The Backstory: Ain't no party like an Ann Arbor party

Ann Arborites have always known how to throw a party. While our fore-parents have a reputation as nose-to-the-grindstone stoics with a work ethic that bordered on masochism, it is also true that they knew when it was time to throw down.

One of the biggest community celebrations was German-American Day. In 1891, Paul G. Suckey of Manchester explained that October 6, 1683 was the day when Germans first landed in "greater numbers on the hospitable shores of our new fatherland." He touted the hard work of the poor laborers (mostly weavers), who toiled to ensure acceptance in their new land and to make a new and better life for themselves and their families.

Likewise, Mr. Suckey said, those living in Washtenaw County (charmingly, someone had put a lower case "o" in the name, thus listing the county as Washtenow) were working hard to do the same. The festival served to commemorate these successes in a way different from celebrations of other nationalities, yet still be "distinctively American in every respect."

The party rotated amongst various communities in the county, and in 1896, it was Ann Arbor's turn to host the annual shindig. After a downtown parade, revelers attended a huge picnic at Relief Park on Madison Street to continue the celebration.

The opening of a new civic venture was also reason to throw a party. In 1897, the Germania Hall opened at the corner of Second and William Streets. A grand "Festball" was held, featuring a warm welcome from Mayor Charles Hiscock and a performance by the Ann Arbor Orchestra. The social hall went on to host many other notable events over the course of its existence.

Civic organizations also celebrated their anniversaries. In 1897, the Independent Order of Oddfellows honored its 78th birthday with a day-long party featuring music, speakers, and a catered dinner. Only one "lady speaker" was featured, but Miss Emma E. Bower made "many sly digs" at her brothers in the order but did not impugn the "reputation of the fair sex as speakers."

Amending the U.S. Constitution provided yet another reason for local celebration in 1870. The adoption of the 15th Amendment led to a two-day town party. Bands from Ypsilanti and Detroit met and marched through Ann Arbor's downtown and then on to the courthouse, where Governor Felch and others made speeches. Dinner and dancing then commenced at the Good Templars' Hall.

Dance parties were a frequent event in Tree Town, and almost anything could give reason to the cut the rug. In 1897, an "inspection hop" was announced. After the annual inspection of the armory, everyone was invited to come on down and dance. Dancing parties could frequently be found at Granger's Dancing Hall, on Maynard Street near Liberty, or on the third floor at Hangsterfer's, on the southwest corner of Main and Washington.

And, of course, residents held parties in their private homes. Box socials were particularly popular at the end of the 19th century. At these parties, women would decorate a box, fill it with lunch or dinner for two, and then put the box up for bidding. The winning man would then join the lady for a meal. Since the boxes did not have the woman's name on it, anyone could end up with anyone. The social raised money for various good causes, such as the one in 1899 that raised $65 for a school library.

Today, Ann Arbor still knows how to throw a party. One of the first city-wide parties of the summer is the annual Water Hill Music Fest. The brainchild of Fourth Avenue Birkenstock owners Paul and Claire Tinkerhess, the annual event takes place on Sunday, May 1st this year. Spend a pleasant day wandering the neighborhood bounded by Miller, Brooks, and Sunset on the northwest end of downtown, listening to local musicians as they turn porches and front lawns into their stage.

Following the first festival, this author noted that this event is like "Ann Arbor covered in awesome sauce." It remains just as tasty today.

So, with apologies to the dearly departed Prince, come out and party like it's 1899!

Patti Smith is a freelance writer. Her first book, Images of America: Downtown Ann Arbor, was published by Arcadia Publishers. It is available on her website, as well as at bookstores in the Ann Arbor area.