People

One of the enduring mysteries of Lansing is the Frederick M. Cowles’ house that was located on the site of what is today’s Durant Park. Why is the Cowles’ residence so enigmatic? Well no photograph of the home has ever been located. I find this odd, the home sat at the center of an entire city block, Number 54, one of the few homes in Lansing that had this distinction. The site was bounded on the east by Washington Avenue, the west by Capitol Avenue, the south by Saginaw Street and the north by Madison Street. The residence was also built by one of the early settlers of the city and was described as being a “pretentious mansion”.  Given those factors it seems odd that no photograph of the residence survived. Hopefully this short article will trigger something in the minds of the readers that will help uncover a lost image of the home.

The 1866 Birds Eye View Map of Lansing, with the detail of the Cowles’ Residence. Note the curved porch and the three full stories plus cupola.

The first image we have of the Cowles’s home is from the 1866 Birds Eye View Map of Lansing, notice how the residence is not at the center of the block, but rather positioned in the northeast corner of the block. This may have been a case of the prospective of the artist being off, because as you will observe in later maps the home is in the center of the block. The home was three stories tall, with an Italianate cupola atop the third story. The residence seems to be in the Italianate style, although a three-story Italianate home were rare in the Midwest. Also note the curved, eastern facing porch, with arches and wings on both the north and south side of the home. Moreover, there is a two-story wing to the west that may have housed the kitchen and servant quarters, but this is only speculation. The two-story outbuilding was in all likelihood the carriage house, which mimicked the design of the main house.

The Cowles Home from the 1873 map of the Lansing.

The curious aspect of the 1873 image of the Cowles’ home is the lack of an outbuilding and how the home was positioned just off center of the central point of the lot. It is also interesting to note how the layout of the residence was not symmetrical, there is a small protruding wing on the south side of the structure and the narrow back structure, the rear structure should have followed the width of the main building.

The 1913 Sanborn map image of the Cowles’ residence at 719 N. Washington.

Notice in the above image how the home is directly centered on the block facing east toward Washington Avenue. What the above image shows us is the wonderful curved front porch faced the Grand River, a three-story main building, not including the cupola, two wings both on the north and south side of the home with rear porches and a two-story structure at the back of the main building with another rear porch. One other fact about the home, it was built of brick, that was stated in a later article regarding the property. The carriage house at the top of the above image was a two-story structure. This is basically all that is known regarding the appearance of the Cowles residence.

Detail of 719 N. Washington.

Notice how the rear structure differs from the presentation of the image of the Cowles’ home in the 1873 map of Lansing. In the Sanborn map the rear building is symmetrical. It may be that in 1903 there was a porch on the rear of the south wing of the home but not the north wing, which would explain the unbalanced view on the 1873 map. Just what happened to the Cowles’ residence is almost a microcosm regarding Lansing track record on preservation, basically there was none.

Frederick Mortimer Cowles

Frederick Mortimer Cowles was born in New Berlin, Chenango County, New York on February 3, 1924 to Elliot and Sarah (née Phelps) Cowles. The family moved to Ohio in 1833 and ten years later Frederick, with his brother, Joseph P. Cowles moved to Ingham County, Michigan where they built and operated a sawmill near Aurelius. In 1847 Frederick settled in Lansing where he worked as a carpenter and contractor. He was one of the men who worked as a carpenter in the building of the first Capitol in Lansing. In 1848 he became a clerk in Hiram H. Smith’s general store. Frederick became Smith’s partner in the business in 1851. At some point between 1856-1859 Frederick’s partnership with Smith was dissolved. On the 1859 map of Lansing, Frederick is listed as managing a store on the south-west corner of Michigan and Washington Avenues. Frederick operated the business until he sold the company to Nelson F. Jenison, his future son-in-law. It seems Frederick loathed retirement and worked as a salesman for Lansing Wagon Works. He also served as a city alderman in 1861-1862 and 1875-1876. Frederick was instrumental in the rebuilding of the city bridges after the flood of 1875 and actively encouraged local residents plant trees along the street. On October 23, 1851, Frederick married Miss Delia L. Ward. The couple had three children; Alice Glendora, who married Nelson F. Jenison, Lizzie B., Lucy D. Cowles.[1]His wife Delia Louisa Cowles passed away on July 1, 1895. After his wife’s death Frederick lived at the home on Washington Avenue with his daughter’s Lizzie and Lucy. Towards the end of his life he resided with his daughter, Alice at 403 Seymour, Alice’s husband, Nelson died on November 3, 1907. Frederick stayed at the home on Seymour until his death on January 16, 1910. After Frederick’s moved in with his daughter Alice, Lizzie and Lucy Cowles maintained the residence at 719 N. Washington until about 1910, when they moved to 403 Seymour to care for their sister Alice.

 

So, what happened to the Cowles house? Well it had a rather sad and confusing history after the death of Frederick. Starting in 1911 over a two-week period Fred Lee Perkins, a former Lansing Fire Fighter, systematically looted the empty Cowles residence. Perkins had stolen, silverware, oil paintings, and mahogany furniture, which he resold to secondhand dealers. He was arrested and charged with burglary, oddly he only netted a total of $28 from his crime spree. It seems the secondhand dealers were cheating Perkins. Judge Wiest sentenced Perkins to two to five years in Jackson Prison. (LSJ 4/7/1911) Towards the end of 1911 there was a move by then Mayor Bennett to acquire the Cowles property as a city park at the cost of $40,000, paid for by city bonds, the proposal went nowhere. Two years later, Clarence Bement proposed that the city should acquire the Cowles property and convert it into a city park. First ward Alderman Jay M. Smith recommended that not only should the city acquire the property, but they should convert the house into a convention hall. (LSJ 4/3/1913) In March of 1915 the Board of Public Parks and Cemeteries recommended that the city acquire the Cowles property for $45,000, but there was no movement by the city to purchase the property. All the time the debate was going on regarding the city’s acquisition of the Cowles property the residence deteriorated, to a point where the neighbors requested that the city board the home up because it had become an eyesore and a haven for tramps. In May of 1915 a mattress in the home was set on fire, the cause of the blaze was never determined. What is remarkable is that the home was still fully furnished. A year later the property was being cleared and the house was scheduled for demolition, the property was being subdivided for resale. (LSJ 8/15/1916) A year later the city was again trying to acquire the property as a park, the main stumbling block in the sale of the property was the insistence of the family that the park be named after Mortimer Cowles. The city then tried to acquire the property through condemnation proceedings which, failed due to a hung jury. (LSJ3/1/1917) The city decided again to offer $70,000 for the Cowles property and put the proposition to Lansing voters on June 16, 1917, the measure was defeated, Yes 792 votes, No 925 votes. To many of the young residents of Lansing, the Cowles house was considered haunted. There were stories of strange sounds and mysterious lights emanating from the house. Turns out the ghost were usually Michigan Agricultural College students suffering the trials of a fraternal initiation. Finally, in 1918 C.I.B. McLean, a real estate developer completed a deal to subdivide the property into 21 lots, it was to be known as Cowles Square. No stores or public building were to be built on the lots. At this time the article mentions that the house was still standing on the lot, with the statement “At one time this home was considered the finest between Detroit and Grand Rapids” (LSJ9/14/1918). That all changed when William C. Durant visited Lansing in 1919. Upon seeing the property Durant was enchanted and purchased the property for $100,000. (LSJ 6/9/1919) Just what Durant’s plan for the property was a mystery. It seems that at this time the home was torn down and the foundation filled in, one wonders if the foundation is still present? (LSJ 9/25/1919) For two years Lansing residents were left to speculate what Durant would do with the property, finally on Monday, March 21, 1921 at the City Council meeting Durant’s lawyer presented the city with the property. (LSJ 3/22/1921) One final note, there is an image of the Cowles home in the Lansing State Journal, it is part of a collage of images that showed how overgrown the lot has become. The only thing that may be taken from the images is that the home has several columns. Seems like a sad end for such an enigmatic structure, but hey, Durant Park is beautiful.

[1]Alice Jenison died on November 12, 1915 in Lansing. (LSJ 11/13/1915) Miss Lucy Cowles died in Santa Monica, California on October 12, 1935. (LSJ 10/14/1935) Miss Lizzie B. Cowles passed away on February 11, 1941 in Santa Monica, California. (LSJ 2/12/1941)

© Lost Lansing 2018


1119 N. Washington (CADL/FPLA)

Oliver G. Tooker built his home in Lansing in 1847 (1848) the same year that the Capitol was moved to Lansing. The Tooker name was one that was interwoven with the early history of Lansing. Oliver was born in New York in 1823-1824 to Eliphlet (Ellflit) and Sarah (née Smith) Tooker.[1] Oliver came to Lansing in 1847, he was a carpenter by trade and was a veteran of the War of 1812.[2] After the death of his parents in New York, Oliver raised his younger brother, John S. Tooker, who would later become Lansing’s Mayor (1872-73 and 1876) and Territorial Secretary of Montana (1884). In December of 1847 Oliver married Miss Caroline M. Stoffey (Stuffey), the couple had three children, two daughters who predeceased their parents, Lizzie and Mary and one son, Edwin S. Tooker. Oliver passed away at his home on December 11, 1892. (SR 12/11/1892) Caroline stayed in the home after Oliver’s death and 1898 celebrated with family and friends her 50th year in the home.  An account of Caroline’s early days in Lansing was published in the State Republican, which explained that after her marriage to Oliver in December 1847, Oliver returned to Lansing to build a home for his bride. In April 1848 he returned to Woodhull, Michigan to take his wife to Lansing. When Caroline arrived in the Capital City she discovered that they had only four neighbors and at night she could hear the Native Americans who were camped on the banks of the Grand River. Oliver purchased a stove in Dexter, Michigan for Caroline and she managed to acquire six tea cups and saucers at a store near Main Street and the river, with those items secured she set up her home. (SR 5/24/1898) Less then a year after the celebration Caroline passed away at the home where she lived for so many years on May 10, 1899. (SR 5/10/1899) After both his parents died, Edwin S. Tooker lived at the home until his death on February 1, 1924, Edwin’s wife Martha stayed at the home until 1951, Martha passed away at a nursing home in Farmington, Michigan on March 25, 1952 at the age of 95. (LSJ 3/26/1952) In July of 1951 the Tooker home, the oldest standing structure in Lansing was torn down, for wait, you guessed it a parking lot. (LSJ 7/21/1951) Yep a parking lot, which it still is today, only now it is covered in grass. I should say WTH. Really, the oldest home in Lansing was torn down for a parking lot. They knew it was the oldest home but what the heck let’s just tear it down. I have been doing research on Lansing for 20 years and the same result is always found, ‘Structure torn down for a parking lot’, the irony is there are a lot of parking lots in Lansing and they are never filled and no one has trouble finding a parking spot, and this lot is never used! Consider what North Lansing would be like if it had the oldest home in Lansing. The home was a wonderful example of the work done by a talented carpenter. The porch faced the south allowing for a comfortable seating area during the summer months. Notice the location and size of the windows, positioned to allow as much natural light as possible to flood the interior rooms. In its day, this would have been a cozy and functional home. The home was not a grand structure, but what the hard working man who built Lansing would have lived in.

The will not be an August post, see you in September.

© Lost Lansing 2018

[1] History of Montana, by Joaquin Miller, 1894

[2] It is doubtful that Oliver served in the War of 1812, this claim was made by his nephew Dr. Oliver A. Tooker. Oliver Tooker date of birth is always listed as being in 1823 or 1824 and State Republican listed his age as 69 at the time of his death in 1892. Oliver A. Tooker may have confused Oliver’s service with that of his father, Eliphlet Tooker who served in the War of 1812 as a private. See LSJ 7/21/1951

The Cortrite home and Fanning Mill Works is an image that appeared in Durant’s History of Ingham and Eaton Counties, Michigan. The color image is one that I came across years ago, I just cannot remember where. The address of the home was listed on the illustration as being 96 Michigan Avenue in 1880. So just where was that? Well in today’s world it is 808-814 E. Michigan Avenue. The Fanning Mill was sited at 810-814 E. Michigan Avenue while the home was located at 808 E. Michigan Avenue. That is in the elevated lot between Moriarty’s Pub and Stober’s Bar. The Fanning Mill Factory is long gone, but the home existed until the mid 1980s. Hard to believe that the home was not listed in Memorandum 76, that may have been because of the homes location, set back from the street and between two commercial blocks. Simply it may have been overlooked.

The Cortrite Fanning Mill from the 1870 patent

Durant in his history of Ingham County stated that that the Eureka Fanning Mill plant was established in Lansing in 1875. Prior to that Henry Cortrite operated the factory that manufacture fanning mills in Plymouth, Michigan. Henry relocated to Lansing because of its central location to the railroad lines. If you consider where the new fanning mill was located, just two blocks east of the Michigan Central Railroad line and several blocks from the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway line, the factory was in a perfect position to capitalize on shipping via the railroads. Barnard Cortrite was the inventor of the Cortrite fanning mill, Henry his brother, was not listed in the patent. Barnard also operated a factory to manufacture fanning mills in Norwalk, Ohio, while his brother Henry operated the factory in Lansing. Between 1876 and 1880 the two plants manufactured and sold over 10,000 fanning mills. A fanning mill was an implement that employed sieves and a fan to remove chaff from grain that had been threshed. Later, the technology was combined with the threshing machine, eliminating the need for a separate mill. On Sunday, April 23, 1882 disaster struck the Lansing business when the warehouse that contained 150 finished fanning mills was destroyed by fire. Although the business was insured the production of fanning mills by the Cortrite’s ended in Lansing. (ICN 4/27/1882) The 1883 Lansing City Directory listed Joseph Schneeberger (1832-1911), as the owner of the Eureka Fanning Mills and living at 804 E. Michigan.[1] At this time, it is unknown when Henry sold his business to Joseph, but it must have been in either 1881 or 1882 and it is not clear if Joseph was manufacturing the Cortrite fanning mill or one of a different design.

Henry Cortrite

Henry Cortrite was born in Phelps, New York on November 23, 1837 to Garrett and Electa (née Pullen) Cortrite. When he was 16 he moved with his mother, sister and younger brother to Genesee County, Michigan, Henry’s father Garrett died Phelps, New York on June 16, 1857, just why the family moved to Michigan four years prior to Garrett’s death is unknown. On November 23, 1864, Henry married Miss Annie E. Moreland, the couple has six children, Bernard, Elizabeth, Mary Jane, Henry, Charles B., and Lucretia E. Cortrite. After leaving Lansing for Pontiac, Henry worked in the real estate business and owned a farm. Henry died in Pontiac, Michigan on December 7, 1909. His brother, Bernard continued manufacturing fanning mills in Norwalk, Ohio and retired to California, he passed away on February 17, 1921.

Detail of the porch on Henry Cortrite’s home on Michigan Avenue

I almost forgot, I was exploring the house at 808 E. Michigan. So, if you examine the above image of the porch and focus on the arch between the columns you can see that there is a small opening near columns side of the arch, and another at the center that carried through with the arch. Now observe in the next two images and you can see that the same pattern repeated. Unfortunately, the detailed millwork from the upper part of the porch is missing from the two later images of the home.

808 E. Michigan from the 1950s (CADL/FPLA)

The Cortrite home was later divided in to five separate apartments. You can see the two separate front entrances in the images from the 1950s. The second-floor windows have been replaced with the ornate central window being exchanged with a door. All the gingerbread bargeboard had been removed from the home giving the structure a rather pedestrian appearance.

808 E. Michigan from the 1950s (CADL/FPLA)

So just what happened to the home? Well it became sort of a flop house. The majority of the references in the Lansing State Journal in regard to 808 E. Michigan Avenue are either advertisements for apartment rentals of notices regarding the criminal citations for one of the residents. The home was torn down in 1985. So, what does this all mean? Well it is another example of Lansing choosing destruction over preservation. You may think that this is out of place because the structure is in what has been called the downtown corridor, which is asinine. As much as the mayor and advertisers like to state, downtown is west of the river and not east.

© Lost Lansing 2018

[1] This is a good time to point out that addresses in Lansing changed several times between the 1880s and 1906 when Lansing implemented the Philadelphia method or street addresses.