Spring Arbor Township is one of nineteen townships in Jackson County, Michigan. Located southwest of Jackson, it covers 36 square miles with rolling terrain that includes rich farm land, lakes, wetlands, woods, and developed areas for residential use.
First inhabited by Native Americans, Spring Arbor Township has a rich heritage in agriculture, education, and quality family living. Three institutions of higher education were founded in Spring Arbor; Hillsdale College, Albion College, and Spring Arbor University which remains in the Township.
Faced with significant pressure for development, the Township has remained committed to maintaining its rural character and keeping the enviable tradition of being a great place to raise a family.
Spring Arbor Township – the township of springs- was indeed an appealing area to those pioneers moving through south central Michigan in 1833. The gently rolling country was dotted with groves of deciduous trees that offered a refuge for game in abundance. Lumber for the settlers’ houses and barns and fuel for the families’ fires would also come from the stand of timber. Land suitable for farming was everywhere, and even the occasional marshlands were an indication of an easily accessible water table as well as an attraction for game fowl. Cool, refreshing streams fed by innumerable springs meant that usable water was never far away from any dwelling. To the pioneers anxious for the end of the journey, the Township promised a new life, rich in the possibilities that natural resources and hard work could provide. (Spring Arbor Township 1830-1980: Reminiscing Thru a Hundred and Fifty Years.)
Potawatomi Indians were Spring Arbor Township’s first recorded inhabitants with a large, major encampment, burial sites, and council grounds in the southwestern portion of the Township. According to field notes found in the surveys of the United States Land Office, 1815-25, a Potawatomi village by the Big Spring was located at the intersection of the lines dividing Sections 19, 20, 29, and 30 of the Township. Near that site now stands the Falling Waters Park, named after the Indian encampment’s name.(Falling Waters: 1825-1845 compiled by the Spring Arbor Township Historical Committee in 1992)
Early White Settlers
In the autumn of 1829, the survey ordered by the Michigan Legislative Council for the laying of the Territorial Road west to Lake Michigan was completed. By January 1830, land was available at $1.25 an acre with as few as 80 acres per sale permitted.
Benjamin H. Packard and William Smith bought the land upon which the Potawatomi village was located. Packard, a physician, married Eleanor Royce in 1831, purchased his first property in Spring Arbor Township and moved his family to Spring Arbor in February 1835. Old abstracts verify that Packard built a home on the south side of the first village site in Section 29, the exact location of the Potawatomi village.
Records show that from 1831 to 1833, William Smith and his son-in-law Isaac Newton Swain bought over 480 acres in Spring Arbor Township. Known as man of religious devotion and humanitarian concerns, Smith and his wife Abigail were instrumental in making Christian education a priority for the settlers.
Smith’s son-in-law, Isaac Swain, a teacher by certification, married Vallonia in 1830. Together they moved to Spring Arbor Township with her family. In 1831, Swain purchased and planted 40 acres. He built a log house, roofed it with marsh hay and headed his letters Swains Hay Castle, City of Spring Arbor, Michigan. Swain moved many times in the area. In fact, Swain’s Lake in neighboring Concord is named after him.
Another early settler, Elija H. Pilcher, came to Spring Arbor Township in 1830, not seeking land but seeking souls as a Methodist itinerant preacher. He joined Henry Colclazer, who was evangelizing the new settlement for the Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1835, Pilcher met and married Caroline Packard, who died five years later. Although he shared his father-in-law’s passion for Christian education, he did leave Spring Arbor and the care of his son Jason Henry to his in-laws to shepherd the growth in Michigan of the fledgling Methodist Episcopal Church. For several years later in his life, Pilcher pastored the First Methodist Church of Jackson.
Christian Education, a Top Priority
Education was a major priority of these early settlers. Dr. Benjamin Packard and William Smith, both Methodists, platted the 128-lot Spring Arbor village in May 1835. These two men, along with Henry Colclazer, pressed for the establishment of a Methodist school at this site. The Michigan Legislative Council granted a charter for the Spring Arbor school on March 23, 1835. Trustees of the yet non-existent school were elected, with Dr. Packard as its first president. It should be noted that this original Spring Arbor village was located at Hammond and Cross Roads, not where Spring Arbor is today.
While plans were made to acquire land, money and the erection of buildings for classes, in 1837 numerous individuals became interested in establishing a village about one mile south of the original Spring Arbor village site, near Sears and Cross Roads. Located along the Kalamazoo River, the proposed village comprised about 400 acres. By the end of the year however, plans for building this second village were abandoned, probably because of the “panic of 1837,” which caused economic turmoil across the country and in the banking community.
Before the abandonment of the proposed project, however, optimistic Dr. Benjamin Packard had begun to erect the foundations for the Methodist Seminary on his property in the second village. This was located in a heavily wooded area in the northwest corner of Section 32 of Spring Arbor Township where it intersected with Sections 29, 30 and 31. It is apparent that no classes were ever held for the proposed Methodist Seminary at Spring Arbor, either at the original 1835 Falling Waters site or the 1837 site one-mile south.
However, the erection of foundations stones by Dr. Benjamin Packard for the college is significant in Albion history. This foundation is the first physical evidence of what was to later become Albion College. A proposal which was made in 1838 to move the proposed Seminary to Albion was approved in 1839.However, as the Michigan Legislative Council granted a charter for a school to be at this site on March 23, 1835, it is that date which Albion College used in celebrating its sesquicentennial in 1985.
Subsequently, the original Spring Arbor Village site in December 1844 became the home of the Michigan Central College, operated by Free Will Baptists. They held classes into 1845, when they moved the school and village to the present-day Spring Arbor village located on the White Pigeon Road (now M-60), one-mile northeast of the original Falling Waters site. In 1853 the college closed and moved to Hillsdale, originating the current Hillsdale College. The building stood vacant for 20 years until in 1873 it was purchased by the Free Methodists and became Spring Arbor Seminary, today’s Spring Arbor University.