Back Roads Adventures & The People You Meet

Old Michigan Avenue near Grass Lake, Michigan. Photo copyright Jim Hinckley’s America

An argument could be made that U.S. 12 in southern Michigan, the former Chicago-Detroit Road and before that the Sauk Trail is the oldest road in America. There is evidence to indicate that its origins were a game trail, a path through the nearly impenetrable forest used by herds of bison. Then it served as a Native America trade route. That trail was used by early French and British explorers, and later American pioneers that came to crave homesteads from the wilderness. Father Gabriel Richard, the Michigan Territory’s first delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, began petitioning Congress to appropriate money for the construction of the Chicago-Detroit Road in 1825. In 1827 a military survey team traveled 263 miles as they designated the course for the new road, and construction crews followed. By 1833, at a cost of $87,000, the road was complete. As an historic footnote, shortly afterwards the road was often referenced as Michigan Avenue.

Remnants of this long and colorful history abound all along U.S. 12 and Michigan Avenue in southern Michigan. One example is Walker Tavern that began life as a large farmhouse in about 1832. As it was located at the junction of the Chicago-Detroit Road (U.S.12) and the Monroe Pike (M-50), Calvin Snell, the owner, began operating the facility as a tavern. In 1838 he leased the property to Sylvester and Lucy Walker, pioneers that had recently relocated from New York. In 1842 the Walker’s purchased the property, renamed it Walker Tavern, and managed it as an inn as well as tavern. It is purported that Daniel Webster and James Fenimore Cooper were guests. Today the tavern is the focal point of a state historic park.

An exhibit at the Lost Railway Museum in Grass Lake, Michigan

I never tire of driving this old highway. Aside from the scenery, especially during the months of October when the shade dappled roadway is boarded by brilliant displays of fall color, I find the old towns and villages to be refreshing. As a bonus, even though my association with this historic road dates back more than a half century, I make new and fascinating discoveries on every trip. This year was no exception. A tangible link to the infancy of the American auto industry was found in Jonesville, a nearly forgotten railroad history was discovered at the Lost Railway Museum in Grass Lake, and we met a craftsman with extraordinary talents was met at Circus Farm.

Before relocating to Jonesville and establishing a blacksmith shop in 1857, Jacob J Deal had apprenticed in New York. He had also worked with a partner on the construction of carriages, a skill set he put to use in his new home with the manufacture of lumber and heavy wagons. In 1865, Deal sold the blacksmith shop and established a company for the manufacture and repair of wagons, buggies, carriages, and on occasion, a sleigh. In 1887 the company produced 1,200 carts, 300 wagons and carriages and several hundred sleighs. By 1890 the company was prosperous enough to warrant construction of a modern, factory, a red brick building that still stands on West Street in Jonesville.

The Deal on display at the city offices in Jonesville, Michigan is one of only two cars known to exist.

The following year Jacob’s son, George joined the company and it was reorganized as J.J. Deal & Son. Shortly before 1900 experimentation began on a new product, an automobile, and a small number of motorized delivery trucks were manufactured in the years that followed. In 1908, automobile manufacturing became an integral part of the company and as with the wagons, the Deal quickly developed a reputation for being a quality product.

Automotive trade journals and related publications of the era gave the vehicles manufactured by the Deal Motor Vehicle Company favorable reviews. Still, as with many pioneering automobile manufacturing companies, the Deal automobile was a short lived affair. Production ceased in 1911, and wagon manufacturing was suspended in 1915, the year the company closed its doors.

From Barbie doll accessories to automobiles, the fascinating Deal factory in Jonesville, Michigan.

That isn’t the end of the story. In fact there are two more chapters, but these will have to be shared in next weeks post. At that time I will also introduce you to Ken Soderbeck, a man who restores fire trucks, trolleys, and the occasional vintage truck, and take you back to a time when an expansive network of electric interurban railways connected small towns like Jonesville with the main railroad line in Jackson.