951, for Detroit's 250th birthday celebration, he authored a pamphlet-type book entitled "Detroit At The Century's Turn." In this birthday celebration booklet, the recounting of the world of pre-automobile Detroit opens up to the reader in a wonderfully descriptive narrative:
"About 1890, when I was a small boy, one of the principal interests in my life was to watch the broad-beamed white mare, Nelly, walk a tread-mill. It was in Carrie and Conn's saw-mill located at the foot of Mt. Elliot Avenue, which was then the easterly city limit of Detroit. Nelly walked patiently, and by her endless walking she put in motion the big saw that turned cedar logs into neat paving blocks.
These blocks were hauled away from the mill in huge box-like wagons, and were dumped in piles at intervals along the dirt roads that served as streets. Soon workmen came and paved the street by laying the blocks side by side. The small spaces between the blocks were filled with tar which was poured from a large kettle that followed right behind the men who placed the blocks.
To a small boy, the tar kettle was almost, but not quite, as interesting as the cedar blocks and the saw mill. The blocks, while still in piles at the side of the streets, made wonderful play things. We children used them for our own building purposes: houses, sheds, and most often, castles in the air. We knew, of course, that sooner or later the pavers would come and knock down our lovely castles. But the blocks had to be laid and the tar had to be poured.
I now look on the cedar blocks as an emblem that represents an older way of life."

Another remembrance from Mr. Stark speaks of the delivery wagon from the same late 19th century era:
"In the warm months, Mr. Ritter, a stout German gentleman with fierce black whiskers, called around in a wagon drawn by a single horse. He had a triangular piece of steel, which he rang with another piece of steel, producing a sound that was real melody. It brought us rushing from the house with our milk pail, which Mr. Ritter filled without getting out of the wagon. The big galvanized milk cans were just in back of him, packed in ice. The milk was transferred from it to your own pitcher or pail by a measuring cup with a long handle. The process of ladling the milk from his big cans to the customer's pail or pitcher was a sort of domestic ritual.
Fresh vegetables and fruits in season were also delivered to our door. This was done by a dark-skinned farmer from beyond Mt. Elliott Avenue. He brought everything in from his farm, but I remember he was especially proud of his potatoes. He had a song about them which he continually chanted between clucking to his horse."

And then there was the local blacksmith. I have particular interest in this subject, for my great great grandfather, Wilhelm Lietz, was a blacksmith in Detroit in the 1880's and '90's. Here Mr. Stark gives his own story of the local blacksmith in his Detroit neighborhood:
"An exciting pastime for the youngsters was to look in the open door of Mr. Rivard's blacksmith shop, particularly on those days when he was busy with the big horses from Kling's Brewery. Mr. Rivard was a huge man, seemingly as huge as the horses, which he fitted with new shoes. He worked at his forge and anvil and there was no sight along our street to compare with this. The sparks flew in showers as he fashioned the new shoes with mighty blows. The shop was a long building, and in it Mr. Rivard kept rigs of all descriptions. Behind were barns where he had his own stable of fine horses. There he often rented to the people in my neighborhood."

Folks generally ate their breakfast, lunch/dinner, and supper in their own homes. Going 'out to eat' was not a common activity for the greater majority of the 19th century populace. But it did occur and, being the timely newspaper that it is, the following notation is from the January 22, 2012 (yes, today - the day that I am writing this!) Detroit News:
This advertisement proclaimed a new enterprise in 1850:
Patrick Collins has opened a new Eating House on Griswold Street. Mr. Collins is a stirring man and of course will be successful. The arrangements are all "tip-top."
Eating houses featured specialties like "all-you-can- eat" oysters or green turtle soup; they usually announced "a good accommodation for victuals" such as soup, potatoes, beef, ham and so forth. Nevertheless, complaints about the food were common. With the famous French chef and cooking instructor Professor Pierre Blott moving to New York City and becoming America's first celebrity chef by 1865, Detroit newspaper editorials hoped that students of chef Blott could "relieve the country from the reproach of having but one gravy."
The earliest restaurants appeared in the 1870s in Detroit, and by 1899 the city had 169. People had come to rely on restaurants for lunch, dinner and throughout the night as night shift workers, many living in lodging houses with no kitchen, began to depend on restaurants as their only source of cooked meals.

Interesting stuff, wouldn't you say? But what about those on the go? What about the workers who didn't have time to sit in an eating house, or worked the graveyard shift when no eating houses were open? You food? Well, since there was no such thing as fast food as we know it to be  today, the next best thing would have been a lunch wagon.

In the 1890's, Henry Ford worked as an engineer for the Edison Illuminating Company, which supplied electricity to businesses and also to the few residents who wanted it. According to a Ford cousin, Ford Bryan, in his book Clara: Mrs. Henry Ford, Henry Ford patronized the Owl Night Lunch Wagon during his years working at Edison Illuminating. It was pulled to and from the curbside at Michigan and Griswold streets in Detroit by Reddy the bay horse, owned by John Colquhoun. There were stools inside the wagon and a window for take-out service. It opened at 6 p.m. and left at daybreak - this at a time when restaurants in Detroit closed up by 8 p.m. 
I don't know about you but when I read this information for the first time I looked at the city of my birth quite differently. Too many contemporary historians tend to concentrate solely on not only the automobile era, but its extreme crime-ridden blight.
In other words, the 20th century.
Detroit's history is so much more rich and full than most realize, and it's this history that needs to be told.

For further reading on Detroit's early history you might enjoy reading of its Colonial Roots

The information presented here about Leesville came from the following three sources:
Detroit Beginnings: Early Villages and Old Neighborhoods by Gene Scott
Michigan Place Names by Walter Romig
And from the Church of Our Saviour website.

Other Sources used for this post:
Yesterday's Detroit by Frank Angelo
Detroit: A Motor City History by David Lee Poremba



The BUTT'RY and BOOK'RY said...

Hi Ken,
Wow what a great informative post about Detroit!
I enjoyed reading all of it.
Thanks, and many Blessings, Linnie

Pam of Eastlake Victorian said...

Hi Ken-

I've never been to Detroit, but I would have loved to be there in the 1800's! These stories all make life seem so much more fun and enriched. To think, you spent your childhood near a former cucumber farm! The neighborhood in Chicago where I grew up was also annexed by the city at some point. That 1889 Fair reminded me so much of the Columbian Expo in Chicago. Those type of fairs must have been so inspirational. I wonder if people 100-150 years from now will look upon our times as nostalgically? I can't imagine so.


Historical Ken said...

It's very hard to believe it but, yes, Detroit was once a beautiful city. It was known for its trees as well as its churches.
What time won't do...

Pam, I've often thought the same thing!

Charlie said...

Hi Ken,
during the 1870's and 80's my Great-Great grandparents operated a grocery at 779/781 Third Ave. in Detroit. I have a reproduced poor quality picture of the store. His name D. Kingston Groceries was over the door. The location is a parking lot today.

Do you know a source for pictures from that era? Sure enjoy reading your history notes.


Historical Ken said...

Charlie -
Probably the best source for locating anything Detroit and its history - including photos - is the Burton Historical Collection, located downtown.
Make sure you look up your g-g-grandparents names and store names in the city directories they have available. Also, I would check out the 1870 and 1880 census records.
Good luck!
By the way, you should make a copy of the picture you already have and offer Burton to have a copy for their records and files. They might be more apt to help you a little more in your search.