While log cabin schoolhouses and railroad roundhouses may be a thing of the past, they contributed greatly to making Hillsdale — 150 years after becoming a city — what it is today.
Hillsdale received its charter in April of 1869, but before that, it was frontier country. According to pioneer William Kirby in “150 Years in the Hills and Dales,” a two-volume catalogue of Hillsdale County’s history, Michigan only had about 60,000 inhabitants in 1834, most of whom lived in Detroit or along the state’s eastern and northern borders.
“The settling of southern Michigan was gradual and the isolation and deprivation of the early settlers corresponded,” he writes. “There was more to be endured by the first pioneers before there were any sawmills, or gristmills, or places of business, than for those who came after. At first it was all natural wildness, the Indian, the wild animals, and the apparent endless, roadless, and eternal woods.”
In the early pioneer days before Hillsdale’s charter, every denomination in the area would hold its meetings in the same school house, which was located near Bacon Street. The first sermon there was delivered by a clergyman, “Page,” from Litchfield, Kirby writes:
“His text was in Isaiah, and read something like this: ‘The wilderness and the solitary plain shall be glad for them and the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose.’”
After Hillsdale College, originally founded as Michigan Central College, moved to Hillsdale in 1855, it also instituted College Baptist Church. The services were at first held in the college chapel on Hillsdale’s campus, which accommodated about 800 people. It wasn’t until a decade later when the church decided to build a permanent meeting house. According to the “Hills and Dales,” this was “a heroic undertaking” for a group of approximately 200 members, as the nation had recently passed through the Panic of 1857 as well as economic strain due to the Civil War.
Education in Hillsdale began in 1838 in a log schoolhouse on the north side of State Street near Wolcott Street, where a local resident, Caroline Ford, taught a few children privately. A few years later, early settlers gathered to construct a one-story frame building on the north side of what is now East Bacon Street, complete with a wood stove in the center of the room. This building was also used for church and other community activities. Several other local schools were constructed within the following century, including Joseph Mauck Elementary School on Fayette Street, which opened in 1939.
Perhaps one of the most important events in the city’s early development was the creation of the fire department, the beginnings of which occured in 1847, the year Hillsdale was organized as a village. According to the “Hills and Dales,” fire departments were a “luxury” that communities could only acquire after reaching a certain level of prosperity and age.
“The most serious menace which early frontier towns had to face and fight was fire,” Hillsdale’s Fire Marshal, Larry Eichler, wrote in his account. “Inflammable wooden structures, protected inadequately by primitive water systems, were easy prey for the devouring element. Open fireplaces and flickering candles augmented the danger. Every inhabitant held himself in readiness to answer every alarm and, at any hour of the day or night, ran with his bucket to join the water-passing brigade.”
As the population increased over the next several decades, Hillsdale saw the influence of several national trends, including the 1870s temperance movement. Hillsdale County saw the formation of the Sons of Temperance, a group that articulated principles of strict alcohol abstinence, as well as a Hillsdale County Women’s Christian Temperance Union chapter, which was one of the state’s oldest chapters.
The beginning of the 18th century brought both the construction of Hillsdale’s city hall, as well as the advent of Michigan’s first radio broadcasts. A few decades later in 1955, Hillsdale County instituted its own broadcasting station, WBSE, or “Baw Beese Broadcasters, Incorporated,” on the corner of Howell and North Streets. Eventually brothers Fahey and Tony Flynn in 1961 took over the station, which became WCSR, and moved in 1963 to its current location on West Street.
Another milestone development for Hillsdale in its early years was the railroad. In 1843, the first set of track was laid between Adrian and Hillsdale, at a time when the nation as a whole only had constructed a few total miles of track. Hillsdale, in fact, operated as the “western terminus,” or last stop on the railroad line between 1843 and 1853, until it was later extended to Coldwater and eventually west toward Chicago, according to a February 1988 edition of Community Plus Magazine.
The railway roundhouse, or semicircular building for storing locomotives, was located on “Railroad Street,” now known as Carleton Road. Up to 40 trains a day would come through Hillsdale, according to Carol Lackey, who performs research with both the Mitchell Research Center and the Hillsdale County Historical Society .
“The railroad was what made Hillsdale what it was,” Lackey said. “Because the service originally came here and stopped here, the place boomed.”
Local resident Gloria Triechman recalls spending time during the 1940s at the railroad station where her grandfather, Frederick Triechman, served as superintendent of the tracks.
“We used to go every place on the train,” Triechman said. “We would go to Fort Wayne to shop.”
Lackey, who grew up in Hillsdale, said she remembers the downtown area being “so much more busy,” to which Triechman agreed.
“People used to go downtown to park and watch people go by,” Triechman said. “Things would be open at 9 at night.”
Hillsdale’s last passenger train came through Hillsdale in Nov. 1956, met by a ceremony of around 250 Hillsdale local residents. One of the passengers on that last train, Ben Deuel, lamented to the Hillsdale Daily News that the country “would be better off if there were fewer automobiles and more passenger trains.”
Today, the city of Hillsdale is focused a great deal on issues pertaining to economic development. Mayor Adam Stockford said his biggest goal right now is to expand Hillsdale’s industrial park. The park is currently operating at full capacity with regard to physical building space, which Stockford said hasn’t been the case in a long time.
“It’s a sign of a good economy, but it’s also a sign of a good area when companies want to move to Hillsdale,” he said. “It’s definitely not Michigan taxes that make them want to move here. And we’ve got more than just the state of Michigan to compete with. We also have two border states, one of which keeps taxes lower than we do.”
Stockford, who grew up in Hillsdale, said the biggest change he has seen in recent years is the city’s strong focus on education. Yet despite a handful of developments over the years, a lot in Hillsdale has stayed the same.
“I don’t think Hillsdale has changed all that much,” Stockford said, “which is exactly what people like about it.”