The Milan Museum: Sayles History Galleries
Backstory and Context
By all modern accounts, Milan is a quaint and sleepy Village located just close enough to the Lake Erie shore to warrant a visit by many passing tourists each year. But what many do not realize until after their visit, is what a rich and unique history this little Village possesses. From its Moravian missionary beginnings to the entrepreneurial spirit that forged a place in history, Milan has a story to tell. Being the birthplace of Thomas Alva Edison attracts tourists each year, but the beautiful Village of Milan and the interesting history it possess capture the imagination of all who come.
The first permanent settlers were the families displaced from Connecticut during the American Revolution. The burning of their homes resulted in the legislation of 1792 that “released and quit-claimed to the Sufferers or their legal representatives or heirs” 500,000 Connecticut-owned acres in Ohio known as the Fire Lands. The Village of Milan was platted by Ebenezer Merry in 1817, using the original Pettquoting streets as a guide. He also began the long history of commerce-related business in Milan with the establishment of a grist mill and sawmill. A rapid population growth followed with new settlers venturing west for a piece of land and prosperity.
From there, the story weaves through the development of the Milan Canal and rise of the shipbuilding industry. Milan was incorporated in 1833, in part to finance a three mile ship canal linking the Village of Milan with the Huron River. Prior to the advent of the railroad, farmers had to bring their harvest to the northern lake ports by wagon. The sandy, wet prairie roads above Milan were not easily crossed by harvest-laden wagons. The idea of the Port of Milan was born and after six years of construction, the Milan Canal opened to lake vessel navigation on July 4, 1839. For the next ten years the Village prospered. Business increased so dramatically that general stores were crowding all around the Town Square to keep up with business generated by the farmers on the one hand and the ship crews on the other. At one point there were 14 general stores all around the square, most of the stores had a connection to the warehouses, so the farmers were given either some cash or more likely, credit in the stores in the form of chits or tickets that they could use to buy merchandise. A bustling inland port was created, although its fortune did not last long.
The full-circle comes with the transformation from bustling wheat port to the shady village that takes pride is preserving the architectural jewels it calls home. The rapid development of the railroads spelled the demise of lake commerce and Milan refused to allow construction of a bridge over the navigable waters of the Huron River. Shipbuilding moved to natural ports capable of allowing the ever-growing ships passage and in 1865 the last vessel passed down the canal for commercial trade. The wealth that had been poured into Milan can still be seen in its architecture. It left as quickly as it had appeared, leaving the Village of Milan in a peaceful slumber, remaining a quaint 19th century town that surprises visitors with its charm.
Milan is also birthplace Thomas Alva Edison, and the small hillside brick home where he was born on February 11, 1847 still stands as a testimony of ingenuity and hard work. His birth year also marked the peak of the Milan Canal. Edison spent his youth watching schooners load and unload cargo while hearing the sounds of a bustling port and shipbuilding industry at the base of his home.
The Milan Museum. Accessed June 8th 2020. http://milanhistory.org.