Fifth Street couple unearth tombstone from 1865 in yard

Published 6:02 am Thursday, May 29, 2003

By By JOANNA ARNETT / Niles Daily Star
NILES -- A bit of light shoveling usually doesn't yield many things. Pebbles and a few insects here or there, but nothing to get excited about.
Not so for Niles' Sheila Marsh.
Marsh and her husband, Andrew, reside at 1128 N. Fifth St, a quaint little home a few feet north of The Flower Cart.
They are planning to revamp their backyard and last Friday started in on a corner behind the house that had had a piece of stone sticking out of it for as long as they can remember. They had never bothered with it before, thinking it was merely a part of an old stone bench that sits on the edge of the slope on the western side of the property.
The tombstone, which is light gray and in remarkably good condition for being so old, reads simply "IRA PLATT, JAN. 17, 1865, AGED 75 YRS, 2 MO., 14 DAYS." It also bears a masonic symbol directly below the name.
However, according to Silverbrook Cemetery records, Silverbrook is the final resting place for Ira, so perhaps this is some sort of memorial marker for one of early Niles' affluent residents.
According to Sheila, who has done a bit of research and has talked with a Niles historian, Ira Platt owned her property and the house until he died. She found his obituary at the library in the old Niles newspaper archives, when the Niles Daily Star was called the Niles Republican.
It reads that he was a man of "forethought and intuition," which appears to ring true, as he stated in his will that his property, which runs from Fifth Street to Canal Street, can never be used for commercial use. Down by Canal Street, the land is marshy, has a stream running through it, and is home to many creatures.
The house was stone and wood and was at one time part of the Underground Railroad in Niles, with a tunnel leading from the house into the woods, running under the current parking lot for The Flower Cart. There used to be a pond and a field of grass where The Flower Cart now stands.
Some time after he died, "A lady by the name of Schorr, I believe, bought the house and lived here for a while before moving to California," added Sheila. "She was a famous actress there. In fact, her two daughters have come to visit from time to time, telling stories of when they lived here and used to sneak into the tunnel and play there. Her one daughter still lives in South Bend, I believe, and the other is in Florida."
The next chapter of the house's history is that it stood unoccupied for many years, though "I couldn't tell you how long," she said. "My husband's father bought it when he was in high school and it was in poor condition, so they fixed it all up and made it liveable again. There was a fire at some point, but it didn't destroy the whole house."
Sheila said her sister searched the internet but all she found was a document in French about an Ira Platt. It sparked her interest, though, because she said that during the time when he died, there was a skirmish between the British and the French.
The Marshes moved here in 1995.
And she's glad she did.
When her husband lived here in his younger years, he and his father found down in the marsh a grass roller, a piece of farm equipment with a wooden body and wheel with spokes like a bicycle. It is wide and between the spokes is cement, engraved with "H. Toney, 1937." The Toneys are another Niles family.
So what does she plan to do with this monumental find?
"Maybe we could do some sort of excavation here, see what else we could dig up."
Sheila said she is planning to call the University of Michigan Historical Society to get their input.
They also have the original house plans and after this mystery is cleared, would like to renovate the house to its original splendor and open it as a bed-and-breakfast.