The Remarkable Trombley House.
by Marvin Kusmierz
December 2, 2005 (Modified Nov., 2007)
If you are a resident of Bay City and are not familiar with the history of the Trombley House, you may be surprised to know that this house pre-dates the history of Bay County. It was built in the 1837/38 time period, two decades before Bay County was organized, and it still standing.
One hundred and sixty-eight years have passed since Joseph and Medor Trombley, brothers, built this house. Its construction began in 1836, which also marked the year that the Judge Albert Miller platted for the village of Portsmouth, both later became part of present Bay City. At the time these activies took place, this area was still a part of Saignaw County.
The Trombley House wasn't the first structure built in Bay City, as several at settled in the area and built small log-cabins. However, it is the first frame house to be erected and those diappeared early in Bay City's history. The Trombley House was the first frame structure built here. It was built at a time this area was still very much a rugged wilderness. Those who settle here had to travel to Saginaw settle on the west bank of the Saginaw River to get their provision, and most of those provisions came from Detroit. Their decision to build a frame house in this area was quite a difficult undertaking.
The Trombley boys first dwelling was at this location was log-cabin. They came here in 1835 and settled on portion a 312 acres owned by their father, Thomas, who had purchased the land from the government in 1834. That area today would be bounded on the north by 22nd street, south to near Cass avenue, and east from the river to Jennison street. A land transaction in 1835 shows that this property was transferred by a government land grant to Joseph.
What the Trombley boys were planning on doing isnít clear. Joseph is said to have arrived here ahead of Mader, who was bringing a herd of cattle for farming purposes. Joseph had been trading with the Indian in this area for a number of years working with the American Fur Company, and the log-cabin was for the same purpose.
The trading business provided good profits, this may have led to less emphasis on farming, and the need for a larger building. Another motivating factor was Joseph's upcoming marriage in Detroit to Sophia Chapoton. Whatever reasons the was, itís clear that the brothers had finalized plans for a new frame house and construction began in 1836. It was to be a full two-story home with four bedrooms upstairs and a large area for a store on the main level.
Building such a structure in a wilderness wasnít an easy task. Every thing they needed had to obtained from far away places. They used a mill on Pine River for rough cut boards, the shale for a foundation was hauled in by boat from Charity island reef, and finished boards, doors, and windows were brouht in by boat from Detroit. To make sure the building was constructed properly, they hired Nathan C. Case, who had the expertise in building frame buildings.
As previously mentioned, the birth of two new villages was also underway at the time the Trombley House was being constructed. Both village settles were highly speculative financial decisions based on a strong belief this was to become the prime area for growth and not the settlement in Saginaw. The location was closer to the Saginaw Bay where the Saginaw River ran deeper and wider, making more attractive as shipping port. However, their timing coincided with financial panic of 1837, stunting any hopes of quick success. Nearly two decades passed before signs of growth took place.
In the meantime, the Trombley brothers, and a number of their relatives as well, seemed to be doing very well. The money they made from selling off some of their property holdings was put to good use.
In 1844 Joseph purchased a large track of land on the west side of the river north of the present Liberty Bridge. There he built a fine brick house for Sophia and their family. He was still in the trading business, and now had developed a profitable fishing business. This property he eventual had platted for the village of Bangor, which later was renamed to Bangor, then became part of the merger that formed West Bay City in 1877.
Mader who took over ownership of the Trombley House in 1838, turned around and sold it another brother, Thomas, in 1842. Mader got it back again in 1845, but the same year sold it to James J. McCormick. James had move to this area in 1941, and purchased the mill owned by Judge Miller. James died the year after he bought the house, and his widow, Ellen, held onto the house until 1859, when Mader once again took ownership. Ellen had become Maderís mother-in-law in 1847 when he married her daughter, Sarah. Mader held the property until 1899, at which time it passed onto Mary E. Rose. She may have been the daugher of Mader and Sarah, or a sister of Mader, the given name of both was Mary.
It isnít clear from the records found on the Trombley what its specfic use was for the various time periods. The evidence suggests it began as trading store and boarding house, and its most likely that Mader had his residence there, while Joseph and Sophia occupied the log-cabin. There seem to be a general consensus that it continue as a boarding house for many years afterwards and this may have be accommodated through some form leasing arrangement. We know that Mader had his own homestead that in 1845 on 34th street near the river. Beyond this point it may have been used at different periods as a residence, rental and multi-family dwelling.
Mary Rose sold the Trombley House to Frederick Johnson in 1905. A verbal history passed onto local historian Alan Flood by Frederick before his death, says it was around this time the house was turned into a duplex to accommodate multi-family units for relatives. Thatís what Frederick recalled from the days he live in one of the units as a youngster.
From this point on until 1980, the house changed ownership 12 more times. By now their was an urgent concern about coming up with a solution that would preserve the historic house. The aging structure may fall hopelessly into disrepair and be lost to a wrecking ball if it remain in private hands. Its importance was recognized in 1971 when it was place on the National Register of Historical Places.
Meyers Log-cabin & Trombley House in Veterans Memorial Park.
A solution was finally worked out in 1981. The Bay County Historical Society took over the building, it was carefully removed from its historical location and move by barge to Veterans Memorial Park where could be restored and made available to the public.
In parallel with this move an archaeological find took place on the original property, the results of which was documented by Michigan Archaeological Society in the 1989 publication cited in the sources below.
Its hard to image the old Trombley House has ever looked any better than it does today under the care of volunteers working with the Bay County Historical Society. It sits on a bluff over looking the park grounds with a full view the downtown Bay City in the background. In keep with the tradition of the Trombley House, it entertains visitors several times a years.
This Christmas season, Santa will being have breakfast there with visitors on Saturday mornings and in the evening there will be an open house showing off the homes tradition decorations of the Christmas season.
The old house is once again the Centre house that it used to be, inviting young and old to visit the homestead and get a glimpse of what life was like during the pioneer days of Bay City.
Related Bay-Journal pages.