South Milford Historic District Historical Significance

The Village of Milford represents the evolution of a typical rural mill community in southern Michigan from its settling in 1832 to its present existence as a community serving the needs of its residents.  The coming of the railroad forty years after Milford's settlement spurred the development of small manufacturing companies, Main Street businesses and new residences.  The early twentieth century brought the automobile and its associated businesses.  The present village consists of representative intact wood frame, brick and stone commercial buildings and churches, surrounded by an area consisting of wood frame, brick, stone and concrete block residences from the village's earliest settlement to the present.  Of the original twelve mills in this rural mill community, only one remains, but the sites of the other eleven have been marked.  

The South Milford Village Historic District is both historically and architecturally significant and therefore meets Criterion A, as a place that has contributed to the broad patterns of history, and Criterion C, as representative of a nineteenth and early twentieth century rural mill settlement.

The Settling of Milford, Its Early Pioneers, Mills and First Era of Prosperity

The settling of Milford began in 1832 and was part of the massive immigration of New Englanders and New Yorkers to the newly opened Michigan Territory.  Most immigrants traveled by steamship across Lake Erie, or through Canada, to Detroit, and then fanned out north and westward into Michigan, generally following Indian trails which became the Territory's main roads.  The major route to Milford was the Grand River Trail, branching off northwestward to Milford on a territorial road which became Old Plank Road, though some came north on the Saginaw Trail (now Woodward Avenue and Dixie Highway), branching westward from Birmingham or Pontiac.  At the time of its settlement, there appear to have been sporadic visits of native Americans to the area, but no permanent villages.  A small lake, Indian Garden Lake, northwest of Milford Village, probably was a camping site for Indian bands. The boundaries of Milford Township, which includes the Village, had been set in 1815, shortly after the signing of the Treaty of Detroit. Oakland County was first governed by Macomb County and Milford was

located in an area known as Bloomfield Township in Oakland County.  In 1827, the Territorial Legislature divided Oakland County into five townships and Milford became part of Farmington Township.  In 1833,  Novi Township was formed and Milford was part of it.  Finally, Milford Township was formed in 1835.

The early economy of Milford Village was based on the needs of the farmers who had settled in Milford Township, taking up all available land from the government before 1840.  These farmers raised all the cereal grains that Michigan is known for, raised potatoes and vegetables, started orchards, and raised horses, cattle, dairy cows, sheep and pigs.  The Village itself served the needs of the farmers and of the merchants' and workmen's families with mills to process the timber and farm products, blacksmiths, shoemakers, coopers, carpenters, harnessmakers, general stores, wagonmakers, doctors, taverns and inns.  In the early days it is doubtful if there were any industries serving a wider area than the immediate township since there was no good transportation.

 South Milford Village, south of the Huron River, experienced the earliest development, though settlement in North Milford, north of the Huron, began soon after and subsequent development continued equally on both sides of the river.

The first white settlers in Milford Village were Elizur and Stanley Ruggles, who, in 1831, walked across southern Michigan and back, seeking a suitable location for their saw mill and farm.  They selected what is now the south side of Milford Village as a site for their sawmill in 1831, on the south bank of the Huron River, just north of present East Huron Street.  After purchasing 80 acres of land, the two brothers camped for the winter on their newly purchased land, returning to New York in the spring of 1832 to pack their belongings.  Upon their return to Milford they built their sawmill and ran it together until 1834, when Elizur sold his interest to Stanley.  Stanley sold the mill to Stephen and John Armstrong in 1836 and moved west.

The Armstrong brothers added a gristmill across the river from the sawmill in 1839. John L. Armstrong, who purchased the Ruggles saw mill in 1836, added a grist mill

in 1839, on the north bank of the Huron River, across from the saw mill, and utilizing the same dam and water power.  Armstrong platted the Eastern Liberty Addition in 1840, east of South Main Street with Water Street on its north and Oak Street (now called Oakland Street) on its south.  Its eastern boundary was a street then called Huron Street, which no longer exists.

It appears that Aaron Phelps ran the sawmill in 1850 and 1851.  He sold the mills and the waterpower to Major William Hughes in 1853.  In the following years there was a great deal of illness in Milford which the residents attributed to stagnant water caused by the damming of the Huron River at the two mills.  Finally, in 1856, while Major Hughes was out of town, a number of farmers gathered at the river and tore down the dam to its sills.  The dam was not rebuilt and the mills ceased operations.

Elizur lived the rest of his life on his farm, which comprised the southeastern part of North Milford Village.  He lived first in a log cabin just south of the wood frame Greek Revival house he built in 1843, which was remodeled by his grandson, Ben Phillips, in 1929 (1018 Atlantic).  He later subdivided his property, creating the southeast part of North Milford Village known as "Egypt."  The origin of the name of Milford Village is questionable.  It may have received the name because there was a ford across the Huron River near the Ruggles sawmill, but it is also a fact that the Ruggles Brothers were born in, and may have lived in, New Milford, Connecticut.

 In 1834 Luman Fuller bought 80 acres of land on both sides of the Huron River on the west side of South Milford Village. He built a dam and created a millpond on the Huron and built Milford's first gristmill on the south bank of the river at the place where Peters Road crosses the Huron on a (now-disused) bridge.  In 1840 Fuller sold the mill property to William Welles who platted the area along West Huron Street and General Motors Road (Welles Addition) in 1840. Jacob Peters came to Milford in 1846 and a year later purchased the mill of Mr. Welles.  In connection with it Mr. Peters operated a Greek Revival woolen mill and a cooperage. Abram Seaman operated a tannery near by, thus creating Milford's first "industrial park." The tannery and cooperage buildings still stand, now serving as homes at 532 W. Huron Street and 138 Peters Road. The gristmill was rebuilt and enlarged by John Peters in the early 1870's.  The mill passed out of the Peters family in 1885 and after several changes of ownership was purchased by William Peters in 1902.

In 1892 Joseph Wellman put an electric dynamo plant into the old Peters mill and provided electricity to run the Wells Cultivator Co. building on the Upper Mill Pond.

Shortly after, many businesses and homes had electric lights, and arc lights were installed on the streets of Milford, making Milford the first village in the area to use electricity.

Frank S. Hubbell, manager of the Electric Light Company, purchased the old Peters grist mill and woolen mill and had both demolished.  He then dammed the Huron River farther downstream, creating a new millpond below the Peters dam, known as Hubbell Pond, and used the waterpower to generate electricity.  The property was sold to the Detroit Edison Co. and later, in 1938, became part of the hydroelectric plant operating

Henry Ford I's small-town carburetor plant built on the west side of the Upper Mill Pond in North Milford Village.  

A metal historical plaque marks the sites of both the grist and woolen mills, both now covered by Hubbell Pond.

Ansley S. Arms came to South Milford from Northville in 1835 and selected a site for a store and a house.  His partner in this venture was to be Jabesh Mead, his future brother-in-law.  Arms contracted with Henry Ruggles to build him a house and store and then returned to Northville.  He returned in 1836 and opened the first general store in Milford, which was known as Mead & Arms.  His house, built in 1836,  was the first frame house in Milford Village and still stands today at 319 Dean Street on the west side of, and facing, the Public Square.  His partner, Jabesh Mead, created the first plat in Milford, known as Mead's Addition, in 1837.  Mead also gave to the village the Public Square, in the middle of his plat between West Huron Street and Washington Street, and a one-acre cemetery south of Washington and east of Mill Street. Ansley Arms' younger brother William became his partner in 1839 and the store was then named Arms Brothers.  The store still exists today, though not at the same location, and is recognized as the oldest men'swear store in Michigan.

Phillip Schuyler Hubbell came to Milford in the 1830's and built a wagon works on the south bank of the Huron River in South Milford. He was a founding member of the Presbyterian Church in 1838 and a Trustee on the first Milford Village Council in 1869. After the Civil War Hubbell, an abolitionist, brought a black family to Milford and helped to settle them into the community. His Greek Revival house still stands south of the Public Square at 215 W. Washington Street in South Milford.

Dr. Henry King Foote, Milford's first physician, came to Milford in 1837.  He erected a three-room house, the second frame house in Milford, on the east side of the Public Square, facing Ansley S. Arms' house across the square.  In 1858 he erected a new brick Greek Revival house at 213 W. Huron, on the same lot but facing on West Huron Street.  This house still stands and has been placed on the State and National Registers of Historic Sites.  Dr. Foote enlisted in the Union Army in 1862, when he was actually too old to serve. He took a number of Milford men with him and is regarded as a local hero.  He died of pneumonia shortly after.  A large number of his descendants still live in Milford Village and Milford Township.

Milford's second physician, Dr. Daniel Ashby Brockway Crissie Fox, known as Dr. Alphabet Fox, arrived in 1838.  He built a house on the north side of West Huron Street facing the Public Square, with an office just south of the house. The house is still

Standing at 300 W. Huron. Dr. Fox's son, Truman Fox, was the founder and long-time editor of the Rochester Era newspaper in Rochester, Michigan.

Milford's third physician, Dr. Zebina Mowry, arrived in 1841 and entered into a partnership with Dr. Foote soon after his arrival. Many years of his life were spent in the 1849 stone house still standing at 324 South Main Street in South Milford.

Phillip Wells, in partnership with Charles Holmes, built a foundry on the east side of North Main Street just south of Detroit Street, facing the flatiron formed by the divergence of North Main Street and the angling road now known as North Milford Road.

After his death in the middle 1850's, Wells' sons, Phillip F. and D. Webster, continued their father's foundry operations at the north Milford location.  In 1865, however, the brothers moved their foundry to the south bank of the Huron River just east of Main Street because they had some difficulty with the waterpower on the flatiron--waterpower that their father had created in the first place.  The north foundry buildings disappeared after 1856, and the south foundry was torn down in 1910.  Its site has been marked with a metal historical plaque.

During this first era of settlement and prosperity Milford's first buildings were log structures constructed in the 1830's and 1840's.  These were succeeded by chiefly Greek Revival style houses and commercial buildings.  Some of these houses are still extant, but most have been extensively remodeled. Several Italianate and Victorian Gothic buildings from the 1860's and a stone blacksmith shop from 1859 are still in existence.

The Arrival of the Railroad

After the conflict of the Civil War, in which a large number of Milford men took part, Milford moved into an exciting, productive age.  Wealth increased, material goods became more readily available, and leisure time increased for many.  Of all the changes, the coming of the railroad in 1871 had the greatest impact on Milford.  It opened up new markets for farm produce and brought merchants to town to build elevators and deal in this farm produce.  The farmers profited from cash crops that would have been difficult to transport before the railroad came.  

In the early days businesses were very local in nature.  The village existed to serve the needs of the farmers, and the farms supplied the villagers with much of what they needed.  Businesses were chiefly general stores, dry goods stores, wagon shops, blacksmith shops, shoe shops, public houses, and stagecoach inns.  Early manufacturing included sash, furniture, and planing mills; saw mills; grist mills; woolen mills; a distillery; a brick works; a rake factory; and some basket makers, all of which furnished the immediate needs of the settlers in both Milford Township and Village

In contrast to this early picture, Milford, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, had an amazingly large number of businesses and manufacturing concerns. Although the population of the village did not reach 2000 people until well after 1900, the following businesses thrived in South Milford Village between 1871 and 1900: two lumber yards; a marble works; several general, dry goods and fancy goods stores; many taverns (twelve at one time);  harnessmakers; groceries; meat markets; hardware stores; jewelry stores; millinery, dressmaking and notions stores; a drug stores (owned by a doctors); dentists and physicians; local builders including brick and stone masons, painters, wallpaper hangers, grainers, plasterers, carpenters and roofers; undertakers; furniture stores; barbers; a book and stationery store; a greenhouse; a bank; buggy and wagon shops; a bakery; two tailor shops; restaurants; photographers; lawyers; insurance and real estate salesmen; sewing machine salesmen; boot and shoe shops; ice cream shops (summer only); hotels; and boarding houses.

This increased business brought new people to Milford, creating a demand for more houses, stores and hotels.  Manufacturers expanded their factories and new ones opened because the train made widespread marketing feasible.  


The arrival of the railroad also caused a residential building boom, with an estimated eighty-eight houses and eighteen commercial buildings constructed in the 1870's.  Many of the houses which line the streets of Milford were built for retiring farmers and for the sons and daughters of the pioneers, who were conducting prosperous businesses in the Village.  The houses from this period of development

comprise the Italianate and Victorian Gothic styles found on virtually every street in the district.  The last decades of the nineteenth century brought the construction of Queen Anne, Stick, Late Victorian and Second Empire style houses.   

Milford's early businesses were situated in wood frame buildings that lined both North and South Main Street.  In the late 1860's the wood frame buildings began to be replaced with two-story and three-story brick and wood frame commercial buildings designed in the vernacular Italianate style.

 John Hathorn built a hotel on East Liberty Street in 1872, which burned to the ground in 1877.  A wood frame hotel was built in 1874 in South Milford on the northwest corner of South Main Street and West Huron Street.  This hotel was just a block west of the railroad depot and was designed for the use of travelers and traveling salesmen.  Several local merchants took to the railroad as "drummers" in the last part of the nineteenth century.  Some used their earnings to build houses for rentals.

In the 1870's two elevators were built, one by Lingham & Osborne on the Southside, and the other by Larkin & Howland on the Northside.  Lingham also built the striking brick Tuscan Italianate house in 1874 at 335 West Huron, on the southside and Howland built the handsome two-story wood frame Victorian Gothic house at 645 Canal Street.  

Ed Hubbell's sausage, made in a steam-operated machine in his store at 319 N. Main, could now be sold in Detroit.  J. Buferd, in his store at 351 N. Main, made centre tables for Victorian parlors that were shipped to Buffalo and Niagara Falls, New York, and, in 1876, built a wood frame Victorian Gothic house at 711 N. Main.   The Milford Manufacturing Company shipped window screens to San Francisco. Bissell & Thornhill's "Little Giant" potato and corn scoops were sold in Sweden and Germany. Edward Bissell and the Thornhill brothers were also involved in the Door Knob Factory and other

businesses.  Bissell was a lawyer, and the Thornhill brothers built or owned the brick stores at 414 and 416 N. Main and the Opera House at 339 N. Main.  Edward Bissell built the glorious brick Second Empire house at 334 Union in 1880.

 Farm implements were manufactured by the Wells Brothers at their foundry by the Main Street bridge on the Huron River and were shipped all over the country.  Phillip F. Wells built his magnificent wood frame Italianate house at 800 E. Commerce in 1869 and his brother bought his house at 848 E. Commerce shortly after.  Vowles & Orvis manufactured a "walking cultivator" at their plant on E. Commerce, just east of N. Main St. Vowles built his lovely Victorian Gothic house at 515 E. Commerce, but the Orvis house on the same street is gone.

This same era saw the invention and patenting of numerous devices, "made in Milford," from agricultural implements to pillow-sham holders, which not only enriched their inventors, but also lightened the labors of farmers and housewives. New conveniences were appearing. In 1884, gasoline and oil stoves began replacing the old wood and coal stoves. Several hardware stores on N. Main St. began selling these new stoves.  Telegraph lines connected private homes and businesses in 1881.  Telephones arrived in 1883.  The first streetlights were put up in 1875, and converted to gas in 1881.  Electricity for street lighting, and also for lighting in homes and businesses, was available in 1892.  The water works was built in 1895.  The new village government (established in 1869) busied itself with improving the streets and with building sidewalks, first of wood, and then later, in 1884, of brick.  Concrete and stone sidewalks came in the early twentieth century.  Milford residents could now shop in Detroit and Pontiac.

All of this development combined to increase the wealth of the residents of the village as well as to provide them with leisure time to pursue all sorts of activities. Milford was becoming a more comfortable, convenient, and attractive place, and life was in many ways easier for many people.  The residents began to fill their non-working hours with a variety of entertainments.  The railroad that brought prosperity to the village also offered new forms of entertainment.  Excursions were organized to many different places, from near-by towns to distant ones, such as Philadelphia for the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 and Chicago for the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893.  Groups of local residents visited friends in neighboring villages on the railroad

line for parties.  Milford people journeyed east and west, for sightseeing, even visiting the West while the Indian wars were still raging.  Some residents began spending the winter in the south in the 1870's.  Many took pleasure trips to both the east and west coasts.

The coming of the railroad made possible the visits of all sorts of entertainers and entertainments.  Tenny & Greig's Hall, the third floor of a store built on the flatiron in the 1860's, first furnished a venue for these activities.  It was succeeded in 1872 by St. John's Hall, the third floor of the new building on the southeast corner of N. Main and E. Commerce Streets.  This hall was succeeded in 1875 by Ferguson's Opera House at 440 N. Main.  Some of the entertainers were local, but most came to town by railroad.

 A remarkable variety of entertainments were held in these halls, including professional dramatic companies, local dramas, musical entertainments, both professional and amateur, illusionists, humorists, necromancers, elocutionists, spiritualists, phrenologists, mesmerists, escape artists, ventriloquists, poets and

lecturers on numerous subjects.  The halls were also used for balls, dancing classes and even roller-skating.

The most extensive chronicling of Milford's history began in 1871 with the founding of The Milford Times, a weekly newspaper, which has continued to record the happenings in Milford until the present day.  The paper was started by Isaac P. Jackson, and continued by his wife Ann, his son Bert, and finally his daughter, Carrie Jackson Rowe, who took over in 1892 and continued to act as publisher until 1935.  Carrie Jackson Rowe was the voice and conscience of the growing community of Milford for more than half a century.  As editor and publisher of The Milford Times  from 1892 to

1935 she chronicled the events that defined the lives of the people of Milford.  Editor Carrie Rowe became a legend.  In the days when women were expected to devote their lives to home and family, she was forced to take over the family printing business and ran it successfully for 53 years.  She also raised and educated eight children.  Carrie's scrapbook in the Milford Township Library contains clippings from [other] newspapers with comments such as "Miss Carrie handles The Times  like a veteran," "She evidently has a good business head on her trim little shoulders," and "The only lady newspaper publisher in the state and most surely the youngest and prettiest."

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