A Brief History of Allegan County

Audio: Introduction to Southern Segment

Timeline

The first settler in Allegan County, William Butler, landed at the mouth of the Kalamazoo River with his wife in the spring of 1830 and settled in what is now downtown Saugatuck (Site No.18).   The second and third groups of settlers arrived shortly thereafter but traveled further inland, settling near Pine Creek (Site No.2).

When the white settlers arrived, Allegan County was home to three Native American tribes—the Potawatomi, Odawa, and Ojibwa.  They had several villages in the eastern part of the county and one in the Saugatuck area.  Life in those first years, especially the winters, was very rough, and the early settlers depended on the Native Americans to supply them with game, berries, and other foodstuffs.

The earliest settlers were people who came to work and make their fortunes primarily from the area’s natural resources—towering virgin white pine trees for lumber and shingles, hemlock trees to use in tanning hides, and land speculation.  During the 1830’s and 1840’s, a number of lumber mills were set up in the county, but they suffered from a lack of customers.   However, with the mid-century growth of Chicago and Milwaukee, the influx of Civil War veterans in the late 1860’s, and especially the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the demand for Allegan County’s lumber exploded.   Trees were cut literally round-the-clock at times, and lumber mills were operating full-blast to meet the demand.

A different kind of settler, however, came to the northwest corner of the county.  There, Dutch immigrants, arriving in Holland, moved to the surrounding countryside as part of religious communities.  In 1847, 70 immigrants from one town settled Graafschap.   And in 1848, an entire religious community from another village settled the town of Overisel.  These settlers, and many of those that followed, were conservative religious Separatists who were fleeing religious persecution, much like the Puritans.

The lumber boom, together with the construction of a plank road connecting Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo through the eastern part of Allegan County in 1854 and the arrival of several railroads around 1870, created a flurry of new settlements and population growth.   The population grew from 5,125 in 1850 to just over 16,000 by 1860.   It doubled again by 1870 and peaked at around 38,000 in 1880 where it remained till post WWII.

After the trees had all been clear-cut and the lumber boom ended, the land with good or passable soil was converted to farming.   On the western side of the county, much of the land near Lake Michigan was converted to fruit orchards.   Indeed, the peaches grown in the Saugatuck-Douglas area were famous in the markets of Chicago where they were called “Michigan Gold”.

While agriculture has remained important in most parts of the county, the eastern and western portions of Allegan County developed somewhat differently during the 20th century.  From the 1870’s through the early 1900’s, numerous paper mills opened along the Kalamazoo River in Otsego (Site No.1) and Plainwell (Site No.28) and became an important part of the local economy for much of the 20th century.   Today, all but two are closed, and both remain major employers in the area.

On the western side, the advent of the 20th century brought a different industry to the county’s Lake Michigan coastline, and especially Saugatuck -- tourism.  Large groups of cottagers and vacationers from Chicago and as far away as St. Louis came to this area of great natural beauty to “get back to nature” and escape the summer heat.   Many also came by steamship just for the day to dance at the Big Pavilion in Saugatuck.

 

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