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The Willow Run Settlement

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Author
J. W. McMath
Rights Held By
Ypsilanti Historical Society
OCR Text

“My memory of the southeast part of Washtenaw and the western portion of Wayne county, known formerly as the “Willow Run”, goes back to the year 1828, and I propose to give my personal recollections of that locality, of its first settlers, and of some of the events which oc-curred there from that date on for about six years.

The Willow Run is a small stream that gives its name to the region, and is a tributary to the river Huron, into which it empties its waters near the present village of Bellville (sic.). With this part of the State and its first inhabitants are connected my earliest as well as many of my pleasant memories. I knew all the people who first settled there, and was myself one of them. I was born in the town of Romulus, in that beautiful part of the State of New York lying between the Seneca and Cayga lakes, and came at quite an early are with other members of our mother's family, late in the year 1827, into this portion of the then territory of Michigan. We moved at once upon a farm, previously purchased from the general government by my late father, Samuel McMath, who, with my two older brothers, Archy and Fleming, had come on the year before to select and prepare a home for the family in this new country. My father, after having made the purchase and assisted in making some improvements upon the land, was smitten with the fever and died before the family came.

The place chosen for the dwelling and buildings was pleasantly situated upon the east bank of the Willow Run. When we all arrived (there were nine of us, I being the Youngest,) there were built and ready for use, a good large log house and a large log barn, with the other small buildings usually found upon a farm. All these old structures are well photographed upon my young mind, and though they have long since disappeared, they now come up before me as dis-tinct and as well defined in every outline as any object I see today. On the east side of the house, running along the whole length, was a generous stoop, as it was then called, with the usual mass of vines and ivies reaching up and over the windows on that side. To the southeast forty or fifty feet, was the well, with its old fashioned sweep and bucket. From this well we drew and drank the purest and best of cold water. The large log barn with one or more sheds at-tached, stood a few rods to the north and just across the old territorial road (later known as Tyler Road) which ran from the bank of the stream east and was supposed to lead to Detroit. On the west, and eight or ten rods from the house and just across another road running north and south, was the deep bank of the Willow Run. Down this bank a short distance and right opposite the house, was a fine spring of clear cold water, the flow from which never seemed to dim-inish or increase. Upon and along this bank were a number of fine old black oak trees with their wide, leafy tops. To the northwest of our place, four and a half miles was the village of Ypsilanti, started upon the east side of the Huron river, while adjoining our farm on the south, was the one of Clement Loveder, who with his wife had settled there the year before we came. They were English people and had come directly from near the city of London. They were good, honest, intelligent folks, and made good neigh-bors. They built their dwelling upon the bank of this same Willow Run and had as beautiful and fine a situation for a home as I have ever seen. They had no children for me to play with, yet I often went to their house and much did I enjoy my visits, hearing her talk of her dear old England. and looking upon the many quaint old pictures that hung here and there upon the walls. He was now and then a little petulant and harsh towards his better half, and, believing in the old English common law rule, that the husband was not only the head of the domestic establishment, but had as such the right to administer corporal punishment to the wife on such occasions as he might deem proper, that is, when he was mad about something, he attempted at times, as I remember, to put this rule into force, but as she was quite a large, strong woman, while he was rather a small man, his success in these efforts was not always just what he liked. The good faithful wife, however, never seemed to question his legal right in this matter, though she never conceded that her conduct was such as to warrant an enforcement of the rule. In the main they lived very happily, and he soon changed his views as to his marital rights, accepting the more modern American theory. They both died many years since, leaving, as I believe, no heirs or relatives in this country.

Farther on to the south, beyond the Loveder farm, and by a winding woods road, one and one half miles distant, was the village of Rawsonville; why the vile was added to this name I do not know. There was only one house and a very small mill there, they being upon the north side of the Huron river. To the east of our house, and within the door yard, stood the old fashioned brick oven, in which all the delicious loaves of good, honest bread, the pumpkin pies, biscuits and cookies for the family were duly baked, and where, too, everything was done just right…

To the west of the house and across the Willow Run was an unbroken wilderness for several miles to the westward. It remained so, unsettled and uninhabited for many years, the home and hiding place of wolves and other wild beasts. Wild hogs in great numbers roamed over the whole region. They were often hunted as game, caught with great difficulty, and like the man's horse, worth but little when caught; they were too poor for pork, and too wild and savage to be either fatted or tamed.

The old territorial road, but little used after the building of the Chicago road, was the route usually taken by the Indians, then roaming over this part of the terri-tory, when going to and returning from Detroit, to obtain their annuities from the general government. Their pil-grimage was made in the fall, and they went in bands num-bering from fifty to five hundred, counting squaws, pap-pooses and ponies, and not counting the dogs. While on the march they were generally quiet and orderly, marching always single file, each pony carrying a squaw, two or three pappooses and a lot of camping utensils. They often camped near our house in the woods a little to the east, and when they had no liquor, they were quiet and peaceful, but this seldom happened. Whisky was cheap then and, if possible, more easily obtained than now, and it required but a very small quantity of whisky to cause a very large drunk among the noble red man, and then the very mischief was to pay; quarreling and fighting was in order and they made night hideous with their racket…

The location and general appearance of our old place was indeed very fine to look at, and gave promise not only of a happy home for the family, but of abundant crops as a reward for their industry. The timber consisted mostly of black oak, white oak, oak bushes, and a species of wooden turnip, which was called oak grubs. These last had above ground a clump of bushes resting upon an immense bulb of the size and shape of a half bushel basket. These oak grubs gave no little trouble in clearing the land, and their use in the economy of nature, if they ever had any, is a lost art. The timber was not large nor the tree numerous, hence the land was cleared easily. During the first three years, from seventy-five to ninety acres of this farm were cleared, fenced and put under the plow. By the fourth and fifth years the soil had been thoroughly tested and its productive capa-city fully ascertained…

As the land did not grow tame hay, the corn stalks and straw used for fodder for the stock were supplemented by wild hay cut from a marsh, three or four miles to the east, lying along the tarritorial road. My first knowledge of legal proceedings was obtained from a lawsuit which grew out of this wild hay business. My brother Fleming had, during the summer, cut and stacked a quantity of this hay, leaving it to be hauled home as wanted for winter use. After this was done, and while it remained on the place where cut, a man bought the land and claimed to own the hay. Fleming removed it and was sued for its value, the plaintiff com-mencing proceedings by civil warrant issued by a neighboring justice whose name was Dalrimple. The arrest was made at our house where Fleming happened to be, the justice him-self being present with the constable to see that every-thing was done in proper legal form. Fleming requested permission to go over to his own house for some papers and for his other clothes, in order that he might not only better defend his legal rights, but that he might make a more respectable appearance in court. But as his house was just over the county line, and within the county of Washtenaw, and as our house was in the county of Wayne, where these proceedings were being carried on, his request was denied, and when he absolutely refused to go he was taken by the coat collar and forcibly compelled by the officers of the law, very much to his indignation and to the terror of all present. But on the trial the case went against the plaintiff and the prisoner was discharged…

A mile or so northeast of us lived the Combs family. Old grandfather Combs (he was a very old man), during the fair weather, visited us two or three times a week to gossip and talk over old revolutionary times. He and my mother had, during the colonial struggle for freedom, lived in the State of New Jersey, and she had, when a child, fled with her parents before the marauding march of the British army, across that State. The other members of the Combs family were John Combs, his wife and their four or five children. John was the hunter of the settlement, and many a gallant stag fell before his deadly rifle, to furnish venison, not only to the Combs household, but to the neigh-bors as well. He was also chief musician for the community and played the violin when the young people gathered for a dance. A very nice, clever fellow was John, but he had a fondness for whisky and betimes took more than was proper.

There was also another member of the Combs family deserving mention; old Lois, a colored woman. She was quite large and of a clear coal black color; born a slave, the property of old grandfather Combs, she was given her freedom by the laws of the State of New York, in 1824. She had remained with the family, however, and followed their fortunes to the new territory of Michigan. She was a kind, faithful creature, caring for the children and doing most of the work, not only in the house, but in the fields as well. She could use an ax as well as a man, and I often looked on in wonder while she would chop down the trees and then chop up the trunks into wood. The family, however, did not seem to thrive. Too much time was spent in hunting and playing the violin, and too little in work upon the farm.

In 1827 our oldest sister, Roxana, was married, in the old home, to Orrin Derby, and they went at once to Ypsilanti to live. Wedding tours were not fashionable then. Mr. Derby was a New England youth, of good habits, had a good trade, was active and thrifty, and he and his little wife (she was very small) began life with good prospects. He built a house on the east side of the river Huron, some three blocks back, and on the south side of the main street. For a time they “kepp tavern” here; he, however, had a shop near by, where he made and sold saddles and harnesses. As soon as they were well settled, sister Mary went from the old home to live with them, and remained a member of the Derby family till she married.

In 1830 our oldest brother, Archy, who, since father's death had, under our mother, been the head man of the family, was married to Miss Elisabeth Kimmel and went over to the north about five miles, near his father-in-law's, Henry Kimmel, and began business upon a piece of new land, with the view of making a home. His wife, when they were first married, was one of the brightest, prettiest and smartest brides I ever saw, and “chockfull” of innocent fun and mischief. She was called “Betsy” by her own people, and is better known by that name now. Her parents were from Pennsylvania. In their early married life they had settled in southern Illinois, upon the Kaskaskia river. After remaining there a few years they left and came, with all their stock of cattle, horses, wagons, etc., through the State of Illinois to the south and of Lake Michigan, and thence on around the end of that lake up through northwest Indiana, and nearly the whole width of Michigan, to where he was living in 1830, and where he remained till his death, which occurred only a short time since.

I think it was the next year after brother Archy married that the cholera broke out. This caused great excitement, but I remember of no cases of it in our vicinity.

In 1831 our good sister Mabelle was married at the same old home. This was made eventful by the large number present, and more particularly to me, by the fact (sorry to admit it) that I got most ingloriously drunk on the occasion. It was the custom then to have wine at wedding dinners. A large table had been spread, at which the guests had just dined; at the side of each plate was one of those very small wine glasses, filled with wine; this the guest was supposed to taste of only, leaving some of it in the glass. Being myself very small, I did not sit down with the grown folks, but when they had all left I came into the room, hungry and dry (a boy is always dry), and seeing these little glasses tasted one and rather liked it. It occurred to me to see how many of then I could dispose of; so I began going around the table taking them in course. Very soon everything be-gan to swim around, then I began to feel queer myself. I lay down, then rolled over and over; finally I lay quite still. Some one coming in thought I was dead, but I wasn't. Finally, after I had created quite a commotion, I was laid on mother's bed to sober off. The usual headache followed on this, and is still well remembered.

Sister Mabelle and her husband, Asahel Williams, also went to Ypsilanti to live after their marriage. He was a fine looking young man, bright and active, but was lacking in that stability in business pursuits essential to ultimate success. He was a tailor by trade, but soon left that for other business.

After living at Ypsilanti for two or three years he went to some place in Indiana, where his wife soon after joined him.

The next to leave the old home was our brother Robert. In 1831 or 1832, and when he was about 17 years of age, it was decided, after much talk with our then pastor, Rev. Ira M. Weed, and after many family consultations, that he should become a minister, and with that in view he left home to begin the studies preparatory to entering college. He was then small of his age, not very robust in health, but was of a studious turn of mind, loved to study and to read. Brother Samuel, on the other hand, who was two or three years older than he, was the mechanic of the family. Everything in that line seemed naturally to go to him, and I must say that he was always able to do about everything; could make a sled, mend a wagon, make a pair of shoes, a drum or a violin. He also played well upon the snare drum. Brother Robert blew good music upon the fife, and together they often made the whole country echo at evening time with the best of martial music.

The habits of the people of this settlement were simple and their wants few. Grocery and dry goods bills were light. Maple sugar was made in the spring and did duty for most purposes the whole year round. The making of it was hard work; we had to go four or five miles to find the trees; but it was looked upon as a sort of holiday entertainment; was engaged in by whole families and heartily enjoyed by all. Barley did very well for coffee; the best of butter was made at home; pork and beef were home productions; of good, fresh eggs we had an abundance; the river Huron supplied us with excellent fish of choice varieties, and the forest held plenty of nice strawberries, whortleberries and sweet nuts, all to be had in their proper season. Farmers never buy flour, corn meal or vegetables; we did not then. Buggies either with or without canopy tops were not used. When a young man wanted to attend a social, five or ten miles away, he just mounted his good horse and taking his best girl on behind, went. This may have been a little hard on the horse, but the riders enjoyed this mode of conveyance and always had a lively time of it. The nearest mills where corn and wheat could be ground, during the first two years, were at Detroit and Pontiac. Going to mill then was no small matter and took several days; but in the third year Mark Norris and John Brown built a gristmill on the Huron river, at Ypsilanti, and then our wants in this direction were more easily supplied. The health of our people, if nothing be said of the fever and argue, was generally good. I remember of no deaths occuring while we lived there. The argue, however, was there, and it stayed. The doctor, with his whole saddle bags of medicine, did but little good; it paid its unwelcome visits to about everyone, and none could shake it off. I alone of the whole family escaped; that was a wonder to the others, but I am not willing to confess that I ever regretted not having it.

The clothing for the family, as well as the materials for it, were made at home, excepting, perhaps, the materials for extra fine dresses and a few articles in the millinery line for the women folk. Linen sheets, woolen blankets and rag carpets adorned the house; hair mattresses, patent spring beds and marble topped bedroom sets were not known then; but we had, instead, good feather beds, nice pillows, and home made bedsteads which, if they did not cost as much as the modern kind, were considered then very good, and gave just as sweet and refreshing sleep. The big spinning wheel for wool, and the little wheel, with its distaff, for flax, then so common in every house, have long since gone out of use, and are now objects of curiosity only. A few sheep provided the wool which was clipped, carded and spun at home. A hand loom wove it into cloth, which was sent away to be fulled. It was soon returned a good, substantial gray cloth, which was cut and made up in the house into winter suits for the men folks, and always did good service. There was not much effort at style; clothes were just cut, made and put on, and that was about the whole of it. For summer wear, for the men and boys, a good linen suit was always in order. Boys did not tear these linen clothes; they couldn't. The girls made us straw hats for summer, and for winter they manufactured for us hats or caps of some kind of woolen stuff. These latter would hardly be thought in style now, but they were comfortable and handy and kept the ears from freezing in cold weather. For shoes, the leather had to be bought, but brother Samuel, somehow without having learned the trade, made us very good shoes. They might not have locked as well as those now worn, but they fitted the feet and did not hurt the corns.

The Beers family came in 1830, and built a small house on a part of Brother Flemin's land, just north of his house, where they lived two or three years. Mrs. Beers taught the first school in the neighborhood, and the first I ever at-tended. Later I attended a school tauught by my sister Mabelle, over on the Chicago road, nearly a mile east of Bowen's place. While I was attending this school some one broke into the schoolhouse one night and stole nearly all our little school books, with about everything else that could be carried off. We learned, a few days after, that the thief had been caught near Detroit, tried and convicted, and severely punished by whipping; such was the law then in the territory. Our books were returned to us. A little later I went part of a summer to a school located near the Supes farm, about a mile southeast of Mr. Loveder's place…

Most of the settlers were of Presbyterian stock and at-tended public worship on the Sabbath. Our family, Mr. and Mrs. Loveder and Uncle Fleming's people went to Ypsilanti. Betimes some wandering minister would favor us and hold ser-vices on an evening at some of the private houses. I well remember my first appearence in meeting at the old red Presbyterian Church in Ypsilanti. The late Rev. Ira M. Weed was in the pulpit; he had but recently come from some-where among the hills of New Hampshire to make his first effort here as pastor of a church. Long board seats were arranged on three sides of the audience room, rising one above another for the use of the men and boys, while in the body of the church were some long seats with backs to them; these were for the ladies and the more genteel part of the congregation. There were no pews and no organ. We had a long sermon in the forenoon, an intermission (Sabbath schools were not commenced then) of two hours, then another service lasting until half past three, and then again another in the evening. People in the country did not usually remain for the evening service. Such long services, filling up nearly the entire day, would be thought tiresome now and we are inclined to pity those who formerly had to endure them; yet it must not be forgotten that most of the men and women who grew up under those old fashioned ways, and long Sunday ninistrations, were strong in religious faith and doctrine and good honest people who paid a hundred cents on the dollar every time.

Besides those already mentioned there were a few others that came and settled near us, but not many. Mr. Supe located on the Huron river two or three miles below us. He was a German of the Pennsylvania kind, a man of means. He soon had a fine, well cleared farm. The Vining family lived near him, while two miles or so to the northeast of us settled a family by the name of Horner, a respectable, thrifty, well to do household.

Ypsilanti grew apace meantime, the west side of the river after awhile taking the lead. The present part of the town where the depct and upper bridge are now seen, was then still overgrown with trees and brush. Among its prominent men I now recall the nane of Solomon Champion, Mark Norris, A. H. Ballard, Jas. M. Edmunds, Madison Cook, John Brown, Walter B. Hewitt and Orrin Derby. The good old Dr. Millington looked after the health of the people, while the lawyers, Marcus Lane and Elias M. Skinner, saw to it that their legal rights were preserved or a fair opportunity given to contend for them before the proper courts."

Reprinted from MICHIGAN PIONEER AND HISTORICAL COLLECTIONS,
Volume #14-1889-section headed “Annual Meeting”

McMATH, John Watson-born July 3, 1824, Romulus, New York, son of Samuel & Mary Fleming McMath-John was the last child in a family of ten children-died July 21, 1900 Bay City, Michigan. Graduate of University of Michigan 1851. Judge of Probate, Bay County 1875–79.

John's father was Samuel McMath who served in the war of 1812 and became a Colonel. “He was born in January of 1782 in Pennsylvania and died in September of 1826 in log house he built on farm taken up from government in 1825. Buried at Woodruff's Grove in a field near a lone apple tree a few rods nw of where Mr. Foersters' house now stands (and of Grove Street). Supposed to be second white person to die in county”. Fr. McMath generalogy.