SLAHS Newsletters

The Witch's Chatter Newsletter  - June, 2023

As South Lyon celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, it is a time to reflect on the pioneers that first settled here and made our city what it is today. “For this place the good, grand old days of pioneer life have already passed, never to return. We cherish with feelings …the memory of those pioneers and the work they accomplished in making the wilderness a fruitful field and a home of plenty and unsurpassed privileges to those who have come after them. These men, aye, these women too, are worthy to be held in everlasting remembrance”. Rev. Sylvester Calkins 

It is early 1800 and Michigan is still mostly an unsettled territory. Dense forests, swamps, and Indian trails were what the first settlers had to deal with as they started their journey west. There were three main Anishinaabe nations in Michigan at that time; Ojibwe (Chippewa), Odawa (Ottawa), and the Bodewadomi (Potawatomi).  

During the War of 1812, Detroit and the surrounding areas were under the rule of the British. After Colonel Lewis Cass was appointed governor of the Michigan Territory on October 13, 1813, he arranged for the establishment of a principal meridian (north & south), and a base line (east & west) by which the public lands could be measured. The law required that townships should be six miles square and subdivided into 36 sections, with each section to be quartered into 160 acres and further divided into 40 acre parcels.  The survey crews found it hard going in 1815-1816, as the weather was unusually wet and filled with many swamps and lakes, which hindered progress. They reported back to   Washington that there would be no more than one acre in every 100 that would admit to cultivation. Public lands went on sale at the Detroit Land Office in 1818. Wild lands sold for $2.00 per acre with ¼ paid at the time of purchase and the rest in three yearly installments. This method proved very unsatisfactory and in 1826 it was changed to $1.25 per acre, with cash at the time of purchase. On January 12, 1819,  Governor Cass established Oakland County.

What with the unfavorable report of the surveyor-general and the extremely bad roads in Oakland County, it is amazing that the fine farm lands were located by the immigrants who came to Detroit after the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. The favorable publicity circulated by Gov. Cass in the 1830’s helped, and by 1836 most of the land had been sold. Section 16 in each township, which had originally been set aside for schools, finally went on sale in 1845. Most of the prospective buyers coming into Oakland County wanted to purchase no more than 40 or 80 acres, which at $1.25 per acre would have cost $50 - $100 per parcel, or $800 for a whole section, 640 acres

As the first settlers, the men who sought and found homes in the unbroken wilderness of 150 years ago in this town, with those who followed, were as a whole enterprising, industrious, and honest. As they forged their way into a wilderness from Detroit, it was so different from what it is now that no one, by any streak of imagination or description, could form an idea of the universal wilderness that their eyes beheld. They had many obstacles to deal with on their journey west: wild animals, shelter for the night, and old-fashioned roads. 

What roads they did follow had an end, usually in front of the last pioneer’s "log cabin" put up in the woods. From there, it was up to them, with their trusty axes, to chop the trees and clear the underbrush to find land to settle on. Can we wonder that many who came to this territory in those early days were homesick and disgusted and went back east to report the "land a swamp and so sickly that everybody died with fever and ague"? 

The first homes of these early settlers were constructed without a board or a nail, being laid up with logs cut from the trees where the building was to be put up. The first log cabins were nothing but rough-cut logs stacked and notched together, and the floor was sometimes the ground or sometimes logs halved and hewn on the split side and then notched down on log sleepers. The door was a blanket hung up on wooden pegs, and the window was a piece of factory cloth fastened the same way. The roof was covered with split logs, the front side a little higher than the rear, with the split side up, followed by another course of logs with the bark side up, covering the joints between the first-laid logs. Inside, you would find most pioneers using a back log, a large log at the back of a fireplace, to cook over. The bedsteads were made of poles and covered with bark, with the mattress stuffed with hay. If the family was large, these were stacked one above the other, or a loft was built if the cabin was tall enough. A few plain chairs, some rustic homemade stools, a good, strong, home-made cross-legged table, and a shelf or two for a few books and some dishes filled out the living quarters of the home. So different from the homes that we have today. We find in these early days that necessity and ability were near neighbors. The pioneers were men of will – they had a purpose and they succeeded grandly.

Bela Chase was the first man to move his family into this area in 1830, himself and his boys making their own road in the manner previously described to what was known then as Town 1 North Range 7 East (T1N R7E). They bought and settled on 80 acres in section 26, what is now bordered by Ten Mile, Chubb, Nine Mile, and Currie Roads.

Mr. Chase was followed in the same year by Robert Purdy, Eliphalet Sprague,& John Thayer. Joseph Blackwood, Henry Waldross, and Michael Miligan soon followed, all settling in the eastern part of Lyon Township. Many of these early pioneers came from the New York area by way of the Erie Canal, into Detroit, and then venturing beyond.

In the fall of 1833, a call was made for the first meeting of citizens to petition the legislature for permission to separate six square miles from Novi and to organize a township form of government. After much discussion, the settlers selected the name of “Fruitland” for their proposed community, even though it had never produced anything but fruit of the wildest and most primitive kinds. The petition was carried to the legislature, which was meeting in Detroit, where the request to establish a township was approved, but the name was rejected.

Instead the legislature approved the name of “Lyon” in honor of Lucius Lyon, a territorial delegate at that time to the legislature. The township organized civilly in 1834, and on April 7, 1834, another meeting was held to select and appoint various township officers. Meanwhile, the Chase family soon moved to Sec 27, staying for around 20 years in Lyon Township, where they welcomed six more children, before moving farther west. They eventually settled in Kent County, in what is now Grand Rapids. In the ensuing years, more families also decided to venture further west, but some families stayed and improved their farmland and began to build a community. 1831 saw more families moving into the area. In June of 1832 Thomas Dunlap, and family, purchased 160 acres of Sec. 20, at what is now Eleven Mile & Pontiac Trail. They came in by way of Northville, following the Base Line as closely as possible until they reached a point nearly south from their land and then cut their own road for two miles. What a long & tiring job that must have been. Arriving, they unpacked their household goods under the spreading top of a large oak tree.  

Mr. Dunlap was a mechanical genius in that he was a blacksmith, gunsmith, tinner, jeweler, and almost anything else that you cared to think of in the mechanical line. Widow Thompson , along with her four sons and a daughter, came to this area in June of 1832. According to the ‘First Land Owners of Oakland County’ book, Wm. Thompson, coming

from Ontario Co., NY, first buying 160 acres in Sec.30. In October of that year he bought the entire west half of Sec.19, (bounded by 10 Mile, Dixboro, & Eleven Mile Rds) He expanded his holding by then purchasing more land in Sections 19 & 21. This family was for many years honored and respected citizens of the township. Early on they built a very large frame house, drawing the shingles with an ox team from north of Howell, before Howell was known as a village. William also built a steam sawmill and brought in a small stock of merchandise which his mother sold in a log addition to his home. 

By 1835, a settlement had sprung up around the store and mill. For years it was called Thompson’s Corners. However, in 1847, a post office was established under the name of South Lyon. South Lyon was the name adopted by the local residents in 1873 when the community was incorporated as a village. The sawmill passed into other hands and was of great benefit to the early settlers for cutting their timber, which they had an abundance of, into lumber that they greatly needed to build better homes. Unfortunately, after a few years, it was completely destroyed by an explosion of the boilers.

References: First Land Owners of Oakland County

Oakland County Book of History by Arthur Hagman 

Historical Sketches of the South Lyon Area by Rev. S. Calkins

Lucius Lyon

South Lyon Map