What is now Otsego County got its start in 1840 when the area was still attached to Mackinac County. It was originally named Okkuddo which was an Indian word meaning sickly or stomach pains. Luckily, the name was changed by the Michigan Legislature in 1843 to Otsego meaning "Clear Water" or the "Meeting Place". On March 12, 1875, the County of Otsego was organized with Otsego Lake Village as the temporary County Seat. Two years later, a vote was taken and the County Seat was moved to Gaylord.
Not much was happening in our area until after the Civil War. There is some mention of Native Americans from communities on the Great Lakes visiting during the summer, but no evidence of permanent settlements has been found. There really wasn't anything to draw people here and it would have been a nearly impossible journey had they tried.
Timber Industry Leads to Growth
That would change in the last half of the nineteenth century. After the close of the Civil War, the enormous supply of white pine in the Muskegon and Saginaw River valleys was being exhausted. Lumber operators began to search for new areas of standing timber in order to perpetuate their very profitable businesses. Northern Michigan was the prime target. There were few settlements in the interior of the state's lower peninsula. The area lacked rivers large enough for floating the logs in large quantities. Railroads would be needed to transport the timber and so they began to push northward into the center of the state.
The U.S. government encouraged veterans of the Civil War to settle in this new frontier. The Homestead Act of 1862 gave free land (160 acres) to Civil War veterans and 80 acres to non-veterans. They had to live on their free land for five years and improve it which usually meant clearing the timber. The Swamp Land Act offered land at very low prices - between $1 and $1.50 an acre. After all of the trees were harvested, lumber companies would frequently offer settlers the barren land for free. The majority of the people who were attracted to move to the area came from the eastern United States, Europe, and Canada.
The first people moved into Otsego County in 1868 for the purpose of lumbering but were unsuccessful. However, the next year, 1869, Charles Brink with a crew of fourteen men established a successful lumbering operation.
White pine - also was known as cork pine - lured people into early Otsego County. The finest of the white pine was found in great supply in the Otsego Lake area and was sought by the loggers. Otsego County was also known for its fine hardwood and was later the natural resource for companies such as the Gaylord branch of the Dayton Last Block Works which made bowling pins and shoe last blocks. At one time, it was the largest manufacturer of its kind in the world.
Population Centers Today
In 1872, Otsego Lake Village was started southeast of Otsego Lake by the lumber firm Smith, Kelly, and Dwight. Early settlements which continue to be population centers today include:
- Waters (first named Bradford Lake), 1876
- Elmira (first named Windsor), 1877
- Vanderbilt, 1875
- Johannesburg, 1901
- Gaylord (first named Barnes), 1873
Other towns in Otsego County such as Quick, Hallock, Salling, Logan, Klingensmith, Arthurville, Sparr, Brown's Dale, Cornwell, and Berryville sprung up as the lumbering and farming advanced. As could be expected, when the lumbering died out these towns also disappeared and became what is known as ghost towns.
Otsego County Population 1900 - 2020
Looking at the county's population trend in the above chart shows the greatest growth occurred in the past 40 years. From 1900 to 1960, the number of people living in Otsego County remained flat and actually decreased from 1910 to 1930. This decline coincides with the completion of harvesting the county's timber combined with the difficult financial times experienced by area farmers. Things begin to change dramatically in the 1960s. Two primary reasons for the growth spurt may be accounted to the construction of I-75 and urban flight of the turbulent 1960s. Seasonal residents were retiring and converting their cottages into permanent homes.
Recruiting More Businesses
It was also during this time period that the Gaylord Industrial Development Corporation was formed to actively recruit businesses to Otsego County. U.S. Plywood (later Georgia-Pacific) opened a particleboard manufacturing plant in 1965. Oil and gas exploration would also soon play a major role in the local economy.
Other early manufacturers made wagons and sleighs using local lumber. For a short time, from 1910 to 1913, the Gaylord Motor Company (GMC) manufactured a total of 350 automobiles. Later industries which are still here today include Standard Products and H&H Tube.
Agriculture also has been important to Otsego County - potatoes being the leading crop. In the 1930s or 40s, Elmira was the Seed Potato Capital of Michigan. Beef cattle and dairy farming were the main types of animals raised here in the mid 20th Century. In fact, the largest beef sale east of the Mississippi River was held at the Northern Michigan Beef Breeder Association's auction in Gaylord on October 10, 1963.
Tourism has been a key part of the local economy since the early 1900s. The many lakes and rivers provide for fishing and other recreation throughout the year. An abundance of snow in the winter combined with hilly terrain made the area known as the Ski Capital of Michigan. Today, golf and snowmobiling are popular tourist attractions.
Townships & Year Incorporated
- Bagley, 1882
- Charlton, 1875
- Chester, 1888
- Corwith, 1877
- Dover, 1879
- Elmira, 1875
- Hayes, 1877
- Livingston, 1875
- Otsego Lake, 1875
- Sawyer, No longer exists - Estimated 1923 and consolidated with Charlton in 1934.
Prior to 1972, Michigan counties were governed by a Board of Supervisors made up of the Supervisors for each township located in Otsego County. The Board of Supervisors was replaced with the current model of County Board of Commissioners each elected from their own district which boundaries are established after each U.S. Census.