WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
If it was not for springs bubbling up through the glacially sculpted hills of what is now the Ortonville State Recreation Area, and Kearsley Creek meandering through fertile woodlands, there might never have been a Village of Ortonville. And there certainly would not be an Old Mill Museum located at the “top” of Oakland County. Brandon Township Supervisor Kathy Thurman described the mill to me this way last month, “The Old Mill Museum is one of the finest gems in downtown Ortonville.” I agree.
Wandering through the old mill is in many ways like entering a time capsule that dates back to 1852, the year that Amos Orton first constructed a one-story grist mill on the banks of Kearsley Creek, an event that led to the birth of the Village of Ortonville and his name being immortalized. Ortonville is certainly not a bustling center of commerce, and some Oakland County residents are apparently unaware of the village’s existence. The fact of the matter is that the approximate one-square-mile Village of Ortonville can be missed if someone does not know where to look for this tiny town with not a single parking meter parking and just three traffic lights, two of which are located on M-15.
The Village of Ortonville holds intriguing throwbacks to the past, including a drive-in A&W Restaurant with a deck overlooking Duck Creek, a tiny stream which flows into Kearsley Creek. The most prominent and historic throwback is, however, the Old Mill on the banks of Kearsley Creek. And that’s where today’s special Wilder Side of Oakland County historical blog really begins. Consider it an introduction to the struggles to establish a village in the wilds of Oakland County that shows connections between the ways of nature and the innovations of humankind.
The Village of Ortonville website describes the birth of the small grist mill, that was later replaced with the existing larger mill, and is now a museum, this way,
“Nestled in the rolling hills of north Oakland County, the Village of Ortonville was founded by Amos Orton in 1848. Mr. Orton, his wife Emily, and their two children made the difficult trip from upstate New York via boat and ox cart in 1839, eventually working their way north through Troy and Pontiac on muddy Indian trails until they reached the present site of the Village of Ortonville. What they found was Kearsley Creek nestled in a heavily wooded area, along with bubbling artesian springs and beautiful pristine lakes. Mr. Orton, being an devoted businessman, immediately saw the potential of Kearsley Creek for waterpower. He built a log house north of the Village in 1839 and by 1848, he had built a small grist mill on the banks of Kearsley Creek”
What’s there to see in the old mill? The natural and human history of northern Oakland County is the short answer. Ortonville Historical Society members are present when the building is open and they assist with the interpretation of the placards, historic photos and in “grinding of the grain.”
Here’s just a small sampling:
I tried my hand at grinding grain on a hand powered machine. The mill was once home to a much larger device that ground corn by the action of two large grindstones powered by the waters of Kearsley Creek (after Orton created a mill pond, millrace and mill wheel). The water from the mill pond was channeled through a narrow millrace, a canal of sorts through which water flows with increased force to drive a mill wheel, which in turns drives the wheel that grinds the grain. In 1943, the old dam that was underneath the bridge on South Street catastrophically failed, and the waters of Mill Pond drained. Historic photos in the Old Mill Museum document the sudden flood and confirm that in the end, nature often returns to her ways: Kearsley Creek was freed of the dam. It continues its free flow today and is now a designated trout stream.
Grace Geisler was at the old mill during my most recent visit and artfully demonstrated her skills on the loom. Her fascinating presentation and fast-moving hands quickly drew a small crowd to watch her creations take form, the way it used to be done.
A parlor was a formal room in a house back in the day when guests and visitors were “properly” received. The old mill has a re-creation of a parlor with donated items from local residents, including an antique organ and musical cabinetto. I had no idea what a cabinetto was, but Ortonville Historical Society member Ken Bush explained that it was something like a player piano that plays music from rolls of paper. And of course, he happily demonstrated to the delight of watching children, and me.
The three story building reminds visitors that it took hard work and innovation to create a community in the wilds of northern Oakland County. Tools of the trade on display from the early days of Ortonville include old saws, antique “washing machines,” dishes, clothes, handcrafted chairs and one of the earliest fire trucks from the village. An antique cash register drew my eye as soon as I arrived, and a member of the historical society demonstrated its use for me before I left. The upper most level is a salute to our army veterans.
My favorite historical note was not an item on display, but detailed information about the old Ortonville Railroad, the DUR. Part of the placard reads, “In the year 1900, the Detroit United Railway was given a thirty year franchise for an electric railroad to be built between Flint and Detroit. This railroad crossed many small towns on the way to Flint, and Ortonville was one of those towns. The first car came through Ortonville on New Years Day 1901 and it was a grand day for the village! Citizens were given a free ride to Oxford and back.” That beautiful route documented the early need for trails and tracks to connect people with places and boost the vitality of towns through which it passed. It almost became part of the Iron Belle Trail that will run from Belle Isle State Park in Detroit to Ironwood in the Upper Peninsula, but sadly local opposition blocked its passage (at least for now) through Brandon Township and the Village of Ortonville.
If meandering through the old mill does not satisfy your historic curiosity, just walk around to the back of the building and you will find the Mann School, the one room Ortonville school house that was located on Sawmill Lake Road, the site where local children studied from 1879 until 1943. In 1996, the school house was moved to its present location with love and effort by the Ortonville Community Historical Society. Perhaps wrap up your mill tour by wandering the sidewalks of Ortonville or walk to nearby Crossman Park for a picnic, and then on the way home visit Cook’s Farm Dairy, a working dairy farm a few miles away on Seymour Lake Road with the best ice cream in the county.
For the rest of the story, come to the Old Mill. The Old Mill Museum is on the National and State Register of Historical Places and is open to the public all summer, free of charge on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information, visit their website.
Jonathan Schechter is the Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.