A small group of Northville residents armed with donated land, the love of chimney swifts and a significant dose of optimism are working to re-create a vanished village landmark.
Four months ago, the Hubbell chimney, which stood in the village for nearly 100 years, was demolished. Its masonry was crumbling and unstable.
The owner of the land on which the old chimney stood, Arthur Horton, could not be reached for comment Thursday, but his reasons for knocking the thing down are pretty easy to guess: If it had fallen on anyone, he would have been held responsible.
Had the old stack of bricks been just a chimney, no one would have cared about its demolition. To many villagers though, it was much more than a chimney.
Every year on May 6, hundreds of nesting chimney swifts funneled into its great hollow. It marked the ending point of their 8,000-mile journey from the tropical forests where they spend the winter.
Their yearly return was so punctual that a village festival grew up around it.
“It always felt like a big part of the village identity,” said Linda Mosher.
She laid out half a century of happy May 6 celebrations around the chimney, from when she was a newlywed young woman fresh to the village in 1961, to more recent years driving her electric mobility scooter to the festival and handing out swift informational pamphlets to scores of attendees.
In the 1950s, original owner Ray Hubbell noticed the birds returned to the chimney of his glove factory every year on his birthday. He threw a party and a tradition was born — one that continued even after Hubbell died and his factory burned to the ground.
Over the last few years, the festival looked about the same as always. Boy Scouts sold fried dough and the high school jazz band serenaded the birds as they swirled around the chimney, a black cloud of wings in the dusk sky, then dove in one great column.
Last year, though, Village Historian Gail Cramer said there was only a fraction of the few hundred birds that normally nest there. Village residents worried the swift population along with their festival would dwindle away over the next decade. And then the whole thing was demolished without warning.
This year the remaining birds will have no place to go without the chimney, but Mosher hopes to rectify that.
She, her husband Rusty, and four of their friends, including Cramer, are working to erect a new chimney in just the next few weeks.
“We’ve been working on it since January,” she said.
The plan is to build a 24-foot plywood chimney on the back side of a neighboring gas station. The original chimney was believed to be about 50 feet tall. They’re using a design that’s had some success enticing swifts in other parts of the country.
The location is only 15 yards from the old nesting area, and the interior plywood will be cut with grooves so little swift talons can get a grip.
“We’re not even sure if they’ll take to it,” she said. “All we can do is hope.”
A local builder, Dale Downes, agreed to volunteer a few days of his time to the project and is looking for donated materials at area lumber yards. The project, if on a tight deadline, seems to be going well.
“But there’s just been hurdle after hurdle,” Mosher said.
First the little group had to find some land close to where the old structure stood. Mosher convinced Joe Capobianco to volunteer a section of his gas station land.
Then there was the issue of liability insurance, which Downes eventually agreed to provide.
“His heart is really in this,” Mosher said.
There’s also the issue of money, but more pressingly, a problem with building permits. All the paperwork is taking longer than they can afford to wait.
If the structure isn’t up by May 6, no one knows where the birds will go, or if they’ll come back next year.
“There’s a home with a chimney in the village that gets a few,” she said, “but I don’t think it’s big enough.”
The village is planning to hold its usual jazz band, fried dough celebration May 6, regardless of whether the construction is complete. Whether onlookers will see a group of swifts swirling into a new plywood home or just circling in confusion remains to be seen.