Historical Society Aims to “Preserve the Corner” with Plans for the Old Funeral Home
About a year ago, in September 2014, the Manchester Area Historical Society set out on a mission. At that time, they never dreamed where they would end up!
The Historical Society board of directors realized that they were outgrowing the current Blacksmith Shop, which has been its headquarters for more than 20 years. Board trustee Ray Berg explained that as the Society envisioned expanding its outreach with more blacksmithing demonstrations–both to those within the community and outside–the many historic items, especially paper and fabric, entrusted to their care were becoming endangered. In addition, the Society needed a consistent meeting space, because the membership could only meet in the Blacksmith Shop during warm-weather months.
“We determined that we not only needed a better place to meet, but better storage and display for our archives and artifacts,” Berg said. “Initially, we considered purchasing the old Schwab house just west of the Blacksmith Shop, as it was up for short-sale at the time.”
When the house was suddenly sold to another party before the Society could put in a bid, it was back to the drawing board. Adding an architecturally-similar extension on back of the blacksmith shop was considered, possibly incorporating a second story, but came in with high cost estimates.
“And then came Plan C,” Berg related. “The old funeral home was placed on the market.”
Inspired by stories of the similarly-sized Dexter Area Historical Society’s purchase of the $900,000 Gordon Hall about 10 years before, Berg arranged a meeting of the two boards to see if a project about a quarter of the size was doable for Manchester.
“The first thing the Dexter board members told me to do was throw away my spreadsheets,” he said with a chuckle. “They said we needed to just commit to make it happen.”
So, the Society took a giant leap of faith. The process hasn’t been without its ups and downs along the way, but the Historical Society currently has a signed sales agreement (contingent upon zoning and conditional use approval), the funds for a down payment on the property, and a favorable financing partnership with Ann Arbor State Bank.
“Now we have to rally the community around this purchase,” Berg explained. “This is a great opportunity for the Society and for Manchester. We will now have high visibility, more space, adequate parking, and a site very close to the blacksmith shop. We will also be able to ‘Preserve the Corner’ at Main and Ann Arbor streets, which has been a concern for many of us for several years.”
The site has plenty of rooms for museum-type displays, tours, meetings, and even could be rented for family gatherings on occasion. The Society envisions its museum will eventually have open hours on Saturdays and by appointment, which would be staffed by trained volunteers. Themed events and displays are also in the future plans.
Another use for the additional space would be an archive area where genealogical research can be done. Berg said that the Society has had at least 27 genealogical inquiries just in the past year. One family even arranged a gathering in Manchester to seek out information and tour sites relevant to their ancestors’ history in the community, which Berg helped to orchestrate.
While the Society is seeking out grants from the Kiwanis Crazy Cash Night, Chicken Broil, and Washtenaw County to help with the purchase of the old funeral home, personal donations (both large and small) are part of its strategy as well. A pledge form is available here: MAHS Preserve the Corner Donation and Pledge Form. Not only monetary donations are being requested–time and skills are also appreciated as the Society looks forward to creating an inviting and community-oriented space.
Berg stresses that the Society’s goal is not only for its own future, but to preserve the local heritage this building represents; and to bring it back to being a “living, breathing, work and community space” as it educates newer and younger residents about Manchester’s history.
“The property is part of the original plat of the Village of Manchester, originally owned by John Gilbert,” Berg said. “The first house on this location was built by Prosper Wheeler, a cooper who partnered with his neighbor Philo Millen, who had a blacksmith shop on his property across Ann Arbor Street.”
The house that Wheeler built in 1842 was sold to Charles Kingsley in 1864. Kingsley lived there until his death in 1871, when it passed to his son, John Hampden Kingsley, a prominent Manchester businessman, who owned a hardware business in the 1890s, then built Manchester’s first electric generating plant in 1892.
According to Berg, Kingsley served as Village President for a time and also ran for Washtenaw County Treasurer in the early 1930s, at which time the photo at left was used on a campaign poster. He was very active in the Masonic organization, holding several local and state leadership positions.
The original house burned in 1904 and the current one was built that same year. It was purchased in 1933 by Arthur Jenter, converted for his funeral home business, and the three generations of the Jenter family lived in an upstairs apartment until Arthur’s son Ron sold the funeral business to Martin Braun in late 1989. Braun subsequently sold the home and business in 2000.
For the past 15 years, the funeral home has been owned by Borek-Jennings and Legacy LLC. In 2012, Legacy started work on the former American Legion hall on Duncan Street to convert it to a newer, larger, and more modern facility, a process that completed earlier this year, allowing the “building on the corner” to be put on the market just in time for the Manchester Area Historical Society to rescue the site.
Now is the opportunity for Manchester citizens to get involved in this effort. There are many options, from making a financial commitment to joining the Historical Society and/or offering your own time and skills to the renovation efforts. See the link above or read more about how you can help at MAHS – Preserve the Corner Flyer.