DETROIT HISTORY LESSON 101

Augustus Woodward's plan following the 1805 fi...

Every year since 1954, the State of Michigan celebrates Michigan week in mid-May.  It was started to promote the state’s many resources and accomplishments, hoping to instill pride in its citizens.  I remember in elementary school learning about the official state tree, bird, flower, etc, and doing special projects centered on Michigan’s history that were amply displayed around our school building.  But the lessons fell short of making me and my classmates aware of the rich history that lay in our own backyard, that of the city of Detroit.  Yes, we were taught about Fort Ponchartrain and Cadillac, and a few other notable events, most in the 1700s when Michigan was mostly unclaimed wilderness, the impact of the automobile industry somewhat, and our city’s loyalties to professional sports (baseball, basketball, football and ice hockey to be exact).  But some of the most significant changes in our city occurred between 1860 and 1920, years rarely discussed at any grade level in Detroit’s public school curriculum during the years I attended in the 1960s and 1970s.

I remember learning about the Great Fire of Chicago in 1871, but I never remember anyone referring to the fire of 1805 that literally destroyed almost the entire city of Detroit. Following the fire, Judge Augusta B. Woodward designed a rebuilding plan for Detroit in 1807 based on the spoke model, similar to Washington D.C. That would explain many of the street names found in the original plan: Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison and Monroe Avenues.  All of these streets still exist in downtown Detroit, however, Washington Street is now Washington Boulevard.  Although Woodward’s plan was not totally implemented as it appears in the original drawing, it is apparent that what is now the downtown core of Detroit was developed to a large extent along his specifications.  Despite the years of changing development in downtown Detroit, the basic spoke still exists today as it did in 1890 when my great-grandparents arrived in Detroit.  In 1890 Woodward Avenue was the center of the city, and was the heart of the shopping district, lined with a variety of business serving the city’s growing population.  The street extended from the docks on the Detroit River north past Grand Circus Park, and eventually would radiate out all the way to the city limit of 8 Mile Road (also known as Base Line Road) and beyond to the city of Pontiac.  Eventually Detroiters would differentiate themselves as “Eastsiders” or “Westsiders” based on where they lived in relationship to Woodward Avenue. The city was already growing along the transversing line of Michigan Avenue, in addition to 3 more transversing roads added to the plan – Grand River Avenue (to the northwest), Gratiot Avenue (to the northeast), and Fort Street (to the southwest).

In 2004, the City of Detroit designed a new park in the heart of downtown and named it Campus Martius Park at the intersection of Woodward and Michigan Avenues, formerly known as Kennedy Square during my childhood.  I wondered where the city came up with such an unusual name; little did I know that “Campus Martius” has a long history with Detroit. The name Campus Martius means “Field of Mars” in Latin in reference to where Roman heroes walked.  In the 1780s, Campus Martius in Detroit was a drill ground for militia training.  Judge Woodward not only included this area in his plan for Detroit, he used this area as the “point of origin” for the city’s coordinate system.  Today you will find a medallion in the new park embedded in the stone walkway marking this point located in the western point of the diamond surrounding the Woodward Fountain, just in front of the park’s concession building.  Standing on this marker, you are exactly eight miles south of Eight Mile Road. Today’s Campus Martius Park is much smaller than the park that existed in 1890, but today as in my great-grandparents day, it is a place where Metro-Detroiters of all economic backgrounds can gather and enjoy the outdoors.

CampusMartiusDetroit

CampusMartiusDetroit (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The most significant tribute of the State of Michigan to the Civil War is still located at Campus Martius Park, the Michigan Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, as it was when my great-grandparents arrived. The monument was designed by Randolph Rogers, cost $75,000 to build, and was unveiled on April 9, 1872 (although it was incomplete – missing the statutes on the second-tier, which were added later in the 1880s).  Inside this monument is a time capsule with a list containing all Michiganders who died in war from the Civil War to April 2005 in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bagley Memorial Fountain in Detroit MI

Bagley Memorial Fountain in Detroit MI (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Located just east of Campus Martius Park is Cadillac Square Park.  When I was growing up in Detroit this area was a large bus transfer station.  But in 2007, the city developed this park on the site of the old Detroit’s Farmer’s Market – a site my great-grandfather, Arie Smouter may have known quite well.  Like many of the Dutch immigrants in Detroit, Arie and his brother-in-law, Peter Streefkerk, were fruit peddlers at the turn of the century, and they likely sold their produce there. Today the park is also home to another Detroit landmark, the Bagley Memorial Fountain.  Originally located at Woodward Avenue and Fort Street, the fountain was moved to Campus Martius Park where it remained until 2000, when it was briefly placed in storage.  The fountain was commissioned after the death of John J. Bagley, the 16th governor of Michigan (1873 – 1877), Detroit alderman (1860 – 1861) and Detroit Police Commissioner (1865 -1872) in accordance with his will.  It was originally designed so that the people of Detroit could enjoy cold water distributed via the four lion heads in the center of the fountain.  The lion fountainhead you see today is actually a replica, as the original one was stolen.

 A recent visit by a fourth cousin disclosed another landmark from the 1800s.  Armed with photographs of her relatives from the early 1900s that were taken in Detroit that she hoped to deduce exactly where they were taken, I was puzzled by one.  For some unknown reason I was knew that the picture of a female relative standing near a monument looked oddly familiar.  The top of the monument was not in the picture, but there were two distinctive cannons on the base of the monument.  Quite by accident, while doing research at the Burton Collection in the Detroit Main Public Library looking for an article on microfilm, another article caught my attention.  Written about 1919 in the Detroit Free Press was an article on some of Detroit’s historic monuments, and one of the photos caught my eye – there were those 2 cannons.  Turns out it is the Macomb Statute, erected in 1908 to honor Major General Alexander Macomb, who was born in Detroit on April 3, 1872.  The monument is located across from the Book Cadillac Hotel at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Washington Boulevard.  I used to pass it when I drove home to Dearborn from my job in the Renaissance Center without every knowing its significance.

Before I was married, I briefly lived in St. Clair Shores.  My public accounting job found me briefly downtown and to avoid the traffic jam on the freeways going to and from work, I would take Jefferson Avenue (I lived a block from it) all the way to downtown.  Along Jefferson Avenue, I would pass a huge stone monument on the waterfront just before the bridge to Belle Isle.  Recently I recognized the monument from a photo in a history book on Detroit.  It is the Hurlbut Memorial Gate.  Built in 1894, at a cost of $30,000, it was once the entrance to Waterworks Park; by the end of the 1800s Waterworks Park had become the second most utilized park in Detroit.  The park was first and foremost the site of the pumping station for the city’s water system in the 1870s, having replaced the original waterworks at the foot of Orleans Street.  But the acquisition of the land and planning of the park presided over by Chauncey Hurlbut, then president of the Detroit Board of Water Commissioners, also included plans to use the 110-acre site as a public park. Following Hurlbut’s death in 1885, his will provided for approximately $250,000 to beautify Waterworks Park.  The gate was substantially restored in 2007 thanks to a community fund-raising drive initiated by Tom Schoenith, owner of the Roostertail.  However, the ornamental iron gate for vehicle entry and the statute of Chauncey Hurlbut are gone.  Today the closest you will get to the gate is a view through a cyclone fence marked “Do not trespass”.

If you have ever had a chance to visit Greenfield Village, an outdoor history museum in Dearborn, Michigan created by Henry Ford, then you have had a chance to view one other piece of architecture from Waterworks Park – the floral clock, now located just inside the entrance to the village.  I think we even have some family pictures taken in front of the 8-foot-high clock during one of the many trips to the village when my daughters, Erin and Kristine, were young.  The clock was invented by Elbridge Scribner, the first superintendent of grounds at Waterworks Park, and it was just one of his many floral designs that graced the grounds of the park. 

I wonder if my great-grandfather, Arie Smouter, ever took his family to Waterworks, as it was less than 2 miles from their house on Elmwood Street near Jefferson.  The park was also less than 1/2 mile from the first house my grandparents, Cornelius Reyst and Jennie Smouter Reyst, rented on Hibbard Avenue around 1914.  Located very close to the affluent subdivision, Indian Village, it appears the park attracted the well-to-do by the attire that the men and women were wearing in several old photos I found during my research.

So next time you visit Detroit, try to look beyond the blight of boarded up homes and over-grown vacant neighborhood lots and ghostly shells of relics, like the Michigan Central Railway Station and the Packard Plant, and you may see hints of Detroit’s historic past before they disappear.

Source: Wikipedia, The Detroit News (June 14, 2000), Images of America: Detroit 1860 – 1899

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DETROIT, END OF THE LINE

 I have lived my entire life in and around the City of Detroit.  In fact, I was born during its automotive golden years when the “Big 3” car companies (General Motors, Ford Motor and Chrysler) literally drove the economic market here in Detroit.  There were no foreign car manufacturers stealing sales and manpower. Even imported foreign cars on the road were rare, and those were owned and driven by only the very rich. Family lines were even drawn down what kind of car you drove – it was not unusual to hear one’s father saying, “We’re a Ford family” or “We’re a GM family”.  This meant that the family only drove cars manufactured by that car company no matter how well or badly its cars were in terms of style, cost and performance (overall safety and fuel efficiency were not issues back then). Ours was a GM family; I wondered what my father would think about my current passion for Ford Motor cars and my sister’s Toyota (my other sibling has not strayed from the path, however).

But back in 1890, Detroit was yet to be known as the Automotive Capital of the World, although that would quickly change over the next 30 years.  By 1920, at least one member of my father’s Dutch extended family (de familie), like many other Dutch immigrant families in Detroit,  was or had been employed in one of the many automobile factories throughout Detroit.

However, Detroit was emerging as a major manufacturing center in the United States by 1890 (the year that both sets of my great-grandparents would arrive in the United States).  By the time of the Civil War, Detroit was becoming less rural and more urban.  The population would explode from approximately 45,000 in 1860 to almost 1,000,000 inhabitants (that’s a 2000% increase) by 1920, taking Detroit from the 19th largest city in the USA to the 4th largest city in the country, out-ranked only by New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago.  In 1890 there were already 206,000 people crammed within the city limits when my great-grandparents arrived, and that number would more than double in just the next 20 years.  The city was definitely having its growing pains.  This mass of people in just one city was probably very over-whelming for my father’s paternal and maternal grandparents, despite the overpopulation issues that existed in their homeland when they emigrated from the Netherlands.

Almost half (40%) of Detroit’s population in 1890 consisted of foreign-born people, who emigrated from Canada (primarily the province of Ontario), Germany, Poland, Ireland and the Netherlands.  The east-side of Detroit where my great-grandfathers, Johannes Reijst and Arie Smouter, would settle their families was predominately first and second generation German immigrants.  There was also migration from within the United States to Michigan from the East (Pennsylvania particularly), and to a greater extent from the South (where Blacks and poor Whites were hoping to find better paying job opportunities).  In order to accommodate this growing influx of people the city limits of Detroit continued to expand to the southwest, northwest and northeast, annexing many smaller communities in order to grow.  The city limits of Detroit covered approximately 13 square miles in 1860; by 1890 the city area more than doubled to 28 square miles, and by 1910 it was almost 40 square miles in size.  This rapid growth of Detroit would prove challenging for the city management as it tried to keep pace with the rising needs of adequate housing and public services, such as roads, public transportation, utilities, water and sewerage, safety (police and fire departments), medical facilities and public assistance.

So what opportunities attracted all of these people to move to Detroit in the late 1800s?  Although the automobile industry did not yet exist, there were many other industries in which Detroit was already taking the lead nationally.  Detroit was one of the largest producers of pharmaceuticals, home to Parke-Davis. It had taken over the lead in the manufacture of stoves and furnaces from New York.  Situated on top of a salt mine, Detroit would lead in the production of alkalis and other salts.  Its prime location on the Detroit River and access to the Great Lakes would create opportunities in ship-building, manufacturer of various hardwoods into end products, and the production of steel used to manufacture rails for the expanding railroads, freight cars (Detroit was the original home to the Pullman sleeper) and streetcars.  The city also led in the production of plant, flower and fruit seeds and was among the leaders in the paint and varnish industry.  There was a need in the city for craftsmen of all trades (especially masons and carpenters) and vendors of all types of products.  So word of these opportunities were spreading not only nationally but also internationally, as many European countries were struggling with difficult economic times.

So when my great-grandparents, the Reysts and the Smouters, set foot on Detroit soil, I am sure they envisioned hope, a better means for supporting a family, and also hope for their small children to have more opportunities to succeed in the future.

HOLIDAY TRADITIONS

Our Christmas Tree with 30 years of memories attached

More than any other holiday celebrated here in the United States, the Christmas season affects almost every household, whether of Christian origin or not.  Some celebrate it strictly for its religious meaning, most for it non-secular, commercial value.  Among these various households, this season is steeped in traditions, some old, some new – from how and when the Christmas tree is decorated, what other holiday decorations will adorn our homes (like wreaths, nativity scenes, nutcrackers, etc.), what goodies need to be baked and shared, and when and where we will meet with friends and family to celebrate the spirit of this season.  Some of these traditions have been passed down through the generations, some have been borrowed from other ethnic cultures, while some have been uniquely shaped by our own individual tastes and personalities.

The center of all this holiday glitz is most certainly the brightly lit and decorated, whether simple or lavishly, Christmas tree. The Christmas tree tradition was borrowed from the Germans. Its current day significance to the Christmas holiday season can be traced back to the 18th century Protestant Germans of the northern Rhine area. That tradition was eventually brought to America by German immigrants of the late 1700s and early 1800s , and began to gain general popularity in the later half of the 19th century. Here in Detroit, there was a large German immigrant community on the east side by the 1880s, and they were likely responsible for its introduction in this area. By 1920, the Christmas tree would adorn nearly every home, including my father’s second generation Dutch household.

As a child I remember that the Christmas tree was my father’s main contribution to Christmas.  Early in December he would visit the Christmas tree lot located on Gratiot Avenue near Saratoga Hospital and pick out the chosen Christmas tree, usually a Scot pine tree. Arie would bring it home, make a fresh cut in the stump in the garage, then fill a bucket with water and place the tree in it behind the garage.  There it would remain until Christmas Eve, when he would bring it inside the house and set it up in the living room, and carefully decorate it with lights and shiny glass bulbs.  I never understood why it had to occur on Christmas Eve.  For years I thought it had to do with fire safety as Scot pines tend to dry out faster than Douglas fir trees.  But his tradition may have been influenced by his childhood memories, as the German families traditionally set up their Christmas tree on Christmas Eve in celebration of Adam and Eve.  Harry may not have known this fact, but I am sure his family followed the practices of their neighbors who introduced this cherished tradition. This tradition in our household would end in 1964 with the passing of my father, maybe out of practicality, but maybe more out of grief as this tradition was too tied to my father.  It would be several years before we would return to that corner lot to choose a real tree for our house, opting to decorate a small table top tree instead.

Today, I no longer make that trip to the Christmas tree lot after several less than memorable moments dealing with real trees.  I think it had a lot to do with picking out the “perfect” tree in the dark, clearly not a good idea!  One of the first trees we set up in our new home, fell down about an hour after struggling to get it in the stand, luckily it had no lights or bulbs on it yet.  It had to be wired to the crown molding in the ceiling.  The last real tree we ever had in our house was our oldest daughter’s first Christmas.  It was so dry we couldn’t even keep it lit very long on Christmas Day.  When it went out the door to the curb a few days later, it was almost bare by the time we managed to shove it out the front door.  That tree that looked so green and fresh at dusk on the lot turned out to be spray painted green and would not take up any water, despite a fresh cut.  So I had enough of that tradition; the following year we went to the local nursery and picked out an artificial tree.  That tree is still assembled each year by me, and over the years has changed its appearance often. The bulbs are mostly red and gold now, and it still has the lighted star at the top, but its the special ornaments that have been collected over the past 25 years that give it meaning . Hanging each ornament brings back so many precious memories, as each such ornament was chosen with a specific meaning in mind.

Over the years since my great-grandparents arrived in America, our family’s Christmas traditions have changed considerably.  Christmas time that first December here in Michigan back in 1890 for my great-grandparents would have been a time for church and family.  The gifts would have been to the church most likely; the Christmas dinner probably a Dutch table – a buffet of cold meats, cheeses, and favorite pastries, like banket.  A trip to the nearest frozen pond to ice skate would have been the main recreation.  Maybe even a special holiday beverage, non-alcoholic for the children.  The Protestant Dutch generally frowned on the drinking of alcohol, but during the December holidays an exception was often made for one special drink.  It is the only time of year that I can ever recall seeing my father indulge in alcohol, and it was in strict moderation – a toast to the holiday with family and hopes for a good new year.

The wooden shoes set out for Sinterklaas have now been replaced with stockings to be filled by Santa Claus.  The gifts are now not just for children but all members of the family, even the family pet.  The time with loved ones this year will be too short due to distance and work constraints.  Some old traditions will move on, replaced with newer ones to cherish.  I hope that you find time this year for both old and new traditions, and to remember all those loved ones who are no longer with us with holiday season.

Prettige Kerstdagen (Merry Christmas).

Ik wens je een prettige vakantie (I wish you a happy holiday)!

ARRIVAL IN USA

Before starting this quest, I wrongly assumed that all immigrants of the late 1800s and early 1900s passed through Ellis Island. We have all probably seen the historic films of Ellis Island and the process new arrivals endured, so I naturally started searching for my grandparents among the millions of names recorded in the Ellis Island records. But then I discovered that Ellis Island did not open until 1892. So where did my great-grandparents disembark? 

 If you ever have the opportunity to visit New York City and decide to include a tour of either the Statute of Liberty or Ellis Island in your travel itinerary, look around you and take in the moment while you are waiting in line to purchase your tickets because you are standing on exactly the same ground that my great-grandparents first set foot upon after disembarking. Now known as Castle Clinton, Castle Garden received millions of immigrants in the 1800s.

As they approached New York City, my grandparents would first pass the recent French gift located in New York harbor, the Statute of Liberty. Since the pier at Castle Garden could not accommodate the large transatlantic steamships, the Obdam would have anchored out in the harbor after passing quarantine (all incoming ships were inspected for cases of serious infectious diseases, especially smallpox, among the crew members and passengers). My great-grandparents, holding tight to their small children and the few personal belongings that they had in their possession, would next board a smaller boat that delivered them to the landing at Castle Garden. I am not sure if during the two week vogage that my great-grandfathers had learned to master any English, as the Holland-Amerika Line issued a manual on practical English for the Dutch emigrant, that would aid them on what would transpire next for them and their families. After collecting their stored luggage (the Reyst had none and the Smouters only one),  they would await their turn for a quick medical examination before being permitted to proceed into the waiting room. Once again they would have had to patiently wait until called to register inside the enormous interior of the Castle Garden. Entering the Castle Garden interior must have been over-whelming for these 2 young couples.  The great room was divided into various stations and on any given day it would be crowded with people of all nationalities, not just British and Western Europeans, but by 1890 many from Italy, Russia, Poland and other Eastern European countries, most dressed in clothing unique to their homelands.  Amidst this throng of people, they would have had to manage to first register with a clerk at the Registry Department, then exchange currency, proceed to the telegraph or letter-writing stations to send a brief message if someone in the USA was anxiously awaiting their arrival, then finally proceed to the Railroad Department station to find out how to get to Michigan.  The clerks here would then once again direct them outside to the pier where they would board yet another ferry to transport them across the Hudson River to the Erie Railroad depot.  Quite a first day in their new homeland, especially when you are unfamiliar with the language…and we think it is stressful today to travel by air.  Having traveled in Europe during one summer vacation while in college, I can certainly relate to what might have been some of their tribulations during this process.

I wonder if they had thought by this time if it was all going to be worth it? It probably wasn’t what they expected, but something compelled them to take the chance for something better.

For more info on the immigration station, see my new page on Castle Garden.

WESTWARD BOUND

Not sure if it was irony or just coincidence that my great-grandparents would leave the Netherlands bound for the United States on the same passenger vessel, the Obdam.  I am not sure if the families even knew each other before boarding the ship in early March 1890 as Arie Smouter was from Ridderkerk, just southeast of Rotterdam in Zuid-Holland, and John Cornelius Reyst was from Zevenbergen, south of Rotterdam in Noord-Brabant. But they possibly bonded during the rough 2 week journey across the ocean to America. After researching how European immigrants came to the United States between 1880 and 1900, I have much admiration for their strength and bravery.  Two young couples, with 2 very small children each and one spouse pregnant, would endure a difficult journey, that mirrors those young Americans that packed all their belongings in a covered wagon and joined a caravan westward.  My great-grandparents would live for 2 weeks in steerage with 256 other passengers in cramped, dirty quarters.  It is said that even the more seafaring ones even succumbed to seasicknesss.  There were no rooms in steerage, just row after row of metal bunk beds that often were too short to fully stretch out in.  Nearly everyone slept in the same clothes they had on when they boarded the vessel.  Food was poor.  Most did not bring enough of their own rations on board as they were told that their ticket included meals.  What they would soon find out was that most of the food was stale, rancid or heavily perserved in salt.  Upon arrival at the port in New York City, New York on March 18, 1890 (coincident that my oldest daughter’s, Erin’s, birthdate is also March 18), they would gather their meager possessions, usually just one suitcase a piece.  How they managed to get from New York to Michigan is uncertain, but likely by rail. Uncertain what happened next as neither family appeared in the 1890 United States Census, I recently figured out that once they arrived in Michigan, they would go separate ways for the first 10 years.  John would settle his family in Detroit, while Arie would move westward to Grand Rapids.  But by 1900, both families would reside in Detroit, and be members of the First Reformed Church of Detroit.  So check out my new pages on the RCA and the Obdam.