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Michigan stop on Underground Railroad undergoes rehab

From left, Darin Dell, owner of Especially Windows and Remodeling, and Jerry Millen, owner of Greenhouse of Walled Lake, partnered to get new windows installed at the Banks-Dolbeer-Bradley-Foster Farmhouse in Walled Lake on March 24. The home was an Underground Railroad stop for escaped slaves to get food and a place to rest. (AP photo)

WALLED LAKE — Once a stop on the Underground Railroad and home to a Michigan icon of the suffrage movement, this 1833 landmark in Walled Lake got some TLC recently as local businesses came together to replace the home’s windows.

The Banks-Dolbeer-Bradley-Foster farmhouse served as a depot on the Underground Railroad to help those escaping slavery to reach their freedom. Because of its proximity to Canada, Michigan was a hotspot for freedom fighters from the South, and Walled Lake’s very own farmhouse was one stop along the way. This stop is part of the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

Dr. Sarah Gertrude Banks, one of the first women to graduate from the University of Michigan Medical School, resided in the house. She was Clara Ford’s personal physician, friend of Susan B. Anthony and a champion of women’s rights.

From horsehair plaster to hand-hewn beams, much of the building’s early design remains, according to the Detroit Free Press.

The deep history of the building was almost lost in the late 1990s, when corporations planned to demolish the historic farmhouse to make way for condominiums. History buffs and members of the town council, including current Mayor Linda Ackley, came together and raised money to preserve the building, and, in 1997, the whole farmhouse was moved a couple blocks over to Riley Park in the city’s historic district.

Ackley and others had tried to restore the property over the years. They plastered parts of the interior, installed geothermal heating and utilities, and the mayor herself worked on retiling the bathroom.

However, with limited funds, the project fell by the wayside until about a year ago when Jerry Millen, owner of local cannabis dispensary, Greenhouse, jump started the project.

“It’s a relay race, and he’s taken over the relay,” Walled Lake Councilman John Owsinek said.

Millen, along with Antcliff Windows and Doors in White Lake and Especially Windows and Remodeling, chipped in money and labor to replace the farmhouse’s windows and doors. To restore the entire structure, Millen estimates it will cost a couple hundred thousand dollars.

“My goal right now is baby steps,” Millen said.

The pandemic has also slowed restoration efforts.

“COVID has increased the price and slowed down the delivery of everything in the country,” Millen said. Building supplies were harder to get and reopening for tours would be pushed back until it was safe.

Further steps include retiling, restoring the parlor and decorating the interior with historic artifacts. Millen said people from the community had contacted him, saying they had original items from the house they wanted to donate, including pottery, furniture and pictures.

Once the work is done, Millen and Owsinek said they envision the farmhouse to serve as a historic center for the city, and a place where surrounding schools can visit to understand the past.

“I think it’s important to preserve history, because otherwise, you’ll forget it,” Millen said.

Much of the building’s history is thanks to recordings of conversations with the town’s oldest residents in the 1960s and ’70s, but much has been lost to the “dim past,” Owsinek said.

Walled Lake’s mayor said she’s very grateful to Millen and the crew for their efforts to restore this landmark, and the history attached to it.

“It’s part of what our nation went through,” Ackley said.

Ackley said she believes Millen will “see this project through,” and that “by the end of the summer, I truly believe we’re going to have tours going through the homes, and that gives me great pride.”

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