UPDATE: Silas Farmer’s death certificate is in the Michigan state archives. He died suddenly on December 28, 1902, apparently of a heart attack. He was living in present-day midtown, at 52 Selden, and is buried in Elmwood Cemetery. Next stop, as my mom sassily pointed out to me on Twitter (MOMS ON TWITTER!!), is a real-life library.


I wish I knew! The man was apparently one of the most important Michigan historians in history (which seems like a strange thing to say) and wrote dozens of books including the seminal, oft-referenced 1884 tome History of Detroit and Michigan, 1890’s History of Detroit and Wayne County and Early Michigan, as well as lesser known classics like All About Cleveland; The Young Men’s Christian Associations Hymn Book; Guide to the Streets, Street Pavements, street car routes and house numbers of Detroit and The Drinker’s Dictionary (which I would really like to read).

All I know about Silas Farmer at this point is from a foreward to Silas Farmer’s book, Souvenir of The Pointe: Grosse Pointe on Lake Saint Claire, graciously reprinted from a 1974 edition of the book by the Grosse Pointe Historical Society:

Son of John Farmer, Detroit’s earliest map publisher, Silas Farmer began his career by following in his father’s footsteps.  While working on maps, he conceived the idea of writing the history of Detroit and was soon launched on a literary career.

john farmer_district surveyor

John Farmer: Map of the City of Detroit in the State of Michigan, 1835. Library of Congress.

John Farmer, born in New York in 1798, moved to Detroit in 1821 at the invitation of Governor Lewis Cass. He was an admired and eccentric character in the city, as General Friend Palmer recalls in his memoir Early Days in Detroit. Palmer remembers Farmer’s sawed-in-half schoolhouse — with a bell! — and his cartographic fire:  

I think John Farmer lived on the opposite corner of the same streets, in a frame dwelling on the rear of his lot, and I also think he carried on his map-engraving and printing in the same house. This building was once a part of the old wooden building that stood on the corner of Griswold and Larned, where is now the Campau block. When Griswold was widened, it was found that this building was in the way.

… The common council ordered it sawed in two, and John farmer bought the part that was in the street and moved it to his lot on Monroe.

Farmer was a wonderful man in his way, a most competent surveyor and a finished engraver, as the work on his maps show. Endowed with surprising energy, it always seemed to me that the steam engine within him, so to speak, must sooner or later wear him out, and it did. I knew him intimately and when I was in business sold thousands of dollars’ worth of his maps.

All Palmer writes about Silas is that he helped convince the city to rename part of Grand River East “Wilcox Street.”

Silas was born in June 1839; in 1882 he was chosen as City Historiographer of Detroit. And sometime around 1878, Silas Farmer wrote an Illustrated Guide and Souvenir of Detroit, one of a series of guides and souvenirs Farmer published under his own imprint at the end of the 19th century.

I found several endearing passages and illustrations from the 1878 edition, although there are a few updated versions available on the Internet Archive. The whole thing is basically a TOUR ITINERARY, which as you may know is my favorite thing, although on this occasion I feel no reason to actually take the tour, as I’m confident that mostly nothing of it exists anymore.

The guide begins:

The most comprehensive view of the City can be obtained by ascending the tower of the City Hall. Go as early as 9 a.m. Take a field glass with you, and from the window of the tower you will see sights and scenery that will well repay for the rather tiresome climbing of the 200 steps. The whole City, river and islands, and even Lake St. clair, will lie before you like a panorama. Each window of the tower will reveal beautis of its own.

The most comprehensive view of the City can be obtained by ascending the tower of the City Hall. Go as early as 9 a.m.

Take a field glass with you, and from the window of the tower you will see sights and scenery that will well repay for the rather tiresome climbing of the 200 steps. The whole City, river and islands, and even Lake St. clair, will lie before you like a panorama. Each window of the tower will reveal beauties of its own.

Here’s an illustration of the view from the City Hall tower — down Woodward, toward the river — in 1878:

silas farmer_woodward view

And Silas Farmer, as I do, recommends a wandering hour in Elmwood Cemetery:

silas farmer_elmwood cemetery

[From McDougall], A walk of some five blocks on Elmwood Avenue will bring you to Elmwood cemetery, where an hour or more can be spent very pleasantly among the many beautiful walks and drives and monuments.

Again taking Jeffereson Avenue to the eastward, within the distance of a block from Elmwood, you pass on the right the immense stove factory and warerooms of the Michigan Stove Company; and immediately afterwards, the Old Pontiac Tree, like some Rip Van winkle of the forest, stands before you.

Did you know that in the 1880s, Detroit was the stove-making capital of the world? Neither did I, but it seems that the fates of the Stove Company and the Pontiac Tree were intertwined, or at least of mutual interest.

As usual, half of what’s so interesting about these old pamphlets are the incredible advertisements:

silas farmer_shoe ad

silas farmer_turkish bath

Turkish baths? Why don’t we still have those?

And who was Silas Farmer? Where did he live?  Did he write a diary? Or letters? Where is Silas Farmer hiding?

Help me out, America!

#detroit city hall#detroit tours#early days in detroit#elmwood cemetery#general friend palmer#history of detroit and michigan#john farmer#michigan stove company#old pontiac tree#r.h. fyfe fine boots and shoes#silas farmer#the drinker's dictionary#tour itineraries#turkish baths


  1. Jen Richmond - January 7, 2011 @ 10:02 am

    Oooooooo! A cemetary trip! I’m drooling at the thought. That, or I’m just a drooly person.

  2. Daniel Buck - July 31, 2011 @ 9:12 am

    Back in the early 1880s, Silas Farmer and his dentist brother John H. Farmer somehow got mixed up with Augusto R. Berns, a German civil engineer, adventurer, and con artist.

    Berns had gone from Germany to Peru in the early 1860s, where he reportedly worked on railroad construction projects and may have served in the military. How he got to Detroit and linked up with the Farmer brothers is a mystery. In 1881, while in Detroit, he launched a treasure-hunting company, “Torontoy or Cercada-de-San-Antonio Estate.” The cover letter for the prospectus closes, “Please address me care of Dr. John H. Farmer.”

    The prospectus promises that untold riches — gold and silver — and Inca artifacts can be found on Berns’s property in the Urubamba Valley near Cuzco. Berns is willing to sell his property “to a syndicate or company of bona fide capitalists” for “not less than $10,000,000” — which in today’s currency would be north of $200 million. He apparently got no takers, which is just as well, since there’s no evidence his property had a single nugget of gold.

    Berns returned to Peru and in 1887 floated another treasure-hunting enterprise, “Huacas del Inca,”equally preposterous and equally fraudulent. Shortly thereafter, his vice-president resigned in protest, charging that Berms was spending company funds for his own personal benefit and had failed to launch a single treasure hunt.

    In recent years, the suggestion has been made that Berns discovered and looted Machu Picchu, but there is no evidence he ever set foot in the ruins.

    A collection of papers — letters, maps, & other documents — perhaps originally from one of the Farmer brothers, is now held by the National Library in Lima, Pereu

    The question for Night Train readers is, how did Berns end up in Detroit in 1881, mixed up with the Farmer brothers, and are there any documents floating around Michigan archives that might shed light on the mystery?

    Daniel Buck

  3. Daniel Buck - July 31, 2011 @ 9:24 am

    Make that, Lima, Peru.

  4. Malcolm Shifrin - September 19, 2012 @ 3:14 pm

    The main reason we don’t have real Victorian style Turkish baths anymore is because they are too expensive to run. The heat has to be kept going even if no-one is inside in case someone suddenly arrives. Fewer people need them for cleansing themselves nowadays as so many people have baths or showers in their own homes. Saunas, or plastic steam rooms, can be switched off if no-one is using them, When someone arrives, either of them can be heated ready for use in the time it takes the bather to undress and shower. So they are more economical. There were many Victorian Turkish baths in the US and they remained popular till some time between the two world wars.

  5. jon macvean - July 24, 2017 @ 6:46 am

    did any farmers on outskirts of Detroit Michigan bury gold coins in their fields in 1800 or 1900era is there any older people who have any information on thisthanks jon macvean

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published / Required fields are marked *