School of Hard Knocks: Hunkytown High & King Cody

Photos from January, 2008.

A suspiciously large and blank piece of land now sits at 615 S. West End Avenue, just north of West Jefferson Avenue, in Detroit's Delray neighborhood where the ruins of the James McMillan School used to stand. It was my exploring partner Navi's favorite place in the world to hang out. I've spent a lot of time in Delray, since I used to volunteer in that area.


I've explored a few places there too, such as the Detroit Sulphite Pulp & Paper Co., Southwestern High School, the Roberts Brass Works, Sybill Oil, the "Boblo Terminal," and the GM Ternstedt Division plant. Sadly I didn't end up stopping to check out McMillan School myself until after it was reduced to ruins.


This school was built in 1895, back when this neighborhood was still called the village of Delray, and not Detroit. It was built to replace an older school building here that had been destroyed by fire in 1894--which might actually explain the circular stone tablet seen high up on the front of the building that said "1889-1895." The village of Delray was annexed into the expanding city of Detroit in 1906, along with Woodmere and Springwells villages. It was jokingly referred to as "Hunkytown," because so many Hungarians had settled here.


The most notable thing about McMillan School might be that it was the place where Detroit's most memorable and historically important administrator got his start: Frank Cody. Cody was a man who should need no introduction to those of us who consider ourselves Detroit historians, but he has slipped into obscurity. A biography about his life was penned prior to his retirement by an anonymous group of teachers from McMillan School who remembered him fondly from when he was their principal. It was entitled Frank Cody: A Realist In Education. There are two copies in the Detroit Public Library, downtown.


Frank Cody spent about 20 years of his career here in this building teaching and acting as its principal, but it could be said that when he later became superintendent, he was the one personally responsible for raising the Detroit Public Schools to its prominence as a model for the nation during the twentieth century, and indeed one of the greatest public education systems in the world at the time. He took the reigns from Superintendent Chadsey who resigned in 1919 in a corruption scandal, and held them firmly until 1942, making him probably the longest-serving superintendent in Detroit history.


Superintendent Cody’s tenure spanned the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and World War II. During that time both the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) and Detroit itself experienced their greatest growth and challenges, “developing methods of instruction which won for the city a foremost place in public education in the nation.” Adult education was fostered under his guidance, and Wayne University was created to become the “capstone of the public school system.” Cody was also Wayne University’s first president. You know it today as Wayne State University.


Architecturally, McMillan School has always reminded me of Wayne State's "Old Main" building, originally known as old Central High School. Old Main was designed by local architects Malcomson & Higginbotham and opened in 1896, two years after McMillan, so I would say it's a very fair bet they designed McMillan too.

An article I dug up in the Detroit Free Press, for October 13, 1895 confirms this, that it was the work of Malcomson & Higginbotham, who were accepting construction bids on that date. Another article in the September 4th, 1896 Free Press states that the dedication of the school was coming up on the 7th of that month. It also mentions that the annexation of Delray into Detroit was already a hot topic of debate by then, although Delray was not annexed for another decade.


My colleague Adam Barrett gives a good outline of Frank Cody's importance in his paper "We Learn By Doing," at wacots.org. He says Frank Cody began as a schoolteacher in rural Belleville, where he was born in 1870, and worked his way up to superintendent of Delray schools by 1891. When the city of Detroit annexed the village of Delray in 1906 Cody stayed on to become assistant superintendent of Detroit Public Schools. He was elected to the state board of education in 1913, and reelected in 1919, “...on which occasion he polled the largest number of votes ever given a public candidate in Michigan.”


Barrett writes,
Admittedly never much of an academic, Cody was however a masterful administrator. As a boy he remembered skipping class occasionally to go fishing, and empathized with pupils who had trouble focusing; he resolved to make his classes so interesting that boys would hate to miss a session. His personality was completely unlike what one would expect from a typical man in his position; the opposite of the stodgy pedagogue, amongst his peers he was “extremely popular...and at all times easily approachable,” inclined to cracking jokes and speaking his mind quite candidly.

The Detroit Boat Club News referred to Cody as “probably one of Detroit's three best-known men and certainly one of its most popular.” He began all of his speeches by saying “And in conclusion,” and ended all of them by saying, “Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year,” regardless of what time of year it was. He was also famous for making a farce out of the nationwide hubbub over whether female teachers should be allowed to have bobbed hair or wear the “new short skirts” of the 1920s. When the Pennsylvania Board of Education sent out the questionnaires asking whether a teacher should be allowed to wear the shorter skirts, he replied, “I cannot tell until I have a look at her.” As to the risqué haircuts, Cody snorted, “Better to have bobbed hair than bobbed brains.”


While Cody was applying to be a teacher at McMillan, he noticed that all the other candidates for the position had mustaches, as was the style at the time. Cody, who had always been unable to grow a proper mustache, didn't want to be viewed as some unmanly milquetoast, so he took some shoe shine and drew a fake mustache on his face. When the interviewer saw this he was apparently so disarmed by Cody's cheeky stunt that he chose Cody for the job.


Anecdotes of Frank Cody’s comedic nature and witty sense of humor abound, according to a biographical piece in the Detroit News from 1939, but one in particular about his first day as principal at McMillan School in Delray probably stands as the most unbelievable. After successfully pulling off his mustache hoax, Cody had been warned that McMillan was a tough place to gain respect from kids, and that in the 1890s “a teacher, to get along in his profession, had to have something more than an academic equipment. It was a good idea to be quick with the feet and hands too.”

On his first day an extremely lanky boy interrupted class by yawning loudly, striding up to Cody’s desk and demanding, “When’s recess around here?” Knowing he could not allow this intimidation of his authority as head of the class go unanswered Cody nervously stood up, puffed his chest, and told the towering six-foot-tall boy “For you, it begins right now,” before knocking the kid out with a right-hook to the jaw. Despite this initial fisticuff, Cody later claimed one of his greatest accomplishments as superintendent was the abolishment of corporal punishment from Detroit schools.


Delray in the 1890s was a "rough" part of town even back then, being populated by slaughterhouses, foundries, chemical works, and other stinky industries, as well as the families of the immigrant poor who worked in them. Sanborn maps show a huge rail yard behind the school (fitting, I suppose, for a school named after a railroad capitalist), as well as the massive Michigan Malleable Iron Co.'s foundries, the Michigan Sprocket Chain Co., and the coal yards of the Winkworth Fuel & Supply Co. and United Fuel & Supply Co. The school sat right next to the junction that let railroad trains onto Zug Island and the blast furnaces there.


As I explained in my post about Cass Tech, Detroit faced a crisis in the early 20th century when Cody became its superintendent; the boom of the auto industry had caused an immigration flood that surpassed the historic California Gold Rush of 1849, and as a result of this massive influx to Detroit, the public school system was unable to keep pace. In 1910 over 52,000 children were out of school simply because there was not enough classroom space for them. Most of these were the children of illiterate laborers, many of them from overseas, who had come to work in the factories.

Detroit's school system was about to undergo the greatest expansion and building campaign of its history, and Frank Cody was its driver. Under Superintendent Cody the Detroit Public Schools rose to world prominence for its educational methods and innovations, as well as the new construction of beautiful and outstandingly modern school buildings.


By necessity the city would need to find a way to prepare the coming generations for the developing technological workplace, or risk its survival as the manufacturing capitol of the nation. The administration of the Detroit Public Schools, led by Superintendent Frank Cody, responded to this challenge with genius.

The ideas had begun to germinate under previous superintendents Wales Martindale and Charles Chadsey, but it was Cody who really was able to pull DPS out of the mud of administrative scandal and prepare it for the radical expansion that it, and the city it served, were about to undergo. Not only did they establish manual training for the school-age children, but they also established the nation's first night-school and first "Americanization" classes for adults, tailored to the hours of third-shift factory hands who had no other way to attend school to learn English.


When Cody's term began in 1919, manual training for boys in the DPS meant classic woodshop and pattern making, essentially, with the occasional machine training. From 1920 to 1940 he developed a program that engaged them in auto mechanics, metal fitting, industrial mechanics, electrical construction, and advanced machining. Detroit was awakened.

Under Cody this same kaleidoscopic expansion was applied to all other program areas of the school system as well, from art to music to physical education, and the buildings were enlarged and modernized to accommodate these advancements accordingly. Within a few years the DPS was very arguably the model public school system in the world, and many other cities and nations were sending representatives here to study the examples Detroit had set, before adopting similar measures of their own.


Frank Cody's idea was that schools should cooperate with industry to ensure that every student left the school system equipped to make a living in one field or another, whether it be as a musician or a machinist. The Wilbur Wright Vocational High School was established under Cody's guidance in 1928 as a part-time trade school for 500 boys, in order to augment the high-demand programs started at Cass Tech. As the Detroit Public Schools improved the quality of pupils it was turning out, so too did the Detroit industries improve the quality of work and innovation they were turning out, thanks to the highly-skilled local labor pool that the city was developing. 

Cody was also adamant about the promotion of playgrounds and gymnasiums in the schools, because he knew that recreation and physical activity were just as important to mental development as book learning. As a result, all Detroit schools built after 1920 came equipped with gymnasiums, playgrounds, and usually swimming pools as well. We take gyms for granted today, but in 1919 it was not yet considered standard equipment for a school.


Another of Cody's most important advancements in public schooling methods was his initiation of the academic "track system," which used standardized testing to determine a student's ideal curricular "path" through school. There were four tracks that a Detroit student could be put into, based on their testing performance: academic, commercial, technical, and general. According to author Jeffrey Mirel, Superintendent Cody believed that this method offered "expanded educational opportunities to students who otherwise would have shunned the classical high school of the nineteenth century, and he routinely deplored the traditional high school as an institution that had only served a narrow, intellectual elite."

Cody felt that this system was better suited to promoting equal educational opportunity to all, since it offered more varied opportunities for different types of students to succeed in whatever field best suited them, as opposed to being forced to drop out because they couldn't hack it in classical academics. Of course a student could change academic tracks if they so chose, or if they displayed changing aptitudes over time; they were not necessarily hemmed into one field by their test scores.


It would be impossible for me to cover here all of the ways in which Frank Cody was a model citizen of this city, or all of the noble causes to which he applied himself outside of his career in the schools. His biography, which I mentioned, is out of print but contains plenty of snippets of life at McMillan School, and anecdotal examples of his quirky personality, as does Clarence Burton's The City of Detroit.

Because of the unstoppable population growth of Detroit, a large annex was built onto McMillan School, completed in 1924. Strangely, the 1920s-era auditorium was left in good condition right up until the school was demolished, despite the carnage that the fires wreaked around it. Just about every Detroit elementary school came equipped with one of these auditoriums, with but slight architectural variations.


The dated, yet indispensable website put together by R.S. Bujaki, old-delray.com, contains an article on McMillan School's history, written by Nancy Arnosky Mychasiw, both of whom are old-time Delray expats. Mychasiw's article says that the land the school sat on was owned by James McMillan, which he donated for the purpose of building the school around the time he became a U.S. Senator in 1889.

Unlike Frank Cody, James McMillan was one of those great, dusty old industrialist patriarchs who looms large in the story of Detroit's past. He was known as a pillar of the business community, a "Railroad Republican," whose father built a railroad in Canada, and who went on to follow in those footsteps. In the 1860s James McMillan founded the Michigan Car Works (which manufactured railroad cars), he was an investor in a steamship line, and later helped to create the Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic Railroad across Michigan's Upper Peninsula, which I wrote about in an older post.


When James McMillan became a U.S. Senator and went to Washington D.C., he distinguished himself in not only the history of the Wolverine State but that of the nation on the whole. In the 1880s Washington D.C. was covered by a tangled web of railroad tracks, detroit1701.org writes, which made for a dirty, smoky, noisy mess that was difficult for pedestrians to navigate. This was a common problem for many American cities during the height of the railroading era. Senator McMillan was appointed to chair the District of Columbia Committee (also referred to as the McMillan Commission) in 1900, which was tasked with reviving the aesthetic beauty of our nation's capitol as laid out by Pierre L'Enfant.


As a railroad man himself, McMillan had the power and expertise to remove the railroads from the Mall, and encouraged the building of Union Station to bring all of the city's railroads into one consolidated terminal. This type of urban planning was called the "City Beautiful" movement, and the National Park Service describes the work of the McMillan Commission in more detail on their website.

Unfortunately McMillan died in 1902, so he never got to see his efforts come to fruition, but his home town of Detroit actually benefitted from some of it after the fact. At least three men that had worked under him, Charles Moore, Frederick Law Olmstead, and architect Daniel Burnham came to Detroit in the succeeding years to direct and assist in many city beautification projects under Mayor Breitmeyer, who I wrote about in my post on Breitmeyer School. Burnham designed a few landmark buildings in Detroit such as the David Whitney Building, and Olmstead gave us Belle Isle, as well as other park and boulevard improvements.


McMillan School served as Delray's high school by the time it was annexed into Detroit Public Schools, and a Mr. George Murdock had taken Frank Cody's place as its principal when the latter became superintendent of Detroit. I've even seen McMillan referred to as "Delray High" in old newspaper articles. From the best I can gather, their school team name (at least in the 1900s) was either the "Delrays" or the "Suburbanites," and they held their own on the gridiron and the diamond at a place called the "Solvay grounds," nearby.

Under Cody's command as superintendent, McMillan was made into an elementary school within the DPS, and its high school program was transferred to the new Nordstrum High School in 1916, which was the predecessor of Southwestern High School. The old Nordstrum building still stands there today, integrated as part of the Southwestern HS building. Mr. Murdock went to Nordstrum as principal there, and McMillan's new principal became Mr. Frank Steel.


In the basement I saw a part of the foundation that was made of stone--perhaps it was a surviving remnant of the original c.1889 school, reincorporated into the new foundation?


Notice that the intersecting wall is built entirely of brick. My memories of exploring this school--especially the basement--are especially hazy by now, almost ten years later, so I couldn't say how much of the foundation was built of what type of material or not, and this is the only photo of it I have. But to be fair there are plenty of 1890s buildings that were constructed with stone foundations too. Off the top of my head I know that Building #104, #103, #102, and #311 at Fort Wayne nearby also sit on stone foundations, and they were all built in 1895.


A Detroit News article on old-delray.com from about 1999 stated that McMillan was the oldest school building in the Detroit Public Schools system when it closed, but that was not the first time that the Board of Education had threatened to close it. The board tried to shut McMillan down in 1993, but protests from parents and residents thwarted those plans.

Lynette Bell of the McMillan PTA led the fight back then, and promised to wage a new battle to keep its doors open this time. She and others could not understand the reasoning behind the decision to close the K-8 school, which currently had an increased enrollment with over 300 kids, and whose MEAP scores had recently been trending upward. Not to mention the building had just been designated as part of a historic district (on July 13, 1999).


The board's plan involved sending some McMillan kids to the new Beard Elementary School nearby, which parents also took issue with because it was being built on a site with environmental issues. 


Another local resident, Dorothy Danzy, was quoted as saying, "They need to keep the school in the neighborhood. They took all of the grocery stores out of the neighborhood and now they're taking away our school."


This close-up shows the unique stippled texture of the bricks that framed McMillan's windows:


After McMillan closed in the year 2000, Southwestern High School was the only public school left in the area. Now that Southwestern too has closed, I do not know of a single school that is still operating within the boundaries of Delray, which speaks to the fact that the area is almost completely devoid of human life...or at least of any children. Those dwindling residents that do remain here are aging.


The story I heard regarding how McMillan burned down was that in 2007 there had been a bad gas leak in the building for a long time, and some local knuckleheads got the idea one night to shoot some fireworks at the building. The ignition from the fireworks caused a gas explosion which took off the entire back of the structure, and caused the rest to burn. This is rumor, so take it for what it is, but the rear of the school was definitely blown off somehow. Other subsequent fires consumed what was left of the building for the remainder of its time here on earth.


These once sharp masonry touches of this decorative area of the building have been worn dull and porous by the acidic pollutants that have drizzled over its surfaces since the turn of the 19th century.


Hard chiseled edges, and angular brick accents have been made more aesthetically soothing as if by the relaxing rays of the evening sun itself...dissolving into a hazy memory of what it had been.


My colleague Navi wrote on his own blog, brnation.net, that McMillan was torn down in 2009, except for one wall left standing, as well as the tunnels under the school. The remaining rubble was subsequently cleaned up later.



References:
Sanborn map for Detroit, Vol. 5, Sheet 82 (1910), Sheet 70 (1923)
Frank Cody: A Realist In Education, by Detroit Public Schools staff (MacMillan, 1943)
The Rise and Fall of an Urban School System: Detroit, 1907-81, by Jeffrey Mirel, p. 70
http://detroit1701.org/McMillanSchool.htm
http://www.old-delray.com/McMillanSchool-History.htm
"Detroit to Close its Oldest School," Detroit News, by Oralandar Brand-Williams, 1999(?)
"Lifestyles of the Poor and Forgotten: Delray, Detroit's Ghost Town," by Sarah Hoerl and Chelsea Liddy
http://brnation.net/lifestyle_2009_03_james_mcmillan_school.html
J.D. Callaghan, “Suave Frank Cody Comes to End of Smoothly-Run Reign Over Schools,” Detroit Free Press, June 22, 1942
The City of Detroit, Michigan, 1701-1922, Volume 4, by Clarence Monroe Burton, p. 688-91
Detroit Boat Club News, January, 1931
James S. Haskins, “Biography in Brief...” Detroit Free Press, August 11, 1940
Malcolm Bingay, “Good Morning,” Detroit Free Press, April 10, 1946
Milo M. Quaife, “Frank Cody,” Detroit News, August 1, 1951
“Frank Cody, 1933-1942,” Wayne Memories, Fall, 1998
George W. Stark, “We Old Timers...” Detroit News, September 5, 1939
"School Title Race Ends," Detroit Free Press, November 26, 1906
"Safety is only Score of the Game," Detroit Free Press, October 2, 1910, p. 21
"Delray High Nine Looks Dangerous," Detroit Free Press, April 18, 1907, p. 7
"Delray Stops the Leader," Detroit Free Press, May 27, 1907
"M'Millan Puts Western Down in Fast Game," Detroit Free Press, January 11, 1913, p. 10
"Death Row," Detroitblog.org, June 9th, 2005
http://cfpca.wayne.edu/oldmain.php
"Proposals Wanted," Detroit Free Press, October 13, 1895, p. 23
Detroit Free Press, September 4, 1896, p. 7
"We Learn By Doing: Northville’s Wayne County Training School as Institutional Model for the World," by Adam Barrett, at wacots.org, p. 8
https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/wash/lenfant.htm

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