Janice Stevenson, owner of Wackenhut Gartens, says people often guess that her store at Jackson and Lima Center roads was originally a church or a school. A former resident reported that people often knocked at his door thinking it was the township hall.
In fact, it was built as an interurban station. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, light-rail tracks ran down the north side of Jackson Road from Ann Arbor to Jackson. They carried electrically powered freight and passenger trains that were similar to, but usually larger than, the trolleys or streetcars that operated in cities.
The Detroit, Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor and Jackson Railway built the station in 1901. The front part of the building was the baggage and freight room. In the back was the passengers’ waiting room, entered through French doors on the side. The tower housed a generator that used alternating current from a station in Ypsilanti to produce direct current to power the trains.
Founded in 1831 as a stagecoach stop on what was then called the Territorial Road, Lima Center went into decline after being bypassed by the Michigan Central Railroad in 1841. The interurban gave the hamlet a new burst of life. Don Laier recalls his mother taking the interurban to Ann Arbor and Jackson to go shopping. She would drive their horse and buggy to the station, leaving them at a nearby livery where the horses would be fed and cared for until she got back.
In a 1980s interview the late Dwight Beach, famous as Chelsea’s only four-star general, told about riding the interurban from Chelsea to Lima Center and back every day when he was in eighth grade. He grew up in Lima Center in a farmhouse that still stands about a half-mile down the road from the station. When his family rented out the farm and moved into Chelsea, in 1922, he decided he’d rather continue at the school he’d always attended, so he took the interurban to Lima Center every day at a cost of five cents. (For ten cents he could have traveled all the way to Ann Arbor.)
The late Lou Doll, who grew up in Chelsea near the interurban stop that Beach used, recalled in an undated memoir that the early cars were made of wood and painted orange; after the line was absorbed into the Detroit United Railway, they were steel and painted a dull, dirty green. “We children knew all the cars by their number,” Doll wrote. “There was one freight car which had once been yellow but had become very dirty over the years. It had a rounded roof like frosting on a cake, not like the clerestory type common to passenger cars, and it was shaped like a loaf of bread; we called it ‘French toast.'”
Interurbans were slower than trains, but their fares were cheaper and they ran more frequently. Unlike horse-drawn buggies and early automobiles, they also could travel in all seasons—important at a time when rural dirt roads became muddy and impassable in the spring. But Jackson Road was paved in 1921, and by 1929 the interurban line was discontinued and the Lima Center station closed.
In 1935, Harold and Mary Ann Gracey bought the station and made it into a store and living quarters. Their daughter, Ruth Gracey Rabley, recalls that it had cement floors about six feet deep, with holes where machinery had been fastened down, and brick walls two feet thick. Besides installing necessities like plumbing and electricity, her father put in 1930s-style accoutrements, including rough plaster, pine paneling, rounded arches, and built-in drawers.
The Graceys’ store occupied the former baggage room. It sold mainly food— bread, milk, cold cuts, cheese (cut on demand from a wheel), candy bars, soft drinks, cereal—but Rabley says her father prided himself on “selling anything that anyone wanted.” They built a gas station next door and also moved three cottages onto their property, which they rented to overnight travelers.
Besides serving passing motorists, the Graceys did a lot of business with the surrounding community, which was more vibrant than it is today. An old church was expanded to serve as a Grange hall; after meetings, Grange members often stopped by the store for ice cream, as did churchgoers on Sundays. Children attending Lima Center’s one-room school also came by after class to buy penny candy. Today the Grange hall is Lima Township’s meeting hall, and the school is a private home.
After Ruth Rabley married, she brought her children back to visit their grandparents. “We thought of it as a castle with its tower,” remembers Rabley’s daughter, Jessa Rabley TsuTsumi. Jessa loved everything about the former station—”the birds, the French doors out to the patio, the freedom to roam, but especially raiding the candy section.”
In 1953 Harold Gracey hired Pete Severn to take over the day-to-day operation of the gas station, which Severn did until 1959; then his brother-in-law Ed Greenleaf took over, staying until 1962. Greenleaf says of the Graceys, “I thought the world of them. Mary Ann was a wholesome, loving person with Southern charm. She never lost her Southern drawl. Harold was gruffer but just as nice.”
Harold died in 1967. By then the store was closed, a victim of the opening of 1-94, which had been built in segments from 1956 to 1960. In 1979 Bob Vanschoick rented the Graceys’ empty gas station for his metal deburring business. Nine years later, when he heard that Mary Ann Gracey was going to sell that building plus the former interurban station, he bought both.
In 2008 Janice Stevenson opened up Wackenhut Gartens in Don Johnson’s former antiques store on the other side of Jackson Road. She admired the buildings across the street and began talking to Vanschoick about renting them, which she did, starting last summer. Before moving her business in, she did a lot of work on the former interurban station, always with an eye to keeping it as close to the original as possible, stripping and refinishing the original floors and replacing the front door with a more period-appropriate one.
The French doors that opened into the waiting room are still intact, and this spring Stevenson dug out the area outside those doors to build a new patio and to expose the overgrown path and steps as another reminder of the building’s past use.