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McMillin's Detroit: A Veteran Guide Takes Us Through Detroit Then and Now

Stewart McMillin sees dead people.

On street signs, in empty lots, in historic homes and cemeteries. Along Jefferson, up Woodward and through Eastern Market.

Everywhere you go, McMillin has a tale. It's no wonder. The 68-year-old history buff and former East Detroit High School history teacher has been leading tours of Detroit for 40 years, from Underground Railroad tours to Pub Crawls.

As he sits behind the wheel of his beige Chevy Malibu in front of his Indian Village home one sunny day in March, poised to start a sort of Stewart's-eye-view of the city, he's wearing a shirt that reads "Sandwich Baptist Church" in Old English type. Of course, there's a story.

The church was a stop on the Underground Railroad in the 1850s. Sandwich, now a suburb of Windsor, was not only a safe haven for slaves, but also Brits, adds McMillin with a laugh. "It was settled by British people who fled Detroit for Canada, which was British at the time."

With a narrative style that's more folksy than stuffy, McMillin, who looks younger than his years and jokes that he still hasn't grown up, tosses out bits of lore like birdfeed as he passes sights — these being  a mere sampling — he'd be proud to show any out-of-towner.

African-American History

First stop is a home on the corner of Garland and Charlevoix that belonged to Ossian Sweet, a black physician who moved his family from a ghetto in 1925. They became the first black family in the all-white neighborhood. Under threats of death, Sweet had family, friends and ammunition on hand the day he moved in while the city had police officers posted nearby. The following evening, as a mob of white people pelted the home with rocks, shots were fired from the house killing a white man across the street. "It was the O.J. Simpson trial of 1925. Clarence Darrow defended him," says McMillin of the famous lawyer who won a not guilty verdict for Sweet. It was a major milestone in the civil rights movement.

Historic homes

McMillin, a big fan of Detroit's many historic neighborhoods, calls Indian Village one of the top five in Detroit along with Boston-Edison and Palmer Woods. "They don't build them like they used to," he says of the homes built between 1895 and 1928 by famous architects like Louis Kamper and Albert Kahn and ranging in styles from Queen Anne to Tudor Revival. Residents were a Who's Who list of Detroit.

On Iroquois Street, McMillin points to one house after another. One belonged to Henry Leland, an oft forgotten automotive leader. "He's the guy who invented the Lincoln and the Cadillac," he says before passing Edsel Ford's first home. "He had four kids, only one is still living. William Clay Ford, Sr. He owns the Lions." At the corner of St. Paul is a home Dodge Brother Horace built for his daughter for a wedding present, he says. At Edwin Denby's house, McMillin says: "He served as secretary of the Navy under Harding."

McMillin next goes by the historic Berry Subdivision, built in the early 1900s by daughters of Joseph H. Berry, who owned a nationally known varnish business. "At one time these were the only seven houses on the river," says McMillin, pointing out the Manoogian Mansion mayoral residence. "The city grew so fast they put factories on the river." As he looks down the street, he points to the street sign, "Dwight": "He was a lumber guy."

In the West Village, off Jefferson at Kercheval — "not as fancy as Indian Village" — McMillin point out the home of Horace Caulkins, who co-founded Pewabic Pottery with Mary Chase Stratton. "She got married [to architect William Stratton in 1918] in the backyard," he says. Caulkins, a dentist, provided the kilns in which he made teeth so she could fire her now famous pottery, he says. "See the green Pewabic tiles on the front porch?"

He later drives through what's left of Brush Park's historic homes, just north of I-75 off Woodward. "At one time this was the Grosse Pointe or Bloomfield Hills of Detroit," he says of the development built in the late 1800s and named for the Brush family — Edmund Brush was the city's second mayor. Once home to department store magnate J.L. Hudson and lumber baron David Whitney, Brush Park was one reason Detroit was called the Paris of the Midwest, he says. Many of the remaining homes are now being restored, and he pauses in front of two on Alfred Street (son of Edmund), examples of Second Empire style with mansard roofs and tall narrow windows. "There's no comparison with houses built today," he says. "This is really classic stuff."

Brush Park today is a story of comeback, and even streets that look barren or blighted are marked for redevelopment. "This place looked like Berlin in 1945 until 10 years ago," he says.

Street signs

McMillin loves street signs, calling them out at nearly every turn.

Charlevoix: "He was a French priest who was in Detroit for one year, in 1709." Woodward: Augustus Woodward was sent here from Virginia by Thomas Jefferson to serve as a judge in the early 1800s. "Right before he got here, Detroit burned down. So he laid out the streets and named them after people he knew, like Jefferson.

Woodward Avenue, he said, was not named after him, though," adds McMillin, appreciative of Woodward's wit. "He said he named it Woodward because you were going towards the woods."

Vernor: "He was the fire commissioner in the late 1800s. His brother was Vernor's who made ginger ale."

Chene, Rivard, St. Aubin, Livernois: These were all family names, named after their ribbon farms, he says.  "They were two or three miles long but only one block wide so they could each have access to the river. There were 40 to 50 at one time."

Churches

While McMillin doesn't like to play favorites, one church he can cop to when it comes to beauty—"I can almost say for sure," he says—is Sweetest Heart of Mary Polish Catholic Church at Canfield and Russell. "It was built by Polish immigrants. It's so beautiful. It's overwhelming. Awe-inspiring. People who go there want to get married there." On a world scale, it's no match for Notre Dame or Chartres in France, he says. But with its soaring 217-foot spires and stained glass windows, which won prizes in the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, "It's the neatest one."

Down under

When it comes to cemeteries, McMillin likes Elmwood best. "It's the coolest because of the people and the architecture," he says. Founded in 1846, it's the resting spot for many city leaders, from businessman Hiram Walker to former mayor John C. Lodge.

He passes by the grand sarcophagus-bedecked gravesite of Lewis Cass of Cass Avenue. Cass served as Secretary of War for President Jackson and was the second governor of the Michigan territory in 1813. "He was a big Democrat who ran for president in 1848. He lost," says McMillin. "He was friends with Lincoln. They had a debate over whether it was Michiganians or Michiganders. Lincoln called him a silly goose."

He points to a particularly large obelisk at the grave of Albert Molitor, a German-born nobleman who fought in the Civil War and operated sawmills in Rogers City. He came to an unseemly end when, after swindling his employees and his company, he was hounded and shot by a mob in 1875. McMillin says obelisks were like post-mortem ego trips. "Each one wanted a bigger one than the next."

An impressive Greek temple-like vault with Ionic columns is the resting place of Traugott Schmidt, who ran the largest fur and leather tanning business in the city in the mid-1800s. "He started Trapper's Alley in Greektown, where trappers used to bring their fur," says McMillin, who could go on and on. "I've been walking through here for years," he says. "It's such a beautiful place. It's so nice in spring, and fall with all the leaves and scary stuff and dead people."

Belle Isle & the Cultural Center

Another favorite spot is Belle Isle, the largest island park in the U.S. The majestic Scott Fountain named after James Scott that inspires a story today. "Scott was a womanizer and a gambler. He never worked an honest day in his life," he says of the eccentric bachelor who died at the age of 79 in 1910. "He was such a bad guy, he threw rocks at kids who crossed his lawn."

Scott left the city $500,000 to build a fountain and life-size bronze statue of himself. But Scott never did much for the city to warrant such a statue. So after much debate, the city finally accepted the bequest. The result: the elegant white memorial fountain and a small statue of Scott "just sitting there," says McMillin with a laugh. "He wanted a great big thing."

McMillin could spend an entire day on the Cultural Center but today he says if you had just five minutes at the Detroit Institute of Arts, see the Diego Rivera mural, commissioned by Edsel Ford in the early 1930s. "It's such a cool thing. He shows workers being brutalized. Managers had everything and laborers didn't have much. There's only one complete car, a little red one, in the whole mural," he says, adding: "Diego Rivera was a communist. There's a guy wearing a glove with a red star on it, connoting his love for communism."

Eastern Market & Hart Plaza

"It's like shopping in Toronto or New York City on a Saturday. There are people everywhere — in the street, bargaining for prices," says McMillin of Eastern Market, which was founded on an ancient American Indian burial ground. "When they were building the Fisher Freeway they found bones of what must have been the first settlers. They took them to Mt. Elliot cemetery."

More interesting, he says, is a story involving nearby Old St. Johns, a church at Gratiot and Russell where you can see a casket once used to free slaves. Back then, the church was near the tunnel to Canada. "They held fake funerals around dusk so people couldn't see. Rather than putting the [presumed white] person in the ground, they put him on a boat to Canada."

McMillin  could also spend a day on Hart Plaza, site of the Michigan Labor Legacy Monument erected in 2003 with its steel arches reaching 63 feet in the air. "It represents the contribution of laborers. You always hear about Ford and GM, but not the laborers," he says. He also gets a kick out of the statue of Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, Detroit's founder — "from a white man's point of view," he offers with a smile. "He was the first European to come here. But he was kind of a prima donna, a little arrogant about his impact here." He likes the well-known Horace E. Dodge Fountain, designed by Isamu Noguchi in 1979, for the spraying water feature. "Half the time it doesn't work," he says. But when it does, It makes for a peaceful, neat scene."

Then and now

Though steeped in history, McMillin cheers Detroit's revival, from the RiverWalk and Dequindre Cut project to the proposed Broadhead Armory development.

Meanwhile, McMillin, who's visited every country in South America and is planning a trip around the world, hopes to eventually hear a new world view of the city. "Usually you cringe, knowing it's going to be something bad," he says. "You want to say: It's all these good things and all these bad things. It's like that song: You've got to accentuate the positive. …"

Detroiters can debate the progress of its comeback, but there's one thing that can't be denied about the city: "The coolness of its history."



For info on tours, contact McMillin at 313-922-1990 or email him at Tourdetstu@aol.com.


photos:

Stewart McMillin on his front porch - Indian Village

Stewart McMillin at the Dodge home - Indian Village

Stewart McMillin sits in front of Stratton home - West Village

Stewart McMillin on front of Sweetest Heart of Mary Polish Catholic Church

Stewart McMillin at the new DIA

Stewart McMillin in Eastern Market

Photographs by Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the managing photographer for Metromode & Model D.

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