The first settlers in Hillsdale County were prepared to face challenges as they created a home in the wilderness, but they also dreamed of a more civilized life. Streets, dusty when it was dry, muddy when it was wet and always rutted, tested one’s patience with the pace of improvement. One upgrade was raised wooden sidewalks built to keep the dirt (and animal waste) away from walkers … at least until someone had to cross the street. The advent of the horseless carriage provided the impetus to finally improve the roads.

Early Hillsdale Streets

This view is looking north up Hillsdale Street, prior to the building of City Hall (which built in 1911 and would be on the left) and the Post Office (starting the same year, but taking longer to build). This would have been after the Hillsdale College fire of 1874 (CLICK HERE for more), but before the removal of the cupola on the Cook house (now the Delta Sigma Phi Fraternity house). Early plats show North Hillsdale Street named Gregory Street, after early area land developer, Charles Gregory.

Despite the deplorable condition of the thoroughfares, early Broad and Budlong streets held some elegant homes, some of which remain today. Civil War veteran and Judge Michael McIntyre’s home was torn down and replaced with offices for doctors Arthur Strom and H. Frazyer Mattson, becoming what was believed be the first main floor doctors’ offices in Hillsdale County. (Originally doctors’ offices were above the stores in the downtown area.)

Before the building of the City Hall and Post Office, Broad and Howell streets began to be “paved” with large bricks. Some samples of these bricks can be seen at the Hillsdale County Historical Society’s Poorhouse and a few are on display at the Mitchell Research Center on Manning Street. When the Broad Street/M-99 roadway was rebuilt, much of this brick roadway through Hillsdale was still in place underneath the newer pavement.

The towns of Hillsdale County did their best to provide adequate streets for the increasingly numerous autos within their borders. Then, on Oct. 24, 1919, the Hillsdale County Road Commission was organized in order to establish a county road system to connect towns and points of interest. Working 10-hour days, laborers were paid 30 cents an hour, while men with teams received 60 cents. Picks, shovels, horse power and back-breaking effort provided the basis for the road system we have in Hillsdale County today. 

In 1924 M-64 (which became M-99) between Hillsdale and Jonesville was the first road in the county to be paved. Two years later the Road Commission garage was built down the hill from the County Courthouse, with four satellite garages built in the early 1930s in Camden, Litchfield, Jerome and Waldron. In 1994 those were consolidated to one location on the corner of M-99 and Steamburg Road in Cambria Township—very close to the exact center of the county—with offices, a salt building and a truck barn.

Down to 40 employees from roughly 75 at its peak, the Road Commission struggles with a diminished budget to keep the county and township roads repaired and resurfaced. Severe weather, especially winter storms, raises the dedicated drivers to hero status. In the early hours of the morning they are out clearing the roads while the rest of the county lies in bed, waiting to see if there’s a snow day. 

JoAnne P. Miller  and Carol A. Lackey