Then and Now in Dexter: History of the Dexter Area Historical Society

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Old St Andrew’s Church of Christ

From the DAHS

One of the first local societies of its kind to organize in the State of Michigan, the Dexter Area Historical Society, was formed in 1971, lead by Norma McAllister and Frank Wilhelme. Norma (Kolander) McAllister, born in 1919 and raised in a home on Huron Street in Dexter, is considered the society's founder. By the time she graduated from Dexter High School in 1937, there were few people in town she didn’t know. Over the years, she created files on Dexter's history, including details on the places and people involved. Frank Wilhelme had taught history at Dexter High School and was our first DAHS President. He went on to serve the Michigan Historical Society as well in many roles, including as President.

The first meeting was an attempt to get a group together interested in forming a Historical Society. Held at Bob and Joanne Hoeft's home, the group agreed that the Village of Dexter and the four surrounding townships of Dexter, Lima, Scio, and Webster should be included. In 1971, a second meeting was held in the Library on Baker Street with the hopes of involving some business people. However, only one attended. Various ideas about what the Society could do were discussed, and it was decided then to hold a public meeting in July of that year.

The Dexter Public Library on Baker Rd which is now home to Verapose Yoga

The third meeting was held on July 29, 1971, with an open invitation to all. Frank Wilhelme took charge of the July meeting. He explained the ideas discussed previously, and there was unanimous approval to establish a historical society called the “Dexter Area Historical Society.” The Honorable Judge Ross Campbell of Ann Arbor was there that evening and showed slides of the Dexter Area. Norma’s sister, Marian Ehley, was kept busy signing up members. By the end of the meeting, about seventy-five had joined and paid dues. Within a short period, well over one-hundred had joined the society.

The first board of the society consisted of a president, vice-president, secretary, and treasurer, plus one person representing each of the four townships and one from the village. The Dexter Area Historical Society filed for and received 501 (c) (3) Federal status so monies and donated items to the museum or society could be deducted from the donor’s Federal taxes according to its value.

From the beginning, discussions were held about ideas on how to raise money. Joanna Hoeft approached Norma and asked if the Historical Society would consider sponsoring a craft show. Norma presented the idea to the board for an arts and craft show whereby a small entrance fee would be charged, and those craft people contacted to sell their items would also demonstrate their particular craft. A group of women interested in crafts and wanting to help the Museum formed and held the first Holiday Bazaar in December of 1971. They printed a recipe book in 1972 and organized it as The Heritage Guild in 1974. The first Arts and Crafts show, known as the Pioneer Crafts Show, was held in March of 1975.

Moving St Andrew’s to its new location in the parking lot to serve as home to the DAHS

Soon after the society organized, they heard that St. Andrews Church was planning to build a new church building on their original church site, which had been built in 1883. The board members met with the church consistory to discuss the possibility of acquiring the old building for a museum. The church membership was consulted, and they agreed to allow the Society to move the building across Fourth Street to a part of their parking lot. The church granted a seventy-five-year lease on the parking lot portion for $1, and on January 25, 1974, the building was on a new basement at the new site. 

After the relocation, a new roof was put on, plumbing and wiring were installed, sidewalks were put in, eaves were installed, memorial trees and shrubs were planted, and the building’s exterior was painted. Two furnaces were added, a new wooden stairwell leading to the basement was put in, and the nine Stain Glass Windows were covered with plastic, unbreakable, bulletproof sheeting. Other work inside went on included painting and re-plastering. Fran Bosel of Dexter and Dorothy Abbott of Ann Arbor stenciled patterns on the eight window shades in the meeting room. All of the work was done by volunteers. Most of the materials were donated by individuals, local organizations, and businesses.

In the meantime, the Dexter Library gave the society historical collections donated to them over the years. Norma McAllister also worked on a committee with the Great Lakes Bank to collect old photographs of Dexter to have copies made for a book of photos the bank was to offer its first customers. These photos are now a permanent part of the museum collection.

The Dexter Sesquicentennial was held in 1974, celebrating the village founding in 1824, and Norma McAllister worked on a number of projects for this event, including a play depicting the history of the village, a book on the history of the area, obtaining a “roving photographer” to take photos of events, etc. With David and Mary Hosmer's help, Norma organized the filling of a casket with various items placed at the front west corner of the museum. A marble marker, donated by Arnet’s Memorials on Jackson Avenue, was placed at the site with the inscribed date when it was to be opened in fifty years, which will be in June 2024. Some of the profits from the Sesquicentennial events went to the Dexter Area Historical Society. With these profits, along with some personal loans from members and help from a Kiwanis sale, they were able to pay all debts!

The time casket filled in celebration of Dexter’s sesquicentennial

More than 450 persons attended the Open House and Dedication Ceremony of the Dexter Area Historical Museum on Sunday, June 27, 1976. Three years of planning and hard work had gone into establishing the Dexter Museum, a source of pride in the Dexter community. Upon opening the Museum, Norma McAllister, who was instrumental in the entire process, said, “It took a long time to do this, but I’m glad it’s finally over. It’s real nice to have your own museum and a place of our own.”

The week following the dedication, we celebrated the Bicentennial of the United States along with the rest of the nation! We once again formed our “Brothers of the Brigade groups and Celebration Bell groups, and although not as large as our 1974 Sesquicentennial event, a good time was had by all. A booklet was published by the Western Washtenaw Bicentennial Commission, which included Chelsea, Dexter, and Manchester Villages, and the surrounding Townships. This gave us a chance to share pictures from the Sesquicentennial.

This is the first of three articles written in preparation for celebrating 50 years of this special organization. We are proud to say that for 50 years, we have been an all-volunteer organization, and we are always open to new members and volunteers. Visit our website: DexterHistory.org
and our email address: DexMuseum@aol.com
if you have any questions.

The Dexter Area Historical Society has come a long way, but our purpose remains “To preserve our history and inspire our community to connect the past with the future.”

The Dexter Area Historical Society

Photos: All photos courtesy of DAHS

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