History of Nankin
Life in Early Nankin
The first Europeans came to the township to
settle the land in the early 1820ís. It was not an easy life they found.
There were few roads through what was then wilderness. In 1825, a trip
between Detroit and Ann Arbor would take more than two days. One early author described the area
as "a dense
unbroken wilderness teeming with wolves, bears and deer." Dysentery and
malaria were constant threats and few medical services were available. But
it was good land and the area began to grow and prosper.
The farmers were not the original
inhabitants of the area. Tribes of Native Americans walked and farmed
southeastern Michigan and
canoed the Rouge before white settlers arrived. Indian legend has it that the tribes of the
Three Fires Ė
Ottawa, the Pottawattamie and the Ojibwa Ė gathered to trade and hold tribal
meetings near the mill where two branches of the Rouge join. Several
Indian trails crossed where Nankin Mills
The first Nankin Mill was begun in 1835 but was abandoned for some reason
when partially completed. In 1842, a new owner took over the mill and
completed the work and gristmilling began. Sometime around that period, an overshot wheel was
constructed to power the mill. Nankin Mills does not sit directly on the
Rouge River and in order to operate the wheel, water had to be diverted from
the Rouge. The Rouge was also dammed so that a reliable supply of water was
available during the dry summer months. (For more information on powering
grist mills, see
Powering the Mill.)
|Nankin Mills around 1870. Click for
Nankin was a growing township by the time
the mill was operational and local farmers who were growing grain had need of the millís services. A
thriving community later called Pikeís Peak grew up around the Nankin Mills. Among
its businesses were a blacksmith shop, printing shop, and a post office. Today, several
of the homes from that town remain.
The Underground Railroad
There are rumors that escaped slaves sometime in the early 19th century may
have been hidden near the mill and perhaps even at the Mill during their journey along the
Rouge to the Detroit River, Canada and freedom. There is even
unsubstantiated stories that the mill was burned because it
served as a station on the Underground Railroad. The possibility exists since
the home of Marcus Swift, a local minister and active abolitionist, was said
to have burned down around that same period for that same reason. Sadly, the
truth may never be known as no written records were kept.
Aiding a runaway slave was illegal and those who aided in an escape could
lose their property. For this reason, few were willing to talk of their
activities much less put their stories on paper.
The present mill is the second mill near the
site and much of the building dates from around 1863, although Henry Ford
did some substantial remodeling when he purchased the mill (see section
below). In fact, the massive hand-hewn
sycamore beams used in its construction can still be seen. In 1887, the mill
changed hands and the new owner, Martin Lewis, replaced the overshot wheel
with a more efficient turbine water wheel. This wheel was built under the
mill. This change meant that the water of the Rouge River now had to run directly
underneath the building and then out the other side. Today, the mill race
that carried water to the mill and the tail race taking water away from the
mill can still be seen.
Henry Ford and the Village
|Henry Ford and Floyd Bassett on the
porch circa 1918. Click for larger view.
Nankin Mills is said to have been a favorite place
for Henry Ford to visit during his boyhood. Ford would join his father, a
farmer, for the journey to the mill by wagon along Ann Arbor Trail, which
fronts the mill. In 1918, the now-famous automaker decided to
purchase Nankin Mills from Floyd Bassett, the last miller and convert it
into a small factory Ford made major changes to the mill, but worked hard to
maintain the integrity of the old building. When the floors were installed
to support the heavy machinery, Ford required that tongue-and-groove
hardwood floors be installed and that wooden pegs be used to fasten the
planks to the supporting beans, a method that was used around the time of
the Civil War. Those floors can still be seen today. Ford also bought and
had Edward J.
Cutler, the architect who supervised Ford's restoration projects, restore the millerís (tenant)
house just west of the mill (see photo at right) as a gift to the architect
and his family. Cutler worked on most of the buildings at Greenfield
Village in Dearborn.
Fordís conversion of old mills
like Nankin into factories was part of his Village Industry (or
Community Plant) project. Ford saw small towns like Pikeís Peak declining as
people abandoned the land for jobs in Detroit and Highland Park with its
flourishing auto plants. By establishing a number of small auto factories in
rural areas Ford felt that these small communities would once again thrive.
Farmers would be able to farm during the summer and once cold weather set
in, be able to work at the mills.
(Photo at left shows Nankin Mills in 1940s. Photo courtesy of Joyce Covert &
Why Ford Chose Grist Mills
Ford originally chose the grist mills for his
factories so that he could harness the same water power
that had once helped turn corn and wheat into flour. The water that turned
belts and a grinding wheel would now turn turbines and produce hydroelectric power. However, water
wasnít a reliable source of power due to seasonal changes in water level and
Ford eventually turned gas generators and then the local utilities for electrical power. During the
period that the plant did produce its own hydroelectric power, wires were
run to the houses in Pikeís Peak and families received free electricity
making Nankin Mills one of the earliest public utilities and Pikeís Peak one of the
first rural communities to have electric lights.
In 1920, Nankin Mills began producing
screws for the Ford Motor Company. In 1937, the mill was
retooled for the production of stencils for marking Ford parts. It was also
retooled for engraving work at that time Those
stencils were used on all Ford Parts produced up to 1948. The lettering on
these stencils ranged from an almost microscopic size to several feet tall
The Village Industry Era
Ends Another Begins
In 1948, Nankin Mills was donated to the
Wayne County Road Commission, which owned the Middle Rouge Parkway
surrounding the mill. The stencil-making operation moved to the Waterford
village industry plant not far away.
Nankin Mills was remodeled by Wayne County
and dedicated in 1958 as a nature center. The Nankin Mills Nature Center
under naturalist Mary Ellsworth was a popular visiting place for children
and adults alike, featuring exhibits on history and live wild animals and
livestock. It closed in 1980.
In the mid-1980ís Nankin Mills became the
headquarters of the Wayne County Park System. In 1994 - 95, an addition was
built to the mill and the Parks Department moved into the new portion. In 2001,
the mill reopened as an interpretive center telling the story of four eras:
- The Nature Era that looks at the Rouge
- The Native American Era shows how Native
Americans lived here before the coming of the European settlers.
- The Grist Mill Era contains exhibits and
information on the importance of Nankin Mills and other mills to the
- The Village Industries Era explains how
Henry Ford sought to provide people with a place to work and still live on
The mill has since been chosen as a
gateway hub to the MotorCities-Auto National Heritage Area. It is one of six
such gateways in Metro Detroit. MotorCities-AHNA is affiliated with the
National Park Service.