Olive Township

The early history of Olive is particularly interesting. The town had a two-fold occupation--the one by the Port Sheldon Company, and the other at a later day.

The history of the Port Sheldon Company is an episode in the settlement of Michigan, of more than usual interest. There was at about 1836, a mania for locating cities and villages. Men fancied they could see in the wilderness where these must arise. The points were secured; villages platted and mapped; and many were those who paid their money for lots in those paper cities.

In 1836, a number of capitalists in New York and Philadelphia formed a joint stock company, the Port Sheldon Company, with the design of founding a city on the western coast of Michigan. They had abundant capital at their command, and in good faith set themselves earnestly to work.

The design was to start a city, and by developing the country around, give it a metropolitan character. Detroit was the center of trade for Eastern Michigan, and was likely to continue such. Chicago was but a place in embryo, and its growth and development problematical. It was but common sagacity which foresaw that a town must arise which should be what Chicago now is. And it was sure, even if the great metropolis could not be secured to Western Michigan, that a town or towns, of no small dimensions, must grow up at the mouths of the rivers or by the indenting bays

The company, having matured its design, and secured the necessary capital, proceeded to select a location for their city. They selected the mouth of Grand River, but that was already in the possession of the Grand Haven Company, who, well realizing that they had the place where the principal port must be, rejected the overtures of the Port Sheldon Company. Although well aware that the Grand Haven Company had the desirable point, they determined, by getting the start in development, to crush out Grand Haven, and secure the ends they aimed at.

They selected for their location, the north side of Pigeon Lake; and in the fall of 1837, commenced operations in earnest. They came on with a vessel loaded with provisions and stores; bringing their houses ready to set up, and about 40 men consisting of directors, superintendents, surveyors, engineers, etc., with every equipment for laying out the place; and everything necessary for their comfort and enjoyment during the winter.

The company had for a general superintendent, Saunders Coates, who afterwards became a manufacturer of gas works in New York. He was for four years editor of the Mobile Register. He was one of those men who live to diffuse happiness and to win friends. While in this region, he was much esteemed as a gentleman. The other resident superintendents were Alexander H. Judon and E.P. Deacon. Judon was last heard from in New York; Deacon died in Cuba. George M. Barker, well known at Grand Rapids, was with them as a surveyor. Abraham Pike, since famous as the one who first enunciated the subordinate position of office holders, was with them in the capacity of clerk. There were also about thirty agents, clerks, etc.

They proceeded to lay out a city; to survey the harbor and improve the entrance. An elegant map of the harbor and plat was engraved. A careful study of this map shows that they were either decidedly in earnest, or were projecting a mighty humbug. The latter it certainly was not intended to be, as subsequent events most fully demonstrated. The city was most carefully laid out, and makes a beautiful display on paper. There are 142 blocks; generally 24 lots in a block. It needs but one thing to make it perfect--a central park. Seven lots are reserved for churches; one for a fish market; two for markets; four for a railroad depot; four for a city hall, and one for a school house. A railroad is laid through the city, and piers from Pigeon Lake to Lake Michigan. The soundings of the harbor are on the map, and all indicates that if there is not a city there, the projectors mean there shall be.

The company laid out and made roads to Grandville and Grand Haven-- good roads, too, --at an expense of from five to ten thousand dollars. They built a light house, and maintained at at the own expense for two years. They owned a beautiful little yacht, the Memee (Indian for pigeon); had their fancy boats and boat club, who used to disport themselves in full regalia. They built a splendid hotel, at an expense of from thirty to forty thousand dollars; finished and furnished it in superb style. It was 60 by 120 feet--a hotel in the wilderness, where a traveler did not come once a month! They built an office which cost $10,000, and a store of the same value; no country around to supply, and their city on paper. They put up a steam mill, the best in the Western country, costing $20,000; and erected about 15 small dwellings.

In 1838, there were there about 300 people, mostly in the employ of the company. These formed a community, in true fraternity, and enjoyed themselves extensively. The same bell that now calls from Butterworth & Lowe’s foundry, in Grand Rapids, called the happy company to their luxurious dinners. Pike, from whom these facts are obtained, now sighs when he thinks of Port Sheldon; and it is with tearful eyes he revolves in his mind the scenes of those happy days.

Among the company was a lawyer Edward Badger a man who liked to "rains Cain" better than to study Chitty on Plending. In fact, he was a fellow whose character will be understood at once, if we say he was a "colt." He stayed there two years, went off, turned play-actor, and became somewhat distinguished. He probably did no law business among the denizens of Port Sheldon. For a time they had a physician Dr. Seranton--who won hearts while he cared for human in firmities. He left, went South, and was succeeded by Dr. Coxe, who is now believed to be in Detroit. The company obtained a charter for a railroad from Port Sarnia across the State, to Port Sheldon, and made a beginning, by grubbing several miles of the road. They had their railroad office, whose beautiful gilded sign is the memorial the writer has secured of the great city that was to be. It was presented by Mr. Pike, who, in giving the facts, confirmed them by a "sign."

Alas! Must the whole be told.! Port Sheldon is not. The commercial crisis that followed, and the discovery of the fact that the entrance to the harbor could not be kept open, obliterated the city. The company abandoned the project; bought off those that had made investments; paid for their improvements, assuming to themselves all the loss; dismantled their mill; moved off everything movable; abandoned the places, leaving Mr. Pike sole occupant and sole agent. There he lived several years, endeavoring to sell the land, hotel, etc., for something. He sold the hotel and thirty lots for less than the cost of the paint and glass. The rest of the land has since been sold for the sake of the hemlock bark that was on it. The result of the whole is, one man is there, trying to fight starvation, by doing the work of a whole city. It is to be hoped he does not own much of the land thereabout; for if he does, the Lord pity him!

The whole scheme was a mighty bubble. Yet, wild, romantic and visionary as it now seems, in the light of results, it was one which involved an immense amount of capital; and which was carried on with a noble comprehensiveness of design, worthy of crowning success. In its active life, and in its failure, the company displayed a regard for honorable principal that may well defy comparison.

This was a beautiful folly; a wild scheme which seems like the dream of a child. But who would mistrust a bubble was not sold, if he did not see it burst!

A man in New Jersey invented an improved steam engine. When he had got his working model nearly completed, he invited a learned professor from New York to examine it. The professor scanned it closely, and was profuse in his expressions of delight. "Beautiful workmanship," "Very ingenious," "Only one fault about it." Delighted with the encomiums, the inventor inquired "What is that?" "It won’t go! otherwise it is perfect," was the cheering reply. So with he Port Sheldon scheme. There was but one fault about it. Any good hydrographer could have told them the entrance to the harbor could not be kept open; and of course the city "couldn’t go."

Pigeon Lake, which was to be the harbor, is an inlet of Lake Michigan, connected by a narrow strait. The influx of water from the land is too small to keep that strait open. If opened by dredging, the first storm on the lake will silt it up. When the company had demonstrated this fact, they wisely abandoned their project. Their folly was, that they did not prove there could be an entrance to the harbor before they incurred the great expense. It is easy to see why they failed, but sometimes lessons of wisdom cost a great deal; and men are not to be reproached for their folly when they have acted according to heir best judgment. Whose ways have always shown wisdom? Not your or mine.

When Port Sheldon was abandoned, Olive was once more an abandoned wild--uninviting to the settler and entirely neglected. It was finally settled upon the principal that causes all poor land to be taken. When the good land has all been bought in the region around, somebody will give something for the poor, and will occupy it. The land of Olive had long been in the market as U.S. Government land, and found no purchasers. When land has been for a series of years in market it is sold at a reduced price--a mere nominal sum. Under the graduation act, land was taken in this town, and settlement progressed. Hemlock bark had become a thing of value, and a considerable portion of the town was hemlock land. But it is not necessary to speculate on the various reasons that induced people to come in. They came in--at a late day, to be sure; but they came; good, staunch men, who, taking hold at the right end, have made for themselves homes and fortunes; and they ask no sympathy.

The settlement is, in a measure, identified with that of the south part of Robinson and Allendale, and of the Holland colony. The early history of Olive places it as an off-shoot or expansion of the Holland settlement. It remained a part of Holland until 1857, when it was set off.

As the settlement of the town was at a late day, and then only by spreading out a little, who were the first to occupy, is of little importance, and there is uncertainly about it. Our gleanings are:

Augustus Names, formerly from Saxony, came from Ohio in 1856. At that time there were no settlers in the north part of the town. James Eastway and his three sons-William, Samuel, Alfred-and Gale Burchess, Joel M. Fellows (son in law to Eastway), and Thomas S. Finch, came at the same time. Most of these had families. All were poor men. Some had teams and a little property. The Eastways were Edwin, Elias, and Egbert (their father liked his "E’s"). All of these persons, with the exception of Gale Burchess and Egbert Eastway, took land under the graduation act, paying 50 cents an acre for it. At the time Names and the others came into the north part of the town, there were a few Hollanders in the southern part.

It is not deemed expedient to enlarge up the early occupation of Olive, as it was part and parcel of the Holland settlement, which is more fully treated of in another place.

The town was set off from Holland, and organized April 6th, 1857. The first meeting was held at the house of Wm. P. Bakker, at Port Sheldon. Its first officers were:

G.C. Jones, Supervisor; J.M. Fellows, Clerk; K. Warner, Treasurer; James B. Eastway, Warner Semple, James L. Fletcher, C. Smith, Justices.

Number of voters, 55. $100 raised for town expenses.

It was a good while before the settlers leaned much on the soil for a support. They made shingles and carried them to Lamont and Eastmanville, where they got their supplies.

They had no schools or school-houses until 1863. Then two were built, one of which is standing and occupied still. The first school in No. 2 was kept by Miss Tate, of Georgetown.

In 1861, a great part of the town was burnt over, doing a good deal of damage.

James Eastway, spoken of above as one of the first, was a valuable citizen; a well-educated man; looked up to by the people. He moved to Robinson, in 1860, where he died, in 1870.

Nature was not very liberal to Olive, but Dutch frugality and hard work have proved that where there is the will, man need not despair. A Dutchman will support a family and lay up money, if you will give him a chance to work. That he is not afraid of. He will make money where that class who pride themselves on their smartness would be sure to see themselves seated on a stump, and sighing, with poverty enough and to spare. You don’t see a poor Hollander, nor very often a rich one. The property they have, they worked for; it was not got by speculations. When they have earned a dollar, they will make it do full service, and not part with it without full and valuable consideration. In time, the old stocking is full of bright, shinning dollars; and Knickerbocker and his good vronw, too old to work, can smoke their pipes, smiling in calm content on their good home and numerous progeny. For you may be assured, that in their prime they have devoutly sung the 127th Psalm, and have drank in its inspiration. They have read and devoutly pondered Proverbs, xiii, 4th; and the consequences are independence and self respect. Let alone a Hollander for getting a living. By patient perseverance the obelisks of Egypt were wrought out of porphyry. So patient perseverance soon changes the poor emigrant into a thriving farmer, or well to do shopkeeper. It don’t fill poor houses, or clothe in rags. Well would it be for some of our young men, who cannot support themselves on a $500 salary, to take a few lessons from the Hollanders, who, earning far less than that, have brought up families, laid up a snug little fortune, and own their houses, shops or farms; just because when they got money they knew how to keep it. Thirty cents a day for cigars! Twenty for whisky! Young man, your mother did not receive a prize the day you was born. Go to the Dutchman, then spendthrift, and learn the secret of human thrift. Proverbs vi., 6.

The part of Olive, now Port Sheldon, is one of the great "Pigeon Roosts" of Michigan. These birds are to the last degree gregarious; in countless millions occupying the same region in the breeding season. Their numbers at these roots defy competition; loading the trees with their nests, darkening the air in their flight, and drowning all other sounds in the confused din of the coming and going flocks. Their feeding grounds may be 100 miles away. At all times, day and night, flocks are going and coming, the size of which staggers belief. About 1870, the writer was in Grand Haven, and witnessed the return of a flock. It could not have been less than 100 miles in length-a continued uninterrupted stream of life, which was two and half hours in passing.

The feeding of pigeons in systematic. A flock alights in a field or wood, and then each pigeon examines the little space around it, and having exhausted it, flies forward, alights just in front. At first sight all would appear to be on the wing, so constant is the rising and alighting in advance. There is nothing left when they have done their work.

The killing of pigeons has been an extensive business at Olive. They are sent by the car-load to New York and other places.

The pigeon is a queer bird. It hatches one brood, and then always keeps an egg in the nest for the young ones to hatch; this is kept up during the whole summer. Thus brood after brood is filling up the flocks decimated by man and all the predaceous birds. Defenseless, their existence is in their fecundity. As to whether they are a nuisance or not, opinion is divided; but certainly they are an interesting feature of Olive.

Transcriber: Barb Jones
Created: 19 May 2010
URL: http://ottawa.migenweb.net/twprecords/olive/early.html