History and Directory of Kent County
1881 - Chapman's
Early History of Oakfield Township
Oakfield, formerly a part of Courtland, lies twenty-one miles northeast of Grand Rapids, having Spencer on the north, Eureka, in Montcalm county, on the east, Grattan on the south, and Courtland on the west.
The first settlement was made within its territory, June 5th, 1838, by Hon. Wm. R. Davis, who located on section 19. There seems to have been no one save himself and family to break the solitude of the wilderness, till June, 1839, when Mr. Isaac Tower, Stephen S. Tower and William Thornton, (ex-Sheriff of Kent county,) with their families, moved in, and become comparatively near neighbors to the hitherto lonely pioneers. Stephen S. Tower and Mr. Thornton locating on section 29, and Mr. Isaac Tower on section 30. There were no more settlements till April, 1842, when Thomas Crinnion located on section 18, and David J. Gilbert on section 19, in September of the same year. In 1844, Sheldon Ashley selected a beautiful home on section 36, and in 1845, three brothers, Harry, Giles and Eric McArthur, located respectively on sections 33, 32 and 34. Morris Hart, section 8; Nathaniel W. Mack, section 12; John Davis, section 32; Levi White, section 21; James Elstley, section 31; William Peterson, section 20, and Benjamin Potter, section 21, may be mentioned as among the settlers of 1846 and 1847.
At one time the town was organized under the name of Wabasis, but by subdivision of the territory, was again incorporated with Courtland, and finally permanently organized under the name of Oakfield, through the influence of Sheldon Ashley, in March, 1849. Its first town meeting was held the first Monday of April, 1849, at a little log school house in district No. 1, on section 29. This was the first school house in the town, but the log cabin was replaced in 1852, by a frame structure thirty-six by twenty-six feet in size. This is the famous No. 1, that has educated, and sent forth more, and better teachers, than any other district school in the county. It is known as the White Swan School. Oakfield has six other district school houses: noteworthy among these is the Horton School House, a large frame edifice, painted white. It was erected in 1868, and is used as a church, as well as for school purposes. It is located on section 17 and 18, just across the road from the Horton Cemetery, beautifully situated on the southwest corner of section 8. There is no Union School in the town; but its educational interests are, and have always been of paramount importance, in the minds of its people. Its first school was organized with but six scholars—all the children then in town and kept in a private house, with Miss Sarah Davis, now Mrs. Almon Thompson of Courtland, as teacher. When a school house was finally erected, Mr. Harry McArthur was installed as teacher, and to his earnest labors many, not only in this town, but in adjacent towns, owe much of their advancement in knowledge.
Religious societies among the people of Oakfield have reached a highly advanced, and truly enviable position, if we may be allowed to judge of moral status by success, and pecuniary prosperity. It has three very fine churches edifices, and all its paces of worship are well attended.
The First Baptist Church of Oakfield, is a fine frame structure, located on section 36. It was built in 1863, and has a fine bell. It cost about $2,200, and the honor of its erection is largely due to Sheldon Ashley, one of the oldest inhabitants of the town.. C. C. Miller is the present pastor.
The Second Baptist Society of Oakfield was organized in April, 1865, with some 40 members, under the ministration of Rev. C. C. Miller, pastor, and Stephen S. Tower, Henry Rich, Thomas Jones, Nathan R. Squires and William R. Jones, Trustees. The house belonging to this Society—the Second Baptist Church, of Oakfield—a fine frame building, dedicated January 14, 1868, stands upon on acre of ground purchased from the farm of Robert Olmsted, in the southeast corner of section 19. It is 36 by 56 feet in size, and has a tower 95 feet in height, which is furnished with a very fine toned bell that cost $400. The whole cost of the church was $4,150, of which the citizens of the City of Grand Rapids generously donated over $500. It has an organ, and an excellent choir under the efficient leadership of Mrs. Samuel Tower. Rev. C. C. Miller, is the pastor.
The Methodist Episcopal Church, of Oakfield, is also a very fine frame building, located on the south line of section 9, one fourth of a mile away from the Second Baptist Church.
The total cost of its erection closely approximated $4,500. It was dedicated April 14, 1869, and is yearly supplied by the circuit with a pastor.
The physical geography of this town presents us with a rolling surface, quite frequently broken with lakes and ponds, with a soil much too sandy in the northern part, but a rich clay loam in the more southern portions, peculiarly adapting it to wheat culture, wool-growing, and dairying, besides the ordinary production of corn, oats, potatoes and buckwheat.
Of wheat, large quantities of excellent quality, annually find their way from this town to the market east and west; and as to wool, Oakfield has some of the best flocks, and carries some of the finest clips to the factories, of any town in the county.
The dairy is receiving more and more attention, and pays exceedingly well, where care and capital are expended.
Horticulture is in its infancy here as in many other towns; but on some farms it has received a share of attention, and the returns in apples, pears, peaches, grapes, cherries, currants and strawberries, show that Oakfield, in fruit raising, may become a peer of her successful sister towns. The timber is mainly oak; but, scattered over the town, there were some fine groves of pine, which are fast being decimated by the lumbermen’s ax and saw.
On section 1 and 2 there is a very fine bed of marl lime, so pure as to be cut from the bed in squares, died and placed immediately in the kiln for burning. To facilitate the mining of this bed, a chain of lakes on section 1, 2 and 11 were drained. Their natural outlet was through Stack’s Lake, which empties into Black Creek; but, by dint of engineering, an outlet was effected into Wab-ah-see Creek, from the head of the Horse Shoe—a large lake on section 2—which is thus rendered nearly dry. Of this marl deposit George and John Banks proprietors.
Besides the above, there are several small lakes that demand but a passing notice. Of such is Scram’s Lake, and Addis’ Lake closely connected with it, lying on section 17, 18 and 19; the Zeigenfuss Lake on sections 11 and 14—the outlet from which forms the north branch of Wab-ah-see Creek; and also a number of little lakes on section 33 and 34, the principal of which is Flat-Iron Lake near the residence of Harry McArthur, Esq. But Long Lake, about one-half mile long, and one-eighth wide, situated on section 34, cannot be thus lightly passed by, for on its frozen surface in March, 1843, occurred the first death among the whites of this township. Orin Gilbert, brother of Rev. D. Gilbert, in endeavoring to reach his brother’s house from Cook’s Corner, was overcome by fatigue and cold, and perished on this lake. Soon after Tahanah, an Indian, in passing on the trail, discovered him lying on the snow. The wily Indian did not approach him, but, after circling several times around the prostrate form to make sure that he was dead, sped away to convey the sad intelligence to his friends. Ever after, the Indian called this "Dead Man’s Lake."
Wab-ah-see, or Wabasis, as the white people call it, is much the largest lake of the town, or even of the county, being two miles long. It has very irregular in shape, but it is said to average nearly one mile width. It has excellent fishing grounds, and at certain seasons of the year—though they are caught at no other time, and even then, are only found in particular places—whitefish are caught in considerable quantities. How they come there no one can tell, and where they disappear to is equally a mystery.
The Wab-ah-see abounds with pickerel, and a gigantic specimen of this variety of fish has frequently been seen by seekers of the finny spoil, so immense in its dimensions as to excite almost as much wonder as the periodical appearing of the fabulous sea-serpent. Wab-ah-see projects into sections 29, 33 and 34, but lies mainly on section 27 and 28. It was named after the Indian chief Wab-ah-see (White Swan), who fell under the displeasure of his people for selling their lands, and also (as they supposed) for secreting and retaining the gold for the purchase. To obtain this, they deferred his death, and banished him to the shores of this beautiful and romantic lake. By some the gold is supposed to be hidden on its shores, and many have sought for it by torchlight and by sunlight, with equal lack of success. Failing to extort money, and maddened by the loss of their hunting grounds, the big chief, Ne-ogg-ah-nah, with almost fiendish subtlety, induced Wab-ah-see to go beyond his limits, and, in a drunken frolic, killed him with a firebrand. His broken skull is now in a museum in Connecticut, having been sent there by Mr. Hall, of Plainfield.
The Oakfield grist mills, containing two run of stones, erected in 1864, is located upon section 15, on Wabasis Creek, the outlet of the lake, which becomes quite a stream, emptying into Flat River in Montcalm county.
The first saw mill in town was built by John Davis, about the year 1846 or 1847. It was located on Beaver Dam Creek, a small stream running into Wab-ah-see Lake. Three times it was swept into ruins by the freshets, and as often repaired, or rebuilt, by the indomitable perseverance of its owner. But at last, patience and capital alike gave out, and a steam mill was erected in its stead. That has since been dismantled, and desolation now reigns where sterling enterprise once presided. No inhabitant of Oakfield and adjacent to towns, who may read these pages, shall be allowed to forget, for lack of a record here, the history of the old mill on Beaver Dam Creek, or the vicissitudes of its cheery and brave-hearted owner, who snapped his fingers in the face of the jade, Fortune, when she made faces at him, and went whistling away to the tune of "Old Ragged," despite all adversity. (The foregoing quaint cognomen will be understood by every old-time business man of Kent County.)
The Lillie Steam Shingle Mill was built in 1861, on section 3. It was burned on the 17th of April, 1868, and rebuilt in the same year. The Addis Shingle and Cider Mills are located on the northwest quarter of section 20, and were built in 1869; John Addis, proprietor. The Oakfield shingle mill is located on Wab-ah-see Creek, adjacent to the grist mill spoken of above. Near these mills a little village, consisting of a store or two, a blacksmith shop, and half a dozen dwellings, has sprung up within a few years. This is the only business center in the town.
FIRST TOWNSHIP OFFICERS
Supervisor—Thomas Spencer. Town Clerk—Harry McArthur. Treasurer—Harry Osgood. Justice of the Peace—Thomas Spencer, Harvey D. Pond, David J. Gilbert, Wm. M. Gould. Constables—Nathan H. Gould, Giles McArthur, William Chapman, Jesse Stewart. Commissioners of Highway—Benjamin Morey, William Peterson, Cyrus B. Thomas. School Inspectors—John Davis, Lafayette Knight. Overseers of the Poor—Sheldon Ashley, Harry Osgood.
PRESENT TOWNSHIP OFFICERS
Supervisor—Wm. R. Davis. Clerk—Azariah V. Rowley. Treasurer—John Ashley. Justice of the Peace—Henry Watson, Oliver R. Lewis, John Ashley, George Cathey. Commissioners of Highway—Henry E. Rowley, Chester A. Lillie, Rufin Caukin. School Inpectors—Wm. H. H. Davis, Henry E. Rowley. Constables—John W. Gildbert, Henry E. Rowley, Edward Jones.
The town has now a population of 1,092. Of the old settlers, and men who took an active part in the organization of the town, Isaac Tower and Morris Hart, are dead; also Thomas Spencer, the first Supervisor of the town, who was torn in pieces by the machinery in a mill, in Montcalm county, in the spring of 1867.
The first marriage in the town was solemnized by Rev. James Ballard, August 2nd, 1840. Bride—Miss Hannah Tower, daughter of Isaac Tower; bridegroom—Zenas G. Winsor, now of Grand Rapids.
The first birth among the whites, was Wm. H. H., son of Wm. R. and Electa M. Davis. Born April 24, 1840.
Among other first things occurring in the town, was the first bear killing, by John, and his brother, Wm. R. Davis, present member of the State Legislature, from the Fourth Representative District, and present nominee for the same position. Returning late one afternoon, in the summer of 1842, from mowing on a marsh on Crinnion Creek, in the north part of the town, William riding a horse, and carrying some game he had caught through the day, John on foot, equipped with a fine rifle, and closely followed by a faithful dog, were surprised and delighted when within two miles of home, by the discovery of a huge black bear. The dog gave instant pursuit, closely followed by the brothers. Frightened by the baying of the dog, the bear was soon treed. The brothers were quickly upon the spot, William, anticipating bruin a speedy victim to his brother unerring aim; but what was their chagrin, on examining the rifle, to find that in the hurry of the pursuit, their last cap had been lost from the gun. Here was a dilemma; but necessity is said to be the mother of invention, and she did not belie her character in this case. The only expedient was to send William one and one half miles away, to Mr. Crinnion’s, the nearest house, for caps, if they could be found, otherwise for fire, while John and the dog kept watch by the bear. Mounting old Dutch, his horse, and furiously flourishing his whip, William was soon lost to sight, returning in a very short time, not with gun and caps, however, but a burning brand from Mrs. Crinnion’s fire place. He found bruin a few rods from where he left him, in another tree, and John and the dog still watching. It was already dusk; what was to be done, must be done speedily. Powder was poured into the tube, and John, a splendid marksman, took aim, while William stood by with a live coal, ready to apply at the word fire, which soon came, William asserts, in a trembling voice, but whether John’s voice trembled, or William’s ears, has not been decided to this day; however, that the sharp crack of the rifle rang through the forest depths, and that the bear lay dead at the foot of the tree, are verities not to be disputed.
David J. Gilbert built the second frame barn and dwelling in the town; Isaac Tower having built a frame barn in 1840, and William Thorton a frame house in 1841. In future time, posterity may open its eyes with wonder, asking "of what, then, were other dwellings made?" and it is therefore well to record that, in the early days. The wood-man’s ax was his only saw mill, and the forest, with its treetops waving many feet aloft in the breezes, his only lumber yard; consequently his house was made of rouge logs rolled one above another, his floor of logs, his roof of pieces of the same, called "shakes," his fire place was composed of sticks and clay; his fire of huge logs stood on end and walked across the floor, a side at a time, and rolled to their place with a hand-spike. The doors were rude oaken planks split from the heart of some huge forest giant, and as for windows—some houses had very small holes in their sides which passed by that name, and some had none.
The only means of transportation, either for business or pleasure, was the lumber wagon, or sled, drawn by the patient ox, whose rate of speed might be three miles an hour in good going; and many a party of pleasure, clad in homespun and homemade garments, and seated on the straw in the bottom of the wagon or sled, as the case might be, has been borne thus slowly over the devious roads leading from one cabin to another, and have found ample time to enjoy themselves by the way, sure of a hearty welcome at the end of their ride, who now live in stately dwellings, dress in costly raiment and ride in fine carriages, after dashing steeds timed to many a mile the hour. But not a whit the lighter are their heart now, than then; fortunate indeed are they, if, in the trails and perplexities of life they have not grown sad. The, men broke ground, and civilization came after. Now, the log cabin is an institution of the past, and the hardship of frontier life, a tale that is told. Now the iron rail pushes its way into distant gorges, and unbroken forests, and on the coming railway train man follows, bringing with him all the comforts and appliances of civilized life.
In these days of easy and speedy transportation and mechanical improvements, teeming fields are won from the wilderness in a few months; palatial residences rise, and cities spring up as if by magic, almost surpassing the fabled oriental stories of the olden time.
The people of this town are noted for industry, sobriety and hospitality. There is but one place in the town where strong drinks are sold.
Oakfield responded nobly to the call for volunteers, in the late rebellion, sending her bravest and her best to the front, and many of her noble boys lie buried in known and unknown graves, in southern soil. Many suffered the untold horrors of southern prisons. Prominent among these was Chyler B. Davis, made prisoner at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863, who endured all forms of hardship, in all the Southern prisons from Belle Isle to Andersonville, for 17 months, when he was paroled, a mere walking skeleton, and finally discharged at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in June, 1865. He recovered, as by a miracle from his long suffering, and starvation, and is now farming in this town.
Transcriber: Barb Jones
Created: 29 Sep 2007