History of Manistee by Mrs. Edward D. Wheeler

History of  Manistee
Mrs. Edward D. Wheeler

Excerpts from
The Salt City of the Inland Seas
Anniversary Number of the Manistee Daily News
Published  May, 1899

Manistee, situated on the east shore of Lake Michigan, is the county seat of Manistee County, and the only city in the county. Its name is derived from the river which passes through it. The late A.S. WORDSWORTH, formerly assistant superintendent of the Michigan Geological survey, one of the first white men to visit this locality, and a person familiar with the Indians and their language, tells us the word Manistee means "The Spirit of the Woods," and came to be applied to the stream which now bears that name in the following manner: Upon the high lands about the source of the river stood a dense forest of pine and hemlock, and the sighing of the breezes through the trees produced a murmuring sound, which the untutored children of the forest attributed to the "Spirit of the Woods," whom they supposed dwelt about the source of the stream. The Chippewas and portions of the Tawas and Ottawa tribes are said to have inhabited this region when in its primitive state. It is more likely that Father MARQUETTE, in his exploration over 200 years ago, visited this locality, and was doubtless the first white man who ever trod this soil. A mission house is said to have been built here as early as the year 1826, but not until 1830 have we positive proof of the white man's presence.

In 1832 a party of men from Massachusetts are said to have landed here and proceeded up the river. In 1833 Capt. HUMPHREY visited the mouth of the river, and brought machinery for a mill, but the water was so shallow that he abandoned the project and sailed away. During the few succeeding years the present site of Manistee is thought to have been visited by traders only.

Arrival of the Stronachs

In the fall of 1840, John and Joseph STRONACH coasted along the shore in a sail boat, and upon their arrival at the mouth of the Manistee were met by a party of Chippewas, who were inclined to be very friendly. They gave much information in regard to the surrounding country, and finally, guided by a party of Indians, the STRONACHS made explorations, and were so well pleased with the outlook that they decided to locate here, and selected a site for a mill. They returned to the southern part of the state for the winter, however, and the following spring John STRONACH, with his son Adam, chartered a schooner and came here with machinery, supplies, and about 15 men.

They arrived at the mouth of the river on the 16th of April, 1841. From that day dates the first permanent settlement of Manistee County. A large sand bar just outside the mouth of the river made the water too shallow to allow them to enter, and in order to land their cargo they were obliged to construct a raft, and tow in with a yawl boat to and from the vessel until the cargo was unloaded on the site of the STRONACH mill, at what is now known as Old Stronach. A camp was built, a road cut, a dam constructed, and soon a saw mill was ready to operate in the unbroken forest. The first mill within the limits of Manistee City was situated a little north of the present DEMPSEY property, and was built by James and Adam STRONACH in 1841.

Passing of the Red Man

At this period there were about 1,000 Indians here, and while inclined to be friendly, they were rather loath to have the white man encroach upon their domains, despoil their forests and drive away their game, but soon satisfactory arrangements were made and a reservation set aside for them. The government instructed the surveyors to allow them all the land the chief desired, and the territory selected extended six miles north and south and 22 miles east and west, embracing the valley of the Manistee river. During the following seven years a mill was built where the Eureka Lumber Company's mill now stands, and on the point of land just above the Manistee Iron Works. In 1848 John CANFIELD came, remained a few months, and began the construction of a mill at the mouth of the river. The following spring he located here permanently. Business seemed to have a tendency to settle about the mouth of the river and for a number of years the greater part of Manistee was west of what is known as the "big sand hill."

In 1849 the Indian Reservation was taken up by treaty, the land placed on sale, and the tribal relations of the Indians practically broken up, although the Indian settlement on the point of land where the SANDS' mill is now situated, and one near Eastlake, remained for many years after. The last chief of the Chippewas was KAWAXICUM, who at this time was quite aged. He lived about here until a few years ago, and some of you will remember him, wrinkled, feeble, and blind, as he was led about our streets. This was his birthplace, and his entire life had been spent here, as had also his fathers before him. He is said to have been 120 years old at the time of his death, and when his spirit took its flight to the "Happy Hunting Grounds" his few remaining kindred laid his mortal remains to rest in the town of Arcadia.

The First Woman Arrives

At this stage of our history the mills were run night and day. The population consisted almost entirely of men, and the arrival of one of the "gentler sex" was considered a matter of great importance. A pioneer returning from a trip to Chicago brought with him two young ladies. The schooner on which they came anchored outside, as they were obliged to do on account of the sand bar, and the passengers were transferred to a row boat. At the first appearance of the vessel outside all work was suspended at the mouth of the river, the only man remaining at his post being the engineer at the mill. Even the night hands, snugly sleeping in the boarding house, were aroused from their slumbers and apprised of the great event, and notwithstanding they had worked all night, sleep fled - not a man remained in his bed. When the boat touched the landing every one in the little hamlet was there to "feast their eyes" on the newcomers.

In 1852 the population of Manistee County numbered but 200 persons, the only settlements being at the mouth of the river, a little hamlet about each of the mills, and the settlement at Old Stronach. The chief industry was the manufacture of lumber. The sand bar at the mouth of the river retarded business greatly, as it prevented vessels from entering the harbor and necessitated their being loaded by means of rafts, a tedious process. For this reason, in 1854, it was deemed necessary to change the outlet of the river. A ditch was dug across a point of land lying north of the present north pier, and a row of piles was driven across the channel of the stream. By this means the water was forced into a new channel, which was soon cut to sufficient depth to admit of navigation. As tugs were unknown here at that time, vessels were towed up the river by means of oxen, or horses, much after the manner of canal navigation.

Manistee County Organized

In 1855, by the passage of a bill in the Legislature, Manistee County became organized, having the townships of Stronach, Brown and Manistee, and at the first county election 136 votes were cast. At this period there was no mail service; all letters were sent to Grand Haven or Milwaukee and forwarded by the occasional sailing vessel that came to this port. The people here were pioneers in every sense that the word implies, being almost entirely cut off from communication with the outside world.

As there was no one here professionally qualified to look after the physical or spiritual needs of the inhabitants, it became necessary at times for some one to heal the sick, and occasionally assist at the last rites of burial. One of the little band of settlers, fortified with a good sized medicine chest, and a medical work or two, ministered, to the best of his ability, to those afflicted with the various diseases human flesh is heir to, and in the case of emergency is said to have displayed quite a natural talent for surgery, several of those on whom he operated lived years afterward to tell the tale. On one occasion when death invaded the little settlement, and claimed one who had left a notoriously bad life, the hymn selected for use at the burial bore these appropriate words:

"Sister thou wert mild and lovely,
Gentle as the summer breeze,
Pleasant as the air of evening
When it blows among the trees."

(The word brother was substituted for sister, I believe.) The singing was congregational, and as but one person had a book containing the words and written music, it devolved upon him to act as chorister. The hymn was very impressively "lined," but alas! voice culture was not one of the accomplishments of the leader - and he was obliged to whistle the tune in order to get the musical part of the burial services started.

In 1850 the Methodists founded the first Evangelical Church society organized here, but did not have a church until 1863, when they built on First street, between Elm and Spruce. They also have the honor of ringing out upon the Sabbath morning breeze the first church bell ever heard in Manistee. Up to 1860 there had been a steady growth in business and population, but the settlement seemed still to be mostly about the mouth of the river. A trail had been cut along the south bank of the river to the BACHELOR mill, (near the present location of the Manistee Iron Works), and a wagon road on the north, to SMITH's mill, (now the Eureka mill site). There was a small clearing around each of these mills, and a little more than an acre of land cleared and fenced in at the corner of Maple and First streets. What is now the Third ward had been logged but not cleared off.

Early Social Customs

The restraints of law or society were unknown in those early days, and the majority of the men in the  mills, as well as those in the woods, while kind-hearted and generous to a fault in case of accident or disaster of any kind, were of rather a rough type. They labored hard during the six days specified in the Ninth Commandment, but the seventh day with them was usually one of riot instead of rest. On the north side of the river, about opposite the present site of the CANFIELD & WHEELER mill, stood a boarding house, and the ever present saloon was one of its belongings. Sunday morning men would congregate here; a barrel of whisky was rolled out into the sand near the river bank, the head of the barrel was removed, and then began the festivities of the day. Before sundown a score or more were lying about on the ground, wholly oblivious to their surroundings, and many others were in various stages of intoxication. These occasions were especially thrilling in the spring, when the woodsmen first came down from their long winter in the woods. It was not unusual on these hilarious occasions for them to compel some of their number to drink from a dipper made from an old boot, the stiffening at the heel forming the cup and the sole the handle of the article. In case of refusal, the victim had been known to have his head immersed in the barrel. Money went as freely as the liquor they drank, and many a good hearted fellow squandered his entire winter's earnings in less than 24 hours after reaching town. This was also the epoch in Manistee history when a silk hat, or what was termed as a "boiled shirt" were not tolerated. The man appearing on the street with a silk hat was more than likely to have it telescoped over his head, and the unfortunate wearer of the shirt usually had it torn off from him.

During this year the first physician, Dr. L.S. ELLIS, and the first lawyer, T.J. RAMSDELL, arrived. To Mr. RAMSDELL belongs the honor of drawing up the first documents that appear on the records of Manistee county. In 1861 arrangements were made whereby the mail was brought overland from Grand Haven once a week. The Catholics also organized for regular worship, and two years after built their first church, which was on the north side of the river.

Manistee in the Civil War

Manistee's population numbered about 1,000 when the Civil War began yet the first shot, fired at Fort Sumter, thrilled the hearts of her patriotic citizens to the core. Rallies were held in every available place - sometimes on the street corners, the speaker being elevated on the top of a barrel or dry goods box. At these impromptu meetings great loyalty was shown for our glorious union, and her beautiful stars and stripes, then in such peril. It is stated that on one occasion a physician, who was a staunch prohibitionist, mounted a beer barrel in a saloon, and mid fumes of poor tobacco and other obnoxious things, addressed the crowd with very favorable results.

In one day, $7,700 were raised by subscription to pay bounties for the volunteers, and nearly as much more was raised by vote of the town, and many a brave man bade farwell to home and loved ones, shouldered a musket and went to the front. Some returned, many did not. Among the latter was Jas. H. McGINLEY, after whom the Manistee Post of G.A.R. is named. He distinguished himself for bravery in the field, and was presented with the Kearney cross. Another, Adjutant Jacob SEIBERT, who also lost his life in battle, was held in such high esteem for his brave deeds that a fort in front of Petersburg was named in his honor.

In 1862 the Congregational Society was organized and worshiped in a little school house on the northwest corner of First and Spruce streets. A year or so later a generous citizen donated a quantity of cull lumber, which resulted in a "raising bee" on the lot where the old Congregational church now stands. Willing hands soon had the new quarters completed. This edifice was called the "Wigwam." It had posts for a foundation, was roughly boarded on the sides, had neither lath nor plaster, but did have a very free circulation of fresh air. It is said to have taken considerable Christian fortitude to worship in it during the winter months.

The Temperance Crusade

In 1874 we passed through a siege known as the temperance war, and for all that the cause met with great opposition the largest auditorium in the city (the old Congregational church) was densely crowded for thirty-five successive evenings with people who listened with the deepest interest to lectures and enthusiastic speeches, and more than 2,000 persons signed the pledge. Those who opposed this cause, as is always the case, resorted to many petty meannesses such as girdling trees, killing horses, injuring property in various ways, and even threatening life. A plot was laid to cause the explosion of a large can or tank of burning fluid in the home of one of the prime movers in the good cause, and thereby not only destroy his home, but endanger the life of himself and family. An attempt was also made to organize a mob, but they were met as they came down River street by a handful of determined, plucky citizens, who were always equal to any emergency. The ring leaders were conquered and marched to jail, and the unruly element soon subdued. Enthusiasm in the Temperance Crusade ran to such height, that the ladies of the city determined to establish a reading room on River street, which they hoped might attract many who had heretofore been accustomed to spend their leisure hours in the saloons. The result was the building of  Temperance Hall, (now Olympian Club), which was erected in 1874-75, and paid for by the efforts of the women of Manistee.

In 1875, the Catholics abandoned their old church on the north side and built the large brick church on Third street.

Discovery of Rock Salt

In 1878 the Court House was built. In 1870 leading mill owners joined with Chas. RIETZ & Bros. (whom had been drilling for oil), in putting down an experimental salt well, on the RIETZ mill property, and in 1881, after drilling into the earth to a depth of 2,000 feet, a strata of rock-salt 25 feet in thickness was found, which gave assurance that salt could be produced in paying quantities, and added a new business enterprise to our list. It was during this year that a life saving station was established here.

In 1880 came the telephone exchange, with but 29 subscribers. This year, too, the commodious Fourth ward school house was built. In 1881 the Flint & Pere Marquette Railroad Co. extended their road through to this point. We listened eagerly for the first shrill screech of the iron horse, and all rejoiced when Manistee was at last united to the world by rapid transit. It was during this year that the Baptists decided to have a house of worship of their own. They were few in number and had little means to start with, but their pastor did not lack in either determination or skill, and much of the work in their cozy little church was done by their own hands. In 1882 Union hall came to beautify our city, and was dedicated to the cause of the W.C.T.U. The following August it was burned, but at once rebuilt with the same plans. The water company was also incorporated, and in 1883 found us with the Holly system of water works in operation. This year the Scandinavian opera house was built. In 1884 the Methodist and Polish Catholic churches were erected, also the Union school building. In 1886 the Central school building was destroyed by fire but was at once rebuilt on a larger scale. The Unitarians constructed their artistic little church during this year. In 1888 our worthy fire department became possessors of their present quarters; the Guardian Angel church was built, and Uncle Sam gave us free delivery postal service. In 1889 the Episcopal society built their church, and the Manistee & Northeastern railroad came to us, making a connecting link with the north and the east. In 1890 Mercy hospital was built, and Christmas night of the same year our city was for the first time seen under the brilliant rays of electric light.

The Congregational society, having outgrown their old quarters, in 1892 built the new church, and in order to keep pace with the progress of the world, an electric road connecting Eastlake, Filer City and Manistee was given us.

Railway Facilities

Four railroads center here, the M. & N.E., connecting us with the north and east, and the F. & P.M., Manistee & Luther, and Manistee & Grand Rapids with the south and east. There are two telegraph lines, a telephone exchange, which "hellos" through 400 telephones many times each day.  Our water company have 17 miles of water mains. With the completion of the road to the new park on the lake shore, we will have 14 miles of electric street railway. We have 42 miles of streets, 4 1/2 miles of which has a cedar block pavement.

There are three cemeteries where rest in unbroken slumber our city's dead. Of these Oak Grove is the most beautiful spot about our suburbs. Here the soft murmur of lake Michigan is ever heard, as its waves chant a never ending requiem over our departed ones, and the western sun sheds its last rays of glory, as a benediction on this hallowed spot. The hospital, situated on a sightly bluff commanding a beautiful view  of the little lake, is presided over by the Sisters of Mercy. Here in their gentle, patient way, have soothed and ministered to the sufferings of 286 unfortunates during the present year, and many a poor fellow has breathed "God Bless You," for the generous ones who provided this haven of refuge for the sick and afflicted. We have 17 churches of various denominations (12 Orthodox, a Unitarian, an Episcopal, three Catholic) and the Salvation Army.

Hotels and Newspapers

The Dunham House is our largest hotel. There are two daily papers, and seven weeklies, one of these is printed in German and another in the Swedish language. The High School Observer is a bright little magazine published monthly by the pupils of the High School.

Twenty-three lawyers administer the law, 20 doctors and 8 drug stores alleviate our pains and furnish our physic. One drug store does a large wholesaling business. Three stores confine themselves strictly to the sale of dry goods. There is one large wholesale and retail establishment of general merchandise and numerous stock is kept. We have our full quota of groceries, boot and shoe stores, book stores. In fact all branches of business necessary to a place of this size are fully represented. We have a Building & Loan Association, with an authorized capital of $1,000,000. Our electric fire alarm system is excellent, and our efficient fire department never allows a fire to get beyond the building where it originated.

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Manistee County MIGenWeb

Transcribed November 11, 1999
for Manistee County MIGenWeb at Rootsweb.