Michigan small towns have a special place in the hearts of their inhabitants. However, some towns slowly fade from their once-busy streets to a scene resembling a stopped clock. No longer functional but certainly recognizable. One such town is Huron City, Michigan. This is a spot where you can find original furniture decorating a home as it looked over 150 years ago, and browse in a store as it looked and was stocked in the mid-1900s. It’s a charming example of the late nineteenth-century architecture and provides fine examples of functional buildings of the period that elsewhere are slowly being torn down.
Huron City lies on the eastern shore of Huron County, Michigan. The development of Huron City Historic District, 10 acres of a uniquely, preserved village that tells its past begins thanks to one man, the founder, Langdon Hubbard, and the lumber-rich territory where the town originated.
Huron City’s history can be divided into three eras. The first one was when Michigan became a state and the start of the lumber era. The second one started after two fires forced the area to turn to agriculture. The last era starts in the 1950s and is still going on today.
Langdon Hubbard – Lumberman and Founder of Huron City
Between 1830 to 1840, a water sawmill was built and operated by P. F. Brakeman & Co. In 1852. Brakeman sold it to Dowling & Forbes of Port Huron, and they sold it to the lumber company of R. B. Hubbard & Co. owned by the brothers Langdon and Watson Hubbard and their cousin Rollin Barnard Hubbard of Bloomfield, Connecticut. The company also operated a mill down the Lake Huron coast in Lexington. In the mid-1850s the firm began to grow its business in Huron City. Rollin and Watson Hubbard worked in Sandusky, Ohio, where the company was headquartered, and Langdon was in charge of the Huron City operations.
Huron City is situated on a commanding elevated plateau overlooking Lake Huron. This marvelous view looks down a large sloping field to the lake is a beautiful sight and one of the highest in Huron county.
The Making of A Company Town
The firm constructed an extensive dock in connection with its milling operations at Huron City. In the course of their business, the firm became considerably dependent on shipping lumber and receiving merchant goods to sell locally. Soon they owned several steamships and sailing craft, including the propeller Huron City, the schooners Almira. Hubbard, of Madison, and six to eight others. All of which they employed in lumber transportation. The propeller Huron City was built at Sandusky. the schooner Hubbard at Port Hinton, and the Almira at Fremont.
Thanks to Langdon’s excellent business acumen, by 1871, the Hubbard sawmill was producing 40,000 planks of wood a day. But that year the Great Michigan Fire destroyed the town and much of the county. Hubbard was determined to rebuild. By 1875 he restored sawmill operations and began to obtain parcels in the village from other partners of Hubbard & Co. By 1881 Landon controlled the entire settlement.
Fire Strikes Huron City Again
But fate seemed to want to test how much Huron City had the strength to survive another fire. The Great Thumb Fire of 1881 destroyed Langdon’s sawmill and burned the entire town for the second time. Hubbard then stated:
“Well, the ground is left. The fire cannot take away the soil. I will build again.“Langdon Hubbard
Thanks to his inexhaustible energy, he rebuilt his shop and the mill, sawmill, shingle mill, blacksmith shop, hotel, school, houses, and several other businesses in the village.
The sawmill was still working, but lumber was increasingly deficient because of the fire. As a result, many residents moved out looking for a job in the timber industry elsewhere. Those that stayed settled on the land and started farms which Langdon sold.
Langdon Hubbard died in 1892 and William H. Bennett took over the mill. But without Hubbard, Huron City began to decline. The hotel closed in 1901, the mill in 1903, and by 1907 there was only one business in the city. This picturesque little town has never regained its old splendor.
The Emergence of William Lyon Phelps
Langdon’s daughter Annabel Hubbard married William Lyon “Billie” Phelps in 1892 and the couple vacationed summers in Huron City almost every year until Annabella’s death in 1938.
In 1883 Billie Phelps, a young man in his teens first appeared at Huron City. Soon he was identified with the activities of the youth. He was captain of a victorious baseball team. In this church, in 1887, he preached his first sermon at the age of 22.
Dr. Phelps notoriety started his first year as a Yale instructor. He offered a course in modern novels. Considered a major change from studying classic literature, this course got attention from the international press. This publicity was unwelcome from his tenured Yale peers.
In time he became internationally known as Professor William Lyon Phelps, English Literature Professor at Yale University. “Author, scholar, teacher, distinguished patron and critic of literature, music and the domestic arts, he is not only the son of a minister, but himself ordained to preach.”
Phelps Famous Sermons at Huron City Church
Billie was a talented speaker who attracted a large audience wherever he spoke, even at the famous Townhall Lecture circuit across the whole country. After being asked by the pastor of the Methodist Episcopal Church to hold a sermon, there wouldn’t be enough space for his services every Sunday afternoon for people to attend.
From 1922 on he preached every Sunday during his summer vacations. He attracted tremendous crowds. These Phelps sermons became very popular among the resort residents of the area. In 1925 the church was enlarged to twice its former capacity. In 1930 it was again enlarged to provide seating for 800 people, and with chairs, 1,000 could be seated. The expense of the seating was largely financed by Frank Hubbard of Grosse Pointe, brother of Mrs. Phelps. In the 1920s and 1930s, the summer congregations attracted people from nearly every state and denomination, as well as from England, Scotland, and Canada. Sometimes his wife Annabel would host a party on grounds of the stately mansion called “Seven Gables”, located just down the street from the church.
Huron City’s Transformation
Dr. Phelps owned almost the entire town of Huron City. He turned the former company town into a small residential destination, keeping the former hotel as a gathering place. After Annabelle’s death in March 1939, Phelps transferred control of Huron City to his niece, Carolyn Hubbard Parcells, who started a Huron City conservation project with her husband, Charles. In 1946, they founded the William Lyon Phelps Foundation, which built a museum and renovated a store and hotel.
Huron City Today
The map below contains all the buildings and sites of the Huron City Historic District application in 1995. Zoom in and click on the map icons for more detail.
Visitors can visit this former mill town and get a guided tour and explore many of the buildings. These are a glimpse of the life and times of the early 1900s in the Upper Thumb. They are mostly located along Pioneer Drive.
House of the Seven Gables
The Seven Gables is a Victorian-style mansion overlooking Lake Huron. Many consider it a focal point of Huron City. William Lyon Phelps named it after the House of Seven Gables from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel. The fires of 1871 and 1881 destroyed the prior homes situated on this location; Forestview and Lakeview. It has a grand staircase, double lounges, an elegant Victorian dining room and part of William’s personal library.
The house has always been family-owned. Annabel Hubbard arranged it in 1886 for her father. After getting married, she added modern bathrooms and upgraded several rooms. The furniture is original so as the 1886 decorations that fill much of the house. (Map point #14)
Methodist Episcopal – Hubbard Memorial Church
On July 11, 1882, Langdon Hubbard, gave the Methodists a site for a church. Help was obtained from the Church Extension Society, the people gave as they could, and Hubbard gave generously. An attractive frame church was dedicated in the autumn of 1882. Prior to construction, Methodists served at the Community Inn. It received significant construction additions in the 1920s. (Map point #20)
Langdon Hubbard General Store
The shop is a large, two-floor building. The full-length single-floor porch is on the front. The store sold a mix of groceries, soft goods, and hardware. Not only does the store survive but much of the merchandise (some of which was already very old) is still in place when the store finally closed for good in 1952. The store also housed the Huron City Post Office until 1905. On the west side of the General Store is a small gable-roofed ice house. Ice was on hand for those houses that did not have electrical service in the mid-1900s. (Map point #11)
The Community House-Inn is the third building on this site. They built the first inn in 1881 which was destroyed by fire after two weeks in operation. The second Inn was rebuilt and, before being furnished, was destroyed in a fire in 1881. Like the first two inns, Henry Neal built it in 1883. The William Lyon Phillips Foundation purchased the building from Henry’s granddaughter.
The inn became known as the community house because they used the inn for dinner at the church, the parlor for quilting bees, and a dining room for church services in winter when it was too difficult to warm the church. (Map point #21)
It was built in 1888 and its furniture is now in the old inn. The school building was on the east side of town, near the present Township Hall. The first to eighth-grade children were taught there. (Map point #25)
LaGassa Log Cabin
The log cabin is the oldest building in Huron City. Mitchell and Delia LaGassa built it in 1837 when they were married. They have raised 17 children and celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary here.
The log cabin stood in near Grindstone City which is why it survived the 1871 and 1881 fires. The structure was moved several times before Annabel Phelps bought and placed it behind Seven Gables. She used it as a teahouse and guests. Carolyn Lucas moved her to its current position near the village museum when she started the Huron City Museums in the 1950s. (Map point #19)
In 2017, this structure was returned to the Pointe Aux Barques Light House in Port Hope, Michigan. The station consisted of two parts: a one-and-a-half-floor gable-roof with a life-saving device and an apartment with the captain’s office. It was purchased and moved to Huron City to save the building from demolition in 1964. Visitors can tour the Pointe aux Barques Life Saving Station at Lighthouse Park which was its original location.
It was likely built in the 1880s. This one-floor, the front-gabled house has a single-floor side wing on either side. The house is lined with clapboard and has paired windows at the front. (Map point #3)
The home of William Pottenger, the city’s general manager for the Phelps family, was built in the 1880s. It has two floors and a front gable. (Map point #13)
Hubbard Grist Mill Site
In 1883 a mill was built. It was evident in the 1890 plat map but not in 1904. There are no visible remains today. (Map Point #4)
Hubbard Saw Mill Site
There were at least two sawmills at this site: one built after the fire of 1871 and the other built-in 1883. Earlier mills may have been located at the same site. Local lore states one was built in the 1830s then a second in 1856. No visible remains. (Map point #6)
Windvane and Golf Course
Phelps was an enthusiastic golfer. He created one of the first courses in the Thumb in 1892. With 18 holes, the course was ample enough to hold outings and tournaments with friends and guests. Scorecards of the “Huron City County Club” are on display in the museum. The use of the course declined after Phelps death in 1943. Today about five holes of the original course are still evident. (Map points #15, 16)
The Final Era of Huron City
By the late 1940s, Huron City was declining. The dynamic personality and charismatic professor and part-time preacher of William Lyon Phelps had passed away in 1943. In 1946 the William Lyon Phelps Foundation was incorporated to continue the legacy of the professor. A Phelps Memorial Museum was opened in 1952, followed by a restored log cabin, and the old inn of the lumber town of Huron City. In 1947 the Hubbard Woods Camp on the Lake Huron shore was built and operated by the Boy Scouts.
Restoration of Huron City
In 2013 the buildings were painted to original colors and restored. That work continues. The grounds of the iconic town and museum is open on Friday and Saturdays from 11 – 4 pm during the summer.
- THE DETROIT CONFERENCE HISTORICAL MESSENGER Published by The Friends of the ArchivesRonald A Brunger, Editor 1988.
- Phelps Family History in America
- Huron City Museums
- Huron City Department of Restoration
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