Party town: Detroit celebrates its past

An artist’s rendering of the landing of French explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac at Detroit in 1701.

 On July 24, 1701 Antoine Laumet de la Mothe Cadillac founded the French colony and town of Fort Pontchartrain du Detroit at the area now near Shelby and Griswold streets. His wife Madame Cadillac and a Madame Tonty came a few months later to join him and his small group.
“Do not waste pity upon me,” Mme. Cadillac said upon her departure for the New World. “I know the hardships and the dangers of the voyage and the isolation of the life to which I am going. But I am eager to go, for a woman who sincerely loves her husband has no greater attraction than his company, wherever he may be.”
Hardships indeed plagued the New France settlers. Babies died of disease. Battles with Indians claimed others. But the group endured.

A “dry goods” float in Detroit’s Bicentennial parade in 1901.

A half-century later, in 1760, French rule ended and the British took over the Detroit area. Many of the French settlers remained in the small town.
On July 11, 1796, the American flag was first flown over Detroit after the British evacuated. Some consider this date to be the “real” birthday of Detroit.

After 100 years, a melting pot

The book “Detroit’s First American Decade: 1796 to 1805,” by F. Clever Bald, notes that by 1801 — 100 years after Cadillac’s landing — the population had grown to about 600.
The residents left little evidence of a centennial celebration. According to a Quaker remark about Detroit at the time, “Inhabitants of this town are as great a mixture, I think, as I have ever seen in one place: English, Scotch, Irish, Dutch, French, Americans from different states, people who are Black and Yellow, and seldom clear of Indians of different tribes in the daytime.”

A float belonging to a Detroit match company in the 1901 parade.

A few years later, on June 11, 1805, someone dropped pipe ashes on some hay and caused a fire which destroyed the entire city of about 200 log homes, except one. “In the course of three hours, from 9 o’clock till noon, nothing was to be seen of the city except a mass of burning coals and chimney-tops stretching like pyramids in the air,” wrote Fr. John Dilhet, who witnessed the terrible sight.
At that time the little fort covered about one city block, centered at about Fort and Shelby streets. Flowing westward a small river, the Savoyard, ran along what is now Congress Street. East of the fort at about Woodward was the cemetery. South of the fort, four short blocks named after saints ran parallel between the two rivers.
The distressed inhabitants had escaped death but lost all their possessions. Some moved in with nearby farmers while others erected tents. This tragedy led to a “New City” and a new city plan. Each houshold got a 50 by 100 foot lot to begin again. The revived city adopted the motto “Speramus meliora, Resurget Cineribus,” that is “We hope for better things. It shall rise again from ashes.”

The first big celebrations

The next civic celebration of note came almost a century later, in 1896, the centennial of American takeover of Detroit. A limited-edition book was published, “The Centennial Celebration of the evacuation of Detroit by the British: July 11, 1796 -July 11, 1896.” The book displayed a few early maps, portraits and drawings of early scenes and the texts of the orations of the dignitaries.
The remarks of the Hon. Charles Flowers were particularly flowery. An excerpt: “It is well for us to remember those days. The patriotic heart has not grown cold. The genius of greed has not wholly possessed the land. Amid the sound and fury and madness of partisan strife, amid the insane thirst and hunger for power and advantage, the attentive ear can still catch, as coming from a million breasts, the breathings of a spirit, responsive to the agony of those who suffered with Washington at Valley Forge, responsive to the ecstasy of those who rejoiced with him at Yorktown.”

Another float in the bicentennial parade.

A few years later, in 1901, Detroit’s population had grown to 313,886 and the inhabitants again felt like celebrating at the 200th anniversary of the city’s founding. The city recorded the three-day festivities in the book, “The Bi-Centenary of the Founding of the City of Detroit, 1701-1901.”
On the first day, July 24, actors reenacted the landing of Cadillac and his entourage. Their bateaux vessels landed at the foot of Shelby at sundown, where a deputation of Indians from 11 tribes greeted them. Detroit Mayor William C. Maybury gave Cadillac (Dr. Daniel La Ferte) the key to the city. Fireworks illuminated the town and the flotilla parade of decorated vessels. A costume ball followed in the evening.
On the second day, 150,000 turned to watch a grand parade that included mounted police, Indians, military troops, veterans of the Mexican War, Civil War and Spanish-American War, school children, fire fighters, mail carriers, fraternal societies and trade unions.
Also on parade were stage coaches, wagons with ox teams and the “most complete and magnificent conveyances of modern times” — early automobiles.
That evening allegorical reenactments of the most important events in the city’s history entertained the celebrating citizens. The 20 vignettes included scenes such as Frenchmen landing at Belle Isle, Pontiac’s siege, the raising of the Stars and Stripes in 1796, the first printing press set up by Fr. Gabriel Richard, and finally, the arrival of the first steamboat, the “Walk in the Water.”
Friday featured both day and evening parades. The first, a “great allegorical, historical and electrical parade,” also featured costumed beauties in elaborately decorated floral floats. The other parade had magnificent floats from every firm in town.

Detroit Mayor Albert Cobo addresses the crowds at Detroit’s 250th birthday celebration July 31, 1951. To the right of Cobo is President Harry S. Truman and Michigan Gov. G. Mennen Williams.

The book about the 1901 festivities described some of the floats:
“Among the turnouts which evoked the greatest applause were Mrs. B.C. Whitney’s English dog-cart decorated with yellow California poppies; Mayor Maybury’s carriage with yellow roses; the Olds automobile, a mass of purple and white chrysanthemums; and Mrs. Henry B. Lewis’ automobile covered with yellow asters, and two peacocks, each poised with outspread tails on the front and rear of the carriage.
“The Floral Queen, Miss Louise Burns, presented a charming picture of youth and grace in her royal robes of white, and her equipage colored by over six thousand white roses, and ten thousand white and gold marguerites. Her horses were coal black; the trumpeters in white livery rode ahead, and an escort mounted on black charges accompanied the queen.”

Grandeur and disappointment

Unfortunately, summer storms dampened both parades and damaged many of the floats.
The festivities attracted many dignitaries. Pope Leo XIII sent his delegate Cardinal Martinelli, who also celebrated the founding of St. Anne’s Church, the second oldest in the United States. Churchmen from Montreal, Duluth, Washington and Ireland also attended, as did Michigan Gov. Aaron Bliss.
France sent several consuls, and presented the City of Detroit with a painting of Cadillac with Louis XIV as a birthday gift.
Not every plan succeeded, however. The mayor had hoped to raise about $2 million to have a bicentennial memorial constructed. He exhibited the plan at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Designed by New York architect Stanford White, it featured a lofty Doric shaft of white marble, with an assembly area flanked by long colonnades. It was to be constructed on Belle Isle on the site now occupied by the Scott Fountain. The citizens loved the idea and reelected Maybury handily.
The anticipated money for so massive a project did not appear. Chief fund-raiser Charles L. Freer in disgust removed his great art collection to Washington, D.C. Later the project was built at Put-in-Bay in memory of the Battle of Lake Erie.

Crowds line Woodward Ave. for the 250th anniversary parade in 1951.

The Detroit mayor scaled down the memorial to a stone chair erected in Cadillac Square. A drawing of the “judgement chair” from some of the early French tribunals, found in the collection of Detroit News founder James Scripps, provided the plan. It was removed in 1941.
Thinking ahead to the tricentennial birthday in 2001, Mayor Maybury ordered a time capsule to greet the future. Instructions were left that the box was to be opened on New Year’s of the 300th birthday year.
It read in part: “To His Honor, the Mayor of Detroit in 2001 and the generation whose privilege and, I trust, pleasure, it will be to read the contents of this box, Health and Greeting:
“The papers herein contained now for the first time brought to light by you, after a retirement of one hundred years, were prepared at my request by men and women prominent in the activities of Detroit at the close of the nineteenth century…

Float carries a giant birthday cake for the city.

“We are well aware that the century closing has been marvelous in its achievements and we might be fairly excused for believing that the limit of possibilities has been accomplished in many ways, but on the contrary we do not so believe because the past has taught us that what seemed to be impossible has been already accomplished, and we would therefore not be greatly surprised at greater accomplishments in the future.”
The letter included a bit of bragging about the inventions of electricity, telephones, the railroads and steam boats. Maybury then concluded:
“May we be permitted to express one supreme hope that whatever failures the coming century may have in the progress of things material, you may be conscious when the century is over, that, as a nation, people and city, you have grown in righteousness, for it is this that exalts a nation.”

250 and proud

The 250th Detroit birthday in 1951 was marked with a long list of celebrations during the year, including the beginnings of the downtown Civic Center. Planning began for a new convention center which was later named after Mayor Albert Cobo. The new City-
County Building, the new Detroit Historical Museum, the International Institute, and the Kresge Science Library at Wayne State University were dedicated or formally opened during the festival year.
The U.S. Post Office issued a commemorative three-cent stamp, “Landing of Cadillac.” Within a week, over 2 million stamps were sold, although some people suggested that the stamp showed Cadillac landing in Windsor, because he looked across at the Detroit skyline. However since the skyline did not have skyscrapers back in 1701, the image proved to be a sort of vision of the future floating in the sky.

The AFL-CIO float.

On July 28, the final day of the 250th birthday bash, President Harry S Truman spoke at City Hall. Afterward, a parade began at 2:30 p.m., and the last unit passed at 7:30 that evening.
Floats depicting Detroit historic events were sponsored by local firms: Briggs, Cadillac, General Motors, S.S. Kresge, Buick, Pontiac, Burroughs, Detroit Edison, Saks Fifth Avenue, Booker T. Washington Trade Association, Ford Motor, Lincoln-Mercury, Kaiser-
Frazer, Michigan Consolidated Gas, Oldsmobile, Hudson Motor Car, Dearborn Motors, Chevrolet, Chrysler, AFL and CIO, Nash-Kelvinator, and J.L. Hudson.
Now celebrating its 300th birthday year, Detroit’s festivities include a tall ship flotilla, themed fireworks, a reenactment of the Cadillac landing, dinners, concerts and performances, commemorative history books and tree plantings . Volunteers may get involved by contacting (313) 871-1303, (877) DET-2001 or visiting

Dearborn Motors Corp. float celebrates Detroit”s past.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News.)By Vivian M Baulch / The Detroit News Library