Historical Notes on Alden and Helena Township, Michigan
contributed by Irene Hawley Montney
Thank you to Irene Hawley Montney and her son,William Montney for contributing this material to the Antrim County, Michigan genealogy pages. These historical notes were compiled by Mrs. Montney in 1964 and serve as a most interesting historical guide through Alden and Helena Townships. Attempts will be made to highlight names of people for ease of locating, and eventually, I hope to construct a surname index to these articles with links to the references. If your own family collection includes histories of other Antrim county communities, and you wish to make that material available for reading please feel free to contact me. Again, a heartfelt thank you to William Montney for sending this material to me. Margaret Pecar Fallone
When the pioneer first arrived here to settle on homestead claims, the entire country was covered with virgin timber. The lakes were surrounded with branches hanging well over the water. One could paddle his canoe along the shores and disappear out of sight almost any place he wished. Clam and Grass Lakes were covered with white and yellow lily pads which are now nearly gone.
The settlers built small but substantial log cabins and barns, then cleared the land for the purpose of raising crops. Wheat was put in with a hoe among the stumps and roots, and finally harvested with a sickle. This required much hard labor, as the trees had to be cut and burned to the ground, since there was no sale for timber then. As time passed and other people slowly moved in, a market gradually developed from the timber, but brought only enough to barely pay for moving it from the grounds. There were no horses and few oxen in those days.
Shingles for the roofs of the houses were made by hand from pine or cedar, mostly pine in the beginning of the shingle industry. A block of choice straight grained pine cut in eighteen inch lengths was set on end and split with a froe (a cleaving tool with the handle at right angles to the blade) into the thickness of shingles. The piece was then placed on a shaving horse, gripped at one end with the feet and thinned down on the opposite end with a drawing shave, thus completing the shingle product. Shingles of this type have been known to last a good many years.
In those early days, the people had very little money and depended much on the natural resources for their living. Wild berrieds were in abundance. They made maple syrup and sugar to supplement their cane sugar supply. What a glorious treat they had when they found a "bee tree", usually a basswood. If the bees had stored their honey in too high a cavity, it necessitated cutting down the tree. This was done in the fall of the year, when the bees were dormant.
Game was plentiful: partridge, pigeons, squirrels, rabbits, woodchuck, deer and bear. The small game was caught by trapping, and guns for hunting the larger species were mostly of the muzzle loading type. Much has been written about the passenger pigeons and their eventual extinction. Frank Hawley remembers vividly seeing great flocks of these birds and recalls how people slaughtered them by the hundreds. The book "Vinegar Pie and Other Tales" by Al Barnes gives a more detailed account of the passenger pigeons.
The same species of fish that we have in our waters today were also plentiful. Before Clam River was dredged, white fish came into the river in the fall to spawn, and the natives speared them with pitch forks, salted them, and packed them in barrels for winter use. Fish hooks to catch the smaller species were made of bent pins.
This accounting would not be complete unless mention was made of those hardy people who settled here, and who by their determination and hard work helped in the developing of the township of Helena. The first to come in 1858, was Lucius A. Thayer. Later followed: Simeon Andrews, Jason C. Angell, Ben Armstrong, Charles Autherson, Charles P. Bacon, Michael Barrett,Reuben W. Coy, William Campbell, George H. Drake, George H. Hall, John Hasting, C.P. Hawley, George Hull, Charles Kitchen, Thomas Leonard, William McBeth, Isaac B. Main, Blackford Smalley, Peter Smalley, Jerad W. Tyler, Joseph Van Camp, and Richard Van Camp.
The township of Helena was originally organized as a part of Milton Township by the Board of Supervisors and Grand Traverse County. Milton Township was divided by the Board of Supervisors of Antrim County in 1865, and all that portion west of Torch Lake was called Milton, while that part on the east side of the lake was named Helena in honor of Helen M. Thayer, the first pioneer settler in this area. Helena at this time embraced several of the present townships of the county. It later was subdivided, but seventeen sections of Helena Township still lie in Torch Lake.
In the early 1860's there were but a handful of settlers in the township, with more coming in the late 60's. They continued to come and establish homes, so that by 1900 much of the township was settled. With determination they cleared their lands and many fine farms were started.
No finer fruits were grown in the world that those raised in the fruit belt of which Helena was a part. Apples from this section took the grand prize at the Pan American Exposition held at Buffalo, New York in 1901. This was also considered one of the finest areas for growing potatoes. On one day in 1905, teams with wagon loads of potatoes came into the warehouse with a total of 1,376 bushels. Cattle, hogs, beans, and corn were also grown.
Now, when one drives through the country side, he sees very few farms under cultivation, for a great number of them have been abandoned, and all that remains are an occasional broken down building, decaying orchards, lilac bushes and memories.
Helena became famous as a summer resort area. The principle resorts were Belden Heights at Alden; Lone Tree Point and Waswagonik near Clam River; Crystal Beach Hotel on the south end of Torch Lake; and Watson's Inn at Torch River. Many beautiful homes and cottages were built on the shores of Torch and Clam Lakes. The Pere Marquete railroad officials stated that more tickets were sold from Chicago to Alden during the season than to any other point on their line in the resort area. It is still very popular and continues to grow in this respect.
The first white people to settle in this region were Mr. and Mrs. Lucius Thayer and three daughters. They chose a homestead claim on the south shore of Clam Lake, in 1859. Their son, Fredrick W.S. Thayer, was the first white male born in Helena Township; their daughter Abby, the first white female born here. Many months passed without Mrs. Thayer seeing a white woman; her only contacts with women were the Indian squaws.
Mr. Thayer was the first supervisor from the township. After his death in 1876, Mrs. Thayer continued to conduct the estate, making improvements and planting a fine orchard.
George Thayer, brother of Lucius Thayer, and former Mayor of Grand Rapids, spent his summers at Clam River where he owned a summer home. He persuaded other people to come and eventually Mrs. Thayer opened her home as a rooming and boarding house. Thus, they had much to do in promoting the development of the resort business. The Thayer homestead still stands, approximately one-half mile east of Clam River on the south side of Clam Lake, built on a hill with a fine view of the lake.
In the early 1860's, George H. Lyon, the first treasurer of Helena Township, located near Clam Lake. Others who came with their families about the same time were: William Campbell, George Bronson, Sr., Simeon Andrews, George H. Hall, and John Hastings. The first store was built by Andrew F. Anderson shortly before his marriage to Helen M. Thayer, February 1st, 1882.
Many today do not know that the river once flowed in a north-westerly direction from the boat houses now located on the north side of Clam River and emptied into Torch Lake just north of the business places where the bathing beaches are now. The dredging of Clam River took place about 1876-77. Up to this time the river was quite shallow and it was possible to wade across it. The little island west of the old tumbled down boat houses marks the north side of the new channel. This new channel was opened on August 17th, 1877, and the first steamer "Jenny Silkman" entered Clam Lake on that day. On September 7th, of the same year, the steamer "Queen of the Lakes" made her first trip to Clam Lake.
Another fact which is not known to many, is that about 1880-1882 the people decided to construct a bridge over the river. It loomed high like a rainbow, high enough to allow the steamer "Queen of the Lakes" to pass under. The timbers for the bridge were hewed, tongued and grooved, holes bored and fastened together with wooden pins to hold the structure firmly, then the floor of the bridge was planked. However, this bridge was never completed, as an arguement arose over the right types of approaches to be built. The neighbors put ladders at each end and crossed over by climbing up one side and down the other.
In 1854 the firm of Dexter and Noble of Elk Rapids operated heavily in lumbering pine and at that time had a string of five camps. The first one was located on the east arm of Round Lake, in Kalkaska County; the second, on the east bank of Torch River; the third was at the south end of Torch Lake, where the Crystal Beach resort is located; the fourth, at the present site of Alden; and the fifth camp was situated eight miles northeast of Alden, on Grass River.
John Spencer had charge of the fourth camp and in 1854 built the first house, a log cabin. He operated for several successful seasons, more cabins were built, and eventually a village sprang up here which was named after him and is called Spencer Creek to this day. When the Chicago and West Michigan railroad was built through the town in 1891 the name was changed to Alden, in honor of William Alden Smith, who was connected with the railroad and was at the time President of the Grand Rapids Savings Bank.
Since most people are familiar with the town of Alden, in order to avoid confusion in the following articles, the town will be referred to as Alden despite the date of reference.
After the pine was cut, settlers began homesteading the government lands near the east shore of Torch Lake and the problem of getting supplies was an arduous one, the nearest source being Elk Rapids, a distance of eighteen miles. All this changed when Reuben W. Coy opened his store in August, 1870, at the mouth of Spencer Creek. This building housed the business until a new store was built in 1888 about a block away from the old one, approximately a little west of the present site of the Alden Tavern. Sometime in later years it was destroyed by fire.
A warehouse, located back of the first store on Torch Lake, was used for storing bulky merchandise, such as barrels of flour, salt, kerosene, hay and feed. The warehouse was filled in the fall with sufficient quantity of this merchandise to last through the winter months. These supplies were shipped from Milwaukee and Chicago by lake steamers to Elk Rapids and then transferred by the "King Fisher" to Alden. The use of the "King Fisher" for hauling supplies was discontinued in 1873, as the Grand Rapids and Indiana (GR and I) was being built that year throught Kalkaska and Mancelona. Mr. Coy was no longer dependant on Elk Rapids for his provisions; he could haul them in from Kalkaska by teams, a distance of eighteen miles. Mr. Coy supplied all the railroad construction camps at Kalkaska, Mancelona and Elmire with provision, while the "GR & I" was being built through this territory. The sales in 1873 were among the largest in the history of the store.
The Ottawa an Chippewa were numberous and brought furs and baskets to the store for sale. The muskrat and mink skins were most plentiful and were sorted into three grades according to quality. Red and Grey fox skins were common and occasionally otter and black bear skins were purchased. Skunks were not native in the early days, although they are plentiful and common today.
After the death of Reuben W. Coy in 1896, the mercantile interests at Alden were reorganized under the name of Coy Mercantile Co., Ltd. In 1908, Charles Coy became sole owner of the business. In 1912, he bought the store at Comfort from Chester Hall and took his cousin, Frank Lyon, as partner. It was located on the railroad between Alden and Bellair, and they operated under the name of Lyon and Coy. In 1918, Mr. Coy sold out his interest to Mr. Lyon, and devoted his whole time to his Alden store. He also bought and shipped beans in carload lots, and did a big business in this product. After operating for a period of fifteen years, Mr. Coy sold his store in 1923, thus ending fifty-three consecutive years of merchandising by the Coy family.
The first grist mill, installed by Reuben W. Coy in 1875, with Amasa B. Probasco as miller, was the old stone burr type. It wsa operated by water power, utilizing the waters of Spencer Creek, and the mill pond was just east of where the railroad now crosses the creek. The old building still stands across the street from Park Garage.
The service of the mill filled a long felt need in th regional life of those days. Settlers came from as far away as the districts around Central Lake to the north, Mancelona and Westwood to the east, and Kalkaska to the south.
Horses were scarce in those days, and wagons and buggies were curiosities. Four wheel trucks, the wheels being sections sawed off from the ends of maple logs, and drawn by ox teams, were used to haul the grain. The oxen lay down in their great yokes near the mill, chewing their cuds and enjoying a well earned rest before resuming their long journey homeward.
But the old stone mill finally had to succumb to the sweep of modern progress. The process of grinding grain between steel rollers was invented and a mill of this type was installed by Dexter & Noble of Elk Rapids. The new progress was such an improvement that patronage soon drifted away from the place at Spencer Creek. The business was closed, the machinery dismantled and sold. Later, wooden barrels for the packing of apples were made and assembled in the old building which still stands.
Lumbering was the principle industry in this region in the very early days. Dexter and Noble of Elk Rapids, and Cameron Brothers of Brownstown, now Torch Lake, were the two largest operators. The iron furnace owned by Dexter and Noble first went into blast in 1873. Cordwood, to be converted into charcoal and used in refining the iron ore, was secured from the settlers around the shores of Elk, Torch, Round and Clam Lakes. The wood was cut into four foot lengths, then loaded on scows or lighters of four to six in number, each carrying twenty to twenty-five cords. These scows were towed by powerful tugs, namely the "Elk Lake", or "Torch Lake", and "Albatross".
The "Torch Lake" was used primarily to transport logs for Dexter and Noble who also owned a saw mill. The logs were placed in cribs until ready to move. Then they were made up into "booms", a line of connecting floating timbers locked together with heavy chains and made into narrow rafts, so they could go down Torch River without holding up navigation of the other tugs.
The crews working on the lakes lived in boarding scows or floating camps, called "wannigan" or "wangan". The boarding scow for the wood crew was a two story structure built on a large barge. The crew slept in bunks on the second story and the first floor was divided into three rooms: a dining room, kitchen and lounging room for the men. The log boarding scow was not as large, only one story, but the arrangement was similar.
There were several sawmills in Helena Township. The first mill in Alden, owned by the Berry Brothers and operated by water power, was located where the north and south road on the east edge of town crosses over Spencer Creek. A much larger mill operated by steam power and owned by R. W. Coy, was located on the site of the present depot.
In later years there were other saw mills. David Soper of Kalkaska brought in a mill, which he operated for a while, later sold to a man by the name of Ayers, who in turn sold it to Foster and Company. This was located north of Alden in an area which was known as the "slab docks".
Andrew F. Anderson of Clam River also owned and operated a steam mill on the north shore of Clam Lake for the manufacture of lumber. It later burned and Mr. Anderson rebuilt about where the present old boat houses are on the north side of Clam River. Then, approximately 1887, it too was destroyed by fire.
Many logs were brought to the mills by means of two big wheels ten feet in diameter constructed in a cart form with a long tongue. The logs were slung under the axle. A pair of these big wheels can be seen today at Mancelona beside the railroad in the center of town. Other vehicles were also used: drays, log boats, sleighs, and wagons, depending on the season of the year.