Grass Lake Area Historical Connections

by | Jun 12, 2016 | History, Michigan, Travel

During our own Genealogy Roadshow, Chuck and I found a collection of museums dedicated to area history: Grass Lake Area Historical Connections (GLAHC). This particular road show was focused on learning more about my Grandmother Ruth’s early years, to be more specific, when she taught school in a one-room school house in Grass Lake from 1912-1914. Chuck is always game for an adventure, so it wasn’t hard to talk him into a road trip. So on a sunny Saturday afternoon, we packed up the Ford Ranger and headed west on I-94 and were delighted to find tucked in the village of Grass Lake, Michigan a collection of museums dedicated to preserving area history.

There were no scandalous discoveries about my Grandmother during our visit to the Coe House Museum, but we did learn a great deal about Grass Lake’s history, found a few clues to fuel my research, and as an added bonus, we got a glimpse into the daily life of Michigan residents in the early 1900’s.

Grass Lake Area Historical Connections

We have the Grass Lake Area Historical Connections (GLAHC) to thank for preserving a connection to Michigan’s history and keeping the museum doors open. The Coe House Museum was the first GLACH museum and soon the Troops and Trains will open; a new facility with two distinct museums: the Interurban CAR 29 and the Michigan Military Heritage Museum.

Coe House - Grass Lake - 2016-43

Tour Guides

Marilyn O’Leary and Scott Gerych welcomed us when we arrived and were eager to help us look for clues and to educate us about Grass Lake’s history. Although not available during our visit, they are in the process of developing files of family research available for the public’s use.

The Coe House Museum

The Coe House Museum is much more than a museum, it is a connection to the past, a micro Henry Ford Museum. When we entered the Coe House Museum doors, its charm and authenticity cast an unshakeable spell. I was instantly bewitched. Just barely inside the door, the phone grabbed my attention. I was transfixed to the wood floor while staring at it. I fingered the iPhone that was nestled in my pocket and studied the directory posted above this delightful link to the past.

Grass Lake Area Historical Connections

With our tour guides close at hand, we wandered from room to room asking questions and marveling how life is the same but yet so different.

Grass Lake Area Historical Connections

Grass Lake Area Historical Connections

Grass Lake Area Historical Connections

Grass Lake Area Historical Connections

Grass Lake Area Historical Connections

Coe House - Grass Lake - 2016-30

Grass Lake Area Historical Connections

Reading List

While admiring the bookcase Marilyn asked, “Have you read ‘Whistle Stop‘ by Maritta Wolff?” Intrigued, I said no and asked for more details. Maritta Wolff grew up on a farm just east of Grass Lake in early 1900’s and when she was only 22 she wrote “Whistle Stop.” It was published in 1941 and was an instant Best Seller. As the story goes, Grass Lake residents were outraged by the novel. First of all, it contained vulgar language. And second, some of the resident’s thought the characters were based on them. This made me laugh. I’m looking forward to adding this to my summer reading list.

During a lively discussion about the trains, Scott said something along the lines of “the trains were bloody death traps.” Chuck and I both said in unison, “Really?” Scott said, “oh yes, there were train wrecks on a fairly frequent basis and the trains would break down and leave travelers stranded out in the middle of nowhere. And because they were electric, animals and people didn’t always hear them coming.” Scott had our attention now. Apparently it was pretty wild and land owners would also shoot at the trains. “Seriously?” I asked. Scott chuckled and said “Oh yes, if you want to read about it, the book ‘From Spirit Lake to Goose Lake‘ by William Haney does a great job telling the story.” As soon as we got home, I requested it from the U-M Library.

The Michigan Military Heritage Museum

Currently located in the Coe House is the Michigan Military Heritage Museum. It is bursting at the seams and is a historic treasure that shouldn’t be missed. Donated to the Coe House Museum by Mrs. Bidwell, are the military artifacts of Private Charles Silas Bewell of Jackson. Also on display is the uniform of Doctor Milton Shaw of Morrice, MI.

Coe House - Grass Lake - 2016-20

American North Russian Expeditionary Force 1918-19 (A.N.R.E.F.)

Many of the men in the A.N.R.E.F. were from Michigan and the battles they fought in North Russia were the only engagements where the U.S. fought communist Russians. This was new information to me. A history lesson I don’t remember learning in school.

Coe House - Grass Lake - 2016-24

Coe House - Grass Lake - 2016-29

The arrowheads on display below were found on Sackrider Hill. The name comes from Christian and Jane Sackrider — New York immigrants who traveled in 1840 across Canada, through Fort Detroit to Grass Lake. The Sackriders farmed 160 acres of government-issued land while raising six sons and one daughter.

Coe House - Grass Lake - 2016-21

Interurban Car 29 Museum

Car 29 is still under restoration, but when it’s finished it will be a beauty and I believe the only restored Interurban car in Michigan.

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Also, if you’d like to learn more about the interurban trains, the Detroit Historical Museum has a great train exhibit. All this talk about trains helped me remember my connection to trains. My great grandfather, William Lewick was a supervisor of a railroad telegraph construction and maintenance team. William is the man standing a little apart at the far right as you look at the photo.

Wm. Lewick and Crew 001-1

Historical Markers

I suspect my father is to blame for my propensity to stop and read historical marker signs and explore old cemeteries. This hasn’t always been the case, though, as I can remember when my father would pull off the road so he could read a historical marker and I would plead with him to hurry and then count the minutes until he’d return. I’m now the parent scampering over fences and stomping through tall grass to read historical marker signs and my kids are pleading with me to hurry and get back in the car. I can’t help chuckling when I recall one particular incident in 2010 when Isaac actually got out of the car and retrieved me. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.


Michigan Central Railroad Depot

When I saw the green Michigan Historical Site sign by Grass Lake’s railroad depot we had to stop.

Coe House - Grass Lake - 2016-4

Coe House - Grass Lake - 2016-2

Coe House - Grass Lake - 2016-1

Help Wanted

Like most non-profits, the GLAHC needs your help. They are looking for volunteers, if you are interested call Marilyn at 1-517-522-8324 or email


The GLAHC offers special exhibits and events, monthly speakers and research assistance. They also offer special tours for schools, senior groups and youth organizations by request. Please check their website or call Marilyn for details. Be sure to check their calendar for hours of operation.

More Pictures

We’ve more pictures in our gallery. We don’t mind if you download the pictures and share on your favorite social media sites, but please give Chuck or LifeInMichigan photo credit and don’t remove the watermark.

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  1. Brenda – what a great trip! Wouldn’t every genealogist love to find such a treasure trove of history. I enjoyed this – learned a few things – and thought the photos were great! Thanks so much for sharing.

    • Denise it was a wonderful trip and I agree it was a treasure trove of history just waiting to be explored. I hope others wanting to research their families will not over look local resources like the Coe Museum. It provides the social context to understand our ancestors’ lives.

  2. I enjoyed reading about your visit to Grass Lake. I was born in Jackson and my great-grandparents came to Grass Lake in the early 1890s. They raised five children there. My great-grandmother taught school locally for many years. In her later years she taught the grandchildren of her earlier students. My great-grandfather was a tinsmith, with a shop on Michigan Ave in town, and later he worked in area factories.

    I have written a family history, recently published, and I intend to give a copy to the Coe House

    Bloomington, Indiana

    • Hi Benjamin, If you don’t mind me asking, where and when did your great-grandmother teach? My grandmother taught school in Grass Lake in 1912. Is your family history published online? Or is it available to purchase?

  3. looking for any info, documentation, research suggestions; on one of my fathers side of the family. 1799-1866 John Witherbee/Wetherbee. His sons were
    civil war veterans. looking for input as to who he was, why he came to grass lake from new york. i.e. any sources?

  4. I am Ron Wangerow, 70 years old, and I’m a retired attorney. I now live in Salem Township, just south of South Lyon and northwest of Ann Arbor. I attended kindergarten and 1st grade at Grass Lake before we moved to Michigan Center in 1957. My brother, George, graduated from Grass Lake HS in 1954, I believe.

    We lived on the outskirts of Grass Lake, on the west side of Willis Road (500 Willis Road), just north of the RR tracks, from1950 until 1957. Our place was previously known as the old Helm Goat Farm.

    In the days when they still had some coal powered RR engines, a spark from a passing train engine would occasionally start a fire in the then-empty field between our house and the tracks. It was especially scary one time when it happened in the middle of the night. I was told to go and sit down in the middle of gravel driveway on the other side of the house. From that perspective, as a small preschooler, I remember my parents and older sister silhouetted against the flames as they tried to beat back the fire with brooms and blankets until the fire department arrived in time to save our house.

    My father and mother, “Bud” and Eunice Wangerow, had a business on the south side of Michigan Ave., between Lake St. and the train depot. It was a Sherwin Williams paint store, and my father also ran Grass Lake Electrical, Plumbing and Heating out of the store.

    As a small child, I was allowed to walk to Don’s Drug Store, a couple of stores down, where they had ice cream cones at a lunch counter. My mother finally had to ask Don to not give me free ice cream cones just for the asking because she didn’t want me to think that I could just ask for things at any store.

    Later, in either kindergarten or 1st grade, my mother and the mother of a pretty little blonde girl (named Suzie, if I recall correctly) were asked to come in to meet with the principal. The little blonde girl and I had been repeatedly kissing on the playground during recess. This was apparently a preview of things to come since nearly 20 years later, I married my 1st wife, Suzie (who passed away in 1997 due to cancer), — a pretty blonde girl, from Detroit, whom I met in college — but certainly not the same one from the early days on the playground.

    Does anyone remember us?

    • Correction in my post above: Salem Township is northEAST of Ann Arbor — not northwest. Ooops — senior moment. — Ron Wangerow


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