The Coe House Museum - A Grass Lake Treasure
To thoroughly trace the history of the Coe House Museum, one must begin with the history of the land on which it is built. This is due to the apparent connection between the original owner of the house to one of the earliest land owners in the Village. This connection will be made obvious as this history unfolds.
By 1800, the Federal government was making public domain lands available in the West, the earliest being dispersed in Ohio. The large acreage required, initially 640 acres, and the fact that purchases on credit were allowed resulted in a panic in 1819. This led to the elimination of long-term credit arrangements and the reduction in land size to eighty-acre parcels selling at $1.25 per acre.
From the 1820s, Congress was selling an increasing amount of land to finance military roads, river improvements, canals and the like. Since rewarding Hessian soldiers in the Revolutionary War, military service had enabled the acquisition of free land for veterans. Veterans of the War of 1812 were among those first to acquire lands in Michigan.
First to buy the section on which the Coe House Museum would eventually stand was David Keyes on 6 March 1830. A note on the bottom of the abstract states: “The Patent conveying above described land is not of record in this county”; however, Keyes is likely the original patent holder. He did not maintain ownership for long, selling the land on 25 April 1831 to Ethan Allen and his wife Catherine. David Keyes is listed as a petitioner in Washtenaw Co in 1831 and in Jackson Co in 1832. This would indicate that he was purchasing a number of pieces of land in the area. His wife, Ruth, who died in 1848, is buried in Napoleon. David was very active in the settlement of the area, having served in 1832 as the first Sheriff in the county. The first election in Jackson county was held at his home in July 1833. He eventually settled and died in Calhoun County.
The property changed hands several times in the next few years before coming into the hands of the family which would eventually build the house currently known as the Coe House Museum. Owners were Ethan and Catherine Allen, Benjamin and Hiram M. Smith, Hiram and Mary L. Smith, Olney and Mary E. Hawkins, Paul B. and Sarah Ring. Finally, in Dec 1837, the parcel was sold to Daniel Walker for $800.
Daniel Walker was one of the first settlers in Grass Lake, having arrived there in the fall of 1831. He took the patent on the land on which Grass Lake Village is now located. He served as the first Postmaster, the first township Collector and Clerk. He held these offices until his death on 10 March 1839. His widow, Maria (Abbott) Walker held title to the land until her death on 21 April 1846, at which time a parcel of about ¾ acre was set off from the land holding for her son, William H. Walker.
William Walker left school at the Grass Lake Academy upon his father’s death, in order to tend to family business. He married Mary Jane Burtch and two children, Aurora and Daniel B. were born to the couple. William was one of several brick manufactures in Grass Lake, maintaining this business until 1866, when he established a drug business.
On May 6, 1871, by warranty deed, William Walker and his wife, Mary J. gave a parcel of their land to their daughter, Aurora. Aurora had married a young merchant in the village, Henry Vinkle Jr., on 24 Feb 1869. Her parents, having only a son now at home, undoubtedly found this a way to keep their only daughter nearby. Henry and Aurora already had a first-born son who would now live next door to his grandparents.
Henry Vinkle had been born in 1845 in nearby Dexter. At the age of 14, he began to learn his father’s trade of cabinet making. Henry, Sr. was born in Germany but had settled in Dexter by the 1840’s. His trade of cabinet making meant he also was the local undertaker. He built a large home for his family on the Huron River. This building presently serves as Dexter’s American Legion facility. In an article written about his house, the owner wrote that Henry "built his own coffin and then took a nap in it every day until the day he died."
Henry Jr. soon began clerking for his brother, a merchant in Dexter, eventually going into partnership with him. After about 2½ years, he sold his interest in the partnership to his brother and, for the next three to four years, traveled in the eastern states. Upon returning to Michigan in March, 1868, he chose to settle in Grass Lake and began a furniture and undertaking business. His marriage in 1869 to the young daughter of a fellow merchant eventually led to his building a large brick home to house his young family. This family quickly grew to include one son and two daughters. The youngest daughter, Maude, unfortunately contracted the feared Diphtheria so common at the time and died at just 4 years of age. Son Mahlon born in 1870 and daughter Minerva born in 1872 spent their childhood years growing up in this new home next to their Walker grandparents.
Built at the corner of then Territorial Road (now West Michigan Avenue) and Brooklyn Road (now Wolf Lake Road), the Vinkle home was most likely built around 1875, when the warranty deed for Aurora’s property was officially registered. The property had been transferred to her by her parents on 6 May 1871.
The original structure appears to have contained 4 rooms - 2 down and 2 directly above, with an enclosed staircase. A typical Michigan cellar made of local field stone is under the two rooms on the West side of the house. The East side has a stone foundation but not a cellar. Recent study of the house’s structure in preparation for application for National Historic Registry seems to indicate that originally the kitchen may have been in the cellar, accessed from the exterior of the house at the center of the south wall. The cellar is oddly finished with plaster and lath, like an interior room, including finishing of the ceiling.
Built in the Italianate Tuscan Vernacular style, the builder is unknown. However, a brick near the front door is inscribed “D. Shelley”. It is said that, as was usual at the time, the brick making operation was set up across the street from the building site. Bricks were made there of materials located onsite and left to cure until ready to be used in the construction. The exterior walls of the house are 3 bricks deep.
David Shelley, listed as ‘brick burner’ on the 1880 census, was the maker of the bricks for the house. Although the builder of the house is unknown, it may have been contracted through William Winegar, the local lumber dealer and a near neighbor to Henry and Aurora Vinkle at the time that they received the land.
Henry’s business continued to flourish. He added the sale of agricultural implements and eventually disposed of the furniture business, selling it to Edward J. Foster. He remained the only undertaker in the village for many years. In addition to being a successful business man, he served in public office. He was Marshall for two terms and Deputy Sheriff for two years.
Henry had partnered with Jacob Longyear on the ownership of a farm in Blackman township. In 1879, a newspaper article announced the discovery of a four-foot vein of superior coal on the farm. The coal was in a shallow vein, only thirty-nine feet from the surface. Much coal mining was being done in the county at this time.
For health reasons, the Vinkle family sold their Grass Lake holdings and moved to the Dakota Territory. In 1898, they were living in Harwarden, SD but soon had relocated to Bear Creek in Dickey Co, ND where they purchased a hotel. Mahlon and his new wife were living with them and assisting in the operation of the facility.
Henry did return occasionally to visit in Grass Lake. In February 1901, however, the house was sold to the Detroit, Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor & Jackson Railway. This company used it as a boarding house for their workers, many of whom were foreign born. It is interesting to note that this sale was made by Aurora M. Vinkle and Henry Vinkle, her husband, to the railway. This statement of ownership differs from the norm and would appear to indicate that the property was still in Aurora’s name. Most commonly, the husband is listed as owner then his wife is named. Aurora had transferred some property by quit claim deed to her brother, Daniel, on April 2, 1892, after the family had gone west.
In May 1909, the house was purchased from the Railway by Herman H. and Fredericka Mellencamp. This elderly couple had been living in Napoleon Township. Only Jesse, their youngest son, was still living with them while he worked as a traveling salesman for the telephone company. Their older son, Henry, was a bank employee in the village and lived just a block from their parents new home in the former Vinkle residence. Herman died in June 1919, leaving the residence to his wife. When Fredericka died just one year later, the house went into the estate with Henry as administrator.
Henry Mellencamp rented the Vinkle house on 17 October 1925 to the young widow, Cathrene (Fauser) Walz. Cathrene’s husband, Louis Herman Walz, had died of injuries sustained at a barn raising on their farm in Sharon Township at the age of 42 years 2months 8 days on 26 March 1918. Cathrene, then age 36, had 4 children to raise, 3 daughters and an infant son. She had sold their farm and moved for awhile into Francisco. Within a year of renting the Vinkle house from the Mellencamp estate, Cathrene purchased it.
Cathrene stayed many years in this house. Moving there in 1925, she raised her family, held weddings and cared for grandchildren. She eventually sold the house to Archie and Myrta Coe. Cathrene had managed to keep the house by renting rooms to travelers. Members of her family still visit and share many fond memories of the Walz years spent in the home.
Archie and Myrta had been living in Grass Lake from at least 1935. Archie was a prison guard at the State prison in Jackson. They raised a large family of 8 children. However, by the time they moved to the Vinkle house, their youngest child was 11 years old.
It is from this family that the museum derived its’ name. Following Archie’s death in Sept 1969, Myrta remained in their home. In December 1972, agreement was reached between Myrta M. Coe and Grass Lake Area Historical Society for the purchase of the home. The price to be paid was $12,500, with a down payment of $2,500 and the remaining balance of $10,000 to be paid at $115 per month. Mrs. Coe was allowed to remain in the house. A stipulation named the house the Coe House Museum, for the last private family to live in it. Myrta chose to live with her children in 1974, at which time the GLAHS took possession of the house and began interior restoration. The museum was officially opened to the public in 1977.
Recent years have seen a renewed interest in Coe House. In the spring of 2011, a full restoration of the second floor was undertaken. This added a period bedroom and a family display gallery. An important addition was a research room to aid the public in local historical research. Work on a complete museum inventory is ongoing as well as the development of a transcription project to make museum resources more readily available to family historians with local interest.
By becoming a more project oriented society, GLAHC hopes to encourage greater community support and involvement. A busy summer schedule begins with a plant sale in May and continues with open events every two weeks throughout the summer. The biggest event of the year is Heritage Day which is held on the Saturday following Labor Day. This event grows better each year. More information can be found elsewhere on this site.
Questions regarding The Coe House Museum or the historical society may be directed to Marilyn O’Leary, society president, at 517-522-8324. Make a point of visiting this Grass Lake treasure this summer - and often. We’re always looking for new members and/or volunteers.