~ Rockford Michigan Centennial Celebration Program ~
Reminiscences of Laphamville, Now Rockford
By Embree B. Lapham
July 4, 1939
Two years after Michigan emerged from the territorial government and became a state in A. D. 1837, Laphamville, now Rockford, was born. The exact hour is not certainly known but it surely was in the year 1839 which makes the city one hundred years old and entitled to be honored by the Centennial event now being planned for it by civic organizations and loyal citizens all eager to make it an outstanding success.
These events occurred eleven or twelve years before I was born. My father, Smith Lapham, came here in 1839 looking for a location for a home and future activities. He was impressed with the surrounding and the advantages of water and. mill privileges and later moved' his family from Saline, Michigan to make a permanent home. There were but five or six pioneer settlers in the near vicinity, one of whom was Merlin Hunter. Others were Wm. Hicks John Long, Morgan Allen, Daniel Barber, Russell L. Blakely, Wm. Turner, Samuel Gross and Dewitt Bailey.
My father purchased about forty acres of land which is now the foundation of the present Rockford and began the construction of a dam across the river and built a saw mill which in those days would turn out about five or six thousand feet of lumber a day with the old upright saw which it was often said of that it would "go up one day and down the next," however it served the purpose and many of early day settlers found it convenient to get a load of lumber or slabs to build their houses and barns and shacks. Later a grist mill was built with water power from the race or canal to turn the stones for grinding wheat, corn, oats and buckwheat which the early farmers appreciated very much.
Following these activities population increased, new business projects were launched and social and religious organizations were formed.
Algoma township which includes Rockford in its environs, named to honor the first steamboat which plied Grand River from Grand Rapids to Plainfield, "the Algoma" came into being.
The necessity for a Post Office became urgent and the Departrnent at Washington gave its approval to the petition and it was named Laphamville with Smith Lapham designated; as postmaster.
March 19, 1850 was a red letter day for me for that was the date according to th e record in the old family Bible, that I was born. Dr. Russell L. Blakely was present at the ceremony and when I came to the years of understanding while talking with him about it he verified the record.
My mother was Katherine Gilbert, sister of David J. Gilbert, pioneer farmer and Methodist preacher of Oakfield. Father and she were married in the state of New York later coming, to Saline, Michigan for a few years residence before settling here. The Lapham children were Harriet Lapham who married Isaac Baker, father of the late Eugene Baker, Amy Ann who married Edward L. Piper, Stafford Lapham who died in 1853, Darius, George Gilbert, and E. B. Lodis, A. Miner, Josephine Collins and Blanche Taylor. All have passed on. The last to go was Mrs. Piper who died at my home fifteen years ago at the age of ninety-four. She and her husband were long time residents of Rockford. She was the first teacher in a small one room school house built of coarse lumber on the present site of the P. M. Station. Stafford Lapham was appointed postmaster after father resigned the office and served until his death. The office was in what was called the Men's Room of our house. I well remember the old desk with a top containing pigeon holes for papers and letters. Occasionally the mail would be brought up from Grand Rapids to Plainfield where the river boat, Algoma, would leave it and from there it would be brought to our office. Many times father would go on foot and bring the mail home in his pocket. Finally a route was established from Plainfield to Greenville with once a week delivery and Cyril Leach, who lived on the farm which Herbert Stacey now owns, carried it on horse back for several years. Letter postage in those days was five, six and ten cents and early settlers didn't write or receive many. There was no congestion of mail either and people who received a letter once or twice a month would consider himself well served. Courtland Center and Podunk were on the Greenville route and I have seen mail pouches delivered there so thin they looked as though an elephant had stepped on them, containing less than a half dozen letters and frequently none. The contrast between this age, when we get stacks of mail and parcel post two or three times a day and can hardly wait to have it delivered to our homes is great.
The Old school house where I learned my A.B.C.'s more than 80 years ago, built on the old site, holds many fond memories and recollections of boyhood days. It was the meeting house for religious services, funerals, debating societies, political meetings, spelling schools and Christmas tree exhibitions. Helen Warner, sister of the late Francis Haner, was one of my teachers. Ed Skinner and Frank Prescott were seat mates and back of us sat Chas. F. Sears, T. U. Barker, Chas. N. Hyde, Lewis Wilkinson, J. M. Spore and Charley Skellenger and many other friends of those good old days.
I recall the first piece I spoke at a Christmas tree exhibition in the Samuel Squires machine shop which was located on the corner of the Methodist church property and later purchased by the church, now a portion of its present fine house of worship. I was seven years old, the piece, "Twas the Night Before Christmas" which I had memorized and can repeat it yet.
It is a long stretch from the old school house with its pine benches, crude seats and slate and pencils to the present up-to-date one with all modern equipment, but the old one with its three R's - reading, 'riting and 'ritimetic laid the foundation good and strong upon which has been built the new. It is also a long stretch from the tallow candle age which I remember well as the only light we had for kitchen, parlor, bedroom, church or dance hall, to the present electric lighting system, but those crude necessities were the fore-runners to the demands for something better. "Necessity - the Mother of Invention" stepped in and pressed the button for the wonderful things we are now enjoying.
After the saw mill was built and in operation, I remember of making frequent trips on horse back with my father when he was buying up log and shingle timber along Rouge river to be sawed at the mill. I was born in the first farm house built by an uncle, Franklin Gilbert, for my father directly across the street where the new post office is located. Later he built a large house on the post office site which was converted into the Lapham Hotel in 1869. This was burned in the big fire and in 1880. I built the second Lapham House on the same site after operating the Stinson House then located on the corner of Man and Courtland streets also burned in the fire.
The lumbering, rafting and log running days when Rouge river was utilized every Spring and Summer for moving that product was profitable, interesting and exciting. Cutting lumber and shingles here and at
Jericho and Gibralter first and second dams below Laphamville gave employment to many boys who were just getting a start in life. I pushed logs and rode rafts down Rouge river to Plainfield and down Grand River to Grand Haven and like the thrill of it very much with a crew of men for whom I served as assistant cook. I was then 16 years old.
William Thornton had built and operated a machine shop taking water from the race to turn the wheels of the second industry established here. The upper floor was used as a carpenter shop and the making of the early day coffins. Another saw mill was built by George French and James F. Judson on the west side of the river dam all of which together with the bridge near the gristmill were washed away when the dam went out and spring floods about sixty years ago.
Indians were numerous in my early boyhood days and frequently a dozen or more with their ponys, the men riding and the squaws with papooses on their backs walking, would come into the village selling baskets moccasins and maple sugar or trading them for bread flour and groceries. I had my first thrill and liking for Indian girls when one of them gave me a pair of moccasins beaded and striped with porcupine quills.
When Laphamville changed its name to Rockford among the business places were John J. Ely, dry goods; Robert Carlyle, groceries: Niel McMillan, druggist, Stocum & Sears, general store; George T. Saunders, clothing and general stock; David Welbrook, meat market; Charles E. Thornton, Hardware; Christopher Post, Saloon; Henry Beamer, saloon; Wm. Danforth, saloon; George Sage, groceries; James Travis, livery stable; Spore & Lapham, book store; T. D. Inman, harness shop; Lewis H. Wilkinson and H. N. Stinson, hotels; Leander Finley, barber; Chas. E. Blakely, druggist; Aaron B. Gates, groceries and Jackson Coon, boots and shoes.
A person in the sere and yellow leaf of age often gets a lot of pleasure in harking back to youthful days and middle age with its changing scenes of turbulence and happiness and the ups and downs in business adventure. Rouge river at Laphamville ever since I can remember has held a warm spot in my heart and the old dam which father built to confine the waters for a mill pond together with the small cluster of houses which were built on both sides of the river as new settlers came to live, make homes, and work in the place, brings to my mind the poets version of "How Dear to My Heart Are the Scenes of My Childhood When Fond Recollections Present Them to View." I took a good many involuntary duckings in the river and pond and it is the greatest wonder in the world that I live to tell of it and the near tragedy which might have happened when I would skip from log to log and from rafts to timber booms up the river as far as Tuttle's bridge or down to the Jericho and Giberaltor dams. Such fellows as Charley Thorton, Dell Tower, John Tuttle, Charly Hyde, Orr Wilkinson, Bert and Fred Coon, Frank Prescott, Fred Hovey, Ed Skinner, Jerome Duffy, Millard and Arthur Pickett were my chums in those days. We knew every deep hole and shallow ripples in the streams where we fished for shiners, bass, pickerel and bullheads.
Winfield Pickett, my cousin: brother of Arthur Picket one day we were playing on the log boom when he fell in and was drowned. The body was recovered by Alexander Keech and Ed McCrory, father of the late Wm. McCrory. Later another boy, Fremont Johnson, son of Joseph Johnson, was drowned. He had a brother named Dayton, the boys were named in honor of the candidates for president and vice president Fremont and Dayton. Fremont and Dayton streets in Rockford were named in honor of those distinguished men of early political history.
Many of the older citizens will remember Dr. Blakeley with his saddle bag, medicine ease and horse drawn buckboard which he used in making calls in the sparsely settled community. I regarded him very highly. The old time doctor was a wonderful asset to the community in pioneer days and I recall with pleasant memories some who practiced and were residents of Laphamville, Dr. Holden, Dr. D. W. C. Burch, Dr. Benjamin F. Babcock, Dr. Austin and Dr. Sarber.
Perhaps it might be interesting to know how the name came to be changed from Laphamville to Rockford. It was during or immediately following the Civil War and about the time the Grand Rapids and Indiana railroad was being pushed through to northern Michigan. The matter of a name for the station was being discussed and considered and it was thought by some of the officials that a shorter name would be better. Also it was suggested that the name of the Post office which had operated under the original name for forty years should be changed to correspond. The matter was under discussion throughout the village for some time. Several names were suggested. Some of the older citizens wanted to leave off the "ville" and make it Lapham. Finally a public meeting was called and the old school house was crowded. Several names were discussed and Volney Powell who had recently taken the pastorate of the Baptist Church coming from Rockford, Illinois, presented the name and made a flowery speech. The vote which followed passed by a small majority. Letters came to Laphamville post office how ever several years after the change.
In the Civil War days and the events leading up to the fierce struggle to preserve the Union the Village was loyal to the north and against secession, although there were a number of hot-headed men who were favorable to the south and bitter in their denunciation of the "black abolitionists" of the Republican party as they called them which frequently led to fistic incounters. When I was a kid of ten years, I saw a number of fights, knock downs and bloody noses over the political issues of that time.
When the south fired on Fort Sumter, the north was ablaze with resentment. The call to arms struck the village and immediately its quota was filled for the defense of an undivided nation. Among those who were first to enlist were Albert L. Pickett, Charles F. Sears, Thomas N. Barker, Truman Colby, Don J. Leathers, Albert Underhill, Thomas Fenton, J. B. Richards, Christopher Skinner, George G. Lapham, Asa Gilbert, Ralph Depew, Ed Morris, O. G. Fullington, Joseph Johnson, Charles Jaqua, Oliver Kingin, Whig Rector, Ezra Chaffee and many others all of whom are now sleeping in the silent city of the dead having played their part nobly in all the battle of life.
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Twenty years ago I was called on to be toastmaster at one of your Alumni banquets. I remember closing my address on the spirit of progress as the kind that succeeds and I am pleased to note that this spirit is found in the business men and officials of my old home town to such an extent that already success is being written on every hand and I want to take this opportunity of congratulating you on your efforts along this line. The world today has no place for the pessimist, it is the optimistic man, the individual of broad vision, the person whose faith is anchored to the religious precepts of Christianity who is needed for leadership. The man who can go through life meeting its obstructions, its rebuffs and its reverses with a smile rather than a frown. Your Churches, your schools, your fraternal orders, are potential assets in civic activities and reflect a religious atmosphere plus the Christian way of living that cannot fail to make fine citizens. All lines of activity, industrial or professional, the trader, the farmer, the educator, the student, should each carry his christianity, his religion, the Christ life, the golden rule into all his business and make it one of the potential features of dealing with his fellow man.
Transcriber: Jennifer Godwin
Created: 4 February 2000