Monday, November 16, 2009

"The Spear Farm" meets "The Great Thumb Fire of 1881"

My father has been gone for more than a year now. Acknowledging that no one lives forever, nine years ago I spent several days interviewing him, mostly interested in hearing about his early life in the 30s, 40s, and 50s.

During that period a major part of his life took place on “The Spear Farm,” a plot of 160 acres a few miles east of Kingston, Michigan on the north side of M46. For most of my childhood this farm was a mystical, almost legendary place; I’d listen intently whenever Dad spoke of life there, what it was like during his boyhood summers working on the farm in the 30s and 40s. To this day that sandy rolling parcel of Michigan’s central “Thumb” region continues to be an important part of the Spear family legacy; even though it was sold off 30 years ago by greedy opportunists in the family, most of them not even Spear’s.

Occasionally I open the transcripted interview, and I did so again about a week ago. Near the beginning of it Dad and I discuss a few memories about the old place where he had been born in a big old feather bed in a downstairs bedroom on May 10, 1928.

Phil....... I remember the area way out in the back...the cedar swamp. It was so spooky...all the skulls, ribs and white bones from the skeletons of all the animals that had been hauled back in there since...when did they start hauling their dead animals in there? From the time the farm first started, right? What year did the farm start?

Dad..... It had to be in the the late 1800's. I remember that it was declared a centennial farm, but I can't remember when. My dad was born in 1897 and he was still a young man when they were still clearing land. They didn't actually buy that place till after the fire of.... 1893... was it?
Phil..... There was a forest fire?

Dad...... Yeah. In the late 1800's a forest fire swept from one side of Michigan all the way across to the other. And all the massive white pine forests just roared with flame.

Phil..... I remember seeing a stump right behind the house (toward the north side) was a huge thing, at least 5, 6 feet across.

Dad..... There was a bigger one, the charred remains of a stump that was so full of pitch, because it was pine, that it never did decay, even after all those years. It was from that big Michigan fire way back in the cedar swamp. It came from the time when there was nothing but giant white pine all across the state

For years I’ve been meaning to research this mysterious forest fire spoken of by my dad in the interview. Other than his occasional mentioning of it over the years, I had never heard of such a thing, even during the four plus years that I’d lived in that state back in the 70s while attending high school. According to family lore carried forward by Dad, the alleged conflagration had apparently ravaged much of Michigan sometime towards the end of the 1800s.

I’ve said this before, but it gets truer every time I say it: the internet is a wonderful thing. My very first search provided two possibilities—the Great Michigan Fire of 1871 and the Thumb Fire of 1881. From my internet reading I ruled out the 1871 event as having been the cause of the blackened stumps on The Spear Farm. Considering the areas affected in both fires I figure that the fire my father must have been referring to was The Great Thumb fire of 1881. Then again, it’s possible that the farm was affected by both, but surely the stumps resulted from that in ’81.

It had been extremely hot and dry toward the end of the summer of that year; in fact newspaper accounts of the fire talk about the extreme drought conditions. Wikipedia sparingly describes the fire, its causes and effects as follows:

Thumb Fire From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The great Thumb Fire took place on September 5, 1881
the Thumb area of Michigan in the United States. The fire, which burned over a million acres in less than a day, was the consequence of drought, hurricane-force winds, heat, the after-effects of the Port Huron Fire of 1871 and the ecological damage wrought by the era's logging techniques.

The blaze, also called the Great Thumb Fire, the Great Forest Fire of 1881 and the Huron Fire, killed 282 people in
Sanilac, Lapeer, Tuscola and Huron counties. The damage estimate was $2,347,000.

The Thumb Fire, which reportedly began in Tuscola County, was allegedly the first natural disaster served by the
American Red Cross.

A more detailed account of The Great Thumb Fire is on this website, titled “The Great Fires of 1871 and 1881.” From this and other sites it’s obvious that it was the 1881 fire that rolled through The Spear Farm and left the ancient blackened pine stumps still in existence a century later. The 1881 fire was no small-scale disaster; indeed, it was one of the first great “natural” calamities ever to befall the United States, although, in reality, its causes were anything but natural. The death and destruction was horrendous, the human interest stories are horrifically spellbinding and heartrending. You can read about them on this site, with excerpts posted by Tim Taugher of the 1881 national newspaper accounts of the time.

In trying to find out if any actual Spears had been much affected by the inferno I became frustrated realizing how little our family knows about the early timeline of The Farm’s developmental period. I suppose not many of the farming Spears ever gave much thought to it; being practical folk, that stuff just wasn’t important to them. In fact it’s only been relatively recent that we began to learn about our ancestry at all, a real shame considering how extraordinary it’s turned out to be thanks to the outstanding efforts of the family genealogist, Ted Spear. Thanks Cousin Ted.

The entrance to The Spear Farm taken from M46. There wasn't much left. The barns and house had long since burned down by arsonists. Only a few collapsing outbuildings remained when this was taken in September 2000.

It was in the late 1840s that the very first land deed ever issued on that particular plot of land was issued to my Great Great Uncle Seth Lount. Seth had volunteered at a very tender age, at only 17 or 18, to fight for his country in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). He survived that adventure and upon his return to Michigan was compensated with the 160 acres that would eventually become The Spear Farm. I suppose it could have been called The Lount Farm, or The Seth Lount Farm; but I doubt that Uncle Seth ever actually worked its land.

In 1849, at the time that Seth took possession of those 160 acres, it was likely still covered thickly with Great Easter White Pines, gigantic trees that grow upwards of 150 feet high and 5 to 6 wide at the base. Fully mature they are towering monsters, the Sequoias of the East. Thousands of square miles of forests of these massive behemoths would block the sun from reaching the ground. In the days before hordes of lumbermen cut them down en masse, walking through those primeval forests would have been a dark, almost menacing experience; nothing at all like the pastoral Michigan that exists today. An irony is that back then, compared to today, settlers would have had a lot less wild game to shoot at; thick lightless forests do not support woodland creatures like turkey and whitetail like the tamer deciduous woodlots and sunny fields of today do.

I remember clearly one large pine tree, still original to the early days of the farmstead. It stood alone and proud in the center of a field at the end of “the lane,” the only reason it was allowed to continue to be there was due to its position exactly in the center of a huge pile of field stones. This cairn was massive in its own right. Over the years, as the stones came to the surface from each season’s plowing and tilling, the Spear boys would carry them to the center of the field and toss them up around the tree. I used to wonder what existed first—that pile of stones or the tree. My money was on the tree. I figured that rather than spend the effort of cutting it down and uprooting it; they opted instead to pile each year’s harvest of stones around it. There is no reason why that amazingly beautiful tree standing atop its mini rock mountain wouldn’t still be there today. I wonder if it is. I hope so.

"The Lane, Sep 2000"

Standing at the entrance of what was once the access road leading into the heart of the Spear Farm.

Anyway, as I said, I doubt that Uncle Seth ever worked the place. Sometime in the late 1850s, when he sold it to his sister and brother-in-law, Uncle Seth was still only in his late 20s and not yet married. The fact that Seth was still single is what tells me that he hadn’t yet tried to cultivate that land located just inside the western border of Sanilac County within shouting distance of Tuscola County. I’m pretty sure it was located in the township of LaMotte. A single man would have been completely overwhelmed by the immense tasks at hand. Settlers attained farmer status only after getting a patch of land cleared of trees and stumps enough to get some seed into the ground; the more people working at getting that done the better. Thus, a primary duty of a farm wife was to produce children to help work the farm—no wife meant no kids, which meant no farmhands to clear fields, plant crops and tend animals.

It was just as well, as his land received for his wartime service became his ticket to adventure. Seth got word from his two brothers out west that gold was to be had; they urged him to join them. Gold fever, once caught, is a powerful thing; so, he unloaded his 160 acres to Mary and Moses Spear, my greatx2 grandparents. Seth used the money to go to California to seek his fortune. Alas, he never returned and he definitely did not make his fortune. (More on Uncle Seth in a future post).

The next question that remains unanswered: Were Grandma Mary and Grandpa Moses the ones to first settle that acreage just inside the Sanilac County line? I’m thinking that they didn’t, since both are buried in Pontiac in the Metropolitan Detroit area.

Pontiac was Mary and Moses’ home for much of their lives. A son, George (my great grandfather), was born to them in their apartment over the Oakland County jail in the county seat of Pontiac in 1850. His birthplace became the source of a lot of family jokes, that according to my dad. At the time of George’s birth, his father, Moses, was the sheriff of Oakland County.

Moses, born in 1807, died in 1890; while Mary, born in 1822, daughter of the Canadian patriot martyr Samuel Lount, died ten years later in 1900. Both Moses and Mary are buried together in Pontiac. That tells me that they probably never made their home up north on the land they bought from Seth; although, I do notice in the family bible that Mary did pass away in Lamotte Township in Sanilac County. From that, it would seem that Mary died on the Spear farm with her son, George, in attendance; or very close to the farm, since I believe that is where it's located.

George, the Spear boy born over the Pontiac jail in 1850, married late in life. In 1893, already middle-aged at 43, he said his “I do’s” to a woman 19 years his junior. That woman was 24 year old Hettie Green, my great grandmother, born in 1869. I believe it was the two of them that finally began the arduous process of clearing land to turn Seth’s original property into a working farm. Chances are either Seth or Moses had already sold off most of the pine to the lumber companies; even so, it would likely have been covered with stumps and unsightly piles of snags and old waste wood, although much of that was likely consumed by the 1881 fire. Much of Michigan was made ugly by the aftermath of the hungry axes and saws of her famous lumberjacks. It was up to the settlers to clean it up and make the newly exposed land suitable to grow crops and raise pasture animals.

George and Hettie’s first child, a boy, was born in 1894; for quite some time after that much of the work must have been done by George alone or with the aid of neighbors and family, or even with Grandma’s help. The boys, along with one girl, kept coming, eight children in all, with the last one, named after his Uncle Seth, arriving in 1910.

Now then, I think I have my answer to the question that started me on this quest for family knowledge, that question being whether or not any Spears were affected by The Great Thumb Fire of 1881. My father’s answer was certainly correct, that his Grandpa George probably didn’t buy the land from his mother until AFTER the fire of 1881, and so, most fortunately, there were no Spears present when that intense firestorm swept across the land that would eventually become The Spear Farm. If there had been Spears present, it’s a certainty that the memory of the event would have been seared into our family lore, but other than those charred ancient white pine stumps, it isn’t—case closed.

And Ted, and any other family members who happen to read this, if you can make this account more detailed and correct, please contact me at my email or comment right here on this post. Thanks!


Ed said...

Excellent post. I always enjoy reading historical posts even if they aren't of my family. Lately as I have undertaken my project to read biographies on our founding fathers and presidents, it has been even better when I can relate the national scene to the local ones.

I still need to set down with a tape recorders someday with my grandfather. The last few times I have talked about the old days and jotted down the stories later in my journal but I would love to have an actual transcript like what you have.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Yes, recording is the way to go; but do it over many sessions. Don't tire him out. Between times he'll remember things that he can talk about next session. The memory is a funny thing...

Kevin said...

And, make BACK UP copies!!!

I did an interview with Fred Bell when I was in high school. He was part of the sit down strike at Fisher One that started the UAW. I am sad that I don't have that cassette tape any more to give to his family (Fred was our Aunt Nan's father) He was a cool guy. It was a great interview which was the basis for an "A" paper in history class.

Dave D said...

Interesting, Thanks Phil. I sometimes wonder about my own families history what there is of it. My Aunt once did an exhaustive search through the Mormon's archives in Salt Lake City, Utah and came up with some strange and interesting things that we were never able to substantiate by any other means and so somewhat question their authenticity.

My families history is also of farmers mainly in Illinois around Peoria are and up around modern day Milwaukee in Wisconsin. But, probably like your ancestors they didn't think much about leaving a written history of the family being too busy just trying to make a living farming.

Evan Spear said...

Hi Phil,

I'm Evan Spear. I am David (Bud) Spear's son. I think that makes you and I 3rd cousins. My dad told me about your blog a while back, and I've really enjoyed reading it. Especially your writing about the farm. I was always fascinated with the farm as well. My memories of it are very similar to yours. I remember the tree, the lane, the swamp.....many of the things that you have written about. I think you're right, there was a mystical quality to the farm.

I really appreciate that you've taken the time to write down some of our history. I'm also happy that there are several in our family who have taken an interest in it, and are helping to keep it alive.

In any case, I was in Michigan over the holidays, and decided to drive out to the farm to see what was left. I was able to walk around the land and take a few pictures. When I got home, I created a google map of the farm and added some pictures I took. I quoted you in some of the descriptions, and actually borrowed a couple of pictures. I hope you don't mind.

Here's a link to the map, I hope you find it interesting: