The History of Genesee County, MI
Chapter IX
Pioneer Agriculture

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Clayton

 

CHAPTER IX.

PIONEER AGRICULTURE.

When the settlement of Genesee county began in earnest, after the day of the red man and the adventurous hunter and trapper, the earliest industry that engaged the white settlers was agriculture. The soil of the county is not unlike that of the "Genesee country' of western New York, whence came so many of the settlers of Genesee county. The surface was then largely covered with timber of various kinds and the soils varied somewhat with the timber. There was some heavily timbered land, especially in the region of Forest township; there were oak openings, burr oak plains, some pine tracts, and numerous spots where the land was treeless and covered with grass suggesting the prairies of the west. The heavily timbered hardwood lands were largely clay. This soil, although as productive as any in the state, was more difficult to clear, and usually cost from ten to fifteen dollars an acre to fit it for cultivation. There was one advantage in timbered land, however, for the settler of small means; after the timber was cut down the soil scarcely required plowing. A drag drawn by one yoke of oxen generally was sufficient to render this highly mellow land ready to receive the seed. The pine lands were somewhat sandy. The white oak openings, which covered a large part of the county, were quite different from the timbered lands. Their surface was covered with a layer of vegetable mould. Marl was generally found under this surface, and limestone, pebbles sand and frequently clay and yellow loam, were found below. This soil was specially favorable to wheat and was among the most valuable wheat lands in the county. It was easy to till and seldom failed to produce a good crop even in the most unfavorable seasons. Oats and corn throve well on it, though it was not go good for hay. The only disadvantage was that the soil, on account of the thick tufts of matted grass, required sometimes four or five yoke of oxen in order to make any headway in breaking it up for the seed. The burr-oak plains presented the appearance of vast cultivated orchards. The soil was somewhat like that of the white-oak openings. It contained a great deal of lime and its great productiveness made it specially prized by the settlers.

In the heavily timbered township the settler's first problem was to clear the land. If he could afford to hire this done he could generally get it for the equivalent of about fifteen dollars an acre. The trees were felled and either were split into rails for fences or logs for the buildings, or were rolled together and burned. Where the timber was light the trees were frequently girdled to let in the sun.

The settlers usually judged the lands of the county by those with which they were familiar. The prime test was its ability to produce wheat, and the frequent verdict respecting the lands of Genesee was that in this respect they were superior to those they had left in New York. The first care of the settler was the immediate needs of his family. Wheat was generally the first crop he sowed, and in quantity limited to the extent of the small clearing in the timber or the amount of land he and his sons could bring under cultivation. Enough potatoes and other vegetables were raised for the family use. Abundant crops usually rewarded those first labors. After a little while they began to haul a surplus to Pontiac or other distant market, though the price received was often scant reward for the labor. Wheat has been, and still is, one of the leading agricultural products of Genesee county, although beans and sugar beets are prominent factors in the list. Wheat harvested in 1840 amounted to 37,399 bushels. In 1910 it reached 278,064 bushels.

The production of hay in Genesee county is conducted on a large scale. At first it was grown only in sufficient quantities for stock. At an early day, however, it began to be produced in excess of stock requirements. The first marketed was sold to lumbermen and brought a considerable revenue. Later it was pressed into bales, first by hand and then by power-presses. The hay product has increased from 1,941 tons to 121,209 tons ion 1910.

Stock, especially sheep and cattle, were raised at an early day. Even the earliest settlers raised some sheep, from whose wool garments were made in the homes by the thrifty housewife and daughters. "Home-spun" was the prevailing style of cloth among the pioneers. A comparatively large number of fine-wooled breeds of sheep were early introduced into Grand Blanc, and a little later into the adjoining towns. In 1852 it was officially reported at the county fair that, "If Genesee county deserves special credit for her production in any one department of stock over others, it was observable in the sheep-pens. It is but a very few years since the fine-wooled varieties were first introduced among us, yet we now find them represented here in a display which would be creditable to much older counties." That year 33,000 pounds of wool were sold at Flint, at twenty-nine cents a pound. On this record an agricultural journal comments, that "wool is commencing to be an article of considerable revenue tot he farmers of Genesee county." The following year, 50,000 pounds were sold in the same market at prices varying from thirty-five to fifty-five cents a pound. These amounts steadily increased with the years. the price also increased under the extraordinary demand created by the Civil War. At one time it exceeded one dollar a pound.

These war prices led to the formations of the Genesee County Sheep Breeders' and Wool-Growers' Association. the meeting to organize was held, may 25, 1865, at the house of Jonathan Dayton in Grand Blanc. A large number of the leading farmers of the county were present. At the same time, there was considered the plan of holding annual sheep-shearing festivals. The plan was adopted, and continued to bring, annually, pleasure and profit for many years. At this meeting Henry W. Wood was chosen to preside; F. H. Rankin was secretary. The report on a plan and constitution, made by D. H. Stone, E. G. Gale, and D. H. Seeley, was adopted. The following officers were chosen: President, H. W. Wood, of Flint City; vice-presidents Emmaus Owen, of Grand Blanc, R. A. Carman, of Flint, and A. P. Gale, of Atlas; secretary, Francis H. Rankin, of Flint; treasurer, D. H. Stone, of Grand Blanc; auditors, Charles Pettis, of Davison, and Henry Schram of Burton; executive committee, C. H. Rockwood, of Genesee, Jonathan Dayton, of Grand Blanc, J. K. Pierson, of Atlas, H. C. Van Tiffin, of Flint, E. G. Gale, of Atlas, E. J. Pierson, of Grand Blanc, and Edmond Perry, of Davison.

For this meeting a sheep-shearing program had been prepared and was greatly enjoyed by all. Many people were present from neighboring counties and some from the state of New York. Among those who took part in the shearing were Josephus Morgan, Joseph Barton, Benjamin Newman and S. Miner, of Grand Blanc; M. F. Dunn and Orson Bingham, of Genesee; William Hawkins, Alfred Ewer and Edward Ewer, of Flint city; J. C. Rockafellow, of Davison; W. H. Borden and Eben Higgins, of Mundy; Levi Beecher and Charles Beecher, of Atlas; William Dullam and Frank Cousins, of Flint township. Some on hundred and fifty sheep were in the yards, but not all were shorn. The judges were as follows: On bucks, J. W. Begole, R. A. Carman; on ewes, David Schram, C. C. Pierson Stephen Jordan; on weighing, Oren Stone; on shearing, J. W. King. C. H. Rockwood, A. S. Donelson. Among owners of sheep whose fleeces were specially commented on, were E. J. Pierson, D. H. Stone, Charles Bates, Gurdon Watrous and J. C. Dayton, of Grand Blanc; H. W. Wood of Flint City; A. P. Gale, of Atlas; P. a. Montgomery, of Burton; Charles Pettis, of David, and C. H. Rockwood, of Genesee. A meeting was held the following year at Flint. Of this meeting Mr. Rankin, the secretary, published in the next issue of his Wolverine citizen the following comment: "There was not an interior sheep upon the grounds and, although in older counties larger exhibitions may have been had, we question if anywhere in this state an equal number of better animals have ever been collected together. * * * * the wool of the fleeces was all of fine texture, good length of staple, pliant and soft, such as any locality might feel proud of producing and such as would be credit to a display of such animals (Merinos) even in those parts of Vermont and New York, where their care and cultivation is made a specialty. The flocks of Messrs. Gale, of Atlas, Dewey, of Mount Morris, Rising & Munger, of Richfield, Stone, of Grand Blanc, Rockwood and Beahan, of Genesee, Pettis, of Davidson, Crasper, of Burton, and others, are destined yet to have a fame in the annals of sheep-husbandry." The following premiums were awarded:

On backs, three years old and over, first premium to E. B. Dewey, of Mount Morris; second premium to E. G. Gale. Of Atlas.

On bucks, two years old, first premium to P. A. Montgomery, of Burton; second premium to William Lobban, of Davison.

On bucks, one year old, first premium to D. H. Stone, of Grand Blanc; second premium to Stone & Dayton, of Grand Blanc.

Judges on above classes, James Faucett, of Beth, Steuben County, New York; Stephen Hillman, of Pontiac, Oakland county, and M. M. Hillman, of Tyron, Livingston county, Michgian.

On ewes, (pen of three), three years old and over, first premium to d. H. Stone, of Grand Blanc; second premium to Rising & Munger, of Richfield.

On ewes, (pen of three), two years old, first premium to Riding & Munger; second premium to E. G. Gale, of Atlas.

Judges on two last-mentioned classes, Henry Scram, of Burton; Stephen Jordan, of Atlas, and Charles Bates, of Grand Blanc.

On ewes, (pens of three), one year old, first premium to D. H. Stone; second premium to P. A. Montgomery, of Burton.

Judges on this class, S. Andrews, Howell; Phineas Thompson, of Grand Blanc, and M. M. Hillman, of Tyrone, Livingston county.

The breeding of sheep still continues to be a leading industry of Genesee county. The flocks of the county have been constantly improved by the importation of approved breeds from the most successful wool-growing states in the country. The present extent of the industry may be judged by the census of 1910 which shows the clip of that year to be 60,304 fleeces, valued at $125,467. Dr. B. F. Miller, of Flint, is known throughout Canada and the United States as one of the best breeders and judges of oxfords, his sheep taking prizes in both countries.

The breeding of cattle for the market came somewhat later then sheep. The cow was an essential support of the pioneer household. Milk, butter and cheese added no small comfort to the settler's table. Gradually, however, the settlers began to raise cattle to sell, and finally for the outside market. The first eastern market was buffalo, new York. The beginning of this trade was when a drove of cattle were driven thither by Porter Hazelton and James Schram, of Flint. The first blooded animals brought into the county were Durhams and Devons; after them, the Aryshires. Jonathan Dayton and Rowland B. Perry were among the first owners of Durhams in the county. The first full-blooded shorthorns were brought into the county by David Halsey, of Grand Blanc. At an early date they were brought into Fenton township, by Elisha Larned, and into Burton by Perus and Adonijah Atherton. These came from the Birney herd at Bay City. the first Herefords were brought to the county by Governor Henry H. Crapo, from Stone's herd at Guelph, Ontario. In later years the Holstein became a favorite and some of the best herds in America were owned in Genesee county, notably those of ex-Congressman D, D, Aitken, W. E. Fellows and J. Ed. Burroughs.

 

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

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