Writing for the
Ann Arbor Observer
Yesterdays on Yost
Into the Woods Back in the Day
By Mike Gould
(The director's cut, with added content that didn't fit in the printed version.)
The author and his brother, John Gould - 1956
Growing up in Ann Arbor in the early Fifties, I could walk out my backdoor and head straight across the field into the woods.
This was in a neighborhood called Pittsfield Park, which is right across Washtenaw from Arborland, right down Yost Blvd. From 1952 to 1958 my family lived at the southeast corner of Yost and Parkwood, in a small house that is still there. The entire neighborhood is still there, but not the fields and not the forest. Arborland was a cornfield, Washtenaw was largely agrarian, and I was a student at Pittsfield Elementary School.
The area was built after WWII by Neil Staebler, who later went on to head the Michigan Democratic Party. We were on the east side of Pittsfield Village, and the Park consisted of houses on Pinecrest, Yost, and Parkwood streets. What is now Darrow Drive was a dirt path we called "the old road". This curved behind our house and demarcated the field from the woods.
Woods and Weeds
In the summer, the field sported thistles and weeds that were up to 3 feet high, ideal for running around and playing hide and seek. In July my dad and a bunch of neighbors would put on a fireworks show in the field, which may have inspired the displays Ann Arbor used to have later on in Buhr park. The Pittsfield contingent would sent a party to Ohio to stock up on pyrotechnics, and fire them off in the field. Home-made launching rails and brightly-colored packaging littered the area the next day, and I remember swordfighting with the roman candle tubes. The mind buckles thinking about attempting this sort of thing today in the city limits.
The old road headed south from our house, and walking along it, you would pass a deserted (and no doubt haunted) water tower, several frog ponds, the old hollow tree by the creek (near where the Forestbrooke Swim Club is now), and finally, the old graveyard. This was what is now called the Terhune Pioneer Cemetery, but in those days, it was a quintessential scary burying ground. It was filled with weeds and had a rusting metal fence, all in great disarray in the middle of the woods. This was sort of the Pet Sematary of my childhood - one entered on a dare and then ran home as fast as possible before the ghosts could get you.
My mom likes to retell the tale of the time a friend of mine and I went for a walk down the old road in the middle of summer:
...[a neighbor and friend] lived on Fernwood. It was one of her sons who accompanied you on the famous walk down the old road, on a hot summer day. We were searching frantically for two little boys, following a trail of discarded clothing. It was a hot day, as I said. Found you strolling along, butt naked... I'm not sure I remember this particular incident, but I do recall running around in the field naked, hidden behind the weeds that were taller than I was. Hey, when you're 4, you have developing ideas about dress code...
I remember that someone had nailed a length of vine to the middle of the old hollow tree, and you could climb up it, also on a dare, and perch above the hollow interior on a branch. One time while climbing the vine, it broke and I fell about 6 feet to the ground, knocking the wind out of me. My buddies each grabbed an arm or leg and hauled me back home, depositing me at my back door. Then they rang the bell and ran for it. I survived to climb again.
But what I remember best was the woods. Before the US 23 - Washtenaw interchange was built, the woods extended from the old road behind our house all the way to Carpenter Road. Straight back from our house, across the field and maybe 30 feet into the trees, was a low spot that filled with water every spring. This we called "tiny town" because it would fill with a cacophony of spring peepers, the under-sized cousins of the leopard and bull frogs we would catch in the near-by creek. These miniature noisemakers provided a constant background soundtrack to my childhood. People in that neighborhood today probably have a similar experience with the road noise from 23.
The woods were old-growth; there were trees that shot up into the sky for miles, from my vantage point, anyway. Some of them came equipped with wild grape vines, and a lot of the inner Tarzan got a workout in those days. Or you could cut the vines and drink the water that oozed out, just like in the jungle movies. Armed with an imagination and a cub scout knife, a kid could develop some pretty elaborate scenarios, and we had endless games of build-the-fort, capture the frog, and find-the-tallest-tree-you-can-climb-without-falling-out-of. This all sounds dangerous and completely unburdened from adult supervision, and it was, but I don't recall anybody getting seriously injured. I would be in the woods most of the day, until my mom rang the dinner bell (just like on the farm in the movies) alerting me that The Mickey Mouse Club was on, and then it was time to pack up the wagons, say goodbye to the cowboys and Indians, and hit the trail back to the ranch for TV and grub.
Somewhere near where the US 23 southbound onramp was built, there was an old barn, another destination for a hike on a dusty summer afternoon. The barn was unused, as I recall, but still contained a variety of ancient farm equipment, looming like alien artillery in the darkness of the stalls under the loft. I remember in particular finding a rusting all-metal mousetrap with the bones of its last visitor visible inside. The house on the other side of the barn, fronting Carpenter Road, was occupied, and we were always afraid of getting caught snooping around, so visits inside the barn were few, relegated to the strongest of dares. Or maybe double-dares.
The creek I is still there; if you turn off of Darrow onto Margaret it is just ahead of you, down 6 feet or so into the ground. Now the way I remember it, the creek was more or less at ground level, which implies some serious Grand-Canyon style erosion, or the banks were built up when the various subdivisions went in. At any rate, it is nice to have some touchstone to one's past, even if it is deeper in the ground than one remembers it.
Meet the Neighbors
Pittsfield Park in the Fifties was also notable for the community it supported. Everybody knew everybody, and everyone participated in neighborhood events such as softball games, backyard parties and Easter Egg races down Yost Blvd. We had a small above-ground pool and on Sundays in the summer, my dad would fill it, and the local adults would sit in it and drink beer. I remember toting fresh beers down to the pool and awaiting my turn the next day (for the pool, not the beer).
The neighborhood was one of starter homes; one and two-bedroom one-story units built on slabs, often with an adjoining car port. The inhabitants were all young professionals, all starting out their careers and families, and all white. We had a number of doctors, realtors, lawyers, and a variety of others.
My mom remembers one such neighbor:
The wife was a cousin of JFK and one day she burst into Joyce Brown's kitchen and cried. "I don't know what to do. Mama and Auntie Rose (Kennedy) are coming to visit tomorrow and I never told them I live in a slum."
This neighbor was not one of the more popular ones, as I recall. The Joyce Brown referred to above was wife to Stratton Brown, who was son of the Mayor of Ann Arbor at the time. Their son was a good friend of mine.
Next to the Browns were the Weeks; the son, Tommy was a friend of mine through high school and his dad was a city councilman. Don Dufek lived across the street from us - he was MVP of Michigan's 1951 Rose Bowl victory and future assistant football coach. Down the street lived John Sharemet, a realtor who would later be involved with civil rights issues and the founding of Arborland [verify] and the Ann Arbor Swim Club (perhaps inspired by those Sunday evenings in the pool in our backyard).
Doctors on the block included my dad, Dr. Stuart M. Gould, Jr. and Dr. Gracie, a noted gastroenterologist. My dad went on to be head of staff at Mercywood Hospital before retiring to Arizona, and Dr. Gracie's son, Bill, played drums in the band I was in during the mid-70's (The Martian Entropy Band). I remember that Dr. Gracie had the first Frisbee I ever saw, and I think he had the Marilyn Monroe Playboy foldout on the wall in his garage, the first one of those I ever saw.
Perhaps the most memorable to me was Dick Emmons. I met him formally in 1957 when my mom's pressure cooker exploded, sending stew all over the kitchen and blasting the lid into the ceiling. Emmons, who worked for the Ann Arbor News at the time, showed up with a photographer and took a picture of myself and my brother (in our cowboy suits), pointing up at the embedded lid. The picture was printed in the News and picked up by UPI and was published all over the nation. Emmons later founded the Huron Valley Ad Visor: this was an Ann Arbor Observer precursor that featured coverage of local events and such. I had a brief career there as cartoonist, drawing jokes about clams (long story). Emmons was noted local wit and writer of poetry.
Pittsfield School parade
Once a year the Pittsfield Elementary School had a carnival and parade. I was always entered, and my parents would make an elaborate float for me. One year I was on my tricycle dressed in my Davey Crockett suit, with a cardboard Liberty Bell dangling out in front on the end of a coat hanger wire. This had a band-aid across the crack because ol' Davey "patched up the crack in the Liberty Bell", according to the song. I won first prize (roller skates). We would assemble beside the school; 20 or 30 kids in various states of Mardi Gras-like accoutrement, and then parade up Pittsfield, finishing at the bank on the corner of Pittsfield and Washtenaw. I don't know if they still do this, but it was quite the event.
My mom (who is 82, on her 4th Mac, and sent this in an email) sums it up quite nicely:
That was a fine neighborhood. We were all in our first houses, after the wars and we were all young, well educated beginning professionals of one kind or another. I guess you'd call us yuppies now. We didn't have labels like that then. We were just happy to be in our houses and to tend them and plant our gardens and let the kids run free up and down the unfenced back yards. It looks idyllic as I look back now. Such fun.
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