History Of Ann Arbor: Not Just A College Town

History Of Ann Arbor: Not Just A College Town

When most Michiganders think of Ann Arbor, a certain phrase pops into their head: “Go Blue!” It’s true that the University of Michigan has been a driving force behind the city nearly since its inception, but as any resident will tell you, there’s so much more to this town. From rural hamlet to WWII powerhouse to a center for the civil rights movement, Ann Arbor has gone through quite a journey to evolve into the sixth largest city in Michigan.

The rich history of Ann Arbor begins in 1824, when young frontiersmen John Allen and Elisha Walker Rumsey decided to look for land to settle west of Detroit. Traveling in a one-horse sleigh from the city, they returned to Detroit and purchased a total of 640 acres from the U.S. Land Office – the official “founding” of Ann Arbor. Varying accounts exist of how the city got its name, but it’s generally assumed to be because the wives of the two founders were named Ann, and the forests of bur oak that covered the area formed a kind of arbor.

John Allen. Photo courtesy of University of Michigan
John Allen. Photo courtesy of University of Michigan

The two men hit a stroke of luck when commissioners chose their land as the seat of Washtenaw County in 1827, and as they sold off their lots, the town began to spring up around them. Another big boon came when the town became the new site of the University of Michigan in 1837, a decision that would completely shape Ann Arbor’s future. The arrival of the Michigan Central Railroad in 1839 resulted in huge growth for the area, too. Ann Arbor was finally beginning to look like a city!

Willow Run factory. Photo courtest of MotorCities National Heritage Area
Willow Run factory. Photo courtesy of MotorCities National Heritage Area

Another huge period of growth hit in World War II, when Ford’s nearby Willow Run plant began to produce B-24 Liberator bombers. Military workers and their families began to move to the area, and the population exploded – adding on to the already substantial number of residents from the University.

College towns often attract big name visitors, and Ann Arbor is no exception. Presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon came to the city in 1960, where Kennedy first talked about his plans to develop the Peace Corps. Ann Arbor became a center for the Civil Rights movement in the ’60s as well, and students became well known for their activism and pioneering social initiatives.

You also can’t forget the swinging music scene – Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, Brownsville Station, Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, George Clinton, and more all spent significant time in Ann Arbor. The culture and nightlife have always been a draw!

President John F. Kennedy delivers the Peace Corps speech on the steps of the Michigan Union. Photo courtesy of UM Bentley Historical Library)
President John F. Kennedy delivers the Peace Corps speech on the steps of the Michigan Union. Photo courtesy of UM Bentley Historical Library)

In more recent history, the economy of Ann Arbor is less manufacturing-based and a little more cosmopolitan. You’ll find lots of health care, university, and tech jobs, and the city has become more gentrified as land values have increased. However, you’ll find the same pioneering spirit (and obsessive University of Michigan fans) that has existed since John Allen and Elisha Walker Rumsey first bought their land nearly 200 years ago.

Ann Arbor remains a destination city in Michigan, and for good reason. There’s tons of stuff to explore (check out Lyndsay’s #MittenTrip from last July) and, of course, a trip to the Big House is always an exhilarating experience. But if you’re interested in the humble beginnings of the city, be sure to check out some of its awesome museums and cultural attractions, such as the Museum on Main Street. Another cool thing – if you’re from the area, you can research your roots at the Genealogical Society of Washtenaw County!

What’s your favorite thing about Ann Arbor, past or present? Leave a memory below!