Buffalo Soldiers Heritage Center brings history and horses to life in Rouge Park
BY KIMBERLY GARRETT PHOTOGRAPHY BY JERRY ZOLYNSKY
Where the Motor City Meets the Old West.
There are sections of Detroit many developers have improved upon in recent years, but areas still exist that are being improved daily without the help of large donations.
One of those is being funded by local volunteers using their own muscle power, sweat and personal funds to keep history alive. It is called the Rouge Park Buffalo Soldiers Heritage Association.
The organization consists of only about a dozen volunteers, but the improvements they have made to part of Detroit’s Rouge Park on Joy Road continues to impress and educate visitors.
“These are the men who tell the history of the Buffalo Soldiers and work daily to provide a safe place for Detroit citizens and visitors to enjoy our horses,” says volunteer Edith Abramczyk of Dearborn Heights.
As you drive down Joy Road at Lahser, you will notice the cement walls of the city disappear and a piece of countryside with horses roaming the grounds take its place. Volunteers encourage you to stop by and feed the horses an apple or a carrot while learning more about their owners and their history. Their owners are part of the Buffalo Soldiers brigade.
Buffalo Soldiers were comprised of former slaves, freemen and black Civil War soldiers and were the first to serve during peacetime. The nickname Buffalo Soldiers began with the Cheyenne warriors in 1867. This name was given out of respect of the fierce fighting ability of the 10th Cavalry. In time, all African American soldiers would come to be called Buffalo Soldiers.
First Sgt. James Mills of Southfield is one of the founders of the Detroit Buffalo Soldiers organization. You can find him on the grounds daily at Joy Road. It has been his mission for the past eight years to maintain and improve the former Detroit mounted police station, a building more than 100 years old where, according to Abramczyk, some are rumored to have heard the faint whistles of a long-dead police officer who had been known for whistling during the night shift.
After the building was abandoned, the Buffalo Soldiers Heritage Center idea was presented to city leaders, who loved the idea. Once it was approved, the volunteers went to work and have not stopped. One of the first things they did was widen the horses’ stalls, Abramczyk says. “Originally, the police horses only had enough room to stand in their stalls. Now the stalls are much wider, allowing the horses more comfort.”
According to volunteer Lisa Goldsmith, “On any given day, you will find several of the men — some in their late 70s — on the roof of the structure patching holes. Other men will be on the grounds tending to the horses, stables or keeping the grass cut.”
The men maintain the grounds and make the needed repairs to the stable including patching the roof, plumbing and electric work, fixing broken fences and stall doors, and more.
“I believe Detroit City Council and Detroit Parks and Recreation Department support the Buffalo Soldiers presence because this honorable group of men is worth their weight in gold,” Abramczyk says. “They give without any thoughts of compensation. Their time and talents are appreciated and valued by everyone stopping or driving by the Buffalo Soldiers stable.”
There are the daily chores of feeding cats and horses, mucking stalls, repairing and rebuilding that are completed before noon. Recently, a group of students from Wayne State University spent a Saturday afternoon helping clean out the stables.
Afternoons are filled with impromptu presentations offered to drop-by visitors interested in an equine lifestyle and the history of the Buffalo Soldiers.
The volunteers do accommodate large groups and provide a program, “History & Horses.” This gives visitors a tour of the 130-year-old building. Visitors are shown a small pictorial display located inside the stable. Some of the pictures are those of the volunteers dressed in replica Buffalo Soldier uniforms with horses saddled up. Reproductions of the saddle and tack originally used by Buffalo Soldiers are also on display.
The volunteers also provide a demonstration on grooming a horse, the Western saddle and tack. They explain paddock use, differences in feed between hay and straw, and standing and box stalls. The horses are then saddled and visitors enjoy a ride one time around the arena.
There are many ways to learn more about the Buffalo Soldiers heritage and even help with the upkeep of the stables. The group is always looking for volunteers. Visit www.buffalosoldiersdetroit.org for more information.