The History of Genesee County, MI
Chapter XIII
Business Development

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Clayton


In the first years of the city, covering the administration of Mayors Decker, page, Henderson and Fenton, its growth was severely handicapped by the general financial stringency. M. S. Elmore writes of this crisis:

Recalling the difficulties and embarrassments, as well as the expedients resorted to to secure business, or to meet the exigencies of trade and of credits, I am sure the business men of the past two or three decades can have but very imperfect conception of business methods during the years immediately preceding the War of the Rebellion. Money was so scarce, it might be said there was next to none. Barter, "dicker' characterized the style of trade and traffic between the merchant and his customers. Butter, eggs, pelts and shingles represented the currency of exchange. The few banks, anywhere, issuing bills which would be accepted as currency in exchange for goods or labor, were wholly inadequate to supply the needs of even the limited business of the time. The money of only one or two banks in Michigan was regarded a at all safe to handle. Bills of a very few banks in Wisconsin were taken at a discount. I co not recall any bank in Chicago, or indeed in the state of Illinois, whose issue was considered safe to touch. Two or three banks in Ohio, and here and there one in the state of new York, would be accepted; but none from any state, except, perhaps, notes of the Michigan State Bank of Detroit were thought safe to held over night, so that, before time for bank to close, Austin Witherbee was very sure to receive a call from such of the patrons of "Exchange Bank" as found bills on any banks in their tills at that hour. These were deposited with the understanding that you would be credited the amount received on them.

The great scarcity of silver, for change, was likewise embarrassing, and an annoyance at this time. Spanish silver, which had been a common currency for years, from the Spanish dollar to the six-pence, half-dollar, quarters and shillings, had been mostly bought up for manufacturing purpose and American coin was very scarce. (It will be remembered this was "befo' the wa'"). A makeshift expedient was hit upon, adopted by a new merchants--the writer being one--to issue small "shin plaster" currency, made payable at "Exchange Bank," in which money was deposited to redeem them, and these were accepted as money in business, appreciably relieving the inconvenience and shortage. Specimens of these little substitutes for Uncle Sam's money are yet in existence. The government later issued the "shin plaster" currency, which filled a long-felt want, specimens of which may likewise be found among the curios of collectors. The breaking out of the war and the necessity for money for the "boys" relieved none too soon the stringency all felt, and the boys in blue soon began to help out the old folks at home with Uncle Sam's greenbacks, spending them meanwhile freely for their own needs, or indulgence, and so soon changed the financial condition of the whole northern section of the country.


Flint's vital connections with the outside world have been made almost wholly within the period of her city's growth. Telegraphic communications are first opened in December, 1858, by a line from Flint to Fentonville, connecting with the Detroit & Milwaukee railroad. The work was done by William W. True and the first operator at Flint was Miles d. McAlester, a graduate of West Point, who afterwards gained distinction as major of United States Engineers, and brevet brigadier-general United States army.

The first locomotive reached the city over the line of the Flint & Pere Marquette railway from the north, December 8, 1862. This event was celebrated amidst general rejoicing and a grand banquet held at the Carlton House. The work upon the Flint & Holly railroad was commenced in the summer of 1863 and, by the untiring energy of Governor Crapo, president to the company, seconded by the leading business men of Flint, it was graded, tied, ironed and made ready for the rolling-stock in about eighteen months. the trip of the first locomotive, the "City of Flint," over it, November, 1864, was the occasion of great rejoicing, as it was the first outlet southward.

In 1871 a road extending from Port Huron to Flint was completed, as the Port Huron & Lake Michigan railroad. In 1877 the Chicago & Northeastern railroad, extending from Flint to Lansing, was placed in running order. These two roads were then consolidated as part of the line of the Chicago & Lake Huron railroad, and continued as such until the purchase of the Chicago & Northeastern by Vanderbilt.

The new impulse given to the city by these new avenues of communication was felt especially by the industries of lumbering and manufacturing.

The Crapo lumber mill, established in the city by Henry H. Crapo in 1856, in the seventies reached a capacity of twenty million feet of lumber per annum. Only second were the McFarlan mills, established in 1850, which cut eleven million feet a year. The mills of Begole, Fox & Company, built in 1865, put out a large product. Jerome Eddy's mills, established in 1868, cut ten million feet a year. The saw-mill made a natural demand for the planing-mill. Among these mills was Newall & Company's planing mill, built in 1855. Another was established in 1867 by Beardslee, Gillies & Company, whose predicts found a market in New York, Ohio, Massachusetts and Connecticut. Hiram Smith's mills made a specialty of handling hardwood. Stave and shingle-mills followed up in the slashings, Decker & Haskell's stave-mill, which had its origin in 1870, was devoted entirely to the manufacture of staves and headings. W. B. Pellett's factory, established in 1874, was one among many which manufactured sash, doors and blinds.

The flour-mill was not behind the lumber-mill in feeling this added impulse. The old Thread mills continued under a succession of owners far into this period, manufacturing in the seventies one hundred barrels of flour a day, much of which found its way to the East. Patterson & Carman's flour mill, started in 1877, made sixty barrels a day. In 1879 the Flint mills had an aggregate capacity of sixty thousand barrels of flour annually.

Among other industries which were started before the eighties under the stimulating influences were the Flint chemical works, the Genesee iron works, the flint paper mills, Castree & Odell's agricultural implement shop, Patterson's carriage factory, Alexander's carding-mill, and Stone's woolen-mills. The city of Flint Gas-Light Company, organized in 1870 by James B. Walker, Josiah W. Begole, William M. Fenton and Jesse B. Atwood, began supplying gas to the city in 1871. In the first year there were ninety consumers, using about two million nine hundred thousand cubic feet of illuminating gas. By 1880 the company had laid seven miles of pipe and supplied gas to two hundred and sixty consumers.

The educational interests of the people were not lost sight of in this rapid advance in the pursuit of things material. Schools, which had been early established, kept pace with the increased school population. A union school building has been completed in 1846 and, though in 1855 the union system was threatened with abandonment, the academic course continued to be taught and to gain in public favor. In 1869 rate-bills were abolished and a free public school became a reality. In 1875 the present high-school building was completed and opened, under the charge of Professor Crissey. A call of eight graduated from the high school at the close of the first school year, 1875076; with three years this number of raised to twenty-one. Besides the high school, there was a school house in each of the four city wards at this time, with a total enrollment including the high school of one thousand eight hundred and thirty-seven pupils. In addition, the city contained the state institution for educating the deaf, dumb, and the blind, established properly in 1857 under the principalship of B. M. Fay. In 1879 it had an attendance of two hundred and fifty pupils.

The spirit fostered by the successful pursuit of worldly goods might be supposed to have been no light strain upon the habits of the people respecting the development of character and the observance of religious worship. Yet Flint in this period witnessed a wholesome progress along all lines of moral and spiritual endeavor.


History of Genesee County, Michigan, Her People, Industries and Institutions
by Edwin O. Wood, LL.D, President Michigan Historical Commission, 1916

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Deb

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