Looking Back: Ferndale museum making history personal again

In 1995, Ferndale Historical Museum member Diane O’ Neill embarked on an 11-year project that involved sitting in the basement of Ferndale's City Hall, documenting every street in the city with pictures of each house and the years they were built. She even took the records of the owners’ names, with their occupations.

“It’s amazing,” says Jan Froggatt, curator of the Ferndale Historical Museum. “The same name will appear in multiple houses on the same street where people lived in one house, and when they outgrew that they would move down the street.”

O’Neill’s major interest in this feat was to document the housing stock with regards to the economy’s ups and downs. She is quoted in the museum records, saying that “the number of Ferndale residents who lost their homes during the Depression, but whose names, several years later, reappear as owners of the same house, she says, is a testament to the resilience of Ferndale residents dating back to the earliest days of the city.” 

The Ferndale Historical Museum may be small, but it holds a wealth of history. Though small, Ferndale remains in control of its history through the efforts of the Ferndale Historical Society, which runs the museum, with a unique fastidiousness demonstrated in the example of the home’s records. They invite new residents to research their homes and send updated pictures so they can keep The O’Neill Housing Collection, as it is now called, going. In addition to this, they have digitalized most of their collection of photos of Ferndale through the years. 

The museum, operated by volunteers only, and is largely oriented toward research. “We’re the best-kept secret,” says Gregg Thacker, a Historical Society board member. “[The museum] is not city-funded, so we sell research time and photos. We’ve tried to make history personal.” 

9 Mile Road and Allen Street, circa 1960. Photo: Courtesy of Ferndale Historical Museum.

Mid-century boom

Like most Metro Detroit cities after World War II, the city of Ferndale had boomed by the 1950s and 1960s.

“During the 1950s there were more kids in Ferndale per capita than any other city of its size in the country," says Froggatt. “At one point we had eight elementary schools.”

The population growth began in the 1920s when Ferndale became the first "bedroom community" in Oakland County, where many city commuters lived but traveled outside the city on the streetcar to and from their jobs in Detroit each day. Froggatt says that out of all the historic plaques the museum sells, the most popular are from that mid-1920s period.

Roger Schmidt, Historical Society board member and retired firefighter chief, says the most important thing the museum helped facilitate was the building of a replica of the crow’s nest, the small tower in which the Ferndale policeman once stood to direct traffic. The city was awarded grant money to commission the sculpture. Now it’s the icon for the Ferndale Historical Museum. 

“Ferndale is a microcosm of many different things,” Froggatt says. Birthplace of the famous Woodward Dream Cruise, it is also a popular artist’s hub in Metro Detroit. 

“There is always something going on in Ferndale,” Thacker says.

In addition to arts and automobiles, Ferndale is known for its inclusive community. Schmidt explains that the LBGTQ+ community is largely the reason why Ferndale bounced back from its rugged years in the 1980s and 1990s. "The city is 'dialed in' and tries to accommodate all ages,” Thacker says. Froggatt adds that Ferndale “is a little community and it’s tightly knit.”

Ferndale bomber plane, 1943. Photo: Ferndale Historical Museum.Froggatt also mentions that she was astounded to learn all the ways the Ferndale community came together to support the war effort during World War II. She explains that the community collected so many war bonds they were able to fund the building of two bomber planes. She says there used to be a metal bin for recyclables for people to donate their old kitchenware and other aluminum metals to be recycled and used in some capacity for the war effort. 

Ferndale Boy Scouts aluminum drive in 1942. Photo: Ferndale Historical Museum.

Preserving the past for the future

The one thing Ferndale lacks, however, is a Historical Commission. “It is a little dangerous for Ferndale,” confesses Thacker. A lack of a historical commission usually increases a city's risk of aesthetical changes that reject its existing historical appeal. 

It also means that the Historical Society has to rely on the city government to assist in writing grants when needed and fighting demolitions. And according to some Historical Society members, for years the city barely noticed it had a Historical Society, let alone a museum, so preservation efforts were difficult. 

Photo: David Lewinski.When the city helped to build a replica of the old crow’s nest, it had a positive outcome, and it has become an important landmark in the city. “It’s what the Historical Society is known for,” says Schmidt.

Schmidt too warns about the dangers of the city’s lack of a Historical Commission. He remembers the story of the oldest church in Ferndale on the corner of 9 Mile and Bermuda Roads, St. Paul's United Methodist Church. It was bought by a developer and torn down. The lot is still empty to this day.

“I think once that church was torn down,” he says, “[the city] realized they should have fought a little harder to save it. At least they gave us the cornerstone."

The Historical Society did everything it could to save the church, they petitioned and wrote articles for the newspaper, but it wasn’t enough, and without a Historical Commission, the task was difficult. “We don’t want to tell people what color to paint their front door. But we do want to save some historic buildings,” Schmidt says. 

A few years after the demolition of St. Paul’s, Froggatt says she noticed a change in the attitude of the city toward the museum when old police logs from Ferndale’s beginning were found, and the city asked if the museum wanted them. “It’s like they had suddenly discovered us,” she says.

So the giant books, about a foot-and-a-half thick, of everything the police department ever did joined the museum’s collection. The records are hand-written. Every report, every arrest, and every courtesy ride they offered Ferndale citizens were written down in the logs. “The police were like uber before there was uber,” she jokes. “[The records] are fascinating to read.” 

The museum also has Ferndale’s City Council meeting minutes from the last one 112 years. One of the volunteers has digitalized and made these records searchable. In addition, the Ferndale Gazette from the years 1922-1977 is also searchable. “We’re not just a museum full of stuff,” Froggatt says. “In our backroom, we have twelve file cabinets of all things Ferndale. We have obituaries, biographies, and a file cabinet of nothing but photographs."

The Ferndale Crow's Nest on Woodward Avenue and 9 Mile, in 1921. Photo: Ferndale Historical Museum.

Going digital
Thacker’s goal is to make images available to researchers. His specialty is digitalizing photos to make them easier to find when they’re needed. He spends 20 to 30 hours a week on the photographic records. By making historical records more accessible he hopes to improve community outreach.

“I think we have a good relationship with the public, but they hardly know we’re here,” he says. “We have no money for advertisements. We need more volunteers to help run booths at some of the city events. We could use young people.

Currently, the museum only has a handful of volunteers and most of them are retired. 

“The footprint we’re leaving behind now is so ethereal, everything is digital. When we go away all of that’s gone, versus what we’re mining right now — hard, printed photographs and newspapers,” Thacker says. “We all need to do our part to keep this rolling.”
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Read more articles by Brianne Turczynski.

Brianne Turczynski holds an MA in education from Oakland University with a concentration in History and English. Her work has been published in the poetry anthology, Sixty-Four Best Poets of 2018 (Black Mountain Press), The 3288 Review, Michigan Out-of-Doors Magazine, and others. Her book, Detroit's Lost Poletown: The Little Neighborhood that Touched a Nation was released with the History Press in 2021. Follow her at @booksandloststories.