People

The Renaissance man who envisioned Grand Boulevard

Bela Hubbard made his mark on Detroit, as a geologist, lumber baron, land agent, lawyer, farmer and historian

By Bill Loomis | Special to The Detroit News

Detroit has a Hubbard Street. A dormitory at Michigan State is called Hubbard Hall. On Six Mile and Schaefer is the Hubbard branch of the Detroit Public Library. There’s a small neighborhood on Detroit’s southwest side called Hubbard Farms.

All of them honor Bela Hubbard, a 19th century Detroiter of many occupations, but most people have no idea who he was. Even his own descendants knew very little about him, and for most of the 118 years since his death about the only people who recognized the name were historians.

Except for one guy — Robert Andersen. Bela Hubbard took over his life.

His wife calls his interest in Bela Hubbard “an obsession.” Andersen, 49, disagrees and sees it as a “passionate interest.” He added, “I admit, for some time I tried to slip in Bela Hubbard’s name and interesting facts about him every chance I could. It might have irritated some people.”

Andersen’s curiosity about Hubbard began in 2010 when he and his wife and young son moved into a house on Vinewood Street in Hubbard Farms. The handsome neighborhood has huge trees and large brick homes that sit on steeply sloped lawns, the earliest house dates from 1897 but most from 1905.

Andersen, a professor of film studies at Oakland Community College’s Auburn Hills campus, was told his house sits on land that was once owned by a wealthy Detroiter named Bela Hubbard. In fact, the entire area from the Detroit River, including the farthest western end of Grand Boulevard – 256 acres — was once Hubbard’s farm, where he built a 6,000-square-foot mansion he called “Vinewood.”

Vinewood, seen in 1881

Vinewood, seen here in 1881, was designed by Alexander Jackson Davis and built in 1856. (Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library)

“I became curious. I wanted to know where Hubbard’s mansion was located. As it turned out my house stood in his backyard,” Andersen said.

Hubbard’s mansion was later converted into a variety of health-related clinics, until it became a branch of Grace Hospital in 1913, and then in 1933 was torn down. The land around the mansion was platted in the 1890s and soon streets and houses sprang up.

Andersen began to frequent the library to find city maps. But as he looked at old maps, others things began to catch his attention.

“He made his fortune in lumber, like David Whitney, but he was much more than a lumber baron,” Andersen said.

Hubbard arrived in Detroit as a young man from Hamilton, N.Y., in 1835. He settled in Springwells Township – a sprawling area that ran from southwest Detroit to the Rouge River and included Dearborn. While in his twenties, Hubbard explored northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula as an assistant geologist to state geologist Douglass Houghton (for whom the city of Houghton is named). When the geology survey was finished Hubbard became a land agent and used his newly acquired knowledge of the northern wilderness to buy timbered land for contacts in New York and for himself. In turn he made a fortune selling the pine lumber.

Hubbard also was a lawyer, farmer, historian, writer and civic leader. He had an interest in Native Americans and prehistoric mounds. He traveled to Europe. It was Hubbard’s days in Paris with its wide, tree-lined avenues that inspired him to push forward the concept of Grand Boulevard in Detroit; he donated a large chunk of his own land for the boulevard.

“He was a really, really interesting guy,” Andersen said. “He wrote a book called Memorials of a Half-Century. It is a fascinating book.”

Depiction of a voyageur

An 1835 depiction of a voyageur, from Bela Hubbard’s book, “Memorials of a Half-Century.”

When Hubbard settled in Springwells, the population of Detroit was fewer than 5,000, and there were remnants of Detroit’s French roots, such as the fur-trading French voyageurs who were still offering transportation via canoe along the Detroit River. Hubbard described them in his book published in 1887 when he was in his 70s:

“A wild looking set were these rangers of the woods and waters. The weirdness was often off set by the dash of Indian blood. Picturesque too they were in their red flannel or leather (buckskin) shirts, and cloth caps of some gay color finished to a point which hung over on one side with a depending tassel. … They had a genuine love for their occupation and muscles that seemed never to tire at the paddle and oar… from dawn to sunset they would ply these implements, causing the canoe or barge to fly through the water like a thing of life…”

Enthusiasm is contagious

Soon Andersen realized he had reached the end of the archived materials on Bela Hubbard and the only way to fill in the blanks was to contact his descendants.

“The first time Bob Andersen contacted me I was convinced he wanted my credit card number,” said Hal Butts from Daytona, Fla., a great-great-grandson of Bela Hubbard. “Very soon, however, I knew this guy was genuine. He was so nice and enthusiastic. And knowledgeable. I knew very little about Bela Hubbard until I met Bob. I had sketchy pieces of family history. Every time I hear Bob talk or lecture about Bela Hubbard I learn something new. It’s amazing.”

Robert Anderson, left, and Bela Hubbard descendant Michael Vierling of San Francisco

Robert Andersen, left, and Bela Hubbard descendant Michael Vierling of San Francisco look at Hubbard artifacts from the 1800s. (Clarence Tabb Jr. / The Detroit News)

Another descendant, Elaine Butts, said, “He asked if we could share any photos or letters we might have. I’ve been tripping on a box of stuff all my life. I was happy to give it to him.”

Andersen quickly added, “She had a photograph of Hubbard’s children that was fantastic.”

Another direct descendant is Michael Vierling, 55, a computer programmer from San Francisco. “Bob connected with me through Ancestry.com. I could tell almost immediately that Bob was sincere,” Vierling said. “I’m a great-great-great-grandson of Hubbard. I knew Hubbard was from Detroit. Our family talked about Hubbard. I grew up hearing that my great-great-grandmother, Mary — Hubbard’s daughter — helped Bela Hubbard plant the first trees that lined Grand Boulevard in the 1890s. But that was it. I didn’t know what Grand Boulevard was. I’d never been to Detroit.”

Vierling continued, “I have a degree in physics and I was drawn to Hubbard due to the kind of person he was. His father, Thomas Hill Hubbard, was a U.S. congressman under James Madison. So, Bela had access to a library and some of the leaders of his day. He was a scientist — a geologist — and wrote a lot about science and the natural world: climate, trees, birds, animals, Great Lakes and Native Americans. He recorded daily weather. He loved Detroit history. He was really a Renaissance man; he took a passionate interest in everything. The more I read, the more I wanted to learn.”

The birthday party

An important event was about to occur and Andersen took charge: the 200th birthday of Bela Hubbard, born on April 23, 1814. Andersen invited history buffs, Hubbard Farms neighbors and friends, and Hubbard descendants for a weekend celebration in Detroit.

Seven descendants arrived in Detroit, some staying with Andersen at his home. He guided them around not only the Hubbard Farms neighborhood but took them on a tour of Detroit.

“If they made Bob Andersen mayor of Detroit, every problem would vanish in days,” said Hal Butts, smiling.

He drove them to East Lansing and Michigan State University’s campus to see Hubbard Hall, a dormitory named after Hubbard, who initially funded the hall.

“They gave us ice cream and talked about Bela Hubbard and Hubbard Hall,” said Michael Vierling. “It was fun.”

Not only did Hubbard fund the building but in 1855 he was instrumental in establishing Michigan State University, originally called State Agricultural College and Model Farm.

Andersen led them through the Burton Historical Library and showed them original hand-written letters from Bela to his brother Henry and others.

At the Bela Hubbard party, held at Green Dot Stables restaurant in Corktown, Andersen gave a presentation on Hubbard, while everyone shared birthday cake. Rashida Tlaib, the state representative for the Sixth District, which includes Hubbard Farms, presented a framed document to the group recognizing the historical importance of Bela Hubbard.

“I had no idea Detroit was like this,” said Vierling. “I’m from San Francisco and had never been to Detroit and really never considered ever coming here. I knew only pictures of burned out buildings. It’s been fantastic. Everyone has been so friendly and great. It’s changed my mind completely.”

Hubbard loved the Detroit River as it passed near the front of his home. Much of the landscape was still basically wilderness when he lived there. Hubbard’s neighbors in Springwells spoke only French.

Andersen said, “In his notebooks, he wrote that he had difficulty learning languages, like classical Greek, in college, but he learned French to communicate with his neighbors.”

Hubbard wrote from Vinewood of the French Detroit voyageurs who could be heard singing as they paddled the Detroit River:

“The boat-songs were often heard on our river and were very plaintive. In the calm of the evening when songs are heard with greater distinctiveness… it was sweet, from my vine mantled porch to hear the blended sounds of song and oar.”

 

An 1837 view of the Detroit River

This illustration shows an 1837 view of the Detroit River from Bela Hubbard’s farm overlooking Windmill Point, southwest of Detroit.

 

Correction: Robert Andersen’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.