What's in a Name?

With the completion of the Erie Canal, the federal government pushed to have white settlers move into Michigan Territory. Treaties were made with the Ottawa, Ojibwa and Potawatomi, to the benefit of the settlers, not the Native Americans. In what was to become Hillsdale County, Chief Baw Beese of the Potawatomi welcomed the settlers, many of whom had traveled the old Sauk Trail, now widened to become the Chicago Military Road. People with abundant dreams and a strong work ethic moved into our area, some to claim land for their own farms, and others, with bigger dreams, to establish their own villages. 

Being on the route of the railroad gave a considerable advantage to a new town since it would bring in people and also take to market any goods grown or manufactured. Camden (named after a town in Oneida County, New York, and originally called Camden Center) actually moved the entire village to the south in 1870 to take advantage of the railroad. The railroad caused the moving of Pittsford also. The village of Keene, approximately two miles north of the current village, was literally uprooted, losing its name in the process. Buildings were torn down and reassembled to make way for the railroad between Toledo, Ohio, and Elkhart, Indiana. 

In Somerset Township two towns didn’t even exist until the emergence of the glorious promise of what the railroad could bring. There, the railroad passed over land belonging to neighbors Jerome Smith and Mary Begel. They enthusiastically platted a town that they called Jerome. A depot, freight house and dedicated siding were built by the Detroit, Hillsdale & Indiana Railroad in the “post village” of North Adams before it was even platted. Like North Adams, Frontier, on the route from Hillsdale to Amboy Township, was established first as a post office station.

Some of the early settlers gave their names to the spots where they bought land. The first were Moses and Mary Allen, who came in 1827 to a place soon known as Allen’s Prairie. It was later platted as a village called Allen. Living in the Allens’ grain shack for a year, Beniah and Lois Jones platted a village they named for themselves, Jonesville. In 1848 a post office, called Cass, had been established in the area where Wellington and Henry Pratt from Massachusetts settled. They opened a store in February 1866, and within the next four years a sawmill and a grist mill were established. This was followed by a school and a church, with the population swelling to 100. The post office was moved into the village around 1867, and the village name was changed to Prattville in 1872. The town of Somerset was known for a time as Gambleville, after the second person to live in the area. After James D. VanHoevenbergh moved to Jonesville, Thomas Gamble purchased a log cabin VanHoevenbergh had built in 1832-33 in what would become the village of Somerset.

Brothers Horace and George Banker came to the county in 1838. The sawmill site known as Bankers Station eventually became the town of Bankers. The village enjoyed an important role in the heyday of the Detroit, Hillsdale & Indiana Railroad, boasting a station and freight house. From Bankers, passengers and freight transferred to another railroad to go north or south.

Morganville was shown on the 1857 plat map of Hillsdale County in western Amboy Township. Charles W. Morgan was a Quaker whaling captain who later became famous for a whaling ship he once owned. Morgan bought substantial acres of forested land in Hillsdale County in order to cut lumber. He hired Richard W. Drinker, a Quaker physician in Pennsylvania, to go west to locate timber and establish the milling site. Drinker built what today would be just a roomy farmhouse, but was considered a mansion at that time. He bought many acres of land in the area for himself, and eventually Morganville became known as Drinker’s Mill

Cambria Mills was founded by John McDermid in 1865 when he built a sawmill in what was a vast, hilly forest with lakes. His brother, Andrew Jackson McDermid, soon followed, building a grist mill. Cambria Mills was platted in 1878 but never incorporated. During its heyday, the village boasted many shops and stores, a hotel, planing mill and a large brick school.

During the winter of 1836-37, the Michigan Legislature passed an act authorizing the organization of Litchfield, appointing Samuel Riblet to preside over the first election, in which there were a grand total of 20 votes. There is some question as to how the community obtained its name, since the original name was to be Columbus. According to the 1879 History of Hillsdale County, Henry Stevens, "a turbulent man," preferred the name of Litchfield, went to Detroit where the Legislature was in session, and "by free use of liquid and other arguments prevailed on the Legislature to adopt that name."

Three villages had name changes. Reading was originally Basswood Corners, for the many basswood trees that grew there. It was settled in 1840 and incorporated as the village of Reading in 1842. The coming of the railroad in 1868-69, made Reading one of the best shipping points on the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Line. During the late 1880s a number of manufacturers and businesses prospered there. Another village, originally known as Frog Eye because of the frog ponds, was officially named Montgomery after William R. Montgomery, Hillsdale County Register of Deeds, because he recorded the village plat at no charge. Waldron also underwent a name change because of a beneficiary. Originally known as South Wright, the village was reportedly renamed after Henry Waldron when he agreed to donate money for the schoolhouse bell. 

In 1834 Vance Township was renamed Hillsdale County. With an eye toward being the county seat (an honor that first went to Jonesville), in 1835 the Hillsdale Company, comprised of several forward-looking young men, platted the village of Hillsdale in the center of the new county, a not-so-subtle suggestion that it should, indeed, become the county seat. After a tug-of-war with Jonesville, Hillsdale was officially given that designation.

Ransom remained a township and never a village, but its naming is an interesting story. Roland Bird and his family arrived in the area in 1836, followed by enough people to establish a post office. What followed seems to be a classic case of warring factions among the citizenry. In the shuffling of land to accommodate more and more people, townships were established, then split, then recombined in different ways. For a time Bird Township existed in an attempt to honor the first settler's memory. Ultimately, only Ransom Township remained, with “Bird” surviving only as a lake.     

Moscow Township also has an interesting story. It had a gathering of families and a school, but early on they dealt with a serious lack of driven wells. They needed to go over the Jackson County line to get water from a lake that they named “Farwell,” a name it bears to this day.

JoAnne P. Miller

This article relied heavily on the extensive research done over the years by Carol Lackey. You can read more about the towns of Hillsdale County on our website (hillsdalehistoricalsociety.org) under PLACES.