It wasn't always that way. There was a time, 130 years ago, when the Saginaw Valley swamps bore the stigma of a wasteland. The idea of turning the muck that made up the low-lying marshland seven miles south of a Michigan lumber town, into productive farms seemed outlandish to all except one man. He was Harlan P. Smith, a youthful visionary attorney.
It was hardly an idea that captured much interest because in the 1880s land was cheap. The U.S. government had a keen interest in populating lands secured by the 1819 Treaty of Saginaw when one-third of the state's Lower Peninsula passed forever from the hands of the Chippewa to the federal government. Unoccupied land tended to attract heads of governments. The U.S. had experienced French, English and Spanish flags flying over its Michigan Territory and wanted no more of the costly wars required to thwart the ambitions of European expansionists. To encourage settlement, the federal government handed out 160-acre land grants to veterans of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the war with Mexico. The Land Act of 1820 allowed others to buy eighty acres from the government for $1.25 an acre, meaning that for $100 (about $1,500 in this era); a family could own an 80-acre farm on high ground.
Harlan P. Smith understood the descriptive, swamp, owed to the wet and forbidding nature of the 28-square mile marsh, not only was erroneous but derogatory as well. Spring thaws overflowed the marshes to depths as great as fifteen feet and left behind mud and debris that discouraged farming. From spring until autumn, a coiling miasma of mosquitoes lifted from the foliage to mount relentless attacks on those who dared to intrude upon their domain. Those who stepped boldly out of doors usually developed a form of malaria labeled “ague” which was marked by alternating periods of fever, chills, and sweating. The vicious marauders had caused the abandonment of a military fort at Saginaw in 1823 only one year after its construction, whereupon its commander, Major Daniel Baker, declared in his final report, “Only Indians, muskrats, and bullfrogs can live on the Saginaw River.”
The vast marsh lies south and west of the city of Saginaw, one hundred miles north of Detroit. It is an aftermath of a glacial lake formed during an ice age that ended 10,000 years ago. The glacier left behind a flat terrain situated a few feet above the nearby lake levels, a haven for wildlife and migratory birds: bald eagles, shore and wading birds, song birds, waterfowl, and – people. Navigable by canoes, Native Americans enjoyed game, fish, wild fruits and nuts and wild rice. Sugar-maple trees provided a supply of sweets and corn grew in abundance along the bottom lands. In addition to food, the marsh provided materials for habitation, canoes, weapons, and utensils. There was little to want for the Native Americans who lived among the prairie grasses for nearly five thousand years, according to some estimates, before European settlement.
Today, under the protection of the U.S. Department of Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service since 1953, 9,620 acres or about one-half of the swamp that early settlers avoided is under the care of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Its legal designation is the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) and is home to deer, beaver, muskrats, turtles, rattlesnakes and flocks of Canadian Geese, often numbering 25,000, many of which remain year around.
Despite the horrors that descended on those who actually performed the farm labor, a case had been made economically for the further development of the prairie. Smith and his partners, however, decided to pass it on to others. They sold the farm in its entirety to the Saginaw Realty Company that then consisted of the Wickes brothers, Harry T and William J, successful machinery manufacturers, who both were well acquainted with the potential of sugarbeets. The new owners had watched with growing interest the construction of beet sugar factories in nearby Bay City and Saginaw. Partnered with them was the unheralded early promoter of the sugarbeet industry, Samuel G. Higgins, a Saginaw attorney.
Eventually, Owosso Sugar Company created thirty-six miles of dikes, some of them eighty feet wide at the bottom, forty at the top and twenty feet high. Others were of lesser dimensions but all designed for the same purpose – draining and then keeping the land dry. Roads crowned the tops of the dikes and the sides turned to grass for use as a sheep pasture. The sugar company laid out the land much like a giant checkerboard in twelve lines of sixteen forty-acre parcels with additional land set aside for growing peppermint and sheep grazing. Almost overnight, for a capital outlay of $400,000, Smith transformed the Prairie Farm from a losing proposition into the largest beet sugar estate in Michigan, and probably in the United States, if not the world – ten thousand acres. The new factory could now set aside worry about an adequate supply of beets.
Homes for workers and their families were set on posts and reposed on a half-mile long stretch of road. Nearby were two large dormitories for single workers and barns for implements, feed and horses. Sheep pens, surrounded by a blacksmith shop, a grain elevator, fuel tanks, and a community store completed the picture. A six-mile long rail siding afforded easy removal of sugarbeets and an economical method of importing supplies to the massive undertaking.
By the time it became a major beet farm, the planting, cultivating, and harvesting of several crops in addition to sugarbeets, the Prairie Farm required three hundred head of heavy draft horses. Throughout each summer, about 75 teams, sometimes consisting of three horses, were in constant use. The farm was managed by Jacob DeGeus. He had been born in the Netherlands in 1854 and immigrated to America in 1888. His introduction to the American beet sugar industry occurred in Kalamazoo where he had been hired as an agriculturist. Later, he held the same position for a factory scheduled for Mount Pleasant. The Mount Pleasant project faded, however, so he moved on to Owosso, where he installed his wife Johanna and their four sons and a daughter on the Prairie Farm. While beet farming was his occupation, horses were his passion. He went to Belgium where he purchased the offspring of champion sires and mares and then spent years breeding champions that earned their living in the harness and winning awards at state fairs. One of them, Sans Peur de Hamal, was champion at the Michigan State Fair in 1915 and 1916 and was named grand champion of all breeds in 1916 and again in 1917. Another, Rubis, was awarded a silver medal by the King of Belgium in 1913.
In 1933, in the depths of a great depression, hope for the country's future reached a low ebb. John Pitcairn’s heirs decided to sell the Prairie Farm. It was then that another visionary came on the scene, this one an adherent of the concept of collectivism. His name was Joseph J. Cohn. He leaped at the opportunity to build a society based on voluntary agreement and mutual cooperation. Born in Russia in 1878, Cohn arrived in the United States in 1902 whereupon he embarked upon a crusade that carried him across the country lecturing to socialist and labor groups. The land, means of production and other objects of common use should, he proclaimed, be vested in the community as a whole and all should work according to their ability and derive an equal share of the rewards of labor.
The Prairie Farm, under this plan, would no longer exist as a single farm but as a cooperative consisting of anywhere from 125 to 250 farmers most of whom would have limited capital and little or no experience with the complex nature of the Prairie Farm. Within a year of purchasing the property, however, the government changed course and gave up the idea of founding a cooperative that would in many respects differ not a great deal from the failed Sunrise Farms experiment. Instead, the government leased land to twenty-five families who remained behind when the Sunrise occupants decamped. They stayed for two years before they carried their idea to Samos, Virginia where they set up a similar community that also lasted a few years.
CATTON, Bruce, Michigan, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. and American Association for State and Local History, p. 72, referring to Major Daniel Baker, who declared in his final report, “Only Indians, muskrats, and bullfrogs can live on the Saginaw River.” Ibid. reference to government price for 80 acres of land.
GUTTLEBEN, Daniel, The Sugar Tramp – 1954 printed by Bay Cities Duplicating Company, San Francisco, California
JEZIERSKI, John V and ROSS, G. Alexander, Saginaw Valley State University, SAGINAW VALLEY DOCUMENTS II , 1990, concerning activities of Native Americans in Saginaw County during historic times.
LE CUREUX, Keith, Albee Township History, Saginaw, County, Michigan, Chapter V, Prairie
MC DONALD, TOM, A Parade of Saginaw Folks I Wish I had Known, Part II, 1989, self-published, regarding Joseph J. Cohen, the founder of Sunrise Cooperative Farm Community.
MILLS, James Cooke, History of Saginaw County, Michigan, Volume I, Chapter XXII, Development of Agriculture and Volume II, for biographies, 1918, Seemann & Peters, Saginaw, Michigan.
THE SAGINAW EVENING NEWS, Wednesday, September 25, 1907, p.7 concerning the death of Harlan P. Smith
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Conservation Planning, Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan 2009-2013, some of which was copied verbatim for this article.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Conservation Planning, Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge, sundry pamphlets and booklets concerning conservation and wildlife management.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Conservation Planning, Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge – Interview with Ed De Vries, Assistant Refuge Manager, July 20, 2009
Copyright, 2009, Thomas Mahar All Rights Reserved
About the Author: Thomas Mahar served as Executive Vice President of Monitor Sugar Company between 1984 and 1999 and as President of Gala Food Processing, a sugar packaging company, from 1993-1998. He retired in 1999 and now devotes his free time to writing about the history of the sugar industry. He authored, Sweet Energy, The Story of Monitor Sugar Company in 2001, and Michigan's Beet Sugar History (Newsbeet, Fall, 2006).