CLARKSTON'S HISTORY: A SYNOPSIS
The City of the Village of Clarkston, the "Village", is nestled on a small plain between the hills of Deer Lake to the west, Park Lake and its small tributary to the east and the lower land beyond it in Independence Township, Oakland County, Michigan. The "Mill Pond", a part of the Clinton River, lies at the Village center. These bodies of water have always contributed to the vitality and grace of this 1/2 square mile "mill village".
The core of the town, which grew around the mills built to saw the lumber for construction and grind the grain from the surrounding farms, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 by the Congress of the United States. Placement on the National Register was the culmination of a long process which began in the 1970s. Clarkston Community Historical Society volunteers began to research the history of some of the Village buildings to document their construction dates and importance to the history of the community. The process was continued by a Village employee and college students. A study committee of Village residents was then formed to complete the necessary information which was reviewed by the Michigan Bureau of History. The Bureau subsequently drew the boundaries for the District and forwarded the proposed nomination to the U.S. Department of Interior for final approval. The nationally recognized district includes over 100 historic structures which are now protected by state statute and a City of the Village of Clarkston ordinance. See, Historic District Resources
The U.S. government ordered 2 million acres be surveyed and set apart for the soldiers of the War of 1812. The Michigan Territory was surveyed in preparation for settlement but reports from the first surveyors of the forests north of Detroit about the undesirability of the land discouraged most pioneers. "Taking the country altogether so far as it has been explored, and to all appearances, together with information received concerning the balance, is so bad there would not be more than one acre out of a hundred, if there would be one out of a one thousand, that would in any case admit of cultivation." [ History of Oakland, Mi. pub. 1912 ]
In 1818, a small party including Major Oliver Williams, a merchant in Detroit and a prisoner during the War of 1812, and Alpheus Williams, his brother-in-law, and their wives were the first "white " pioneers, according to Oakland Co. histories, to venture north into the area around where Pontiac now stands. Pontiac was described at the time as consisting of one small log cabin. They came on horseback led along an Indian trail by a French guide to the Not-ta-wa-se-bee, the Indian name for the crooked river, now the Clinton River in Pontiac. They continued to the glistening shores of a lake (which Williams later named Silver Lake), deep into the territory reported to be full of swamps and bogs and their natural inhabitants, snakes and mosquitoes.
What the Williams' party found was a land full of possibilities and undisturbed beauty, teaming with game from the forests and the many lakes. True, the mosquitoes, wild animals and snakes were troublesome. [ Major Williams caught, skinned, and stuffed some of the largest examples of the prolific blue racers and sent them to museums in Ann Arbor and Boston in succeeding years.] The party returned to Detroit with enthusiastic reports of a hospitable land of arresting beauty. The Major registered a piece of land he and Mrs. Williams had selected on the shores of Silver Lake for their homestead. In 1819, they returned to that property to build a 50' x 20' log house and a barn, reportedly the first in Oakland Co., establishing a trading post and becoming friends of the Indians, most notably Chief Sashabaw. Williams was given the name "Togee" by his new friends.
In the same year Alpheus Williams and Captain Archibald Phillips are credited as the first settlers in Waterford building a saw-mill there by 1825. Alpheus made the first land purchase in Independence Township in 1823, but never settled there.
Alexis De Tocqueville and Gustave De Beaumont, sent to the United States by the French Government to study the Quaker inspired prison system, were so entranced with the vastness and grandeur of the country that they extended their tour for 2 years corresponding with Major Oliver Williams and visiting him in 1831. Tocqueville's journal of his tour, published later as "De La Democratie en Amerique", describes the area beyond the Williams' homestead on his route along the Saginaw Trail:
"After we left Mr. Williams we pursued our road through the woods. From time to time a little lake [ this district is full of them] shines like a white tablecloth under the green branches. The charm of these lonely spots, as yet untenanted by man and where peace and silence reign undisturbed, can hardly be imagined. I have climbed the wild and solitary passes of the Alps, where nature refuses to obey the hand of man, and displaying all her terrors, fills the mind with an exciting and overwhelming sensation of greatness. The solitude here is equally deep, but the emotions it excites are different. In this flowery wilderness, where, as in Milton's paradise, all seems prepared for the reception of man, the feelings produced are those of tranquil admiration, - soft melancholy, a vague aversion of civilized life, and a sort of savage instinct, which causes you to regret that soon this enchanting solitude will be no more.
Already, indeed, the white man is approaching through the surrounding woods; in a few years he will have felled the trees now reflected in the limpid waters of the lake, and will have driven to other wilds the animals that feed on its banks." [History of Oakland Co.]
"The visits of Major Oliver Williams and his company, in the fall of 1818, marked the great turning point of public opinion for the better; it proved beyond question that there was a fertile and beautiful country in the interior, when once the immigrant had penetrated through the marshy belt which girdled Detroit." (Hist. of Oak. Co., pub. 1912.) Settlers followed Williams' lead up the Territorial Road to points north.
History records 1830 as the date of the first settler on land which is now in the City of the Village of Clarkston. Squatter, Linus Jacox, built a log shelter and planted a garden including potatoes, a crop which would later become important locally, in the southwest section of the town. Jacox later sold his property to Butler Holcomb from Herkimer Co., N.Y. Holcomb bought 640 acres in Section 20 & 21 from the government in 1831. Marvin Greenwood & Roswell/ Roosevelt Holcomb came to join Holcomb, building log homes and helping to clear the land.
According to a Clarkston News article, 1/1/32, when Holcomb settled here in 1832, " there were four houses and one store. He built the fifth log cabin " on what is now North Holcomb St. The article also said he bought 2,000 acres, subsequently selling all but 360 acres which went to his son, William Holcomb, upon his death.
Butler Holcomb brought his family to their new home in 1823. A year later Holcomb built a sawmill digging a ditch 1 1/2 miles long on the east branch of the Clinton River for power. The next few years saw an influx of settlers to the area, many from New Jersey and New York, lured by the encouraging news from friends and relatives. They made improvements and additions to the first small collection of structures built to protect pioneers from the elements.
While Oakland Co. histories list 1837 as the year the Village was organized at the home of Arthur Davis, 1838 is listed as the year of the construction of the first store by brothers John and William Axford. Butler Holcomb, in 1838, sold the mill and the water rights to the pond to brothers, Jeremiah and Nelson W. Clark, who in 1839 built a 200' long dam with a 22' fall propelling a 20' diameter wheel and completed a 40' x 50' two story building, with basement, for a grist mill and also bought much of Holcomb's property.
Jeremiah Clark had come from Onondaga Co., N.Y. to Detroit in 1831, then to Section 7 of Independence Township [n.w. of the Village], to establish a farm and become the first Supervisor and Justice of the Peace. Jeremiah's brother, Nelson Washington Clark, joined him in 1836. The two became major influences in the area and the town took their name.
Nelson opened a store on Main St. in 1842, the same year he platted the Village. Milton H. Clark, Jeremiah's son and Nelson's nephew, opened a general store in 1844. Businesses sprang up to provide services for the farmers homesteading in the surrounding area. Blacksmiths Albert Birdsell & Jedediah Yeager (a.k.a. Yager); tailor/innkeeper John Hertwig; wagon maker Nelson Rundell; fanning-mill manufacturer Phillip Foy; harness maker Horatio Foster; shoemaker William S. Blake; physicians Nelson Abbey and Horace Robinson were among the earliest shop owner/settlers. Businesses included a carding mill/cloth dressing operations and foundries producing plows and farm implements.
Annexes to Clark's 1842 Village plat were made in 1854 by Myron G. Cobb (the Southwest Addition) ; in 1858 by John Derrick (the Northwestern Addition) ; in by Wm. Holcomb; in the 1920s by King-Wompole; and most recently, in 1962, when the Middle Lake Rd. area (Clarkston Ranch homes; Clarkston Estates and Clarkston Estates, No. 1) was added. Replats include the Supervisor's Replat of the Northwestern Addition and part of the Original Plat which was registered in 1929 and the Assessor's Plat, ( a replat of part of the Original Plat of the Village and all of Cobb's Addition which was registered in 1941. The Village was incorporated by the County in 1884 & reincorporated in 1889. In 1992, Village residents voted to incorporate the Village as a city in order to preserve its boundaries and local government. The population, which in 1900 was about four hundred, has grown to about 1,000 according to a 1990 census.
The construction of the Saginaw Turnpike, the Territorial Rd., in 1832 and the Detroit & Milwaukee R.R. in the s.w. corner of the Township, in 1851, made travel to the area easier. Growth of the Village by the 1870s may be traced to both. Clarkston first became a trading post/supply depot for those pioneers going further north into the forest and then by the late 19th century a destination for vacationers finding refreshment on the banks of Deer & Park Lakes and the Mill Pond. The first tavern/inn on S. Main St. was succeeded by the construction of the Demerest House on the s.w. corner of Main & Washington Streets which was joined by the Deer Lake Inn, built in the 1890s,and Vliets on the Hill, formerly the home of Wm. S. Blake (then Wm.V.B.Vliet) on the west edge of the Village. As late as the 1950s, travelers/vacationers used M-15, Main St., as their route "up north", stopping in Clarkston for ice cream at Cheeseman's.
Summer homes, cottages, were built on the edge of the Mill Pond and Park Lake, adding some late Victorian architecture to the mix of earlier Greek, Gothic, and Italian Revival style buildings. As early as the 1920s speculators, some from Detroit and Birmingham, began to buy surrounding farms, many owners retiring to houses in the Village. However, the depression delayed development.
The largest employer in the area has long been the School District. Many of Clarkston's new residents were teachers who came to find work and stayed having found a home.
Henry Ford of the Ford Motor Co. took an interest in water power and villages in the Detroit metropolitan area which were founded as mill villages. He began a "Village Industries Program" in the 1930s to establish small manufacturing plants in some of these villages using water power. He built one such plant on the long vacant Clarkston mills property and purchased the old school building on N. Main St. for an apprentice school.
Urbanites looking for a small tranquil town in which to raise their families and the construction of I-75 which bought them to the Village's doorstep have accelerated growth. Today Clarkston's residents are a combination of ancestors of the earliest settlers, tradesmen and farmers; teachers, vacationers and urbanites who continue to find the rich architectural heritage irresistible.