Where history lives

Tom Tigani
– Southgate Star

The city of Southgate is just over 60 years old and if you ever wondered where we came from and what we went through in our formative years, the Southgate Historical Museum is the place to start. The museum, on Dix-Toledo Road near the Southgate post office, has tons of artifacts from even before the city was founded. Historian Jerry Pesci says the museum is happy to open the door to the past for anyone who is interested.

Photo by Larry Caruso.

Now a year beyond the city’s 60th birthday celebration, the Southgate Historical Museum has a new sign, but its user-friendly, low-key approach to preserving the city’s past is unchanged.

The house that became the museum, now at the city’s municipal complex, was built in 1925 for Frederick Grahl on property just north of Eureka Road. It’s a type of American foursquare, a design common in the area that evolved as a transition from the more ornate and mass-produced elements of the Victorian and other Revival styles of the previous century.

Grahl later left the house when he gave up farming and took a job at the Ford Rouge Plant. The city acquired the house in a deal with the owner of the Mexican Gardens restaurant and moved it to the municipal complex in 1994.

The museum is home to a large collection of photos and information about past and current elected officials, as well as photos and memorabilia from schools within the city limits throughout years. The latter includes a collection of high school yearbooks that officials say have proven popular among residents. An extensive death notice collection provides an excellent resource for anyone doing genealogical work.

Photo by Larry Caruso.

One of its rooms is dedicated to residents who served in the military, including uniforms and artifacts from two World Wars, conflicts in Southeast Asia and fatigues worn in Afghanistan. Also represented are three cadets from West Point and 11 Southgate men killed in Vietnam.

The museum also features a collection of memorabilia from businesses that no longer exist, including the most recent, Ray Hunter Florist & Garden, a bar called Timbers that looked like a log cabin that once occupied the site of the current post office, and the country-western night club once housed in what is now the Hungarian Rhapsody restaurant.

Southgate city historian Jerry Pesci recalled the two drive-in movie theaters in the city: the Michigan at Dix-Toledo and Eureka, and the Fort George/Southgate Theater properties on the site of the current Meijer on Fort Street; the museum has a section on the theaters.

Many residents might be surprised, he said, to learn that the theaters were near Wonderland Park (a site later occupied by Stu Evans Lincoln Mercury), an amusement park complete with a shooting gallery, a Ferris wheel “and all the rides you’d expect at a roving carnival,” which went away sometime in the mid-1960s.

Before becoming a city, Pesci said, the southern portion of Ecorse Township had a small airport stretching along Eureka from Richmond to almost Trenton Road. The airport was shut down in World War II by the U.S. government to save aviation gasoline and minimize the risk from saboteurs of the local steel plants.

The museum also contains the varied accounts of how the city got its name.

One says the city was named after South Gate, Calif., where Thomas Anderson, the city’s first mayor (and Ecorse Township’s last supervisor) spent some time after being discharged from the Marine Corps. Perhaps the city’s most legendary figure, Anderson for a time became head of Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources.

Another story says the city’s name came from the planning stages of the Southgate Shopping Center at Eureka and Trenton roads. A third, Pesci said, is that “before I-75 was built, we were literally the south gate to the Detroit area.

In the early 1950s, he said, a gas station at Eureka and Trenton that is now a Top Value auto repair shop was the first place in the community to actually use the word “Southgate.”

At Christmastime, the museum also offers visits with Santa Claus (Pesci), who also takes a turn in his workshop at Kiwanis Park.

“We are lower-volume Santa situation,” Pesci said, “which works well for kids who like to sit and stare at Santa for a while before they decide what they want. If you want to look around the corner and think about it for a while, we can do that.”

The Historical Foundation’s other community involvements include scholarships offered to two Southgate Anderson High School students each year, and an annual daddy-daughter dance.

“George Washington never slept here,” Pesci said, “but we have all these little things that did and do happen that people might find interesting.”

Museum hours are 2-5 p.m. the first weekend of each month or by appointment by calling (734) 775-0425.

“By appointment sounds very strict, but we’re not,” he said. “We’re anxious to share our history with anybody who’s interested.”

Photo by Larry Caruso.

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