Charles T. Mitchell

"Go west, young man, and grow up with the country!" That famous exhortation was made by John B.R. Soule. However, most people give credit to Horace Greely, who altered it to the more catchy phrase, "Go west, young man, go west." Greely's 1865 editorial in his newspaper, The New York Tribune, grabbed the imagination of many young men who followed Greely's advice. Charles Tennant Mitchell was one of those who was firmly on the path to personal wealth and position in the "west" long before Greely appropriated Soule's call to adventure.

Mitchell had a limited education in the public school of his native Montgomery County in New York; his strength was a vigorous work ethic and a fearlessness of challenge. At age fourteen, Mitchell began a three-year stint as a clerk in Scholharie, New York. He traveled to Michigan from New York State in 1838 when he was twenty-one years old, working on the construction of the Michigan Southern Railroad from Adrian to Hillsdale. He launched his first business venture after he moved to Hillsdale in 1843. It was the forwarding business, the provision of warehouse space where goods shipped via trains could be temporarily stored while a group of wagons was assembled to move them to areas not directly served by the rail system. It was very successful, as was his hardware business. The latter began in 1851 and continued until 1865, when Mitchell had enough other financially productive ventures that it seemed wise to sell his hardware. 

Mitchell became good friends with Henry Waldron and John Potter Cook, two other young men who had also moved west to pursue their fortunes. Together the three established the first bank in Hillsdale in 1855, which was named Mitchell, Waldron & Co. J.P. Cook withdrew from the enterprise in 1863 to form the Hillsdale Savings Bank, which later became the Hillsdale State Savings Bank. In the same year Mitchell and Waldron established the Second National Bank of Hillsdale, a joint venture until 1877 when Henry Waldron withdrew from the bank and Charles Mitchell assumed the presidency. Through his business ventures in Hillsdale and his lumber interest in Cadillace, MI, in which two of his sons were partners, Mitchell accumulated a sizable fortune.

In 1847 Mitchell married Harriet Wing. Their first home was located on the southwest corner of Manning and McCollum Streets. With increased prosperity the Mitchells decided to upgrade. They had their home move to the back of their property at the southeast corner of West and McCollum Streets, where it still stands. On the original site a lovely home in the Second Empire style was begun in 1868 and completed in 1869. It was a regal place for the Mitchells to raise their six children four boys and two girls.


Charles T. Mitchell earned high regard from the citizenry as a businessman of integrity and as a public servant. He served on the commission to build the State Reform School for Boys, as a trustee of the State Asylum for the Insane, and in several political positions for the Republican Party. His enduring legacy came with the bequest of his home to the city of Hillsdale (after the death of his wife), to be used in part as a library. When Harriet Wing Mitchell died in 1906 the house was remodeled with $10,000, left by Mr. Mitchell for that purpose. The Mitchells' book collection remained in the home to become the backbone of the new library.

We hear very little about Mrs. Mitchell, but she may actually have been the driving force behind the transformation of their home into a library. Her sister, Mrs. Eliza Whittier, who lived for a time with her sister and brother-in-law, was a charter member of the Ladies Library Association, formed in 1879 to circulate good literature among the people of Hillsdale. Originally the group rented a room above the J.H. Marvin Dry Goods Store (which stood where County National Bank now stands). Mrs. Whittier was in charge of circulating the books, which were stored, because of space problems, in different locations throughout Hillsdale. It's not such a leap to connect this homelessness of the books belonging to the Ladies Library Association to Mrs. Whittier, and from her to Mrs. Mitchell and her husband … and finally to the bequest of their home for use as a library.

The Mitchell Public Library acted as a community center, Dances, card parties, and performances took place in the third floor ballroom, called the Library Loft, which contained an adjoining kitchen. A room that extended across the front part of the second floor was used a a club meeting place before being transformed into a cozy Children's Room. The Historical Room, also on the second floor, opened about 1917 with a complete set of Hillsdale County newspapers from June 30, 1846, the Hillsdale County census records, a complete set of 46 volumes of Michigan volunteers in the Civil War and many other volumes dealing with local and state history. It was an impressive collection for a small town. Eventually the Mitchell Research Center, loving guardians of Hillsdale County historical records, occupied the entire second floor of the Mitchell home after the conversion of an auto dealership next door into the new Hillsdale Community Library. The MRC continues to surpass the expectations for a town the size of Hillsdale. Manned by dedicated volunteers and open four days a week, it provides valuable historic information to individuals searching for their own histories. In just the past seven years a total of 5,864 people from 19 states and four countries have discovered a part of their past through the Mitchell Research Center.

In January of 2012, the Mitchell Research Center officially took over the entire Mitchell home. Scores of volunteer hours went into moving most of the historic documents to the first floor, where they will be more easily accessible to visitors. In keeping with the wish of the Mitchells to have their home used in part as a library, the Pulver collection of non-fiction books about Michigan is housed in the north parlor. 

The valuable historic records of Hillsdale County have a home worthy of their importance.

JoAnne P. Miller (2012)

The Mitchell Children

Although Charles T. Mitchell was certainly one of Hillsdale’s early movers and shakers, let us not suggest that his wife, Harriett Wing Mitchell, sat idly by!

The Mitchells had six children between 1848 and 1861.  There were four sons, Frank, Austin, William, and Charles T., Jr., and two daughters, Kate Eliza and Harriett.  Frank, the first born, lived one year.  Austin and William were quite successful in the lumber industry, joining their uncle George in Wexford County, in northern lower Michigan.  George was the first mayor of Clam Lake, which was later to become the city of Cadillac.  The area was founded on an area of large lumbering tracts, which made the two Mitchell Brothers very rich men. 

The second born, Kate Eliza Mitchell attended Hillsdale College two years and was a student at Vassar three and a half years.  She married Corvis M. Barre, county clerk of Hillsdale, on August 17. 1882, and died less than three years later at age 35, soon after the birth of her second child.

Meanwhile, the younger brother, Charles T. Jr., living in Hillsdale, attended Hillsdale College and was active in the rowing craze, so popular during that era.  He was a member of the Baw Beese Rowing team, strong rivals of the Hillsdale Rowing Team, which went on to national acclaim.  Upon young Mitchell’s death in 1882, at age 24, it was said “he had suffered poor health for three years,”  although the Hillsdale Herald reporting of the Hillsdale Regatta in 1879, lists him as a rowing starter for the Baw Beese team.

Many questions remain surrounding the 1902 death of brother Austin, born in 1852.  Known as an extremely generous man, he was reported as “lost at sea,” under “peculiar and distressing circumstances,” while on a cruise to Japan with his wife.   After his death, his widow was said to be the richest woman in San Diego (California) County. 

William Whittier Mitchell was probably best remembered in Hillsdale for his generosity.  After the new Court House was built in 1899, W.W. donated the clock and chimes, still in use today.  He also contributed generously to the building of the Hillsdale City Hall in 1911, where a plague still hangs in his honor.  Over the years, William made untold donations to Hillsdale College, including among other things, lumber for flooring. 

The youngest, Harriett Belle, after receiving extensive schooling, married Dr. Walter Hume Sawyer and lived next door to the Mitchell home.  Dr. and Mrs. Sawyer were generous community benefactors through the years, carrying on the example set by her parents.

Carol Lackey (2009)