Location is Everything

Author: Grace Shackman

Mills, roads, and trains shaped Washtenaw’s towns

In 1824 thirty-eight-year-old Orange Risdon and thirty-two-year-old Samuel Dexter spent four months on horseback exploring mostly uninhabited land in southeast Michigan. At the end of the 2,000-mile trip, they settled within a few miles of each other.

Risdon bought 160 acres fronting the Great Sauk Trail, the Indian footpath that ran all the way from Detroit to Rock Island, Illinois. Dexter bought land that included a stream that flowed into the Huron River, ideal for powering mills and machines and for irrigating. These were the beginnings of Saline and Dexter.

Risdon and Dexter came from very different backgrounds. Risdon left school when he was thirteen and was always proud he’d earned his own way. He learned surveying by apprenticing in western New York, where he helped lay out the towns of Lockport, Brockport, and Buffalo. During the War of 1812 he served as an assistant surveyor for the army. In 1816 he married Sally Newland. Six of their children were born in upstate New York, and the seventh and last in Saline.

Dexter’s ancestors, members of the Protestant ruling class in Ireland, came to the United States in 1642, fleeing a rebellion. His father, Samuel Dexter VI, was a Massachusetts congressman and senator who also served in the cabinets of two presidents. He was secretary of war under John Adams and secretary of the treasury under Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Samuel Dexter VII obtained both a college degree and a law degree at Harvard--unusual at a time when most lawyers learned by apprenticeship. When he finished law school in 1815, he set up a practice in Athens, New York. The next year he married a local woman, Amelia Augusta Prevost, and they started a family.

In 1822 Amelia and their two-year-old son both died. Dexter decided he needed to start a new life rather than obsess over his losses. He later wrote to a cousin, “I came to Michigan to get rid of the blue devils, or to speak more politely of the ennui which like a demon pursues those who have nothing to do.”

Michigan Territory was established in 1805, but most of the land remained in the hands of Native tribes until 1819, when they ceded much of the Lower Peninsula in the Treaty of Saginaw. The following year the government started reselling the land to settlers for $1.25 an acre. The first permanent settlement in Washtenaw County, Woodruff’s Grove, was founded in 1823 (today it’s part of Ypsilanti).

It’s not known how or where Risdon and Dexter met or why they ended up exploring together. But Risdon, too, had suffered misfortune in New York--he had been speculating in land, and lost money in the panic of 1817. Michigan needed surveying, so Risdon came here in 1823 and spent a month exploring on foot. The following year he and Dexter found new centers for their lives.

Dexter built a sawmill on the stream that ran through his property, naming it Mill Creek, and went back to New York that winter. Risdon found work extending Woodward Avenue from Detroit to Pontiac. He also started work on a map of Michigan lands available for settlement.

In 1825 Risdon became the chief surveyor for the first major road built across the state. Father Gabriel Richard, Michigan Territory’s representative in Congress, had convinced the federal government to build a wagon road along the Sauk Trail. Though sold to Congress as a way to move troops quickly in case of an Indian uprising, it proved more useful in settling the state. Known variously as the Military Road, Chicago Road, or Old Sauk Trial, today it is US-12 or Michigan Avenue.

The survey was difficult. Risdon wrote to his wife, Sally, of “job delays” and “the hardship of the weather and other obstructions,” noting that after “a few days wading in warm water our feet were so sore it was like dipping them in scalding water. We had to stop every three or four days to doctor.”

Meanwhile Dexter returned to Michigan with a new bride, Susan Dunham. They lived first in a log house on the west side of Mill Creek--originally built for the mill workers, it was the first residence in Webster Township. Then he built a wooden house near the Huron River on what is now Huron Street. On the other side of Mill Creek, Dexter had a gristmill built.

When Dexter and Risdon first came to Michigan, the trip overland was long and tedious, made worse by a swampy area near Toledo. In 1824 it took Ann Allen, the wife of Ann Arbor cofounder John Allen, two months to make her way from Virginia in a covered wagon. But in 1825 the Erie Canal opened, shortening trips from the East considerably. From the canal’s terminus at Buffalo, travelers could board a steamboat and get to Detroit in three days.

By 1826 enough settlers were coming that the organization of Washtenaw County, carved out of Wayne County in 1822, could begin. Territorial governor Lewis Cass appointed Samuel Dexter its first chief justice. He was also the village postmaster; once a week he rode to Ann Arbor to hear cases and get the town’s mail.

Dexter continued to develop his village. He built and stocked a drugstore in order to lure the area’s first doctor, Cyril Nichols. He donated land for several churches. He had the first school built. And he started Forest Lawn Cemetery after Susan died in childbirth, followed soon by their infant son.

A year later Dexter married sixteen-year-old Millicent Bond, who had come to Webster Township the year before with her mother and sisters. A justice of the peace presided at Millicent’s sister’s house. The bride and groom rode horses back to the village. “Millicent’s trousseau was packed in the saddle bags that Dexter used to carry the mail,” wrote their granddaughter Ione Stannard in a family remembrance. “When fording the Huron River her wedding dress was dampened but the saddle bags kept the judge’s trousers dry.”

Both Dexter and John Allen were fervent anti-Masons, part of a short-lived movement whose members believed Masonic lodges were conspiring to take over the country. Annoyed that Washtenaw County’s only newspaper was neutral on the issue, the two men bought the Western Emigrant in 1829. Allen, perennially short of money, soon sold his share of the paper to Dexter. From then on Judge Dexter’s trips to Ann Arbor included working on the paper. “Once a week my father rode to Ann Arbor on his fine white horse, with saddle bags strapped to the saddle behind him, to edit and print his paper,” his daughter Julia Stannard recalled in 1895. If Dexter planned to stay overnight in Ann Arbor, Millicent, who had been appointed his assistant postmaster, rode with him so she could bring back the mail the same day. According to family legend, one night she was followed home by a panther that stalked her until she reached the village.

In 1829 Orange Risdon finally stopped returning to New York each winter and moved his family to Saline. He and Sally built a house on a hill near the Saline River overlooking the Chicago Road. The house served as a stagecoach stop and inn. It also was the town’s post office for the ten years that Risdon was postmaster, and a courtroom and wedding chapel for the twelve years he was justice of the peace. Voters in the first Saline Township election cast their ballots in the house in April 1830. For good measure, the front parlor was rented to Silas Finch to use as a general store. Like Dexter, Risdon donated land for schools, churches, and a cemetery.

Both Dexter and Risdon waited a few years to plat their new villages--Dexter was busy developing his mills and Risdon was surveying. In 1830, when Dexter finally got around to laying out his town, he was helped by twenty-year-old John Doane. “We began the survey at the west end of Main and Ann Arbor streets, the judge picking out the trees to mark for the center of the street, which now comprises the business part of Dexter,” Doane later wrote. “After the stakes were glazed, I had his instructions to pace three rods each side of the stake to form Ann Arbor Street.” Risdon laid out Saline two years later, no doubt using more professional methods.

In the early nineteenth century, water and roads determined the locations of towns. By the middle of the century, railroads played a big role too. Manchester began in 1832 with the damming of the River Raisin. Chelsea was established in 1850 when Elisha and James Congdon convinced the Michigan Central to locate a railroad station on their farm.

Unlike Dexter and Saline, Manchester did not have the advantage of a single strong leader. But within the current village limits, the River Raisin dropped forty feet, offering great prospects for powering mills. Settlement began in 1832 when John Gilbert, an Ypsilanti entrepreneur, bought twenty-two acres straddling the river. Gilbert hired Emanuel Case to dam the river and then build and run a gristmill and a sawmill.

The following year James Soule put another dam a mile downstream and built a bridge and a sawmill, starting a separate settlement known as Soulesville and later as East Manchester. A third dam was built between the first two, at what is now the Furnace Street bridge. Barnabas Case built a distillery there in 1838 and Amos Dickinson a foundry a year later. These early dams were primitive affairs “built by laying trees and logs lengthwise of the stream and throwing on stones and dirt to the required height,” according to Manchester’s First Hundred Years.

Emanuel Case built the town’s first hotel, a block east of his mills. He kept an office there in his role as justice of the peace. The hotel was rebuilt in 1869 as the Goodyear House, later known as Freeman’s. Today it’s a gas station, but the hotel dining room’s tin ceiling can still be seen in the back room.

The mills drew more settlers to Manchester. In 1834 Lewis Allen built the first school, William Carr opened the first store, and Dr. Bennett Root started the first medical practice. The block east of the mill filled with shops.

After Risdon completed work on the Old Sauk Trail, a new road was built north of it to bring settlers into the second tier of counties north of Ohio. (Originally called the Territorial Road, it’s now known variously as Jackson Road or Old US-12.) Around the same time, a north-south wagon road, today’s M-52, connected Manchester to Stockbridge.

In 1832 brothers Nathan and Darius Pierce came to Washtenaw County from upstate New York. The house Nathan built on the Territorial Road still stands on the north side of Old US-12, just east of the entrance to Chelsea Community Hospital. Nathan often put up travelers overnight--and when one visitor didn’t get up the next morning, Pierce started the cemetery on Old Manchester Road near the fairgrounds.
Other settlers soon arrived in “Pierceville.” Stephen Winans kept a store, postmaster Albert Holt ran a sash and blind factory, and Israel Bailey was the blacksmith.

Darius Pierce settled north of his brother, where the Manchester road crossed Letts Creek. About five families gathered there and christened the hamlet Kedron. Farther south, at the corner of today’s Jerusalem Road, was a settlement called Vermont Colony. With no waterpower, these communities could not develop into manufacturing centers, but they did serve as trading towns for the surrounding farms.

In 1833 brothers Elisha and James Congdon arrived from Chelsea Landing, Connecticut. Elisha bought 160 acres south of Kedron on the east side of the Manchester road. James purchased 300 acres across the road. This proved to be an ideal location.

In 1841 Samuel Dexter donated land to enable the Michigan Central Railroad to reach his town. The next stopping point west was a small refueling station on Hugh Davidson’s farm, just west of James Congdon’s spread. When the station burned down in 1848, the Congdons gave the railroad land for a new station where the tracks crossed the Manchester road. Their donation made it easier for farmers to bring their crops to the train, and businesspeople from Pierceville began moving closer to the depot so they, too, could more easily send and get goods. The residents of Vermont Colony also relocated nearer the station, building a Congregational church on land donated by the Congdons. And so Chelsea was established.

The railroads let farmers ship their goods much farther and faster. As they prospered, so did the towns that served them--Dexter and Chelsea grew quickly because of the Michigan Central. In 1855 the Michigan Southern built a spur that passed through Manchester, followed in 1870 by a Detroit, Hillsdale, and Indiana line that passed through both Saline and Manchester. Orange Risdon was at the festivities marking the train’s arrival in his town; he died in 1876 at age eighty-nine.

All four communities have preserved landmarks to celebrate and honor their early years. Chelsea’s railroad station is now a museum and meeting place, and Elisha Congdon’s house is part of the beautifully expanded McKune Memorial Library. Dexter’s historic landmarks include its railroad station and Gordon Hall, Samuel Dexter’s third residence.

Manchester tore down its railroad station but saved its last blacksmith shop as a museum. The last Manchester Mill is now divided into offices and shops. In Saline, Orange Risdon’s house was moved to 210 West Henry Street in 1949 to make room for Oakwood Cemetery; it’s still there, now divided into apartments. Saline’s old depot is a historical museum, and on its grounds is Risdon’s livery barn. A walking path follows the old train tracks.