The year was 1984 and local author and historian Nick Marsh published his first book, “Remembering Delhi Mills, Ninety Years of Forgotten History.” What he quickly learned was that his passion for the past and finding answers to questions about years gone by were shared by many.
In fact, that first book sold out. People were definitely interested in “forgotten history.”
“It gave me confidence to pursue other topics that interested me,” says Marsh, who was born in Ann Arbor, graduated from Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan and also served in the army during the Vietnam era. “I continued to gather information about Delhi and wrote a revised edition in 2012 with 40 more pages of information and 50 more photos.”
Marsh’s writing began when he started researching his own family history.
“My greatest source at the time was Tom Riley, father of Millie Riley Drake who co-owned Drakes Sandwich Shop on North University Street,” he said. “We were cousins, over 60 years apart in age and he knew our family history and it seems every old-timer in Ann Arbor. He pressed me hard to write a history about Delhi Mills, where he spent his childhood. I couldn’t say no. It became my first effort at writing anything for publication and was painfully completed on a typewriter.
“I dedicated the book to Tom and every time I saw him after that, he had the book in his hand.”
His first effort was very personal and rewarding and it developed out of a love for Michigan and family history. Born in Ann Arbor into a German/Irish line of descendants who came to the Ann Arbor area before Michigan was a state, Marsh’s topics about history are influenced by family and regional links.
Connecting area and family stories accounts for every one of the nonfiction books and articles written over the last 35 years. His latest effort, the fictional account of the infamous “Madam Queen Sill,” is the exception.
“I focus on subjects not covered by anyone before because I’m trying to answer questions I have and can’t find,” Marsh says.
As an educator, Marsh has worked in Michigan, Kansas and Kentucky and written articles for the Ann Arbor Observer, Michigan History Magazine, the Chronicle and others.
He was busy working at the Kentucky Department of Education and didn’t finish “Scio Village, Ghost Town with a Past” until 1995.
“Again, I had distant relatives who lived in the former village and became interested in its history,” he said. “Home computers were available by then. The physical work of putting words on paper and making changes and corrections was greatly reduced.”
About two years later, he started seriously researching the Michigan Central Railroad history.
“While always interested in railroads, I was well aware that my father, grandfather and great grandfather had all worked on track section crews between Ann Arbor and Chelsea,” Marsh said. “They all worked for the New York Central Railroad Company, but at some point I realized the Michigan Central preceded it. My grandfather and great grandfather were actually employed by that company first before the New York Central took it over in 1930.”
Eager to read the history of the Michigan Central Railroad, Marsh was frustrated to find no history was ever written. A New York Central Railroad history book had a short chapter in it but nothing of substance existed.
“I was motivated to correct that oversight,” he said.
After 10 years of research, Marsh finished “The Michigan Central Railroad, History of the Main Line 1846-1901” in 2007. It was well received by rail fans.
“Apparently many others wanted to read about it as much as I did,” he said. “People from every state and several other countries bought copies.”
The “History of Ann Arbor’s Co. A, 31st Michigan Volunteer Infantry in the Spanish American War 1898-1899” was written for a similar reason.
“One of my cousins joined Company A to liberate Cuba from the Spanish,” Marsh said. “I inherited his photos and some mementos and had them in a box for 25 years. When I finally retired and got around to looking for information on the military unit, there wasn’t much. Again, I was motivated to fix that oversight and used the material to spin out a book on our “Forgotten Boys of 98” in 2013.
Marsh says the choice to write his latest work, “Madam Queen Sill,” was difficult.
“More than 30 years ago, while doing research on one of my Ann Arbor area history projects, I ran across an infamous local prostitute who went by the appellation Queen Sill,” he said.
Once again, information was sketchy. But her existence was verified by further research, although her real name eluded the historian. He held the information, not knowing what to do with it. At the time, it wasn’t a topic he was interested in pursuing further.
“A few years ago I started floating her moniker around some of our local Ann Arbor historians group to see if anyone had ever heard of her,” he says. “No one I asked had heard of Queen Sill. When Ann Arbor historian Wystan Stevens hadn’t heard of her, I began to doubt my sources.
“After further research, I was convinced she did exist. A year ago I decided to tell her story because it is unlikely anyone else will. She is a buried part of our local history and I found it intriguing that she operated in our county for two decades, yet her name doesn’t appear in print in local history books.”
While sketching out the story of her life based on what little information was available, Marsh used an historical novel approach. Since she traveled countywide in the late 1800’s, he knew that time period, setting very well from his non-fiction projects and put it all together to spin out a murder mystery using a few characters modeled after local residents. The story is fictional murder mystery with Queen Sill as a main character living in Ann Arbor in 1899.
As for his next project, the future is unwritten.
“The short answer is nothing at the moment,” he says. “But I’m looking for something interesting.”
And probably something with a lot more questions than answers.
Marsh’s book with local interest:
The Michigan Central Railroad, History of the Main Line 1846-1901 in print. (Amazon)
History of Ann Arbor’s Company A, 31st Volunteer Michigan Infantry 1889-1899 (Out of Print)
Remembering Delhi Mills, Ninety Years of Forgotten History 1827-1917 in print. (Amazon)
Scio Village, Ghost Town with a Past 1827-1917 (Out of Print)
Order “Madam Queen Sill”
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