When Lansing was chosen as the seat of the state government in 1847, no city was more surprised and more disappointed than Marshall, located 31 miles west of Jackson. The State Senate originally passed a bill designating Marshall the capital, a measure defeated by just one vote in the House. Marshall was so sure of its upcoming role as the capital city that it set aside a site known as Capitol Hill. It even built a governor’s mansion, which still exists today.
Being spurned by the Legislature, though, gave Marshall a reprieve from rampant development, and today it ranks as one of the country’s best preserved 19th-century towns, with just under 7,500 residents.
Lined by large shade trees and an outstanding collection of 1840s and 1850s Greek and Gothic Revival–style homes, house-proud Marshall has become a poster child for historic preservation, an example of what can be done when businesses and homeowners work together. It has been featured in dozens of travel articles and architectural magazines. “Marshall’s small-town pride is a genteel descendant of the boosterism that Sinclair Lewis savaged in Main Street and Babbitt,” once declared The New York Times.
Before Marshall was old enough to turn heads for its architecture, it was carving out a niche as a center of the patent medicine boom in the early 1900s, producer of such classic tonics as Lydia Pinkham’s Pink Pills for Pale People. It wasn’t until the 1920s that a savvy mayor, Harold Brooks, first recognized the city’s fine architecture and led a crusade to maintain it. The first home tour was held in 1964 and remains a large and popular annual event more than 45 years later. Marshall’s designated National Historic Landmark District includes over 850 homes and businesses, the country’s largest district in the “small urban” category. One National Park Service manager called Marshall “a textbook of 19th-century small-town architecture.”
There’s a rich and controversial history hiding behind those pretty 19th-century facades, too. Marshall drew nationwide attention in 1846 when Adam Crosswhite, a slave who had escaped from Kentucky and lived in Marshall for two years, was seized by slave hunters. The whole town rose up in his support. Local abolitionists helped Crosswhite and his family escape to Canada, arrested the slave hunters, and tried them in Federal District Court. Although the Marshall abolitionists lost in court, the Crosswhite case was instrumental in the creation of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which in turn contributed to the tensions that later caused the Civil War.
Getting to Marshall
Marshall is surrounded by major towns, all of which have bus and train stations. In addition, it’s not far from the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport (AZO) (5235 Portage Rd., Kalamazoo, 269/388-3668, www.azoairport.com) and the Capital Region International Airport (LAN) (4100 Capital City Blvd., Lansing, 517/321-6121, www.flylansing.com), from which you can rent a vehicle and head to Marshall via I-94 and I-69, respectively. Of course, if you’ve driven to Michigan, there are a number of ways to reach Marshall, such as taking I-94 west from Jackson or heading north on I-69 from Indiana.
by Laura Martone from Moon Michigan, 3rd Edition, © Avalon Travel