Grosse Pointe in the 1800s: New Neighbors, Diverse Influences
Most of the new Americans who came to the Detroit area following the War of 1812 were from the predominantly Protestant states of the east. When Governor Cass asked for a Protestant missionary, the call was answered by the Rev. John Monteith, a young Presbyterian of Scottish lineage. Reverend Monteith and Father Richard ignited a spark which resulted in the founding of the University of Michigan in 1821. Elementary schools in Grosse Pointe have been named for both pioneer educators.
Despite its swamps, Grosse Pointe was thought of as a healthful place. For this reason, Pierre Provencal came out from the city in 1819. He married soon afterward, and the couple's buildings, at today's Provencal Road near the lake, accommodated church services and a school.
In 1825, a chapel was built, described as "a small log hut on the bank of the lake on the old Reno farm, which is just a few hundred feet north of Vernier Boulevard." Thus wrote Miss Clemens La Fleur, who recalled that, because of the mud, people came barefooted, washed their feet in the lake, and donned their shoes before entering the chapel. At some point, a burial ground was in use nearby.
The Erie Canal was opened in 1825, and immigration to and through Detroit increased markedly. French continued to be the predominant language of the Detroit market place until Civil War times, but the village was rapidly losing its original French character.
The Presque Isle lighthouse was built in 1838. Passing ships counted upon farmers and Indians paddling out to sell farm produce and fish from laden canoes.
In 1832, a cholera epidemic took 96 lives in Detroit. The final victim was Fr. Gabriel Richard. The Provencals at Grosse Pointe raised some 24 children, most of them orphaned during the epidemic. The one child born to the Provencals married Judge James Weir; their cottage, moved far back from the lake in later years, still stands at 376 Kercheval.
In 1837, Michigan was admitted to the Union; Detroit remained the capital until 1847.
By the 1840s, some Belgian names were heard in Grosse Pointe. Soon Belgian priests were serving many churches throughout the Detroit area, including St. Paul's, which opened a new edifice in 1850. This was a small frame building on its present site. At the rear was a sizable cemetery.
In 1848, Grosse Pointe Township was carved from Hamtramck Township; it extended to Waterworks Park. At that time, there were at least two district schools in what has remained Grosse Pointe. An 1876 map shows a school on the shore at about present Lochmoor Boulevard. By 1860, "District No. 2 School" stood near the lake between present Kerby and Moran Road. The Sauer Atlas of 1891/93 shows the original Vernier School where Michaux Lane now joins Vernier Road. The Cook School, "District No. 9," was built on Mack Road around 1890.
Challenging the Marshes
By mid-point in the 19th century, great changes had begun. Newcomers resented adapting their every activity to the weather, and they went to work to challenge the Grosse Pointe mud. In 1851, a plank toll road was built out from Detroit, and town people began to think about having summer cottages in the Grosse Pointes. Immediately after the Civil War, residences for year-round use were built by several prosperous Detroiters, one of the houses as far out as present Lochmoor Boulevard. According to a booklet published by the Kenneth L. Moore Company, "From 1850 to 1900 the lumbermen took away the woods and wealthy Detroit businessmen took away the lake front. The early settlers do not appear to have benefited greatly from either operation."
The descendants of one of the early families profited handsomely from the times, as a result of William B. Moran's curiosity and determination. He took numerous soundings around the Grand Marais northeast of Fox Creek and found solid clay a few feet down. In 1874, he secured government help in draining the marsh south of Jefferson, a project which eventually made available some 900 acres of private lots. In 1876, Charles and William Moran each donated a strip of land to the government, and the "lighthouse road" (Alter Road) was cut through. Excess dirt was thrown up for dikes to make a new straight channel for Fox Creek.
In 1876, the Protestants, who had been meeting regularly since about 1865, built a church on Kerby property near the southwest corner of Kerby Road and the lake. This was the forerunner of Grosse Pointe Memorial Church. By 1886, the Plank Road was extended by a "typical dirt road" from Alter to "Fisher's" road. Depending upon road conditions, a trip to Detroit took two to five hours. Farther inland a lane was emerging: Kercheval Avenue takes its name from the French "path of the horse."
Launches and yachts were as indispensable to newer residents as canoes had been to the Indians and habitants. One launch, owned by a dozen families, operated to and from Detroit on a regular morning and evening schedule.
Well before the end of the century, the building of simple little summer havens had evolved into competition among some of the new people, and the "glory days" for lakeshore houses had begun. The newcomers were Detroiters in comfortable-to-affluent circumstances who, between the Civil War and the 1930s, would transform this community. Some of the displaced farmers opened little businesses to fill the needs of new and old neighbors, or found a variety of work at the great estates. Others moved to new farms inland or farther to the northeast.
The East Detroit and Grosse Pointe Railway opened in May 1888, running along Mack Avenue, turning down St. Clair to Jefferson, and terminating at Jefferson and Fisher Road. Residents were alarmed lest the tracks be extended along the shore, and in 1891 Grosse Pointe Boulevard was opened as a "back road" for the Jefferson Avenue Railway. The Detroit-Mt. Clemens Interurban, which began operations September 21, 1898, also served Grosse Pointe.
Farmer and Hall wrote in 1886, "The St. Paul Congregation is primarily French from the families of habitants located here about. Until a few years ago all sermons were in French, but the experiment of preaching in English is now being tried." It was in about 1884 that graves in the churchyard of St. Paul's were moved to a new cemetery on Moross Road.
By 1881, the Protestant population was large enough for church services to be held in winter as well as in summer. In 1893, Grosse Pointe Memorial Church moved to its present site. Unaffiliated in the early years, in 1920 the church became Presbyterian and built the current structure in 1927.
In 1885, the newly established Convent of the Sacred Heart opened a private school for "young ladies" on a tract of land adjoining the St. Paul property. Two years after opening their convent school, the nuns started a free school for the children of St. Paul's parish, an arrangement which continued until 1928. The present St. Paul's Church was built in 1898.
As population increased in Grosse Pointe, the need for more sophisticated local government became apparent, and incorporations began in 1879 with Grosse Pointe Village. It stretched from Cadieux Road all the way to Weir Lane, a remnant of which can be seen today at the end of Kercheval. Temperance sentiments were growing in almost every part of the country, and the division into two villages came in 1893, when residents northeast of Fisher Road objected to liquor sales at Termont's roadhouse at approximately Alger Place. They went their separate way as the Village of Grosse Pointe Farms.
In 1907, that portion of the Village of Fairview up to Alter Road was absorbed by the City of Detroit; the Alter-to-Cadieux portion then incorporated as the Village of Grosse Pointe Park. The Village of Grosse Pointe Shores was incorporated in 1911, encompassing all of its present area and Lake Township of Macomb County. The Village of Lochmoor, forerunner of Grosse Pointe Woods, incorporated in 1927, and annexed the Stanhope-Allard strip in 1931.
The Pointe's Roadhouses
Sometime before 1850 the popular roadhouse, Hudson House, was sold to people named Fisher, from whom the road takes its name. Later owners moved the business down Jefferson to where Notre Dame is now, and sold the old site to the forerunner of the Country Club of Detroit. Additional roadhouses soon were thriving on the patronage of local people, as well as that of city folks. The bill-of-fare at each featured strictly provincial foods from neighboring waters, farms and orchards. "Fish, frog and chicken" were the attractions. Locally made apple brandy (the habitants' favorite, calvados) and l'Europe (peaches basking in rum) were served with pride. Contemporary writers praised "frog fricassee" as well as the Pointe's strawberries and cherries.
The attitude that laws are made for other people was characteristic of some of the proprietors and some of their clientele; cockfights and heavy betting were common at several of the roadhouses. Some hotel hosts filled their tills in other questionable ways. At the other extreme, several of the establishments catered to families. Politicians had their favorite gathering place, as did people with Belgian roots, and other groups of friends.
Motor Cars and Subdivisions
In 1906, an orchard was removed and Joseph Berry subdivided McKinley Place from Lake Shore Road to Grosse Pointe Boulevard. This process of subdividing farms and large estates began as though in anticipation of the first family cars. The coming of the automobile transformed Detroit into the Motor City and brought a new era to Grosse Pointe, as traveling into Detroit became easier.
Of the many great houses built in this century, the most important to today's residents is "The Moorings," built in 1910. Forty years later, Mrs. Russell A. Alger and her children gave their magnificent house to the people of Grosse Pointe for a community center, in memory of those who served in World War II.
Most of the houses in Grosse Pointe today are built of brick. They vary in architecture from Colonial, English, Tudor, Georgian and Cape Cod to French, Spanish, Italianate or contemporary design. Here and there are a few clapboard houses with intriguing histories. Many early houses were moved to make way for Jefferson Avenue mansions or Kercheval businesses. Among the Pointe's most salable residences are a few which began as gingerbread-adorned summer cottages or combination store/residences. Some of the houses built early in this century for residents of modest means have been renovated and still are occupied.
New Community Institutions
Residents founded a variety of social clubs during these years. The Country Club of Detroit took this name when reorganizing in 1897, and it moved to its present site in 1923. In 1911, the Grosse Pointe Hunt Club was organized. The Lochmoor Club, formed by golf enthusiasts, dates from 1917. The Grosse Pointe Club ("Little Club"), was founded around 1924 primarily by yachtsmen. In 1919, dredging was begun for the yacht basin and landfill for the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club. In 1934, the Crescent Sail Yacht Club leased Henry B. Joy's dock and moved out from Detroit. In addition to the private clubs, the Mutual Aid and Neighborhood Club was started in 1911/12 by summer residents interested in providing recreational and social services to the year-round community.
What is now University Liggett School began with a typhoid fever epidemic in Detroit about 1914. With Detroit under quarantine, Grosse Pointe Country Day School opened its doors on Roosevelt Place, moving to Grosse Pointe Boulevard in 1916. When it joined Detroit University School on Cook Road in 1954, the Grosse Pointe Public Schools purchased the old school building and the headmaster's house. The latter was the residence of the Superintendent of Schools until it was sold in 1990. Meanwhile, the Liggett School, founded in Detroit in 1878, had moved to a new building on Briarcliff. In 1969, Liggett joined with the previously merged private schools under the name of University Liggett School; it uses both campuses.
As late as 1911, village councilmen still were directing town marshals to round up stray cattle. But as population of the Pointes grew, so did expectations that solutions be found for problems concerning roads, flooding, safe drinking water and disposal of garbage and sewage.
World War I and the Twenties
With the entrance of the United States into World War I in 1917, work ceased on many projects in the Pointes. The terrible influenza epidemic, so much a part of that war, prompted the Neighborhood Club to set up a hospital in one of the cottages on Oak Street, now Muir Road. Thus began Cottage Hospital.
In 1927, a "Grosse Pointe Park Protective Association" was organized to prod the Park council into passing a zoning ordinance, to stop a heavily endowed project for "aged persons of refinement." During the next year, the other Grosse Pointes also passed zoning codes.
Village councilmen and school trustees struggled with the emergence from rural status. It was no longer practical for all electors to vote on routine matters and village boards gradually acquired more power. No serious attempt to merge the villages appears to have been made, but the little school districts did elect to consolidate.
Grosse Pointe Rural Agricultural School District No. 1
In 1922, six local school districts were consolidated: Cadieux, which had two buildings; Kerby; Hanstein (later deeded to Detroit); Trombly, which was a frame building at Beaconsfield and Jefferson; Cook School; and the "new" Vernier ("Grosse Pointe Rural Agricultural District No. 1" would keep that name until 1956). A year after the consolidation, the new district bought a Reo car to transport Cook pupils to Kerby, leaving only Vernier in the north part of the district. For two years, the district paid bus fare and tuition for students to finish high school in Detroit; beginning in the fall of 1924, the Cadieux School provided for grades 7 through 12.
Early lending libraries were started by the Grosse Pointe Memorial Church and the Neighborhood Club. In 1922, service became available from Wayne County. In 1929, the libraries became a division of the Grosse Pointe Public School System.
All school voting was done at "School Meeting." When a new high school was proposed, to be built on Grosse Pointe Boulevard, considerable opposition developed. Some citizens insisted that so large a building never would be needed; others hoped that the reputable Detroit system soon would assimilate the local schools; still others argued that the planned facility was too luxurious or in the wrong location. There was a lawsuit to halt construction, but Grosse Pointe High School prevailed, opening in 1928.
The Detroit-Windsor "Funnel." Passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and of the Volstead Act, prohibited sale of alcoholic beverages, although the Pointes had their share of "speak easies." Smuggling of illegal beverages went on along the shoreline, since Canada remained "wet." Gangland warfare was sometimes too close for comfort, as when two Park policemen, investigating a hit-and-run accident, were slain by bootleggers in front of their police station.
The Great Depression
By the time the depression hit in 1929, the Park, Village and the Farms were substantially "built up." Much of the skilled construction was done by craftsmen of Belgian extraction, who by then were a sizable bilingual group in the Park. As the depression deepened, some houses stood unfinished and others under construction were scaled down in size. Village councils granted numerous licenses for selling eggs, wood and other farm or garden produce door-to-door, as people struggled to remain self-supporting.
In 1933, attempting to bring order out of chaos, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered banks to be closed. An immediate cash crisis confronted individuals, businesses and public employers. A councilman lent money to meet a village payroll. The superintendent of schools, Samuel Brownell, dispatched cars to the north of Grosse Pointe, and, in a three-way arrangement, secured produce from farmers who had indebtedness at their local banks. These foodstuffs, heavy on potatoes and onions, were given to employees of the school system to feed their families during the weeks of missed paychecks, according to Board of Education minutes. Mary McElroy, Board of Education secretary during all her working life, stated, "We signed off on one or two paychecks but, other than that, we eventually received all our pay."
The decade of the 1930s saw the federal Civil Works Administration provide about 20% of the funds to build Maire School in 1936 and Pierce Junior High School in 1939. That year, the name of the Village of Lochmoor was changed to Grosse Pointe Woods, and Bon Secours Hospital opened as a convalescent facility. The Grosse Pointe News began publishing its weekly newspaper in 1940. During the 1930s and 40s, many church denominations organized here. Most of them were unable to build until after World War II.
World War II
From 1941 to 1945, the war affected every phase of life, and many Pointe people assumed demanding responsibilities in wartime industry, govemment or the military. Women filled a wider range of roles than ever before. One of them was Alice M. Scheaffer, elected to the Board of Education. She served from 1942 until 1954. In 1950, at the dedication of Alger House as the War Memorial Center, a plaque listed names of 120 men who had lost their lives, among the 3,600 Grosse Pointe men and women who had served their nation in the armed forces.
From 1950 to 1970, a population increase of 45% in the Pointes dictated the course of many community efforts. Numerous new schools ... public, private and church-oriented ... were built.
The chartering of the local League of Women Voters, the incorporation of Grosse Pointe Woods as a city, and the moving of the Children's Home of Detroit to Cook Road were events of 1950. In 1951, the Pointes' neighbor, Harper Woods, incorporated in anticipation of Eastland Shopping Center, then being planned for its community. A plaque at the War Memorial Center listed 105 names of Korean War veterans, 33 of whom died in the conflict. In 1953, the Grosse Pointe Symphony was founded. The Foundation for Exceptional Children was organized in 1954. A huge drain project was approved by Woods voters in 1958, so that building in that city could resume after a five year moratorium.
The generosity of residents has enhanced the quality of life in Grosse Pointe since its early suburban days. Examples are the Central Branch of the public library, the War Memorial Center and its adjoining Fries Auditorium (1961), the Neighborhood Club's 1966 building, and the community's Elworthy Field (1965). Several of the municipal parks also had their inception in generous gifts, or have been advanced by this means.
During the 1960s, the public school enrollment increased by 400 students a year and, by 1964, it was evident that a second high school was needed. The site chosen was the Vanderbush farm, one of the last working farms in the Pointes. North High School opened in 1968; the first senior class was graduated in 1970.
The historic day/boarding school at the Convent of the Sacred Heart ceased operation following graduation of the Class of 1969. By that autumn, the Grosse Pointe Academy had been organized to operate a Montessori pre-school through eighth-grade program in the former school facility.
Challenges of the 1960s and 1970s
In the Grosse Pointes, political conflict permeated even nonpartisan local elections. Debates over racial injustice, the Vietnam War, illegal drugs and family values brought forth new organizations such as The Northeast Guidance Center (1963), Family Life Education Council (FLEC 1966) and Grosse Pointe Interfaith Center for Racial Justice (1967). In March 1968, three weeks before his assassination, the Human Rights Council sponsored a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Grosse Pointe High School. From 1970 to 1979, the interdepartmental Youth Services Bureau, organized by the communities' police departments, served community youth with problems.
During the 1970s, several Grosse Pointe organizations and businesses expanded even as population declined for the first time in thirty years. Community hospitals, Cottage in 1971 and Bon Secours in 1975, completed major additions. In 1973, Grosse Pointe South High School, so named since 1969, added its Grosse Pointe Boulevard wing. The next year, Jacobson's in The Village remodeled its store to encompass a full block.
Residents during the same time had to adapt to a variety of changes, both manmade and natural. In 1971, the Lake Shore Coach Line was replaced by the regional SEMTA (South Eastern Michigan Transportation Authority) bus line. Extensive flooding occurred in 1973 when the highest lake levels in over one hundred years combined with two major spring storms. By 1977, energy conservation took on new importance as fuel prices skyrocketed. An extensive restoration following the June 9, 1978, fire at St. Paul Catholic Church meant parishioners had to worship elsewhere for several months.
New housing continued to be in demand. Large estates such as the Schlotman family's "Stonehurst" in 1974 and the Dodges' "Rose Terrace" in 1978 were torn down to provide multiple building sites. Only the Edsel Ford House was spared; Mrs. Ford in her 1978 will provided an endowment for its preservation and public use.
Changes Through the '80s. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Grosse Pointe saw many changes even in difficult economic times. Home values soared, and subdivisions continued to replace estates such as the Chapin/Ford in 1983. Commercial districts, especially in Grosse Pointe Park, were upgraded. As family businesses, including Hamlin's Grocery in 1990, closed, major chains and specialty shops, such as Arbor Drugs (1987) and Laura Ashley (1988) in The Village, multiplied. The Hill saw the 1986/87 construction of the Kercheval Center and renovation of the Punch and Judy Building, while the 1991 completion of Pointe Plaza, a St. John Hospital development, provided a new focus along Mack Ave.
For local governments, the environment, both physical and social, was of increasing concern. New construction, including the Shores' prize-winning Village Hall renovation (1984) and the Woods' Community Center wing (1991), enhanced service to the community, as did computerization of records and 1988 implementation of 911 Emergency Service. Newly formed municipal foundations funded Lake Shore Road beautification (begun in 1986), improvements at Farms Pier (1983; 1990) and Windmill Pointe Park (I 99 1). EPA violations shut down the regional incinerator in 1988/89, focusing attention on refuse disposal. The Pointes, using findings of Grosse Pointe Citizens for Recycling, by 1991 had initiated curbside collection of recyclables. While the City, in 1984, approved its first liquor sale by the glass since Prohibition, the Farms, in a 1985 ordinance, made parents responsible for teen drinking, and in 1989 rejected a new Grosse Pointe War Memorial liquor license request.
Though population decreased by more than 3,000 between 1980 and 1990, local cultural groups continued to increase while social services became more regional in focus. The emphasis on preservation by the Grosse Pointe Historical Society (reest. 1980), the development of community programming by Grosse Pointe Cable (est. 1980), and the acquisition of new quarters at 315 Fisher Rd. by the Grosse Pointe Theater (1981) reflected increased local cultural involvement. Conversely, the affiliation of Cottage Hospital with Henry Ford Health Care System (1986) and the Grosse Pointe/Harper Woods programs of Services for Older Citizens (est. as Seniors Onward for Change 1978; renamed 1982) suggested a need for regional cooperation. When FLEC closed in 1990, the Children's Home of Detroit assumed its Youth Services. The Home celebrated its sesquicentennial in 1986, one year before the State of Michigan.
Citizens of this era were often issue-oriented. They organized to successfully counter the 1984 school board recall launched by opponents of school closings. In 1987 and 1991, voters, citing costs and location, rejected a planned expansion of the Grosse Pointe Public Library. Concern about local effects of a Detroit airport proposal caused the 1990 formation of Citizens Against Airport Expansion. The War Memorial dedicated a plaque in 1985 to residents who served in the Viet Nam War and organized community support for Desert Storm troops in 1990/91, symbolized by a proliferation of yellow bows.
As it approaches the 21st Century, Grosse Pointe will face new challenges. Unfamiliar technologies, changing residential patterns and developing regional imperatives will have to be assimilated into a traditional life style. Yet, having made the community what it is today, citizen participation is capable of making Grosse Pointe what is should be in the future.
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