When I first set out to write about Ferndale’s 100th birthday as a municipality, I had anticipated having to use the word belated. After all, most of the online chatter (and, for those of us who live here, a special mailer from the Historical Society) peaked last month.
That’s because Dec. 12, 2017 was the hundredth anniversary of the special election vote to select members of a charter commission, who soon after voted to establish a charter commission form of government. So in essence, that’s when some of the area’s 1,600 or so residents got the ball rolling on formalizing Ferndale as a municipality.
But it turns out the final adoption of the name, charter and election of officials for the new village of Ferndale didn’t take place until April 8, 1918. So to my mind, at least, there’s nothing particularly belated about this look back at Fabulous Ferndale’s centennial.
A pastoral history
Back then, Ferndale was a mostly rural place of farms and marshland. It was alternately referred to as Ferndale and Urbanrest, the latter a reflection of the area’s reputation as a country resort retreat that was easily accessible from Detroit via railroad. It was also the name given to the area’s first subdivision, built by a Cincinnati outfit that had purchased 750 acres near the present-day Hilton Road and the I-696 service drive. “Ferndale was a nod to the pastoral setting and its increasingly desirable residential/business possibilities,” according to an article by Jean Sprang, editor of The Crow’s Nest, a quarterly newsletter of the Ferndale Historical Society.
Its population was made up mostly of pioneer landowners, entrepreneurs and employees of the Highland Park Ford Plant a few miles south that was churning out Model Ts, thanks to Henry Ford’s innovative mechanized assembly line. Modest frame homes were starting to spring up here and there with outhouses, while on the west side of Woodward north of Nine Mile, larger and more expensive homes, designed and built by craftsmen, were attracting more well-heeled doctors, lawyers, Ford executives and other professionals, notes Jan Froggatt in another Crow’s Nest article.
A village forms
The vote to select a charter commission took place on the corner of Nine Mile and Woodward, about eight months after the United States joined the Allies in World War I. The members then held many other meetings to discuss what the new village charter should include. In the 1971 book “Ferndale of Yesteryear,” author Maurice F. Cole, a former Ferndale village attorney, writes:
In addition to approving the customary provision found in most village charters, the commission looked to the future, and at one of the meetings a motion was made and carried that the charter “provide for establishment of airplane and subway stations when the time comes.” (So Ferndale’s support for transit has deep roots!)
When it came time to adopt the village charter and elect the first village officials, voters chose Lowell G. Turnbull as president; John C. Graves as clerk; and Gordon A. Damon, James Hendershot, George H. Hall and G. Harold Leever as village commissioners. According to a story published April 10, 1918 in the Detroit Free Press, the men were “smoking corn cob pipes” when sworn into office.
“The new Ferndale commission government is still sans about everything, but a gavel and the titles of its officials,” the paper wrote. “It has no city hall, no bank account, and the actual authority to turn the wheels of government will be missing until Attorney (Wesley L.) Nutting (of Detroit) files copies of the new village charter with Secretary of State Vaughan, and the county clerk in Pontiac this week.”
A muddy, sandy place
The new village commission’s immediate concerns were dominated by problems with bad roads and streets (sound familiar?) and, probably related to them, a lack of proper drainage and sewerage. Woodward offered the village’s only concrete roadway surface, and only a narrow strip at that, and home mail delivery was not event attempted.
“In the rainy seasons of the year most of the streets were totally impassable, and no attempt was made to drive on them,” Cole writes. “What few residents owned automobiles at that time would leave their cars on whatever dry spot they could find near Woodward Avenue and walk to their homes… It was not uncommon for new arrivals to be compelled to carry their furniture and home furnishings by hand from Woodward Avenue to their residence, a block or more away.”
Sprang notes that another contentious issue was the fact that all land on Nine Mile between Campbell (today known as Hilton) and Pinecrest were platted for residential only, while Woodward was designated exclusively for commercial uses. The issues grew so contentious that the entire second village commission was recalled in a March 1921 election.
In search of office space
In its first years, the village commission had no true home and met in private homes, schools and in a real estate office. In the mid-20s the village rented the Elmer Knowles farm home at the northeast corner of Bermuda Avenue and East Nine Mile. In 1927, Ferndale incorporated as a city after a vote that March. It would move its offices to the upper floor of the Clifford H. Harrison Building (now the Ferndale Center Building) at Nine and Woodward.
Following the advent of the Great Depression, the city in 1931 would relocate its offices to the defunct American State Bank of Ferndale at Woodward and Bennett Street, swapping the city’s substantial but frozen funds held by the closed bank for the building.
Ferndale had grown quickly through the 1920s, thanks to the ability to order kit homes from Sears, Montgomery Wards or Alladin catalogs, Froggatt writes — so much so that Ripley’s in the early 1930s recognized Ferndale as one of the fastest growing cities of its size in the country. “But the 1930s Depression, and the advent of World War II in the 1940s, with its focus on large industrial enterprises supporting the military, ended the housing construction frenzy of the 1920s,” she writes.
It picked back up after the war, but Ferndale’s evolution from family-oriented community to a place with large apartment buildings, bars and restaurants and entertainment offerings began in the 1960s.