The year was 1874 and Cornelius Parsons was doing real well with his dry goods store in downtown Saline.
The 1874 Atlas of Washtenaw County was coming out, a fantastic opportunity for advertising. He was selling just about anything that could be sold. He listed himself in the atlas directory as a dealer in dry goods, hats and caps, boots and shoes, groceries, glasswear, etc.
To make sure he would grab everyone’s attention, he also had a pen-and-ink drawing made of his store, with a lovely lady standing in the doorway. The drawing is featured prominently in the 1874 Atlas.
This store is still there, and I believe it is at 111 W. Michigan Ave., and currently has a “Benny’s Bakery” sign on it.
Notice the lady’s dress probably required quite a few yards of fabric. His store offered a great selection of fabric, at least three kinds; and your choice of regular or silk thread.
Besides the dishes, buttons, ribbons, and corsets for the ladies, Parsons also sold butter, sugar, baking powder, eggs, tobacco, and meat. Some customers paid in eggs or butter.
Since store owners usually didn’t have cash registers back then, it was customary to have a big, thick ledger book to write down the name of every customer, what they bought, and how much they paid. In the case of Parson’s store, several of his ledger books are available at the UM Bentley Historical Library, starting in the year 1866.
The Parsons store did not limit itself to customers from around the neighborhood. One of his regular customers was Theodore Stimpson, a farmer west of Mooreville, who didn’t mind traveling some distance to find high quality merchandise in Saline.
Some other customers of his were living in central York Township and they obviously didn’t mind hitching the horses and riding to Saline to shop in this store.
Cornelius was born in 1833 and grew up on a farm a couple miles south of the Village of Saline. His father and uncle were operating a saw mill and flour mill, so the Parsons family was well-off.
In his early 20s, he went into town and worked as a clerk in William Davenport’s store. It was easy to get that job, since his sister Zylpha was married to Davenport.
Parsons worked for some other retailers in Saline, then he took the big leap into self employment, probably in 1866.
Parsons enjoyed the spotlight, and when a History of Washtenaw County was created in 1881, he bought space for his biography. He wrote that he was married in 1853 to Mary A. Ross, and they had three children, including a son named Grosvenor.
When Cornelius died in 1893, the retail store continued, operated by “Grove.” Grove moved the store’s location a couple of times, first to a spot on the east side of Ann Arbor Street, then to a shop on the south side of E. Michigan Ave., one shop east of the corner drug store.
Thanks to the Bentley Library in Ann Arbor, Ancestry, census records, History of Washtenaw County 1881, Washtenaw County Atlas 1875, Sanborn fire maps of downtown Saline, and the Saline Historical Society.
Martha Churchill is a local historian. She can be reached at [email protected].