The Thompson farm and house is located on Evergreen Road, just south of the Civic Center.
The house was built in 1840 by Matthew Erwin. The Erwins lived here until 1860. In 1870, William James Thompson and his wife Margaret Parks Thompson purchased the 80 acre farm and house. It was in this house, on February 7, 1871, that Mary Elizabeth Thompson was born. She was the last of five children.
The Thompson farmhouse was a two-story, wood frame house. It has been estimated that the original portion is more than 150 years old.
Additions were made to the house as it changed owners. When the Thompsons lived here, the house had the same floor area as today, 3,477 square feet, not including the lower stone basement.
When Mary died, and for the next 15 to 20 years, the house was in a primitive state. Before renovation, the residence had severe structural flaws. The floors on the first and second floors were rotted and slanted, and the walls were out of plumb. The City decided the house had to be renovated rather than restored. The renovation was done by engineers, students from Lawrence Technological University, and private contractors. Fireplaces and stoves heated the rooms when Mary lived here, so a central heating system was installed. Despite this modernization, the structural skeleton is still here – inside and out. The score-hacked massive timbers have historical value because they enable us to view pioneer construction methods.
Although the house has been renovated, the contractors followed the era of the original house. Great care was taken when picking out the wallpaper, woodwork, and fixtures.
In 1886, when Mary Elizabeth Thompson was 15 years old, her father died. After his death, the family faced economic hardships. Acreage was mortgaged and remortgaged. Also, for reasons unknown, the eldest son, William John Thompson, conveyed the land in 1889 to his mother, who had owned her dower interest, 19 acres.
Despite the loss of her husband and the heavily mortgaged farm land, Margaret Parks Thompson kept her farm and family together. She gave her daughter Mary an education that few women in that era possessed.
Mary Elizabeth Thompson graduated from Birmingham Hill High School in 1892. We believe that she had dropped out of school after her father’s death because of boarding costs in Birmingham, which were prohibitive at that time. After High School graduation, Mary attended Michigan Normal College in Ypsilanti, graduating with a teacher’s certificate in 1898. After teaching a few years, Mary returned to Michigan Normal and earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Education in 1901. A Bachelor’s Degree was not enough for Mary. She then earned a Masters from Columbia in 1905, and a M.Pd. (pedagogy) from Michigan State Normal in Mt. Pleasant. In 1909, she earned a Doctorate in Education from New York University. Although she had earned her last degree, she attended various universities while traveling through Europe.
Mary’s career was interrupted in 1912 when she returned home to care for her ailing mother. Her mother died in 1914, leaving the farm to Mary’s brother, James, a man well known for his expertise in raising cattle and horses.
After her mother’s death, Mary’s interests were not centered in Southfield. She taught at Patterson, New Jersey Normal School. Later, she moved on to Jacksonville, Florida, working as Assistant Superintendent of Schools and Supervisor of Primary Education.
Mary returned to Southfield in the early 1920s to teach in the one-room Beddows School (later named the Brooks School), which today is the Greyhound Bus Station at Lahser and Eleven Mile Road. In 1929, she was the first teacher at the new McKinley School, near Ten Mile and Southfield Roads. Her last teaching position was at the Brace School in the late 1930s.
As a teacher, she had a steady income and, during the Depression, she used it to purchase additional land. She and her brother owned most of the land between 10 and 11 Mile Roads and between Evergreen and Santa Barbara. Mary and her brother, Jim, were wealthy on paper. Yet, they lived without any modern residential features. They had no inside plumbing, sanitary sewer service, or a heating system.
Educating and bettering the community were Mary’s primary goals. Like her forebears, she was community oriented. In 1959, she and her brother sold 166 acres, at half their value, to the City of Southfield. The land was a tribute to the community and a memorial to her family.
Mary’s brother, Jim, died in 1960, and, at the age of 96, on October 21, 1967, Mary died in the fields tending her sheep. She died almost the same way she came into the world, surrounded by few modern conveniences. Mary Thompson willed her house and 20 acres surrounding the house to the City of Southfield. Perhaps, she hoped to preserve a part of her life, in Southfield, which she loved, and to give future generations a look at the past.
At the time of her death, the following tribute was paid to her by the Southfield City Council: “Her agile mind and keen perception might well have earned her accolades in other fields, yet her duty to family and love for the simple life led her back to the land.”
The Thompson farm land is currently used for Senior Citizens gardens. The farmhouse is furnished with original items from the Thompson family.
The Southfield Historical Society invites you to visit the home and farm, and learn of her life as a young girl, a teacher, and her many achievements. Tours will be available for the public and schools. Small receptions and meetings may be arranged through the Southfield Historical Society. You may reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.