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The Legacy of Judge Dexter

Grace Shackman

The village's broad avenues reflect his ambitious vision

Samuel William Dexter arrived in Michigan from New York in 1824. A Harvard graduate and a practicing lawyer, Dexter came from a prominent eastern family (his father was a U.S. senator, secretary of war under Adams, and secretary of treasury under Jefferson). He chose to settle on the Michigan frontier. Dexter wrote to a cousin, "to get rid of the blue devils, or to speak more politely of the ennui which like a demon pursues those who have nothing to do."

Dexter spent the first four months exploring southern Michigan, traveling 2,000 miles on horseback with Orange Risdon, a surveyor and the founder of Saline (see p. 60). He finally chose the spot where Mill Creek runs into the Huron River. After buying a large amount of land in the area that would become Dexter Village, Dexter dammed Mill Creek and built a sawmill on one side of the creek and a grist mill on the other. He was appointed the village's first postmaster, and in 1826, when Washtenaw was formally organized as a county, he was chosen its first chief justice. From then on, he was known as "Judge Dexter."

Dexter Streetscape

"Dexter, Michigan, 1930/1940 (ca.)

The earliest houses in the village were clustered along the river; it was not until 1830 that Dexter laid out the town's streets. Years later, John Doane, who assisted in the project, wrote that Ann Arbor and Central streets were both laid out without instruments: Dexter simply pointed out which trees should be taken down for the center of the street, then had Doane pace out three rods on each side. Soon, both sides of the street were filled with stores; but being constructed of wood, with wooden sidewalks in front, all were eventually destroyed by fire. In the mid- to late-nineteenth century, the original stores were replaced by the brick storefronts that still form Dexter's main shopping area.

In 1839, Judge Dexter donated land for a Baptist church. Soon afterward, he also donated land to the fledgling Michigan Central Railroad. The railroad reached town in 1841 amid great rejoicing. The trains not only made it easier for the agricultural products of the surrounding area to reach market, but they also brought hordes of prospective immigrants, often more than there were seats on the train. The first train depot, on the north side of the tracks, was replaced in 1886 by one on the south side. It is still there, now owned by the Huron Valley Railroad Historical Society.

When he first arrived, Dexter shared a log cabin with another family, but soon he had a large house built on what is now Huron Street. After the railroad cut through that property, he built a mansion just west of town, which he named Gordon Hall, after his mother's family. It still stands today, now divided into apartments. (The Huron Street house was torn down in 1939 despite efforts of historic-minded citizens to save it.) Another elegant early house, the present-day American Legion, was built in 1840 by Henry Vinkler, the village's first cabinetmaker and undertaker. Vinkler reportedly napped regularly in one of his caskets, and when he died he was buried in it.

Dexter peaked in the nineteenth century. According to Dexter historian Bruce Waggoner, the town was "really more of a farming community in the twentieth century." Today, he says, "Dexter is developing into a bedroom community. Around a thousand new residents, in apartments, condos, and private homes, have been annexed into the village." But although only nine miles from Ann Arbor, Dexter has kept its separate identity. Its downtown is still filled with stores providing necessities to residents, including Hackney Hardware, Dexter Pharmacy, and the Dexter Bakery. And the village still has a strong core of active citizens concerned about its future, 250 of whom recently contributed to install an antique-style clock at the comer of Main and Broad streets.

—Grace Shackman

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Grace Shackman