FROM THE ARCHIVES: Little known place names in Greenville

From the Archives | Sandy Main

Local author and historian Robertson M. Augustine was knowledgeable about the history of the Greenville area. His books included “Indians, Saw Mills, and Danes: The Early History of the Flat River Area of Michigan” and “Kau-Bau-Gwas-Shee: A Flat River Story.” He was a member of the Flat River Historical Society and served as its president.

Augustine often fielded questions about Greenville history. One such query prompted him to write this article for The Daily News in 1973.

“Every community has in its history some little known place names and Greenville is no exception. The writer had a telephone call the other night from a newcomer to the city who was inquiring about ‘Piety Hill,’ where it was and how it got its name. To older residents, this is common knowledge but two those who have come in more recent years this intriguing appellation fosters curiosity.

“‘Piety Hill’ has been a geographic identity in Greenville for many years. It does not now have the physical elevation that it once had but the social distinction for those who live on it has not lessened.

“The hill is a long glacial moraine ridge, running east and west from the river bank to Macomber Street and from High Street to and including both sides of South Street. Much of the original elevation has been removed by grading and filling, and the filling in the deep gully on the north side of the hill has made it less noticeable.

“This was first known as High Hill and from this High Street got its name. Many years ago a woman who considered herself very pious and was a religious fanatic wanted to give the area in which she lived, High Hill, a kind of distinction and got other women in her neighborhood to join her in speaking of it as ‘Piety Hill,’ and that it what it has been called ever since.

“One can only imagine the fun that the frequenters of the town’s saloons (or, as the Piety Hill women called them, ‘the rum holes’) had with the name. At that time there was a very active temperance movement among the women, especially those who lived on Piety Hill.

“Lafayette Street then ended at Oak Street because the deep ravine and high hill prevented its extension farther south. The City Council had a foot bridge built across the gully. It had railings that became a delight for small by acrobats for walking feats. The gully became one of the growing city’s trash and junk depositories and a fire that started in the refuse once set fire to and nearly destroyed the trestle bridge.

“Later, another ‘cat walk’ was constructed farther west, from Piety Hill to the high school grounds, also with railings, and it is prominent in the memories of older residents. This was also used by the businessmen on Piety Hill for walking to their stores and offices.

“The same ravine, or gully, became known as the ‘Valley of Humiliation.’ It was wild and unkempt and also was a dumping ground. No one seemed to know who really owned it, generally thinking it was city property.

“The minister of a very small church and known to be very poor, desired to clean up the unsightly mess and use the ground for a garden and melon patch. He was told to go ahead and use it, which he did for several years.

“Then the true owner made himself known and asked rent for its use. The amount, he said, would be a dollar a year. The minister finally got the rent money, handed it over and got a receipt. The owner then handed the money to the minister’s wife, who had seen few dollars of her own. Her husband felt quite humiliated and from then on the garden was in the ‘Valley of Humiliation.’

“Later the property was purchased by Dr. Duncan Black, a local physician who was serving on the school board, and he had the ravine filled in and leveled and presented it to the high school for a football field, the present Black Field. There were some who had thought the Valley of Humiliation was so named from a defeat of the Greenville team by Belding!

“Evidence of the deep gully below Piety Hill may be seen by the grade level of the apartment houses on the east side of Lafayette, even though that portion has been partially filled in. Older residents of the city could, no doubt, add much to the Piety Hill story, but this article shows what interesting stories may be found by even shallow local historical excavation.”

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