When water-power was king
Manchester, Michigan, like its purported name-sake in England, was an early industrial center. Its first small factories were located on the Raisin River, so named because of the wild grapes that used to grow on its banks.
By 1870, dams on the Raisin were powering three flour mills, a sawmill, a woolen factory, a paper mill, a basket factory, a foundry, and a machine shop. Other early Manchester industries included a boat factory, several wagon manufacturers, a planing mill, and two breweries. Two train lines, the Detroit, Hillsdale, and Indiana and the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railroad, ran through town, each with its own depot. In the early 1900's, trains came or left every half hour.
Three dams, all built in the 1830's when Manchester was first settled, furnished the waterpower. The westernmost dam was built in 1832 by Emanuel Case in what would become Manchester's downtown. John Gilbert of Ypsilanti platted it and sold the area on the condition that a mill be built there. The middle dam furnished power for a foundry, while the easternmost one was built in 1833 by James Soules, who developed the surrounding area, naming it in his own honor. (Soulesville was annexed to Manchester in the mid-nineteenth century.)
In addition to a flour mill and a grist mill, Emanuel Case built Manchester's hotel. In 1838, Barnabas Case opened a cabinet shop and distillery across from the foundry. When criticized by prohibitionists, he answered, as quoted in Chapman's 1881 History of Washtenaw County, "I am doing more for the cause of temperance than he who advocates total abstinence. I sell the pure article; it will hurt no one. Manufactured as it is on the banks of the pure water of the Raisin, it is as pure as the water you drink. No one need fear of being injured by it."
As industry developed, so did housing. Manchester's Nob Hill, a row of elegant Italianate homes along Ann Arbor Street, was built between 1853 and 1860. Manchester historian Howard Parr explains, "They were built by prestigious businessmen and doctors—Dr. Root, Dr. Conklin. They backed onto the river, and at night [their owners] would go on gondola rides, or whatever the Victorian equivalent was."
The present-day brick downtown streetscape was built after the Civil War; earlier wooden storefronts had burned in several serious fires. The brick was made locally, in three brick factories that had opened to take advantage of pockets of good clay along the Raisin. "They had no grants, no master plan," says Parr of the builders. "They were just a bunch of merchants trying to outdo each other." Today, downtown Manchester is one of Michigan's most intact Italianate commercial districts.
Manchester stopped growing in the twentieth century as mass production made its small factories impractical. It remained a center for farmers, with stores and services catering to their needs. In the middle of a major sheep-raising area, Manchester had holding pens by the railroads and barns for communal sheep shearing.
Glen Lehr, eighty-nine, grew up in Manchester. He recalls that on Wednesday and Saturday nights, downtown stores would stay open late to serve farmers who had to work during the day. As an added attraction, in the 1920's, downtown merchants showed silent movies on Wednesday nights; the pictures were projected on a screen set up on the bridge over the Raisin. After Prohibition ended in Michigan, Lehr remembers, thirteen saloons opened to serve the farmers and other customers from as far away as Ohio. (Ohio stayed dry longer than Michigan.)
Today, no railroads stop in Manchester, and both train stations have been torn down. The village remains attractive to industry—most recently for SGF America—but it's been a long time since any factory relied on the Raisin for power. The two eastern mills were purchased by Henry Ford, who built a small-parts factory where the Soulesville mill had been. Today it is part of Johnson Controls. The mill in the center of town, twice burned down and twice rebuilt, still visually defines the downtown. (Today it houses a collection of shops.) On the other side of the river is a Dairy Queen, which, perched as it is over the dam, must be the world's prettiest.