The Mania of Speculation -- Fictitious Values -- Wild-cat Money -- Hard Times -- Ruin of the Banks -- A Bleak and Dreary Winter -- The Hard Flour -- A Welcome Spring -- More Emigrants
In 1836 the mania of speculation, which pervaded all Michigan, found many enthusiastic votaries in the town of Kent. Lots were held at almost as high prices as they will today. If a man bought a piece of land for $100, he at once set his price at $1,000, and confidently awaited a purchaser. The currency was inflated and “wild-cat money” in superabundance supported these fictitious values. Everybody got largely in debt, and for the time being, became intoxicated with a fiction, but all lived to repent their extravagance, long and bitterly.
We have no space here to give a list of the emigrants of 1836, but among the most important were Hon. John Ball, William A. Richmond, John W. Pierce, P. Tracy, E.W. Barnes, Isaac Turner, A.B. Turner, George C. Nelson, James M. Nelson, Warren C. Mills, George Young, Robert Hilton, B. Stocking, Abram Randall, T. H. Lyon, William Haldane, L.M. Page, C.H. Taylor, Jacob Barnes, William Morman, David Burnett, K.S. Pettibone, E. Davis, Samuel Howland, J.M. Smith, H. Green, Geo. Coggeshall, J.J. Watson, Geo. Martin, Myron Hinsdill, Stephen Hinsdill, Hiram Hinsdill, and Harry Eaton. Mr. Eaton in 1840, was elected Sheriff of the county.
The parts acted by these several gentlemen in building up the city may be briefly summed up as follows:
Hon. John Ball came here to speculate in lands, and although having been educated as a lawyer, has since devoted more of his time to real estate business than to the practice of law. He took A.D. Rathbun into partnership in 1840, who continued in the same relation for about one year. In 1844, S.L. Withey became his partner, and the firm was then known as Ball & Withey. Afterwards George Martin became a partner, and the firm was Ball, Martin & Withey. Again, it was Ball, Withey & Sargeant and it is now Ball & McKee. Mr. Ball has taken an active part in the affairs of the town and city since his first residence here. In 1838 he represented this district in the State legislature, and was an able member of that body. He has also been honorably identified with the public schools of Grand Rapids, and has, in every instance acted for the best interests of the growing city.
Myron Hinsdill erected the National Hotel in 1836, which soon after went into the hands of Canton Smith, and was successfully conducted by him for several years.
John W. Pierce, the pioneer dry goods man of Kent, came to Grand Rapids with Judge Almy, and assisted that gentleman in surveying a portion of the city. He erected a dwelling on Ottawa street in 1842, and resided in it until 1870, when he removed to his new and elegant residence on the corner of Bronson and Kent streets, having occupied his old mansion for nearly twenty-seven years. Mr. Pierce was among that number who, in the growth of Kent, and by his great perseverance, energy and integrity, he has accumulated considerable wealth for himself, and added not a little to the growth and development of the city. On his arrival in Grand Rapids there were only thirteen frame buildings in the town; and his book store was the first one established in Michigan outside of Detroit.
John J. Watson came from Detroit, and in 1836 erected a very large store-house. It was afterwards moved up the river, and became a part of Hon. W.D. Foster’s old wooden store.
George Martin, previously mentioned among 1836 settlers, was a graduate of Middlebury College, Vt. He was, for a number of years, County and Circuit Judge of this county, and at the time of his death, was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Michigan.
In 1836 Richard Godfroy built the first steamboat on Grand River, and called it the “Gov. Mason.” The first boat, however, other than the bateaux of the traders, was a pole boat called the “Young Napoleon,” constructed for Mr. Campau by Lyman Gray. The “Gov. Mason” was commanded by Captain Stoddard. It was wrecked off the mouth of the Muskegon River in 1838.
In our list of the pioneers of 1836 we have mentioned Judge Almy. He was a civil engineer and practical surveyor of considerable eminence, and was in charge, in 1837-8, of the Grand and Kalamazoo rivers; was a member of the State Legislature, and one of the County Judges. He was a lawyer by profession, but did not, for some reason, practice any after coming to Michigan.
George Coggeshall came from Wilmington, N.C., with his family and invested his means in Kent Property. He erected a frame house on the corner of Bridge and Kent streets, and proved a valuable citizen of the town.
Among the pioneers of 1837 were I.V. Harris, Rev. James Ballard, Leonard Covell, G.M. McGray, William A. Lyon, L.R. Atwater, William I. Blakely, A. Dikeman, H.K. Rose, John F. Godfroy, Gains S. Deane, Henry Deane, C.P. Calkins and Col. S. F. Butler.
The first bank established in the town was the Grand River Bank, Established in 1837. Judge Almy was its first President, and Hon. Lucius Lyon cashier. It existed two years, and finally went down under the weight of hard times and left its notes a complete loss in the hands of the unfortunate holders.
The People’s Bank was started in the same year under the management of George Coggeshall, with Louis Campau as President and Simeon Johnson as cashier. This institution failed to comply with the State laws and was soon wound up, Hon. John Ball being appointed receiver.
For two or three years succeeding this the town of Kent was one of the “bluest” places in all Michigan. Times were hard beyond all description. Lots of real estate that has sold for $1,000 a year or six months previous would not bring $100 now. Indeed, they were hardly with the taxes and in some instances lots were sacrificed to accomplish this and this only. Nearly all the mechanics who had been attracted here by the rapid growth of the place were thrown out of employment and left in disgust. Everybody became disheartened, and during the winter of 1837-8 nearly all would have left could they have sold their property for a quarter of its value.
It was during this winter that the supplies became short. A schooner, loaded with flour and bound for the Grand River, was caught in a storm at the head of Lake Michigan, and leaked so badly that all her cargo became wet. However after a long and dangerous voyage she arrived at the mouth of Grand River and her cargo of flour was brought up the river to the town of Kent. When the barrels were opened the flour was found to have been wet, and in consequence it was caked so hard as to require an axe or hatchet to break it. This was the only flour that could be obtained during the long winter, and even this was sold as high was twenty-two dollars a barrel. Before it could be made into bread it was pounded up like so much plaster, and after being powdered fine, was quite novel in appearance, having adopted the color of lake water, instead of that of pure flour. The bread produced from it was eaten because there was no choice in the matter, except to eat it or none.
The winter was, indeed a hard one. Sickness prevailed largely, and hunger and distress was shockingly abundant. The Indians, who had been accustomed to receive food and clothing from the whites, were now left to their own resources, and many of them perished during the long cold winter. It was not much better among the white population. The winter was endured, not enjoyed; and when the genial spring of ’38 drew near, its warmth was greeted with peculiar gratitude by the half-perishing settlers of Grand Rapids. But as soon as navigation opened the supplies increased and times were slightly improved.
Among the settlers of this year I will mention W. D. Roberts, John T. Holmes, Amos Roberts, C.W. Taylor, Erastus Clark, J.T. Finney and Solomon Withey and his sons.
I should have mentioned that the Bridge Street House was erected in 1837, and opened by John Thompson; subsequently it was kept by Solomon Withey, who was succeeded by W. A. Tryon and T. H. Lyon.Document Source: Tuttle, Charles R., History of Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids: Tuttle & Cooney, 1874.