EARLY CHELSEA HISTORY 101
The area we now call Chelsea was originally settled by the Potawatomi tribe of Native Americans. Cyrus Beckwith was the first white settler of the Chelsea region, establishing a farm in Sylvan Township in 1830 in the area where the current fairgrounds are located. He was born in New Hampshire in 1802 and purchased 500 acres from the U.S. Government in 1829. The plat record described Sylvan Township as having “clear plentiful lakes, valleys and hills and having abundant trees, marshy fertile soil and lush blue grass.” When Beckwith moved to Michigan, he first settled in Ann Arbor before coming to Sylvan.
THE PIERCE FAMILY
In 1831, Nathan and Darius Pierce, brothers from Ontario, New York, traveled to the Michigan territory and purchased several hundred acres in Sylvan and Lima townships. By 1832, Nathan settled Pierceville, near the intersection of what is known today as M-52 and Old US-12. He received a land grant deed from President Andrew Jackson for 400 acres in 1833. The home he built around 1832 stands today at 14300 Old US-12. Nathan’s settlement flourished with a blacksmith shop, post office, general store, and a doctor. At the same time, Darius founded Kedron, which was at the northeastern end of present day Chelsea by Letts Creek and Freer Road. The small hamlet flourished as well with a blacksmith shop, post office, and store. Darius Pierce would own 640 acres by 1856, and both brothers were instrumental in early local and state government.
THE CONGDON FAMILY
Another set of brothers, Elisha and James Congdon, moved to the area from Connecticut and bought the land between the Pierce brothers’ settlements in 1834. Elisha bought 120 acres on the east side of Main Street, and James bought 320 acres across the street on the west side and south. Records show that a third brother David may have also come briefly to Chelsea and bought land that he later deeded over to James. The Congdon brothers established their own village in 1834. It was first called Kedron, but became Chelsea in 1850 when Elisha Congdon renamed it for his old home in Connecticut. It was also the year the village was first platted.
Also in 1850, the Michigan Central Railroad (MCRR) built a new depot in the village of Chelsea. The MCRR line had been constructed through the area in 1841, but the shed erected as a depot was located about two miles west of Chelsea at Davidson Station. After it burned down under suspicious circumstances, the Congdon brothers offered free land to the MCRR if it would place the rebuilt depot in their young village. With the aid of the Michigan Central Railroad, Chelsea grew quickly and soon absorbed the outlying hamlets of Pierceville, Kedron, and Davidson Station.
The first store built in Chelsea was by Elisha Congdon in 1849. The second, a blacksmith shop, and a third, a hotel and saloon opened by Asel Harris, were built in 1850. Charles H. Kempf began the first hardware store in 1853. Due to the thriving hauling business that developed between Chelsea and Manchester to the south and Stockbridge to the north, Chelsea became a favorable location for blacksmith shops, coopers, and carriage and wagon makers. Farmers settled the area and their fierce determination and hard work made Chelsea an agricultural force. Chelsea became the largest produce market in the county, with apples from the town’s sizable orchard a leading fare. By 1856, the first cider mill had been built. In addition, Chelsea shipped more wool than anywhere else in the state during the last half of the nineteenth century.
Also in its early settlement, Main Street and downtown Chelsea was dominated by a large, steep sand hill. It climbed from the railroad tracks to the McKune House, originally built in 1860 by Elisha Congdon and serves residents today as the library. From the railroad south toward downtown, the wooden sidewalks included many steps to scale the steep hill. Drivers of freight wagons would often have to unload half their freight at the bottom of the hill, essentially making two trips, to ascend it. Over the years, citizens slowly leveled off the sand hill making it more maneuverable.
The first school in Chelsea was started in 1854 with 21 children, about half of whom were from the Congdon families. The school was constructed between W. Middle and South streets and served the community until 1860. At that time, Elisha Congdon donated land at Park and East streets and a new school was built. This site would house a Chelsea school building for over a hundred years. Congdon also donated land to the First Congregational Church for a building that was dedicated in the summer of 1852. A fire destroyed that church in February 1894, but by June, construction on the church that still stands on E. Middle Street was underway. In 1858, he donated land on Park Street for the First United Methodist Church. It was dedicated in the fall of 1859, but the church was destroyed by fire in January 1899. The congregation quickly constructed a new stone building and it still stands today.
Chelsea continued to see steady growth and prosperity throughout the nineteenth century. Aided by the east-west railroad and the prominent north-south wagon trail, the village became a thriving mercantile point. George P. Glazier and Michael Noyes formed the first bank in 1868 with the R. Kempf & Bros. Bank to follow eight years later. In 1862, Lewis Winans started the first drug store and the Kempf brothers opened the first lumber yard. The Chelsea Herald, the first newspaper, began in 1871. E. E. Shaver, the town photographer for over 50 years, started the Eureka Photographic Studio in 1874. There were stores offering groceries, a tailor, a butcher, and a boot shop—all the necessities for a growing village.
In his History of Washtenaw County (1881), Chapman stated, “The general appearance of Chelsea is that of thrift and good taste. The population of the village is about 1200 and the fact that every house and tenement is occupied, and the application for further accommodations constant and pressing, indicates a further and rapid growth. It is the model village of the county.”