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Then and Now: Ortonville at a Glance

By Michael Olrich

Amos Orton and his family established Ortonville in the free soil of Michigan after an arduous journey from New York. Little did he know that his small settlement would remain a prosperous pillar community in the area nearly seven generations later. The technological advances that have been made the world over have irreversibly altered our way of life in Ortonville. So much so that, in some ways, the Village is nearly unrecognizable from its humble origins as a few small buildings nestled in the thick wood of 1848.

One of the first things that Amos Orton built upon Ortonville’s founding was a saw mill. In the following years, he constructed a blacksmith shop and a flour mill (the latter of which would become the Old Mill Museum). Along with being used for the production of their respective commodities, these businesses served a secondary purpose to attract settlers. Similarly, present-day establishments such as Escamilla Amigos, Papa Bella’s Pizza, Hamilton’s Feed Store, and other local businesses help to attract people to the Village and ensure that the economy thrives. By providing the town with a healthy flow of capital, these businesses have allowed the town to prosper for nearly two centuries, and is sure to support countless more.

However, life in the mid-19th century was not without its hardships. Medical attention was typically administered by local doctors with limited supplies, and the speed of the most common forms of transportation made it unrealistic to travel to the larger medical institutions found in more populous locales. Furthermore, the practice of medicine was poorly understood, which unfortunately had a noticeable effect on the community. In 1848, an estimated 280 out of every 1000 children born would not see their first birthday, and life expectancy was estimated to be as low as 21. Amos Orton himself lost his firstborn shortly after conception, most likely due to an intestinal illness such as cholera or dysentery. Such diseases were often a death sentence because of the lack of treatment available for those affected. Today, the expectancy at birth is around 77 years. Such a large difference can be owed to the huge developments in biomedical sciences throughout the past century.

The scientific progress exhibited throughout the medical industry makes it evident that communication is an integral part of any society. It was no less essential in Amos’s time. In fact, it was so indispensable that the very first post office was established in Amos Orton’s own home in 1856. At that time, mail was sent by horse, covering 100 miles over a 24 hour period. Modern technology has revolutionised communication. Email enables instantaneous communication of messages that would have otherwise taken months to send. Thanks to transportation technology like cars and planes, even physical mail can be shipped ten times faster than in 1848. While it would have taken the Pony Express about 10 days to travel coast to coast, priority mail sent from the same location could arrive at its destination under 24 hours.

From the founding of Ortonville to its 175th year celebration, our small town has seen many transformations, survived so much change, and has always adapted to overcome the odds and become the place we live in today. Once a hodge-podge of buildings, now the focal point of a successful, flourishing community, one can only imagine what the future has in store for our little Ortonville. 

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