History and Culture
Milan was platted by Ebenezer Merry in 1817 on the site of a previous Moravian Indian mission village, Pettquoting, [1805-1809]. Merry dammed the Huron River below the village and established a gristmill and sawmill in the river valley. The village was incorporated in 1833 in large measure to finance the construction of the Milan Canal. Prior to the advent of railroads, regional farmers had to bring their harvests to Lake Erie ports by wagon. The sandy and wet prairies north and west of Milan were not easily crossed by a wagon with a heavy harvest load. Beginning in 1826, local investors proposed a ship canal that would make Milan a lake port that could conveniently connect to the new Erie Canal, allowing direct regional commerce with New York City.
Construction of the Milan Canal began in 1833 and it opened to lake navigation on July 4, 1839.The peak year of commerce was 1847. For 15 years or more, the village prospered as one of the busiest ports on the Great Lakes. Large numbers of wagons bringing agricultural products to Milan would often line up for miles to the south.
Local brokerages and trading houses exchanged the agricultural commodities of farmers for currency, hardware, and trade goods brought in across Lake Erie from the East by way of the Erie Canal. The Milan Canal was deep and directly connected to Lake Erie, allowing Lake Erie schooners to transport goods to and from Milan without the use of small, shallow-draft canal boats required on other canals. The confluence the deep ship-bearing canal, the great agricultural fertility of the regional Ohio soils, and the direct access to New York markets by way of the Erie Canal made Milan a retail center from the 1830s to the early 1850s.
Post-canal era and Milan's heritage
However, with the advent of railroads in the 1850s, the canal-bourne prosperity terminated. In 1868, the canal's feeder dam failed due to a flood, permanently ending Milan's direct connection to the lake. The original canal route can be observed and followed today along the Erie MetroParks "Huron River Greenway."
The deep canal and inland harbor also served as a ship building center, in part because of extensive local stands of white oak timber used in ship building. Approximately 60 ships were built in Milan between 1840 and 1867.
During the period, the canal-based prosperity allowed the construction of a large number of buildings of architectural note. Today, Milan retains a significant number of both residences and commercial buildings from the 19th century, representing typical architectural styles of the time.
With the threat of proliferating railroads, mid-century canal interests were able to prevent their incursion into Milan. This effectively isolated the village from the flourishing post-Civil War economy that occurred in other Midwestern towns. Consequently, Milan’s development and expansion essentially terminated in the 1850s and 60s. Today, the majority of the canal-era mansions and other buildings remain intact, making Milan one of the finest sites for 19th century architectural history in the Midwest. The Kelley Block on the village square, along with the impressive great houses on all of the village’s streets are remarkably preserved. In 2002, Milan was selected by The National Trust for Historic Preservation as a Distinctive Destination.
Melon farming prospered in the area due to sandy, fertile soil, and Milan hosts the "Milan Melon Festival" annually on Labor Day weekend. Although many residents commute to other cities for employment, the general culture of the area is decidedly rural, agricultural, and historic. Because of its limited development after the closure of the canal, Milan retains the ambiance of a 19th century village with New England cultural and architectural affinities.