As county Farm Bureaus’ Local History Teams piece together the legacies of their farming communities, resources such as old county atlases can help deepen your understanding of how your landscapes have changed and evolved over time.
The modern-day plat book we’re all familiar with are handy, popular references for anyone with an interest in local land use. Their late-19th century ancestors, however, were vastly more grandiose, and remain tremendous resources for those interested in local history.
There was a fad of large-format county atlas production that swept across the Midwest in the late 1800s and early 1900s, with publishing company canvassers going door to door, selling purchase commitments for a pending compendium. Those looking to raise their stature in the community or simply stroke their own egos could pay extra to have included biographical summaries of their families or illustrations of their farmstead—even family portraits!
But the heart of these massive books were the detailed land-ownership maps of every city, town, village and hamlet—and the rural townships in which they were all embedded.
You may or may not find one in your local library's atlas stand. Their size and age makes them unwieldy, delicate things to handle, but fortunately for present-day history buffs, most of Michigan’s have been digitized and are viewable online.
Warning: The website I’m about to describe is a product of the University of Michigan. But don’t hold that against it!
The Michigan County Histories and Atlases website isn't the easiest to navigate, but its treasures are worth the effort. The easy starting point is here, the ‘browse’ page sorted by subject. From here, click on the first letter of your county to start drilling into the titles; it’s pretty intuitive from this point.
Any atlas’ table of contents will tell you what subsequent page your favorite township is on. Note that at the top of image pages, you can increase the page size by up to 400% to zoom in for more detail.
To capture an image you can use from this point, try an application like Jing.
NOTE: Some counties were more “atlased” than others. More populous and/or prosperous areas may have been canvassed in the 1870s, 1890s and yet again in the early 1900s. Others may’ve only been reached once, or not at all.