Northville’s beginnings can be traced to one of its greatest natural resources: water. It was the millrace, a tributary of the Rouge River, which provided the water source needed for early settler John Miller to open this area’s first gristmill sometime between 1825 and 1825 on the site now occupied by
The gristmill was the catalyst for much of the community’s growth in its early years. David Clarkson, an early settler who worked at the mill and later wrote a series of “Pioneer Sketches” in The Northville Record, stated that the gristmill was “the beginning of Northville, and John Miller was the pioneer.” The mill was among the first in the territory, providing area farmers with a more convenient location to grind their wheat and corn. At that time, the closest mills were in Ann Arbor and Pontiac, a considerable distance for wagon travelers.
That Mill Race Historical Village now occupies the site of that first gristmill is perhaps coincidence, but I like to think that serendipity played a part.
Over the last four decades, the Northville Historical Society has created and maintained the living museum we know as Mill Race Historical Village (more to come on that in next month’s Past Tense). Much of the focus has been on preserving historic structures that represent architectural styles common to the area prior to 1900.
While that work continues, the society is turning its attention to the riverbank that shores up the water so important to our community’s beginnings. In an ambitious five-year project, the society plans to accurately recreate the historical and ecological character of the millrace riverbank in the late nineteenth century.
These efforts already are under way with the removal of Trees of Heaven, a non-native invasive species. Yes, this is the tree removal you have been seeing along the riverbank. Trees of Heaven is a fast growing species imported in the late 18th century that not only crowds out a variety of more desirable plants, but also spreads quickly by disseminating its seeds over a wide area, according to Ed Gabrys, a historical society board member who is helping spearhead the effort.
Project principals include board members of the historical society, representatives of three local garden clubs that maintain the Village gardens, and members of Friends of the Rouge, who have provided logistics and partial funding for this effort.
Gabrys noted that the project has three primary goals. Ecologically, bioengineering techniques will be employed to prevent further erosion and restore the riverbank along the millrace channel (on the north bank). Having received permit approval from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, this project will begin in the fall with a series of ten-foot coir logs being secured to the riverbank at the water line. The logs will hold native plants that are adapted to this waterlogged, emergent zone.
In keeping with the society’s mission of historic preservation and education, a demonstration area will be planted starting along the Middle Rouge River at the south bank. This is where the expertise of members of the three local garden clubs will come into play as they select native plant species that would have been present in the late 19th century, or those that would have been cultivated to serve functions of the period such the dyeing of cloth, bee keeping or the maintaining of orchards by early settlers.
Maintaining the lovely gardens at the Village are the Country Garden Club at the Hunter House, the Northville Garden Club at the Yerkes House, and the Cottage Garden Club at the Weavers’ Cottage.
The final goal of the project is providing plantings in a variety of shapes, sizes, seasonal colors and groupings to enhance the esthetic appeal along the riverbank.
Gabrys credits past society presidents Carolyn Stuart and John Brugemen (along with Tim Brugemen) with the vision for this project started two decades ago with the planting of the Sugar Maples that grace the Village lane, providing a stunning riot of color each fall. Gabrys said plans envisioned 20 years ago to provide historically accurate landscaping along the riverbank will hopefully be completed in this effort.
New information signs about the project have been erected near the spillway on the Village grounds.
The project received an additional boost by the Friends of the Rouge that designated Mill Race Historical Village as a Rouge Rescue ’12 site.
Members of the community are welcome to join society volunteers on Saturday, June 2, from 9 a.m. to noon, at Mill Race Historical Village for Rouge Rescue ’12. Volunteers will be working to remove invasive species such as Garlic Mustard and Creeping Charlie and prepare the beds for more native and historically appropriate species.
Volunteers should wear work clothes and a hat (T-shirts and gloves are provided). Please also bring gardening tools such as trowels, hand pruners, dandelion weeding tools, garden shovels and rakes. Plan to meet at the Cady Inn near the front entry of the village at 9 a.m. Those interested in volunteering should contact the Northville Historical Society at 248-348-1845 or firstname.lastname@example.org
As Mill Race Historical Village celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, there’s no better time to begin a new chapter in preservation and pay homage to our community’s roots.