Britton builds local history into newly completed streetscape
Residents in Britton spent the summer of 2012 anticipating a revitalized downtown through a Michigan Department of Transportation streetscape project. Originally with a completion date of September 2012, it was only in the last week the finishing touches were put on the signage, cement work, and lighting.
Residents and visitors can now appreciate better lighting, handicap access to the raised sidewalk, and granite stones that acknowledge some of Britton’s important residents. The original village name of Balch and the current name of Britton are highlighted side-by-side facing Main Street, while the families of Gripton, Walper, Griffin and Claxton are featured in front of the businesses.
In earlier times, Britton was a busy and productive village, and part of southeast Michigan history. Over the years, Britton residents have donated their scrapbooks of newspaper clippings and historical photos to the village archives. In the 1970s, the Britton Campfire Girls wrote and published a book about Britton’s history. That book as well as the scrapbooks and old photographs are housed in the village office, and give details of a rich historical background.
The first settlers arrived in 1831 when M-50 was just called the Indian Trail. As the number of travelers increased, the road became a turnpike called Plank Road. Nathan Cheever was the local pathmaster and made sure the roadway was cared for so residents would not have to pay a road tax.
Thomas VanTuyle started the first school in the 1830s after moving to the area with his family. In 1880 the brick school, still standing today, was built. Gertrude Kniffen was the school’s first graduate in 1893.
The Christian Union Society was the first church in Balch, opening on February 28, 1849. Located at the corner of Hoagland Road and what is now M-50, the church had 30 members.
In 1850, John and Sarah Britton arrived in the village from their home in England with their four children. The family farmed and bought property in Balch. John Britton died in 1876 at age 68, and his son, John Jr. continued to be active in the community.
In 1880 Britton worked to bring a right-of-way for the Detroit, Butler, and St. Louis (Wabash) Railroad through the village, named Balch on Aug. 13, 1881. Successful in his goal, Britton was the ticket agent until 1897.
Britton also built five houses in the village and two stores. He worked as township supervisor, justice of the peace, road commissioner, treasurer, and postmaster. To honor his achievements, Britton requested the village of Balch be changed officially to the village of Britton, and the request was granted on April 13, 1888. Britton died in 1919.
The village had many different businesses and industries over the years including four competing sawmills. I.S. Osburn recorded 90,000 feet of lumber was shipped to New York by rail in a one week period in the 1860s.
Britton was connected to Ridgeway by telegraph in 1885, which extended to Tecumseh in 1888 and finally to Clinton in 1898, before the telegraph became obsolete after the turn of the 20th century.
Over the years, Britton also had a blacksmith, post office, grocery, furniture store, millinery, and hotel. Gripton’s Hardware, a fixture in the village for three generations, had the distinction of being the oldest operating business, beginning in 1890 and closing only after the death of Glen Gripton.
Factories were also a big part of life in 1880s Britton, including a barrel stave mill, an apple-drying factory, a feed and cider mill, a pickle factory, and a cane mill. The village had two banks, one public and one private during this era.
The news was featured in a number of village newspapers including, Britton Eagle, Britton Citizen, Britton Messenger, and Britton Observor. Professionally, Wilbert Tyde Claxton served the village as a doctor from 1928 until his death in 1967. William S. Niblack operated the first Britton funeral home, beginning in 1935, which was continued by the family for many decades.
Fire struck the village twice, in 1888 and again in 1908, each time destroying multiple businesses. A fire department was established after the 1908 fire to protect the village.
In 1922, the State of Michigan turned Plank Road into a state highway, paving it through the village. Britton received approval for a traffic light, which was installed at the intersection of Main St. and M-50. The state removed the traffic light only a few years later.
Although the village does not have the business base it had around the turn of the 20th century, Britton continues to be proud of its heritage and the quality of life it offers to residents. The completed streetscape allows residents and visitors the opportunity to remember history of the village and the people who have made a difference in Britton.