History of Morrice, Michigan
by Paul LeValley
Before Michigan became a state, the vicinity of Morrice lay in a no-man’s land between Chippewas (also called Ojibways) to the north, Pottawattomies to the west, Ottawas to the south, and Hurons to the east. In 1763, Antrim Township just east of Morrice erupted into a battleground between these tribes during Pontiac’s War. White settlers later found lots of scattered bones. Britton Road was a well-traveled Indian trail worn a foot deep. Native hunters passed through the area, but did not stay.
In the fall of 1836, twenty-year-old Josiah Purdy (1816-68) built his cabin on the south side of what is now Britton road, between the intersections of Main and Gale Streets. Mr. Purdy made friends with the passing bands of Indians, who sometimes crowded into his cabin to sleep, or lightened their load by leaving their guns stacked in a corner for weeks at a time. Because bears kept attacking the family’s pigs, breakfast at the Purdy house included large helpings of bacon, bear meat, and wild fruits. In the spring of 1837, he plowed his garden—the first plowed land in what was later called Perry township. The northern half of his land eventually became the village of Morrice.
Around 1838, William Morrice (1800-73) came to the area and soon bought 160 acres northwest of the Purdys’ land. At age 38, he had just married his childhood sweetheart (who may have been a widow by then). On their new land, they built a cabin. Without a bed at first, they slept on the ground, while wolves howled outside the door. His three brothers settled nearby, though one quickly moved on.
The early settlers, all being Scotsmen, formed in 1839 The First Presbyterian Church of Bennington (Township)—a name later changed to Morrice. They founded their church on abstinence from liquor. People met at each others’ houses, and later at the school.
In 1841, the southern half of Bennington Township split off to form Perry Township. The new board immediately established school districts. The settlement that had grown up around the Purdy and Morrice farmsteads happened to fall in district #1, which meant that students walked a mile west toward Perry each day. Seventeen years later, in December of 1858, the eighteen taxable households of the Morrice area petitioned to be set off as school district #5. Residents at the first school meeting decided to locate the Purdy School on the southeast corner of Morrice and Britton Roads. After some squabbling, it finally went up in late 1862.
Isaac Gale (1809-92) was vice-president of the Chicago & Port Huron Railroad, with responsibility for locating the depots between Lansing and Flint. A county atlas, published in 1875, showed in the place where Morrice would rise, just two houses—with another three nearby on Morrice Road, and four more on Britton road. The next fall, in September of 1876, Mr. Gale officially established Morrice as a village on 160 acres that had recently been the wooded farms of William Wells and Gaylord Colby. After the ceremony came the first social event of the new community: a picnic where Main Street is now, with railroad officials invited. After lunch, the village was platted, with three lots reserved at the north end of Main Street for an eventual high school; then people bought lots. Others rode the train, or went up in a hot-air balloon. Mr. Gale attempted to have the village named Galesboro, but the state refused to ratify it or other names that he suggested, because of their similarity to the names of other Michigan towns. Finally, he named the place after his best friend, William Morrice (who actually lived outside the village limits).
Frederick Cummins opened the first store on the northwest corner of Main and Third Streets. It contained a cracker barrel, a molasses barrel, some tobacco, and not much else. He soon began stocking hardware. In the village’s first year, townspeople donated $300 to Henry Horton to establish a sawmill. They also gave Benjamin F. Rann $600 to build a flour mill. By the fall of 1877, the one-year-old village had seventeen places of business. These included the barber shop of Andrew Leavors, the only black man in early Morrice.
Perry had been built a mile south of its present location. Residents later moved their entire town to the railroad, in hope of establishing a depot, like Morrice. But railroad officials refused to make two stops so close together. Then the sawmill shanty serving as the Morrice depot mysteriously burned. In a compromise solution, the railroad agreed to stop only at the village which could erect a depot first. The race was on.
The popular story goes that both towns were looking over the same piece of timber, which belonged to a man from Perry; Morrice offered the highest price, and he sold. People of Perry were furious, and one morning, the residents of Morrice woke up to find their new pile of lumber over in Perry. With this stolen lumber, citizens of Perry worked in shifts, around the clock, to get a depot built. They finished late on the seventh night. According to legend, Perry held a gala celebration, and by the wee hours, the whole town was reeling. When the bedraggled inhabitants began to sober up, about noon the next day, they learned that railroad officials had already inspected and approved their handiwork—but the building happened to be standing in Morrice at the time.
Whatever the true facts about stolen lumber and stolen building, the squabble set off a rivalry between the two towns that lasted long after people had forgotten why they were fighting. Unaware of the colorful history, railroad officials demolished the old Morrice depot without warning one day in 1974.
All through the Perry furor, there were peaceful developments in Morrice. The First Methodist Episcopal Church had organized in 1865 with seven members. The First Baptist Church of Perry (Township) organized in October of 1877. All three churches met in the Purdy School. That soon changed when the Baptists decided to build in Perry, and the big white Presbyterian Church (later known as the Morrice Community Hall) went up in 1878. The Methodists helped in construction of the $4,500 wooden building, and got the use of it one Sunday of each month. People of all three Protestant religions sent their children to the Union Sabbath-School, a long-running experiment unique to Morrice.
Much of Morrice was swamp. Local inventor, Clark Crane created a floating sawmill, where he could move the logs all by himself. In 1887, the Methodists bought his land and filled it in. With $5,000 and local bricks, they built the oldest church still standing in the village. The building went through much remodeling in 1955 and 1984.
Although the people of Morrice were predominantly Protestant Scots, Catholic Irishmen settled east of town along Cork Road in Antrim Township. Meanwhile, the Alling school district had put up a new building on the southwest corner of Britton and Cork Roads. They offered to sell the old schoolhouse that stood on a hill a third of a mile to the east. In 1875, the priest in Owosso arranged for its purchase, and he conducted weekday services there once a month. But when the church also attracted a good-sized following from Perry, they decided to relocate in Morrice, midway between their two congregations. With only 35 families in the parish, they boldly built the brick St. Mary’s Church with a seating capacity of 300. It opened in September of 1892. The church burned April 16, 1953, and the congregation decided to erect a bigger one next door. The new church opened in May of 1955.
Just four years after Morrice’s founding, the 1880 census showed a thriving village of 229 people.
In November of 1884, Morrice established its own government independent of the township by incorporating as a village with the state of Michigan. The document lasted less than eleven years. Act 3 of the 1895 session of the Michigan legislature nullified all such individual charters, and established 248 General Law Home Rule Villages, of which Morrice was one. (Nevertheless, this minor proceeding would cause confusion a century later, when some people mistook it for the founding date of the village. The 1880 U.S. census is proof enough that the United States government officially recognized Morrice as a village before this time.) Basically, incorporation meant that the village had grown so big that they needed to elect some officers. The 23 votes cast in December of 1884 established Dr. Henry P. Halsted (1850-1934) as the first village president. Dr. Halsted later wrote down most of this early history.
The village continued to grow. The 1890 census counted 422 residents. By 1906, the flour mill had a capacity of 50 barrels a day. The elevator averaged 3 railroad cars of grain and beans each week. The sawmill produced $150,000 of lumber in a year. Morrice also had a canning factory and an apple dryer. The village had three churches. There was a graded public school and a bank. Western Union telegraph, National Express, and the local telephone company all served the community. The village by then had electric lights, cobblestone streets, two miles of cement walks, and two mail routes.
Egbert Vreeland (1874-1965) grew up in Morrice, and became the town photographer. He took most of the early pictures of Morrice.
In 1911, an electric railway (officially called the Michigan United Traction Line, but known locally as the Inter-Urban Line) began running south from Owosso to Morrice, where it turned westward toward Lansing, then south on to Jackson. The ticket station on Morrice Road had a waiting room and a loading platform where many farmers sent their milk to Owosso each morning. Cars ran four times in both directions each day. The Inter-Urban and automobiles seem to have initially brought new settlers to Morrice. But the migration soon turned dramatically outward, as residents began commuting to better-paying jobs in Owosso or Lansing, then moving closer to their work. When people shopped for better bargains in other cities, many merchants also left. Morrice had become an outgoing commuter town that could no longer support itself. Population seems to have peaked at around 600 in 1915, before plummeting to 372 in 1920. For the next fifty years, residents told their grandchildren about the days when Morrice had been much bigger. The Inter-Urban Line closed in 1929, unable to compete with automobiles.
Morrice’s fiftieth birthday as a village came in 1926. The village held a huge semi-centennial celebration on September 11 of that year. Merchants in surrounding towns closed their stores to attend. Nearly 3,000 free barbeque lunches were served that day, going through 40 pounds of donated coffee. Events included music performances all day, an address by the local congressman (from Saginaw), every kind of footrace from regular to three-legged to wheelbarrow, bicycle race, obstacle race, wrestling matches, tug-of-war, pie-eating contest, greased pole climbing, plane rides and a parachute jump. That evening, ladies from the three churches combined to put on another feast.
To keep a favorite teacher (and former graduate) who had recently married, the school board offered the superintendency in 1920 to her husband. People of Morrice first knew Claud J. Shufelt (1893-1964) as “Miss Cohoon’s husband.” When he finally stepped down in 1951 to continue his career at the county level, he left a school that had become a model for vocational education. In addition to the traditional college-preparatory curriculum, he introduced full programs in shop (1921), home economics (1921), agriculture (1923), and business (1937). The high school orchestra also began in 1921. In 1936, the University of Michigan rated Morrice High School as one of the two outstanding schools in the state with a practical modern curriculum.
Mrs. S. A. Shufelt started a school hot lunch program in 1923—long before other schools had anything like it. Girls in her Home Economics class fed over 100 students at an average cost of 35¢ a week. Around 1943, Mrs. Shufelt started the May Festivals that would last until 1959.
One student, Inez Ashley Ross, grew up telling stories on the school bus. After a career as a high school English teacher, she wrote books about traveling the Santa Fe Trail, and novels based on those of Jane Austen. Sotherton Abbey begins in a familiar high school, with a recognizable “Mr. Shufelter” in charge.
Morrice’s first writer, Dell Hair (1871-1932), was born on Morrice Road near the Looking Glass River. After brief unsuccessful tries at running a hotel in Perry, then farming near Shaftsburg, he took a job as policeman in Toledo, Ohio. There he became known as the Rhyming Cop. Six times, he published pretty much the same collection of verses, culminating in Nature Beautiful.
All through the 1930s, Miss Susan Fear (1889-1967) reigned as County Superintendent of Schools. In later years, (as Mrs. Clare Winegar) she presided as the grand lady of Morrice, known for her elegant hosting. There were a lot of college-educated women in town. In 1936, they organized the Morrice Reading Room. In 1955, they moved into the new Library and Town Meeting Room.
Miss Hulda Phelps (1847-1943) had already taught school for many years before arriving in Morrice in 1886. She opened a millinery store, and women traveled to Morrice from miles around just to buy her hats. In 1936, at age 88, she celebrated 50 years in business—longer than any other woman in Michigan.
For about thirty years, starting in the 1920s, people came into town every summertime Saturday night for the Morrice Free Show. People sat on outdoor benches. The school band might play on the stage before the show, and local kids might tapdance during intermission. Until about 1930, the films were silent; later came black-and-white classics. The Free Shows ended about 1955, a victim of television.
The Morrice Women’s Club began in 1929. They joined the county organization in 1951, and federated with the state organization in 1970. Some of the same ladies belonged to the Morrice Garden club, which met from 1952 through 1974. Besides putting on flower shows, they engaged in beautification projects, decorated neglected graves, supervised Christmas lighting, and started an early recycling program.
The Morrice Lions Club organized in 1946. The next year, and for about 45 years, they sponsored the Morrice Homecoming each summer. They blocked off Main Street, and the community organizations set up booths offering food. There was a parade. Cakewalks and an Ice-Cream Social occupied the evening hours. >From 1964 to around 1990, the celebration moved to a corner of the school grounds. After a gap of about fifteen years, the Morrice Homecoming was revived again in 2006, under village sponsorship. In 1976, the Lions Club established a park, and turned it over to the village in 2013.
The Morrice Boy Scouts organized in 1928. Except for a break in the late ’60s, the troop functioned almost continuously through 1986. Over the course of time, an estimated 400 Morrice boys traveled north to Camp Ta-pi-co near Kalkaska for a week of wilderness camping. The Morrice troop usually chose one of the primitive sites, approachable only by canoe or by walking logs laid end-to-end through the swamp. In 1957, the older boys took a memorable hundred-mile canoe trip down the Manistee River. (The water was still clean enough to drink, and eagles perched on the branches just overhead.)
Morrice Girl Scouts started when the Shiawassee Council organized in 1944, but they functioned only sporadically. Around 1970, they reactivated as part of the Fair Winds Council out of Flint. Some years, there seem to have been several tiny troops for different age groups. When Girl Scouts were inactive in the 1950s and ’60s, young ladies instead perfected their sewing and cooking skills through 4-H.
A village baseball team played all through the 1930s and ’40s. A summer recreation program began with Little League in the early 1960s, and has expanded to include softball games for girls and other sports for small children.
The Seventh-Day Adventists, who had been meeting southeast of town in the Antrim Town Hall, began building their own church entirely by volunteer labor in 1960. They added an addition in 1983, but the church closed in the early 1990s.
Morrice celebrated its centennial eight years late on June 16, 1984. It was much smaller than the 50-year celebration in 1926. There was a parade with lots of floats and antique cars. People could go up in a balloon, compete in log-rolling, or join the footraces for all ages. The Morrice post office used a special “Pioneer Days” cancellation mark that day.
Appreciation of Morrice’s home-town virtues came slowly in the 1970s and ’80s. Growth came slower yet. Perhaps the rebirth of local pride can be dated to 1973 when Mr. David Fahrenbach (1934-90) inspired his junior high history students to do archaeological digs in Morrice. They mostly found old bottles, but they also asked farmers to donate old tools, and then put the whole caboodle in a small Farming Museum that had once been the high school Chemistry laboratory. Mr. Fahrenbach’s pupils eagerly gathered statements from old-timers, and his class two years later put together a photo history of the village.
The village suddenly grew as the World War II “baby boom” generation began having children in the ’60s. Of course, the same thing was happening everywhere. The 1970 census jumped to a record 734, held steady in 1980 with 733, but then dropped down to 599 by 1990 as those same children grew up and left town.
Then in the late 1990s, Morrice began to expand again. People in Lansing, especially professors at Michigan State University, started thinking of Morrice as an ideal home town to raise their families. It was one of the few communities remaining with no chain stores or franchises; people could do business directly with the owners. And everybody knew their neighbors. Families moved in. The town expanded southward and eastward.
By 2000, the population of Morrice had jumped to 882. But the first decade of the twentieth century saw hard times in Michigan. Most of the automobile factories closed. People moved elsewhere in search of work. In Morrice, the 2010 population had dropped just slightly to 865.
The complete 100-page history of Morrice, with lots of pictures and census records, can be ordered at http://www.paullevalley.com.