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Hidden In Plain Sight: An Exciting Piece Of Washtenaw County History Recently Discovered

Aug 20, 2018

The log cabin built in Ann Arbor in 1898 with historic beams inside with the names of Washtenaw County pioneers inscribed in them.
Credit Courtesy Photo / Washtenaw County Beams of History

History gives us the opportunity to better understand the past and predict the future.  A missing piece of Washtenaw County history, dating back to 1898, was recently discovered sparking a community effort to share the local piece of history with area residents.

89.1 WEMU’s Lisa Barry follows the path to the past and the future of dozens of historic beams from inside an old log cabin in Ann Arbor that, until recently, were…hidden in plain sight.

The story of some historic Ann Arbor log cabin beams is a bit like reading a mystery novel, following a long path of twists and turns being pursued by local historians and city officials.

The barn where the planks are currently stored.
Credit Lisa Barry / 89.1 WEMU

Back in 1898, a log cabin was built and located in Ann Arbor where Tappan Middle School now sits.  It was later moved to Burns Park in Ann Arbor, which used to be the county fairgrounds, and eventually taken down in the mid-50’s.

Beverly Willis is an administrator with the Washtenaw County Historical Society.  She explains in the cabin were wood beams, where the names of many of the founding families of Washtenaw County were inscribed.

92 year-old Al Gallup of Ann Arbor visited the log cabin where the inscribed beams were located when he was a child.
Credit Lisa Barry / 89.1 WEMU

92 year-old Al Gallup from Ann Arbor is the son of Eli Gallup, Ann Arbor's parks superintendent in 1919, who spent nearly 40 years in that position.

He says, in 1955, the cabin was torn down, but his father made sure to save the wood beams with the names inscribed.

Citizen-inscribed planks.
Credit Courtesy Photo / Washtenaw County Beams of History

A picture of the citizen-inscribed log cabin planks was posted on the Washtenaw County Historical Society's Facebook page, according to Willis, and that started a search for the planks.

Susan Wineberg is the city of Ann Arbor’s historian, an author, and also a board member of the Washtenaw County Historical Society.  She asked around finally discovering that Kevin Ernst, a supervisor for the city of Ann Arbor's Parks and Recreation department, knew where the historic beams were located.

He had them moved from Gallup Park where they were being kept to the Wheeler Center and then later stored in an old barn near the Ann Arbor airport that the city owns.

Members of the “Burns Park Pioneer Planks Committee" meet in Burns Park where the log cabin was located before it was torn down.
Credit Lisa Barry / 89.1 WEMU

Local historians formed a committee to decide what to do with them next, calling the committee the “Burns Park Pioneer Planks Committee."

Local historian George Taylor holds one of the historic beams now stored in an Ann Arbor barn.
Credit Lisa Barry / 89.1 WEMU

George Taylor, who is the president of Ann Arbor’s historic Cobblestone Farm, is also a member of that committee.  Taylor, who says it’s his job to “time travel” as he works in the historic Ann Arbor Cobblestone Farm, adds he’s involved  in the plank’s journey from the past to a future display because it ties him to the past through a piece of history.

There are 43 boards altogether with an average length of 12 to 14 feet, with the longest one being 19 feet long.

Names of Washtenaw County pioneers who paid $5 to have their names inscribed on the beams of a log cabin built in Ann Arbor in 1898.
Credit Courtesy Photo / Washtenaw County Beams of History

Many of the names on them are recognizable as current street names in Washtenaw County communities or some businesses still operating today.

Al Gallup remembers being inside the cabin built in 1898 as a kid and says it was pretty run down and full of hungry carpenter ants.

Ellen Ramsburg, also a member of the historic plank committee, said there was excitement when she mentioned the planks to her neighborhood association.

Mary Ellen Wall from Pittsfield Township is also a part of the committee, joining in because she wanted to find out how many Pittsfield pioneers were a part of this historic discovery.

Now that the 120 year-old historic beams made of strong oak wood have been located and safely secured, Beverly Willis of the Washtenaw County Historical Society explains what they hope to find a place to publicly display the historic beams.

A close up on the historic beams from a Washtenaw County log cabin built in 1898.
Credit Lisa Barry / 89.1 WEMU

And ultimately, according to Willis, they hope they are enjoyed and cherished and the community is as excited as they are for the history they represent as they are--history that took awhile to track down and may soon no longer be hidden in plain sight.

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— Lisa Barry is the host of All Things Considered on WEMU. You can contact Lisa at 734.487.3363, on Twitter @LisaWEMU, or email her at lbarryma@emich.edu