Milan, Michigan – City of Two Counties

Downtown Milan, Michigan

Located approximately 16 miles southeast of Ann Arbor and, 37 miles northwest of Toledo, and approximately 50 miles from Detroit, Milan has the distinction of existing across two counties – Monroe and Washtenaw. About 60 percent of Milan’s area is located in Washtenaw County adjacent to York Charter Township and about 40 percent of Milan is located in Monroe County adjacent to Milan Township. The city’s population is similarly split along geographical lines, with 75 percent of its population located in Washtenaw County and 25 percent of its population located in Monroe County.

Early French settlers named the area that they settled Milan Township because they were determined to use the wild grapes growing along the River Raisin to produce wine. Raisin is the French word for grape and they christened the large river flowing through Monroe and Monroe Township the River Raisin. The Saline River flowing through Milan and Milan Township is part of the River Raisin watershed, and the early settlers hoped to use the wild grapes growing along the Raisin and its tributaries to produce grapes and establish a wine making industry in the area. These French entrepreneurs named their new township Milan, after the Italian city of Milan hoping to establish a tradition similar to the Italian wine making reputation. An old community southeast of Milan that they named Grape is a symbol of the pioneer ambitions to create wine country in Monroe and Washtenaw Counties.

Building on early pioneer settlements, John Marvin, Bethuel Hack, and Harmon Allen founded the community that would become Milan in 1831. Bethuel Hack was the first postmaster, and he named the community Farmer, remarking that nearly everyone there farmed, so the logical name for the community should be Farmer. When drug store owner Henry Tolan took over as postmaster, he renamed the community Tolanville, to honor his family name. The next postmaster, David Woodard, who was appointed on April 21, 1836, established the post office in his flour mill and renamed the community Woodard’s Mills. The postmaster in Washington D.C. and probably many community residents were confused by the rapidly changing name of the community, so finally in 1836 the Washington D.C. postmaster accepted the recommendations of some of its citizens that the community would be called Milan, after Milan Township which took its name from the city of Milan, Italy.

In 1885, Milan became a village and operated as a village until its incorporation as a city in 1967.[1]

Milan’s Early Pioneers

John Marvin

Born in Norwalk, Connecticut, in 1769, John Marvin moved to Otsego County, New York, as a young man. While living in Otsego he married Mary Polly Edson about 1799, and they had their first children, Miranda, I 1800.  and he purchased 160 acres of land in Washtenaw County.  In 1831, John and his family along with other pioneers voyaged across Lake Erie to their newly acquired Michigan lands. John built a log home for his wife and small children and gradually replaced it with a frame home.

John and Polly’s son William started a store and soon other buildings dotted the woods and newly cleared fields. According to the History of Washtenaw County, in about 1834, John Marvin cast the first ballot at the first meeting of York Township at the home Noah Woolcott in Mooreville.[2]

By 1837, John and Polly Marvin had sold much of their land which some sources estimate totaled at least 280 acres of present day downtown Milan.  John Marvin died by Nov. 1838.

Although John and Polly’s daughter Caroline Marvin Tolan and her husband Henry Tolan are buried in Spaulding Cemetery, there is no definitive evidence that John and Polly are buried alongside them. Milan historian Martha Churchill examined the issue of whether John Marvin is buried in Spaulding Cemetery or Mooreville Cemetery. She stated that the Spaulding family donated the land for Spaulding Cemetery to Milan Township in 1848 and John Marvin died in 1838. She believes that since John Marvin had ties with early settlers in Mooreville, it is very likely that he is buried in Mooreville Cemetery.[3]

Henry Tolan

John and Polly’s daughter Caroline Marvin married Henry Tolan.  Born in 1817 in England, Henry immigrated to Michigan and became one of Milan’s early settlers. He built a potash factory, a drug store, and a hotel. He called the new settlement Tolanville after himself and he served as postmaster for a short time. Tolan Street is named in his memory. He and his wife Caroline are buried in Spaulding Cemetery.

Bethuel Hack

Born in Greenwich, Massachusetts on July 17,1796, he grew to young manhood and married Miss Sallie Payne in 1826. The Hacks had four children:  Emeline, Sarah, William, and James.

James B. Hack, born August 7, 1845. He enlisted in Company H of the 15th Michigan Infantry and died at Camp Monroe on March 24, 1862 of smallpox that he caught on a trip from Milan to Monroe.  He is buried in London Township Cemetery in London, Monroe County.

In 1832, Bethuel Hack and Harmon Allen sailed Lake Erie from Buffalo, New York to Detroit and then walked to Milan.  He served as Justice of the Peace and was an influential member of the Milan community.

Bethuel and his wife Sallie Paine Hack are buried in London Township Cemetery in Monroe County.[4]

Business in Milan

Milan – 1856-1857

MILAN. A Post office in the township, so called, and Monroe county, 47 miles south east from Lansing. Population of Town 1100.

List of Professions, Trades

Haywood & Smith, general store sawmill.

William Haywood, of Haywood & Smith

John McLearan, of Wilson  & McLearan Flouring Mill

John Smith of Haywood &. Smith.

Truman Wilcox, postmaster.

Wilson & McLearan, Flouring MilL

Thomas Wilson of Wilson & McLearan Flouring Mill

Click the link to see some Milan Pioneer businesses from 1883 to 1921-1922.

Milan Pioneer Businesses

74 Patents, 14 Companies, and IBM

Walter F. Stimpson

walter stimpson
Photo-Martha Churchill

Walter F. Stimpson, a Milan farm boy, advanced in his career to become one of the founders of International Business Machines (IBM) and the holder of 74 United States patents. Born on September 20,1870 on a farm west of Mooreville, Walter Stimpson filed a patent for a device lowering grain harvester wheels, in 1892. In September 1894, he filed another patent for farm equipment. Throughout his life he filed a total of 74 patents, but in his younger years he worked on his patents while completing Cleary Business School and teaching school.

In 1892, he noticed a local grocery store owner increasingly frustrated by difficult to use scales while he tried to figure prices for his merchandise. Experimenting with the blacksmith tools at his father’s farm, Walter developed the revolutionary idea for a computing scale. His innovative scales immediately caught on and he developed farm scales capable of weighing freight ranging from a wagonload of watermelons, a cow, or a load of coal. He developed scales to weigh smaller things like envelopes, postage, candy, and diamonds. He built a Stimpson factory in Milan on Plank Road at Dexter Road which later became the Ideal Foundry and he expanded his business reach by building factories in Tecumseh, Northville, and Detroit, Michigan, and Elkhart, Indiana. He founded a total of 14 companies during his business life.

Eventually one of Walter Stimpson’s Detroit companies merged with the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company dealing in cash registers and another merged with a company dealing with clocks. The Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company later changed its name to International Business Machines. For years, if Stimpson Scale customers needed parts for their scales, they consulted IBM as the successor company.

Around 1903, Walter built an Italianate brick hotel in downtown Milan, Michigan, which he called the Stimpson Hotel. Later renamed the Danube Inn, it burned down in 2011.

Hotel Stimpson- Photo, Martha Churchill

During the last years of his life, he and his wife Estelle or Stella Heyn Stimpson lived in Louisville, Kentucky.  When he died August 17, 1942 in Norton Infirmary in Louisville, he left a large, modern factory manufacturing coffee grinders, meat slicers, and scales.

Some Milan Business and Professional Pioneers

Main Street Milan, 1910- Milan Public Library

George Ellis Bassitt. Owned and operated Bassitt  Five Cents to Five Dollars Store on Main Street in Milan, beginning in 1924.  He and his wife Sadie are buried in Marble Park Cemetery.

William Arthur Bell.   He owned and operated Bell’s Standard Service in Milan during the 1960s.  He is buried in Marble Park Cemetery.

William H. Bell. He was the owner of Bell Meat Market in Milan, Michigan for 35 years. He is buried in Marble Park Cemetery.

Charles M. Blackmer operated business in downtown Milan and owned several local properties. In 1885, he joined his father, David Blackmer,  in the undertaking business serving the Milan area, and stayed in that business until 1904.  He is buried in Marble Park Cemetery.

Edd W. Blackmer.  Edd sold furniture in the store next to his father’s undertaking parlor, and then took over the undertaking business after his father, Charles W. Blackmer.  He is buried in Marble Park Cemetery.

  1. DeVere Blackmer. Milan. In 1933 he went to Clinton to become manager of a C. F. Smith Store there. In 1943 he returned to Milan to manage the Milan C. F. Smith store, left vacant by the death of his brother Webb. He retired from this store in 1958. He is buried in Marble Park Cemetery.

Webb Blackmer, a son of Charles M. and Emily Webb Blackmer, was the oldest businessman in Milan. He owned and operated a meat market in the early 1890s, and later was part owner of the Farrington and Blackmer grocery. After Mr. Farrington died, Webb became sole owner of the store. He also managed the C.F, Smith store for 23 years.  He is buried in Marble Park Cemetery.

Lovatus Allen “Bud” Butler. He served as Milan postmaster from 1947 to 1957 and then he owned and operated Butler’s Grocery until his retirement in 1967.  He is buried in Marble Park Cemetery.

Dr. William R. Calhoun. He practiced dentistry in Milan for nearly fifty years. He was the oldest active business and professional man in Milan and served as a member of the common council several terms and also as Village Treasurer at various times.  He is buried in Marble Park Cemetery.
Dr, Arthur J. Cox, DDS.  he came to Milan in 1935 and established his dental practice in the office above Miller’s Drug Store and practiced until his retirement.  He is buried in Marble Park Cemetery.

Stanley E. Dennison owned and operated Dennison’s Grocery from 1934 to 1962 and he was a rail clerk for the local (Wabash) depot for more than 30 years.  He is buried in Marble Park Cemetery.

Lucile Johnson DeRyke. Editor and owner of the Milan Leader.  She is buried in Marble Park Cemetery.

Fuller Dexter. Landlord of Commercial House which was located at 54 West Main Street in Milan.  He is buried in Marble Park Cemetery.

Ray W. Frisbie. Owned and operated Frisbie’s Barber Shop in Milan for 55 years.  He is buried in Marble Park Cemetery.

Dr. Isaac W. Hurd. According to Milan historian Warren Hale, Dr. Hurd came to Milan from Dansville, NY in 1837. His wife was Dorcas Carpenter Hurd. His presence in Milan was much appreciated. Up until his arrival, Milan residents had to travel to Mooreville to visit a doctor. He is buried in Spaulding Cemetery.

Nicholas Frank Klak.  During World War II he served as a guard at the Milan Prison and he was a merchant in Milan from 1946-1994. He is buried in Marble Park Cemetery.

George A. Koukoumtzis. Owned and operated the Campfire Restaurant in Milan.  He is buried in Marble Park Cemetery.

Joel L. Marble and his wife Florence founded Marble Park Cemetery in 1896. He also was a real estate developer and businessman. In 1892, he operated a grocery store on the south side of E. Main in downtown Milan, in the “Palmer Block,” according to insurance records of the time. At one point he had a real estate business called “Eureka Realty.”

Dr. Alpheus Goodman Mesic. Practiced medicine in Milan for 43 years. His obituary noted that “ He devoted his entire life to the aid of the sick and suffering and many times drove far into the night in the times of the horse and buggy, often without the prospect of financial remuneration for his work as a doctor.”  He is buried in Marble Park Cemetery.

Frank Mortimer Miller. Operated Miller’s Drugstore in Milan for many years.  He is buried in Marble Park Cemetery.

Alexander W. Robb. Blacksmith in Milan for many years.  He is buried in Marble Park Cemetery.

Orville J. Rowe owned and operated Rowe Chevrolet Buick from 1952-2002.  He is buried in Marble Park Cemetery.

Father Joseph S. Strzelwecz. Pastor of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Milan and organizer of the Milan Ministerial Association.  He is buried in Marble Park Cemetery.

G.C. Van Orman. Owner of Van’s Stores in Brooklyn and Milan.  He is buried in Marble Park Cemetery.

Charles H. Wilson.  Operated a grist mill in Milan along the Saline River.  He also operated a saw mill.  He is buried in Marble Park Cemetery

Some Milan Veterans

milan soldiers

Civil War

Ira F. Bortles. Co, H,  18th Michigan Infantry, Civil War.  He is buried in Marble Park Cemetery.

John Burnham.  Sgt. Company E, 7th Cavalry Regiment, Civil War.  He is buried in Marble Park Cemetery.

Lyman Burnham.  Co. I, 15th Infantry, Civil War.  He is buried in Marble Park Cemetery.

Richard Callis. Corp. Co. E, 11th Michigan Cavalry, Civil War.  He is buried in Marble Park Cemetery.

James Colf.  Pvt. Co. C., 17th Michigan Infantry. Civil War.  He is buried in Marble Park Cemetery.

George H. Culver enlisted in Company C, Seventh Michigan Cavalry at the outbreak of the Civil War where he served under Gen. Custer in Virginia and later transferred to the Fifth Cavalry and served under Gen. Stagg. At the end of the war, he answered the call to colors and fought with the regulars in the Indian campaign under Col. Bates from 1870 to 1875. He was the only surviving Civil War Veteran in Washtenaw and Monroe counties when he died on November 5, 1944. at the home of his son, Willis Culver, of 170 East Main Street, Milan. He is buried in Marble Park Cemetery.

Click here for the remainder of a partial list of Milan veterans, ranging from the Civil War to Vietnam.    Some Milan Veterans

More Modern Milan

modern milan

Like countless pioneering small towns, Milan inherited the architectural tastes of its founders, including two story turn of the twentieth century homes, and about 21 percent of houses built between 1940 and 1959.  Houses closer to downtown still feature barns that once sheltered horses and carriages, but in the current century shelter horseless carriages, although a scattering of working farms complete with cows and horses dot the landscape. Milan’s Downtown earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places with tis mix of Italianate and other architectural styles. Milan’s historical museum is the Hack House, built in 1888.

As in many other communities, the energy and business acumen of Henry Ford helped shape Milan’s economy from that of a small village to a thriving city. In 1935, Henry Ford purchased a two-story grist mill which is now the Community House in Milan.  He used a former lumber mill garage as a base to build an engine coil manufacturing plant near the present parking lot between the police station and city hall. He had planned to operate his factory using hydraulic power, and he dredged and dammed Ford Lake to produce that power. Gradually, he discovered that water power could not operate the factory and turned instead to steam engines using coal for power. The former Ford Power plant is now part of Milan’s current City Hall. Henry Ford owned a soybean processing plant next to the present day public works building.

For years, much of Milan’s tax base came from the Visteon/Ford Motor Company facility, but as the village grew into a city, it utilized its pioneer businesses as well as developing new ones. Even though it is located in London Township, the Milan Drag Way is famous regionally for its auto racing. In 1945, the Schultz family founded an automobile dealership which is currently a family owned business operated by a third generation of Schultzs.

An unrelated Schultz family has owned and operated the Schultz Bottled Gas Company, the oldest continuously operated family retail business in Milan, dating from 1939 to the present.

Located on Wabash Street, the Milan State Savings Bank founded in 1911 is the ancestor of the Chase Bank. It has been operating continuously under various names on the same site since 1911.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons has operated the Federal Correctional Institution, Milan and its adjoining Federal Detention Center housing pretrial and holdover facilities for inmates since 1933 when it was activated as the Federal Detention Farm. The low security prison has 59 buildings situated on 332 acres and is located 45 miles southwest of Downtown Detroit, 15 miles south of Ann Arbor, and 30 miles north of Toledo, Ohio. The mission statement of Milan Prison has lived through various incarnations, including serving as a correctional facility for women.

On July 8, 1938, Anthony Chebatoris was hanged at the prison, convicted of the murder of Henry Porter, a truck driver from Bay City.  During a bank robbery, Anthony Chebatoris mistakenly took Henry Porter for a police officer and shot him. After his hanging, the only federal execution in Michigan, officials transported his body to Stevens Funeral Home in Milan.  He is buried in Marble Park Cemetery under a gravestone that simply notes: “Tony Chebatoris, 1900-1938.”

In 1934, Helen Gillis, the wife of infamous bank robber Baby Face Nelson was sentenced to a year and a day at the Woman’s Federal Reformatory in Milan, for aiding her husband in his criminal activities. Evelyn Frechette, the girlfriend of John Dillinger, served two years at Milan for violating the Federal Harboring Law.  She was released in 1936.

The 2010 Federal Census lists the population of Milan, Michigan as 5,836 inhabitants. The city’s official website lists some of the reasons why Milan boosters believe their city will continue to grow and flourish. “In Milan, you’ll find shops, restaurants, and services. We have affordable housing, and many wonderful community events, including parades, car shows, movies, and concerts in the park and an extremely energetic and vital Senior Community Center. Moreover, Milan boasts 200 acres of beautifully maintained parks to wander through and play.”


[1] Jennifer Herman, Michigan Encyclopedia, 1999. p. 400.

[2] Charles C. Chapman, History of Washtenaw County, p. 1413.

[3] Martha Churchill, Find A Grave, John Marvin

[4] History of Monroe County, Michigan, Talcott E. Wing, p. 47


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