'Piece of history' in Walled Lake that was once on Underground Railroad gets partial makeover

An 1830s home in Walled Lake, the city's oldest house and once a stop on the Underground Railroad, got a partial makeover Wednesday as crews installed new windows in it to hopefully open a portion to the public for tours this summer.

The house, called the Banks-Dolbeer-Bradley-Foster farmhouse, has sat closed and inaccessible to the public for more than 25 years in Walled Lake's Riley Park on Common Street after it was moved in the mid-1990s from its original location roughly a mile away on Pontiac Trail. City leaders tried to restore the historic home on their own but were never able to make enough repairs to open it safely for tours.

Alex Stonepainter, 47, crew chief for Especially Windows & Remodeling, prepares to install a window on the second level of the Banks-Dolbeer-Bradley-Foster Farmhouse in Riley Park, a 19th century house that is believed to have been on the Underground Railroad in Walled Lake.

Now, local businessman Jerry Millen, the owner of Greenhouse, a cannabis store in downtown Walled Lake who can see the historic house from his parking lot, is hoping to change that. He spearheaded an effort to install $35,000 in new windows, donating $10,000 himself. Antcliff Windows and Doors supplied the windows and Especially Windows and Remodeling installed them.

It's about helping "preserve a piece of history because if we don’t, it’s going to be gone," said Millen, who also had the house painted.

Jerry Millen, 53, owner of Greenhouse of Walled Lake, donated money to help with the cost for the new windows at the Banks-Dolbeer-Bradley-Foster Farmhouse .

The goal, Millen said, is to continue to restore at least a portion of the house, likely the front parlor, and open it for tours during Walled Lake's annual Beach Party this summer, either in July or August. A date hasn't been decided yet because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Mayor Linda Ackley is thrilled that so many businesses are donating their time and energy to save an important part of Walled Lake's history.

"I’m a history buff and I can remember as a kid, going to this home and just being in awe that it was such a beautiful shape," said Ackley. "And to hear the stories that it was a part of the Underground Railroad for those trying to flee slavery and to go on to a life of freedom... this is such a very important part of American history."

John Owsinek, 79, of the Walled Lake City Council, points to the 1850 original ceiling medallion in the house's parlor.

Originally built as a log cabin in the 1830s -- horsehair plaster was used inside on the walls -- local officials say it was on the Underground Railroad as former slaves tried to make their way along Pontiac Trail north to Port Huron and ultimately Canada. In the 1850s an Italianate portion was added to the house.

One famous occupant was Dr. Sarah Gertrude Banks, one of the first women to graduate from the University of Michigan Medical School. She eventually became the personal physician of Clara Bryant Ford, Henry Ford's wife, and was active in the suffrage movement.

The house "was a center for three different movements at the turn of the century -- suffrage, abolition and temperance," said City Councilman John Owsinek, who worked with Ackley at one point on their own to try to fix the house enough to open it. 

The farmhouse changed hands several times in the 1900s and in 1967 was slated to be bulldozed to make way for condominiums before it was rescued by city officials and local history lovers, who had it moved to Riley Park.

Mike Kuehnle, 40, left, windows installer for Especially Windows & Remodeling, and his crew chief, Alex Stonepainter,47, prepare to install a window on the Banks-Dolbeer-Bradley-Foster Farmhouse in Walled Lake's Riley Park.

But it had no electricity, water or sewer. Officials worked to install utilities and do other upkeep, but it was never enough to open the house for tours.

“Everyone always had high hopes for its restoration,” said Ackley. “Envisioned as a possible museum. A place for Downtown Development Authority offices and Chamber of Commerce.

“Different groups became interested and became involved but as money ran out, so did enthusiasm,” she said. “It had been moved and reassembled, but the front porch was never restored and its backside needed considerable work.”

Ackley said a few years ago she had a conversation over coffee with Millen, who asked what he could do to make a lasting impression and make Walled Lake a destination.

 “We talked of the Foster Farmhouse and he said he would think about it," said Ackley.

Now, Millen is determined to keep Wednesday's momentum moving forward. Now that 22 new windows are installed -- he acknowledges that they aren't historically accurate but it would've very expensive to restore the original, or get more period-appropriate,  windows -- he plans to keep working on the parlor, refinishing the floors and painting it or installing wallpaper. He's also looking for period-appropriate furniture, using old photos to guide him.

Millen said his restoration efforts are also a chance to show off the good the cannabis industry can do. UBaked Cannabis of Burton and Treehouse CBD have also contributed to the restoration efforts.

"There are good people in cannabis," said Millen. "Cannabis is not the devil. So it’s a good way to highlight the cannabis industry."