Writer’s Pick 2020: Top Historical Sites in Washtenaw County

To really see what’s before us, let’s learn from the past.

To best appreciate the here-and-now, it’s important to understand what came before us. To best appreciate this great county we call home, let’s show a lil’ love for its history. Embark upon your own exploration. Walk the same streets. Step onto the track where history was made. Walk into yesteryear’s general store. Appreciate what began as humble beginnings and sparks of innovation. History has been made in Washtenaw County, let’s embrace it.

Image courtesy of Sue Pais.

Dixboro General Store

Long before paved roads, when transportation required horses and buggies, the Dixboro General Store began serving its community. In operation since the store was built in 1840 — two decades prior to the Civil War — it sold general merchandise to the public. As years progressed, the offerings and services offered changed. From postal services to haircuts to a gas pump after the Model-T replaced horses, the general store adapted itself to best accommodate (and serve) the times. Merchants and neighbors alike were said to gather on the building’s expansive front porch (which still stands) to visit, and enjoy listening to and playing music together. The upstairs was transformed into a Saturday night dance hall, where it’s rumored to have had Henry Ford in frequent attendance. The hardwood dancefloor placed in the 1920s is the same floor on which patrons walk today. Over time, its business model transformed from a general store to selling furniture, home décor, lighting, and gifts. Reputed as one of the busiest gift and furnishing stores in Michigan, visitors step over the original 180 year old threshold of the general store, entering walls that house nostalgic charm. The Dixboro General Store also transforms its interior with each season, continually offering spectacular seasonal displays. If seeking a festive spirit, no matter the season, check it out. Spring and summer allow for gardens, and their ever-popular outdoor tent sales are much-awaited events for locals and visitors alike.

5206 Plymouth Rd., Ann Arbor. 734-663-5558. Dixboro.com.

Image courtesy of Sue Pais.

Matthaei Botanical Gardens

More than a century ago in 1907, the University of Michigan created the then-named Michigan Botanical Garden and Arboretum on the property between Geddes Road and the Huron River. Over 100 years later, its original 80-acre parcel has now blossomed into more than 700 acres of botanical gardens, natural preserves with hiking, and paved bike paths and trails that connect the University of Michigan Matthaei Botanical Gardens. Today, Matthaei Botanical Gardens is an area hotspot and popular destination for locals and visitors alike. The trails are open daily, from sunrise to sunset, and although trails are not maintained in the winter, they remain open and readily utilized by walkers, joggers, and those seeking fresh air, solace, and peace with nature.

1800 N. Dixboro Rd., Ann Arbor, 734-647-7600. mbgna.umich.edu.

Note: buildings, conservatory and gardens temporarily closed; trails open

Image courtesy of Sue Pais.

Depot Town

Embrace the views of life from the 1800s with a trip to historic Depot Town. The Ypsilanti Train Depot opened in 1838, connecting railroads between Ypsilanti and Detroit. As this railroad connection occurred, the surrounding area’s merchants blossomed into a bustling community. Many of the buildings standing today in Depot Town were erected between 1850 and 1880. Named after Ypsilanti’s railroad depot, the small historic district is big in history. Commemorated with various plaques, signage, and monuments around the area, much is to be discovered in Depot Town. From an Underground Railroad station and American Civil War barracks to commemoration of citizen Elijah McCoy (“the real McCoy”) and so much more, there’s enough history in a few city blocks to fill an afternoon and whet any historian’s appetite. While in Depot Town, a ‘must-do’ is stopping at Sidetrack Bar & Grill — a bar and restaurant in continuous operation (until COVID) in the same location for more than 150 years. Even during Prohibition, the restaurant served soft drinks in lieu of alcohol. The magnificent bar near the main entrance remains unchanged — just as it was 150 years ago — with intricate, beautiful wood carvings. And, bring an appetite. Their burgers are out of this world, and the Sunday Bloody Mary bar alone is worth the trip.

Sidetrack Bar and Grill, 56 E. Cross St., Ypsilanti, 734-483-1035.

Image courtesy of Sue Pais.

Parker Mill Park

Stroll along the wooden walkways within the Parker Mill County Park and embrace the historical past of Parker Mill Complex. In 1873, this was the last operating pioneer flour mill in the county. The story on the grounds, however, began in 1824 when Robert Fleming built a sawmill, on a rise above the creek (now named Fleming Creek). The sawmill was eventually abandoned and fell into disrepair. Nearly 40 years later in 1863, English immigrant William Q. Parker and his wife purchased the site, as well as an additional 61 acres of surrounding farmland. In 1873, Parker built the current grist mill, as well as a log cabin for mill workers— a structure still standing near Fleming Creek, now situated among picnic tables and a well-maintained walking path. In 1887, Parker constructed the nearby cider mill. Both mills were operated by the Parker family until 1958, when the family ceased operations. The family home, located at 4540 Geddes Road (now privately owned), as well as the mills were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

4650 Geddes Road, Ann Arbor. washtenaw.org.

Image courtesy of Sue Pais.

Ferry Field

What may appear to be an ordinary, perhaps even outdated track to most, is one that has absorbed footsteps of the greatest runner in history. Opened in 1906, University of Michigan’s Ferry Field was home turf for the Michigan Wolverines football team until the opening of Michigan Stadium in 1927, when the football field was converted to an outdoor track and field facility. Historic moments were about to be made. In fact, the most famous athlete in track and field history was about to break barriers beyond any runner’s wildest dreams. It was 1935, and it was the Big Ten Championships. That’s when Ohio State sprinter Jesse Owens competed at Ferry Field, establishing three world records and tying a fourth over a span of just 45 minutes— the greatest performance in the history of track and field, and a feat that remains among the most extraordinary accomplishments in all of collegiate sports history. This feat helped catapult the superstar to the world stage at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. And despite snubs from Adolph Hitler, Owens brilliantly won four gold medals, becoming the first American to do so in track and field. And one particular track helped catapult him toward his heroic performance on the world stage: Ann Arbor’s very own Ferry Field. As of 2018, the field is no longer in use, yet posted plaques commemorate the historic event.

1150 S. State St., Ann Arbor

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