The Historical Significance of the Crossroads
In 1826, the United States government commissioned the survey of a road through the wilds of the Michigan Territory. The road began in the small town of Detroit-population approximately 1,800-and wound its way through swamps, oak openings and wide prairies until it reached Chicago at the southern end of Lake Michigan. Following a native trail laid down hundreds of years before, it would link the two great forts of Wayne and Dearborn. The original road, the Old Sauk Trail, became a road for military use and later, the Detroit to Chicago Road.
In 1836, a private road company commissioned a road from the La Plaisance Bay on the northwest shore of Lake Erie that would run diagonally through the territory to the settlement of Jacksonburg (present-day Jackson). Approximately 30 miles to the southeast of Jacksonburg, the two roads crossed. This crossroads became known as Cambridge Junction.
For more than 160 years, this intersection has played a role in the development of the State of Michigan. People who have lived and worked in and around the crossroads have known that they occupied an important location and have worked to preserve it for future generations.
The location was significant to native peoples long before these roads were developed. Remains of their burial grounds were noted on the road survey maps of 1826 and unearthed by archaeologists in the late 1960s. After the Indian removal of 1833, settlers began to purchase land in the area of the crossroads. The native significance of the area was lost.
The first white settler to realize the full economic potential of the crossroads was Sylvester S. Walker. Walker and his wife Lucy came to Michigan from Cooperstown, New York, in the late 1830s. Walker had been an innkeeper in Cooperstown and desired a location to reestablish his business in Michigan. He was a man looking for an opportunity. A frame structure had been built at the crossroads in 1836 and was being operated as a wayside inn by Calvin Snell. In 1843, Walker purchased the site from Snell. In 1853, Walker built a three-story brick building across the road from the original frame structure and moved his tavern operation to this new location.
Walker made a good living as the innkeeper of the taverns at the crossroads. The inns became a gathering point for area residents. Not only were the inn-keeping and stagecoach businesses brisk, but Walker's popularity allowed him to become the local postmaster, to win a seat in the Michigan State Legislature, to become a bank president and to become involved with several plank road companies. His name continues to be associated with the crossroads today.
Between 1865 and 1922, the site was owned by the family of Francis Dewey. Dewey was a former stagecoach driver who purchased several hundred acres of land in Cambridge Township, including the crossroads site. Francis Dewey purchased the site from Lucy Walker after Sylvester Walker's death. Dewey became a prosperous farmer and local historian, writing many articles about the early settlement of Michigan. He also served as president of the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society, the grandparent organization of the Michigan Historical Museum.
In 1922, the Reverend Frederick J. Hewitt purchased the crossroads farm owned by Francis Dewey's family. That same year the Lucy Wolcott Barnum Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution commemorated the centennial of Lenawee County by placing a bronze plaque on a boulder in the dooryard of the tavern site. From 1922 through 1965, Hewitt and his heirs operated the site as a tourist attraction.
Hewitt knew the historical importance of the location he owned, and marketed it according to his needs. Over these years, Hewitt had been a collector of antiques. He used the buildings at the crossroads to showcase his large collection and highlight the significance of the site. In the mid-1930s, the Michigan Museums Directory listed the site as ". . . deserving to be ranked with Michigan's Museums. It is fitted throughout with original pieces, furniture and relics."
The accuracy of Hewitt's interpretation of the site's history has always been questioned by historians because his views were never well documented. However, his interpretation fit neatly into the context of tourism within the Irish Hills in the mid-20th century-a context that accepted history as nostalgic, quaint, highly collectable and close to home. The site was often included in the vacation travel plans of local residents and day travelers from southeast Michigan and north central Ohio. Many people remember with fondness picnics at the crossroads and chicken dinners served at local restaurants. Multi-generational families visit the site today hoping to recapture the excitement they had visiting the Irish Hills. In 1958, in recognition of the historical importance of Walker Tavern, the site was placed on the State Register for Historic Places.
In 1965, the Michigan Department of Conservation (now the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment) acquired the site and eighty acres of associated land from the Hewitt family. The site became known as the Cambridge Junction State Historic Park. This park differed from the others in the area because it contained a historic building, the framed structure built in 1836. The Walter J. Hayes State Park, ten miles northeast of the site, was designed for recreational camping; the Onsted Game Preserve, ten miles southwest, was designed as a wildlife refuge. With few exceptions, Michigan's state parks in the 1960s contained few, if any, of what were predetermined to be historic structures. Acquiring this site was an important first step in preserving the history of Michigan for the Michigan Department of Conservation and the residents of southeast Michigan. In 1971, the site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1974, through legislative action, interpreting the human history of the park fell under the jurisdiction of the Michigan Historical Museum. Since then, visitors have come to the park to learn about Michigan's settlement history through exhibits and a variety of educational programs and events.
For motorists and truck drivers who pass the crossroads each day, the park is only a mile marker at the intersection of two roads. The restaurants are gone, the post office has disappeared. The church is hidden by the rerouting of the road. All that remain are the buildings that were once owned by Sylvester Walker.
Through them we get a glimpse of life in the era of statehood when Michigan was a string of agrarian settlements reaching into its interior. Their stories are of Yankee pioneers and stagecoaches-and of the farms, tourist attractions and automobiles that eventually replaced them. The historical significance of Walker's Tavern at Cambridge Junction and the intersection of two major roads into the interior of Michigan before it became a state makes this a site worthy of inclusion in the Michigan Historical Museum system. This is an authentic place. It was not created as a museum, nor was its history lost because of misuse or neglect. It was preserved-often by unconventional means-but still preserved as a piece of Michigan's settlement history.
Contact Walker Tavern Historic Site.