Wexford County History
Nature has been very good to Wexford County. Early settlers found among its many remarkable hills, numerous wetlands, a few lakes, many streams, a large river, soils to support thick stands of towering white pines, and a variety of interesting hardwoods. These features helped keep early Wexford County an “untamed wilderness” while surrounding areas were being populated.
As construction of the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad approached the southeast corner of the County in fall 1871, drought-caused fires ravaged many cities throughout the Midwest, including Chicago, and Michigan timber processing centers in East Saginaw, Holland, and Manistee. That destruction led to reduced production capacity while increasing the need for construction lumber and other wood products. Thus, the village of Clam Lake bolstered by the timely rail service was nicely positioned to cut down the trees, transport the timber to the mills, and manufacture the wood products that were needed by the growing populations residing in fire-damaged areas and communities with expanding immigrant populations.
At that time, the small settlement of Sherman in the northwest corner of Wexford County, near the Manistee River, was in the early stages of timber harvest. Scattered about the County were a few settlers, mostly Civil War veterans, who homesteaded on government allocated lots of between 40 and 160 acres. Many of those lots were later forfeited, however, as the new residents were unable to meet the conditions of the homesteading legislation. Later, those returned lands became a major component of the Huron – Manistee National Forest.
Once rail transport was available to move the logs to the mills and the products to the buyers, Wexford County experienced a rapid population growth and quickly became an important timber harvest and processing center. Immigrants from Sweden, Ireland, Britain, Finland, Canada, and elsewhere poured into the area and contributed immeasurably to the county’s successful growth.
Following is a brief historical chronology of the events, people, and conditions of those early years. Although every reasonable attempt was made to validate the information, gaps in the literature and inconsistencies among reports, made the task difficult. These descriptions should, nonetheless, give the reader a general idea of how early Wexford County developed rapidly from an “untamed wilderness” into a thriving and pleasant place to live, work, and enjoy.
Cadillac Evening News: The Clarke Historical Library of Central Michigan University has microfilmed and digitized two important editions of the Evening News (now the Cadillac News) and entered them onto their Website. Those newspapers document important elements of the Cadillac area’s colorful history from 1871 to 1971. The first was the Cadillac Evening News 50-Year Anniversary Historical edition (96 pages) published in June 1951. The second was the Evening News 100-Year Centennial edition (116 pages) published in June 1971. An annotated 2,500-item index is included on the site. Also included is a single issue of the Wexford County Pioneer published in Sherman on July 9, 1879. Encapsulated copies of the two Evening News editions with an annotated index are available for public viewing at the Cadillac Wexford Public Library.
That site can be reached at http://condor.cmich.edu/ . On that page click on “Browse Newspapers in Condor.”
Following the Glacial Age which ended about 14,000 thousand years ago, groups of indigenous peoples took up residence throughout the area that is now Michigan. Known as Mound Builders, they buried their dead under large earthen mounds. Wexford County burial sites of Mound Builders have been found between lakes Cadillac and Mitchell and in the current Kenwood Park area. Mounds have also been found near Boon and elsewhere in the county. Many of the deceased Mound Builders have since been moved to Native American burial grounds.
Historians have written that the "warlike" Chippewa, the "peaceful and intelligent" Ottawa, and the "fire keeping" Potawatomi, all of the large Algonquin Nation, were the predominate tribes of Wexford and surrounding counties. Because of limited cropland and the prevalence of large trees that blocked sunlight needed for a forest undergrowth to support small animals, berries, and other food sources, it is unlikely that there were long-term Native American settlements in Wexford County. Interestingly, Chief Pontiac’s father was an Ottawa and his mother a Chippewa.
Michigan was admitted into the Union as a free state. Michigan got its name from the Chippewa tribe of the Algonquin word "Meicigama," meaning "great water," or, "Michi-gama" meaning "large lake."
1830's to 1860's
Prior to the 1860's, the area that was to become Wexford County was included at different times as a part of Michilimackinac, Mackinac, Ottawa, Grand Traverse, and Manistee, counties. Until 1843, the Wexford County area was known as Kautawabet Territory, a Potawatami word that has been translated as "broken tooth" or "land of water." (It has also been written that the word had no meaning.) In 1843, the name was changed to Wexford.
Perry Hannah, of Traverse City, was the first Caucasian to walk from his hometown to Grand Rapids. He described his January walk through Wexford County as "the most tedious journey I ever experienced." He made his way over "shin tangle," a six foot hemlock shrub that collapsed under the weight of the snow making any transport extremely difficult. The county was once described as an "untamable wilderness filled with wolves, swamps, and steep hills."
Sherman, located in the northwest section of Wexford County near the Manistee River, was first settled in the early 1860's. A store was opened in 1867. The community was platted in 1869 and became an incorporated as a village in 1887. It was dis-incorporated in the 1920's. Sherman was the Wexford County seat from 1869 to 1881 when it was transferred to Manton.
The first European-descendent settler in the county was Benjamin W. Hall who, in 1862, built his cabin at the Manistee River in Hanover Township near the present village of Sherman.
Howard Aaron Baker, born on July 29, 1864 in Mesick, was considered to be the first Caucasian born in Wexford County. Mesick, located on a 160 acre former homestead plot, was not platted until 1890.
Born in New York State in 1840, Wheeler moved to Wexford and homesteaded in Hanover Township, October 1865. He soon built his home and sawmill, which were the first two frame-built structures in Wexford County. He built most of the original commercial buildings in Sherman, as well as Wexford County’s first courthouse. After holding several political positions, including serving as the County’s first treasurer, he engaged in buying and selling timberlands. He wrote a comprehensive book, "History of Wexford County, Michigan," 1903, 559 pp. (Paper and Internet.)
On March 30, Wexford was granted separation from Manistee County and organized as an independent county. The state legislature divided Wexford into four townships (Colfax, Hanover, Springville, and Wexford) and attached Missaukee County for municipal and judicial purposes.
As Wexford was organized as a county, ninety percent of its population resided within ten miles of Sherman. Nearly all of those residents were originally from New York state.
Missaukee County, which had been a part of Wexford County since 1869, was organized as a separate county by the Michigan legislature. Lake City, on the shore of Muskrat Lake (Lake Missaukee,) became the county seat.
Early in 1871, land was cleared and a few businesses opened up to get ready for the railroad worker camps that would be established on the eastern shore of Little Clam Lake (Lake Cadillac.)
October, 1871 saw one of the worst fire periods in the Great Lakes area history. In Michigan fires destroyed or seriously damaged several communities including Manistee, Port Huron, Holland, East Saginaw, and several villages in Sanilac, Huron, and Tuscola counties. It was the month of the Chicago fire that killed 250 persons and burned 17,450 structures. The Great Peshtigo fire that took the lives of between 1,200 and 2,000 Wisconsin residents also took place at that time..
Born in New York State in 1824, George Mitchell, a Civil War veteran and a "land looker" from Indiana, arrived on the eastern shore of Little Clam Lake (Now Lake Cadillac) to establish what was to become a highly successful timber harvesting and processing company. As a younger brother of a family that had considerable influence over the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad operation, he convinced the company to redirect their railroad route from between the lakes to near the east shore of Little Clam Lake. He purchased the land and established the village of Clam Lake. He designed the street system, set aside land for schools, churches, parks, and served Clam Lake as its first mayor. This unselfish, highly community spirited founder of Cadillac died on August 8, 1878, from a carriage accident. His death was a terrible blow to the residents of Cadillac.
The Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad arrived in Clam Lake in late 1871. The first Grand Rapids and Indiana (G. R. & I.) passenger train arrived in Clam Lake on January 8, 1872.
The Clam Lake House was erected as a shelter for G. R. & I. Railroad construction crews. Located near Little Clam Lake between Cass and Chapin streets, the crude facility later became a hotel for new arrivals to the settlement.
The second village in the county was platted in July. The community experienced a population explosion as it began and continued its rapid development as a major timber harvesting and processing center.
Dr. Leeson was the area's first doctor / druggist. Originally from England, he arrived in Clam Lake after some time in Ontario and Manistee. While in Cadillac, Dr. Leeson created and distributed throughout the US and the world, a concoction labeled Tiger Oil, a "medicine that can cure all diseases." Wexford County's first doctor was John Perry who settled in Antioch Township in 1863. Until 1883 there were no state certification requirements for doctoring.
The Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad reached Manton in 1872 and by late 1873 several businesses and a school were established in the community.
The harvesting of the white pines began and several timber processing mills were built mostly along the eastern shore of Little Clam Lake. The area quickly became a major player in both the harvesting of timber and the conversion of the wood into a wide variety of both white pine and later hardwood products.
The Mason House, completed in early 1872, was located on Lake Street south of Pine Street. The structure included a second level with a small room for George and Mrs. Mitchell.
Born in Huron County, Ohio, he arrived in Haring Township to establish a mill, a general store, and a logging operation. In 1877 he built his first steam powered, gear driven locomotive designed to travel on 26" (gauge) wooden or iron rails. His invention revolutionized timber harvesting as the Shay locomotive replaced horses and could pull several rail cars of logs over difficult terrain of steep hills and sharp turns. After several locomotives were made in Cadillac, the manufacture of the locomotives was moved to Lima, Ohio. Shay retired in Harbor Springs.
George Mitchell had a canal constructed at the narrowest point between the two lakes. He took advantage of the lake's current direction and the common westerly winds to float logs from the shores of both lakes to his mills. The natural waterway, the Black Creek (River,) located a few hundred yards north of the canal and west of Kenwood Park, was too small to be used for log transport. The primary source of water was the wetlands on the west end of Big Clam Lake (Lake Mitchell) and the outlet was the Clam River at the Northeast corner of Little Clam Lake. When the Clam Lake Canal was first opened, the surface level of Big Clam Lake dropped two feet while Little Clam Lake rose about two feet.
Born in Hillsdale, Michigan in 1854, George Mitchell’s nephew, William, came to Clam Lake after two years of study at Hillsdale College. Soon after starting his career as a tallyman (counter,) he became manager of a small mill. After his uncle’s untimely death in 1878, William took on and handled very well the managerial and expansion responsibilities of the Mitchell enterprise centered on the southeast shore of Little Clam Lake. The Mitchell operation reached vast areas of timber harvesting in the northwest section of Northern Michigan. Mitchell continued the caring and generous community commitment launched by his uncle.
Born in Ohio in 1828, Jonathon A. Cobbs came to Clam Lake as an experienced lumberman having owned sawmills in Indiana. Besides his knowledge of the business he brought his unbridled energy that made him an early and important partner of the wide-ranging Mitchell enterprises. During the early 1890’s, Cobbs’ deteriorating health led him to turn his responsibilities over to his son, Frank J. Cobbs. The elder Cobbs died in September 1898.
Clam Lake was temporarily incorporated as a village on April 15 under the State of Michigan laws of that time. Because of some questionable procedures, the State Supreme Court delayed the official incorporation until 1875. J. Shackleton was selected as president of the village board.
Located on the corner of Mason and Shelby streets, the home was built for his soon-to-be-married daughter. When she and her husband decided to live elsewhere, the Mitchells inhabited the home until George's death. It was purchased by the Cummers and later returned to the Mitchell family.
Born in Toronto in 1823, Jacob Cummer came to Michigan in 1860, residing in Newago, Cedar Springs, and Morley before arriving in Clam Lake in 1876. With his son, Wellington, he began his huge enterprise by securing cutting rights throughout the area to provide timber for his mill built at the Clam River outlet on the northeast shore of Little Clam Lake. The Cummers provided the new village with water and electric services and built and equipped several miles of logging railroads.
The village of Clam Lake became the city of Cadillac in July and George A. Mitchell was elected the first mayor. The new plat encompassed almost ten times as much land as the original parcel created in 1872.
By 1877, Manton had three hotels, five general stores, and two sawmills. Soon to follow were a pickle factory, flourmills, and more sawmills.
Water mains made of hollowed out wood connected by iron straps were laid throughout the Cadillac business district. Accessible water for fire control was a necessity because of the near total dependence on wood for building construction and on horse-drawn firefighting equipment.
Although it would be ten years before electricity and telephone lines would cover the city, a few poles and lines for telephones were set up between some of the manager's homes and their mills.
The Cobbs and Mitchell timber processing mills were located along the shore between the current Howard and South Mitchell streets intersection to the southwest end of Holly Road near Barbara Street. Included among the several facilities were Mills Number One and Number Two, the Cadillac Chemical Company, and the Electric Flooring Plant. The Cummer and Diggins mills were clustered around the Clam River at the lakeshore. Both enterprises leased and owned vast properties throughout the northwest quarter of Michigan's Lower Peninsula. During this period, the Mitchell and Cummer companies together made Cadillac the major timber harvesting and processing center in Michigan.
While Sherman fought hard to retain the county seat in their village, Manton, with Cadillac support, was awarded the seat.
Cadillac, with its large voting representation and some "gerrymandering" of township borders, was able to capture the county seat from Manton. The so called "War of Manton" happened soon after the election when a group of Cadillac men, fortified by alcohol, secured a locomotive and rail cars for a trip to Manton to forcibly remove county records and furnishings and bring them to Cadillac. They were repelled on their first raid but with increased manpower were successful on the second. While there were some injuries during the skirmishes, no deaths were reported.
Born in Illinois in 1862, Fred A. Diggins came to Cadillac in 1886 and created a lumber business. His brother, Delos, later joined him in his ventures. The family’s reputation as successful managers soon had them associated with Cummer, Murphy, and other successful enterprises. Having done well financially, they unselfishly shared their riches with the community. The family was the major funder of the Mercy Hospital in 1906 and the addition of the two wings on the Cadillac High School in 1912.
Austin Mitchell's home was located just east of the current Wexford County Courthouse. The sprawling porch and decorative balcony have since been removed,
The Toledo, Ann Arbor, and Northern Michigan Railway reached Cadillac on January 1. The railroad was then built diagonally across Wexford County, which led to significantly increased commerce in Boon, Harrietta, Yuma, Mesick, and Bagnall, as it made its way to its terminus in Frankfort on Lake Michigan. The Ann Arbor Railway was financed primarily by the communities through which it passed.
Harrietta was incorporated under the temporary name of "Gaston," the surname of one of the settlement's founders. The village included timber operations and a brick company.
As the Ann Arbor Railroad construction made its way through central Wexford County, Boon and other small settlements were platted.
This building was the first large downtown building constructed mostly of brick. When it was completed, it served as the Wexford County courthouse until 1912. The county seat was moved to Cadillac from Manton in 1882.
Due primarily to improved rail service and a rapidly growing manufacturing base, Wexford County's population was 16,000, about double the number of residents just ten years earlier in 1880.
As early as 1872, the square block bordered by Simons, Park, Harris, and Cass streets, was the site of the town's central school. After a number of school buildings were destroyed by fire, a brick high school was was built on the site in 1891. In 1912, a major grant from the Diggins family resulted the in the addition of two large wings to the original structure. The building was razed in 1966. A four-story apartment building now occupies the site.
Located on the northeast corner of Cass and Shelby streets, the impressive Mitchell home has for many years served the community as a funeral parlor.
The Cummer Company was contracted by Cadillac to replace the six-inch bore wooden city water lines installed in 1878 with twelve-inch iron pipes.
Yuma began as a logging camp area in a hardwood forest. A charcoal and chemical operation was moved from Harrietta in 1891. The charcoal and chemical industry was quickly expanded, but soon died after the area's hardwoods had been depleted
This home is said to have been designed by George Mason, architect of the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. This house remains with few structural changes at 407 E. Chapin Street.
The brick built structure was erected nearly 30 years after the G. R. & I. railroad first brought service to Cadillac. This depot later became the property of the Pennsylvania Railroad Co. It was located one block west of Mitchell Street between West Cass and West Harris streets.
The State of Michigan mandated that no elementary school child should be required to walk more than a mile to school. Thus, with Wexford County's many timber camps and two railroad systems, many school were required. By this date, more than 80 rural schools, at least two in each township, were created.
The State of Michigan began construction of a fish hatchery on the Slagle Creek a few miles west of Harrietta.
This structure was built on the northwest corner of West Mason and North Mitchell streets. Besides general city offices, the fire and police departments operated out of the facility. Horses used to pull wagons for firefighting were kept in the facility
The Opera House could seat up to 700 people and was the center of entertainment for a number of years until it was destroyed by a windstorm in 1930. It was located on the southwest corner of Beech and Shelby streets facing north.
Located near both the Manistee River and the Ann Arbor Railroad route, Mesick became an important shipping center. The community supported four churches and a library.
The lines were laid along principle Cadillac streets to provide residents and businesses with gas that could be used for both heating and lighting. At the same time electrical service was expanded throughout the community.
Arguably, the Delos Diggins home on the northeast corner of Harris and Shelby streets was the grandest and most beautiful home in Cadillac until a telephone company razed it in 1947.
At one time the St. John's Table Company was the largest table manufacturer in the world among companies that made tables exclusively. The company was in operation until 1985.
During 1906, Cadillac’s 30 factories employed 1,600 workers. Included were six lumber mills, three planing mills, two flooring plants, three charcoal plants, two chemical plants, a last-block factory (wood used for making shoes,) veneer and basket works, a handle factory, a crate factory, iron works and machine shop, cooperage stock mill, collar factory, six cigar factories, brickyard, two grist mills, table factory, cabinet works, and at least 20 smaller operations employing from six to 25 hands. The Mitchell Electric Flooring plant, the largest in the world, made the dining room floor of the White House and supplied flooring to help rebuild fire-ravaged San Francisco.
This classical revival style building was one of the most grand and expensive of the 53 Carnegie libraries built in Michigan. The Carnegie grant of $15,000 was not only matched as required, but additional funds were raised in the community. The Wexford County Historical Society and Museum now occupy the structure.
Located on the Manistee and Northeastern railroad, Buckley became a center of fruit growing and other agricultural products. Various timber products were also manufactured there. The town is located very near the Grand Traverse County border.
The Boat Club was a center of entertainment and conferences on the shore of Lake Cadillac at the foot of West Pine Street. It was destroyed by fire in 1918 and never rebuilt.
Mr. Delos F. Diggins, who financed the construction of the new hospital, died about four months before it was dedicated on January 20, 1908. He selected Mercy Hospital as its name and the Sisters of Mercy to be in charge of the facility.
The offices of the Cobbs and Mitchell timber harvesters and processors built this remarkable building on the SE corner of South Mitchell and Chapin streets. Interior wood construction and furnishings were made from nine different tree species harvested from Northern Michigan forests and was used as a showplace for the company's products.
The YMCA was located on the southwest corner of Mitchell and Chapin streets. It closed during the 1930's and was re-opened during World War II as the Cadillac Youth Recreation Association. It was razed during the late 1980's or early 1990's.
Cummer built this two-story office building done in a blend of Queen Anne and British Gothic architecture at 130 North Mitchell Street. The building now serves as the Cadillac News office.
As rail services penetrated Wexford County, new timber harvesting settlements along the rails appeared. While some of these villages remain (Boon, Harrietta, Yuma,) many failed after the supply of timber was depleted. Most of the settlements had a US post office (38 in all) and a small commercial district. Following are the names of most of those early settlements: Angola, Axin, Bagnall, Bandola, Baxter, Benson, Bunyea, Colfax, Coline, Cornel, Eleanor, Elton, Farnsworth, Gilbert, Glengary, Greenwood, Haire, Hooper’s Switch, Hoxeyville, Meauwataka, Millersville, Miner's Rollway, Mystic, Putman's Siding, Rodingen, Root's Mill, Six Corners, Soper, Springdale, Stocking, Summit, Thorp's Corners, Viola, Walls, and Wheatland.
Manton with a population of 1,100 was becoming an agricultural as well as a lumbering community. The village had paved streets, its own electric and water works, opera house, a fine school, and four churches.
After thirty years of white pine harvest and process, the Cadillac mills turned to the fine supply of hardwoods found in northern Michigan. The woods used included several species each of maple, cherry, elm, oak, beech, birch, and hemlock. Among the leading manufactured products in Cadillac's mills were flooring, furniture, veneer, construction lumber, crates, last-blocks, tool and broom handles, wooden barrels, and bowling pins. By-products of the hardwoods were wood alcohol, turpentine, a variety of chemical products, and charcoal,
The four-story Elks Temple building was constructed in 1911. The large rooms on the third and fourth floors have been used for music and theatre presentations, high school proms, reunions, and other community events.
The Ann Arbor Railroad depot was constructed between West Cass and West Chapin streets. The rail system stretched from Toledo through Ann Arbor and eventually on to Franfort. Funding was provided primarily by communities along the way.
The Wexford County Courthouse is located a 437 Division Street. The County courtroom and offices were moved from its former location in the Masonic Temple Building on Mitchell Street.
In 1915, Walter Kysor started the Acme Motor Truck Company, a truck assembly factory in Cadillac where he manufactured durable small trucks until the Great Depression. He is credited with inventing heating and cooling systems for both trucks and automobiles. He was a major Cadillac industrialist.
These small, but powerful trucks were built in Cadillac. The five-ton truck could tow a 40-ton house. The trucks were manufactured until the plant closed in 1932.
Located at 201 Haynes Street, the large factory was built by Cadillac industrialist, Walter Kysor, who manufactured the powerful Acme trucks. In 1937, the building was occupied by the B. F. Goodrich plant, an occasion that has been described as "one of the most significant events in the area's history" as it confirmed Cadillac's importance as an industrial center. Goodrich terminated operations at the plant in 1959.
Located at 118 East Harris Street, the classical-styled building replaced the original service on Mitchell Street. Little has been done to alter the original structure.
The Cadillac Chemical Co. was located on current Holly Rd. on the southeast shore of Lake Cadillac. Allies used wood alcohol produced by the plant during World War I. A mysterious 1916 fire that destroyed the plant may have been the result of German sabotage. The structure was soon replaced.
By 1920, the supply of timber became nearly depleted and Wexford County sought other revenue sources to complement its industrial base. With its second growth forests reaching maturity and endowed with a nice variety of streams, lakes and hills, the County successfully promoted itself to become a tourist destination for hunters, skiers, campers, fishermen, hikers, and several winter sports enthusiasts.
The Hodenpyl Dam was built by the Consumes Power Company very near the Wexford / Manistee County line to provide electrical power. The company town of Coline (i.e., County Line) provided lodging and much entertainment for the workers.
Wexford County probably suffered no more than other northern Michigan areas during the Great Depression. Its diversified economy based on industry, tourism, and a growing agricultural economy, alleviated somewhat the depression's impact. The depression lasted from 1929 until about 1940.
With the strong encouragement and support of a group of Cadillac citizens, the US Forest Service along with the Civilian Conversation Corps developed a ski area on the border of the Slagle and South Branch townships in western Wexford County. It remains as one of the oldest ski resorts in the mid-west and boasts an abundance of snow, long and challenging slopes, and modern lift equipment. Caberfae helped make the Cadillac area a serious tourist destination.
Much of the land that was awarded to homesteaders throughout Northern Michigan during the previous 50 years was reverted back to the government because of default on taxes or the inability to meet the conditions of the Homestead Act. In 1945, the Manistee and Huron national forests merged to create the only US Forest system in the Lower Peninsula, now consisting of nearly one million acres. Those lands make up a highly desirable recreation area for both residents and area visitors. Several Civilian Conservation Camps (CCC) were located in Wexford County.
From a total population of about 18,000, more than 1,200 men and women from Wexford County served in the US Army (including Air Corps,) the US Navy, or the US Marine Corps during World War II. Several Wexford County factories manufactured products for the war effort. The costly war lasted from December 1941 to August 1945.
(When the "Google Books" screen appears, enter the book title or author's name under "Researching a Topic.")
• Norton, Willard A., "Cadillac City Directory, 1900" (unabridged version) W. A. Norton, compiler and publisher, 1900. 235 pp., Website: Google Books, http://books.google.com/bkshp?hl=en&tab=wp
• Peterson, William R., "The View From Courthouse Hill," Dorrance and Company, Philadelphia, 1972, 395 pp. (not digitized and out of print)
• Powers, Perry F., "A History of Northern Michigan and Its People," Lewis Publishing Company, Chicago, 1912, 562 pp. Website: Google Books, http://books.google.com/bkshp?hl=en&tab=wp
• Wexford County Online Services, Fact Book, http://www.n2genealogy.com/michigan/mi-county-wexford.html
• Wheeler, John H., "History of Wexford County Michigan." B. F. Bowen, 1903. Print, 641pp. Website: Google Books, http://books.google.com/bkshp?hl=en&tab=wp