While we are hunkering down and to a large extent staying indoors without the socialization we are all accustomed to this typewriter throught it would be a change of pace to outline some of local hometown history. When history calls the person #1 on my rolodex is Kathy Bilger. In addition to the history she loves to share she has been known to share some wonderful cakes. The typewriter loves being the recipient. Todat she offers up this article which I hope you find it of interest:
Did you learn square dancing in school? If you did, blame Henry Ford. You think cars, not dancing, when you think of Henry, but he loved square dancing to the point of obsession. He learned to square dance to become more social and conquer his shyness. From there, it was one short Virginia reel to making it a requirement for every executive at Ford to dance. Henry Ford saw square dancing as the All-American dance. Henry and Clara went to many dances at the Botsford Inn before they were married. It meant so much to him that in later years he bought and restored the inn as a gift to his wife. One friend of Henry's found out exactly how much square dancing meant. Henry had the floors sanded down in Lewis Hutton's house because the heavy oak floors were not springy enough to dance on. Life outside work was all about the dance.
Henry Ford was a super fan of Will Harmon's Full Orchestra which played at the Botsford Inn. In addition to their regular appearances at the Botsford Inn, they also performed at the Princess Roller Rink in Northville (which stood on land now occupied by the Marquis Theatre), the Livonia Grange Hall, the Farmington Town Hall, and many homes and schools. They even travelled as far as Saginaw. The money wasn't great, but the orchestra was welcome in the cold weather when there was little farming to be done and people wanted music to occupy the cold winter nights.
Will Harmon was from Canton, and he was a farmer first like all his band-mates. Every man in the 1876 Wayne County Atlas proudly recorded his occupation as Farmer. The band members came from Livonia, Plymouth, Northville and Canton. The group listed in Will Harmon's Full Orchestra included Volney Gunning, John Tinham and Lewis Cable. Other men and a few women performed with the group over many years. H. A. Drake, E. Whipple, Mr. Hesinger on banjo, L.G. Botsford, Elmer Briggs and William Brace all performed in the Harmon orchestra. The ladies in the group included Sarah Durfee, Jen Gunning and Gena Gunning.
Horse-racing and violin-playing John Tinham was a great friend of Henry Ford. John played with the group but also had his own orchestra in Northville. He was a very busy musician when he wasn't training or racing horses for the Starkweather stables. John's brother and fellow musician, Alex, was a member of the Northville Eclipse Base Ball team. They say that Henry Ford only gave cars for life to two people. One was his wife's cousin Marvin Bogart and the other was John Tinham.
Livonia's contribution to the band and star of the show was Volney Gunning. Volney played the big double bass and did the square dance calling. Henry was particularly fond of Volney. He was quite upset when he found out that Volney had sold his bass and taken up the accordion. Most people would have accepted it, but not Henry Ford. As a rich man accustomed to getting his own way, Henry made it his mission to find the bass. He had to acquire the bass that Volney sold, not just any good bass. With the full power of Ford Motor Company behind him, Henry did the obvious thing. He shut the company down and sent everyone to search for the missing instrument. Thankfully after a week of searching they found it in Kansas City and brought it back to Michigan. When Volney had tooth troubles, Henry took Volney to the dentist in his car.
Volney was a son of Livonia through and through. His grandfather James had a general store at 8 Mile and Grand River. His father Charles owned a farm just west of Stevenson High School. Charles was also musically inclined and joined Volney on occasion. Grandfather James and dad Charles were, however, more devoted to the workings of the Democratic Party.
Volney attended school at Clarenceville and at Briggs School at 6 Mile and Newburgh. He married a Livonia girl, Jennie Chilson, and they took over the Gunning farm. In his spare time, Volney served a few terms as the Livonia Township treasurer. You could pay your taxes on the appointed day or Volney would visit your farm to collect. He might also stay for supper and a chat. Jennie scolded Volney more than a few times about his attention to music and treasurer duties to the neglect of the farm.
Quite a bit of what we know about Livonia history comes from Volney Gunning. Our treasurer/musician/ farmer kept a series of diaries for 50 years. Each year he would purchase a small journal about the size of a modern cell phone. Volney wrote daily. He did not miss a day in 50 years which is pretty impressive, and he wrote about everything from the price of pigs to the weather. Just a couple of sentences:
"I went to Luther Briggs this afternoon. I played at the Cheese Factory last night with JB and Tinham. Bought Jen a pair of slippers $1.40. Ed, Father and I played the Grange Hall in Livonia last night."
In 1928, Volney noted that Mr. and Mrs. Lovett of Dearborn paid a call. Henry Ford recruited Benjamin Lovett, the famous dance master, to come to Dearborn and teach dance. Lovett Hall at the Henry Ford Museum complex is named in his honor. Dominic Paris, Livonia history teacher and 2019 inductee into the 1835 Livonia Hall of Fame, used the diaries for his master's thesis. (The diaries are not public; only a few people have seen them. I was able to photograph them a few years ago.)
Volney and all his friends are long gone. Volney died in 1945 in Eloise, the poor house. He and Jennie had no children but are remembered fondly by family. They are buried in Clarenceville Cemetery. Henry Ford pushed to require schools to teach square dancing. He lobbied to have square dancing named as the national dance and almost succeeded. What is the American Dance? Jazz, Swing, Charleston, Square? The subject still comes up in Congress now and then and maybe in a few stories of the good old school days.