The Coopersville Observer June 9, 1922


John Jackson Gives Interesting Narrative of Pioneer History of Coopersville

Editor Observer: In the summer of 1846 Sylvester Jackson came from Oswego, New York, with his wife and family of four children, by sailboat in Grand Haven and by boat from there up the river to what was then known as Steele’s Landing, now Lamont. The children were two boys and two girls. The writer was then about three years of age.

On arriving at Steele’s Landing, my father got Timothy Lillie and Benjamin Lillie to come down to the Landing with their ox team and wagons, and after the family, some household goods and some provisions had been loaded into the wagons, we started north through the wilderness, a distance of five miles, where my father had previously purchased one hundred sixty acres of wild land for fifty cents per acre. All went well until we arrived four miles north to what is now known as Salton’s Corners, one mile east of Coopersville. Before we could go any farther the small trees had to be cut out of the way.

The First Home

After some delay we finally arrived at a small shanty about eighty rods south of the farm where father was to build a log house for our future home in the wilderness. This shanty was owned by Walter McEwing who occupied it during the winter and sailed on the Lakes during the summer. It was near a creek on the farm now owned by E. A. Hambleton. We managed to live in this shanty for several weeks until father could cut down the timber and clear space enough for room to build a log house. As soon as he was able to get the roof on, we moved in without any floor but "Mother Earth" and no doors or windows. As soon as possible father put in floors, doors and windows, and made a ladder so that us children could climb up into the chamber to sleep. When my father, with his family, first commenced in the wilderness, he had less than fifty dollars in money, a good axe, and about a year’s provisions, and none of us had any extra clothing,. But my earliest recollection is that we were all contented and happy.

Pioneer Life Not All Play

The first thing father had to do was to cut down and burn the timber. The timber had to be burned green, which was no easy job. By working early and late, when spring came he had several acres cleared, but the stumps thickly covered the ground. He then planted the cleared land to corn. The method of planting was by striking the hoe into the ground and tipping the hoe backward, so as to raise the soil, then drop in the corn and press the soil down with the foot. In the fall we had cornmeal as our principal diet for some time, which my hardworking mother used to cook in various ways. I shall never forget the delicious "Johnny cake" and cookies she used to make, that were sweetened with maple sugar, of which plenty was made, in a primitive way, every spring. My father not only kept cutting down and burning the timber on his own farm, but he cut down many acres of timber for some of the neighbors. After a time he was able to get a cow and an ox team, which was a great help to the family. In the course of two or three years he managed to get another cow. During the winter the cows and oxen lived principally on what was called "browse." This was the tender branches of the trees as father cut them down. In the spring the cattle had to roam the woods, and also during the summer and until winter, for it took several years to get land enough cleared to raise any hay for winter use, as the principal crop that could be grown among the many stumps was corn. For several years the only tool father had to fit the soil for a crop, was a heavy "A" shaped drag, which he drew around among the stumps with the ox team. This would tear out a lot of roots that had to be picked up and piled around the stumps to be burned. I well remember how tired I used to get picking up roots when only six and seven years old. In those early days every one of the family from the youngest to the oldest of us children seemed to find plenty of work to do, as well as play.

As tallow candles were the only means of light, my mother had to spend much time making them and about twice a year she had to make a barrel of soft soap, by putting meat scraps into lye and boiling down. It was no easy matter to get meat scraps enough together for this purpose, and sometimes tallow had to be purchased. The wants of the early settlers were simple, and every one was used to all kinds of privations and thought nothing of it. Two or three calico dresses a year was considered all that was necessary for the mother and daughters, and these calico dresses were made by the mother in the plainest manner. The boys of the family were also cheaply clothed. Underclothes were unknown and were not worn. The writer never wore any underclothes until after eighteen years of age. In the summer us children had to go barefoot.

Lamont Principal Trading Post

A trading point was established at Steele’s Landing, now Lamont, and George Luther carried on a general store and Miner Hedges had a general store, a grist mill and a sawmill. Miner Hedges was the father of Frank Hedges of Coopersville. This was the principal trading point for all the surrounding country for many years. When father was able to get a wagon we used to drive down there, five miles, with the ox team, to trade, get the mail and also to attend church.

In those days the woods were full of wild game, such as deer, wolves and bears. Many nights just before sundown the dismal howling of the wolves could be heard in the distance, and sometimes they would come close to the settlers’ dwellings at night. I well remember a large drove of wolves howled around our house one night for some time. When the early settlers wanted any fresh meat they would go out and shoot a deer, as there was no law against it, and it was the usual custom when any one shot a deer, to divide the carcass with some neighbors. Abraham Peck whose farm joined my father’s on the west, was a good hand to shoot deer, and I remember that several times he gave me a good chunk of venison to carry home through the woods.

Jackson Schoolhouse Built

In the spring of 1851, a schoolhouse was built on the southeast corner of my father’s farm, which has ever since been known as the Jackson schoolhouse. This schoolhouse was built by John Messenger, father of Chet Messenger of Coopersville. In order to have school that summer, they did not have time to put in any seats and us children had to sit on planks, the girls on the east side and the boys on the west. I was eight years old that summer and knew my "A B C’s" and could read and spell a few words. It was in this schoolhouse that I received about all the education I ever got. At the age of fourteen I had to stay at home and work, and could only go to school for three or four months during the winter. Owing to the failure of my father’s health I had to quit school entirely in the winter, after I was eighteen. Our first teacher was a young woman and she was paid $1.50 a week and boarded around, which was the custom for a number of years. A father was director. For several years the women teachers used to come to our house Friday night and stay over Sunday. And they lodged with my older sister Maria, who in after years married Hugh S. Averill, father of H. H. Averill. Our second teacher was paid $2 per week, which was considered good wages at that time. In the fall when seats and desks were put in, the outside of the schoolhouse was painted red. As time went on, better wages were paid teachers, and a young man was usually hired for the winter term. The wages of the teachers were raised by what was called a "Rate Bill." That is: the head of each family was assessed according to the number of children who attended school from that family. And each parent had to furnish a certain amount of wood for each child.

Spelling Schools Furnish Amusement

As the country became more settled, spelling schools were established and carried on every winter in the different schoolhouses. There used to be considerable strife between the different schools. The one who was able to "spell down the school" was considered quite a hero. These spellikng schools were conducted about as follows: After calling to order the teacher would pronounce the words to be spelled to all the class until recess time. During recess a certain number of boys would go outdoors and have a rough and tumble wrestle. William Phileo was considered the champion wrestler. He is living and is now past eighty. After recess two boys were selected to choose sides, and then the fun of "spelling down the school" commenced. First one and then another would misspell a word and have to sit down, until there would be only one left on a side, and then it would be "nip and tuck" between these two before one of them would misspell a word. After this contest was over some of these boys and girls were called upon to speak. I remember among the boys there was one would-be orator. He used to get up, with a great flourish and repeat, "On Linden when the sun was low," etc. We boys and girls had a lot of fun at these spelling schools and in this way many became expert spellers.

Early History of Coopersville

In 1855 a man came through this section and said a railroad was going to be built through here. Many laughed at the idea of a railroad ever being built through this wilderness. But it was not long before surveyors came along and laid out the line. Some of the land where Coopersville now stands was covered with hemlock and some of these trees were growing in quite a swamp. A man by the name of Cooper owned one hundred sixty acres of land here, and by giving the railroad plenty of land, the chief engineer was induced to build a depot on this land. Some thought it was a poor place to build a railroad station, especially since it was in a hemlock swamp. After a time roads were opened up, a bridge was built across the creek, a sawmill was erected, the hemlock and other timber was converted into lumber and land was cleared for a village site. The first store was built on the south side of the railroad just south of the station. In a short time a postoffice was established here, and many of the settlers soon began to come here to trade and get their mail instead of going down to Steele’s Landing. Other settlers came in and built on the south side of the railroad. This was the Main Street of the small village for some time. Finally, Graham Watson came here and built a general store on the north side of what soon became Main Street. Before he could put in the foundation, some of the hemlock stumps had to be sawed off. Some thought Mr. Watson had made a big mistake building his store on the north side of the railroad instead of on the south side. But it proved that he had a clearer vision of the future than any of his critics.

Many pages could be written concerning the early history and many changes that have taken place in Coopersville. Those who first engaged in business here have all passed away. For a number of years the railroad burned wood in the locomotives. This made a market for some of the farmer’s surplus timber, and was a source of income for which he received cash, which was none too plentiful in those days. But few of the present population, especially among the younger class, realize the hard work and the privations endured by the pioneers who came into the country between the years of 1840 and 1850 and cleared away the forests to make a home in the wilderness.

Old Way of Banishing Mosquitoes

The dwellings were all built of logs. "N"-shaped pieces were split out of basswood and fastened between the logs which was called "chinking." This chinking was plastered over with clay mud to fill up the cracks, if lime could not be procured for this purpose. As window or door screens were unknown, the mosquitoes would fill the house every night in warm weather. In order to get rid of them, an old pan was filled with small chips and placed in the center of the room and set on fire. The doors were then opened and when the room was well filled with smoke the mosquitoes were driven out. After which the doors were closed. It was much easier to endure the heat than to be tormented by the mosquitoes. This was called "smudging" them out. My folks lived in this kind of a house until the summer of 1864 when father was able to build a modern house. They moved into this house late in the fall while I was trying to serve the government as a private soldier in the Civil War.

Like the writer, some of the men and women who are sons and daughters of the early pioneers, are still living in this section. I am glad that my parents were among the early and sturdy pioneers, because to these parents through plain living and giving me plenty of hard work to do in my youth, I owe much of present health and advanced age.


Transcriber: Susan Gates Davis
Created: 2003