by Maria Taylor, assistant editor at Michigan History Magazine
A triangle of land juts out between Grand River and Oakland, a block west of downtown Farmington, near the Thayer-Rock funeral home. Cars rush by on one side. People walk their dogs there, then turn off into the quiet residential neighborhood it borders. This is Women’s Park.
Most people don’t even know it exists.
It’s an unusual name for a park, but there’s a reason. It was created in 1899 by Farmington’s first women’s club, who—even at that early date—feared their town was heading toward overdevelopment. And as 21st-century Farmington continues to grow ever denser, ever higher, it’s a story worth revisiting.
Ladies with a mission
The Ladies’ Literary Club, founded in the fall of 1897, was the first women’s club in town.
Their purpose, as member Anna Cook later wrote, was to “improve their minds and add a little variety to their lives” through the study of literature and history.
That wasn’t all they did. The new club was made up of civic-minded ladies who “were not too modest in their ambitions.” And some of them were concerned about the direction the community was headed.
Their reason might sound familiar to 21st-century ears: the need to maintain green space in a developing downtown setting. So in late winter 1899, amidst their study of the American poets, the Ladies’ Literary Club decided to write a letter to the village council and petition for a park.
For park purposes
Granted, Farmington in 1899 wasn’t exactly over-developed by today’s standards. People still used horses and wagons; there were no cars. Grand River was a dirt road. On Farmington, the downtown buildings ended at what is now CVS.
But change was coming, and coming soon. “The electric road is now an assured fact in the near future,” they wrote, referring to the interurban electric streetcar that would arrive in 1900 and link Farmington with Ann Arbor, Detroit, and other cities in southeast Michigan.
Suddenly, the sleepy little town was poised to become a regular stop on a system of mass transit.
The women of Farmington recognized this, and wanted the town to make a good first impression. “Main St along the business portion has been greatly improved during the past year, so much so, that it brings into greater prominence the needed reform in other places,” they wrote.
They also foresaw “a large prospective growth in residences and other buildings,” and wanted to make sure that some space was set aside for beautification. The electric rail, they said, “will bring many strangers to our place, some we hope to make it their home, others to take away with them just such inspirations as we are willing they should.” The ladies had a plan, a location, and a committee. And they wanted action. Their letter to the village council ended by urging, “in view of these things, and of the nearness of spring time, which is the best time to begin new projects…the immediate purchasing and improving as a public park, the point of land lying west of the Town Hall, between Main and Middle Streets.” (Main was Grand River, and Middle was Oakland.)
It must have been an interesting topic of discussion. Women weren’t involved in government—they didn’t even have the right to vote—yet here were 13 women voicing their concerns over the future of their community and offering a viable solution.
And the men of the council listened.
Further detail has been lost to time. “The development of this plan would form an interesting part of this story but time forbids entering into the details,” reminisced club member Ernestine Pierce, who later served as president. “Suffice it to say that by hard and earnest efforts the plan was carried out and today our beautiful little park stands as an enduring monument to our first achievement for the public good.” Once the park was secured, the ladies fundraised for landscaping by holding entertainments. Their most successful event was a play called “The Fadville Sewing Circle.” In years following, Farmington became a city, the Ladies’ Literary Club became the Farmington Women’s Club, and the story behind the one-acre park was largely forgotten.
Nevertheless, their work still stands, a testimony to the forward-thinking women of days gone by.
In recent months, Women’s Park has received renewed attention from a special committee, tasked with making recommendations as the City of Farmington updates its Parks and Recreation Master Plan.
Over the next few years, you might see some new benches and lighting, along with updated landscaping and gardens. Overall, though, the plan is to keep the park largely as it is: a peaceful place to relax, a buffer space along a busy thoroughfare—just as the ladies had intended.
Farmington Voice editor Joni Hubred-Golden shares more of the history of Women’s Park and the Ladies Literary Club during a presentation held March 24, 7 p.m., at The Tree of Life Holistic Center in downtown Farmington. Admission is free of charge; copies of her book, Farmington: A Women’s History, will be offered for sale. Learn more at facebook.com/events/1057926597562983/.
Correction: Ernestine Pierce was incorrectly identified as club president in the original version of this post.