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The incorporated village of Benzonia, Michigan is in Benzie County, south of Crystal Lake, in the northwestern Lower Peninsula.

Benzonia is adjacent to the village of Beulah, to the north, and otherwise surrounded by Benzonia Township. The city of Frankfort and the village of Elberta are about 7.0 to 7.5 miles to the west, the village of Honor is 6.7 miles northeast, and Thompsonville is 12.0 miles southeast of Benzonia. The Betsie River is just south of the village.

The chief route through the village is US-31 and M-115, which run together through the village, and are also known as Michigan Avenue and Benzie Highway. Other routes include Frankfort Highway, Homestead Road (Traverse Avenue), Grace Road, and Love Road.

The European-American settlement of Benzonia and Benzie County began with the 1858 establishment of an educational Christian colony modeled after the one that founded Oberlin, Ohio. Although there were a few white people living in the county prior to that time, its development began with the Benzonia Colony.

The colony was founded by Charles E. Bailey, who had studied theology at Oberlin College. The idea was to establish a colony as well as a college or university on land that was then a wilderness. The college was to be open to students from both sexes, and without regard to race.

Provision was to be made for a church, a parsonage, a common school building, and a cemetery. A tract was set aside for use as a college farm. The land selected for the colony was centered about one mile south and two miles east of where the village of Benzonia now is, although the current site was also under consideration.

Clearing land for construction and the transport of lumber and other building supplies were time-consuming. In the process, members of the colony had to pass over the tract upon which the village now is several times, and the majority became convinced that this would be a better site for the colony than the one previously selected.

By the fall of 1858, some of the buildings were completed, and preparations were made for the colony's families to move in.

Early residents included Mr. and Mrs. Charles E. Bailey, Mr. and Mrs. John Bailey, and the widow of Horace C. Bailey, a co-founder who had died before he could make residence in the colony. Other prominent members were Mr. and Mrs. Horace Burr, Mr. Elijah Burr, Dr. R.A. Severance, and Charles Burr, father of Horace and Elijah. There were three French-Canadian families living in the area at the time, the William Robar, John Greenwood, and Frank Martin families.

In 1859, J.R. Barr and Edward Neil joined the colony, and L.W. Case, Rev. George Thompson, Joseph Carson, William Weston, and a Mr. Riley came in 1860. Others came in 1860 and 1861.

The Herring Creek post office was moved to Benzonia in 1859, the building transported by boat. John Bailey served as the first postmaster in Benzonia. The first few years were difficult, as there were no roads to the community. The mail route was a footpath marked by blazed trees, and the mail was delivered on horseback during the summer, and by sled in the winter, sometimes powered by a horse, and at other times with dogs.

The first district school was opened in 1860. Miss Julia M. Case was the first teacher, and classes were held in a section of the John Bailey residence. Soon afterward, a log cabin was built to serve as a schoolhouse and church.

The Congregational Church at Benzonia was organized in June of 1860, with Charles Bailey serving as pastor. The Rev. Bailey established the first store in 1862, and it became known as Bailey & Metcalf, which was later changed to C.E. Bailey & Company. A second store was opened on the east side of the creek by W.S. Hubbell in 1867.

In December of 1862, a college charter was obtained, and a board of trustees was appointed in June of 1863, with Dr. Walker as president. College sessions began on July 1 in a room of the home of Mrs. C.T. Carrier, with thirteen students. Construction of a college chapel began in the fall of 1863, although it wasn't completed until the fall of 1869. That building burned in 1874, and the college purchased a three-story building, that John Bailey had built as a hotel, to be used as a college.

The college was known as Grand Traverse College and renamed Benzonia College in 1891, the year that Benzonia was incorporated as a village. In 1900, the college became Benzonia Academy, functioning until its closure in 1918.

The Civil War historian, Bruce Catton, grew up in Benzonia, as his father was an instructor at Benzonia Academy. His book, Waiting for the Morning Train, documented his childhood in Benzonia.

Benzonia's population has remained relatively stable throughout its history. In 1900, there were 484 people in the village. Its peak population was 623 in 1930, and its current population is approximately 500.

 

 

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