Greetings From Hastings, Michigan

By M. L. Cook, written in 1919

(Publisher, Hastings Banner, Hastings, Michigan)

I WAS born in Barry County and my home has always been within its borders, 55 of my 60 years in Hastings.

I have had some opportunity to note the wonderful changes that have taken place in the surroundings and home life of their people.

When I began to observe such things, Barry County was far from an unbroken wilderness.

Probably half its area was still virgin forest.

Log houses were common.

Ox-teams were numerous.

Wooded areas of considerable extent were plentiful.

The larger wild animals had disappeared, but small game was abundant.

I can recall seeing the skies darkened with immense flocks of pigeons on their migrations to or from their nesting places in the north woods.

Wild ducks and geese—occasionally wild turkeys—rewarded the hunter's quest for game in the fall.

And you should have seen the squirrels sometimes—the fox, the gray and black—seeking nuts in the autumn.

I well remember witnessing a hunter, in just a few minutes, shooting nine black squirrels from a single tree close to one of the main traveled roads within a mile of this city.

When my father started to clear the underbrush for the home which he later erected on West Green Street in what was then woods, he was startled by the whirr of the wings of a frightened partridge, and a little later discovered a whippoorwill's nest within six feet of what was afterward the front wall of the house he built, where Keller Stem now resides.

I spent the long summer vacations, when a boy, at my grandfather's farm home in the township of Prairieville.

We had to go four miles to get the mail at the Prairieville post-office.

The stage came once a week from Kalamazoo, then proud to be called "the big village of Michigan."

Later the stage made two and still later three trips a week.

Contrast this with the daily rural free delivery of mail, and the cooperative telephone in nearly every rural home!

I have been an eye witness of the marvelous changes in farm operation brought about by the self-binder, the steam thresher, the up-to-date tools for plowing, harrowing, sowing, and securing of crops.

Changes more wonderful these than all that had taken place in rural life from the dawn of history up to sixty years ago.

I vividly remember some incidents connected with our ride from Prairieville to Hastings in the fall of 1863, when we moved from the farm to Hastings, then a village of 1,000 people.

From west of West Creek to the bend in Green Street all was woods.

On the south side of the street and bordering it were clearings.

Back of these was Dunning's woods, whose trees I have seen fairly alive with pigeons.

Where P. T. Colgrove's residence now stands was a dense growth of brush, covering half of the block.

The "Highlands" west of the schoolhouse, then called "BumbleBee Plains," could boast a few small houses, in its thickets of hazel, thorn bushes, and oak grubs.

What is now the second ward had a few scattered homes.

The first ward, north of the river, had not many more.

In every direction the town seemed hedged in with woods.

There was no railroad in 1863, nor till five years later.

Mail was brought every day from Battle Creek in the big stage, drawn by four horses.

I can see it now coming down Jefferson Street, the driver cracking the whip, and the prancing horses showing off at their best as they turned the corner at State Street, and were brought to a standstill on the vacant corner, by the Hastings House.

Before he reached what are now the corporate limits, and as he was journeying down Jefferson Street, the driver would announce his coming to the slow-going villagers by frequent blasts on a musically-toned horn. The coming of the stage was an event,—it was the town's one and only touch with the great outside world.

I was too young to know much about the Civil War.

I can recall that when we were living on the farm in Prairieville, my mother took me to the door to let me see a company of young recruits going away to the front, marching by our home, with the Stars and Stripes proudly waving over them.

I remember when near the close of the war a soldier's body was brought here for burial in the cemetery, which was then where the new High School building now stands, and a company of men in uniform fired the customary volley at the grave side.

The conspicuous feature of the down-town portion of the village was the old two-story frame court house, placed near the center of the square.

The block was then fenced to protect the yard from the cows which roamed at will in the public streets.

Stile steps at the north and south boundaries of the square were the means of gaining access to the wide pine-plank walks which led to the entrances to the county's building, the Mecca then as now for people from all quarters of the county.

In those days what was done in the old court house, particularly conventions and court proceedings, bulked large in the otherwise very uneventful life of the village.

Next in size, and north from the public square, was the old frame two-story hotel, the Hastings House.

At the corner, bordered on two sides by the hotel, and on the other two by State and Church Streets, was a small vacant square where the stage drew up at nightfall, and the weary passengers alighted after their 26 miles journey over rough and hilly roads from Battle Creek.

Here on the Fourth of July, or when Forepaugh's show came to town in the summertime, Mine Host turned many a pretty penny from the dancing that took place, all day and all the night, in the leafy "Bowery," constructed for those who delighted in tripping the more or less "light fantastic."

The larger homes of those early days were grouped near or surrounded the court house square.

They were hospitable homes, too.

Not a single residence or business place in town was of brick.

The only structure of that material was the jail, known as the "Big Brick," but that name sadly belied its size and appearance.

It was situated a block west of the court house square where the home of Philo Sheldon now stands.

The business district then comprised two and one half blocks on State Street, and one on Jefferson.

The stores were one and two story frame structures, highly inflammable as to materials, and monstrosities when viewed from the standpoint of art.

On both sides of State, from Broadway to Michigan Avenue, were wide board walks, made of the choicest two-inch white pine plank, with the same material for "stringers."

A plank with a knot in it would be rejected.

The same clear, white pine was used for the narrower walks on the residence streets, with inch boards instead of two inch.

The same care was exercised in selecting boards for the smaller walks.

That lumber, which had to be renewed every five years or so, would be worth $100 per thousand feet now.

But the citizens of that day did not feel at all puffed up over being permitted to walk on such boards.

Pine was so plentiful then that no one dreamed of a time when it could be considered an extravagance to use clear white pine in a sidewalk.

The business and professional men of my early boyhood days whom I now recall were: Hon. Henry A. Goodyear, Nathan and Wm. Barlow, R. J. Grant, O. D. Spaulding, Alvin Bailey, Julius Russell and J. M. Nevins, who conducted general merchandise stores; D. G. Robinson and R. B. Wightman, hardware merchants; D. C. Hawley, Joseph Cole, Mason Allen and George Preston, grocers; George Keith, landlord of the Hastings House; James Roberts and F. D. Ackley the druggists; Augustus Rower and J. G. Runyan the shoe dealers.

Of lawyers I remember Hon. James A. Sweezey, William Hayford, Isaac Holbrook, C. G. Holbrook, William Burgher, and Lawyer Mills.

As I recall the justice court and circuit court trials of that period, prominent features were: the browbeating of witnesses; cuttingly critical and very personal remarks which the attorneys addressed to each other; oratorical efforts to win the sympathy of the jury for their clients, rather than arguments.

The health of the village was safely reposed in the hands of Drs. William Upjohn, J. M. Russell, A. P. Drake, C. S. Burton and John Roberts.

The dentist was Dr. William Jones, although Dr. Drake also did some work of that kind.

The first Barry County young man who graduated from the Dental department of our State University and then began his dental practice in the county was Dr. S. M. Fowler, a resident of this city for several years, now Major Fowler, whose home is in Battle Creek.

He was stationed at Camp Custer during the War.

The pioneer barber shop in Hastings was established by the late John Bessmer in 1864.

He afterward engaged in the jewelry business.

The industries of that early period consisted of the upper and lower grist mills on Fall Creek, also a saw mill on the same stream, and a carding mill, where good old Deacon Van Brunt and later Welcome Marble carded into rolls the fleeces brought to the mill.

The power was furnished from a dam across the Thornapple River near the present site of the Wool Boot factory, and the water was conveyed through a race to the mill 100 rods downstream.

Two dams on Fall Creek within the village stored the water for the grist mills, and in winter furnished fine recreation for the youngsters who enjoyed skating.

The "Old Swimming Hole" was at the bend in the river, just north of the Bookcase factory.

The two-story frame building that occupied the center of the school house square was the "temple of learning."

It was quite an imposing structure.

Architecturally it stood in a class by itself, and was not impressive.

Its location on the hill overlooking the town was all that could be desired.

Providence mercifully spared me the pain of viewing its ugliness for too long; for one night early in the year of 1871 it burned to the ground.

It had four rooms and five teachers. But its meager appliances, and its lack of modern methods, did not prevent its doing the foundation educational work for Clarence M. Burton, an authority on Michigan history, an author, and for many years president of the State Historical Society, also for his equally talented brother, Charles, famed as a Detroit attorney, and also for Loyal E. Knappen, now an honor to the federal bench.

All of which goes to prove that something more than a fine school building and splendid equipment are required to fit a man for a large place in the world.'

Unless there be added the ability to think, to vision things straight, together with high ideals, the fine building and equipment may not compare favorably in output with less pretentious structures.

An event connected with my early schooldays which I recall was that after the railroad had been completed to Hastings the entire school was dismissed one afternoon to witness the arrival of the first passenger train.

We marched to the old depot in the second ward and hopefully for hours and hours looked to the east to see the expected train, only to suffer disappointment.

An accident prevented its arrival, and its coming was the event of another time when the schools were not dismissed.

But never doubt that we were witnesses of many later arrivals which heralded the end of the old stage coach.

Pictures of the Barry, Eaton, Jackson, and Kent, names of the engines which drew the trains to and from Hastings are vividly impressed on my mind.

They were exactly alike as to size and polished brass ornamentation, and were named for the four counties through which the Grand River Valley Railroad passed.

Naturally we were partial to the "Barry."

They all burned wood.

In smokestacks they were gigantic, but in every other respect they were the merest dwarfs by the side of the locomotives of today.

Recent fires have brought to my mind the old time Hastings methods of fighting that destructive element.

If flames were discovered in one's home the alarm was given by the lusty voices of its discoverers.

If access could be had to one of the churches the bell was rung.

Arrived at the endangered dwelling, a line was formed to the nearest cistern or well, from which water was pumped or drawn as rapidly as possible and the pails passed from hand to hand down the line, possibly up a ladder, to the men who tried to put the water where it would subdue the flames.

The success of this method was more than you might credit, especially if the wind were not blowing.

Shortly after we removed here the village fathers decided that the growth of the town warranted a better means of fighting fires and they committed the unpardonable extravagance of purchasing a "hand engine" as it was called, which some more ambitious town had discarded.

If you could have seen it, and especially have witnessed the back-breaking labor of the twenty men, ten on each side, who operated this venerable outfit, you would have quickly reached the conclusion that the town which parted with it at any price did a mighty good stroke of business.

With the advent of this "hand engine" came the hose cart and the formation of a volunteer hose company.

In the day-time teams would draw the apparatus to the fire; in the night more or less willing hands would drag the heavy load.

In the absence of the regular company others volunteered or were called on to man the big hand engine.

Sometimes in winter, after it had been pulled by hand to the vicinity of the burning building, it would be discovered that all the cisterns in the neighborhood were dry, so the engine was useless, as the suction pipe could not reach the water level of the open wells.

On State Street two big cisterns were made, so as to assure a water supply in case fire should invade the business district.

The location of one of these cisterns is responsible for the big depression in the brick pavement in front of the Morrill-Lambie store.

There were but two churches in Hastings in 1863, the Presbyterian and the Methodist.

Soon after the war there was established the third, the Episcopalian.

It was a hard struggle to keep them going, for I doubt if their combined membership including members from the country was 150.

The business element in Hastings, with a few shining exceptions, in those days seemed to be quite indifferent about the churches or their work.

They did not oppose them but seemed to feel that their support was the other fellow's job.

Part of the funds for paying the preacher was derived from socials,—not your modern "suppers," where you eat, pay and make a quick get-away.

The church social of that time was held in someone's home.

There were light refreshments later in the evening; but you were expected to come with the wife and children and visit, sing, and play such entrancing games as "snap and catch 'em."

The elders as well as youngsters entered with great zeal and fervor into that and other games.

This social was no "pay as you enter" proposition.

Quite the contrary, a receptacle was put in a conspicuous place on the parlor table, and you were expected to drop a fiver, or if you were of the aristocracy, a "tener" of the shin plaster currency of that period,—the five and ten being cents,—not dollars, mind you.

And who could or would forget the "donations" to the preacher?

There was variety for you, in more ways than one!

These social functions were always held at the preacher's own home.

We would say that was "Rubbing it in" on the good man.

But I doubt if in those days the annual donation visit was considered by the Dominie as anything less than one of the inscrutable methods of a kind Providence for maintaining orthodoxy in the world.

Everything seemed to be coming the preacher's way that night, stovewood, a quarter of a beef, bushels of potatoes, onions, and apples, bags of flour, baskets of eggs, baked things and some cash.

Neither can I forget the donation supper, when the "kid" was not asked to wait for the second table, but had his plate filled over and over again with substantial food, and no limit except his capacity for the baked chicken served that night!

Michigan was supposed to have prohibition during this period.

But the law was so loosely drawn, and so technical, that a conviction under it was quite impossible.

The proverbial Philadelphia lawyer must have been its author.

Under it drinking places flourished.

A small stock of wet goods and a room to sell them in were the sole requirements to set one up in the liquor business.

When Hastings was a town of less than 2,000, in the early 70's, there were 27 places where liquors were vended here.

In front of, or in the rear of, or underneath, every grocery store in Hastings, there was a liquor saloon.

I can remember the first grocery established here without a saloon.

Where there were so many, competition made most of them ready to ignore all considerations except personal gain in the sale of their goods.

Drunken young men as well as older men were so common when there was a crowd in town that the attention paid to them consisted in getting out of their way.

Then came the day of "regulated" saloons.

We at first, as I recall it, had 14 licensed saloons.

But the "regulation" by license was a sorry failure.

Then came a wave of popular sentiment against them for their utter defiance of all law.

They were vigorously prosecuted and a few convicted and heavily fined.

In return for this, the saloon crowd daubed the fronts of the Methodist and Presbyterian churches, also the homes of some of their prominent members, with great splotches of ink.

All through its history in Hastings, the licensed saloon was an abomination.

No wonder Barry County was among the first nine, after Van Buren, to wipe out the curse, and happy are we over the fact that today the Stars and Stripes wave over a saloon-less nation.

With present day tolerance of opposing views, the politics of the late sixties and early seventies was a marked contrast.

It hardly seems believable that men who ordinarily were on terms of amity, who would take one another's word about all other matters, who were even close personal friends, could view each other's political opinions and actions with such marked disfavor and suspicion.

It was no doubt the survival of the bitterness growing out of the Civil War, and of the sentiments which men entertained as to the necessity for it, and the manner in which its issues should be settled.

With our quiet, orderly ways of conducting elections, under the Australian system, we can hardly believe that in that period on election days a crowd always stood around the polls, many peddling tickets for the party of their choice, and pleading with the unstable or doubtful to vote for this or that party, or at least to use one of the slips for some favorite candidate.

Drunkenness at the polling places was common and sometimes personal encounters and rough and tumble fights.

The old time political meeting, with its intense partisanship, manifested in torch-light processions, parades, etc., can hardly be realized.

In the Grant and Colfax campaign in 1868 I can recollect that a large troop of young ladies came from Woodland on horseback twelve miles to Hastings, and rode their horses in the Republican parade.

Can you imagine young ladies doing such things now?

The change from the Hastings of 1863 to the Hastings of 1919 is typical of the progress of our country.

Boasting is quite unseemly; but we nevertheless think that few towns of its size in the country have more of the comforts and conveniences of civilized life, more of the things that speak of helpful living and useful industry than has this little city.

And yet one cannot forget that living in that earlier time with its simple pleasures and easy going ways had its compensations.

There was a spirit of real neighborliness, of helpful interest in other folks, a sociability that was founded upon good will and kindness, that make the older days seem delightful, and make us feel that we are being robbed of much human good by the hurry and bustle of our modern life.

Hastings City Hall in 1910