Milan's Multinamed Origins are a Tale of Trails, Trade, and Tradition


Initially, the settlement that would become Milan had no official name, which led to a lively debate among the early settlers and townfathers, each championing their preferred moniker for the burgeoning community at the crossroads of culture and commerce.

In her book Milan, Martha Churchill tells us Milan was founded in 1831 by John Marvin at the intersection of two Native American trails. One would become known as “Plank Road” and Milan’s Main Street. The other would be renamed to “Wabash Street.” Marvin constructed a federal tollbooth at the crossroads to collect money to pay for the planks used for Plank Road.

Bethuel Hack and Harmon Allen joined Marvin in the area that same year. Although these three men and their families are credited as the “nucleus for present-day Milan,” none were interested in starting a town. But more people were drawn to the crossroads anyway. As past president of the Milan Area Historical Society, Warren Hale puts it, “the village simply ‘happened.’”

One of the settlement’s enterprising members, Henry Tolan, built a potash factory, a drug store, and a hotel. The place was dubbed “Tolanville” after him. Less than two years later, by spring 1833, enough people had settled here to justify a post office. The U.S. Postmaster General appointed Hack as the first postmaster. He designated the post office “Farmersville,” reflecting the community’s primary industry. A year later, David Woodard took over as postmaster and promptly redesignated the post office as “Woodard Mills,” perhaps, as Hale suggests, to get free advertising for his flour mill.

Three years, three names for the burgeoning settlement, and mind you, it would be another fifty-one years before it was incorporated in 1885 as a village. During all this placemaking confusion, many people simply opted to call the place “Milan” after the township.

In her Monroe County history blog, Kathy Warren tells us that Milan Township got its name from early French settlers who saw an opportunity to harvest the bountiful wild grapes growing along the township’s river and press them into wine. (Side note: Raisin is the French word for grape, which is how the Raisin River came to be named.) Warren writes, “These French entrepreneurs named their new township Milan after the Italian city of Milan, hoping to establish a tradition similar to the Italian wine-making reputation.”

Hale writes, “Thus evolved the unique situation of our town having four names at the same time, FARMERSVILLE, WOODARD MILLS, TOLANVILLE and MILAN. Needless to say, a considerable problem was encountered relative to the efficient delivery of mail.”

Hale goes on to explain that the Postmaster General tried to end the confusion by designating the post office as “Milan,” but the old names persisted. When Milan was officially established as a village in 1885, the matter was settled once and for all.


Churchill, Martha A. Milan (Images of America). Arcadia Publishing Inc.

Romig, Walter, L.H.D. Michigan Place Names. Wayne State University Press.

Hale, Warren. Milan Area Historical Society.

Warnes, Kathy.

Photo by Doug Marrin

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