Majestic Byways

Wayne County’s Jesse Merle Bennett showed the nation how to develop well-designed vistas along its burgeoning motorways.
Nankin Mills
Grist To The Mill: Nankin Mills in Westland, built in 1842 and once owned by Henry Ford, today serves as an interpretive center in Hines Park. // Photograph by Austin Phillips

A pioneer in selecting desirable varieties of trees and florid scenery to beautify roadsides across the country, Jesse Merle Bennett came down hard on the question of the undesirable ones. Fruit and nut trees “may have some ornamental value, (but) experience has shown that they suffer from the thoughtless depredations of the public during the time the fruit is ripe,” Bennett wrote in “Roadside Development.” And evergreens “are often appropriated by a careless few for Christmas trees.”

As the Wayne County superintendent of parks and forestry in the 1920s and 1930s, Bennett exercised esthetic and practical leadership at a key time. Ever since bicycles became popular during the Gilded Age, ordinary Americans had pushed for better roads (his colleague, printer and cyclist Edward Hines, was among them).

From there, automotive pioneers joined in. Charles Brady King, a skilled craftsman who built and drove the first car in Detroit in 1896, organized the American Motor League a year earlier to help promote better roads. Biographer Douglas Brinkley records that even Henry Ford took some credit when he wrote in Ford News, “The Ford car blazed the way for the motor industry and started the movement for good roads.”

With Cass Benton and Hines, Ford was a charter member of the newly founded Wayne County Road Commission in 1906. Three years later, with John Haggerty having replaced Ford, the Commission experimented with the first mile of concrete roadway instead of brick, cobblestones, or tarmac. 

As paved routes were laid throughout Detroit and western Wayne County, Bennett followed close behind with his blueprints and tree calipers. He anticipated public demand for well-designed landscaping and for roadways that included vista points and comfort stations.

He directed the placement of trees and shrubs, the planting of seeds, and the laying of sod. One of his firmest tenets called for use of nursery stock rather than specimens dug from woodlands. His principles — Bennett also wrote “Roadsides: The Front Yard of the Nation” — served to guide development throughout the United States and raised eyebrows internationally.

“Many of those responsible for street trees in the inter-war years seemed unaware of some of the advances now being made by professionals in the USA,” commented a British reader.

The great showpiece was Hines Drive, which runs along the Middle Rouge River’s floodplain from Ford Road in Dearborn Heights to Seven Mile Road in Northville. “Rather than letting that land sit unused by everything but mosquitoes, or more likely, be gobbled up by industries in the early 1900s, Wayne County adapted the land into a spectacular public park,” the County’s website proclaims. At different points, the roadway is laced with water-powered mills, pump houses, dams, and spillways. Although he resigned after a year on the Commission, Ford continued to exercise outsize influence on the development of Hines Drive by deeding several of his properties to the County.

“Roadside Development,” Bennett’s detailed how-to manual, was published in 1929. “These drives are for pleasure traffic and provide an economic use of lowlands and slopes which would otherwise be of little value.” Now popular with commuters in this age of isolation, Hines Drive is a welcome diversion from canyon-style highways, while the annual show of Christmas lights is a rolling, seasonal attraction.

Besides his books, we remember the planner as the namesake of Bennett Arboretum, a part of Hines Park in Northville. Those who walk the reserve’s two-mile trail can reflect upon Bennett’s mantra: “Roadside development adds to the comfort and convenience of the motorist in every detail.”