Print this page
A Community in the Wilderness
The formal settlement of the area now known as Birmingham occurred over 180 years ago. The pioneer story of this small Michigan community began when three enterprising men purchased the first land parcels at the crossing of the Rouge River and the Saginaw Trail (now Woodward Ave.) in 1818. Elijah Willits, John Hamilton and John West Hunter brought their families onto their combined 480 acres of wilderness land to start new lives. Unlike other pioneering communities that attracted farmers looking only for rich new farmland, Birmingham's founders diversified, developing new business opportunities relating to the trail and settlement of the area. Foundries, tanneries, blacksmith shops, broom and brick making factories and transportation services were just some of the businesses that were quickly defining this frontier community. Birmingham's name was chosen by those optimistic about the potential growth of the village, with its manufacturing capabilities after England's biggest industrial center.
Most of the manufacturers of the 1830s were gone by the 1860s and so were the visions of Birmingham as a major industrial center. Instead the quiet Village of Birmingham emerged as a local commercial and agricultural hub for area farmers. The Eccentric Newspaper, banks, merchants, shop owners and other professionals such as doctors, dentists, and lawyers established successful practices in town. By the 1890s, long-time residents who had worked toward infrastructure, education, and cultural improvements began to see better roads, the development of interurban street car lines, quality public schooling, the establishment of a paid fire department, a clean water supply and a new public library.
These improvements made Birmingham both quaint and progressive, and its location on Woodward Avenue continued to offer commercial and business opportunities into the 20th century. Farms evolved into small subdivisions and the growing automobile industry in Detroit and Pontiac made Birmingham especially appealing as a place to live. In 1933, after more than a decade of preparation, Birmingham successfully made the transition from a Village to a city governmental structure. Today, Birmingham's business district and residential areas still enjoy many of the small town charm that characterized days gone by.
Birmingham through the Years
Birmingham became a city in 1933--but as a community, Birmingham has a much longer history. Through it all, certain themes emerge that have made this place and its people special. These themes include government, commerce, transportation, and education, to name a few. Take a deeper dive to get a bigger picture of how Birmingham became what is today.
Pre-Settlement and Pioneer Period: Late 1700s to Civil War
Who were the first pioneer white settlers in the Birmingham area, and what was their experience of local Indigenous People? How did they shape the settlement and its economy? How did Birmingham get its name? What led to the village's growth, and what was the social and political context of Birmingham leading up to the Civil War? Download a .pdf of the "Pioneers" tour of Greenwood Cemetery.
It Takes a Village: Post- Civil War to Late 1800s
How did the economic and industrial changes in southern Michigan after the Civil War affect the Village of Birmingham? How did the village become a commercial center for the area? Who were the families who became important community builders? Get a .pdf of the "Nineteenth Century Community Builders" Greenwood Cemetery tour.
Growing Pains: Twentieth Century Turmoil
The early twentieth century was not as sleepy in Birmingham as we sometimes think. Controversy reigned for decades about how to deal with the explosion of growth and whether to become a city.
- Download the .pdf of the original City Charter of 1933
- Download the pdf: The Evolution of Birmingham's City Planning