EARLY HISTORY OF PORTLAND. MICHIGAN - By Mrs. N. B. Rice.

The first land taken up from the government in what is now Portland was secured by Elisha Newman, in June, 1833.

It was at the mouth of the Looking Glass River.

About that time he was visiting some friends in Ann Arbor where the subject of unlocated lands lying west of Ann Arbor became the subject of conversation.

One of the company told of having been with the engineers when they surveyed Ionia County and of having encamped for several days at the mouth of the Looking Glass.

He remembered one of the engineers having remarked:

"Here is a good water power and there will be a village here sometime."

Elisha Newman proposed that they get up a company and go out and see the point.

The same night, Elisha Newman, my grandfather, Joseph Wood, and James Newman, my father, agreed upon a plan and started without delay on the enterprise, with pony, blankets and provisions.

The route lay past Whitmore Lake, through an unbroken wilderness, except as cut up by Indian trails, to the place of their destination.

Finding the place met their expectations; the party went to Portage Lake, twelve miles north of Jackson, where they hired an Indian to pilot Elisha Newman to Jackson.

From there he went to White Pigeon by stage, located his land, and returned to Ann Arbor.

Philo Bogue located here with his family in November, 1833.

He commenced trading with the Indians on a small scale and followed this occupation until his death, which was on July 25, 1839.

John Milne came in December, 1833, directly from England.

Thomas Shepherd, also an Englishman, and a bachelor, located here at the same time but did not tarry long.

Ezra I. Perrin came in July, 1834.

A man named John Friend located at Friend Brook and commenced getting out timber for a saw-mill.

He lived in a tent and was so badly frightened by bears and wolves that he pulled out for Lyons and eventually left the county, but the brook still bears his name.

John Knox, wife and two sons, Alanson and Harvey, came in 1834.

The first settlement in the north part of the township was by Robert Toan, Sr., and family in 1837, and Gardner Maynard and family in the same year.

On the 24th of May, 1836, the Newmans arrived to take possession of the lands purchased in 1833.

In the party were Elisha Newman, Samuel B. Smith, Lyman Bennett, Almeron and James Newman.

The latter two were accompanied by their families, as was also Mr. Bennett.

Mr. Bennett brought two yokes of oxen and a wagon and James Newman brought a span of horses and a wagon.

A few supplies had been brought in at the same time, but most of their household goods were sent by way of the lakes to Grand Haven, thence up the river to Lyons on a pole boat called the "Napoleon."

When the Newmans arrived they found the coast clear.

The Indians, a small tribe in charge of Squagen, their chief, had their home at the point where the Looking Glass enters the Grand, but the tribe had gone down the river to Bogue's flats and the wigwam at the point afforded a very comfortable shelter for the women until a house could be built.

This was of logs, with bark roof.

Split logs furnished the floor in one half of the house, while the bare ground served as a floor in the other half, until timber could be brought from Libhart Mill, on Libhart Creek near Lyons.

A hole in the roof let out the smoke until a mud and stick chimney could be built, while blankets served for a time as doors and windows.

It was in this house that Mary E. Newman (the writer) was born, October 23, 1837, the first white child born on the east side of Grand River in Portland.

Time passed and provisions grew less.

Nothing had been heard from the goods which had been shipped via lake and river, so a square-toed, white man's build of canoe was secured and Almeron Newman and Lyman Bennett started downstream with a Chicago merchant, who had been to New York after goods.

In due course of time they arrived at Grand Haven.

There they found a man who was running a boat on Lake Michigan and he told them that goods answering the description of those belonging to Mr. Newman were in Chicago and likely to stay there for some time unless sent for.

They instructed this man to get the goods and forward them by boat to Lyons, then hired their passage and that of their canoe on the "Napoleon" as far as Grand Rapids, where they purchased a barrel of flour, a barrel of pork, a small piece of iron, a cow bell, and other necessities.

Then they bought a piece of bed cord, fastening it to the canoe, canal boat fashion, Bennett pulling the boat, while Newman poled it.

By the time they reached Ionia they were so exhausted that they tied it there, footed it home and sent a new recruit for it.

The next task was the damming of the Looking Glass and digging a race.

It was an expensive job, but it was put through without a halt, as was also the building of a saw-mill.

The latter was started in December, 1836, and in January, 1837, a small run of stone, with a bolt attached, was put in.

The first flour made in that mill is supposed to have been the first bolted flour made west of Pontiac.

The mill did all the grinding for this section of the county until 1842, when James Newman and Peter M. Kent built the mill which was burned on February 9, 1893.

Peter M. Kent was a millwright and came to the settlement in June, 1836, for the purpose of building Newman's saw-mill.

The first glorious Fourth of July celebration was held in Portland in 1836 by a patriotic band of about one dozen pioneers.

Mrs. Bogue, seeing the display on the east bank of the Grand, caught the spirit, and, not to be outdone, procured a pole and attached a white cloth to it, placing it in a hollow stump on the west bank, in front of her house.

This was before the day of matches and it was a common occurrence to see people going to the neighbor's after a shovel of coals, for great care had to be taken lest the fire go out.

A flint stone, a jackknife and a bunch of tow were kept on hand by some for fear the fire would fail them entirely.

This was also a day of crude cooking utensils.

The iron bake kettle, tin oven, iron kettles suitable for hanging on the crane in the great fireplace, and then the brick oven, which would hold a week's baking for a good sized family, were all in evidence those days.

The manner of crossing the rivers before the advent of bridges was varied and at sometimes dangerous.

In times of low water fording the river was the usual method.

The ford on the Grand was where the lower bridge is now located.

Here a foot-bridge was built later.

It was on benches, covered with planks and was all right until the river got on a rampage.

Then there was great hustling to save the plank and benches.

The ferry was a flat boat, capable of carrying some four or five men and a span of horses, one man to hold the horses and two or three to do the ferrying.

The wagon had to go in the second load and when that was taken over the team was hitched to the wagon and proceeded on its way.

Canoes were abundant, but not very safe, except in the hands of an expert, especially in times of high water.

The first bridge was built in 1837 or 1838, where the upper bridge now stands.

When Mr. Shepherd left the county his land passed into the hands of A. S. Wadsworth, who, in 1838, divided his land into village lots and commenced building a dam on Grand River, as well as the erection of a gristmill, where the factory now stands.

He also undertook to build a saw-mill on the Grand.

His mills he never finished and his dam was twice carried away by floods.

Becoming discouraged, he sold his mill machinery to the Newmans and departed to other fields.

A. Newman put this machinery into a carding machine on the Looking Glass.

Newman had been by occupation a clothier and his little factory at Portland was the first establishment of, the kind put into operation west of Pontiac.

The Indians, when sober, were of great service in the early days in Portland.

They furnished the early settlers with venison, fish, berries, sugar and baskets, all of the best quality, exchanging them for pork, flour or money.

Occasionally one would get drunk and become quarrelsome.

At one time some five or six came to father's house when he was away and wanted something to eat.

Mother set lunch on the table for them.

While they were eating two of the party got to quarrelling and drew knives.

Mother spoke sharply to them, commanding them to go out doors to do their fighting, as they scared her papooses.

They went as directed, and the door was bolted against them.

Their food was then passed out of the window to them, which they took and departed.

One day an Indian got pretty drunk and wanted more whisky, which was refused him.

He then attempted to stab the trader, but the knife was knocked out of his hand.

The trader complained to the chief, who had the offending Indian severely whipped.

When he recovered from the whipping he returned and demanded more whisky, saying that he had been whipped ''two quarts too much."

Another incident which Mrs. Maynard used to tell was that one day she saw some squaws dipping some Indians in the river and then hauling them out again.

She went home and told her mother that the squaws were drowning the Indians.

Mrs. Churchill went to see what they were doing and chided them for their treatment of their spouses, but when one of the squaws told her "White man make my man drunk, me make him sober," she left them to complete the work so well begun.

The Indian cemetery was located on the point at the confluence of the Looking Glass and Grand Rivers.

Elisha Newman had the point fenced in so that the cattle and hogs could not injure the graves.

When the Indians discovered what had been done they went up to Mr. Newman and kissed his hand in token of their appreciation of the kindness shown.

The early roads wandered here and there, according to the make-up of the ground.

For example, the road from Bogue's and Milne's flats used to wind around the hill, passing between the barn and the house on the farm now owned by Charles Culver, and when the road over the hill was established some of the buildings on the flats were left in the midst of the fields.

Wild game abounded.

Wild pigeons were so thick that the wheat fields suffered from their depreciations and it was customary to catch them with nets.

Elisha Newman was an expert at that game and I have witnessed the springing of many a net in my girlhood days.

Fish were abundant and of first quality.

Sturgeon of immense size were often caught, to the delight of the small boy who wanted a piece of sturgeon's nose for the center of his ball, to bake it bound.

At such times the village shoemaker, William Dinsmore, who always delighted to please the boys, was kept busy cutting ball covers from old boot tops and mothers were instructed how to stitch them on.

In the fall of 1836 my maternal grandfather, Abner Hixson, came to the settlement, bringing his wife and eight of his twelve children, they occupying a part of the double log house with father's family.

Shortly after their arrival the settlers were called together for the purpose of naming the village, so that letters might reach them more readily.

My father asked my uncle, Abram Hixson, to go with him to the meeting, which he did.

When it came to handing in the names there were so many that it staggered the assembly.

The names suggested were Johnstown, Jamestown, Boguetown, Boyerville and Newmanville.

During the silence which followed Abram Hixson said to father:

"Why not call it Portland? I think that a nice name."

"Suggest it," said father, but he declined.

Father then said the name of "Portland" had been suggested to him and he thought it very appropriate, as there certainly was a fine landing, where all the passing boats stopped.

All present were pleased with the name and so Portland it was named.

My uncle always felt proud that he had suggested the name and kept a warm place in his heart for our village.

In the spring of 1837 W. R. Churchill came to the village.

He bought the land where Mr. Crane's drug store now stands and put up a building to be used as a tavern or store as circumstances should direct.

At this juncture came one David Sturgis, a Canadian, looking for an opening.

He bought a half interest with Mr. Churchill in the building then being erected, with the agreement that when it was finished they should as partners open it as a store.

When it was completed they were besought by Joshua Boyer to rent it to him for a tavern.

Agreeing to let him have it, Churchill & Sturgis opened their store near where A. F. Morehouse's old office building stands, and for some time they carried on a flourishing business.

Boyer opened the tavern and called it the "Mansion House."

Portland became a post office in 1837, with Joshua Boyer as postmaster.

The office was on the route between Detroit and Grand Rapids, and mail was received once a week by horseback mail carriers.

About 1846 stage coaches took the place of the horseback riders and then there was daily mail.

In the early days of the post office, when the mail receipts were little more than nothing, the opening of the mail bag was a ceremony upon which all of the villagers felt morally obliged to attend.

At such times Mr. Churchill, who was Mr. Bogue's deputy after he succeeded to the office, would call out the addresses on the letters as fast as he would run them over and the eager expectants would step forward and take what was for them, provided the required twenty-five cents was handy, which was not always the case.

At one time one William H. Turner, living three miles from the village, was informed that there was a letter for him at the post office.

Turner cast about him for the necessary two shillings, but neither having it himself nor being able to borrow it from others; he threw a bushel of wheat over his shoulder and trudged away to town for his letter.

Much to his surprise, the postmaster could not think of taking anything but two shillings in coin, for, said he:

"As much as I would like to accommodate you, I couldn't get anybody to give me money for the wheat, and it is money I must have when I settle with the post office department."

Nor could Mr. Turner find anybody willing to give him anything but store pay for his wheat, so he left his letter at the office and carried his wheat home again, there to bide the time when he might be able to raise the two shillings in cash.

This reminds me of a similar incident at the little mill.

One day Willard Brooks came to my father and said:

"Mr. Newman, we are out of flour and have no money with which to buy more.

Can you loan me some until harvest."

Father went to the mill and found he had just two bushels of wheat that he had taken in as toll.

He ground the wheat, divided it in two equal portions, letting Mr. Brooks have half, while he took the other half home for his own family use.

These are but samples of the many deprivations of early pioneer life.

Mr. Boyer was postmaster until 1842;

 

  • C. W. Ingalls, until 1849;
  • Hezekiah Smith, until 1850;
  • W. W. Bogue, until 1852;
  • Dr. F. G. Lee, until 1861.

 

Others have, followed in the order printed, up to the present day:

Doctor Root, F. M. Cutcheon, W. W. Bogue, Frank E. Doremus, Fred J. Mauren, Grant M. Morse, Arthur L. Francis.

The first wedding in Portland was that of Susan Moore to Joshua Boyer, September 4, 1836, 'Squire’ Dexter, of Ionia, performing the ceremony.

One of the first entries upon the township records is that in which the clerk, Alemeron Newman, set forth the issuance, August 16, 1838, of a marriage license to Samuel Fox and Matilda Gardner, who came to the town in 1836 with the Newmans.

The marriage ceremony was performed by 'Squire’ A. Newman, at his house.

The first brick building erected in Portland was that now occupied by Barton Brothers as a meat market.

This was built by W. R. Churchill about 1850.

During the year 1880 eleven brick blocks were erected at an aggregate cost of seventy-five thousand dollars.

In an early day the method of obtaining goods by the merchants was to have them brought in wagons from Detroit, which took from seven to eight days at first or until the plank road was built from Lansing to Detroit.

A copy of the book containing this story of Early Portland, Michigan can be found here.