The first European to settle in what would become Commerce Township was New Yorker Abram Walrod. Like many of the settlers that later followed him, Walrod used the Erie Canal as an artery into the Great Lakes region. In 1825, Walrod erected a small settlement on the banks of the Huron River. This site (today known as the Byers Homestead) served as the epicenter of Commerce’s early years.
As more settlers streamed in from eastern states like New York, the area’s residents chose the name “Commerce” for their town in an effort to spur economic activity. Directly across the road from the Byers Homestead was the site of the township’s early economic engine: the roller mill.
Commerce Roller Mill
Like many early settlements in Michigan, access to water (and thus economic benefits) was a key factor in the location of settlements. For Detroit, it was the Detroit River, for Pontiac, it was the Clinton River, and for Commerce, it was the Huron River. The Huron river is neither Michigan’s longest nor mightiest waterway, however its ability to turn mill wheels, made it an important asset for all those who settled its banks. For Commerce Township, milling allowed the town to develop and grow.
Built in 1837 (the same year of Michigan’s statehood), the mill was originally operated by Amasa Andrews along with Joseph and Asa Farr. It was suited to both process lumber and grind flour. Over the subsequent years, new techniques and technologies used to process raw materials made Commerce’s mill (and mills around the state) obsolete. It closed in 1927 and was severely damaged by a fire in 1939.
The area’s geography was another key factor in the early development of the town. The many lakes not only bequeathed natural beauty, but it also meant that straight roads (or stagecoach lines) were nearly impossible and required early settlers to weave their primitive roads around the lakes. The stagecoach path from Pontiac to the town of Milford, for example, had a waypoint in Commerce because of the lakes. Local farmers were fortunate that geography placed them right on Southeastern Michigan’s trade infrastructure network.
The Grand Commerce Inn
As the township developed throughout the 1800s, more and more people moved into the area. US census data shows the town’s population increased steadily in the late 1800s. More and more businesses set up shop in Commerce. One in particular, the Grand Commerce Inn, was first erected in 1883 and still operates today.
Also during this time period, Commerce Township saw its first large place of worship erected. In 1842, at the corner of Commercial and Ponderosa, the small congregation held a groundbreaking ceremony for the new Commerce United Methodist Church. Although the congregation moved locations in 1957, it is still recognized as the oldest Methodist Church Building in Oakland County and one of the oldest churches in Michigan.
Other denominations also held services in nearby schoolhouse or, in some cases, even private residences. Ministers from some of the larger surrounding areas would make the trek to Commerce once a week to conduct services. For example, Reverands John Young and Assel Keith travelled from West Bloomfield and Nehemiah and Caleb Lamb travelled from Farmington. Commerce, however, did have a couple of hometown preachers including L.M. Partridge, M. Morrell, Elijiah Wever, William Pennell and D.C. Jacokes.
Other people of note in the town’s early history include:
- Reuben Wright – from Orleans, New York; was the first permanent settler after Abram Walrod
- Sylvester Stoddard – became the first postmaster in 1833
- Fanny Tuttle – became the first schoolteacher in 1833
- Amasa Andrews and Joseph Farr – purchased land from Jones Hibley, much of what would become Commerce, and had it platted in 1836