The History of Canton

The Ice Age
Thousands of years ago, an ancient lake known as Lake Whittelsey extended westward from the present Lake Erie to the beach on the Ridge in Canton's western sections. The lake bed contained trace minerals and organic matter in its heavy clay loam that made Canton a rich and fertile agricultural area for future farmers. The ridge, known today as Ridge Road is made up of layers of sand and gravel. East from Ridge Road the land slowly drops off in elevation to the Detroit River; westward from the ridge the land begins to roll in gentle hills.

Native Americans
Hunting for game in the abundant woods and streams and gathering berries and other natural foodstuffs were the ways of the Potawatomi Indians that lived in Southeastern Michigan. They traversed the land by way of trails, some of which we use today such as Ridge Road, Ann Arbor Trail, Geddes Road, Joy Road and Michigan Avenue.

Chief Tonquish, who lived in western Wayne County, was locally famous. Conflicts arose as early settlers intruded on the area inhabited by the Potawatomi. Although no settler was ever injured in these forays, the settlers became irritated and staged an attack on the Indians. After crossing what is now known as Tonquish Creek, Chief Tonquish and his men were captured. The Chief's son tried to escape and was shot and killed by a rifle butt to his head that same evening in 1819. This incident marked the end of Indian resistance in the area. A Michigan State historic marker was erected on the site where this event occurred, on Wayne Road, just south of Joy.

The First Settlers
In spite of early reports of mosquito-infested swamp land and dense timber, the settlers came. With the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, settlers from New England and upstate New York came west for new land. The first land grant in Canton was given to Samuel and Philander Burd in 1825. The Philander's home has been restored on its original site on Joy Road just west of McClumpha. Other early settlers included Timothy and Rachel Sheldon, who built the inn on Michigan Avenue that later was part of a thriving village.

The new settlers in Canton found thick forests mainly consisting of elm, black ash and oak, and teaming with bears, deer, wolf, lynx, fox, and other wildlife. The land was cleared, homes were built, farms were begun, and schools and churches were organized. By the 1830s the settlers had created the beginnings of a community.

Canton Becomes a Township
On March 7, 1834, a six square mile area bounded by Joy Road on the North, Van Born Road to the south, Hannan Road to the east and Napier Road to the west became known as Canton. Canton, like Nankin and Peking townships were named after cities in China due in part to the enhanced trade relations the United States had with China at that time. Today Canton is the only township of the three that uses its original name.

Canton was, and continues to be, governed by a Board of Trustees. In 1874 the first township hall was built on the corner of Canton Center and Cherry Hill Roads. It seated 400 people and was built at a cost of $700.

In 1961 the population of Canton had climbed to 5,300. Due to an increased need for services, the township proposed to the voters that Canton incorporate into a charter township, leaving all the previous powers Canton enjoyed formerly as well as granting new powers. The Township could establish a police force, make traffic rules and broaden its health ordinances. Canton became one of Michigan's first Charter Townships. Today Canton enjoys a full service police and fire department, and accredited school system, professionally managed departments in the township hall, a full service library, a multifaceted recreational department, many volunteer and civic organizations and much more to serve the nearly 90,000 people who now reside in Canton.

Michigan's Sweet Corn Capital
Beginning with the first settlers in Canton, self sustaining farming was the main source of income. The farm provided the necessary food and products for a family's livelihood, and the surplus could be sold or bartered for goods, services or cash. Oxen were originally used for working the farms, but by the 1850's draft horses began replacing them.

The typical Canton farm family owned six or eight milk cows, hogs for marketing, hens for eggs and meat and a few sheep. Ice cut from nearby rivers in the winter kept food and milk preserved in the summer. The abundant maple trees provided maple sugar each spring.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, Canton was touted as the "Sweet Corn Capitol of Michigan." Farmers within a days horse and wagon drive to Detroit took advantage of the opportunity and raised the profitable sweet corn to be sold at the Farmers' Market.

Dairy farming was also important in Canton due to its central location. At first farmers took their milk to local creameries located in the villages of Sheldon Corners and Cherry Hill. From these creameries, Canton's milk was distributed to larger nearby communities, including Detroit.

The Schools
Most of Canton's settlers came from New England with its strong emphasis on education. Along with their convictions, the Territorial Council of 1827 ruled that any township consisting of 50 or more families must employ one or more school masters of "good moral standing" to teach the "three R's."

There were nine schools built in Canton, usually at a crossroad. They were arranged to make them accessible to children walking to school. Teachers were hired for a specific number of weeks to teach and often boarded with local families. Each school was a "district" unto itself with its own school board. Families in each area worked together to build and support the school, paying a "tax" for each child that attended and donating a cord of firewood for the school stove.

The first schools were log structures, one of the first being the Cherry Hill School, built in 1834. Later, brick or frame schools replaced the original log buildings. The schools were often used as social centers for the surrounding area for religious services and nonprofit shows.

Today four of the original nine schools remain: Hough is privately owned; Cherry Hill is a restored public facility; Canton Center (built in 1884) houses the Canton Historical Society's Museum, and Sheldon has been restored by the Township. Three of the schools are both local and state historical sites.

The Cross Road Villages
Throughout most of its history Canton was primarily farm land. But among the fields and woods existed two small villages: Sheldon Corners and Cherry Hill.

Sheldon Corners was first settled in 1825 by Timothy and Rachel Sheldon after spending a night alongside the Sauk Trail (now Michigan Avenue). They built an inn for other travelers heading westward. Later the Sheldons were part of a growing new village that provided services, like a post office, general store, a blacksmith, school and a church. Sheldon Corners later became a stop on the Interurban, an "electric railroad" that connected Detroit with western communities from the early 1900s to 1930.

Cherry Hill, like Sheldon Corners, was also settled in 1828 and developed in much the same way. Cherry Hill boasts the first church -- the Cherry Hill United Methodist Church and Cemetery, both organized in 1834. Cherry Hill was first known as "The Ridge," and was later renamed Cherry Hill Village. About 1865, Abner Hitchcock built his inn and named it the "Cherry Hill House" after the abundant wild cherry trees growing there. In the 1940s Henry Ford built one of his "Village Industries" in Cherry Hill and adopted the Cherry Hill School as part of the Greenfield Village School System, offering the students many wonderful new opportunities.

Both communities saw much local activity as farmers brought their milk and eggs to the local creameries, bartered at the general store and attended social activities at the schools, churches and inns.

Today Sheldon Corners is a remnant of its past, falling to the widening of Michigan Avenue. A few historic structures remain: the Inn, the school and a few homes. The Sheldon school (built in 1870) has been listed as a Michigan State historic site.

Cherry Hill has developed into a community of new homes and businesses. The Cherry Hill school (built in 1876) has been restored. Both the church and the school are local and state historic sites.

Read more at http://www.canton-mi.org/211/History-of-Canton