Hidden history on Pontiac Trail
by Steve Gilzow
Published in April, 2009
Ann Arbor has its share of amateur historians, but few can match Patrick McCauley.
In 2006, when he was twenty-eight, McCauley and his girlfriend, Andrea Kinney, purchased an old Greek Revival home on Pontiac Trail. They set to work restoring the small dwelling-and McCauley spent hundreds of hours reconstructing the house's history.
A former history major at the U-M, McCauley was, he admits, "obsessive." He sifted through deeds, wills, maps, and census data, trying to establish when it was built. And when he still couldn't pinpoint an exact date, this past January ¬McCauley went into his basement and carefully removed several pieces of subfloor that showed bark edges. He then sent the wood to a University of Tennessee lab that does "dendrochronology"-a process that analyzes tree rings and compares them to trees of the same species, from the same area, whose history is known. The white oak in McCauley's subfloor was compared to a venerable oak from Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills. Four samples in the $500 analysis agreed: 1845.
McCauley wanted to know not only when the house was built but who lived there-so he searched websites for the histories and genealogies of the former residents. "I'm a housepainter," he explains. "This is what I do for brain stimulation." And that's how he uncovered the story of George Spathelf Jr.'s secret family.
The son of German immigrants, Spathelf grew up in the house, living there with his parents from 1869 to 1890. McCauley posted a query on a genealogy website, seeking in-formation about the family. Last year, he got a reply from Alabama. It turned out that Spathelf, a German American owner of a meat market on Broadway, was the great-grandfather of an African American, Richard Curtis.
Exchanging e-mails, McCauley and Curtis pieced together the history. Curtis said it was "a family story" that a white man was his great-grandfather-someone named Spathelf. McCauley shared his extensive Spathelf research and the Curtis family began researching Washtenaw County records. They discovered that Mary
Sims Curtis, the daughter of an ex-slave, lived during the 1890s at a couple different addresses on Broadway-buildings owned by Spathelf.
George Spathelf and Mary Curtis were both married-not to each other-and had children with their spouses. Yet a niece of Richard Curtis discovered Washtenaw County mar-riage records showing Mary Curtis's daughter, Lillian, listing George Spathelf as her father.
"The Curtis family was surprised to learn that," says McCauley. "They knew about Lillian, but they didn't know George Spathelf was her father. I also tracked down some of the Spathelf descendants. I sent that information to Richard and [his wife] Carol Curtis and told them, 'If you want to contact them, go ahead, they're your family.' The Curtises did, and the Spathelf descendants were very surprised. They had never heard the story. They've gotten together a few times as a result. They sent me a picture of them all together." In December, Carol and Richard Curtis's family stopped by to visit McCauley, and he gave them a tour of the house.
Spathelf also once owned the lot next door to McCauley's house. Last year, a house was moved there from downtown. Ironically, it's the planned home of the African American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County.
[Originally published in April, 2009.]
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