The Wonder Well

October 22nd, 2020

Host: Ben Fogt

With Stephen J. Frey


The Wonder Well

2020, Ben Fogt

What's the Deal, Grosse Ile?


[0:00] [Ben} I'm Ben Fogt in this is another episode of What's the Deal, Grosse Ile? a podcast that explores the history, people, and things that make Grosse Ile unique.

[0:10] Today's episode is looking into an island oddity, the Wonder Well.

I'm speaking with Steven J Frey. Steven is an author of two other books about Downriver landmarks, the Uniroyal Tire along I-94, that I bet you've seen, and the Trenton A&W that's now Elizabeth Perk. Thanks for speaking with me, Steven.

[0:30] Since I came to Grosse Ile after the building was torn down, I only had heard or have seen vague references to the Wonder well. You're writing a book about it. Tell me about yourself and how that brings you to writing about what it was probably the islands claim to fame for decades.

[Steven J Frey] Thanks for having me Ben. Yeah. I grew up in Trenton.

[0:48] I spent my formative years in Trenton I only spent a few years away from Michigan shortly after my wife and I were married. She's from Trenton as well.

[0:59] And and we've been back since 1992.

In the area but growing up in Trenton Wonder well was the kind of thing that kids would go to when they were big enough to go to it on their own. I had good friends. We would take a bicycle trip usually the last full day of summer vacation every year over to the island to get our fireworks. We also would make a stop at, it's gone now but, Mahalik's pet shop, if any of the Old Timers remember that. They would sell model rocket supplies so that was a fun for us and then of course we would stop at that A&W. It was kind of like a tradition every year we had to go over to the island, get our fireworks, get our model rocket stuff, and aw root beer. So as a kid, especially boys there's more of a boy thing than a girl thing, I would think. But stocking up on smoke bombs, flash powders, firecrackers if he had them because didn't always have them because at the time you couldn't buy firecrackers legally. But sometimes he had him he made his own a few of his own products and they are still the best. People still talk about how good those smoke bombs were.

[2:17] They were fantastic and, at a quarter apiece, you can't beat it.

[B] So you'd go over there for fireworks. That's interesting how does that connect to the the well?

[S] Well it actually have zero connection to the well itself, even though that the well had a high sulfur content in the water. A lot of people thought oh that's how he makes the fireworks, but they really had nothing to do with that. The well was a mistake.

They were drilling for oil back in the day and struck the Artesian well instead. But the gentleman who ran the business for many many years, Don Swan was his name, Donald Swann, he was the son of the original owner

of the of the property, and when the water business they used to sell the water itself as a curative elixir or snake oil or whatever you might want to call it. When that business kind of waned in the late 60s early 70s, Don used his talents as a chemical engineer to start making fireworks and the business shifted from selling water to selling fireworks.

[3:25] I guess it was a survival mode to keep the keep the family going.

[B]If I if I remember right then they had they had sort of an exclusive license on making fireworks at some point,

[S]Well they were grandfathered in. The property might actually still be grandfathered in. So they had a fireworks license. I don't know if it's still valid kind of like a liquor license, but now the building is gone. That may have that may have evaporated. I don't know. I'm not up on the legal aspects of fireworks sales.

[B] Where was where was the well at.

[4:03] [S] It's at the South End of the the island. So basically it was near the airport.

[B]Just off the South Point.

[S]So keep in mind, the area South. It's either Groh street or road I can't remember, obviously named after the Groh family, they owned everything south of Groh including what is now the airport. So the Swan family, that's who came to be known as the owners of the Wonder well, Mr. Swan married Mrs. Swan, I'm sorry Miss Groh at the time, so she was a Groh family member. her brothers had farms. She had a farm. So the Swan property, which actually starts off as being the Groh property,

[4:53] Okay and so that entire section south of Groh was from the Groh family.

[B] So that would include the Ford Yacht Club and some of the other stuff

[S] Yeah. At one time that whole section was being developed as a as a single real estate development and I don't know how far they got with it. I think it was around the 40s I think the 30s or 40s was when they were trying to sell that as a new resort. It was called the Elba-Mar Colony

[B] Yeah. There's still a Elba-Mar Road down there.

[S] Yes. And that airport was built as a private airport for that real estate development. So that was the the draw. Come to Elba-Mar Colony, buy your property here, and you get a private airport.

[B] Bell that's that's pretty neat.

[5:41] It could probably work that way now.

[S] Oh sure. It went to the military and then you know it's no longer military. What comes around goes around.

[5:49] [B] I grew up I grew up in Union County, Ohio, just Northwest of Columbus, and there's a there's a town in the county called Magnetic Springs. I think it had an artesian spring very similar to the well. But they built they built spas and hotels.

So is that sort of what that that community was going to develop into?

[S] No, not really. They did not play up the well as being a benefit for the community like that. There was mention of the well in some of the advertising that I found for the real estate, but that was really not a big draw because it was not promoted as a spa type of endeavor. The artesian wells that were discovered and popular in the Mount Clemens area in Michigan were promoted as a spa and there were several spas that were open.

And they promoted the the health benefits of their water. As far as bathing in it and as an external curative. Things like that. They call them the Mount Clemens Mineral Baths.

[6:52] But in Grosse Ile it was the selling of the water to drink it. I don't know if you've ever had sulfur-rich water. Tastes about as bad as it sounds.

[B] Yeah I don't think that's something I'd go looking for.

[S] You know it's funny as I looked into that and it was being promoted for its health benefits, aids in digestion, and all these other uses. There's no evidence that it was good or bad. What would happen is if people would see a difference in, let's say, their digestion,

when they started drinking it and then you'd see a difference when you stop drinking it.

[7:33] It really didn't have an effect one way or another other than it kind of changed your cycles. And then like I said as soon as you stop drinking it you went back to where you were before. Sso it did no harm but it also did no good.

[7:47] [B] So I guess we skipped over what an Artesian well actually is so does that does that well then eat out of like Lake Erie water or the Detroit River water?

[S] No. An Artesian well, look again I'm not an expert on wells either, but it's just basically it's a large pocket of underground water that would be filled in porous material. It would be saturated with water and the pressure from the ground above pressing down that is what then increases the pressure of the water pocket and so when you tap into it, like they did, all that pressure then pushes the water to the surface. Sometimes it just pushes it to the surface and you have like a pond or a lake. But in the case of what became known as the Wonder Well, it actually would shoot it up into the air. At one time when it was first tapped I think it went up to like maybe 10, 20 feet in the air, And when I was a kid in the 70s going to visit it it had greatly slowed down and there's pictures of it may be shooting up maybe two feet. out of the ground. But at one time it was considered the highest flowing artesian well east of the Mississippi. I don't know what it was west of the Mississippi but east of the Mississippi it had the largest gallons per minute output. I don't have those numbers in front of me but it even made it into a Ripley's Believe It or Not.

[9:14] as a Wonder, "believe it or not" there's a twenty foot geyser coming up out of the well,

or out of the ground by itself.

[B] I'm honestly surprised it didn't turn into some sort of spa tourist destination.

[S] Well it kind of was a tourist destination for the sale of the water. Again they took a different approach rather than building an establishment that you came to, spent time in, and left. What they did instead was they sold the water.

So that family actually became very wealthy selling water. They went from farming to selling water, farming water basically. And turned it into a big business because then they got hooked in with distributors, So I found advertising that you could buy, they went through several names over the years. They called it Wonder Water. Then they called it the Wonder Well, the Wonder Well Water. It's all all different versions of Wonder was in there but you could have bought that and had it shipped to you.

Either directly or through different distributors.

[10:20] Not unlike buying bottled water today. Nobody bought water back in the day. You didn't buy bottled water just to have bottled water like they do now. So this was special water and that's what they chose to do rather than build infrastructure and have people come and spend time. They shipped the water out not unlike a farm. People don't come to farms to see the green beans growing, but you buy the green beans somehow.

[B] Now my father actually has done a trip that just went to fields to see the green beans.

[S] I've gone to pick blueberries and I couldn't wait to not be picking blueberries. That doesn't do anything for me.

[B] You mentioned that they stopped. So the well ran dry?

[S] Well it ran dry much much much later than when they stopped selling and so the well didn't run dry until the 90s, but it was sometime in the 60s that interest in that well water waned,

People weren't as interested in it. There were a lot more people going out. When interstates came came to be people would drive to different places and there just was not the interest to drive

[11:36] down to, I say 'down' because the majority of the customers most likely came from the Detroit area, the interest just wasn't there anymore. I don't want to say it was a fad but maybe that's what it was. But maybe that's what it was.

[B] It sounds like that's about the time Bob-Lo Island was big.

[S] Sure sure and so the interest just wasn't there. So in order to survive when you've been selling water since the 1910s, up until the 1970s and then people don't want to buy your water anymore you shift gears. So, that's when it went to fireworks.

[B] The 21st century word for that would be 'pivot' then.

[S] Right. Yeah so Don Swan, the the people call him the old man, well he was 2 when the when the well was was struck. So his life revolved around that property. So you know at two years old the well was struck and his father started selling water,

well the 1970s he's in his late 60s early 70s that's when he shifted gears and started selling fireworks instead.

[12:47] He was a very inventive man. To look at him, he was very unassuming but a very very smart guy. He was, like I said, a chemical engineer. he went to U of M. He played football. He was a football star, back in whatever that was the 20s, came back and worked his family's business and when it came time to shift gears he did what he knew. He knew chemical engineering and he developed fireworks. He was also an inventor of other things. He had several patents for games. He had a board game that he developed. I know he had a couple of patents for golf items like a golf club and methods for seeding golf courses. Things like that. He was a tinkerer and I remember I was probably 10 or 12 and he was selling a little toy that he had come up with.

[13:43] Where it was nothing more than a stick of wood so it's like a like a 1 by 1 or 2 by 2 that on one end of it he had some nuts and bolts that had gone through the piece of wood. It had a plastic cup on the end of it and what you did was you packed it full of those old flat caps, the caps that you had with a gun, the kind of came in a roll. Those red roll of caps. So what you do is you cut up the Caps stick them in this tube and then he had like a little rocket made out of wood. What you do is you smacked it on a rock or you smacked it on a on the ground and that impact then ignited the caps and shot this little rocket up into the air and you know he just came up with that on his own and sold for like two or three dollars. Something like that it was. I bought one. I don't know what the heck happened to it. I was 10 years old the time I thought it was neat. I think I bought it more because he invented it than some great toy. I just thought it was neat that here's this guy on Grosse Ile that came up with this thing that you smack on a rock and it lit off a rocket.

[B] Yeah. It sounds are really safe too. Thanks for talking about the well. You've written at least two other books about attractions in the in the area. What are those books about?

[15:05] [S] Well my first book actually... Let me back up a little bit. I'll toot my own horn here. My first book was a how to book on using computer-aided design software. That that's my bread and butter. That's what I do is design work and so I wrote a book on

how to use a particular software that I use. And then I wrote a book on making your own caskets and coffins. Again I'm a maker in general and a tinkerer and I had an idea for selling caskets but it turns out that well there's probably not a best business model because how many can you possibly sell. So instead I turned my plans into a book that you could buy.

[15:42] But then I just happened to be on Facebook. I'm not a big fan of Facebook as far as its benefit truly for being social as people call it social media. But I like Facebook for being able to make connections, find people. Find maybe a high school friend that you haven't talked to in a long time. Things like that and I was on one of the Facebook pages that was devoted to Trenton or maybe Trenton High School, I don't remember which, and somebody was talking about the A&W there and people would say things

[16:20] as if it were fact and obviously they didn't know the facts and I actually worked there for two seasons that was my first job. I was at the A&W so when people would say things as if they know what they're talking about and it was obvious that they didn't. That's just a pet peeve of mine. It's like well, wait a minute. That had nothing to do with that A&W. That's not true at all. There was a rumor that

[16:46] one of the things you had to be Catholic in order to work there and back in the day. You could say things like that and I know for a fact that wasn't true. It turns out that the owners of that A&W at the time their kids went to Gabriel Richard which is a Catholic High School and so when the kids knew that hey Mom and Dad need help at the restaurant they would ask their friends "hey you want to come work at my parents restaurant?"

Who are their friends going to be? They're going to be fellow Catholics. It's just who you know. And so yes there were a lot of Catholic High School Kids that worked there but it wasn't because they were catholic. It's because they were friends of the owners kids.

[17:30] And so when people say oh you had to be Catholic to work there it's like well I worked there and I know that's not true, and then they would say something else. Some people say something else like again not true again, not true, not true, not true. So having worked there I thought well maybe I want to find out what actually is true. What is the real history of it? I knew some of it, because I had worked there but I didn't know the complete history. So then I thought well I'm going to learn everything there is to know about this place, the true history starting from day one. And I just set about to learn what the history was. My goal was not to write a book. My goal was to maybe write a newspaper article and then well maybe I'll write something for a magazine and when I was all said and done I had more than double the amount of words that any magazine would ever publish. I thought oh man no again what did I do I wasted all this time and I wrote the complete history now what I do with it and then I realized well

[18:26] I've released books in the past. Again the computer aided design book, how to make your own caskets. Well I'll just turn into a book. And that's how it ended up being a book about the first A&W in Michigan.

[B] And then the other one is the Uniroyal Tire.

[S] The Uniroyal Tire. Well actually after I finished the A&W book, I wouldn't say I was on a roll, but I thought "Well, what other history in plain sight kind of things do we want to do I want maybe you want to explore?" And so I had the idea to do the Wonder Well book next. And having having done the A&W book, I knew that a book like that you can't get very far without cooperation from, for lack of a better term, an insider. So I had I had worked with one of the previous owners of the A&W actually a woman that I worked for. I had reached out and contacted, found her online. She filled in a lot of blanks for me so I realized I need to be able to speak to somebody who actually knows.

[19:23] So Don Swan, the gentleman who owned it for all those years and ran it, his son James, who also worked there for many many years, he's an environmentalist now and an author himself. I knew that I needed to basically be on board with James

and get in touch with James and get his buy off on the idea and get his input. Otherwise a lot of this is just guesswork and I'm no better than the people on Facebook at that point. Though I was not very successful in getting a hold of James, I have since,

I was kind of hitting a lot of road blocks in getting James to respond back to me. So then I thought well while I'm waiting on James, is there something else I can do? And I happened to drive past that giant tire every day on the way to work and it kind of piqued my curiosity again because of social media because people would say oh it was this, it was that.

[20:17] And they would throw something out there. Well obviously I don't know anything about the tire. I know that's not true. That's like, "come on people."

[B] And even the things that are true about it are kind of unbelievable.

[S] Yeah. So I thought "Well that that would probably be a good topic to debunk the urban legends, learn everything there is to know about it." And I was actually surprised with a lot of stuff that I found out. I spent 13 months researching it. It's one of those things where it's kind of like that you've got the ancient pyramids in Egypt. It was a great civilization and then all of a sudden, poof, nobody knows anything about it. And it's only been in recent history that the people are rediscovering it. So there was a huge gap where a giant mystery is because the history was was lost. I found out later, I did a little bit of research actually on the pyramids at one point. One of the Pharaohs killed off all of the priests and they were the ones that were the keepers of the knowledge. When he killed off the historians he also killed off the history.

[21:13] So the same thing happened with the giant Tire.

[B] That sounds tragic.

[S] Well there's a period of time where the company changed hands. It was US Rubber which turned into Uniroyal, then if there was a joint venture with BF Goodrich.

[21:30] And then it went into just a private investment company and then it was picked up by Michelin. So Uniroyal is owned by Michelin. Some point during that transition the company or companies lost or intentionally destroyed,

everything there is to know about that tire and I think it was when

[21:52] The engineers were, here's my guess, they were a New York-based company. Even though we had a sales office here in Michigan, it was still a New York-based company. At one point all the engineers, everybody who knew everything about that tire and the business were ordered to Detroit.

[22:09] and you're going to work at either the sales office in Allen Park or the downtown factory that's there that used to be there over by Belle Isle. And my guess is that was when the history was lost I think people either tossed everything in the dumpster or they said I'm not taking this stuff with me. We don't need it any more. They threw it away or just out of spite they threw it out or whatever. But that was that was my guess is when all that information was lost. And I'm rediscovering it.

[B] So the book on the Wonder Well how's the progress going he said it you had sort of a delay in reconnecting with the Swan family.

[S] Yeah I was going hot and heavy for a while. I spent some time at the Historical Museum, the Historical Society has been a very helpful. They gave me access to anything I wanted there. It's kind of like one of these things where since it is a hobby it's not my full-time job. My interests have peaks and valleys like interest and other things kind of creep in there and take over and people talk about 2020 being a horrible year for a lot of different reasons. For my family 2020 was, I don't want to get into all the specifics of it,

but 2020 started off really bad. This whole coronavirus thing, geez, that was the least of our worries. I mean we had a really really bad January.

[23:31] And that pretty much halted all of my all my activities for things like that. But I'm slowly getting back into it again and it's one of those things where it is a hobby and it's not going anywhere because it's gone right so now it's just a race to be able to talk to people who still have memories of it before they're gone.

[B] Speaking of that, your website is still collecting the stories and photos and all that. So if somebody has some information in that they didn't find online, if you read the website it's very explicit, anything that's been found online has already been found. But if anybody has some home photo albums that have photos from that or stories how do they get in touch with you?

[S] It's very easy you can just go to Once you're there there is a form that you can fill in to basically just to make contact. That's all we really need to get going. You don't have to do any special. I do accept photos from that website

making the contact is the most important thing. So once we make contact we can go from there. You brought it up that's what I'm looking for I'm not looking for something that someone found on Google because, trust me, if it's on Google or if they can be found that way, I have found it. I promise you I've found it. But what I'm looking for are private photos. Let's say your family did go to Wonder Well in the 1940s

[24:54] because it was a family thing to do and now you've got Grandma's photo album in your closet and you're flipping through there and there's some nice black and white photos of Grandma and Aunt so-and-so standing next to this goofy looking well.

Well that was probably Wonder Well and I'd like to see those pictures.

[B] They probably should come up in some of the the World War II books too or the photo albums.

[S] Absolutely. I mean I check estate sales all the time because it's amazing some of the personal photos that turn up at estate sales. So I'm looking for that and then stories of not necessarily "hey we used to go to wonder well I rode my bike." Okay. I get that and everybody kind of gets that, but I'm looking more for "well I had a conversation with Mr. Swan and he said this." That's more of the stories that I'm looking for. Maybe he caught you stealing fireworks. I want to hear that story too. Maybe you got in trouble because you let off the smoke bomb at Trenton High School and filled up the corridor which happened many times. Stories like that is more what I'm looking for but but any story or picture about family, about the well itself, that's what I'm looking for.

[26:06] [B] And for any of us that went to add this book to our bookshelves when it comes out, what's the best way to keep keeping in touch on that?

[S] The same way. So if you go to that website, there will be obviously announcements of when it's available but then also you can find and follow us on Facebook same thing just search for Wonder Well. You'll find it. There was not a Wonder Well Facebook page because, boy, it basically the stop flowing in 1994. There was no Facebook then obviously so I created one just for for the Wonder Well. And there's been a few people that have put up some pictures which is nice. Those are the kinds of things that we want to see. Oh, the other thing too is Souvenirs. I have collected a few souvenirs like off the eBay and Craigslist that type of thing so again it was a tourist destination, the little tchotchkes the little ceramic salt and pepper shakers. The salt and pepper shaker had nothing to do with the well like it could be like a ceramic little tiger. But it's got a Wonder well sticker on it. Things like that so I've collected a few of those if anybody's got that kind of stuff I don't necessarily want to take possession of that.

[27:08] I would love to be able to photograph it, include it in the book. There's a few of those kinds of items that are at the Museum now but it's amazing when I see something new that the museum doesn't have. I've never seen it before. I try to acquire at least get a picture of it. T-shirts and those old felt pennants that people would put up on the wall. I've got a few of those from over the years. Again it was it was a tourist destination. And a lot of people don't realize that now because it was so long ago.

[B] Yeah. I think now the space that that would have been at I think it's been turned into housing.

[S] Yeah. The property set vacant for a long time. James told me that the well stopped flowing just about the time his father passed away. It was within days. So he was in tune with that property no doubt. And so I'm not exactly sure when they stopped, when he actually stopped selling fireworks but you know he was...

[28:00] He died. He was 90 some years, 92 years old I think. So he had stopped selling fireworks long before then. It sat empty for a long time. The building kind of fell apart and it was demolished a few years ago finally and then it sat again vacant, just an empty lot for several years but I do believe that if there's not a house on there now I know it's being built.

[B] This has been great. I really want to thank you for spending time with me today. At the end of every episode, I give our guests a chance to give a wish for Grosse Ile and it can be for the people or the place or just the world in general. So do you have a wish to share with us?

[S] Well I don't know how this is going to come off but again I'm from Trenton you know I grew up in Trenton.

[28:42] And so Grosse Ile was a place you would go to for things like Wonder Well maybe to eat at like maybe the one or two restaurants there, things like that.. And it seemed like so many times over the years,

[28:57] The access to the island became an issue when the free bridge is under construction.

[29:04] There is a lot of moaning and groaning either from... I can't say from from an Islanders point of view but people from let's say you know... the mainland or whatever you want to call it,

would then complain "Oh geez. I gotta take the toll bridge." Things like that. So it seems like there's always like a lot of heartburn associated with access to the island. So I guess my wish is maybe either people can get over that and just accept it or improve it.

[B] This Ben jumping in from the editing room floor. I just wanted to tell you that Steven had a bit more to say about the bridge situation. He wasn't familiar with what we've experienced this year. He lives up in Dearborn Heights,

but I think we all hope that this series of repairs is the last necessary for quite some time.

[29:52] And now back to the interview.

Thanks for spending the time with me on this. I sure appreciate it.

[S] No problem! It's a joy. Thanks for having me on Ben.

[30:01] [B] I wanted to take another opportunity to thank Stephen J Frey, the author of the upcoming Wonder Well book. Remember you can get in touch with him through his

website at WonderWell.Info or his Wonder Well Facebook page. Another note is that we will have a transcript for this conversation on our website just check the links in the notes with the podcast.

[30:30] What's the deal Grosse Ile is recorded and produced by me, Ben Fogt.

You can keep in touch with me through the What's the Deal, Grosse Ile? Facebook page or email me at

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[31:11] Thanks for listening to What's the Deal, Grosse Ile?