The History of the Washtenaw County Historical Society

 

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, pictured here,  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.

John Geddes

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Alpheus Felch

The Honorable Munnis Kinney of Webster Township was elected president. The object 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 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 August 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 Michigan, 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. 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.

Kate, Marie, and Louise Douglass, around 1890.

(Photo: Bentley Historical Library)

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 Ann Arbor 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 Road. 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.

How We Became the Washtenaw County Historical Society
1857

WASHTENAW HISTORICAL SOCIETY. The Society lapsed during Civil War.

1873

PIONEER SOCIETYOF THE COUNTY OF WASHTENAW. Organized as called for by Ann Arbor Pioneer and Historical Society.

1883

PIONEER AND HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF WASHTENAW COUNTY. Name changed by June 6 resolution.

1883

On December 5, Rev. Mr. Holmes of Chelsea advocated changing name from Pioneer Society to Historical Society of Washtenaw County so it might live long. It apparently continued to be known familiarly as Pioneer Society. That group became dormant in 1920's.

1929

WASHTENAW HISTORICAL SOCIETY. The Society was re-organized. President Guthe said "pioneer" and "county" should be dropped. The Society should preserve the history of Washtenaw district.

1967

President Boston suggested adding "county" to the name. The action was approved 10-1 on July 13. Secretary Mrs. Groomes was against. The change apparently didn't "take."

1975

WASHTENAW COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY. "County" was added back in the name in the revised constitution.

Past Presidents of the Washtenaw County Historical Society