A review of the background of this area involves, interestingly enough, a history of nearly all of Dearborn. The “Springwells Park ” subdivision lies in two of the “ribbon farms” – Private Claims numbers 52 and 312 – that were awarded British loyalists and French Canadians in the latter part of the 18th century.
The term “ribbon farm” described those parcels of land that had relatively narrow frontage on the highways of the times, the river – and, in this case, the Rouge River – but extended back many miles times their width. Thus were formed long, deep, and narrow strips of land now called “ribbon farms.”
Sovereignty over the land was acquired by the British from the Potawatomi Indian tribes that were the original residents here. The land of which “ Springwells Park ” is now a part thus began under British rule when white settlers first took over from the redman.
Little remains of the Indian history of this region. Probably the last of native Indians disappeared in the middle of the Nineteenth Century. One map available today shows there may have been Indian encampments in the area south of Rotunda Drive, where Fairlane East is now located. The roadway running along the Rouge River, west of Springwells Park, likely served new settlers rather than Indians of the day. The road, known variously as River Road and North Dearborn Road, extended from the Detroit River to Michigan Avenue and northward.
The first settler of Private Claim number 52 (that “ribbon farm” lying closest to Greenfield Avenue and comprising about the east 1/3 of Springwells Park) would have been Jonathan Dodemead, a retired sergeant of the King’s armies and a British loyalist. Papers show he commenced his claim to the land in 1791, building a house for his family near the Rouge River about where the present DPW yard is located.
Dodemead’s farm initially was to have contained “seven acres in front” (about 1,500 feet wide), and bounded in the rear by the “ Pattawatamies Road ,” but the whole “not to exceed 640 acres”.
But the Potawatomi Road, or Trail, appears to have lain somewhat this side of where Jerome Street is today, north of Michigan Avenue. When surveyed by Greeley in 1809, the actual size of the farm turned out the be 292 acres, or exceeding back about 9,200 feet from its frontage on the Rouge.
Greenfield Avenue did not exist then, of course. North of Michigan Avenue, what now is Greenfield was first shown on maps as “Townline Road,” then “Division Road ,” the latter because it was the dividing line between Springwells Township on the east and Dearborn Township on the west. The road was not extended south of Michigan Avenue until the early nineteen-twenties, when it divided the old Dodemead farm (which had by then been broken up into several parcels) into equal halves.
However, the Springwells Township plan shows the east half of the farm to lie in that community, with a balance lying in the Dearborn Township. It appears that the Township of Springwells, laid out in 1818 by Governor Lewis Cass and named after the many sweet water springs in the area, never embraced the area now known as Springwells Park.
To the west of Dodemead’s farm, one of the last of the twenty-one Dearborn area Private Claims (number 312) was acquired by one James Habbs. The land passed to a James Briggs (or Brigs), and then, in 1808 was patented to one Aaron Thomas by the then President of the United States, James Madison.
By the Treaty of Detroit, in 1807, United States sovereignty over Dearborn had become a fact and no longer did this area bear the French-Canadian/British rule that this region first experienced.
The region was a wilderness. Settlement had begun, but sparsely. An 1818 map shows the area to bear a navigable river, “Timber Oak with various timber of 2nd growth,” “Oak openings,” and sand and clay soils. Some “Chestnut timber” was noted on the map. The area noted as “little settled,” and the terrain “undulating.” We do know that the first Protestant church in Michigan was founded in 1818 at what is now Butler and Greenfield Road across from the DPW yard, and a historical marker is located there noting the fact.
The Rouge River was a highway of the time. It was not until 1825 that the “Military Trail,” before known as “Saulk Trail,” soon to become known as the Chicago Road, once called “Detroit and Saline Plank Road,” and now Michigan Avenue, was surveyed and improvement began from its condition as no more than a wide place in the forests. The small community of “Dearbornville” began to grew west of the Rouge, in the vicinity of the present Fairlane Inn. Ten Eyck’s tavern was the way-stop for coaches running the Military Road from Detroit to Chicago. It was located just north and west of Springwells Park, on the south side of Michigan Avenue. Conrad Ten Eyck came to own the old Dodemead ribbon farm.
The Thomas farm was divided many times. By 1881, a plat was recorded showing eight or nine parcels variously owned by other members of the family. The foundation of what may have been the Lorenzo D. Thomas residence can still be seen west of the Springwells Park area, between the old North Dearborn Road and the Rouge River. It lies approximately due west of the intersection of Eastham and Woodland Drive.
Of the period from about 1833, when the Township of Dearborn was first formed, to 1875, a magnificent description of pioneer life in Dearborn can be gained from the book by William Nowlin, “The Bark Covered House.” It can be purchased at the Dearborn Historical Museum. The Nowlin farm lay about four miles west of the Springwells Park area. In it is comment of the deer, wolves, bears, turkeys, and rattlesnakes that abounded in this area when it was home for the earliest pioneer/farmer/woodland families.
The Michigan Central Railroad line that bounds the north of this subdivision came into the area in 1832-1836, with regular operations as far as Dearborn (ville) by 1838. In the latter part of the same century, 1873, tracks were laid in Michigan Avenue for the Detroit, Ypsilanti & Ann Arbor Interurban railway, which continued until acquired by the D.U.R. (Detroit Urban Railway) in 1920. Early transportation by river was not just by canoe, but even by the steam-power “Andrew Jackson” which rode up the Rouge from Detroit to as far as Dearbornville on several Occasions.
Dearbornville in the 1920’s was still a somnolent community of relatively few people, unpaved streets, and a volunteer fire brigade. Until the Township of Springwells (then City of Fordson ) merged in 1929 to form the enlarged City of Dearborn, there was little to attract attention to this basically farm-market community. There had been a brief flurry of interest, and even land speculation, when the Arsenal was begun to be built in 1833. Even this focus of community attention did not survive past 1870. Henry Ford and Ford’s acquisition of land in Dearborn for many purposes did, of course, crystallize community development.
Some amount of excitement for the Springwells Park area did come about in 1914, however, even before Ford’s purchase of the land. Then apparently owned by Gustav Zanger and his wife, Julia, it was sold to the Detroit Zoological Society – all the land now known as Springwells Park – for Detroit’s new zoo.
When land was donated to the Society in Royal Oak, this area was then sold to Henry and Clara Ford. In the meanwhile, a 250-foot-wide boulevard was planned (and even appears on some old plats) to bisect this area, running approximately 125 feet either side of a line drawn from the intersection of Longmeadow and Greenfield to where Eastham intersects Rotunda. A 1915 Wayne County plat identifies this area as “ Woodbridge Park ,” after Mrs. Zanger’s maiden name.
To the west of what would become “ Springwells Park,” Henry Ford constructed, in 1925, a new airport, now part of the Ford Engineering center west of Southfield. To reach the area from the Ford Administration Offices on Schaefer Road, a new road, “ Airport Drive,” was constructed in 1927 and the road is now known as Rotunda Drive. Neither the airport or the Rotunda remain. It was at the intersection of Airport Drive and Greenfield, approximately near the center of some 1,124 acres of land that were excess to Ford’s needs, that the Springwells Park subdivisions were built.
The large parcel of land was conveyed in 1937 to the Ford Foundation, a non-profit foundation whose sole assets at the time appear from abstract records to have been $25,000, the land, and, of course, the backing of Henry Ford, with Edsel Ford as its President. To convert some of this increasingly valuable land to cash, the Foundation elected to begin a massive residential development comprising all 1,124 acres and to ultimately provide homes for some 16,000 residents.
Of the planned development, some 132 acres were actually improved, with construction beginning in 1939. Springwells Park apartments built then at a cost of some $1,525,000, were constructed of steel studs, steel joists, steel subfloors and rafters, with brick exteriors, and offered at rentals ranging from $37.50 to $77.50 per month.
Simultaneously, the Giffels & Valet – L. Rossetti engineering team, together with Ford’s engineer (and long-time resident here), Ralph Taylor – began to lay out the residential subdivision. Unique, far-sighted planning was employed to devise a “non-grid” subdivision plan, with massive open areas, or parks, for use and enjoyment by residents. Modern planning, employing “Planned Unit Development” concepts were long before anticipated by the planning engineers for “Ford Foundation,” as the Springwells Park area has long been called after its developers.
When first offered for sale in August of 1940, lots were priced in range of from $775 to $1,175. A few homes were commenced, with Ralph Taylor’s at number 5 Brookline the first to be completed. Except in the area south of Middlebury, there were few trees to break the landscape. Lot buyers were careful in many instances to avoid locations too close to “Miller Ditch,” then running east and west through the north end of subdivision, or “Lee Ditch,” a small creek running about where Middlebury runs east-west. The names of the streets derive for the most part from New England Communities, in Massachusetts, that can be spotted on any highway map, and lend added charm to this colonial planned and designed community.
The popular name adopted by this area is, of course, “Ford-Foundation.” While developed by the Ford Foundation and legitimately named Springwells Park , the area is better yet known as “The Foundation.” In its insularity, it is somewhat unique in the close-in Detroit suburbs. For years surrounded by vacant, Ford owned land, the nearby fields have offered nature trails and wildlife habitat that had lent significant additional charm. The Audubon Society of Michigan identifies this area as a superior bird-watching site.
To the west of Eastham, near Rotunda, it was possible to grow garden vegetables in abundance. Begun in the spring of 1942 as “Victory Gardens,” the area (plus one other located west of the end of Andover) was planted in 100’ by 100’ plots by local residents until 1988 when construction of the T.P.C. golf course started.
To inform the residents, the “FOUNDATION MONTHLY,” a mimeographed 4-page newsletter was begun in June, 1943, and appears to have continued for some time. News of the Village Club, Helen Russel’s Art Group, Red Cross, Civil Defense, and Scouting Activities were reported.
In April, 1954, the newsworthy events of “The Foundation” area as well as minutes of Association meetings began to be published in small, four-page newspaper format, entitled “The Springwells Parker.” “The Brownie Shop” at 3333 Greenfield, in the stores area, was the sole advertiser in the first issue. News was included of local church functions, details of the Springwells Park Women’s Bowling League, and an appeal to “all dog owners to prevent any nuisances.” The publication appears to have grown in advertising lineage and content, but was last published in the middle of 1956, at which time mailed notices of Association minutes and meetings were begun.
The apartments and stores originally owned and managed by The Foundation, initially led people to buy lots in the area. To prevent wind-blown sand from vacant, unsold lots, the lots were planted to oats. In the area between the two store buildings, a group of local residents headed by Marie Wentela, still resident here on Brookline, erected in 1948 a stone and bronze marker to the memory of Henry Ford, founder of the Company, and Edsel his son, President of the Ford Foundation.
The apartments and stores continued under ownership and management of the Foundation until 1959, then they were conveyed as a gift of the Founders Society, Detroit Institute of Arts, and the income from the project used toward its good works. Ownership of the apartments and stores passed in 1966, to a syndicate of apartment owners including Messrs. Sam Frankel, Bernard Stollman and Max Fisher, who also erected the 100 additional apartments now lying west of Greenfield, running between Middlebury and Longmeadow. In 1981, the apartments and stores were sold to Brown and Lutz.
For years now, an interesting succession of families have come to, and children grown up in “The Foundation.” A number of parents have seen their children marry, move to the apartments, bear children themselves, purchase a duplex, and then ultimately buy another large residence. Thus, in only the three-plus decades of its existence, Springwells Park residents represent a closely-knit community, appreciating greatly the advantages of living in so unique, and island-like, an area.
A strong owner’s association, the Springwells Park Association, Inc., was formed in January of 1941, meeting first in the home of Mr. W. J. Griffin on Brookline. In addition to adopting by-laws, planning social functions, structuring committees, and establishing a working relationship with the developer, Ford Foundation, a temporary chairman, Mr. Griffin, was elected. Mr. Fillemore Harty was subsequently elected first President of the Association. Most importantly, a review of the minutes of past meetings of the Association reveals the earnest effort on the part of early residents to ensure the construction and maintenance of a fine quality mid-priced residential neighborhood. A great deal of effort was expended in reviewing and adopting appropriate building rules, long before City codes succeeded in reaching a similar high level of standards.
Simultaneous construction of garages and homes; emphasis on high levels of maintenance of commercial and apartment areas, improvement and maintenance of common park areas; improved street lighting; and the formation of committees to assure continuing review and supervision of the matters, all were of highest priority in the initial meetings of the Association. The flags and flagpoles on the cul-de-sacs were agreed upon in the October, 1942 meetings, and continue to be maintained by the Association residents.
In January, 1955, and through long effort by residents of the area, a new school to serve the community was opened at Eastham and Longmeadow, located on 9 acres of land and named after Judge George T. Martin, long a distinguished resident of the area. It served kindergarten-through-third grades until the 1960’s when it was converted to use by the Dearborn Association for Retarded Children, and for use by the Dearborn School Board program for exceptional children. Due to the declining enrollment in Dearborn schools, its functions were transferred elsewhere in 1972. The building and surrounding property (9 acres) was then leased by the Dearborn School Board to the Gibson School, a private school. In 1982, the property was sold to a private owner. The building was used as a school by the Seventh Day Adventists, and razed when golf course construction began.
Recent additions to the Springwells Park include the historical designation by the Dearborn City Council on October 20, 1992 and the improved Eastham entranceway with a center island and sign surrounded by flowers. The 1993 Board was also responsible for Springwells Park Association’s new logo of squirrels, designed by Tim Briody, resident and President of the Dearborn Arts Council from 1992 thru 1995.
The history of the Springwells Park community is a long one – from the time when Indians roamed the land in search of wild game, to the arrival of settlers bearing allegiance to the British, to the improvement of the land by its first farmers, and through its consideration as a site, first as a zoo to serve the Metropolitan Detroit area and then as the focus of effort by Henry Ford’s personal charitable foundation to develop a significant above-average residential community of attractive design and layout, beautifully sited with surrounding lands in close-to-natural state.
Springwells Park became the first neighborhood in Dearborn to be included in the National Register of Historic Places on September 15, 2015. A new sign was unveiled on October 3, 2015 by Mayor John. O’Reilly, Jr. and was attended by Edsel Ford, Jr. State Representative George Darany, and many area residents.
Click here to read the full press release.
Here are a few aeriel pictures of when Springwells Park was under construction (submitted by Bill Kaiser).