Norman Little was very big in Saginaw history; some historians rated him the biggest civic leader and community builder of them all—a man who shrugged off disappointments and kept plugging until he triumphed.
Triumph he did and mightily.
Consider: He built up Saginaw City, now Saginaw’s west side, then crossed the river and started another city in marshy, bayou-bound East Saginaw. He opened Saginaw to the outside world by having a plank road built to Flint, constructed the first school building on the east side, started Saginaw’s first newspaper, helped organize three different churches, was one of the men who founded the salt industry here, opened the first bank in Saginaw and brought the first steamboat up the Saginaw River. Little also built Saginaw City’s first big hotel, helped establish Saginaw’s first public library, and was the first village president in East Saginaw. He did all this in a comparatively short life of 53 years. Historians have said he was a genius at organization and promotion.
Norman Little was friendly, likeable, courageous and physically strong. His face was framed by a beard which ran down the sides of his cheeks to end in a bold and bushy goatee.
Born in Livingston County, New York, March 21, 1806, Little was only 16 years old when he came to the Saginaw Valley with his father in 1822. Saginaw then was only a wilderness-enclosed trading post with a few buildings huddled about the military stronghold of Fort Saginaw. It was surrounded by forests, swamps, Indians and wild animals.
Little’s father was a physician who liked what he saw in the primitive Saginaw Valley. This was an era of land speculation in America, and Dr. Little thought he saw money and opportunity here for the taking. In 1823 Dr. Little and young Norman returned to New York. Unable to forget the challenge of the forest-clad Saginaw and what he thought its potential, Norman Little returned to the Saginaw settlement when he was 29.
Norman, a persuasive talker, interested three wealthy New Yorkers to back him in attempting to upbuild the settlement of Saginaw beyond its primitive state. Little chartered a small, 16-foot steamboat, the Governor Marcy, and took a party of prospectors over the Great Lakes to Saginaw. The Marcy was the first steamboat to chuff part of the course of the Saginaw River. The steamboat made regular trips from Buffalo to Saginaw for two years after that.
With some difficulty, Little obtained from the state legislature a charter to build a plank road from East Saginaw to Flint. The 32-mile road was hewn through the forests and opened in 1851. As a result, a post office was opened in East Saginaw and regular stage coach service was begun between this town and Flint.
The Irving House, a large three-story wood frame hotel was built at the southeast corner of Genesee and Water. East Saginaw boomed. A sawmill, flour mill, warehouse and dock were built and ships began to make East Saginaw a port of call. In 1852, with the town growing apace and residents badly in need of a school, Little agreed to build one at a cost of $2,500. It was a big, square two-story building, known as the Academy, on the southwest corner of Jefferson and Hoyt, later site of the former Hoyt School. Jesse Hoyt and Curt Emerson donated the land. It also was used for a town hall and for church services.
When East Saginaw was incorporated in 1855 as a village, Little was chosen the first president.
Norman Little believed in religion and encouraged its development. In 1838, while a resident of Saginaw City, he was one of the organizers of the First Presbyterian Church, Saginaw’s first church. In 1852 Little was a founder and trustee of the first east side church-now the Jefferson Avenue Methodist Church. In 1857 he was an organizer and trustee of the First Congregational Church. Little and associates were responsible for early development of Saginaw City. They bought most of the choice, centrally located land for $55,000 and began selling lots. They profited and attracted almost 1,000 people to the backwoods town. Little started a bank, the Saginaw City Bank, and began printing paper money. The printing press, first in Saginaw, he had brought from New York. With it, in 1836 he printed Saginaw’s first newspaper, the Saginaw Journal, which didn’t last long.
Norman Little and associates in 1838 built a big hotel, the Webster House, at what is now the corner of Michigan and Cleveland. In its day it was one of the finest in Michigan. Little planned and started construction of a canal from Saginaw to Grand Rapids. It would have made Saginaw a major port with easy access to Chicago. However, in 1837 America was seized by a financial panic. The canal was never finished. The Saginaw City Bank was wiped out. Land buying slowed to a trickle. Little and companions came upon hard times. About washed up on the west side of the river in Saginaw City, Little turned to the east side, then a wooded, watery waste. He interested Jesse M. Hoyt, eastern financier, and his son, Jesse Hoyt, in helping him develop a city on the east side of the Saginaw River.
Little picked the site. He platted a town and gave most of the downtown area streets the names they bear today. Then he started a program of improvements, promotion and advertising. Years before, Little had foreseen that the Saginaw River, with its vast system of tributaries, would feed pine logs in the Saginaws. Little also thought that East Saginaw, with a vigorous and growing population—and some big money behind it put up by businessmen with brains and enterprise—could prosper most. He was right.
Norman Little doughtily went ahead with plans for his new town on the east side when jeers from the Saginaw Cityians across the river were raucous and lasting. But Little lived to see the fruits of his own success and vision.
Norman Little drowned in the Saginaw River November 8, 1859. Presumably an accident, there are no details how it happened.