The City of Hillsdale Turns 150

The history of Hillsdale didn’t begin with its incorporation as a city, of course. Beginning in 1834 when Jeremiah Arnold became the first white settler, its story is filled with interesting events that mark its growth. In this sesquicentennial year the Hillsdale County Historical Society will be publishing “Ghost Walk 6,” filled with both the early and the more recent history of Hillsdale. These will be published by June 2019 and available for a donation of $1 at the Mitchell Research Center, the Hillsdale Community Library and at the Fairgrounds Museum during the Fair. We also have provided, through City Hall, photos of earlier downtown businesses. Current merchants will have access to them to display.

Both luck and planning contributed to the early growth of Hillsdale. Planning came from a group of young men calling themselves the “Hillsdale Company,” who were intent on establishing a vibrant town. Making Hillsdale a desirable place to settle would benefit these earliest town boosters who had purchased land within its theoretical boundaries.  

Luck, ironically, came into play with the Panic of 1837 which was fueled by unrestrained expansion, speculation and borrowing. Faced with possible financial disaster, the members of the Hillsdale Company didn’t lose heart. When the State of Michigan Southern Railroad routed from Detroit to Chicago abruptly ran out of money at Hillsdale, the young men saw an opportunity. That major recession lasted seven years, during which Hillsdale remained the terminus of the railroad, making Hillsdale a destination. Taking advantage of that, hotels and warehouses were built to accommodate the people and goods who were stuck here until a wagon train going their way could be assembled. Becoming a population center gave Hillsdale a significant advantage over Jonesville, the first platted village in the county and first county seat. In the heated competition for dominance that persisted between these two towns for decades, the stalled railroad gave Hillsdale a jump start.

Along with the rest of the country Hillsdale survived wars, financial crises and social upheaval. Our local travails were just as significant to those who faced them. Early residents were tested by devastating fires that destroyed homes, the college and businesses. Recently the Palm Sunday tornado, the building of a WalMart and the sustained recession that began in 2007 and caused the loss of local industries and the jobs they provided all challenged our ability to thrive. But local businesses and institutions, like the men in the Hillsdale Company, didn’t lose heart, and many positioned themselves to emerge stronger. In 2019, Hillsdale has many successful “boutique” businesses in town, a nationally known college, a hospital with multiple specialty departments and an education system that is preparing students for the jobs of the future.

As we celebrate our sesquicentennial we can reflect on the inaugural address of the first mayor of the City of Hillsdale, George W. Underwood. With the charter obtained and the subsequent successful election to become a city held on April 5, 1869, Dr. Underwood stood before his fellow citizens to give his inaugural address. “Perhaps,” he mused, “some inhabitant of Hillsdale in the distant future, inspired by a spirit of antiquarian research … shall turn his eye back through the dim and misty past to that little village in the deep woods of Southern Michigan, upon the head-waters of the St. Joseph and its source, then to be, as now, the placid and beautiful Bay Beese.”

We plan to do so.

JoAnne P. Miller 2019