Still Standing: MT profiles Palmer Park’s Log Cabin
Known as Detroit’s only remaining log cabin, the structure found in Palmer Park, while once a bustling summer home often visited by traveling politicians, friends, and family has fallen into some disrepair. Built in 1885 by Senator Thomas W. Palmer for his wife, Lizzie Merrill Palmer, the cabin was fashioned to appear rustic both inside and out, while featuring the day’s latest technology and amenities. Today, the structure stands empty, and while remaining a venue rife with Detroit history, it’s safe to say it needs some work.
According to People for Palmer Park’s Clint Griffin and accounts found on HistoricDetroit.org, Palmer’s wife Lizzie requested the building of the home because she’d lived in a brick house, a stone house, and a sided house, but never in a log house.
Palmer, who seems like a generally obliging guy from all accounts we’ve read, gladly brought his wife’s wishes to fruition.
“The Palmers were a generous, open people,” says Griffin. “They always opened they’re home to people, they didn’t have kids of their own, so they adopted children.”
Plus, he had about 640 acres of land to spare. And being a rather wealthy and well-connected man didn’t hurt either.
Architects George D. Mason and Zachariah Rice were commissioned to build the home, which while called a log cabin, is indeed a Victorian house wrapped in log veneer. The trees used for the home’s exterior were chopped down from local woods, applied to the home with the bark still on.
“It’s kind of a joke that it’s called a log cabin,” says Griffin
The interior of the home was fixed as a mixture between a camp cabin and an old fashion (at the time) home. Decor included a canoe that hung on the ceiling, antlers that hung on the wall, drying medicinal herbs, and even a wooden ham on a stick for added impact. Other elements like the family’s 100-year-old piano and a large grandfather clock that sat on the stairway landing added to the old fashion feel of the place.
Not wishing to keep their new home all to themselves, the Palmers often opened their doors to visitors. Other senators passing through town were most often their guests, and Palmer, in keeping with his nature, treating them with generous amounts of hospitality. A stay at the Palmer’s log cabin included a dinner, which was announced with an old tin horn, complete with a roaring fire, stoked in the dining room’s hearth, followed by an outdoor bonfire, the likes of which Palmer is said to have greatly enjoyed. His only request to a visiting senator was that he plant a tree near the home, which Palmer would later fit with a brass plaque that bared the politician’s name.
Found near the property is Lake Frances, a man-made body of water named after Mrs. Palmer’s mother. According to accounts, the lake was stocked with goldfish that children would feed or fish for. These days a blue heron, some turtles, and a couple families of ducks call the little lake home. Fixed near in home on a small island in the lake is miniature light house that, during the home’s heyday, could be accessed via a small flight of stairs.
Really, the wholesomeness is enough to give you the shivers.
By 1893, Palmer had deeded 140 acres of his property, including the log cabin, to the city of Detroit to be used as a public park, with the only condition being that the woods therein remain untouched. He wished the land to be called Log Cabin Park, but instead in 1897 the Common Council named it Palmer Park, after him.
Though Mrs. Palmer later moved back to her estate in Connecticut, according to Griffin, Palmer stayed in the log cabin until he passed away on June 1, 1913.
Having become a major tourist attraction, the log cabin stayed open until 1979, attracting visitors from all over the world. After it was closed, the city gave its artifacts to the Detroit Historical Society for safekeeping. They remain, to this day, at Historic Fort Wayne.
However, Mrs. Palmer’s American Jewel stove (a state of the art contraption in its day) remains in the dwelling along with an indoor privvy, one of the first of its kind. While a bit dusty, the home’s leaded glass windows, carved wood banisters and enormous twin brick fireplaces can still be appreciated for their grandeur and beauty.
Today the cabin sits empty, devoid of the life it once held, empty of the family heirlooms and artifacts that once crowded its interior. But the People for Palmer Park are hoping to restore this historical home to its former glory, perhaps bringing back some of the antiquity of its day and the history found therein. The organization hopes to raise enough money to repair the cabin for it be to used as a community center and venue for the display of just one aspect of Detroit’s rich history.
Having recently had the home inspected, Griffin says the People for Palmer Park are hoping to raise $1 million to completely renovate and restore the structure, however a smaller figure of $200,00 would be enough to stabilize the property.
Though now shuddered and closed for most of the year, those wishing to get a taste of history can visit on People for Palmer Park’s third annual Log Cabin Day. Taking place on June 29 from 1 to 4 p.m., attendees will be able to tour the home while attendants in period dress will add to the ambiance. Free of charge this event will include free ice cream for the first 500 attendees, provided by family-run Guernsey Farms, a company operated by descendants of carpenters who helped build the Log Cabin. Other activities will include a hat and bonnet making station, a hat and bonnet parade and contest, costumed square dancing by local students, a Native American photo exhibit from photographer S. Kay Young, a raffle for a Detroit Bike Co. bicycle, a beer tent, old fashion sweets, and more.