Willis Log Cabin mystery deepens
Michigan Log Cabin Day was bright and sunny for Cobblestone Farm’s events last June. One of nearly ninety historic log cabin sites in the state, Ann Arbor’s cabin was featured as one of the five oldest extant. But there was a cloud on the horizon.
In preparation for the 2005 events, conflicting reports kept surfacing about the origin of the cabin that had been built in the year of Michigan’s statehood: 1837. When Bert Smith’s family donated the cabin to the City of Ann Arbor in 1986, it was called the “Lucy Look Cabin.” Another letter in the CFA Log Cabin file was from a member of the Harris family claiming buildership. A commemorative plaque was designed, calling it the “Harris Cabin,” but was never installed.
CFA’s 2005 summer newsletter tried to flatten out the conflict by calling the “Willis Cabin” since it had been moved from there. After the 2005 Log Cabin Day, Bert Smith reminded us that Willis did not even exist when the cabin was built. He still wanted to see his family name on their donation, but he never claimed they had built it.
In late summer 2005, CFA reps met with folks from Willis to try to figure out the origin of a one hundred and sixty-eight-year-old building that had moved from Willis to Ann Arbor nearly twenty years ago. It was not an easy task.
Following are more facts about the historic log cabin. There surely will be more.
The original site of the cabin is at 8691 McKean Road, just north of Willis Road and the railroad tracks in Augusta Township. The 1835 census shows Lucy Look owning this 160 acres that later held the cabin.
On an 1856 map, her son Sanford is listed as the owner. The Harris family is listed on forty acres two lots south of Willis Road, a whole farm lot between them. Willis L. Potter is shown as the owner of the farm across the road (west) from where the cabin stood.
Sanford Look still owned the site on the 1864 map and the Harris family still sat two farms to the south. David W. Potter had now taken over his father’s farm.
By 1874, county maps show James Rust as the new owner of the cabin site; Harrises and Potters are still in place.
Dorno Phelps married Amy Rust at her parents’ log cabin in 1879 and there are still people in the community who remember their fiftieth wedding anniversary there in 1929. Mr. and Mrs. Harvey Day, neighboring farmers, showed up for the occasion dressed in their best-man and bridesmaid outfits from the Phelps union.
Later maps show the Wabash Railroad coming through the south end of the Look/Rust farm, after Willis Potter donated his land for the creation of a depot and freight house near the crux of Willis and McKean Roads. All told, the community’s bid of $1500 convinced Wabash to choose their site over Willis/Tuttle Hill and Willis/Rawsonville. Potter’s neighbors around the Lincoln (Brick) School were so thankful they called the new intersection “Potterville.” The Detroit-Milan line had been completed in 1880 and, by 1881, the U.S. Post Office recognized the community as “Newcomb.” A year later, neighbors convinced Potter to let them give their new town his first name, “Willis.” By 1887, “Willis” was official and has kept its identity ever since.
In 1915, Dorno Phelps still owned the property, but the Harris land was then owned by Fred Pippat, a Frenchman who enjoyed several Americanized spellings of his name.
With that marriage, the cabin took on the Phelps name as owners.
Bert Smith’s parents, Alonzo and Ethel, bought the cabin from the Phelps family and, in 1981, donated the ancient structure to the City of Ann Arbor who had a loyal cadre of volunteers and experts at disassembling, moving, reassembling, and promoting the cabin’s history at the Cobblestone Farm Museum.
Bert Smith and his sister Bea Burrell remember when they lived next door to the cabin. Bert remembers the chain with rubber cups attached that drew the water up form the brick-lined well. Bea remembers the grape arbor in the yard. Bert notes that none of the mature trees that surround the site today were even growing when he used to tend the garden at their house next door. Their parents, Alonzo and Ethel Smith, bought the cabin in 1966.
Jim Potter, whose third-great-grandfather gave the land to the railroad and his name to the town, lives right across the road from the cabin site on his sesquicentennial farm and remembers the unique design of the well and pump.
And they all remember fondly, “Aunt” Jessie Phelps, a “maiden lady” who was the last of her family to live in the cabin. A world traveler, she shared such souvenirs as a glass container of sand from the Dead Sea and hundreds of pictures from her travels. She lived in a tiny, old log cabin, but she brought the whole world to the neighborhood kids who all surmised she was the “real aunt” to some of them, but not so.
Worse yet, Bert, Bea, and Jim all remember the Harris kids claiming that their grandfather built the log cabin. “Aunt Jessie must have known what the whole story was,” they agree, “but nobody ever asked her.”
Might there have been two ancient log cabins in Willis? Might Grandfather Harris have built a cabin for his neighbors on their property? And, did Lucy Look actually live on the property when the cabin was built? The mystery remains unsolved.
A new house has been erected just behind the original cabin footprint, and Potter, Smith and Burrell speculate that an addition to the back of the cabin may still be part of the new, two-story colonial house that stands there today.
The Wabash Cannonball still rushes through the south end of the farmland and signals before the crossing, but it’s called the Norfolk and Southern Railway today. One of the Rust relatives was an engineer on that train years ago, and all the neighborhood children were sure that he gave special whistle signals just for them.
The Smiths were the last owners of the log cabin and, when it seemed beyond repair, they sought the interest of various historical groups to carry on the tradition and restoration.
Give us a sign!
Since the cabin has been moved, reassembled and rehabilitated in Ann Arbor, virtually all of Cobblestone’s documentation has run into a dead end when trying to put a name on the cabin’s actual builder. Hence, the “Harris Log Cabin” cannot be verified. Neither is it the “Smith Log Cabin.” Perhaps, twenty years after accepting the Smith family’s donation, it is time to put up a plaque recognizing the gift, if not the builder.
How about a small sign saying, “Donated from the estate of Alonzo and Ethel Smith”?
The cabin’s ownership:
Lucy Look 1837
Sanford Look 1856-1864
James Rust 1874-1900
Dorno & Amy (Rust) Phelps 1915-1965
Alonzo & Ethel Smith 1966-1980
Donated to the City of Ann Arbor from the estate of Alonzo & Ethel Smith 1981
Serendipity: a happy thing found by accident
Last summer’s discovery shows an unexpected connection between the historic Ann Arbor farmstead and the 1837 log cabin that was moved here in 1981.
George Taylor gave a house tour to members of a Campbell family from August Township and these relatives of the last Cobblestone residents told of their familial connections to the Phelps family, earlier owners of the cabin in Willis that was moved here in the Eighties. Perhaps the origin is not so distant after all.
Twenty five years after the generous donation to the City of Ann Arbor, a plaque will be dedicated, proclaiming, “Donated from the Estate of Alonzo & Ethel Smith” Ceremonies will take place at the June 23 Michigan Log Cabin Day at Cobblestone Farm.
Michigan Log Cabin Day
Dedication ceremonies 3 p.m. Sunday, 25 June 2006