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Major John Gilbert - The Founder of Manchester (Part 2 of 2)

By dhowell - Posted on 11 July 2008

by Ray Berg


In Part 1 of this article, we learned about the early life of Major John Gilbert, the founder of Manchester Village, including his initial survey and platting of the village. This civil engineer, mill operator, surveyor and all-round entrepreneur arrived in Ypsilanti in January 1831, and immediately set about building substantial business and political connections, including his investment in Manchester.

Gilbert’s Busy Life in Ypsilanti

Gilbert’s wealth, accumulated back in New York State, and his immediate involvement in the community, business and political affairs of Ypsilanti, quickly led to a position of prominence. He was elected the first Village President of Ypsilanti in September 1832 and served two terms. He was a primary investor in an 1833 shipping boat venture between Ypsilanti and Detroit, which ultimately failed. He was vital in the development of the first railroad into Ypsilanti in 1838, as a major financial sponsor and booster. But where he really excelled was turning his skills in engineering and milling into the purchase and development of the large Huron Mills complex in 1835. This mill was located on the east side of the Huron River, south of the Michigan Avenue bridge, and became the largest mill of its kind in the area. Adjacent to the mill, he developed a major feed and supply store for both the railroad and travelers on the Chicago Road. In retrospect, he built these facilities beyond the immediate needs of the time and his own resources, and ended up taking out substantial mortgages which cost him later.

The Huron Mills under a subsequent owner (Click image to view larger version)

Gilbert’s prestige and fortune were considerable in Ypsilanti throughout the 1830s. His speculation in Michigan properties had paid off well, and he slowly sold off parcels during the 1830s to invest in his mill operations. Milling in early Midwest towns represented the opportunity for greatest financial gain during the 1830s, and also represented to the farmers and townspeople their food supply, cornmeal and wheat flour. Gilbert’s experience in mills and water power locations in New York had served him well when being the first to see land and subsequently speculate in it.

By 1835, he was the fourth wealthiest man in Ypsilanti by virtue of taxable property ($7,200 assessed value, $36.00 in tax paid—assessment had a different way of being calculated back then). His first home (a wood structure) was located at the southeast corner of Michigan Avenue and River Street. By 1845, he built a more substantial brick structure at Grove and High Street (now 302 Grove). This home still stands, somewhat modified.

John Gilbert’s Ypsilanti home (Click image to view larger version)

The Second Plat of Manchester

Gilbert continued to acquire property in the Manchester area up to October 9, 1835. On November 23, 1835, after setting aside six village lots in his plats, he sold everything he owned in the Manchester Village area (i.e., approximately 440 acres) to Stephen Fargo of Lenawee County, for the price of $8,000. This equates to about $18.00 per acre, versus the $1.25 per acre he originally paid for it. Gilbert had done quite well with his investment.

But he was not quite through. As a close friend of Stephen Fargo, and with his son Harry Gilbert still present in the village, John Gilbert had one final role in securing the future of his earlier investment. A second plat of the village was recorded on October 4, 1837, expanding the village east of the river, with extensions also on the west and north sides. Figure 1 shows this plat. It is believed that John Gilbert commissioned the survey and plat preparation. The date of the actual survey creating this plat is not recorded, and is likely earlier than 1837. It is interesting to note the planned route of the Jacksonburgh and Palmyra Railroad right up to the mills in the center of the village, along what was called “Railroad Street.” This railroad of course was eventually constructed south of the village, and had its depot at the current Manchester Market location instead.

Figure 1 – The 1837 Second Plat of Manchester Village, believed to have been surveyed in 1835, and connected with the sale of village lands from John Gilbert to Stephen Fargo. (Click image to view larger version)

Gilbert’s 1835 sale to Fargo most likely was caused by the large cash investment going into the Ypsilanti Huron Mills and feed/supply store in 1835–1836. It was good he sold in 1835 before the wildcat bank fiasco of 1837, which certainly hurt Gilbert in Ypsilanti later on.

As for Stephen Fargo and what he did, more on him in another article!

John Gilbert’s Troubles

While being a shrewd investor in land and a political force in Ypsilanti, it seems John Gilbert did not possess the patience or day-to-day attention needed to continue running his mill operations successfully. Throughout the 1830s, milling in Ypsilanti and other Washtenaw County towns was a prosperous and sure way to success. But the completion of railroads farther west eventually opened up more lucrative and prosperous milling sites for wheat and corn, and the previous high profit margins of local mills declined sharply by the 1840s. Gilbert had invested heavily in his mills and taken mortgages. In the chaotic era after the financial collapse of 1837, Gilbert eventually lost control of the Huron Mills and some of his other operations. To what extent this was due to his lack of foresight or ability, or the unscrupulousness of others, is difficult to determine. He had also invested as a stockholder in the Bank of Ypsilanti, run by his son-in-law Abel Godard and his brother Lewis Godard. Gilbert had mortgaged much of his holdings and lands for bank collateral, and when the bank collapsed, he lost a large part of his funds. While he was a stockholder, there is no evidence that Gilbert was involved in any of the fraudulent activities of the wildcat bank schemes of the time. Mortgages were called in, and Gilbert lost control of the Huron Mills and much of his land holdings by 1843.

After 1840, John Gilbert managed to save a few pieces of property on the east side of Ypsilanti, including a large lot deeded to his son John, the family home, and property given to his daughter Emily.


After about 1840, John Gilbert retired from active political and business life, and turned over what operations remained to his son John, Jr. In the 1850 census, John Gilbert is shown living with his wife, his daughter Emily and her daughter, and several others, presumably in Emily’s large home, which had survived the crises. John Gilbert’s later years after about 1850 were clouded by a protracted illness, and he died at age 86 at the home of his son John Gilbert, Jr. on January 19, 1860.

John Gilbert was buried in Ypsilanti’s Highland Cemetery, a new cemetery at the time of his death, patterned after the rural cemetery movement sweeping the country at that time. Because of his prominence and early efforts in the city’s growth, Gilbert was provided with an honored burial location in the center of the Cloverleaf, one of the geometric patterns built into the cemetery layout. The entire extended Gilbert family is buried in concentric rings about a central monument.

The Gilbert family grave in Ypsilanti’s Highland Cemetery (Click image to view larger version)

The Rescue of the Family Fortune

It fell upon Gilbert’s son, John Gilbert, Jr., to resuscitate the family fortune and keep the name socially prominent. Gilbert, Jr. had a distinguished military career, and entered both the business and political fields. He was able to restore the Gilbert fortune and name through a series of businesses and municipal projects, including many of the buildings on Cross Street in Depot Town and industrial buildings on Grove Street. John Gilbert, Jr. served as Ypsilanti City Supervisor from 1862-1868, and his bequests to Ypsilanti, along with those of his son William who prospered in Grand Rapids, are today measured by Gilbert Park, the Gilbert Senior Residence, and many commercial and industrial buildings in the Depot Town area.

John Gilbert, Jr. built a large Second Empire mansion in Ypsilanti on the remaining family lands on Grove and High Streets, located at what is today 227 Grove Street. It was here that John Gilbert, Sr. died in 1860. This home remained in the family until 1946, then served as the home for Ypsilanti’s Boys’ Club for several years. It is now privately owned as a luxury apartment building.

John Gilbert Jr. mansion in Ypsilanti (Click image to view larger version)

The Gilbert family died out with the death of John Gilbert’s granddaughter Alice Gilbert in 1946, and no family members remain.

[Previously published in M, Manchester's Magazine, Vol. 6, 1 Feb 2008. Presented here by permission.]