Stephen Mills was born on August 11, 1809 at a place called Dover near Morristown in New Jersey. Raised in Phelps, a small town in western New York, he came to Michigan in 1833. In 1839 he married Clemmea McKnight who bore him seven sons. He built houses and at least one school and was a successful fruit farmer and, in 1896, when he was eighty-seven, he died.
By 1820, Stephen was eleven years old, living with his parents, Daniel and Johanna, and his baby sister, Harriet, in a little town near Geneva, New York called Phelps. The lore about him claims that his parents took him to western New York State when he was just a baby, and it’s thought that their purpose was to settle new lands there.
There must have been lots of excitement in Phelps, NY in 1823. In 1817, work had begun on a project proposed by the New York governor, Dewitt Clinton (after whom our nearby town of Clinton, Michigan was named). Some called it “Clinton’s Folly” and some “Clinton’s Ditch”, but it would be the key that made it possible for the dream [of the Erie Canal] to come true.
In 1825, when the canal opened, Stephen Mils was 17. His town, Phelps, was only a short distance from it.
The History of Washtenaw County, Michigan, published in 1881 by Charles Chapman, states that Stephen first came to Michigan in 1833 and bought a tract of land in Manchester Township. It was part of a larger parcel that later belonged to a man named Peter VanWinkle who later became a minister. In a paper that Stuart Thayer presented to the Washtenaw County Historical Society in 1977, he says that Stephen traded that land for parcels in Sections 6 and 7 of what was then called Pitt Township (named after Britisher William Pitt, a hero to Americans at the time), but Mills didn’t settle it right away.
According to material put together for the founding of the Cobblestone Farm Museum in Ann Arbor by his descendants, Stephen returned to Phelps either in 1833 or early in 1834 and there are hints in several places that his purpose in going back to New York was to learn masonry. One theory is that he also went back to convince his parents to come west with him. In any case, they arrived in 1835 and settled on Section 6 across from the Pittsfield Township Hall, and Stephen stayed behind in Phelps until the following year.
First of all, Washtenaw County was largely a forested swamp with only occasional grassy areas, called oak openings. We’re talking hardwood forest here, folks, and where you have hardwoods, their canopies grow so large that they blot out the sun, and evergreens can’t get started. It’s hard to believe now, but there were no pine trees in Washtenaw County when the settlers came. When Scott Kunst, the landscape historian at EMU, first told me this, I don’t think I really believed it, but I later found a list of all the flora found in the county at the time the first settles came, and the closest thing to pine listed there is tamarack––not good for building houses. Scott says that the lack of pine was of such great concern in the early days that homesteaders were all advised to bring pine seedlings with them when they came west, and the reason may surprise you. It did me. It was so that when there was a death in the family, they’d have enough pine to make the coffin. In fact, the usual practice was for pioneers to bring one seedling for each member of their families and, as more children came along, more seedlings were purchased from the itinerant nurserymen who peddled their stock along the country roads of the county. You’ll see them––skaggy-looking Norway spruces, often in pairs, arranged like stair steps along the sightlines of old farmhouses.
Did Stephen Mills also learn about the lack of pine in 1833 when he bought the Manchester Township land? If so, that might have been added incentive for him to learn masonry or to think about using alternative building materials.
…Stu Thayer says Stephen and Clemmie started married life in a log cabin on Stephen parcel. But in 1845 Stephen built Clemmie and his family a wonderful house on the old Indian trail we call the Saline-Ann Arbor Road. The picture dates from 1901 and shows Charlie, Stephen’s youngest son, reading a newspaper on the lawn. The women in the buggy are Flora, Charlie’s daughter (with the feathered hat) and the teacher who boarded with them and taught at this school.
Quite a man, this Stephen Mills. Chapman’s History says he and Clemmie were Methodist Episcopalians, that Stephen belonged to the County Agricultural Society and that two of their boys served in Michigan Volunteer regiments during the Civil War. He left us a legacy of our historical beginnings and, just as his buildings disclose things about the man who built them, their demolition and alteration says things about their inheritors. We don’t know how many houses he actually built.
Nothing lasts forever, and I suppose we’re lucky to have any of them remaining after 150 years. But they represent both a unique construction method, and an exemplary use of recycled materials. As a group, they form a testament to an ingenious and clever pioneer, and I hope that, as we continue to learn more about the man, we can do more to preserve his precious legacy to us.
His obituary in the Ann Arbor Courier for Wednesday, November 4, 1896 says, “There will be many who will read this announcement with regret, people who knew and respected Mr. Mills for his true worth as a man.” And then it says, “Peace to his ashes.”