It’s probably pretty safe to say, the history of Ypsilanti has been covered numerous times by local historians and teachers and has served as the basis for a fair number of books and newspaper articles over the years.
But traditionally, the city’s history doesn’t usually involve vanishing brides, parallel time dimensions and grizzly, gruesome murders. That’s not the case in local author Laura Bien’s debut book, “Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives.”
Bien takes a unique approach to detailing Ypsilanti’s more bizarre history: instead of approaching the material chronologically—or even focusing on “important” events and people—Bien brings to light tales that have been long forgotten.
Chances are, few people knew that in the mid-1880s Ypsilanti actually had two time zones—one was the traditional local time, kept by the city’s clock tower; the other was standard time, which was adopted after a push by railroad owners who wanted to make it easier to regulate train schedules. Every city then had its own version of local time, which must have made traveling a nightmare.
According to the first chapter in Bien’s compendium of Ypsilanti history, the Michigan Legislature officially adopted standard time in September 1885. However, the stubborn folks in Ypsilanti didn’t fully embrace the change until nearly two decades later.
It is stories like this one Bien discovered after spending the better part of a year digging through the Ypsilanti Archives, looking for interesting tidbits captured in local newspapers or by local residents over time. The result is a book as entertaining as it is enlightening.
Instead of focusing on traditional history such as the founding of the city or the creation of the nearby Normal Training School, Bien has collected dozens of quirky stories that provide just as much information on the city’s past as the raw facts—if not much, much more.
Bien shows her readers the real Ypsilanti, as it was experienced by both ordinary and extraordinary individuals over the last two centuries. And she does so in a way that—pardon the horribly overused cliché—makes history come alive. After all, history doesn’t have to be boring and mundane, a fact Bien readily agrees with.
“That kind of history just bores me to tears,” she said. “And that’s what I’m specifically trying to overcome and trying to enchant people into learning something about their hometown, in the same way that I was enchanted when I found some obscure, yet interesting story somewhere.”
“I try to avoid that kind of traditional way of doing history because I think it turns people off and kind of disconnects them from whatever the history is talking about. So I just try to overcome that with these kind of more lively stories about off-beat type things that kind of trick people into learning history.”
Bien has lived in Michigan her entire life. She did her undergraduate work at the University of Michigan and received her Masters degree from Eastern. She has lived in Ypsilanti on and off since 1985, and in 2000 bought a house in the city. In addition to freelance writing, she worked for the Ann Arbor Observer for five years and was a teacher.
It was her work as a freelance writer and blogger that originally helped Bien discover her passion for writing about history.
“I have been blogging for quite a while, and I’ve really enjoyed that and I’ve blogged a lot about historical topics,” said Bien. “When I started being a freelance writer I realized that was really my area of interest, and I started volunteering at the archives about that time, about a year ago.”
Bien was introduced to the Ypsilanti Archives, which are located in the basement of the Ypsilanti Historical Society Museum on Huron Street, by one of her best friends, fellow historical writer James Mann. Once she started volunteering at the archives she quickly became engrossed, and what started as a casual interest turned into a new passion.
“It’s amazing how much fascinating stuff they have in the archives, and it just captivated me and I thought: ‘Wow, that’s just so interesting. This is really what I want to write about.’ So I kind of just got focused on that sort of topic,” she said.
For Bien, the book took shape slowly, starting with hours spent digging through the folders and files in the archives. The archives are sorted by topic, so she started by looking up topics she was interested in. Sometimes she knew exactly what she was looking for, while other times she simply stumbled across something that interested her.
One of her favorite discoveries involved a woman named Inez Graves, who was a social worker in Ypsilanti during the Great Depression.
“There was never any one story about her, but she kept popping up in all the Depression-era stuff that I was reading: here she is giving out clothes, and there she was leading a garden program,” Bien said.
“And slowly, as I read more and more about the Depression, which is an era that interests me, she kept popping up, and I thought: ‘I have got to write about this woman.’ She’s just amazing, she’s like an angel of the Depression. She’s everywhere; she’s doing all this stuff just selflessly, and she really became someone I admired a lot.”
“Stories like that are what interest me the most: the little subtle things that you notice in the paper that, when you research them, turn out to be some pretty incredible untold stories.”
Most of the stories that make up the book have appeared either on her blog, http://ypsiarchivesdustydiary.blogspot.com, or in several of the newspapers she frequently contributes to, including the Ypsilanti Courier, Ypsilanti Citizen and AnnArbor.com, among others.
“Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives” is out now, and can be purchased in local bookstores or online at Amazon.com. Bien will be appearing at Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor on April 20 at 7pm and at the Ypsilanti Historical Society on April 24 from 1 to 3pm.
In the meantime, she is busy researching and writing, and has talked with her publisher about starting work on a second book. The first book only touches the surface of what exists in the archives, and there are plenty of great treasures still waiting to be discovered.
“I’ve been writing a lot about Ypsilanti inventors recently,” Bien explained. “I’ve been finding all these great old stories about these obscure inventions, and they turn out to be very illuminating and interesting. So that will probably be a big part of the second book.”