Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Zap! You Are Living in the Mid-19th Century and You Need to Take a Trip: Welcome to Stage Coach Days and Traveling

~The roots of my living history back story~
My wife and I and our two daughters live on a farm in Erin Township, around 12 miles outside of Detroit. This is the place where I was born, back in 1811. Being that we were the very first settlers in this region, I know the surroundings quite well and have watched it grow. We used to call it Bush Country, due to the density of the forests of white pine as well as a host of hardwood trees of white oak, ash, maple, and hickory. Ha! The early surveyors did not realize the value of the timber which covered the land. My father told me it wasn't until the 1780's that the first sawmills began to appear. He didn't live here in Bush Country at the time but he did travel the waterways hauling freight from a place near the St. Clair River called Fort Sinclair down to Detroit. There were numerous mills near Fort Sinclair known as the "French Mills," which was where a considerable quantity of the wood came from. And when the great fire occurred in Detroit in 1805, much of the output from these mills was sent there. Then, during the War of 1812, wood for spars and ship timbers was transported by water and by sleds over the ice in the winter. Summertime shipment was by wagon pulled by horses or oxen, or even floated down one of the many rivers in the area. Unfortunately, the early mills were small and the output was limited. These waterwheel mills had the capacity to cut only a few hundred feet per day under the best of conditions.
But it was just after the Detroit fire of 1805 that my father decided to move northward from that city to where we are now living, beginning his new life by building a log cabin and, over the years, incorporating a much larger house around it. 
And that's where my two sisters and I began our lives.
I was nearly twenty years of age when the military turned the Indian trail we traveled upon into a widened road that went from Detroit clear up to Fort Gratiot, which is located at the mouth of Lake Huron. Of course, before the military built this road not many people traveled by foot or wagon too far along, for it really was very undeveloped trail. But the new widened road, called the Fort Gratiot Road, replaced the Indian trail and did make a world of difference for travelers.

Here is our home on the Fort Gratiot Road looking south toward Detroit. This was before the planks were put in.

With this new road came more settlers, and eventually someone decided our area needed a name and came up with Orange Township in hopes of attracting more British settlers. The Irish-Catholics immigrated here instead and, well, they changed the name in 1843 to Erin Township.
I was just fine with Bush Country.
What helped this area to grow as rapidly as it did was the construction of the steam-powered mills that began appearing in Detroit and in Port Huron in the early 1830's, making wood much more plentiful. Yes, the logging and saw mill industry certainly was not at a loss for work.
With the opening of the Erie Canal and the clearing of the land by the loggers, immigrant farmers from the east moved here in droves. Many of these new farmers that settled to the north of us jumped on the sugar beet bandwagon, making that their primary yield, and a sugar processing plant was soon built to accommodate this sought after cash crop.
We, however, stuck with wheat, rhubarb and even raspberries and were able to trade with the locals as well as take our harvest to the city for cash.
Hunds General Store
Even with this new road, travel could still be deplorable! It was not maintained very well, especially after the military needs of the area decreased. In fact, on a trip I needed to make to Port Huron I began my journey north in a stagecoach on old Fort Gratiot Road from Gaukler's store, which is located just this side of School Road (*now 9 Mile Road*). I had to secure my seat three days in advance. This was a number of years after the land speculation fever began to rage somewhat extensively, though the folks from the east kept on coming. We broke down once on the way, but there happened to be a wagon maker on board and he repaired the damage in about 15 minutes. We continued to bump along at a fast-walk pace and we made nine miles the first half day, each step praying there would be no more events to stall us. But we still had another day's travel ahead, and on that second day all of us passengers had to get out and walk for a while because of the muddy ruts.
The ride back was even worse, for it had rained a spell and that did not help the road any. Our stage left that morning loaded with passengers, most heading to Detroit. The road was very muddy and the coach had only managed to get a mile from Port Huron. All of us who were passengers had to walk back to the inn to spend the night, and early the next morning made our way back to the coach. On the second day we got three miles from Port Huron. Again, all of us passengers returned on foot to the city. On the third day our stage reached Richmond, and then Mt. Clemens the next and finally I returned home on the fourth day. My wife, for I was married with children by this time, was beside herself with worry, as the journey lasted two days longer than it should have.
I thank our good Lord for that day in 1848 when the State of Michigan passed the "Plank Road Act."
You can well guess we were mighty glad when the Fort Gratiot Road was planked using the pine logs from the abundant surrounding forests from Detroit to Mt. Clemens in 1850 by the Detroit and Erin Plank Road Company, for though I still had to go to Port Huron here and there, I visited Detroit much more often. Yes, the plank road was still a rickety ride, but it certainly made the trip that much easier.

Gaukler's Store, located at the corner of Gratiot and School Roads. Now called the Gratiot Plank Road, it is only planked on the side of the road leading towards Detroit to allow the heavy loaded wagon better traction, while the lighter empty returning wagons use the dirt portion of the road.

Some folks are a bit miffed that the plank road companies have control of the roadway and receive fees by way of tolls. Our own Erin Township has such a toll house located at the Gratiot and Utica Plank Roads.
Maybe it's because I don't travel much, but I certainly don't mind paying a toll if it will keep our roads in good condition.

The toll house, located at the corner of the Gratiot and Utica Plank Roads.

When traveling most of us didn't mind paying the toll to continue the upkeep. This sign is located at the front door of the toll house in the picture above.
Now with the plank roads, villages such as Mt. Clemens, New Baltimore, Newport (though there's word they want to rename this village Marine City), St. Clair, and Port Huron, once mostly attainable by way of the St. Clair River, no longer have to rely heavily on boat transportation. With the Gratiot Plank Road we can easily visit by stage or buckboard.

Leaving Gauklers for Detroit

Traveling south into Detroit or north to Mt. Clemens (or further north into Port Huron) has been a pleasure in comparison to what it used to be like.
Being that my wife and I have taken over the farm, for my parents have both gone on to their reward a number of years ago, we have little time for vacations, especially during the preparation, growing, and harvest seasons.
In other words, if we were to go away for any length of time, December through February would be the only time to do so.
Such is the life of a farmer...but at least we have improved roads!

Stay tuned in the very near future for a sort of Part 2 of this posting. I plan to go more in depth & detail about mid-19th century farming life.

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The above posting is part fact, part fiction, and part reasonable deduction.
The facts are the names, dates, and places & road information.
The fiction is, quite obviously, my role in this story. No one knows for certain when the earliest settler came to Erin Township nor where they settled. But it's a fair guess that there were a sparse amount of people living in this area early on in the 19th century. And we also have accounts of families settling here in my hometown of Eastpointe in the early 1830's.
All that I did was just expand on that information a little to give my own 'back story' a bit of life. In fact, the photograph showing "our house" on Gratiot Road (pronounced Gra-shit - It's French, doncha know) truly is Gratiot Road in the 19th century. I placed the house there by way of computerized trickery. It is actually the Waterloo Farm House located about two hours (modern driving) west of Eastpointe.
The travel adventures? They're true. And they're actually from the 1830's and 40's. I just applied them to myself and changed the place names to fit my story.
And there really was a Gaukler's Store, though there is no actual proof, as far as I know, that it was ever a stage stop. But I feel it could have been, and possibly an inn as well; first off, it was located halfway between two large destinations: Detroit and Mt. Clemens. It took one day to travel by stage from Detroit to where Gaukler's was, and then another day to get from Gauklers to Mt. Clemens. Given how large the building was (if we go by the sketch), I would bet it housed travelers and probably fed them as well. This was not an unusual practice at the time; it was actually good business, especially out in a rural community such as Erin Township. To add to this thought is that Gaukler's burned down in 1892 and the much larger brick Halfway House, definitely well known by travelers in the area as a stage coach stop, was built that same year on the same spot.
It all fits neatly like a puzzle. 

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