Looking back: Troy Historic Village works to preserve city’s history amid intense development

According to John Lavender, the closest thing to a downtown Troy ever had was Troy Corners.

Troy Corners was the area Johnston Niles decided to settle when he emigrated to the Troy area from New York in the 1820s. By 1840, Troy Corners had its own community of several hundred people, and the Niles family had expanded their home to use more than half of it as an inn. 

Niles dreamed Troy Corners would become a bustling city someday. At one point, there were rumors of a  rail line to be built through it. Troy was not well-watered except for a small headwaters stream along the Rouge River, and the creek was too slow for mill operation. The lack of waterpower hindered rapid development, and the rail line would instead run through Royal Oak and Pontiac instead of Troy, leading potential residents to homestead elsewhere. 

In 2010, the Niles family home was donated to the City of Troy by owner Harriet Barnard on the condition it would be moved to the Troy Historic Village, where it sits today awaiting restoration. 

Known for its many popular chain restaurants and big-box retailers, Somerset Mall,Niles Barnard Home. Courtesy Troy Historical Society and its dense, culturally diverse population, Troy created the village as a haven for historic structures amid intense development. Since the founding of the Troy Historical Society in 1966, Troy has moved eight different structures to its historic village located at Wattles and John R.

When the recession hit in 2007, both the Troy Nature Center and the Troy Historic Village were in danger of being closed, In 2011, the City and the historical society signed a contract to preserve the assets, whereby the city retained ownership of the village and agreed to maintain the buildings, but all staff, programming, and operational support was provided by the Troy Historical Society. 

“There was a question of whether we could pull it off, and we did,” said Lorraine Campbell, former village executive director. She explains that the Society accomplished this only with the dedication and hard work of members who spent a lot of time learning how to run a nonprofit business. “Because the village is program-based, we generate the revenue to keep the buildings running,” she says.

Caswell house move in 1968. Courtesy Troy Historical SocietyAs its grown more diverse, the Society has wrestled with the question of its relevance in a changing environment. They have had to ask themselves tough questions about how to engage newcomers. 

Jen Peters, currently executive director of the village, says thinking of innovative ways to approach Troy’s more recent history from different cultural perspectives has quickly become the focus. “We did a trick-or-treat event last year,” she recalled, “and in one day, I heard five different languages. That immigrant history of Troy is a history we have not patched into very well, and it's something we have to do a better job of and incorporate that story.” 

Many residents in Troy have never heard about the Historic Village, Peters says. 

“We get a lot of comments from visitors who say they’ve lived in Troy for a number of years and didn’t know we were here,” Peters says, adding that the schools have been the most supportive -- close to 30,000 Troy school children, teachers, and chaperones visit the Village each year. 

“But those are the students and not the parents,” she adds. “We have great schools, so we have a lot of families moving here for education, but they’ve only lived here since they’ve had children, so it doesn’t necessarily mean they have a relationship with us.”

A downside of taking historic structures and putting them all in one place on private property, as opposed to being located in a historic downtown district,  is that it creates separation between citizens and the town’s history, according to Lavender, treasurer of the village and longtime historical society member.  

He adds that this results in many city residents not knowing it exists and may even foster an indifference to historic preservation.

But not all of Troy’s historic structures are in the village. Today, the city has twenty-seven historic properties listed as historic districts, which include the entire Troy Historic Village.

But having eleven historic structures in the village means the historical society can maintain the properties more frequently and check on them for possible repairs. Moreover, according to Peters, the historical society has access to its own venue for all its educational purposes and has the freedom to create new programs.

“There are some who don’t care at all,” Lavender says, remembering when the city moved the church and the parsonage from Square Lake and Livernois roads. He stopped at the gas station, and the cashier said the effort was a waste of money and they should have just “smashed the whole thing.” 

People passing through will notice that nineteenth-century historical charm is not part of Troy’s current identity. So now, the historical society is looking to document some of the structures from the 1950s and 1960s. 

Peters says she would like to see the Village conduct classes about preservation one day. Still, in the meantime, the goal is to act as a grounding center for the citizens of Troy, as historic downtowns typically do for other cities. “I would like the Troy Historic Village to become a hub for historic preservation,” she says.

“We have a lot of lessons to learn from history,” says Lavender. “People didn’t have as many things, and most people didn’t move more than sixty miles from where they were born. They were more in tune with conservation because the things that they had were not easily replaced. There is something more meaningful about learning history in the historic buildings. There is a sense of appreciation you can gather from what people went through.”  

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Read more articles by Brianne Turczynski.

Brianne Turczynski holds an MA in education from Oakland University with a concentration in History and English. Her work has been published in the poetry anthology, Sixty-Four Best Poets of 2018 (Black Mountain Press), The 3288 Review, Michigan Out-of-Doors Magazine, and others. Her book, Detroit's Lost Poletown: The Little Neighborhood that Touched a Nation was released with the History Press in 2021. Follow her at @booksandloststories.