‘Stories From the Sidewalk’ Chronicles 361 Historic Dearborn Properties

With a new book, two local authors try to save historic properties in Dearborn.
Editors L. Glenn O'Kray and Christopher Merlo are two longtime Dearborn residents who bonded through their shared interest in the city's history. // Photograph by Nick Hagan

Every house has a story. That’s the message two local historians in Dearborn want their neighbors and City Council members to realize with their new book, Stories from the Sidewalk, that chronicles 361 properties in two Dearborn neighborhoods.

Christopher Merlo, one half of the pair behind the book, calls it “an elaborate survey” of the area. The book presents the history of properties on 18 streets dating back 190 years that the duo say defines the area.

They hope it will convince the Dearborn City Council to update the city’s historic district ordinance to prevent those homes and buildings from being torn down to make way for new modern builds.

“We are trying to preserve a sense of place,” says L. Glenn O’Kray, Merlo’s partner on the project. “I love history. It gives us a sense of who we are.”

O’Kray says it all began when he and Merlo struck up a neighborly conversation one day when Merlo walked by O’Kray’s house and O’Kray told him about his interest in preserving historic homes.

The book is as much a history of the homeowners as it is of the buildings themselves.

“And he made the mistake of saying, ‘Oh, I’m interested,’” O’Kray says with a laugh.

From there, the two formed a “gang of nine,” O’Kray says, that began with researching area homes — a project that ended up lasting about three years. Their love of history led them to go far beyond what was needed for a historical survey.

“The Dearborn Historical Museum has an index of every home,” O’Kray says of where the team went to start their research. Usually the information was very basic, just a list of the people who had owned the property over the years. “And then,” he says, “our team dug deeper.”

By going beyond names and digging into who those people were, the team saw the role of the two neighborhoods in Dearborn’s history — particularly its automotive history — come to life. The book is as much a history of the homeowners as it is of the homes and buildings themselves.

Many of the properties have some connection to Henry Ford, who with his wife, Clara Bryant Ford, built their homes near the two neighborhoods the authors profile in the book.

“Henry Ford, he certainly had a negative side, but he had a major influence in the area. And it’s good to recognize that, and it’s good to recognize that a lot of what Dearborn is was because of Henry Ford,” O’Kray says.

Flipping through the pages of Stories from the Sidewalk is like stepping back in time, giving readers a new way to look at the streets, homes, and buildings that they may have long taken for granted.

Here are four of the authors’ favorite homes featured in the book.

The Francis Jehl House, 22707 Alexandrine

Photograph by Nick Hagan

Merlo interviewed a local resident one day who told him that Thomas Edison’s last surviving lab assistant once lived down the street. “And I said, ‘What? Really?’ and then we researched it and found out his name was Francis Jehl.”

Francis Jehl, it turned out, did in fact live in the colonial revival home featured in the book, and he was Edison’s personal assistant as well as a friend of Henry Ford.

Born in 1860, he was hired as a young man after graduating with a degree in chemistry to assist Edison. According to the authors, “Jehl stood beside Edison at the first successful lighting of the electric light bulb in 1879. Edison then sent Jehl overseas to install electric lighting systems in London and Europe.”

Merlo lives near the Jehl house but, even as a history buff, had no idea what stories it had to tell.

“Again, the whole point of what we’re trying to do is, every house has a story to tell, and when you dig deep, you really find out,” he says.

The Cato House, 22326 Long Blvd.

The Cato House was designed by the first dean of architecture at Lawrence Tech (then called the Lawrence Institute of Technology).// Photograph courtesy of Christopher Merlo and L. Glenn O’Kray

Ralph Cato was the son of George Cato, who was a co-worker of Henry Ford at Edison’s first power plant in Detroit.

“This was one of Henry Ford’s first jobs. George and Henry … became close friends,” Merlo says.

George Cato had the house built for his son, Ralph, who lived there with his wife, Emily, until he died in 1941. Emily continued to live there until the mid-1970s.

“What’s interesting about that house — it was designed by the first dean of the Lawrence Institute [now called the College of Architecture and Design at Lawrence Technological University],” Merlo says. “So at the time it was built, in 1936, I don’t think the Lawrence Institute of Technology existed at that point. But he ended up being the first dean of architecture there.”

The home itself is a minimal-traditional two-story house featuring two front dormers and a front-facing gable.

“The fireplace is original and quite unique,” the authors write, “featuring decorative tiles from the California-based company Handcraft Tiles.”

The C.J. Smith House, 22340 Garrison St.

Photograph courtesy of Christopher Merlo and L. Glenn O’Kray

This home, a two-story craftsman with a gable roof, once belonged to Charles “C.J.”Smith, who from 1906 to 1949 worked in Ford Motor Co.’s experimental department and was part of the seven-member team that developed the Model T.

“He was a genius engineer,” Merlo says.

After the Model T, Smith went on to develop Ford’s first airplane, the Ford-Van Auken, in 1909. Smith was also part of a duo that won the 1909 Transcontinental Contest, a coast-to-coast road race in which they drove a Model T. (They were later disqualified for making repairs along the way.)

The building is currently a mediation center and prior to that was a beauty salon. Merlo and O’Kray had no idea what history had occurred in that space when they began looking into it. It was just another historic property they needed to include in their survey.

“We looked up the address and found out this guy Charles Smith lived there, and then we dug deeper, and all of a sudden this rich history comes about,” Merlo says.

The Fisher House, 22156 Morley Ave.

The Fisher House belonged to Dr. Edward Fisher, who pitched one inning for the Detroit Tigers. // Photograph courtesy of Merlo and L. Glenn O’Kray.

The Fisher House, as it’s called in Stories from the Sidewalk, belonged to Dr. Edward Fisher, “and he was a man for all seasons,” O’Kray says.

“He played for the Detroit Tigers for one inning. He was a medical doctor. He was in the Michigan Legislature [for four terms] and was on the [Dearborn] City Council.”

Fisher (no relation to the family that gave rise to Fisher Body Co.) was also a member of the Dearborn District 7 Board of Education and, according to the authors, had a sense of humor, signing his own daughter’s diploma simply “Dad.”

But wait … one inning? While pursuing an education, he had what is one of the strangest of student jobs — a position as a semipro baseball pitcher. According to Stories, he was called up as a relief pitcher for the Tigers for one inning of one game on Sept. 5, 1902. That same fall, he began medical school.

Taking up two pages, the account of this particular Fisher family house is among the longest entries in Stories, probably because its story doesn’t end with Fisher. The next owners of the Georgian-inspired colonial revival were Nancy and Peter Badore, who bought it in 1979 and lived there until 1992.

Peter Badore was an executive of Chrysler’s Asia Pacific operations, and Nancy was the executive director of Ford’s Executive Development Center, a position in which she gained notoriety for helping Ford become more “participative,” according to the authors. Her efforts were chronicled and thrust into the spotlight when she was featured in The Female Advantage by
Sally Helgesen.

The current owner is Irene Kossak, whose family fled Hitler and Stalin in Ukraine. Her family lived in Hamtramck, and she went on to work as a manager for Ford and Visteon Corp.

This story is from the July 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.