A BRIEF HISTORY OF MILFORD, MICHIGAN
by Barbara Young
Milford began at a point where Pettibone Creek flows into the Huron River. It started when the Ruggles Brothers, Elizur and Stanley, built a sawmill on the Huron River in 1832. Elizur went into farming and sold his share to his brother Stanley in 1834 and Stanley sold to the Armstrong Brothers in 1836. They added a gristmill across the river in 1839. Elizur’s farm was south of Atlantic Street and east and north of the river. He later platted the farm in 1872 and the houses now there were built in the 1870’s and later. This area was called “Egypt” in the 19th and early 20th century. Elizur’s farmhouse still stands.
The Huron River, and Pettibone Creek flowing into it, provided waterpower for the 14 mills built in the area in the 19th and 20th centuries. Luman Fuller built the first gristmill on the Huron in 1834, where Peters’ bridge is now. This later became the Peters Mill. There were also a woolen mill, a cooperage and a tannery in that complex. The first street connected the Ruggles saw mill and the Fuller grist mill and is now called Huron Street.
Jabesh Mead platted part of South Milford, called Mead’s Addition, in 1836. The same year he and his brother-in-law, Ansley Arms, built the first store, Mead & Arms, just west of the Public Square, where Dr. Ridings’ dentist office now stands. This first store was moved three times and ended up on the Huron River (where it may still be seen). The business moved north of the river, occupying several different buildings, and is still in business. Arms also had built, in 1836, the first frame house in Milford Village. It still stands, southwest of the fire station.
Settlement north of the river began shortly after that of South Milford. In 1836 Aaron Phelps built a dam on Pettibone Creek and created the Lower Mill Pond, building a sawmill and distillery at its foot. The Upper Mill Pond was developed in 1845, and had at least five different mills on it.
Milford was established as a township in 1835, and then, on April 12, 1869, Milford Village was incorporated. The main concerns of the first Village Council were streets and sidewalks and the formation of a fire department
The local weekly newspaper, The Milford Times, was founded in 1871 by Isaac Jackson. It continues to this day and is the oldest continuously published newspaper in Oakland County. The coming of the Flint & Pere Marquette Railroad in 1871 spurred growth and vitality by supplying a route for the marketing of farm produce. Hotels, stores, saloons, and homes were needed for the expanding community and much building took place in the 1870's and 1880's. Fire protection became a concern and the last quarter of the Nineteenth Century saw the beginning of a fire department and, in 1895, a community water works.
The presence of the waterpower allowed Milford to become one of the earliest communities in Michigan to have a system of electric lights, in 1892. A dynamo was placed in the old Fuller-Peters gristmill and electricity was generated. In 1911 a new dam was built further down the river, creating what is now known as Hubbell Pond, and the old mill was demolished. Electricity was then used for more than just lighting. Telephones had already appeared in 1883.
Growth slowed, even decreased, in the last decades of the Nineteenth Century. Small industries were established; some succeeded, some failed. Then, as now, efforts were made to attract businesses to Milford, with varying success. Buggies, sausages, door knobs, window screens, cultivators, bath tubs, toilet seats, dried apples, Kentucky jeans, fine furniture, carburetors, honey, jam, whiskey, flour--all were manufactured in Milford at one time or another.
The invention of the automobile had a great effect on Milford. Mr. Bacon brought the first car to Milford in 1900 and after that car dealer-ships, gas stations, car repair businesses and even several businesses manufacturing car parts came into being. Frank Orvis even invented a car in 1917. General Motors put in its Proving Ground in 1928, creating jobs and bringing in new residents. Henry Ford built a factory by the upper millpond in 1938, using hydroelectric power from the same waterpower that had run Milford since 1832, to manufacture carburetors for Ford automobiles.
In recent years has come a large influx of residents who have found, as did the author of an 1877 History of Oakland County, "a landscape of wondrous beauty, and one well worth the pencil of the artist."
The history of Milford is not the story of national heroes and mighty events. It is rather a living model of how Michigan villages developed in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Much of its history is still evident in its surviving structures and existing millponds. Its fabric gives us a sense of character and identity and builds a bridge from our past through our present and into our future.
For more on the history of Milford Township and the Village of Milford, go to the Milford Historical Society Web site.
This brief history of Milford was written by Barbara Young, a local historian. Barbara was a founding member of the Milford Historical Society and did much of the research for projects like the book about Milford’s history - Five Minutes Ahead of the World and the documentation that was submitted for Milford’s National Historic District.