Mill Race Village Exhibit Honors Early Northville Preservationist
'On the Site: Celebrating Forty Years of Mill Race Historical Village,' sheds light on the life of Francis Pershing Gazlay.
Last Friday marked the 40th anniversary of the moving of the Hunter House and New School Church to Mill Race Historical Village. Though the deed to the Griswold Avenue property would not be officially turned over to the City of Northville by its then-owner the Ford Motor Company until December 1972, the July 6 moving of the Greek Revival house and former library building marked the beginning of what would become one of Northville’s most revered sites.
In the four decades since the first two buildings were moved from their original downtown locations to the 7.5-acre site, thousands of volunteers and preservationists with the Northville Historical Society have worked tirelessly to create the historic village we know today.
This year’s milestone anniversary provides not only an opportunity to showcase the Village but to reflect on the vision of earlier preservationists whose tenacity and commitment turned a meadow into a historic treasure. To mark the 40th anniversary, the Northville Historical Society launched its first exhibit, titled On the Site: Celebrating Forty Years of Mill Race Historical Village in gallery space at the east end of the Hirsch Blacksmith Shop.
The exhibit, first viewed by NHS members at a preview party June 8 before a community-wide ribbon cutting at the Village season opening June 10, provides the back story of the Village’s creation and highlights the history of its buildings. Researched by volunteer Linda Last, the exhibit not only tells in words and images the little-known history of the Village, but also pays homage to its founding visionaries.
A pioneer in Northville preservation
At the heart of the Village story, and visible in nearly every panel in the exhibit, is Francis Pershing Gazlay, a bulwark in the development of the Village and a charter member of the Northville Historical Society. His death at 93 — only weeks before the Village’s 40th anniversary celebration — was a devastating loss to all who knew him.
Fran’s passion for Northville history and its preservation — and especially for Mill Race Historical Village — never wavered. President of the Northville Historical Society for 10 (non-consecutive) years beginning in 1965 through 2001, he was head cheerleader of the Stone Gang, a group of dedicated volunteer carpenters, painters and jacks-of-all trades, who help maintain the Village structures.
He also wrote extensively about the Village and Northville history. His column, On the Site, was a mainstay in the Northville Historical Society’s quarterly newsletter for more than 20 years, providing members with information about Village projects or historical “missives.” In 2005, the Northville Historical Society published his book, “Welcome to Historic Mill Race Village . . . We Saved It for You!” — a history of the making of the Village.
In addition to his passion for local history, Fran also was a committed citizen of the city serving on the Historic District Commission, Planning Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals. He also was a district commissioner for the Boy Scouts.
Fran and his wife Biz (who survives him) lived nearly all of their married life in Northville in one of two houses they owned on Rogers Street.
Fran’s wry humor, quick wit and signature earring were his trademarks. He also was exceedingly generous in sharing his time and knowledge. He welcomed conversation, especially of the historical nature.
The indelible imprint he left on the community can be seen in the Mill Race Historical Village. What is equally as important is the extensive collection (some 34 files worth) of documents, writings, postcards, photos and other materials he left to the Northville Historical Society Archives.
Fran was a teacher by profession (he spent his career teaching high school economics and social studies in Detroit), and also in life. His lesson of stewardship — of being caretakers of our treasured past — is perhaps his greatest legacy to our community.
At the dedication of the On the Site exhibit June 10, Mayor Christopher Johnson stated that the generous gift of acreage given by Ford Motor Company for the Village site represented only a part of the story. He noted that it is what was done with that gift that has had the greatest impact.
Forty years ago last Friday, a group of preservationists — Fran Gazlay among them — stood on the site that once housed Northville’s first gristmill to watch two of our downtown’s earliest buildings be moved to the gifted property.
It must have been a sight to behold.
The "On the Site" exhibit at the Hirsh is open from 1 to 4 p.m. each Sunday during the Mill Race Historical Village season now through October. “Welcome to Historic Mill Race Village . . . We Saved It For You!” is available at the Cady Inn open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday and at the JM Mead General Store from 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays.