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Cover Story

A spirit of Detroit

Col. Philetus Norris helped get Yellowstone National Park on the map. Can he help revive a faltering city neighborhood?

Photos by Bruce Giffin
Norris built his house during the 1870s along what is now Mount Elliot street.
Mary Aganowski owns and operates the Two Way Inn, which ipened in the 1870s in what was then the village of Norris.
Patricia Bosch is executive director of the Nortown Community Development Corporation, which owns the Norris House. She dreams of raising funds to renovate it into a community center.
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Published 5/14/2008

The ghost's long white beard, cowboy hat and buckskins seemed out of place when Henrietta Malak saw him one night three decades ago at the Two Way Inn, the north Detroit watering hole she and her husband owned.

For years she talked about his Western look and wondered what he was doing in her industrial neighborhood.

It wasn't until a couple years later, when Malak's daughters collected some historical materials about the neighborhood and its early inhabitants, that she identified the ghostly figure she claims to have seen sitting on her bed in the living space attached to the bar.

"She knew him right away when she saw a picture," says her daughter, Mary Aganowski, who now lives at and runs the Two Way. "She said, 'That's the ghost I saw that night.'"

He was Col. Philetus Norris, a New York native, Ohio legislator, Civil War spy, early Yellowstone National Park superintendent, poet and surveyor who died in Kentucky in 1885. Norris also lived in Michigan, where he managed land as part of a federal contract after the Civil War. In 1873 he founded a village bearing his name on then-unsettled land along today's Mount Elliot Street between McNichols and Seven Mile roads.

There he built the Two Way Inn — originally the village's jail and general store and later a dance hall as well — where he and his family lived for a few years until they constructed a two-story Victorian home a block away. The house had gingerbread trim, brick chimneys and leafy trees in its yard. A side wing was Norris' office, where he ran his real estate business.

Down the street, several owners operated the Two Way during the 20th century until Aganowski's parents bought it in 1973. After their deaths a few years ago, Aganowski and her husband moved into the bar's adjacent living quarters. She runs the bar, which is open for lunch on weekdays and for drinks and pool games Thursday through Saturday evenings.

Its neon "BAR" sign casts a red glow over the lightly traveled Mount Elliot on weekend evenings. The neighboring building is an abandoned television repair shop, and just one fenced-in house — with several dogs in the yard — faces the street between the Two Way and the Norris home. The back of the block is a mix of occupied and abandoned homes.

Inside the Two Way, the woodwork and mirror behind the bar could be the set of a Western film. The ceiling and floor are the original tongue-and-groove wood.

Working and living there, Aganowski is always on the lookout for Norris — her daughter says she saw his ghost as well. He was looking out a window from the former second-floor dance hall, also rumored to have been a brothel.

Aganowski wonders about Norris: What does he think of this area now? And how can he be better honored as this neighborhood's pioneer?

Some efforts have been made, and some reminders of his legacy are obvious.

His house is on the National Register of Historic Places and is designated a Detroit Historic District. Businesses along nearby Van Dyke Avenue bear the "Nortown" name — a moniker that reflects the early village of Norris as well as the North Detroit location. His early efforts at industrialization remain in the area's rail lines, road layouts and drained Conner Creek basin.

But as time passes, Norris and his legacy are becoming forgotten spirits in this neighborhood haunted by Detroit's modern problems. Businesses have left the once-thriving commercial district. Buildings decay. Money to renovate them is in short supply. Longtime residents have moved away, and the ones who remain or have moved in are less educated, poorer and less likely to be employed than other Detroiters, according to U.S. Census data.

Still, Aganowski and a group of advocates — armed with a respect for history and a plan for the future — are aiming to improve all of that. Their dream: refurbish the Norris House into a community and education center, ensure that the Two Way Inn and a nearby church survive (they're the only other original village buildings that remain), build a Western-themed playground on 1.5 acres across the street from the Norris House, launch a job training center in an obsolete industrial shop and use the concept of the village as an anchor for a neighborhood that would attract further development.

"The vision should be a reminder to everyone not to close your eyes to Detroit's history and to look at everything as a possibility and opportunity," says Ritchie Harrison, project coordinator with the Van Dyke-Eight Mile Gateway Collaborative, a group working to revitalize the area. "With emphasis like that, great things are always on the horizon and could happen, not just with the Norris House, but in areas throughout the city."

Can they bring Norris' old haunts back to life?


DISCOVERING A PIONEER

The dilapidated Norris House stands at the corner of Mount Elliot and Iowa streets. Its windows are boarded, its siding is peeling, and its back walls are scorched from a fire in 1999. Surrounded by a low fence, the yard would grow wild if Patricia Bosch didn't organize volunteer landscapers and pick up trash herself when she drives by and notices it.

As the executive director of the Nortown Community Development Corp. Bosch works toward economic and real estate development in the former village of Norris area. Detroit has dozens of CDCs, which are nonprofit agencies funded by the city and outside agencies. They're charged with creating affordable housing, education programs and running other projects focused on economic and real estate development.

At the Nortown CDC, Bosch has overseen the construction of 95 new homes, is spearheading the development of the greenway from Van Dyke and Outer Drive to the Detroit River, and is involved with Harrison's Van Dyke-Eight Mile Gateway Collaborative.

But restoring the village of Norris is one of her ultimate goals.

It all started in 1976, 15 years before the CDC existed, when Bosch and a handful of her friends who lived in the Nortown area were caught up in the country's bicentennial fever. They decided to research their corner of Detroit. "We just didn't know much about it," Bosch says. At the Detroit Public Library's Burton Historical Collection they found maps, photographs, written accounts of the area and other records. They learned about Col. Norris, his two-story Victorian frame house and the link to Yellowstone, the first U.S. national park.

"We just couldn't believe our neighborhood had this connection," Bosch says.

Norris was born in New York in 1821. His family moved to what is now western Wayne County about 1830. He left school early and worked as a trapper. As a teen, he traveled to trap and trade around the Great Lakes, along the way meeting a man from northwest Ohio. In 1838 Norris settled near his friend's home, eventually founding the town of Pioneer, where he married, built a steam mill and served as a land agent until heading off to fight in the Civil War.

After an injury, he guarded Confederate prisoners on Johnson's Island on Lake Erie. Following the war, Norris earned a federal appointment as a land trustee in the Detroit area, where he founded the village of Norris in 1873.

From the beginning, he ensured it would be a successful enterprise. To gain land for farming, he drained Conner Creek. To promote commerce he recruited the railroad (trains still run through the area). He also maintained the plank road that ran between Detroit and Mount Clemens, earning income off the tollbooth located at the village of Norris.

Norris had a real estate office in addition to other businesses in Michigan, but he also traveled through the American West. By 1875 he was making his second trip through the Yellowstone area, writing accounts for the Norris newspaper and sending letters to the Department of Interior urging protection of the park that was founded just three years earlier as the country's first national park.

Norris wrote poetry about the park land:

'Mid circling snowy mountains,
Falls and canyons grand,
Bathing-pools and spouting fountains,
Of the Wonderland

There, enraptured have I wandered
Through the glades and dells,
Where the big-horn, elk and beaver
Each in freedom dwells ...

Where the screams of mountain-lion
Pierce the midnight air,
Like the fabled Indian warrior
Wailing in despair.

In 1877 Congress appointed him Yellowstone's second superintendent, then an unpaid position. Norris explored and mapped much of the area and spearheaded road and bridge building projects to provide more access to the vast, 2.2 million-acre park — it's about twice as large as Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties combined.

"He was kind of criticized for trying to do too much," says Colleen Curry, the supervisor and museum curator at Yellowstone. "But he was able to maintain the infrastructure."

He was fond of naming places after himself: A geyser basin bears his name as well as a soldier station, campground and museum.

"He definitely was one of those intriguing characters that people focus on because of what he tried do with the park," Curry says. "He is definitely a key player in the early attempts to preserve the park."

Meanwhile, his Michigan settlement was growing. According to historical records, the village boasted a blacksmith, saw mill, harness shop and a carpenter by 1876.

After he left the Yellowstone post in 1882, Norris worked for the Smithsonian's bureau of ethnology to record Native American culture. He was collecting artifacts in Kentucky in 1885 when he became ill and died. His son brought his body back to Michigan, and he is buried in Woodmere Cemetery on the city's west side.

A picture of his tombstone hangs in Bosch's office, along with a history of his village.

Mirroring the fate of many small farming towns, Norris — which had been renamed North Detroit in 1890 — was annexed by the growing city of Detroit in 1924.

By that point, Norris' family had already sold the house to William Lynch, who operated a boarding house in one of its wings. Lynch's granddaughter, 90-year-old Marguerite Lynch, remembers her aunts doing laundry for the boarders and her grandmother cooking in the kitchen on the home's south side.

"Streetcars ran up and down Mount Elliot," says Lynch, who now lives in Sterling Heights.

Bosch and Lynch found each other in the 1980s, when Bosch's ad hoc group of neighborhood preservationists formed and connected with some of the neighborhood's former residents. Lynch is now part of the "team" that wants to save the house.

"We had our sights set on it," Bosch says. But in the 1980s, the home was owned by a woman who lived there and ran a resale shop on its first floor. She moved out in 1991 and the house began falling into disrepair. By 1994, it was listed among Wayne County's abandoned and tax delinquent properties. But to Bosch, that was good news: It was up for sale.

"When we saw that that building was delinquent and available, we knew we had to do something about it," Bosch says.

After consulting with historical and architectural experts about the feasibility of restoration, the CDC moved. With $100 of donated money, the house was purchased, giving the CDC title to a building "knee-high in junk," Bosch says. Twenty volunteers worked to empty the house. "We had a chance to put it together. What we didn't have was money," Bosch says.

The CDC was resourceful. University of Michigan architectural students planned a renovation as a class project and created 16 different site plans to use the house as a community center. Bosch planned a neighborhood reunion that Norris descendants attended.

But in 1999, fire thwarted the efforts. Ruled arson, the flames and smoke damaged the back of the home, marring the chimneys and charring some of its gingerbread trim hidden under the siding.

Bosch's progress has been delayed, but she remains determined. Meanwhile the city is aware of the deteriorating property.

"That house is in pretty bad shape," says Susan McBride, the principal planner with the Detroit Historic District Commission. If a property is not being maintained and reaches a point where it could fall down, the city can intervene. But McBride says the city hasn't checked on the Norris House too closely, especially since no one has complained.

"I think the thing that's kept us from getting a call is its location. It's across the street from vacant manufacturing and it's not in the middle of a neighborhood, per se," McBride says.

But the house's location also prevents it from attracting funds for renovation because it's just not seen as having profit potential. Other buildings in the city have been in as bad — or worse — condition and brought back to life. McBride cites refurbished homes and commercial buildings in Brush Park and near Wayne State University as examples. "They just happen to be in areas that are more disposed to conversion into businesses or condos," she says.

The Nortown Community Development Corp. did obtain a grant from the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan for a structural assessment. A National Trust for Historic Preservation grant provided some matching funds for the survey. It was completed a year ago and determined that the house, despite the 1999 fire and other vandalism, can be restored.

"It is worth saving," says Tom Fitzpatrick, the principal engineer on the survey. His Ann Arbor company, Fitzpatrick Structural Engineering, contracts with the National Park Service to survey historic buildings. "There is a lot of stuff around the country that's beyond saving and doesn't have real historic significance. The Norris House does, especially for that community and the history of Norris himself. It's worth saving, but it depends how much you want to spend."

As junkyards adjacent to the Norris House have closed, Bosch has renewed hope. "It's just very hard to raise money for historic restoration and it becomes even more difficult when it's in a Detroit industrial corridor," she says.

Recently, the CDC acquired other properties near the house including the vacant 1.5 acres behind it and a former tool shop across the street. The plan is to turn the tool building into a job- and life-skills training center. A $10,000 grant is funding a structural survey to see if the building would support a "green" roof. The CDC is applying for more grants for the rest of the project.

Bosch estimates $1 million would cover the renovation of the house as well as the reconstruction of the jobs center. "We're constantly looking for donations and for grants," she says. "It's a long war. You pick your battles."

Other foot soldiers have come along. In March, a group of college students from Minnesota spent a day cleaning up the property around the home as the Detroit stop on their 10-day tour of Midwest cities. "It's things like that that make me think progress is possible," Bosch says.

This spring, Bosch began planning a neighborhood apple orchard that would lead to a co-op cider mill, an economic development opportunity. "It's a holistic approach," she says.

Despite the decades of setbacks, Bosch still says it could have been worse.

A rotted tree just feet from the house's back wall managed to fall into the yard and not the structure. Another fire – presumably started by a homeless person for warmth – charred the tarpaper dangling from a ceiling but never fully ignited it. The fire was set in an addition to the original structure, not the most historic section. Someone who hacked away the banister for firewood only burned a section of it and the CDC saved most of the crafted wood for future renovations.

"Things like this happen," Bosch says. "We laugh and say it's Norris protecting it from being worse. He loved this house."

Aganowski thinks Norris also is protecting her watering hole as well. She's never had a break-in or experienced any other crime on the premises: "Knock on wood," she says.

Many of her patrons used to live or work in the area.

But the last two years have seen a downturn in business, and Aganowski isn't sure how long she'll hold onto the Two Way. Still, she's lived in the neighborhood for 35 years and would like to see its history preserved, especially the Norris House and the Two Way, named for each room having two exits — handy when angry wives appeared searching for their husbands.

And she and Bosch believe the poem Norris once read about Yellowstone and its wonders in Congress might be applicable here:

"On, for wisdom in the councils
Of our Nation great!
To protect these matchless wonders
From a ruthless fate!"

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