Grass Lake as we know it has been developing for over 175 years and assumes the position as the oldest settlement in Jackson County. This part of Michigan was opened by the U.S. Government for use by veterans of the War of 1812, but settlement was slow, and many families continued on, setting up communities primarily in Illinois. It was felt that the land in south-central Michigan was too poor for farming. So what eventually became a town, and then our village, was not visited until October 1829 when a squatter named David Sterling of New York state arrived and set up residence in a cabin about one-and-a-half miles east of the present site of the village. He was followed by settlers from New York and Vermont, and the next year a post office was established. Grass Lake Township was set up in 1832.
By 1835, a log school, always a sign of civilization in new settlements, had been built. A more permanent building, a Congregational church, was built in 1838 and used a more substantial school building as well as a house of worship. Other buildings followed, all in the general area of Sterling’s first cabin. Geographically, this was between Sarossy Lake Road and Maute Road along the present Michigan Avenue. As the settlement grew, the federal government eventually moved the real first settlers, the local Indians, to reservations in Iowa in 1839. The town flourished since it was on Territorial Road, a military road authorized to run from Detroit to the St. Joseph River at Lake Michigan. This road reached Grass Lake and Jackson (then called Jacksonburgh) in 1830.
It should be mentioned here that the name Grass Lake was supposedly bestowed on the town by a young girl riding by the lake who noticed the heavy grasses that were visible above the water.
With the railroad and the main east-west stage road, Grass Lake continued to grow. A hotel was built in 1843, and is believed to be the basis of the hotel that still stands. A flour mill was started in 1844. The next substantial brick buildings were a school in 1864 and a business block, built in 1867. These began a boom in the 1870’s of the storefronts that still line our business section on both sides of Michigan Avenue. The 1867 building containing many stores and situated on what was called “piety hill” due to its location between two churches, even had a mineral spring, which was exploited as a spa. This building was torn down in 1950, leaving the business district pretty much where it is now along the main street east of Lake Street and ending at the Depot.
In 1871, Grass Lake was incorporated as a village. Within six years, the village had seventeen businesses, two hotels, three churches, a furniture factory, the mineral springs “spa”, a resort at the lake, four saloons and several other enterprises with the Michigan Central Railroad building a new depot in 1886. By this time, the village had approximately 850 residents. In 1896 a new post office building was in place and the current Well Block building was erected.
At the turn of the twentieth century, two competing electric interurban rail lines came through Grass Lake. Shortly thereafter, 21 steam trains each day passed through the village with seven of them making stops at the depot. The Home Telephone Company was established in 1902. The stately home built by one of the interurban entrepreneurs, William Boland, is now known as “Grey Tower” and is currently home of the worldwide Romanian Orthodox Episcopal Church. Other events that followed were the national coverage that Grass Lake’s “all women” village council got in 1948; the opening of Cedar Knoll Care Center in 1950; the start of Ratel in 1962, which made television components and once paid employee bonuses using 17,000 silver dollars; establishment of the FaHoLo church camp; the infamous Goose Lake rock concert in 1970; the centennial celebration of our incorporation in 1971; and the general growth of the village and township as people moved west from Washtenaw County. Finally, life around Grass Lake was invigorated with the installation of new sewer and water systems throughout the area and brought with it the building of a new high school building. In 2009, the community gained national attention again with the running of the Stock Outboard Nationals on Grass Lake.
Happily, the rural atmosphere has remained amid the excitement of new and contemporary spotlights on the community and a vibrant Chamber of Commerce makes sure that the word gets out that Grass Lake is still an enjoyable place to visit and live as it has been since 1829!