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The History of the Old Village Plat of Monroe, Michigan

In the beginning.........

Monroe, Michigan is a flat and fertile land formed from a drained glacial lake bed. The climate of the region is tempered by the “lake effect” of Lake Erie to the east, and an abundance of natural resources including fish and fur-bearing animals as well as rich soils encouraged European trading with the Native-Americans and eventually, settlement. The Ottawa and Potawatomi who lived in the area were expert fishermen, hunters, and trappers. They were semi-nomadic, living in the forests in the winter and returning to the lakes and streams in summer, with the nearby uplands for their gardens where they grew corn, squash, pumpkins, and beans. Their dwellings were bark-covered wigwams of a utilitarian nature built by women of saplings and bark with a deerskin over the doorway. With the coming of the French, the Native American way of life was forever altered; they became commercial hunters and fur-traders and sadly developed a fondness for liquor. After the Massacre on the River Raisin during the War of 1812, the tribes in the Monroe area were gradually but thoroughly pushed out, through treaty or other methods of persuasion.

European settlement.........

The European settlement of the Monroe area began around 1784 with an influx of French-Canadian settlers who moved southward from Detroit, following Native-American trails, or paddling down the Detroit River to the shores of Lake Erie and up the rivers and creeks that flowed into it. Along the banks of these streams, they staked their claims and built their homes of logs, using traditional French building techniques: poteaux sur sole, piece sur piece: buildings of horizontal logs, and piece en piece: braced frame construction. Although almost all of these settlers had farms, nearly half of them were also involved in trade with the Indians for their livelihood. The settlement became a trading post for the North-West Company and between 1783 and 1785, deeds were signed by Chief Chaholrehabet and the five principal chiefs of the Potawatami village on the Raisin by which they granted a twenty acre site (the current City of Monroe) to Colonel Francois Navarre.

The War of 1812........

By the war of 1812, there were 120 families living in the River Raisin settlement. Eighty percent of these households spoke French. The Indians were defending their homeland and fighting against the encroaching white settlers. To the Americans this was a war to fulfill America’s destiny: to one day dominate the continent. The Indians were to be removed from the frontiers to open them for settlement. The British, desiring control of the fur-trade, enlisted the help of the Indians by promising them a return of their lands. They provided the Indians liberal amounts of liquor and paid high prices for enemy scalps. The French on the River Raisin were United States citizens, but they had no real patriotic attachment to either side. What mattered most to them was that their homes were in the center of the disputed battleground. In August of 1812, Detroit surrendered to the British, followed two days later by the surrender of the garrison in Frenchtown. The garrison was repossessed by the Americans on January 18, 1813, but three days later was attacked by the British in the middle of the night. After securing the garrison, the British took their wounded back to Fort Malden (Amherstburg, Ontario), with a promise to send for the wounded Americans the next day. Instead, several hundred inebriated Indians returned to Frenchtown and massacred all the Americans they could find, burning the buildings behind them. Most of the American soldiers were from Kentucky. The road upon which the American General Winchester was captured is today named Kentucky Avenue, and a monument stands on South Monroe Street in an old cemetery where some of the soldiers are buried.
The Indians of the Old Northwest Territory and their British allies lost the War of 1812. The Indians failed to stop the takeover of their ancestral lands by the white settlers and soon became wards of the Federal government and were assigned to reservations. By the 1840’s they were removed from these reservations and shipped to Oklahoma and Texas. The British lost their influence over the Indians and were unable to secure control of the fur trade. The Americans and French-Canadians were on the winning side, and indeed, the Americans succeeded in ending the Indian “menace” on the frontier, but for the French this victory was the coup de grace of their dominant position on the River Raisin. Before the war, the French had dominated the area culturally, politically, and economically. The American victory opened the Raisin country to settlement by eastern Yankees from New England and New York and the French were never again to regain hegemony. By the late 1820’s English would replace French as the language of business and commerce.

The Old Village Plat...........

The Old Village Plat forms much of the nucleus of Monroe’s evolutionary history. It was one of the first plats drawn in the Territory of Michigan in 1817 and its creation spawned the movement of the original settlement from the north bank of the River Raisin to a more orderly arrangement along the southern portions of the River. Monroe was the third European settlement to be established in Michigan and by 1837, Monroe was the third largest town in the state after Detroit and Ann Arbor, its growth promoted by the location of a land office within the village limits in 1823. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 provided emigrants from New England and New York with a cheap and safe route to the Great Lakes area and they brought their building traditions with them to Monroe and began to survey public roads and establish commercial endeavors. By 1830, the village had a population of 478, but only four years later it was estimated to be between 1,200 and 1,500 persons. Soon, the log structures of the pioneers were supplanted by buildings in the Federal and Greek Revival style.
The Old Village area was chosen as the location for the village of Monroe because of its location three miles upstream on the River Raisin, on higher, more fertile ground than the extensive marshland east of the village on the western shore of Lake Erie. Furthermore, there were title disputes involving the lands of the original settlement that were destroyed or abandoned during the massacre. In 1817, Joseph Loranger offered a portion of his farm south of the River Raisin, as a location for the village. At the same time, Territorial Governor Lewis Cass created the district of Monroe County, named in honor of an expected visit from President James Monroe. Loranger’s offer of deeded public lands, streets and alleys was officially established in the incorporated village of Monroe. The Old Village Plat was then laid out by Henry Disbrow who adapted the conventional gridiron approach to platting, with a public square one block east of the main street, to the French Ribbon Farm Settlement pattern. In this square, the original courthouse was built on the site of the present Presbyterian Church.
The street names and layout of the village represent several cultural traditions. The military road to Detroit began as an Indian trail and is what we now know as Dixie Highway. The old French road running along the north bank of the of the River Raisin was once simply called River Street; now it is known as Elm Avenue. Front Street runs along the south bank of the river, so-named because it fronted the newly platted town. The numbered streets of the village from First to Ninth follow the New York tradition, and the cross streets are named after famous generals (Macomb, Cass, Winchester, Scott), presidents (Washington, Adams), and early settlers (Navarre, Humphrey, Bacon, Godfroy, Noble, Sackett). As previously mentioned, Kentucky Avenue was named in honor of the many soldiers from that state that fought and died in the River Raisin massacre.
It was not long after the village area was platted that the first commercial buildings began to appear along the south river bank. Open platted land and the accessibility to commercial endeavors brought about a residential environment which immediately surrounded the commercial, courthouse, and public square which was the only park in town. Thus, shop owners and a wide variety of other business people began to build their homes in the Old Village, often in the popular Greek Revival style, such as the Gutmann/Wagner House on the corner of Scott and Third Streets, a one-and-a-half-story brick cottage, built by a founding family of Trinity Lutheran Church across the street, one of the first German Lutheran congregations in Michigan. In 1833, a reporter for the New York American visited Monroe and described the town: “Monroe is said to be regularly laid out, but the most business part of it, and it is the fussiest town in the world, looks as if the buildings had all been chucked from the other side of the river and left to settle just where they might fall upon this. If the population continues to increase as rapidly, the inhabitants can afford to burn down the river side of the village and arrange it to more of advantage. There are about 150 houses, of which twenty or thirty are stone. There are also two grist mills immediately in the town. A wooden factory, an iron factory, several saw mills, a chair factory and a tannery were among the other industries. With a population of 1,600 souls, five religious denominations are represented in their respective clergymen at Monroe. Three of these, the Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and Presbyterian each have a neat church of its own.”

Population, production, and prosperity.........

Population and business developed rapidly in Monroe during the pre-Civil War period. The town existed chiefly as the focal point of a rich agricultural county as indicated by a contemporary account (1859): “Experience shows more and more conclusively that Monroe County is more adapted to the culture of grass, the raising to stock, and the making of butter and cheese than to any other business. In 1858 much butter and cheese was sold from the county, also considerable beef and mutton. The trade in pork was larger than heretofore and over 1000 hogs were exported, averaging 200 pounds each. A large portion was shipped east on the hoof, and packed in the city of New York.” At this time, the nursery business was begun in Monroe by I. E. Ilgenfritz. It was to become a significant industry in the Monroe economy, earning it the moniker, “The Floral City”, and its legacy is still evident in the landscape today, represented by a wide variety of old trees that line the city’s streets as well as a number of related businesses that continue to thrive in the area.
As well as being the exporting center of the county, the town of Monroe also imported the bulk of goods, via her port on Lake Erie and by rail. In 1836, a group of leading Monroe citizens formed the area’s first rail line: the River Raisin and Lake Erie Railroad, which ran from the bay, down Scott Street, and eventually to Blissfield to the west. In 1840 it was sold to the state and became part of the Michigan Southern Railroad where it offered continuous service to the Lake Erie steamers. Today, all remnants of the line on Scott Street have disappeared, but the city continues to be crossed by other lines run by the Norfolk Southern and Canadian National Railroads. Indeed, it is impossible to live within the city limits and not hear the sound of the trains announcing their presence as they pass through.
The increased prosperity and optimism of the mid-nineteenth century was translated into a building program in the town. According to the local editor, “No less than fourteen brick stores are now in process of erection, some of which are now to be models of taste and convenience.” By the 1850’s, some residents were ready to modernize their homes or build new one in the Gothic Revival style. Colonel Oliver Johnston, an early settler who served as Monroe County judge and as a ruling elder in the First Presbyterian Church, built his Federal style home on the town square in the early 1830’s. It was later remodeled with Gothic dormers and trim and eventually moved by the Monroe Historical Society to a new location on West Second Street where it now serves as office and conference space. An Irish architect, John Addey, designed an elegant Gothic Revival home on Washington Street for Henry V. Mann in 1848. Mann was a promoter and stockholder of the Michigan and Southern Railroad, a promoter of the Monroe harbor and canal, a lawyer, and Monroe County treasurer.

Monroe and the Civil War..........

The effects of the Civil War brought about significant changes to Monroe. One effect on the economy and employment in Monroe, as well across the country, was the lack of men to hold essential positions in business. An example of this can be found at the Clark/Wagner House, believed to be the first telegraph office for the City of Monroe, where Lucy Clark resided and was manager of the Western Union Telegraph Office. It must have been the main communication center for Monroe, since her husband, Joseph Clark, was the agent for the United States Express Company in town. Together they would have seen and heard all of the comings and goings of any importance. They added on to the simple vernacular building on the plat in 1875 with a fashionable Italianate structure, embellished with a Showboat Gothic front porch.
Monroe has always responded promptly to all calls for patriotic service. From the war of 1812 up to the present time, many Monroe citizens have served in defense of our country, both here and abroad. During the Mexican war, two companies were raised here. During the Civil War, Monroe again responded quickly to the call to arms. According to U.S. Government record, Monroe furnished a larger percentage of enlisted men, according to the census at that time, than any other county of any other state. Again and again, Monroe men and women have done their patriotic duty and they have not been forgotten. Numerous monuments commemorating the sacrifices of Monroe County’s war heroes from the War of 1812 to Desert Storm dot the landscape.

Boom times.......

Throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, businesses and housing continued to expand. The port and railroad facilities supported Monroe from the 1860’s through the 1880’s as it became a center of shipping, lumber, and wood products. The taste in domestic architecture shifted to the romantic building styles of Gothic Revival, Italianate, and Second Empire. Downtown commercial buildings were constructed or remodeled with continuous brick facades in the Italianate style. Times were good and the City of Monroe reached a peak level of business activity in its downtown. Just one of the commercial blocks in the downtown area contained thirty-three businesses alone. By the 1880’s, this boom began to draw to a close, but the result of the rapid development and a limited type of building was that Monroe’s downtown exhibited a stylistic unity, which is still in evidence today.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, with plentiful timber resources in the southern part of the state, Monroe’s location again proved strategic. The Weis Manufacturing Company constructed a plant in 1906 to produce office furniture and paper products. The Amendt Milling Company built a large regional grain mill in 1913 reinforcing Monroe’s long standing importance in that industry. In the 1920’s the Consolidated Packaging Corporation, the Detroit Stoker Company and the Newton Steel Company diversified the industrial base. All of these industries expanded upon the wood products and raw material processing activities that had dominated the local industrial economy since the mid-nineteenth century.
During the last decades of the nineteenth century, both the working and middle class residents of the Old Village Plat began to build in variations of the Queen Anne style, as elaborately or as simply as their budgets would allow. Examples of this can be seen on East Fourth Street: the home of a Victorian era working man, James Duvall, illustrates the use of elaborate wooden decor as a decorative element in a simple home. In contrast, Frederick W. Meier, a miller and stationer of Monroe, spared no expense in creating his lavishly appointed brick house, filling it with fine woodwork and stained glass which, sadly, has been lost over the years while the building was divided into apartments.
By this time, the Old Village Plat neighborhood had been long established, and yet new buildings continued to be erected, either replacing or repositioning older homes, some of which had been there since the 1840’s. Dr. Harry Orvis, a dentist, relocated the Greek Revival home of General George Spaulding to face Third Street instead of Macomb, allowing room for his Colonial Revival home to be built in 1916. Around the block, Rollin Sprague, secretary of Weis Manufacturing, built his Craftsman Bungalow in 1922 on the site of an earlier home. In 1930, there were thirteen homes on the block: two Greek Revival, three Upright-and-Wing Vernacular homes, two Italianates, one Queen Anne, one Colonial Revival, three American Four-Squares, and a Craftsman Bungalow. The residents were employed in a wide range of occupations, from secretary of Weis Manufacturing Company to a janitor at the local school. There were four widows living on the block. All of the residents at this time continued to work in Monroe, many of them within walking distance of their places of employment.

The Twentieth Century and beyond.........

The city was hit by the Great Depression, and until recently, relatively little new construction has occurred within the city limits of Monroe. Much of the building activity was confined to remodeling and “improving” existing structures, and a number of formerly single-family residences were divided into apartments or duplexes. Buildings that became rental properties were neglected and abused where once the most prestigious members of Monroe society had resided. The Old Village Plat was well over one hundred years old, and even the newer homes were considered hopelessly old-fashioned. When the I-75 Expressway came through Monroe during the 1960’s, ease of transportation enabled many residents to work outside of the city, indeed, out of the county entirely. The later proliferation of shopping malls combined with the automobile culture doomed the downtown commercial district to near extinction. In an attempt to modernize the downtown area, many buildings were torn down to create parking areas or make room for new development. But in recent years, many people have begun to recognize the unique and irreplaceable historic elements of the Old Village Plat and have launched a campaign to enhance Monroe’s turn-of-the-twentieth-century appearance and capitalize on its excellent environmental qualities and rich architectural heritage as a means of encouraging growth and economic stability. Signage and historical markers direct and inform visitors about important sites and events. An architectural walking tour brochure and historic home tours capitalize on the richness of the built environment. Victorian balls and historic reenactments in period costume take place several times each year. The Lotus Fountain in Loranger Square is a modern reminder of the now endangered flower that once proliferated the Monroe area marshes and of the city’s heritage as a center for the nursery and floral business.
Today, the Old Village Plat neighborhood is beginning to overcome the struggles of the neglect of recent decades. New residents are drawn to this neighborhood by the rich architectural and historical integrity of the houses, by the proximity of the downtown’s unique shops, museum, library, and civic activities, and by a desire to live near one another, as a close-knit community. As a group they have invested thousands of dollars and hours in reviving their neighborhood and the surrounding commercial district. The entire neighborhood is part of a National Register Historic District and over twenty homes are locally designated as well. The Old Village Plat Neighborhood Association was founded in January of 1999 and meets regularly to discuss concerns about blight, parking, historic designation, home improvement, and other issues. The Old Village area is an accurate portrayal of a major portion of Monroe’s architectural and historical development from the 1820’s to the 1940’s. Few areas in other Michigan towns can match the evolution of development reflected in the heart of Monroe which is one of the state’s oldest communities.


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