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Photograph of Franklin Avenue Bridge over the Grand River. Looking west. Erected 1867, swept away in spring flood, April 1, 1875. North Presbyterian Church on Grand River Avenue at Washington is visible in background.
Lower Town, where present day Old Town sits, was the first of the three towns that became Lansing. Lower Town was home to the first house built in 1843 by pioneer James Seymour. The town really began to develop when the covered bridge was constructed over the Grand River on Franklin Avenue (now known as Grand River Ave) shown in the photograph. Some residents call this area “North Lansing”.
A surveying crew moving westward across Michigan in 1825 stopped along the Grand River Indian Trail at the apex of the Grand River. Their mission was to plot and chart land that would someday be known as Old Town. Eleven years later New York land speculators James Seymour and Jacob Cooley purchased the land from the federal government. In 1842, the area was officially named Lansing Township. Around the same time, John Burchard of Mason acquired a section of land from James Seymour. Burchard became the first residential settler in the Lansing area.
Burchard and his family settled into a small cabin along the Indian Trail on the corner of Grand River Avenue and Center Street – in close proximity to where the former Tate’s Freeze stands today. The Grand River’s first dam was built nearby in 1843 and was used to power the area’s first sawmill. Tragically, John Burchard drowned a year later, attempting to fix the dam. Later that same year, Joab Page, his son and three daughters moved into the Burchard cabin. An addition was made to the home and it was used as a tavern for weary travelers. A Methodist minister conducted Lansing’s first church service in the living quarters of the cabin in 1845. The Page cabin also served as Lansing’s meeting hall and township court.
As the settlement of Lansing grew, James Seymour began to make improvements on his investment property. He financed the construction of the first wooden bridge across the Grand River. It connected the Grand River Indian Trail (present day Grand River Avenue) and the two forking paths on either side. Lansing’s first school was also built in the Old Town area, at the southeast corner of Franklin Avenue (Grand River Ave.) and Cedar Street (the site of the former Temple Club). The school also provided a meeting space for church congregations.
Seymour lobbied for the construction of the new State Capitol Building to be located within his holdings in the Old Town area. But in 1847, Governor William Greenly selected a site approximately two miles from Lansing’s original Old Town settlement. Seymour recovered quickly from the loss with new plans for the development of North Lansing – now known as Old Town. Realizing that traveling legislators would need temporary housing during their frequent trips to the capitol, Seymour began construction on a hotel at the corner of Franklin Avenue and Center Street. In January of 1848, The Seymour House opened for business in time for the first legislature session. James Turner’s first business in Lansing was a mercantile store at the corner of Center Street and Franklin (now Grand River Ave) in the Seymour House.
Over the next 150 years, Old Town saw many changes. Growth brought prosperity and a great blue-collar community. Visitors to Old Town often saw and heard “North Lansing against the World.” But, soon the boom came to an end. By the latter part of the twentieth century, Old Town had become a fragmented shell of the bustling area it once was. Buildings were abandoned or burned out. People lost interest in local downtowns across the country, and Old Town was no exception.
Some very dedicated people, including the late Robert Busby, decided that the decay of Old Town was unacceptable. For the last 30 years, these “urban pioneers” have been working hard to revitalize Old Town to make it a better place to live, work, and shop. In 1996, the Mainstreet program was established in Old Town. Since then, crime rates have fallen to the lowest in the city, building vacancy has dropped from 90 percent to less than 10 percent, and Old Town is proud to be a home to some of the finest art and entertainment venues in mid-Michigan. In 2006, Old Town was named a Michigan Main Street program area under Governor Granholm’s Cool Cities Initiative; it continues to operate under Main Street’s four point approach.
Together with several other partners, such as the Old Town Business and Art Development Association (OTBADA), the City of Lansing, the Principal Shopping District (PSD), the Lansing Economic Development Corporation (EDC), the Turner-Dodge House and others, Old Town has become a thriving environment of art, festivals, boutiques and creative businesses and residents dedicated to the revitalization of this historic district.
Through hard work and determination, Old Town has prospered and grown into one of the finest areas in mid-Michigan. Old Town may not have reached its full potential yet, but thanks to the support of the community, it is on its way.