Heritage Conference Shares Dixie Hwy History
(Crystal A. Proxmire, Sept. 24, 2016)
Holly, MI – With a theme of pairing development with history, the 19th annual Oakland County Heritage Conference focused on Dixie Hwy and the 23 miles of this historic road that travel through the Oakland County borders. The highway stretches from Sault St. Marie all the way to Miami, Florida and began as a walking path for Native Americans hundreds of years ago called the Saginaw Trail. And since European settlers began coming to the area in the 1800s, it has grown steadily to the corridor it is today.
Archaeologist Carol Bacak-Egbo, special lecturer at Oakland University, presented the history of the area to over 200 officials and urban planners from around Oakland County on Friday at the Mt. Holly Resort.
According to Bacak-Egbo, the first record of the trail being documented was 1817 on a map of the area. In the 1850s the first white settlers began to come and set up farms. William H. Greene, who lived from 1844-1931 settled in what is now Groveland Township, in what was known as Austin Corners. This area at the corner of Oak Hill and Dixie became a stop for travelers. In his years at Austin Corners, Greene saw the passing traffic go from “Indians to trains, from stagecoaches to motorcars” – a world of change in just one lifetime.
Greene was known for two things. He had a threshing machine, which he rented to others to help clear land. And he was the town fiddler. Around that time, explorers documented the large burial mounds of Native Americans. These sacred spaces were eliminated by the farmers to make the land flat for farming.
Around that time another settler had a role in transforming North Oakland County. Oliver Williams had been born in Roxbury, Mass.in 1776 and in 1818 he moved to Detroit. He took the Saginaw Trail north and set up a trading post in what is now Waterford Township, then called Silver Lake. He would trade with the Indians for fur, honey, wax and maple syrup that he would then take to Detroit to sell. This led to more people taking an interest in the goods of the wild north, and to more whites moving there. This also led to a reduction in the Native American population.
Another type of development was the building of mills to harness the power of rivers. Where the Saginaw Trail crossed the Clinton River became a hot spot for production. In 1872 there were several mills including a grist mill and a saw mill.
In what is now Springfield Township, the 1850s were a prosperous time due to an industry that no longer exists: ice. Workers in Springfield Township would go to area lakes and rivers to cut large sheets of ice that would go on to rail cars bound for Cincinnati. Because the community built around that business, growth was stunted when refrigeration came along.
Along with these developments came hotels because trips from Detroit to Flint or Saginaw were long and exhausting. Springfield Township had two hotels, which started a community that had several merchants, a physician and surgeon, and a potter. According to literature of the time, “accommodations were crude and often inadequate, but food was plentiful and friendliness was the rule.”
In 1826 the Saginaw Trail was turned into a government road, taking it from a rut-filled path to a road where stagecoaches could travel between Detroit and Saginaw. Around this time Norman Ellis settled in Springfield to make his claim as a horse breeder. Ingomar, a big strong Percheron work horse, turned out to be the most famous stud in Michigan. Ingomar’s offspring helped farmers far and wide plow the heavy, rocky soil of the state. In time the demand for work horses was replace with the need for travel and leisure horses, and the Ellis family adapted. In 1945 they opened up their barn to The Dixie Saddle Club, where riding lessons, competitions and many social events were held. Eventually the land was sold and the barn was preserved by dismantling it piece by piece and moving it to its current home at Springfield Oaks Park. The home was also relocated elsewhere in the township.
“These are great examples of historic preservation,” Bacak-Egbo said. “We prefer that things stay where they are of course. But moving them is better than tearing them down.”
In 2013 Bacak-Egbo and a team of volunteers did an archeological dig on the Ellis property and came away with over 5,000 artifacts, including discarded bottles of horse medicine and 17 different kinds of china. Volunteers are still cleaning and organizing the items, including piecing together the broken dishes.
With increased accessibility for stagecoaches came new visitors – people from Detroit who wanted to “get away” for a day or two “up north.” What used to be a journey usually taken over a couple days, could now be accomplished in one. Advertisements showed that stagecoach lines would leave Flint in the early morning and arrive in Pontiac by 6pm, in time to catch a train that would take them to Detroit in the later evening.
The advent of cars cut the trip from Detroit to Waterford down to just 90 minutes. Visitors would “motor out” to the area for the day and enjoy the “healthy” fresh air and elevations. Dr. Lamar Matthews had settled in Groveland Corners and purchased land to build a resort area called Groveland on the Dixie. Matthews began the process of landscaping the area around the lakes to help them appeal to tourists. He build a lighthouse where couples would come to marry, and he placed cement animal statues though the area. Later this area was taken over by Oakland County and became Groveland Oaks.
Along the Dixie Highway corridor many of the stores are visible only in the names of streets and businesses. Yet as the communities of Holly Township and Groveland Township start to think strategically about how to attract investment to the area, there are opportunities to tie in the history with public art, informational signage, and other attractions that celebrate the heritage of the historic route.
“As an historian, it’s not about a road, it’s about the people and the places along these 23 miles,” Bacak-Egbo said.
Following Bacak-Egbo’s presentation, world-renowned urban planner Ed McMahon shared information on how to incorporate history and a sense of place into development. That article will post in the coming days. To have a list of new headlines sent to you daily, sign up at https://feedburner.google.com/fb/a/mailverify?uri=Oakland_County_115_News.
Photo: Springfield Twp. Recreation
Heritage Conference Shares Dixie Hwy History