Mt. Vernon is a Ghost of Our Agricultural Past

At the intersection of 28 Mile and Mt. Vernon roads, about five miles northeast of Rochester, lies a remnant of our area’s agricultural past. The unincorporated town of Mt. Vernon—now little more than a country crossroads—was not only a trading place for area farmers, but also went down in history as the birthplace of the American typewriter.

Sign at the entrance to Mt. Vernon Cemetery.

Sign at the entrance to Mt. Vernon Cemetery.

Mt. Vernon lies just inside the western edge of Washington Township, abutting the border of Oakland and Macomb counties. As Washington Township was named for George Washington, so the first settlers of Mt. Vernon, arriving in the mid-1820s, named their small community for Washington’s home estate in Virginia. Many of Mt. Vernon’s original settlers migrated to Michigan from New Jersey and New York.

Gravestone of Elihu Townsend

Gravestone of pioneer Elihu Townsend in Mt. Vernon Cemetery.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Mt. Vernon was a bustling hamlet, the smallest of three villages—the others being Washington and Romeo—that dotted the agricultural landscape of Washington Township. There were enough inhabitants in the Mt. Vernon vicinity to support two churches, a blacksmith shop, a carriage and wagon shop, a general store, a rural school, and a U.S. post office.

In 1841, several of the local landowners organized the Mt. Vernon Burial Ground Association to establish a community cemetery. The Mt. Vernon Cemetery, now administered by Washington Township, lies on the southeast corner of 28 Mile and Mt. Vernon roads, adjacent to the Methodist church. Some graves in the cemetery predate the formation of the association, indicating that the location was already in use as a burial ground in the earliest days of settlement. The grave of pioneer Elihu Townsend, for example, dates from 1835. Inscribed on the monuments in the Mt. Vernon Cemetery can be read the names of many of the area’s first non-native inhabitants, including those of the Crissman, Fangboner, Farmer, Townsend, Burt, Axford, and Thorington families.

Arguably, the most notable resident of Mt. Vernon was William Austin Burt, who built a log cabin home in Mt. Vernon in 1824 after migrating to Michigan from New York. Burt had a long resume of public service. He was the first postmaster of Mt. Vernon, appointed in 1833 when the post office was established there, and he served until 1856. He also held the Macomb County offices of surveyor and associate circuit court justice and served in both the Michigan territorial legislature and the state legislature. In November 1833, Burt was appointed a U.S. Deputy Surveyor.

William Austin Burt

William Austin Burt (Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, gift of Mrs. Philip Burt Fisher)

Burt had an innovative and inventive mind. He was a tinkerer and a problem solver and was credited with several inventions and patents. In 1828, while living at Mt. Vernon, he invented a writing machine that he called a “typographer,” and when his invention received a U.S. patent the following year, it became the first typewriter patented in the United States. Mt. Vernon thus rightly claims to be the birthplace of the American typewriter.

Although he is most often cited for his typewriter patent, Burt was more proud of his invention of a surveying tool, the solar compass, in 1836. He dedicated much of his life to the work of surveying, and all five of his sons followed in his footsteps to become surveyors. Burt helped to finish the Douglass Houghton surveys of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula after Houghton’s death in 1845, and Burt’s surveys settled early boundary disputes between Michigan and Wisconsin. His solar compass was an important innovation in the surveying field because it was not adversely affected by mineral deposits, as a magnetic compass was.

A Mt. Vernon business directory from 1879.

A Mt. Vernon business directory from 1879.

When Mt. Vernon’s most famous citizen died in 1858, he was buried in Mt. Vernon Cemetery, as was his wife, Phoebe Cole Burt, after her death in 1864. In 1888, however, the remains of Burt and his wife were moved to Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit, where they lie beneath a substantial monument that bears a medallion depicting Burt’s solar compass.

Meanwhile, life in Mt. Vernon went on as usual, but after the Civil War, when railroad lines began to crisscross the state, the little village’s fate was sealed. A railroad line was built through Rochester and Romeo, completely bypassing Mt. Vernon and taking it out of contention as a center of commerce for area farmers. Over time, local commerce shifted to the larger towns with railroad access. The federal government closed Mt. Vernon’s post office in 1905, thus stripping away the community’s official identity.

The creation of the Stony Creek Metropark in the early 1960s further erased part of Mt. Vernon from the map. When the park’s lake was engineered in 1962, it flooded an area that contained some of the family farms of Mt. Vernon’s settlers, including the land that had once been the farm of William Austin Burt. Stony Creek Metropark now surrounds Mt. Vernon on three sides and a Michigan Historical Marker stands along the park’s lakeshore to commemorate Burt and his inventions.

1895 plat map of Mt. Vernon

Mt. Vernon as depicted on an 1895 plat map.

The decade of the 1960s brought another change to Mt. Vernon, albeit a quiet one. In 1968, the Capuchin Franciscan friars opened the Capuchin Retreat Center in the peaceful woodland just north of the Mt. Vernon crossroads. Now over half a century old, the center offers a place of solace, prayer, reflection, and meditation and is open to retreatants of all faiths.

Today, there are but a few houses, a church, and a cemetery to mark the spot where a thriving community once stood. The Mt. Vernon United Methodist Church is the last surviving non-residential building from Mt. Vernon’s heyday. Standing next to the cemetery at 28 Mile and Mt. Vernon roads, it looks much the same as it did when it was built in 1872. The congregation is still active, and worshippers continue to gather there as they have for the past 148 years.

A two-story church and steeple

Mt. Vernon United Methodist Church

The author would like to thank Theresa Mann, local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library, for her assistance in accessing research material during the COVID-19 restrictions.

About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen recently retired after 34 years as local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She currently serves as the research chairperson for the Rochester-Avon Historical Society, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.

Comments

  1. James F. Ahearn says

    Thank you for your historical articles. Having lived in Rochester since 1963 I find them very interesting and informative. Without this one I would probably never have had this glimpse of my earlier community.

  2. James F. Ahearn says

    Thank you for this article. Without it I might never have had the experience of learning about this community I have lived in for 63 years.

  3. brenda ruple says

    I love Mt. Vernon.
    I have a lot of ancestors from here and buried here.

    Thank you for all of the information- born and raised in Rochester I did not know most of this!

  4. Teri Weems says

    What great information. Thank you for this history.

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