Samuel Dexter of Herkimer County, New York, led settlers to present-day Ionia along the banks of the winding Grand River in 1833. The town's commercial area first grew around Dexter's sawmill and other industries powered by the waters of West Creek. With its establishment as the county seat and as the site of a federal land office in the 1830s, Ionia grew quickly. Its buildings rose to the hills. Ionia was incorporated as a village in 1837 and as a city in 1873. The coming of the railroad in 1859 spurred additional growth. Silos mark the railroad tracks that run south of Main Street. Local businessmen John C. Blanchard and Osmond Tower formed the Lansing, Ionia and Pentwater Railroad and facilitated shipment of Ionia's pink sandstone to other areas.
The light yellowish brick walls and the lower portion of the rotunda of the original prison buildings of Michigan State House of Correction and Reformatory remain on W. Main Street. Today Ionia has three prisons. The red brick Ypsilanti Reed Furniture Company factory has been converted to manufacture automobile parts. At Riverside Park on S. Dexter Street are the festive buildings of the Ionia County Fairgrounds, including grandstands with twin cupolas and stuccoed Beaux-Arts classical exhibition buildings with Mission motifs erected in 1915–1929.
The architecture of Ionia is best characterized by its numerous Italianate and Round Arch mode buildings. Many were built of light yellowish brick manufactured at the W. Main Street brickyards of Fred H. Vander Heyden and of yellowish-gray to reddish-brown sandstone extracted locally at the W. K. Woodward and Company quarries, on the south side of the Grand River, 1.5 miles east of Ionia.
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