You don’t need a “Back to the Future” DeLorean to visit Washtenaw County’s past. Any car, or even just a smartphone, will do. Yes, Washtenaw County’s Office of Community & Economic Development recently began translating heritage tours into “story maps” via an app called Vamonde. “It’s this exciting thing we found last year, where we can share historic information but also connect you directly to Google maps,” said historic preservation specialist Melinda Schmidt. “…That gets to the heart of what we’re trying to get at with almost all of our tours: to encourage people to drive around and explore the more rural parts of the county.” This applies to long-established local heritage tours like the Historic Barns tour; a Greek Revival Architecture tour; a German Heritage tour; and the Esek Pray Trail. (Generally, the spots highlighted on these tours are private property, so visitors must settle for looking at them from the road.)
Other tours, meanwhile – which may highlight places where few of the original structures remain (Willow Run, as well as Heritage Foodways) – are best experienced virtually, via the app. “When it comes to the Willow Run tour and the Foodways tour, our aim was educational,” said Schmidt. “They’re geared toward school groups, so kids and teens can connect, in a tangible way, to the history around them.”
More broadly, though, these tours aim to provide visitors and locals with a profound sense of place. “That’s so important as we grow our local economies and communities, especially in light of sprawl,” said Schmidt. “If we can spread the word about some of these treasures, and share them with the rest of the county, we can help these communities become better known and valued.”
Here’s a brief overview of the various Heritage tours on offer:
Heritage Foodways: The newest addition to the bunch, Heritage Foodways traces the county’s ethnic food history – from the abolitionist movement’s honey tea cakes (a protest against sugar harvested via slave labor) to northeast Asian immigrants’ introduction of Korean barbecue. “Everyone’s interested in food,” said Schmidt. “It’s such a hot topic, so we wanted to connect that to our local history, and bring to light important stories involving different ethnic groups, and how they affected our history, and even the restaurants you see around you now.” Plus, don’t miss the era- and area-appropriate recipes included with some entries!
Historic Barns: Washtenaw County has deep agricultural roots, and this tour traces historic barns through Bridgewater, Manchester, and Sharon townships. The Historic Barns tour addresses the different architectural features of the barns and unpacks the often-pragmatic thinking behind them. (Also, while not officially cited on the story map, look for barn quilts - a more recent trend, consisting of big squares decorated with a quilt square pattern and made from large pieces of resin-coated plywood - while exploring around Manchester.) This tour is a great way to slow down and unwind in the county’s most rural areas.
Willow Run: Ypsilanti’s famous Willow Run Bomber Plant was, in its time, one of the largest industrial complexes in the country, and was emblematic of the manufacturing industry’s rise in America during the twentieth century. However, “the whole plant was demolished except for one hangar, so this (tour) is an effort to preserve the memory of that plant,” said Schmidt. The plant, which produced B-24 Bombers, had a significant female workforce (hence the fictional character that Willow Run gave birth to, Rosie the Riveter), and its impact on our region has far outlasted its physical plant. The Willow Run tour aims to provide a glimpse at day-to-day life for those involved in the Ypsilanti area’s wartime efforts.
German Agricultural Heritage: One of the state’s first and largest German settlements (with immigrants from Württemberg, Westphalia, and more) took root on the western side of Washtenaw County in the nineteenth century. The German farmers formed an independent, rural farming society, and the tour features homes, barns and outbuildings, churches, etc. “The German Agricultural tour explores farms with some pretty recognizable names – they’ve often become road names – and some other smaller farms, some of which still provide food for the region,” said Schmidt. “ … And German was still spoken in a few local churches until just a couple of decades ago.”
Greek Revival Architecture: In the wake of Brits leaving America after the War of 1812, a renewed fervor for Greek ideals of democracy blossomed, inspiring Greek names for several towns (Utica, Athens, Ypsilanti, etc.) as well as a classic, clean building aesthetic for homes, commercial spaces, and civic centers. “Greek Revival architecture was really popular in New England, especially in New York, and most of the early migration into Michigan came from that part of the country,” said Schmidt. “So people would come from New York, and they’d bring with them their favorite architecture style. … But there’s a lot of local variation. The Greek Revival buildings here were not like the ones in New York, in that you’d see a lot of adobe, and brick, and cobblestone. Because you tended to use the materials that you have around you. So it was about taking this East Coast style and making it your own out here.”
Esek Pray Trail: Washtenaw County-based tavern keeper, farmer, and justice of the peace Esek Pray was among the many settlers who migrated from the East Coast to Michigan, via the Erie Canal, in the first half of the nineteenth century. “Pray was one of the founding members of Superior Township, and he and his family had a big influence on the northern part of the county,” said Schmidt. “ … The Esek Pray Trail tour centers around him, but it also expands to include other homes his family built, as well as a couple of schools and churches.” Plus, the Dixboro Church and general store are part of this fairly extensive tour.
Ann Arbor Modern’s Ann Arbor Hills Tour: Because this tour was built and curated by Ann Arbor Modern – not the county’s Office of Community & Economic Development – it hasn’t been story mapped on Vamonde. Nonetheless, this architecture tour is notable for showcasing an impressive number of local modern homes designed and built between 1950 and 1970. “There were several prominent architects who were professors at Michigan,” said Schmidt (referring to a group that included George Bingham and William Muschenheim), and these cutting edge faculty members often built the homes for colleagues and other local professionals at the time. For more information, visit the Michigan Modern website or A2 Modern website.
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