In the spirit of preserving its historical heritage, the city of Walled Lake will be lending a hand to complete upgrades to the Banks-Dolbeer Historic Home, formerly known as the Foster Farmhouse.
“The Fosters were the last owners and didn’t have anything historic attached to them, but the Banks and Dolbeers were relevant historical personages,” said Cheryl Flammer, president of the Friends of the Banks-Dolbeer Historic Home group. “That’s how we will gain attention to those who look at historical grant applications.”
The Banks-Dolbeer Historic Home project has been the focal point of the group of volunteers, the Friends of the Banks-Dolbeer Historic Home, dedicated to the farmhouse’s restoration. The group’s goal is to preserve and maintain the home due to its national, state, and local historical significance through educational and cultural enrichment.
“It’s an important community project,” Flammer said. “We don’t have much here. There are very few examples left of this architecture in Michigan and in the Midwest. That’s why the state said that if we can complete the renovations, it would be listed on the (Michigan State Housing Development Authority Register of Historic Places) and qualify for the national registry.”
Walled Lake City Council and Downtown Development Authority (DDA) representatives met on Monday, Aug. 6 to discuss the spate of work still needed to revitalize the historic landmark, as well as a shortage in funding.
“There was a decision made years ago that no general fund dollars would be used (on the home’s renovations) and this council won’t change that,” said Mayor Pro Tem Linda Ackley.
The home was moved as a protective measure in the 1990s to a location in Riley Park. Over the years, new roofing and sealants, rough electricity and plumbing, heating and air conditioning, and a new addition were installed, with much of that coming under the direction of volunteer and contractor Todd Coe.
Additional historical documentation was also compiled.
“All of this was done with support of businesses and private donations,” Flammer said. “Unfortunately the economy changed beginning with 9/11. Specifically, the (Community Development) Block Grants and those dollars then went to Homeland Security.”
A few years ago the volunteer group was reimbursed for 50 percent of its expenditures by the DDA. The group has spearheaded numerous fund-raisers, including poker nights and school reading projects.
The group has built up a fund balance between $10,000 to $15,000 in the Lakes Area Community Foundation, but will need $126,000 to finish the renovations to the exterior and interior of the Banks-Dolbeer Historic Home.
“It’s not the history (that’s an issue), but the (financial) support to fund it,” said Walled Lake City Manager L. Dennis Whitt. “It fell into disrepair, so I have had to take it over. It’s become a safety issue, but the group wants the DDA to support it.”
City Council members have said they are not in the position to allocate money for the project given budgetary constraints. However, they have said they are willing to help with manpower.
“The city will help with any hazards and the council made a motion to reinstate support to try to finish the farmhouse with provisions that the group gets together with boards, commissions or whoever wants to help by putting together a timeline and budget to raise funds and then bring it back to the council,” Ackley said. “One goal is to put the porches on and get as much done as possible by winter.”
Coe said “some excitement” needs to be generated “so people will get involved again.”
The Banks-Dolbeer Historic Home is steeped in history. According to Flammer, Amanda and Henry Freeborn Banks built the initial log cabin between 1832 to 1835 and ran a 120-acre farm. To earn extra money, Henry became a “cooper” who built water barrels. As he earned more money, he added on to the home.
The addition to the home is what’s so significant. The single-story Italianate construction consists of log beams, wavy glass, and horse hair plaster.
“This is what makes it unusual from the state’s perspective and (what is) considered valuable and recognizably important,” Flammer said.
By the 1870s, a Greek Revival two-story addition, including an upper porch, was built.
Also of significance are the homeowners themselves. Amanda Banks descended from Miles Standish, a Mayflower passenger, making her a Daughter of the American Revolution.
As practicing Christians, the Banks opposed slavery and built a tunnel on their property adjacent to the Greenaway Drain that fugitive slaves traveled through to gain their freedom.
“The water in the Greenaway is not deep, so that’s how they managed to get to safety,” Flammer said. “Plus they used the water to run off the scents of the dogs. The Banks’ home was used as a safe house to feed and house the slaves while giving them food and shoes.”
The Banks sold the home to Martha and John Dolbeer in the 1870s, but the underground pathways still existed for slaves.
“Dolbeer would hitch his horse and take these slaves to safety toward Flint and onto Port Huron,” Flammer said.
The third historical aspect is attributed to one of the Banks daughters, Sarah, who was a teacher at Scotch School and later became one of the first of three female students to graduate from the University of Michigan medical school in the 1870s.
She opened a practice in west Oakland County and became the personal physician to the likes of Henry Ford’s wife, Clara.
Most notably, she and her contemporaries, Dr. Anna Howard Shaw and Susan B. Anthony, were trailblazers in the women’s suffrage movement.
The Friends of the Banks-Dolbeer Historic Home is currently working alongside the same advisors for Greenfield Village to determine the historic site’s immediate needs.
“We may just do outside work because there was no electricity in the 1800s anyway,” Flammer said. “We want to finish it up so it can be a centerpiece in the area and have it represent how early Oakland County looked back then. This is why America is so important. We all have a story to tell.”