It was a great story. Ron Koenig, a friend of mine who works in architectural restoration, was on the second floor of a building in downtown Saline. The first floor was being rehabbed into a new restaurant, Mangiamo Italian Grill, and Koenig saw some details that seemed to point in a single provocative direction:

  • A series of windowless ten-by-ten-foot rooms, just large enough for a bed, each with a small bathroom featuring a toilet, sink, and stand-up shower
  • A very small closet in each room
  • Outside, a row of small locked closets
  • Push buttons outside each door, and a matching set downstairs under the bar
  • At the end of the hall a more spacious one-room apartment where the kitchen drawers had locks on them
  • Hand-painted dividers in one of those drawers, with a woman’s name written into each section
  • A shower door enclosing the larger apartment’s tub—etched with two nearly life-sized Alberto Vargas–style nudes

He thought the apartment appeared to have been remodeled in the 1970s, when the restaurant downstairs was called Big Daddy’s Den.A trip to City Hall only whetted my appetite. I asked about the history of 107 W. Michigan Ave., last home to Kelly’s 107 bar and the Saline Café. I focused on the 1970s, since that’s the era the Formica and the kitchen-cabinet styling seemed to suggest, but the records back then were a bit sketchy by modern standards. Maybe, I told myself, they were deliberately vague—­Saline’s roots are conservative German, so why would anyone want to admit to having a brothel at the center of town?

The woman at City Hall who helped me said the tax records would be of little help because the tax on a few beds is insignificant. And there probably were no permits for the work done because the windowless rooms with one door would not have met building codes, even in the 1970s.

I spoke with my next-door neighbor, Charlie Wolford, who worked at the local Ford plant during the time in question. He said none of the guys there had ever mentioned anything like what Ron and I suspected—and they would have mentioned it. Untroubled by this, I phoned Saline ­historian Wayne Clements, who was surprised by my suspicions—though most of his historical research focused on the nineteenth century, he said he would ask around. Wouldn’t it be great to spring the story on my city and my city’s historian! Who knew that historical research could be so much fun?

Then, at the insistence of my wife, I called Benny Galimberti. Since the 1960s Benny had operated Benny’s Bakery in the same building as my suspected brothel, and he frequently worked nights and therefore could see and hear everything going on in the building.

Benny popped my balloon. He told me that during his time in the building, rooms upstairs were rented to laborers and other short-term workers by the week or month, and that occasionally newlyweds would live there for a while. Some of his employees lived there briefly, and he recalls going up to talk with them.

Big Daddy was in actuality a virtuous family man, a member of the Knights of Columbus who managed to put his sons, now pilots, through college. He lived by himself in the apartment upstairs—his wife having died. All those locks kept the tenants out of each other’s and his stuff. The shower door, I now speculated (I enjoy speculation), was probably for his private entertainment.

But what about those push buttons under the bar?

Go back a generation, and those push buttons might have worked just the way David’s friend imagined—to summon paid companionship for bar patrons.

“You’re not out of line to think this may have happened, and you actually may be right on the money,” says Martin Hershock, associate professor at the University of Michigan–Dearborn and an authority on the history of Michigan. A brothel wouldn’t have been out of place: “It strikes me as perfectly in keeping with Saline’s location as a transportation hub on the trunk line between Detroit and Chicago.”

Michigan Avenue, which was laid out in the state’s territorial days, was the shortest route from Detroit to Chicago until the opening of I-94 in the late 1950s and early 1960s. As a result, the roadway would have been key to the transportation of bootleg liquor during Prohibition. “Al Capone and members of the Purple Gang would have gone that way,” Hershock says. The Chicago gangsters drew a lot of their booze from Windsor, and Detroit was a major transit point for Canadian liquor. Detroit’s notorious Purple Gang provided the muscle to protect the trade at that end.

Hershock says it’s possible that gangsters would have had interests in a variety of illicit activities all along the route. “And the proximity of these rooms to a bar could indicate a connection to other gang-related businesses,” he says.

Whatever the rooms were used for during Prohibition, there is no evidence that anything untoward went on there more recently. “I can tell you I was tuned in to what was going on all over the county for a long time and have never heard of anything like this,” says Rich Kinsey, retired detective sergeant in the Ann Arbor Police Department. “I don’t think there was anything like this in the modern era at all.”

Kinsey served nearly a decade with the AAPD’s special investigations unit, working with police agencies throughout Washtenaw County. But he has other reasons to believe that any illegal activity that might have occurred at this location was over with long ago. Before joining the police department, he worked as a warehouseman and delivery driver for a beer wholesaler, and “those guys know everything that’s going on,” he says.

Kinsey’s father started driving a beer truck in 1953, delivering to customers including the tavern in Saline. And while he had a number of colorful stories about the bar’s proprietor, “he never heard about anything going on upstairs,” Kinsey says.

Saline police chief Paul Bunten echoes the Kinseys. “If anything would have happened there, it would have happened in the 1930s or 1940s,” Bunten says. He’s heard about the buzzers discovered in the renovation work, “but until then, I’ve never heard anybody mention it,” he says.

Bunten is familiar with the history of Michigan Avenue, noting that it used to be called the Chicago Road. “So it makes sense that something could have happened there, but if so, I’m betting it’s something that goes back to the 1930s,” he says.

Sixty miles west of Saline, Albion is actively promoting its connection to the Purple Gang. The city’s downtown development authority has published a brochure promoting a “Purple Gang Walking Tour” of the city. After the conviction of some of the Purple Gang’s leaders in a Detroit slaying in the early 1930s, according to the tour brochure, some members of the gang set up a home base for their organized criminal activities in Albion. The walking tour map points out the location of their “local front, the Riverside Iron and Metal Company, a junkyard located next to the Kalamazoo River.” The map also points out an apartment one of the gang members rented “across the river so as to keep an eye on the junkyard business.”

If David’s theory can ever be confirmed, Saline, too, might want to consider cashing in what looks to be some colorful local history.