Ypsilanti is Michigan’s second oldest city, incorporated in 1858. Named after a Greek war hero, it has no Greek community to speak of. Begun as French trading post for furs, in time it blossomed into a mill town, and then a railroad town, and then a college town, and then – finally – a blue collar town, churning out B-24 bombers during World War II.
It’s Ann Arbor’s little sister, right down Washtenaw Avenue. Of course, people in Ypsilanti will tell you that Ann Arbor is snobby and that the two cities couldn’t be more different. After all, Ann Arbor is rich, posh, and highly edumacted, while Ypsilanti is gritty, artsy, a roll up your sleeves and get to work kinda city. It’s the city that made underwear with “never a rip and never tear” , where a guy drummed up businesses by riding goat-drawn carriage around town and telling people to “keep smiling.” Ann Arbor can keep the University of Michigan – Ypsilanti’s got Eastern Michigan University.
What better way, I thought, to properly explain this town then to give you a lil’ scene by scene tour.
This is Bill’s Drive-In, an old hot dog stand on Michigan Avenue. Michigan Avenue was once the main route between Detroit and Chicago, and many a weary traveler must’ve stopped here for a quick bite on their way between the two bustling metropolises. Don’t expect any girls on rollerblades to serve you, though – this isn’t Sonic. Young men in sneakers with coin changers on their belts run back and forth from the stand to your car with urgency, delivering the goods in a businesslike fashion.
And unlike the pure meat fests you’re likely to encounter in Detroit or Flint, you’ll soon learn that they aren’t afraid to doctor things up in Ypsilanti. Bill’s coney dogs are like the kind mom would make, with cooked onions and heaping helpings of tomato paste. If you threw Bill’s chili on a plate of al dente noodles, why… you’d have spaghetti with meat sauce! Any notion of purity is thrown out the window, and I can’t say that I mind.
Don’t forget to order a root beer, too. They “brew” it themselves, and each sip is crisp, clear, and loaded with vanilla. Honestly, it’s hard to believe there isn’t any ice cream lurking in your cup somewhere. It tastes like a float, sweet but not cloyingly so. In a word: amazing.
The final verdict? A&W, eat your heart out. This is what a real root beer should taste like. The dogs ain’t half bad, either.
In 2004, Ypsilanti-based Frog Island Brewing Company tried to move operations into the rundown Ypsilanti Farm Bureau grain mill. It was a valiant and inspired effort, but alas, was never meant to be. After about a year of trying, partners Dave French and Sharryl Sullivan threw in the towel. Since, they’ve renamed their company U Brew and moved to Ann Arbor, where they must assume business will run smoother.
Don’t despair, however! Luckily, Arbor Brewing recently filled the terrible void left in Ypsilanti with the opening of the Corner Brewery. Billed as a “solar brewery”, there are over 100 solar panels installed on the roof converting sunlight into a form more readily usable for the creation of beer. Now that’s a green energy anyone could get behind!
Ah yes, the Huron River, the mighty stream that gave birth to Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor, Dexter, Belleville, and countless other hopes and dreams. Native Americans call it the Giwitatigweiasibi. Over 130 miles of radiant, flowing water, it’s the source of several manmade lakes, including Kent Lake, the highlight of Kensington Metropark. It’s a gentling, rolling spirit, filled with a silent power – 19 dams draw energy from it. Home to everything from sunfish to muskie, it’s hard to imagine a river in Michigan with more life to it than the Huron.
In the old days, they “raced” logs down the river near Frog Island, the timber leisurely drifting onward to the local sawmill. In fact, they did just about everything on the river: they lived on it, swam on it, and fished on it – you name it. Before heavy industry clogged the river, it wasn’t uncommon to take the Huron River all the way Lake Erie, from which an intrepid merchant could reach the ports of Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, and Buffalo.
Without the Huron River, Ypsilanti was nothing.
“Earl Morrall. Awwwww. Yeah. Now there’s a name. Ooooh. Uuuuh. Yeah. Haven’t heard that in a long time. Now there was a field general. Now he could lead a team.”
Earl Morrall, born in Muskegon, Michigan, was quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts when “Broadway Joe” Namath of the New York Jets steamrolled the Colts 16-7 in Super Bowl III. Morrall played in the NFL for an astonishing 20 years and was the sort of hard-nosed, square-jawed guy you’d expect to bump into on the factory floor. Maybe even in Willow Run plant.
“I bet you’ve got your playoff tickets already budgeted out. Yes sir. I can see you’re that kind of fan. Yes sir.”
Three beer-bellied men are huddled around the flat screen TV in the corner of The Tap Room, a bar in downtown Ypsilanti that’s been serving the community since 1941. Here, the talk is cheap and the drink is strong – The Tap Room knows that when you order a whiskey and coke, you really want a whiskey on the rocks. It’s one of those dives you can’t help but love.
But even here, in this working class enclave, this champion of the impoverished lush, you can order a homemade veggie burger and no one’ll bat an eye. Then again, as the delicate, dainty flavors of the veggie patty are utterly destroyed by a hefty kaiser roll that was clearly intended to house 1/2 pound slab of steaming cow, you’ll realize that maybe they didn’t think the whole thing through.
Still, it’s the thought that counts, right?
I’ll drink a High Life to that.
Fret not. Part 2 will include all the important stuff I missed in Part 1.