At one point, there was nothing here. That could be accurately said about anywhere in the world, but in the years before Michigan became a state in 1837, there really wasn’t that much here in the lakes area. Standing on the side of the road of your choice today, it’s hard to think of a time when the land wasn’t crisscrossed by asphalt heading in every direction. It was in the middle of the 19th century that Michigan started to grow and the places we now call home were mere pinpoints on a map denoting intersections and rail spurs.
What follows is a look at the lakes area’s locales that have earned a spot on the state’s registry of historical sites.
The Waterford Village Historic District — bounded by Dubay and Pontiff streets; and Steffens, Andersonville and Airport roads — comprises about 30 modest 19th century structures. Most buildings in the district are 1.5-story homes covered in clapboard siding. The most ornate structure in the district is the First Baptist Church, a brick building fronted by a tower standing on a high foundation. Some exterior alterations have been made to homes in the district, including the addition of synthetic and metal siding and windows.
According to the state’s historical registry, the district is a significant example of an in-tact village circa 19th century Michigan. First settled in 1819, the area’s growth was facilitated by the construction of the Detroit-Saginaw Turnpike in 1835. Since the late 1800s the area has undergone few major changes and continues to preserve its historic structures.
Waterford Historical Society President Sally Strait said the Hess House, part of the historical district run under the Waterford Parks and Recreation Department, was willed to the township by Myrtle Hess after her death in 1985 and provides a good picture of what Waterford was like more than 100 years ago.
“Back in 1865 (when the house was built) the then-Waterford Village was the intersection of Dixie Highway and Andersonville Road. There was a grist mill, a sawmill, a carting mill (for wool), and there were three hotels and three general stores,” Strait said. “That area served a population of 1,289.”
What’s interesting about the records of deeds at the time, she said, is the occupations of the landowners. Almost everyone was listed as a farmer, but many of those farmers also ran businesses; the town’s foundry operator, the cobbler, and even the bankers were primarily farmers.
The historical district is considered significant between the years of 1600 and 1825. The site has been listed on the national register of historic places since Aug. 10, 1979 and listed on the state register since June 18, 1976.
The Byers Farm, 213 Commerce Road, consists of 1.5 acres of land on the Huron River off Commerce Road near Newton Road. The buildings consist of the farm home built prior to 1850, a chicken coop, pantry, outhouse, and a barn which is used as an antique store.
The property is maintained in an original 19th century-style setting with wagon wheels and assorted farm tools in the yard. The buildings are maintained with no visible modernization and no automobiles are allowed on the land. The home is the oldest building on the property and was built between 1830 and 1850.
Two generations of the Byers family resided at the site, said to be the home of the first white settler in Commerce Township. Abraham Walrod arrived in 1825 from New York and built a log cabin in what is now Commerce Township. The early Victorian frame house, built prior to 1850, replaced an original cabin. Now a country store, the barn is believed to have been a blacksmith shop.
The area attracted settlers. Inhabitants named their village Commerce hoping that its early growth would signal the beginning of a business center.
The historic homestead is considered significant during the years after Michigan’s inception as state in the years between 1826 and 1865.
The Byers Farm was added to the state registry of historic places on April 5, 1974 and got its historic plaque two years later.
The Commerce Village Burying Ground, also known as Commerce Village Cemetery, is situated on East Commerce Road near Newton Road. The original plat for the cemetery defined a tract of land measuring approximately 3 acres above Hayes Creek, but additions have nearly doubled its size.
The cemetery contains a broad range of granite and marble monuments: Simple slab headstones and tablets, obelisks, pedestals, cylinders, urns, and several zinc monuments.
The Commerce Village Burying Ground is the resting place for many early settlers and prominent residents of Commerce Township, as well as a number of veterans from the Civil War and World War I. About 600 of the approximately 1,200 graves there date to the 19th century, and there are new burials there today.
The earliest known grave in the cemetery dates to 1834, prior to its platting by the Baptist Church of Commerce in 1837. The church disbanded in 1921 and responsibility for the tract was assumed by Commerce Township. Some of the more significant graves identified are those of Joseph G. Farr and Amasa Andrews, who platted Commerce Village in 1836; Reuben Wright, the first permanent township settler; a dozen other pioneers who arrived in the township prior to 1840; and George C. Hungerford, who established a route through Commerce Village between Pontiac and Milford in 1851.
The site is considered historically relevant in the years between 1826 and 1865. It has been listed on the state registry of historic places since Aug. 23, 1990.
The Joseph A. and Mary Farr House is a one- and two-story, wood-frame home on South Commerce Road. The house was built in phases over 20 years.
The house has architectural significance as an example of a 19th century farmhouse in Commerce Township.
The earliest records of the Farr presence in Commerce Township are purchases of land parcels totaling over 1,600 acres in 1836. In 1839, Joseph Farr purchased the 80 acres on which the farmhouse was built.
The house is considered significant between the years of 1840 and 1850 and has been on the state registry of historic places since Nov. 11, 1955.
The Jabez Payne-Francis Ingersoll House has an association with two early Commerce Township pioneers: Jabez Payne and Francis Ingersoll. Harry Nelson Payne, a native of New York state, settled in Bloomfield Township with his wife and five sons in 1827. On May 23, 1832, he purchased 160 acres of land in Commerce Township which he sold to his eldest son Jabez in September 1834 for $750.
Payne and his brothers purchased all of Commerce Township’s water power in 1835, and in 1836 built the township’s first grist and sawmill, and later donated land for the township cemetery.
Ingersoll, a native of Wyoming, New York, bought the property from Payne. Ingersoll farmed the land, organized the Baptist Church of Commerce, and served as church deacon for 30 years. He was also an officer of the local grange and a school superintendent. The Payne-Ingersoll House is an example of the typical architecture of the time in Commerce Township.
The site is significant between the years of 1826 and 1865 and has been on the state register since April 23, 1985.
Oak Grove Cemetery, established in May 1845, was formally named in May 1871. When it was officially designated as the township cemetery, the remains from the area’s “old burying ground,” established on the corner of Mill and Washington streets in 1832, were moved to the new site.
Elizur Ruggles, Milford’s first white settler, and veterans of the War of 1812 and the Civil War are buried there. The site has an early potter’s field near the Huron River. The cemetery vault dates back to 1885. In 1980, the vault was restored and a new fieldstone entrance was built. The original cemetery, which covered almost 13 acres, has expanded over the years to encompass 15.6 acres.
Sue Gumpper, vice-president of the Milford Historical Society, said one of the big challenges the society has started to address recently is how to bring younger people into the group and keep their preservation efforts running.
“We’ve got to find a way to reach out to them and help us grow,” she said. “We sponsor the Fourth of July parade. We host a home tour. That’s been a great way to meet people who are interested in preservation.”
She said the group has worked with the Village of Milford and Milford Township to keep close ties even as funds grow tighter for them. The organization’s museum has been leased to them on 100-year terms, and they’re responsible for its upkeep.
“We had some help recently from a private contractor,” Gumpper said. “We still need a new roof this year.”
The cemetery site is considered historically relevant for the years between 1826 and 1865. It was placed on the state register on Sept. 10, 1979 and got its marker on March 31, 1981.
The Detroit Finnish Co-operative Summer Camp is located in a wooded setting on Loon Lake Road in Wixom. The property includes frontage on Loon Lake and completely encompasses Sun Lake.
The Detroit Finnish Cooperative Summer Camp draws its significance from its long-standing association with and preservation of the Finnish culture and the promotion of the traditions of Finnish immigrants to Michigan among its members. In addition, it retains the integrity of its original campground plan and many of its original structures.
The site is considered historically relevant for the years between 1901 and 1930. It was added to the state registry on Oct. 16, 1997 and got it’s state marker on Dec. 22, 1999.
The South Commerce Burying Ground contains approximately 1,025 graves, of which 233 date from the 19th century. Now called the Wixom Cemetery, it has been in continuous use since 1838.
Wixom Historical Society Co-founder Nancy Dingeldey said the Sibley family owned the land at the intersection of Wixom and Maple roads — known as Sibley Corners — and it was the center of town for many years.
The graves there date from the 19th century and contain the remains of most of Wixom’s pioneers, including the Alonzo Sibley and the Ahijah Wixom families. Dingeldey said Alonzo Sibley donated the land for the cemetery, located across Maple Road from the Reverend Wire’s home. The wrought-iron gate and fence along Wixom Road was erected in 1899.
The site is considered historically relevant for the years between 1826 and 1865. It was put on the state register on Oct. 23, 1987 and got its marker on June 28, 1989.
The Wixom-Wire house was built in the early 1850s by Lucy Wixom, widow of Ahijah Wixom, one of the town’s founders. Its first residents were the Reverend and Mrs. Samuel Wire. He was the pastor of the Free Will Baptist Association of Commerce.
Dingeldey said it was the Wixoms who brought the railroad to the city and gave it its first life as a commercial hub.
“It became an important place,” she said. “A lot of farm freight went through the city there. Farmers would come there to have their crops shipped all over the country.”
For a while, the city was a place where business got done and money changed hands, but all of that was brought to a screeching halt in the mid-1920s by two unforeseen forces. First, a fire ripped through the downtown area and destroyed everything. Second, Henry Ford got his mass-production factories in operation.
“The automobile killed this town,” Dingeldey said. “The fire was bad but once people had more options than the railroad, the city couldn’t come back.”
The Wixom Historical Society got its start in 1976 when Dingeldey and her friend, Margaret Ladd — neither of whom are native to Wixom — decided that the nation’s bicentennial was a good time to start something and decided to create the society. It was Ladd that convinced the city to purchase the Wixom-Wire house as a historical asset. City officials concurred, spent $12,000 on the historic home and agreed to lease it to the historical society at a rate of $1 per year for the following 99 years.
The site is considered historically relevant for the years between 1826 and 1865. It was put on the state register on Feb. 10, 1983 and got its marker on May 7, 1985.
It’s believed that Chief Pontiac once lived on Apple Island in Orchard Lake. The Native American chief was born around 1720, probably in the Ottawa village on the Detroit River. In 1763 he led the Native Americans of the area in an attack on Fort Detroit while other tribes inspired by him rose against the British in the West and overwhelmed every fort except for Fort Pitt and Niagara.
The Emmendorfer House in the city is believed to have been a hideout for slaves escaping to freedom. The house contains two secret rooms: One accessible only through a small opening hidden behind built-in drawers in a bedroom, and another accessible through the rear of a closet. The house was built in 1840 and is located on Pontiac Trail, one of the few early roads in Oakland County, and is halfway between Pontiac and Farmington, where known Underground Railroad hideouts existed.
The site is considered historically relevant for the years between 1826 and 1865. It was put on the state register on March 23, 1983 and got its marker on Dec. 20, 1993.
Orchard Lake Chapel was originally erected to accommodate summer tourists to Orchard Lake who wished to worship. It was one of the earliest houses of worship in the area and is architecturally noteworthy as an outstanding example of Gothic Revival architecture.
The site is considered historically relevant for the years between 1866 and 1900. It was put on the state register on July 26, 1974 and got its marker on April 26, 1990.
The Orchard Lake Schools campus occupies 120 wooded, grassy acres on the north shore of Orchard Lake between Commerce and Orchard Lake roads. Only about 15 acres of the central campus are included in the site. The historic district includes 11 structures including the Gothic Revival Copeland House, the oldest building in the district. The district includes the Copeland House, barracks, class building gymnasium, a heating plant, an administration building, a dining hall, a high school dormitory, a seminary building, a riding hall and faculty residence.
The buildings are historically significant for their association with Joseph Tarr Copeland, an early Michigan entrepreneur and politician, as well as for their connection with the Michigan Military Academy and the Orchard Lake Schools. In 1877, Joseph Sumner Rogers purchased the estate of Joseph Tarr Copeland and established the Michigan Military Academy.
Closely modeled after the military academy at West Point, the school attained national prominence, attracting students from throughout the region and the nation. After Rogers’ death in 1902, the school faded in importance and finally closed in 1909. That year the entire property was sold to the Saints Cyril and Methodius Seminary in Detroit, the first Polish seminary in the U.S. The Orchard Lake Schools community consists of three educational institutions: Saints Cyril and Methodius Seminary, Saint Mary’s College, and Saint Mary’s Preparatory School. The complex is one of the major centers for Polish-Catholic culture in the nation.
The site is considered historically relevant for the years between 1858 and 1928. It was put on the state register on July 26, 1974 and got its marker on April 5, 1995. It was added to the national registry of historic places on March 3, 1982.
WHITE LAKE TOWNSHIP
Asa Loren Kelley (1813-1887) migrated from New York as a child around 1820. He settled in Owosso with his first wife, Armitta, and they had two children. Upon the deaths of his wife and children, Kelley married Louisa Austin and moved to White Lake Township. They purchased 320 acres of land in 1851 and built a house around 1852. Following Louisa’s death in 1863, Asa married Frances Rich. The couple had nine additional children (he and Louisa had 10). In 1876, Luther and Henry Fisk purchased the farmland. The Fisk family built many of the farm’s outbuildings and owned the land and structures until 1979.
Greg Baroni of the White Lake Historical Society, who is also a township trustee, said White Lake was primarily a farming community at that time. It was not a commercial hub.
“With everything they did, whatever they farmed, they’d pack up for the market in Pontiac,” he said. “There was a two-track path back then, and it took them eight or nine hours to get there.”
The township’s settlers at that time did trade amongst themselves, though, and Baroni said in those times when they didn’t trade in cash for goods, they’d barter between themselves to seal the deal. He also said it was common for farmers to share their planting or harvesting implements with each other.
The Kelley-Fisk Farm site is considered historically relevant for the years between 1826 and 1865. It was put on the state register on Sept. 24, 1992 and got its marker on Oct. 20, 1992.
St. Patrick Catholic Church was constructed in the township in 1840 by Irish immigrants who first settled in Oakland County during the 1830s. The congregation outgrew the first building by the 1880s and built a new church across the road. In the 1960s another structure was added to the complex, which remains a focal point for community in the surrounding “Dublin” residential area off Union Lake Road. The first church remains in use for occasional ceremonial and social functions.
The site is considered historically relevant for the years between 1826 and 1865. It was put on the state register on April 4, 1977 and got its marker on April 14, 1978.