A front view of the Commandant’s Quarters from what is now Michigan Avenue and Monroe Street, where the Wagner Hotel building is now.
The rear of the Commandant’s Quarters today. It now serves as part of the Dearborn Historical Museum.
View of the Sutler’s Shop, third building from the left, from what is now Mason Street. The Sutler’s Shop was where soldiers could go and purchase everyday essentials, such as blankets and razor blades.
150 years later, arsenal buildings are landmarks in today’s west end
(This story is the first in a two-part series about the history of Dearborn in the time of the Civil War, which began 150 years ago this week.)
By DANIEL HERATY
DEARBORN — Residents here may not realize that what is now one of the largest cities in Michigan had a much simpler beginning: as farmland with a military arsenal.
Many 19th-century residents took part in the Civil War, which began 150 years ago yesterday, with the firing on Fort Sumter, S.C., and remnants of Dearborn during that period still are visible today in the buildings that make up some of the more well-known landmarks in the area.
The city, known then as Dearbornville, was dotted all over with farms and taverns. Michigan Avenue, which was called the Chicago Turnpike, was particularly flush with saloons. That’s because the road would turn to mud following a storm as rain and snow would bog down carts as well as the oxen pulling them, so people traveling would need a place to stop and refuel for the trip, Dearborn Historical Museum curator Kirt Gross said.
French ribbon farms plotted in thin strips made up much of the land in those days, but the farms soon would be taken over by a new landmark.
The Detroit Armory in the area of what is now Michigan Avenue and Brady served as a training ground for soldiers preparing to fight battles. It comprised 12 buildings, four of which remain. Gross said the original armory and powder magazine were in Detroit until June 1805, when that city caught fire and burned to the ground.
“Shortly after that fire, the U.S. military, basically sort of reached out here in Dearborn,” Gross said. “They claimed about 2,000 acres up here as a military reserve.”
Titus Dort, who later became a township supervisor, provided bricks and building stone for the foundation of the powder magazine, which was outside the armory. Serving today as the McFadden-Ross House and Archives, the walls of the magazine were constructed to be thick enough so that in the event of an accidental explosion, the blast would shoot upward instead of blowing out. Vents on the sides allowed for air to circulate through the building. Gross said once the building closed in the 1870s, the Ross family bought the building and the six acres around it.
“Over a period of time, they raised the roof, added a second floor, they added a north wing to the building,” Gross said.
The arsenal was constructed in the 1830s and took six years to complete. After it was finished, Gross said, it became a training ground for the soldiers who came through there. But the construction of the arsenal came with a stipulation resulting from the War of 1812.
“There were still some hostilities with the British across the river,“ Gross said. “Part of the stipulation of the treaty was that any military installations had to be located 10 miles away from the border.”
He said one such 10-mile house served as a stagecoach stop and stood in the area now occupied by Kiernan’s Steakhouse, 21931 Michigan Ave.
A building near the spot now occupied by Dearborn Music, 22000 Michigan, was a gun carriage shed during the period of the armory; a second story was added later. The arsenal also housed skilled tradesmen, including a saddler, a blacksmith and a carpenter.
Gross said one of the buildings on the site was a sutler’s shop, similar to a modern-day post exchange, a store on a military base that supplies soldiers with everyday needs like razor blades, blankets and tobacco. Today, that building is a doctor’s office.
The blacksmith’s shop, Gross said, became the first automotive company in Dearborn sometime around 1910.
“Ford was already building cars, but he was in Highland Park still,” he said. “So this was the home of what was called the Detroit-Dearborn Motor Co.
“It was a short-lived company, they made about 110 cars before they went out of business.”
According to the Historical Society document, following the Civil War, Henry A. Haigh, who later would help found the Dearborn Historical Comission, said Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman spent one night at the arsenal during the winter of 1866 and 1867.
(Look for part two of the series — famous families — in next week’s Times-Herald.)