Front Porch: Spring 2014
News from Saline, Dexter, and Chelsea
by Grace Shackman, James Leonard, Jeff Mortimer
From the April, 2014 issue
Saline's Plymouth Rock
A playful dog rediscovers a long-lost salt spring.
Saline's name and identity are tied up with salt, yet the actual salt springs that once bubbled up along the Saline River south of town hadn't been seen since the area was drained for farming in the nineteenth century. But last year, Jim Peters accidentally discovered a salt spring that is still active!
Peters and his dog Bonnie, a gentle but energetic pit bull terrier, were hiking on undeveloped city land near Saline's wastewater treatment plant.Bonnie pulled Peters toward a muddy puddle to get a drink. "As she got close, she sank in up to her chest in muck. Before I could pull her out, she had backed herself out," he recalls.
Peters washed the grayish mud off Bonnie in the nearby Saline River, then went back to take a closer look at the puddle. "I noticed very few plant varieties growing nearby and that the mud was covered with deer tracks." That's when Peters, then a city councilmember, had his "aha" moment: Why were the deer drinking there when they could have used the river? And why was the puddle in a clearing with no trees and substantially less vegetation than anywhere else nearby?
Peters collected some of the watery muck in a plastic bottle he found and took it to the city lab to be tested. "When the report came back that it was as salty as sea water, I was like a kid at Christmas," recalls Peters. He double-checked the findings using a cleaner bottle and another lab. Again the same results came back.
As soon as his suspicion was confirmed, Peters contacted Saline historian Bob Lane. The two men began working together, Peters researching the salt springs' prehistory and Lane putting the more recent Saline history in context.
Peters' research revealed that Saline's salt springs are part of an ancient sea bed formed about 600 million years ago, which extended from present-day New Jersey to Wisconsin. (Detroit's salt
mines are part of the same system.) When the last Ice Age was over, about 12,000 years ago, animals and people began moving into this area. Prehistoric animals came to drink at the salt springs. Remains of mastodons and mammoths have been found nearby.
Native Americans followed, drawn by the good hunting and because they too liked the salt. Their remains have also been found. According to the 1881 History of Washtenaw County, Michigan, "Early seekers for relics did not hesitate to open shallow graves and the ground was strewn with the bones of departed warriors." Lane has identified the location of two Indian burial mounds near the salt springs. One has been leveled for the Crestwood subdivision-people remember finding bones and relics at the time it was being built in the 1960s. A hill west of the DNR Fisheries Research Station is believed to be the other. The most recent Indian residents, the Potawatomi, who came to this area in the sixteenth century, used six footpaths, still visible, that converge at the springs. They were known to trade salt with neighboring tribes.
French explorers gave the Saline River its name in the 1600s. The first European visitors appreciated the salt springs. Trappers used the salt to preserve beaver pelts, which were in great demand in Europe for hats. The springs were first pinpointed on a map drawn in 1819 by surveyor Joseph Francis in section 12 of Saline Township.
In 1826, the first permanent settler in Saline Township, Leonard Miller, built his home near the salt springs. Others built nearby. In 1829, F.A. Dewey, a pioneer travelling to Tecumseh, wrote of taking the United States Military Road "west through the Saline River near the salt springs." This road, the first across the state, ran from Detroit to Chicago following an old Indian trail; it's now Michigan Avenue. In 1832, Orange Risdon, who'd surveyed the road, laid out the town of Saline on high ground north of the salt springs.
The 1881 County History told of an attempt by a group of local men to manufacture salt in 1863. "A building was erected, a derrick put in place, and boring commenced. After three unsuccessful attempts to sink a well, the project was abandoned. There has always existed a doubt in the minds of many whether the contractor engaged to sink the well acted in good faith. The charge is boldly made that he was bought off by rival interests."
Evidence of this failed endeavor was found in 1944, when a farmer named Harry Finch was plowing for corn and felt his plow sink down. Investigating, he found evidence of the former salt wells. The late Ray Alber, who farmed on land marked as part of the salt springs, once told Lane that he remembered that he and other farmers used to pick up salt clumps and give them to their animals.
Lane worked out the wells' location on the west side of Macon Road and has shown it to people as part of historic tours. He has also, with the landowner's permission, gone over the ground with a metal detector but found nothing left of the would-be salt works.
The 1863 mining attempt is the last reference to active salt springs. When the County History was written eighteen years later, the authors felt the need to offer proof that the springs had even existed: "That salt has been made here in years gone by cannot be doubted. Iron kettles have been found which were once doubtless used for this purpose."
So Peters' delight at his find is easy to understand. The spring presumably escaped discovery for so long because it's in an overgrown area that people rarely visit. Even if another dog had dived in as Bonnie did, only someone well versed in Saline history would have realized what the muddy puddle might be.
Last October, Peters sponsored a bill to create "Salt Spring Park" on the land where he found the active spring. It passed unanimously. "A forgotten parcel of city-owned land in the Saline River valley will now be available for all to enjoy as a unique park dedicated to our local heritage," explains Peters. "It will allow us to provide proper stewardship of our salt springs, enjoy nature, and reconnect with Saline's distant past." Lane is equally enthusiastic, explaining, "There is nothing now in town that explains why we are called 'Saline.'"
Peters' council term ended last year, but he's continuing to work on the project as a member of the parks commission. His vision is to leave the site as natural as possible but to improve the trail and build an observation deck with signage at the spring, so people won't get as muddy as Bonnie did. He would like someday to see the spring connected by a walking trail to Curtiss and Mill Pond parks-he says that could be "a beautiful, safe, free-from-car-traffic path, much of which is along the river." He knows all this will take money, which he hopes can be provided with grants. The local Eagle Scouts have already volunteered to clear the overgrown path.
Peters worries that the muddy puddle will underwhelm some people. He compares the spring to Plymouth Rock: "It's just a brown rock to some-but it's what it stands for, not what it looks like." But so far, the reaction from the public has been very positive. "People find it fascinating" he reports.
What happened to three local news websites?
What's on the digital front page of Saline. Patch.com, the three-year-old "hyperlocal" website? The same story that's on the front pages of Dexter. Patch.com and Chelsea. Patch.com: a piece on cooking with butter produced not by local writers or editors but by an anonymous "Patch Team"--whoever and wherever they may be.
The three online publications, and hundreds more around the country, were launched with great fanfare in 2010 by America Online. But last summer, AOL announced it was closing a third of the sites, and this January it sold the entire Patch network to Hale Global, a turnaround firm. In early February, Hale laid off hundreds of the company's remaining employees, including all its Michigan editors.
Saline Patch editor Tran Longmoore was already long gone: he'd left in August 2012.
"When I started I had full control and a freelance budget so I could beat the Saline Reporter," says Longmoore. "But eventually the freelance budget got smaller and smaller, and then it was gone. They replaced freelance content with corporate cookie-cutter content, like the top five real estate listings, and running them was mandatory."
Worse yet, Longmoore says he "saw where Patch was going. When an editor would quit, another editor would take over two sites. I knew Daniel Lai at the Dexter Patch, and I knew what they'd do: if he quit before I quit, I'd get both, and if I quit before he quit, he'd get both."
Longmoore says he decided to leave after "a dustup about Mark Ouimet, though it was not with Mark directly. The [2012 Gretchen] Driskell versus Ouimet race [for state representative] was just heating up when, after a school board meeting, Mark said to me, 'I'm not getting as much coverage as Gretchen.' I explained that was because she's the mayor of Saline, and we post pictures of her with Girl Scouts and her at meetings, because it's hometown stuff, and that's what we cover.
"A month later I got called to a meeting with my boss, and she said that Mark had made an advertising buy on Patch sites, and he told the ad rep that I said I wasn't going to cover him as much as I did Gretchen-I don't know that he said that, but that's what I was told-and I was asked 'Did you tell Mark you weren't going to cover him as much as Gretchen?' I explained, but she said, 'Whenever you cover Gretchen, we have to review it.' Before that, there was no other editing on the site except police news, [which was reviewed] because they were afraid of being sued.
"That crossed a line to me-and then I thought about it, and I realized that my job might be in jeopardy. So a week later I gave my two weeks' notice."
In Longmoore's view, Patch.com never made business sense. After AOL's start-up investment, "there was no money, and no plan to make money. It was eight months after we started before we had an ad rep, and she had five other sites to cover. The content was hyperlocal, but the advertising wasn't. Patch didn't have any interest in mom-and-pop shops-which was stunning compared with how much emphasis they put on local in the editorial content.
"They got desperate towards the end," Longmoore continues. "After AOL merged with the Huffington Post [two years ago], things got really tight, and they wanted seven [news] posts a day without an advertising budget. Then Patch got sold to Hale Global, and now almost everybody is gone. It's already like that in Saline. For one week I had a replacement, but nothing since then."
Dexter and Chelsea Patch editor Daniel Lai left two months after Longmoore. "Back in March I was transferred to Dearborn Patch, and Dexter and Chelsea Patch were turned over to a community content editor," he writes in an email. "The sites were basically unmanned. I was hired at ACCESS in Dearborn in October to work in the public relations office."
Saline now has another hyperlocal news source: after leaving Patch, Longmoore started TheSalinePost.com. "It's doing pretty good," he says. "I'm building an editorial following and getting more hits than ever on Patch." And Chelsea also has an independent news site: ChelseaUpdate.com--founded and run by Lisa Allmendinger, Lai's former mentor at the Heritage chain's Chelsea Standard newspaper.
What's next for two prime spots in Saline?
Five years ago, Saline seemed on the brink of adding major housing developments at two of its most desirable locations. Ann Arbor developer Mike Concannon demolished the former Steeb Dodge dealership to build the Village Market Place + Lofts, a planned three-story mixed-use structure on Michigan Avenue in the heart of downtown. And Saline's Tom Foley planned a luxury condominium community, the Banks of Saline, on Monroe Street along the Saline River.
The Michigan Avenue project died during the economic meltdown that hit developers worldwide. On the market for more than two years, the 1.45-acre parcel is a grassy field, looked after by the creditors who were awarded the property. Other developers have expressed interest, but nothing is pending. Aside from parade watchers and the occasional appearance of Impeach Obama folks with a Hitler moustache on their sign, the lot is usually empty and peaceful. "I enjoy looking at the expanse of grass," says Pam Eaton, whose Hair's Everything salon borders the property, "and I love the extended view west on Michigan Avenue."
The Monroe Street property had an even stormier history. Foley, who had purchased the land from Johnson Controls in 2006, found himself embroiled in costly litigation over who was responsible for cleaning up the site. Foley eventually backed out of the project after accumulating more than $400,000 in legal expenses. It is now littered with chunks of concrete, remains of the buildings that housed Universal Die Casting, a company that manufactured and electroplated auto parts. The twelve-acre site also has chemical waste that was a central focus of the litigation.
Saline public works director Jeff Fordice, who lives across Monroe Street from the property, says with a smile, "They are very quiet neighbors." He notes that except for the chain-link fence around it, the place "looks great in the summer" because the trees have grown and "you can't see any of the debris." The winter is a different story. Another neighbor, Phil-he wouldn't give a last name-summarizes, "It looks pretty bad."
Saline city manager Todd Campbell says that the EPA and Johnson Controls have agreed on a corrective measures plan. He says the company's representatives have said that they will "probably" donate the property to the city for use as a park-though with strict development restrictions.
Is Chelsea's newest attraction its speedy Secretary of State office?
You can't have a good meal or watch a theatrical production there, but the point of patronizing it is to save time, not spend it. An Ann Arbor resident who was tipped off by a friend opted to renew his license plates in Chelsea recently and says it took ten minutes total for the transaction.
At his local branch in Ann Arbor's Maple Village shopping center, he says, the typical wait is at least half an hour. Of course, the drive to Chelsea took an extra forty minutes, but he preferred that to sitting and waiting for his turn at the counter.
Are other urbanites flocking westward in search of reduced SOS stress? "We have no way of knowing that," says a spokesman at the Michigan Department of State. "We don't track that." The manager of the Chelsea branch, whose name tag identified her as J. Long-Clark, says releasing data on where her customers come from would be a privacy violation.
How had the tipster friend discovered the convenience of the Chelsea branch? He'd lived in Grass Lake for many years, and the Chelsea branch was closest to him. After he moved to Ann Arbor, he went to the Maple Village office to renew his driver's license.
"I got there very early and was still something like number thirty-five," he recalls. "I thought 'what the hell,' got in the car, drove to Chelsea, and was number three, which pretty much meant that my number was announced about the time my butt hit the seat in the waiting area. I spent a little on gas but more than made up for it in time. I figure I probably saved over an hour."
Fake Ad Update
"I've been reading the Community Observer for over five years and I have never been able to find the Fake Ad," wrote Dexter's Megan Loll, "but I think I finally found it in the Winter 2013 edition: Bell, Walson and Malone, LLC, on page 22." Not only was Loll right--she also was one of the few Fake Adders to catch the reference to John Walson, who's credited, at least by some, with inventing cable television.
The ad offered people the chance to sell the "telecom munity" rights to their land, which struck Saline's Lois Corrigan as odd. "With all the new natural gas and oil wells around the county," she wrote, "mineral rights are a hot commodity. I did not realize that telecom leases would soon follow."
We received sixty-seven correct entries, and Heather Green of Chelsea won our random drawing. She's taking her gift certificate to Arbor Farms Market.
To enter the Fake Ad contest, identify the phony ad in Spring Community Observer by name and page number (hint: it always contains the word "community"). Enter by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or by mail (Community Observer Fake Ad, 2390 Winewood, Ann Arbor, MI 48103). Please include your name, address, and telephone number! If your name is drawn, we'll send you a $25 gift certificate to any business advertising in this issue. The deadline for entries is Tuesday, May 20.
[Originally published in April, 2014.]