By Joel Thurtell
Back in 2005, while writing suburban features for the Detroit Free Press, I combined my historical training with my journalism profession and filed a story that merged colonial history with the story of Michigan’s oldest continuously working, family-owned farm.
It’s called Westcroft Gardens and specializes in azaleas and rododendrons. The owners are direct descendants of brothers William and Alexander Macomb, who purchased Grosse Ile from Potawatomi Indians on July 6, 1776.
A couple years after I wrote the story, I received an email from a colleague, Bill McGraw. Did I know, Bill wrote, that William Macomb owned 26 slaves at the time of his death in 1796? The evidence is contained in the inventory of William Macomb’s property, which can be seen at the Detroit Public Library’s Burton Historical Collection.
I’ve written about how I hurried to the Burton, took notes and made digital images of the inventory and wrote a series of articles that attempted to recognize the presence of slaves on Grosse Ile.
None of this would merit much discussion had not the historians on Grosse Ile denied their community’s slave-owning past.
Their denial is stunningly egregious, because it also attempts to negate the incontrovertible facts that a slave — Elisabeth Denison — endowed a chapel on Grosse Ile; that a slave accompanied the corpse of a slain Union general and former Detroit Free Press editor when it was returned to the island; and that two captured fugitive slaves being held on Grosse Ile managed to escape from the island.
Here, with permission of the Detroit Free Press, is the story of Westcroft Gardens that caught Bill McGraw’s attention and led me to do further research into a subject local historians pretend did not exist — slavery on Grosse Ile:
May 12, 2005
Headline: HISTORY GROWS IN A GROSSE ILE GARDEN
Sub-Head: FAMILY STILL OWNS AND OPERATES FARM PURCHASED IN 1776
By Joel Thurtell
Two brothers, Alex and Bill, had a big problem.
Their cronies back east, where the boys came from, couldn’t agree on who should run the country.
Should it be the immigrant German who called himself George III and thought he owned a big swatch of the New World?
Or should it be those upstarts with names like Adams, Franklin, Jefferson and Washington, who wanted to dump the king?
Over in Detroit, the brothers Macomb pondered how to run a business when the king’s agents wanted to regulate shipping and collect taxes while a bunch of insurgents made war on them.
Making things worse, their dad, John Macomb, was rabble-rousing on behalf of George III, raising troops to fight the rebels and getting himself branded as a general nuisance.
Nothing for it but to bring dad west to Detroit and then, because business was business after all, plunk down some trinkets or whatever – it’s not clear what the price was – to buy a big island in that body of water the French called “le detroit,” meaning it’s a strait.
So it was on July 6, 1776 – two days after the rebels signed their Declaration of Independence from George III – that the Macomb brothers, William and Alexander, bought Grosse Ile. And, probably without intending to do so, established what is today Michigan’s oldest working farm owned continuously by members of the same family.
What does all this have to do with Denise de Beausset hefting a 25-pound bag of azalea food into a car trunk on Monday, bemoaning the previously cold spring that had kept her nursery’s prize azaleas and rhododendrons from blooming in time for Mother’s Day?
De Beausset is the owner-manager of the farm that was bought on July 6, 1776, by her great-great-great-great-great-grandfathers, Alexander and William Macomb (“we say Macooooom, you say Macomb,” she quips) from Potawatomi Indians.
The farm is 229 years old. And it’s now called Westcroft Gardens.
The brothers Macomb weren’t aware of what had happened in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776. CNN and Comedy Central weren’t invented then. Besides, they were busy acquiring and selling land in what would be Michigan and Ontario, according to a book by Isabella Swan, “The Deep Roots, A History of Grosse Ile, Michigan to 1876.”
On a chilly day in early May of this year, Alexander and William Macomb’s great-great-great-great-great granddaughter was busy, too, but her thoughts weren’t about buying islands or dealing with the vagaries of political rebellion.
She answered her cell phone with a hearty laugh: “How are you? We had ice this morning.”
The cold spring has slowed the blooming of the azaleas and rhododendrons for which Westcroft Gardens is famous, making it tough to move the plants outside where customers could view and, hopefully, buy them.
But around the nursery, magnolias and dogwoods were in flower.
As she talked about the events that led to her settling on the family farm, de Beausset, 50, led a walking tour of what remains of her ancestral farm. It’s down to 27 acres.
Pines; spruces; big, wild-looking azalea bushes, a raspberry plantation that struggles, and a virtual forest of trees now dominate an expanse that was flat and treeless until the 1920s, when the farm’s monoculture – hay – had to be replaced because of the advent of cars and the disappearance of trolleys and horses.
For de Beausset, it comes as something of a surprise that she’s managing the family farm, given that she majored in sociology in college and worked as an elementary school teacher in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
“I didn’t think I was going to be doing this,” de Beausset said.
Twenty years ago, she came back to the family farm and began to work casually in the nursery.
“I was a general laborer and then I became more and more interested, and started asking more and more questions,” she said. “The manager before me graciously backed out and said if somebody from the family wants to run it, it would be better to have it stay in the family. So, I took over and learned it by hook or crook. I took classes and became a master gardener and a certified nursery person.”
Just as de Beausset was transformed from a schoolteacher to a gardener, so the farm itself was converted after World War I.
The loss of hay as a cash crop created a crisis. And World War I evolved a solution.
His name was Ernest Stanton.
Stanton, who died in 1974, was de Beausset’s grandfather.
He was studying chemical engineering at Cornell, but left his classes to join the French ambulance service in World War I.
His lungs were damaged when he breathed German gas. Doctors advised him to find an outdoor career.
He studied horticulture and in the first years after World War I, he planted flowers and converted the hay farm into a nursery.
“In his travels, he fell in love with azaleas and rhododendrons, but it was thought they couldn’t grow this far north,” de Beausset said.
Stanton discovered that azaleas and rhododendrons could grow on Grosse Ile “by amending the soil,” she said.
“The soil in Michigan is very alkaline, very clay. If you amend the soil with Canadian peat moss and sandy loam,” it will contain the acid qualities that allow azaleas and rhododendrons to thrive, de Beausset said.
Stanton covered the ground with acidic soil and began growing azaleas and rhododendrons.
De Beausset still raises nine of the hybrid plants Stanton originated. “We grow our own azaleas from cuttings, and rhododendrons I buy in the rooted cuttings,” de Beausset said. “We do 10,000 azalea cuttings a year.”
This week, it was hot at Westcroft Gardens, but the azaleas still hadn’t fully bloomed.
De Beausset helped a reporter buy an azalea plant.
For a long ride home and several hours’ stay in a hot trunk, she advised selecting a plant that had not blossomed.
Cadmium red was the choice.
He bought the 25-pound bag of azalea food.
Two pounds after planting, two pounds after blossoming and two pounds in fall – with enough left over for several succeeding seasons, advised de Beausset.
“Cadmium red is bright red,” said de Beausset. “One of my grandfather’s hybrids.”
Just as Ernest Stanton solved the hay collapse problem, so his ancestors Bill and Alex figured out how to deal with the simultaneous demands of the British Empire and an American Revolution.
According to Swan, Alexander Macomb went to New York and cultivated merchants and politicians connected to the new Republic.
Meanwhile, brother William schmoozed with English pals in Ontario.
Says Denise de Beausset’s mother, Connie de Beausset, “They hedged their bets.”
Westcroft Gardens is at 21803 W. River Road on Grosse Ile. Call 734-676-2444 anytime. Hours vary by the season so call ahead.
Contact JOEL THURTELL at joelthurtell(at)gmail.com
Caption: RIGHT: A bee checks out a Pieris japonica, an evergreen that loves the same acidic soil as the azaleas and rhododendrons that are specialties at Westcroft Gardens. BELOW: A rhododendron blooms at the 229-year-old farm.
KATHLEEN GALLIGAN/Detroit Free Press
Denise de Beausset, 50, runs the farm that was bought by her great-great-great-great-great grandfathers just two days after the Declaration of Independence was signed.
Edition: WAYNE COUNTY