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Indian Mills on the Chippewa River

Map of Isabella City, 1879

At the time of the treaty, no specific mill site was

selected, but one was soon chosen along the section line where present day Mission road crosses the Chippewa. The location is a natural one as it closely marks the border between the glacial lake plain to the east and the hilly moraines to the west.

Work went forth on the mill site in the summer and fall of 1857. A Mr. Penmant was engaged to build the mill. All the mill machinery had to be brought up the river. A deck was made between two large canoes to support the equipment. Consider the labor and time to pole up the river all the needed items. The combination gristmill and sawmill were finished in the fall but not inspected and accepted until the following spring.

Charles Taylor was an early settler in Chippewa Township. He wrote a series of articles on his memories of early Isabella County, which were preserved in a former Mt. Pleasant newspaper, The Northwestern Tribune. Writing in 1888, he recalled those opening days at Indian Mills in the spring of 1858.

"The people of Chippewa (a rather large group of settlers had arrived in fall of 1855) turned out and cut a road through the forest to the mills, and as soon as the grist mill was ready for work, a number of us went up with two wagons, two yoke of cattle to each wagon, it being the first time the writer had been there. We had to leave our teams on this side of the river (south side) and carry our grist over the timbers of the bridge there being nothing there but the frame of the bridge."

The sawmill part of the mill operation was now operative and some planks had been cut. While waiting for the grist to be made into flour Taylor continues:

"We called for volunteers to carry plank on the bridge and we soon made it so that we got over it all right. By night we got home from our first trip to the mill, it being only about seven miles, yet consumed two days."

Without doubt this was the first bridge over the Chippewa River and would be used by many in those early years. Taylor adds: "The Indian Mills was a great help to all both Indians and whites." A.F. Albright operated the government mill as superintendent and employed two assistants, Indians Henry Strong and James Williams.

Twelve years later another similar event was recalled by Fred Kent of northwest Isabella County's Sherman Township in a newspaper article in The Northwestern Tribune on April 27, 1888:

"In the summer of 1870 my brother Oscar and I made a trip to Isabella City (Indian Mills) with an ox team and grist of wheat. The distance was 20 miles but by getting an early start and making free use of the persuader, we reached the city before sun- down. After leaving our grist at the mill we drove down the river flats, fed the oxen and slept under the wagon until morning."

Kent's memories were at the end of the Indian Mills era. The mill burned later that year and the dam also washed out. With the coming of the lumber era and subsequent log drives, one wonders if the demise of the site was hastened by more than nature.

The mill site was just west of the present Mission Road bridge and just north of the river. The present day marker, referred to earlier, designates the site of the Council House built in 1857. The house was described as a two-story affair. The first floor held the Government Office and a storage room. The second floor was the council room where business between the Indians and the government was transacted. Charles Taylor remembers attending a "quarterly meeting" in 1861 in the council room. The Council House was still standing according to the plat of 1879 but its functions had largely passed. Many trading activities between Indians, fur traders, farmers and peddlers took place in this locale just before and during the Civil War.

I.A. Fancher's book written in 1911, Past and Present of Isabella County, contains considerable detail on the County at this time. Special mention is made of young men departing for the Civil War from Indian Mills:

"The oxen were hitched to the old double wagon, the family placed thereon and a start was made to the Indian Mills where the enlisted were to meet and from there were to go down the Chippewa River on a raft provided for their journey."

Many journeyed all day to arrive for the departure the next morning. It was recalled that family members and spectators lined the banks as the raft laden with the recruits and their baggage swung out into the river. Fancher states that a total of 67 Indians and 53 whites were enlisted during the war from the county. At the time of the Civil War the county's population numbered about 1,500 persons nearly equally divided numbers between whites and Indians.

Moving away from the river and mill, another scene would have greeted the visitor in those days. Beyond the Council House stood the blacksmith shop. The clang of a hammer and a wisp of smoke were part of the sights and sounds. A group of Indians and whites were always present getting things repaired and metal work done. It was said that this was the only place for two or three days travel in any direction where you could obtain this type of service in the late eighteen fifties.

The blacksmith shop was built like a blockhouse with a four-sided roof rising to a central peak. It had vertical siding and a large double door in the front. Living quarters were provided for the blacksmith above the shop.

Benjamin Cushway was the first blacksmith in 1858. Marcus Girnell had the job in the early sixties. Cushway, from all accounts, was most fluent in the Indian tongues. He was first a blacksmith for the Indians in 1834 at the old Fort Saginaw site and was known throughout the valley. He was at Indian Mills for a short time but his family stayed in Saginaw. Cushway felt the Indian Agent, A.W. Fitch unfairly treated the Indians, and the latter soon dismissed him.

Indian Agent A.W. Fitch was the first of several to hold the post. Private enterprise was not far behind the government activity at Indian Mills. Agent Fitch was more than just the Indian Agent, both he and his brother-in-law, F.C. Babbitt, saw economic possibilities. With government stipends to the Indians, need for supplies, mill and blacksmith shop in place there was certainly a future at this location. Thus came about Isabella City.

When F.C. Babbitt passed away, included among other things in his obituary was this statement: "He brought with him to this, the new country, a considerable amount of means which by the closest application to business, wise economy and untiring industry he has increased to a very fine estate." Let us follow how brothers-in-law F.C. and A.W. progressed with Isabella City.

A.W. Fitch purchased land adjacent to Indian Mills in 1859. He and Babbitt platted Isabella city in 1861. The land purchased for the plat was designated "swamp land" and thus part of a large grant of land the State of Michigan had received from the Federal Government some years before. "Swamp Land Forties" were forty acre plats where swamps and "overflowed" lands existed. The determination of these forties was made from surveyor field notes in the 1830's in this case.

The legacy of this plat remains with us. Drive the gravel road past the historical monument to the northwest. This was Main Street in Isabella City. In the author's opinion, it was laid out on an angle to be parallel to the Government buildings. Most likely the Government buildings were on an angle because the mill was at right angles to the Chippewa River. Follow the road (Main Street) on to the northwest where it curves to the right past Memorial Gardens Cemetery. In the 1870's, it became part of the State Road to Clare from Mt. Pleasant, the curve was added at this time.

Today it is Craig Hill Road, a name derived from the Sarah Craig farm near the top of the hill. Craig Hill became a popular landmark known to travelers and early motorists, being the steepest hill in the area along with Mt. Pleasant's Island Park hill. It would be 1930 when the new concrete highway was finished to Clare. The route of US 27 (Mission Road today) was straightened and the old route through Isabella City was abandoned.

While on the subject of roads note how present day River Road curves and connects with Mission Road on an angle. The angled portion of the road was originally Fitch Street, running from present Country Club in a northeasterly direction and is at right angles to Main Street, now Craig Hill Road. Now that we have the streets oriented, let us look at Isabella City at the time of the Civil War. We are fortunate that a visitor recorded an impression of Isabella City that appeared in the Detroit Advertiser and Tribune on February 9, 1863.

"City indeed---so thought we--- for after the visitor has looked at a saw and grist mill, council house, store, tavern, wagon and blacksmith shops, and a half dozen dwelling houses (all frame buildings), he is expected to supply from his fertile brain, everything else to meet his own idea of a genuine city. It is however the most important point in the county and consists almost entirely of pale faces. On the reservation there are said to be about fifty whites including children."

On the main corner of Isabella City (now Craig Hill at River) stood a large wooden hotel and tavern built by W.H. Nelson starting in 1857 and apparently growing several times by additions. Today this site is the southwest corner of the intersection in front of the dwellings overlooking the country club. The hotel remained on the corner until May of 1895 when it burned. The Enterprise newspaper in Mt. Pleasant ran a story of its demise with this comment: "A few of our older residents can remember when this hotel was in flourishing condition as any hotel in the city when Mt. Pleasant was not in existence."

Nearby, the F.C. Babbitt Mercantile establishment was located. This started as a room in the Babbitt home where a stock of flour, tea, tobacco, and coffee was kept as well as other household necessities.

Charles Taylor remembers the store:

"The firm did a large business carrying the whole Indian trade for some time. The Indians had large quantities of furs, besides their annual pay, to barter for goods. They also made a home market for some time, for they were not great producers but great on the chase and the woods were nearly full of wild animals."

Just getting the goods to Isabella City was difficult, especially in late winter and early spring when the prices inched up, which was related in this comment by Taylor:

"When the roads were bad sometimes prices got very high, especially so in war times, when flour was $22 a barrel, salt $11, tea $2.25 per pound, and calico fifty cents a yard, and with everything else at about the same exorbitant prices."

At this early date the Indians would come and stand in the combination store and home. F.C.'s spouse, Abigail Babbitt, running her home, fascinated them. Several references mention this and explain that she became Wasash-com-mo-quay, "the woman who brings light". Apparently Abigail was most courteous and it was reported common to have as many as six visitors at one time while she was doing household chores.

Babbitt's business continued to grow and within a year or so he had constructed a store separating the business from his home. In April 1861, a U.S. Post Office was established in his store at Isabella City.

Another facet in the trade carried on during the period was the whiskey sold by Babbitt in his store and Nelson in his tavern. At least four writers mention in early accounts liquor problems at Indian Mills. Fred Kent tells of being aroused in the middle of the night by a loud boisterous group while sleeping in his wagon on the flats, not far from the bridge. When government payments were made or furs purchased, great amounts of money and profit moved in the direction of these early establishments at the expense of the Indians.

Getting supplies and freight to Indian Mills and Isabella City was no easy matter. Freight was mainly moved up the river or on a seasonal trail along the north side of the river from Midland. Jim Hinman, one of the Indians who came into the area because of the treaty of 1855, was the "boss poler" bringing freight from Saginaw and Midland. Of all the cargo poled up the Chippewa, perhaps the most unusual, was the first piano in Isabella County. F.C. had it brought up lashed between two large canoes for the Babbitt's daughter, Nellie.

In 1864, hotel proprietor D.H. Nelson, W.H. Nelson's son, returned from the Civil War. He soon married Babbitt's daughter, Nellie, and joined his father-in-law in business. At this time, two things changed quickly affecting their business. First, the terms of the Treaty of 1855 with its stipends and subsidies for the mill and blacksmith shop were to end. Second, the voters had accepted David Ward's proposal for a new county seat several years before. A wood frame courthouse was now on the high ground up the river a mile or so in a place Ward named Mt. Pleasant.

So in 1865 Babbitt and Nelson moved their business to the new plat of Mt. Pleasant locating on the southwest corner of Main and Broadway streets where the Firstbank is now situated. After Babbitt's death in 1876 Nelson entered the fields of banking and real estate. Village president in 1886, he sold the village seven acres for a park in 1890 for $1000. The deed required the park to be named Nelson Park.

One can easily see that by 1864 the die was already cast. Less than ten years after the start of Indian Mills and Isabella City, the exodus had commenced. Major James Long, Civil War veteran and last local Indian Agent came to the area and platted the village of Longwood south of the river from Indian Mills in 1871. It never made it; only the Longwood Country School retained the name. He closed his store and joined the exodus to Mt. Pleasant in 1874 soon building the St. James Hotel on the site of the present commercial block at Broadway and University.

Isabella City became a miscellaneous collection of frame buildings, its main purpose was ended. The mill burned and the dam was no longer in place by 1870. The author noted references to "Dogtown" over 100 years ago in the local paper, a name that has prevailed far longer than Indian Mills or Isabella City.