The ABCs of Lowell History: A is for Alto

The Lowell Area Historical Museum is offering a weekly feature to explore local history. This week, museum staff is telling us about Alto, an unincorporated area south of Lowell that has its own rich history. To learn more about Lowell history, visit the museum website to explore its collection of local artifacts and records.


Alto Michigan is an unincorporated village located along the dividing line between Lowell and Bowne Townships. The land was cleared and a small farming community developed. The Skidmore and McVean families came to the area from New York in 1846. The first post office was started in 1851 in the home of Daniel C. and Lucy (Skidmore) McVean. Daniel was Postmaster. Lucy is given credit for naming the post office and town, Alto. Mail at the time was brought by horseback from Hastings and Lowell.

Alto Depot

The town grew when the railroad came through in 1888. Neighboring small communities not on the railroad route like Merriman Corners and Bowne Center dwindled. The Grange hall from Merriman Corners was moved to Alto and became a general store. A second Grange hall was built in 1909 and still stands in Alto.

After the railroad came, David Skidmore platted some of his land for a town. The area came to life as a result of the railroad. Early businesses included: a creamery, cheese factory, grain elevator, R.J. Linton’s Lumberyard, Slater Stockyard, the pickle factory, Hunt Produce, the depot (first one burned in 1916, and was rebuilt in 1917), baseball team, Standard Oil storage, barber shop, harness shop, beauty shop, grocery, Dintaman Hardware, blacksmith shop, a bank, I.O.O.F. Hall, general store, drug store, meat market and an implement store.

Though the building is gone today, the hotel was famous when Clifford and Greta Proctor were the operators. They drew crowds for their famous chicken dinners.

The Grain Elevator along the railroad tracks was essential to local farmers. John Layer on the left operated this elevator in the 1800s

Alto produced several county and state level political servants. Daniel C. McVean was not only the first Alto Postmaster and Bowne Township Clerk, he was also the County Treasurer at the time of his death. David Skidmore, who served in the 1st MI Engineers & Mechanics during the Civil War, went on to serve as Postmaster, County Drain Commissioner, Highway Commissioner, Township School Inspector and Supervisor. Attorney Charles Foote practiced law in Alto and Belding, served as postmaster and as State Representative (1913 – 1917). More recently, Dick Posthumus served as Lt Governor and State Senator, Lisa Posthumus Lyons, past State Representative now Kent County Clerk, and Bryan Posthumus, State Representative.

The McVean School built by Daniel was moved to Alto, remodeled and reconstructed to two stories. It burned in 1926. A new 3 room school was constructed a year later and was used until the Alto Elementary building across the road was completed in 1962. The older school is now apartment housing.

Built in 1874 by the German Methodists, this building was moved in 1907 from Merriman Corners to become the English-speaking Alto United Methodist Church

Alto has been home to several churches throughout its history. The Baptist Church started in 1854, meeting in homes and the log school in section 5 before building at the corner of Bancroft Ave. and 60th on land donated by David Skidmore. The church was completed in 1879. The Alto Methodist Church was organized in 1907. They bought the Old German Lutheran Church in Merriman Corners and moved the building to Alto. The Faith Bible Church moved into this Methodist building in 2012 when it was vacated by the Methodists when a new church on 64th Street was built. The Methodist Church closed in 2018. The first services of the Apostolic Christian Church in the Alto area were held in the home of the preacher, Samuel Wingeier Jr, at 11432 Kirby Street. This was sometimes known as the Wingeier Church or the Swiss Church because it was not named until the WWII administration required it. In 1921, a frame church was built on Wingeier Avenue and in 1965 it was replaced by a brick church.

Samuel and Lydia Wingeier’s home in Alto was used as the Apostolic Christian Church until 1921

The village doesn’t have its own cemetery, but residents rest either at Merriman Cemetery or Bowne Center Cemetery. Those early residents, Daniel and Lucy McVean, and David and Phidelia Skidmore are buried in the Bowne Center Cemetery. Not having a cemetery didn’t stop the village from honoring their veterans. Lt David Skidmore would be proud of the breathtaking Veterans Memorial.

Many people call Alto home today, including farms, businesses, and industries. Community attractions include the Alto Fall Festival and the pancake breakfast put on by the Alto – Bowne Fire Department.

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