Ypsilanti Township has a rich history, beginning with the Great Sauk Trail. The trail crossed the Huron River in the area that would become Ypsilanti Township. In 1809, a trading post was built for trade between French explorers and Native Americans. This area also served as burial grounds with evidence of mounds on the banks of the Huron River. Several Native American tribes, namely the Ottawa, Chippewa and Potawatomi, resided and formed alliances in the area. One mile south of the trading post, Benjamin Woodruff and his companions established a settlement named Woodruff’s Grove in 1823. Ypsilanti was established in 1825, when Judge Augustus Woodward, John Stewart and William Harwood combined land to form the new settlement at the crossing. It was named after the Greek patriot, General Demetrius Ypsilanti. Ypsilanti Township was organized in 1827. After a fire destroyed a school at Woodruff’s Grove, many people abandoned that settlement for Ypsilanti. This migration prompted Woodruff’s Grove to become incorporated as the Village of Ypsilanti in 1832.
In 1834, the Chicago Road, a federal highway from Detroit to Chicago, was constructed. Soon after, Washtenaw County was established with different township divisions that included Superior and Salem Townships. The Chicago Road was completed in 1835 and several new towns began to prosper along its route with the completion of new tracks for railroad. The late 1840s brought a couple of important educational institutions to the township with the first being the Ypsilanti Seminary in 1845. In 1849, the establishment of Eastern Michigan University, then called Michigan Normal School, was the first college west of the Allegheny Mountains intended to train teachers. And a third institution named Cleary College was established in 1883.
Manufacturing and the Arsenal of Democracy.
In 1932 Henry Ford developed a dam that would produce power for his automotive manufacturing plant in Ypsilanti, creating Ford Lake. Due to the lack of aircraft manufacturing facilities in the country, in 1941 Ford Motor Company acquired land in an unincorporated part of the township known as Willow Run. In 1943, the Willow Run bomber factory was completed and had employed 42,000 people. During its first two years of operation, the facility worked 24-hours a day and produced over 8,800 aircraft.
Willow Village, today known as West Willow, was developed to house 15,000-20,000 of the plant’s employees. Workers commuting to the plant faced challenges, so a highway was constructed in 1943 to ease the commute to and from Detroit and Central Michigan. However, the highway bisected the township north to south making it difficult for the Ypsilanti Township community to have a central location or downtown to congregate. The shortage of workers due to men being enlisted in the armed forces was addressed by hiring 140,000 women and thousands of African Americans emigrating from the southern states.
The township decided to adopt a Zoning Ordinance in October of 1943. The ordinance established six use categories that supported the improvement of infrastructure for urban growth.
Post-World War II
The end of the war brought a decline in demand for production of aircraft. By December of 1946, fewer than 600 families lived in Willow Village. The bomber plant was sold to Kaiser Frazier in 1946, which used the plant to manufacture automobiles. In 1953, General Motors bought the Willow Run facility after Kaiser and Frazer merged with Willys-Overland in Toledo, Ohio. Instead of demolishing empty homes in West Willow, the federal government sold the property to Ypsilanti Township in 1954.
Some of the war’s labor force was diverted to the auto industry, which boomed in response to pent-up demand for cars. The Bomber Plant began manufacturing Kaiser-Frazer automobiles, then produced transmissions and other powertrain components for General Motors. The auto industry provided employment for Ypsilanti township residents well into the 1980s. In 1989, blue-collar workers still represented 51.4% of the township. The proportion of college-educated township residents remained comparatively low during this time. It was not until the 1990s that a major employment shift occurred: by 2000, only 36% of Ypsilanti Township was employed in the manufacturing industry. From 1990 to 2000 the service sector grew by 8%, retail by 5%, and communication and utility by 2%. Recognizing this shift, the Township began to prioritize new forms of industrial development in the 1990s, including research and technology.
Another significant trend in the 1970s and 1980s was the popularization of single-family-residential homes in planned subdivisions. Single family homes in the township increased by 11% from 1970 to 1992. Multi-family home construction, on the other hand, began declining in 1985. Most new single-family home construction occurred south of Textile Road, reducing agricultural land by 21.6%. This development followed population growth across Washtenaw County following the war: the population of the township increased by 51.2% from 1960 to 1990. Despite a recession in the housing industry in the early 1980s, home construction grew to meet population demands. From 1980 to 1990, homes were constructed at a faster rate than population growth. Housing growth was facilitated by the expansion of public sewer and water south of Ford Lake. This growth was sustained, however, by the affordability of housing in the township. The median cost of a housing unit in Ypsilanti Township was, and remains, consistently lower than those in surrounding municipalities.
From the 1970’s on, more parkland and recreation opportunities came to the Township. Parkland increased by 3.4% from 1970 to 1992. This may have reflected an increased need for natural space due to more intense development and traffic. In the past, natural areas in the township received little legal protection. Many wetlands in the township were degraded due to agricultural activity or development. However, the preservation of natural features has since become a priority for Ypsilanti Township. This is demonstrated through regulations involving woodlands protection, lake use, open-space and setback requirements, and planning for low-impact development. Overall, the post-World War II United States saw increased opportunities for leisure. Some notable examples in Ypsilanti Township included roller rinks, bowling alleys, drive-in theaters, and baseball fields hand-built by resident enthusiasts. The 1970s saw the construction of the Township Civic Center.
The increasing proportion of service-sector employees was concurrent with commercial development, especially in the northern portion of the township. Many new businesses grew around existing thoroughfares. The completion of I-94 in the early 1960s, in addition to the opening of the I-94 interchange at the Huron and Whittaker road intersection in 1980 facilitated commercial development and access to the township overall. Priorities in the 1990s focused on providing adequate parking and traffic access to commercial corridors along Washtenaw Avenue, East Michigan Avenue, Ecorse road, Whittaker road, the Hewitt and Ellsworth road intersection, and Grove road. These priorities were consistent with the township’s historic automobile-oriented development pattern. Although the need for non-motorized transit was addressed in the 1992 Master Plan, most efforts to improve walkability were small-scale and located in residential neighborhoods. In 1997, the Township adopted a Non-Motorized Pathways Plan.
At the turn of the century, Ypsilanti Township saw continued housing construction and addition of amenities. In 2002, a branch of the Ypsilanti District Library was built on Whittaker Road. The 2007 Master Plan created a Town Center district along the Huron and Whittaker Road corridor. It was envisioned as a pedestrian-friendly, walkable area with sidewalks connecting all uses and integrated community parks and plazas. Development projects and sidewalk easement efforts along this corridor continue today but were halted during the Great Recession in 2008.
The foreclosure crisis that was part of the Great Recession posed serious challenges for Ypsilanti Township. Despite the relative affordability of housing in the township, the recession negatively impacted many neighborhoods and their residents. In a revitalization strategy, the Township worked with Habitat for Humanity of Huron Valley in the neighborhoods of West Willow, Gault Village, and Sugarbrook. These neighborhoods are located in the northeast quadrant of the township, west of Willow Run surrounding I-94.
The closing of the General Motors plant in 2010 marked the end of automobile manufacturing at Willow Run. However, the automotive legacy of the Willow Run plant continues with the operation of the American Center for Mobility (ACM), a testing and product development facility for automobiles including autonomous vehicles. The 335-acre property was purchased in 2016 and opened in 2017.
Although Ypsilanti Township’s manufacturing legacy remained, Ypsilanti Township has become known for outdoor recreation and rural life has emerged. Current residents enjoy spending time in the parks, water activities at Ford Lake, apple picking at local farms and golfing at the township’s multiple golf courses. The Township updated its Master Plan in 2014, placing greater emphasis on the importance of infrastructure for multimodal transportation and participation in multiple jurisdiction plans like ReImagine Washtenaw. Currently the second largest municipality by population in Washtenaw County, Ypsilanti Township is home to thousands of families, welcomes visitors to a wealth of recreation areas annually and is home to cutting-edge automotive technology.