Promoting the village cemetery may not seem like a strange way to generate interest, but the residents of Franklin see it as one of the village's most important assets.
“It’s odd to think of a cemetery as an important part of a village,” admits Village President Pam Hansen, “but, in fact, our cemetery is very interesting. We have civil war veterans buried there.”
Settled in the 1820s as a farming community, Franklin was named one of the first historic districts in Michigan, and its burial ground tells the story of generations who have resided there. The cemetery’s proximity to bustling events on the village green is a perfect example of how the historic village in Oakland County is taking its past with it as it moves forward.
Pam Hansen. Joe Powers Insitu Photography
Hansen describes the village as something of a bubble, interacting with nearby downtown Detroit but tucked away. Franklin appropriately bears the unofficial slogan “The Town that Time Forgot”.
“Franklin has this great deep dive into the past,” she explains, “but is living very much in the present.”
Striking a balance
Striking that balance is no easy task, which is why Hansen works with Main Street Franklin (MSF), a non-profit organization striving to preserve the downtown's historic charm while encouraging new business. Through village events, public art projects and historic preservation workshops, MSF has been steadily shaping Franklin’s identity as a historic village with a bright future.
Bill Lamott runs the Franklin Historical Society (FHS), along with his wife Ann, and he says the village is a rare example of structures that have retained their historic character and been repurposed for contemporary use. While the local Historic District Commission regulates the exterior aesthetics of buildings in the district, the small volunteer team at the FHS aims to foster preservation awareness in the village. They maintain exhibits and programs at the museum, publish a newsletter and conduct walking tours to help keep the history alive.
Lamott admits there are challenges to growing with such a rich past, beyond the obvious financial aspect of maintaining historic properties.
“Most historic property owners are conscientious caretakers; others need to be encouraged,” Lamott explains. He says recruiting volunteers to serve on the FHS board and the Historic District Commission can be difficult as well, and that managing change is often a hurdle.
“The historic district has, and will continue to, change,” he says. “The challenge is to assure that change is executed in a manner that preserves historic integrity.”
Old town, new business
Change is indeed underway, with several new businesses opening in Franklin this year. Just Guys Apparel has launched downtown, and owners Jason and Doreen Dickman say they chose to open in Franklin because of the “up north” feel of the tree-lined streets.
“The charm, history, and surrounding shops in the area made it an easy decision,” says Jason Dickman. To create their trendy new store, the Dickman’s rehabilitated one of the oldest buildings in the village, dating back to the 1830s. The building has since been a hardware store, jewelry store, bookstore, and barber shop (once a favorite of Detroit Tigers’ Alan Trammell).
The couple says Franklin balances new business and historic integrity nicely, and that they have been impressed by local knowledge and passion for the past. “If you take a walk down the street, many local people will be able to tell you what business was started and in which building,” explains Jason Dickman.
The men’s store isn’t the only example of using a piece of the past to make room for new business. Jacqueline Drake opened an art gallery downtown in May and Holly Kaiser hopes to open a French Patisserie in a historic barn downtown by Labor Day.
Jaqueline Drake Gallery . Joe Powers Insitu Photography
Realtor Dan Costello finished restoring a 170-year-old dairy barn in the downtown in 2014, to create a space for clothing shop Zieben Mare. He says his childhood memories from the area led him to want to be part of the village “fabric and lore”.
He believes the region’s past will continue to inspire its future. “The early entrepreneurs of yesteryear worked to create a community whose importance and presence is still felt and carried on by today’s independent downtown merchants and professionals,” he says.
John (J.J.) Zielinski has also chosen Franklin for his new business, Lakehouse Studios, and says the village has done a great job in preserving the architecture in the area.
“While the buildings are not as modernized as you would get in Birmingham,” he explains, “the organizations that have dropped anchor here inherit a historical vibe that comes with the buildings where they reside.”
The challenges of old buildings and infrastructure
Running a business in a historic village is not always easy. Hansen says that any municipality with historic structures faces challenges. The types of problems that can arise were exemplified with a recent discovery of an old chemical storage tank under a Franklin shopfront. The finding caused an evacuation of several stores and required air-quality testing. It’s a setback, but one Hansen says village leaders believe will be resolved soon.
She says water supply can also be an issue in older communities; most of Franklin is still on well water. A move to a municipal supply would require a citizen vote because of stipulations in the village charter.
“Sometimes I worry that people might not pay enough attention to the reality that we all share water here and we need to be careful,” Hansen says.
Zielinski points out that despite these challenges, the advantages for new businesses locating in Franklin outweigh the disadvantages.
“Every time a client comes here, we usually spend the first 15 minutes just talking about the different buildings and how well the city has done to preserve the architecture,” he says. It’s something his company, and others in the downtown, try to incorporate. “We are known for providing a modern take in all of our projects. But being in Franklin inspires us to take the best of both worlds and mesh them together.”
On a cultural level, change can also cause friction within established neighborhoods. Learning to embrace new resident dynamics and cultures can present a challenge. Hansen confesses there are some stereotypes about a lack of diversity among the higher socioeconomic neighborhoods of Franklin, but argues that the village is not as mono-ethnic as people might believe.
She points out that the community has worked through cultural divisions in recent years. When an Islamic Montessori school was opened in the village (Huda School), Hansen says there was some initial anxiety from residents, but that the community was won over after the school board purchased and restored a dilapidated historic building. She says the school’s active contribution to the community effectively avoided what could have been a contentious issue.
“We have many religions,” she says “We have many cultural backgrounds here.”
Huda School . Joe Powers Insitu Photography
Huda School teacher Beth Luttrell says getting youth involved in Franklin helps everyone in the community, and is an integral part of the village moving forward. Students at the school are required to do community service, but Luttrell says many do a lot more because they enjoy being a part of Franklin.
Between Jump Rope for Heart demonstrations at the village’s Labor Day “Round-Up” and clothing and food drives, the students have made sure they are active contributors to the village identity. “Kids sometimes get a bad rap these days,” Luttrell says, “but our kids are out there, they’re showing they’re willing to work, willing to push forward, and that they really are interested in what’s happening in the future. And they really are our future.”