Local Family has ties to newest state park, Underground Railroad

In April 1834, my great-great-great grandfather Royal Watkins, a schoolteacher, hired a wagon and headed west with his family after selling their property in Keene, N.H.

In Albany they transferred their belongings to a keel-boat on the Erie Canal and upon reaching Buffalo they boarded a steamboat bound for Detroit (population 1,600). It took them three weeks of travel to get to Detroit where they purchased four “yoke” oxen, a “breaking up” plow and two wagons. They loaded their belongings on the new wagons, headed westward and arrived at their new homestead in six days, a distance of 58 miles through the wilderness.

The new homestead consisted of 800 acres in eastern Jackson County. Their son, Freeman, had purchased the land two years before, at age 21. The nearest neighbors were four to seven miles in each direction. At this point the Watkins family built a 25 x 30 foot cabin and began clearing the land, first by girdling the large trees.

Royal Watkin’s recollections list abundant wildlife in the area: beaver, deer, bear, wolf, panther, lynx and wildcat, and edible plants galore, including wild strawberries, blackberries, huckleberries, red and black raspberries, blueberries, grapes, plums and cranberries. Hickory nuts, black walnuts, butternuts, and hazelnuts were plentiful, and thus they were collected and stored away for evening gatherings around the broad fireplace. The livestock was fed marsh hay until the land was cleared and pastures established.

The Watkins lived in this cabin until it burned and then lived in a second cabin for three decades. In 1860 they began building a brick home. The brick was manufactured in Monroe and delivered 60 miles by oxen. The brick was laid by workmen, including local Native Americans, who put in 10-hour days at a rate of 10 cents per hour and laid 300 to 400 bricks each, per day.

Lucius Denison (L.D.) Watkins was Royal’s fifth child and he eventually took over the farm, which grew to more than 2,000 acres in time. L.D. was educated at the District School in Brooklyn, a distance of five miles from the farm and at the Quaker School of Laura Haviland, who was known as the “Adrian Emancipator.”

As a young man, L.D. went west, where he became interested in cattle. He hunted with Gen. George Custer and Buffalo Bill Cody and traveled widely. He became president of the Peoples Bank in Manchester and a member of the State Agriculture Society of Michigan.

Since his generation lived during the time of the Civil War, it is noteworthy the Watkins protected, housed and fed fugitive slaves and helped them on their way. One former slave, William Ockrow, chose to stay at the Watkins Farm for 43 years and is buried next to the family plot in nearby Manchester.

In the late 1800s, the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railroad was trying to purchase a right-of-way from Detroit to Hillsdale from L. D. Watkins.  He refused, but relented when the railroad agreed to build a station on the Watkins Farm. L. D. owned two-thirds of the station and used it to ship farm produce. The railroad owned one-third, and it is believed to be the only such arrangement in the United States.

With the death of L. D. in 1920, the Watkins Farm passed on to his youngest son, Lucius Whitney Watkins (1873–1950). “Whitney” shared his father’s love of nature, the farm and a sense of responsibility in affairs of community and state. He was educated at home and then, at the age of 15, took the entrance examination for Michigan Agricultural College (MAC, now MSU.) He graduated third in his class and was one of the youngest students to graduate in four years.

Whitney returned to the farm for a few years and then took a job as the deputy fish and game warden for the Upper Peninsula, where he gained a reputation for strict enforcement of fish and game laws. Whitney caught the attention of Gov. Hazen Pingree, who appointed him to the State Board of Agriculture, which then also served as the governing board for MAC.

Whitney carried the title “Father of Athletics” for his success in hiring the first full-time coach at MAC. He went on to serve four years in the Michigan Senate and made an unsuccessful bid for governor on the Bull Moose Party ticket in 1912, running against Woodbridge Ferris. Whitney served on dozens of state boards and committees before his death. In 1944, the Watkins Farm was sold to the Freeman Watkins Corporation, and then it was sold to several other owners before finally being sold to the Trolz family.

Recently, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources partnered with the Washtenaw County Park and Recreation Commission to purchase more than 1,000 acres of the former Watkins Farm from the Trolz family, making it the 103rd State Park in Michigan. About 35 of the Watkins’ descendants attended the official ribbon-cutting ceremony on Oct. 26 on a hillside overlooking Watkins Lake.  great-great-great-grandfather Watkins would be proud.