Looking back 150 years

Lake County officially established in 1871

Pictured is Sportsman's Bar George Duffing Bartender in Baldwin in 1905. (Submitted photo)

Pictured is Sportsman's Bar George Duffing Bartender in Baldwin in 1905. (Submitted photo)

LAKE COUNTY – As the people of Lake County observe its Sesquicentennial this year, it is imperative to journey back in time 150 years ago and see how it all began.


Many years prior to settlement of the county in 1863, Lake County was well known to settlers in Michigan, and had “been the resort of the hunter and trapper of wild game, and also the speculator in the pine lands.”

In 1850, John Stronach, of Manistee, purchased land in section 8, of what would become Elk Township, for timberlands. The year following, James Stronach, Aloney D.W. Rust and Capt. E.B. Ward, purchased thousands of acres of pine lands near the Pine River in the northern part of the county.


Lorenzo J. Conklin was the first settler in Lake County, coming to section 34 in Chase Township on Feb. 22, 1863, (in the southern part of the township.) By September of that year, Milton C. King located on the same section, and in December, Jesse Ackerman added his name to the list of homesteaders on that section.

“These three families comprised the whole number who came in 1863. Hence we can safely presume that the honor of being the Pioneer Mossbacks of Lake County must, and of right, ought to be awarded to them,” the historical sketch read.

A few short years after the Civil War, more families flocked to the county, many of them Civil War veterans who received land-grants for their service to the Union. By the spring of 1867, the first township in the county was organized and named Chase, after Gov. Salmon P. Chase, of Ohio. John and Robert Bigbee, brothers who settled from Ohio, penned the name.


Chase Township, comprising the four extreme eastern towns, was attached to Mecosta County. An act of legislature on March 22, 1869, added more range to Chase Township, and then attached the whole township to Osceola County, which was organized in February 1869. By a similar act, the entire west half of the county, Lake Township, was organized and attached to Mason County. The seat of government for Chase Township, from 1869 to 1871, was Hersey, and for Lake Township, Ludington, during those same years.


These boundaries were of very short duration, however, because on the 18th of March, 1871, in accordance with an Act of the State Legislature, Lake County was organized, “by itself, with all rights, privileges and powers, which other organized counties in the state are entitled.”

With the organization of the county, the legislature also provided the organization of townships Pinora, Ellsworth and Killbuck, along with Chase and Lake.

Killbuck was changed to Glencoe. The historical sketch stated the name change caused some confusion with the Superintendent of Public Instruction, wondering why he didn’t receive a report from Killbuck. When the matter was cleared up, the Superintendent said, "Name of town changed, local acts, Mich. part 2, Act. No. 239. Peace be to the ashes of the buck, which will stay killed, to haunt us no more."

With the same act, Pleasant Plains was detached for a township, but mistakenly was overlooked for organization. However, the first meeting of the board of supervisors, on May 9, 1871, at the residence of County Clerk David Lathrop, in Pinora Township, Pleasant Plains was then organized, and was represented by Melvin Baker. The other supervisors were W. J. Holcomb for Killbuck, Augustus Towner for Ellsworth, Peres C. Monroe for Pinora, Austin S. Randall for Chase Township, and Henry Flynn for Lake Township.


With a vote total of 161, the other officers elected were Judge of Probate, James M. Foster; Prosecuting Attorney D. C. Warner; Sheriff George W. Collier; Treasurer Robert E. Bigbee; Surveyor George W. Brown; and Coroners, Israel Smith and W. J. Holcomb.


In the contest for county seat, between Glendale (where the town of Chase now is) and Bismark, (near the Pine River in what was Killbuck Township), Glendale won by six votes. Due to clerical error, the name appeared in the act as Green Dell. Robert E. Bigbee, who homesteaded section 4 in Chase, where much of the town is now located, built the first courthouse. After 15 months, the board of supervisors rented a 16x20 ft. rough-board building, in Chase, for the courthouse. Chase remained the county seat until April 30, 1875, when it was taken by Baldwin in what locals call, “The great Battle of Chase.”


The early settlers in Lake County had to pave their own way to make a home and build up communities. The historical sketch from 1876, gave a glimpse into life, "The settlers who came to the county as early as the year 1863, and upward, endured many hardships. In many instances it was with extreme difficulty that they procured even the necessaries of life; that they were often not so much concerned about the quality, as the quantity, and were thankful for even the plainest of fare, in sufficient amount to sustain life. The furniture and implements of the households were of primitive manufacture; board benches for chairs and rough board platforms for tables.

“But, nevertheless, these pioneers of the county were intelligent, strong-minded men, to do and dare to plan for the future, to struggle with obstacles and adversaries, and to overcome them. They have developed great capacities, vigor and enterprise, as the progress and present prosperity of the county shows.”


Lake County was described as generally level in the central portion, with hillier land in the east and west potions. The principle objects of interest were the many beautiful lakes, rivers and numerous sparkling streams, the vast plains, bearing their wild fruit, and immense forests of timberlands. The Pere Marquette, Little Sauble, Little Manistee and Pine, “afforded many excellent mill sites, with ample power to drive large quantities of machinery.”

The wildlife included deer, black bear, wolf, wildcat, lynx, fox, raccoon, marten, porcupine, skunk, weasel, gopher, rabbit, squirrels, marmot, mink, otter, beaver and muskrat. There were plenty of fowl in the woods and good fishing. “Those streams are the resort of amateur sportsmen, from distances, who come to spend the hot summer days, in angling for grayling, which they afford in abundance.”


Yates, Webber and Cherry Valley townships were organized in 1872; Elk and Eden townships in 1874; Dover Township in 1875; and Center (now Peacock) in 1881.


In 1870, the population was 548, which jumped to 1,836 by 1874. By 1876, there was 5,858 acres of improved land, 17 mills for cutting lumber and shingles, 31 school houses and numerous church organizations.

Early settlers in the county were John and Robert Bigbee, Eugene Nicholson, David Robertson, Charles Winchell, James Sutton, John T. Batchelder, Nelson McKee, James M. Avery, Sylvester Cork, John Wolford, Nathan S. Holford, Newton Kinne and more.

The first church in the county was the Chase Congregational Church, built in 1876. The first school house was located at Olivers, two miles east of Chase, in 1868. The first newspaper, the Lake County Star was birthed in Chase in 1873. It then moved to Baldwin. The Chase Eclipse and the Luther Herald also were early papers. Lumbering was the chief industry.


Chase was a bustling early community, and so was Baldwin, which was originally called Hannibal, after an early settler of that name who settled in Webber Township just north of the courthouse. Isaac Grant was the first merchant. Families flocked to town because of the lumbering. Harvesting wild blueberries also was a source of income for many in the Baldwin area, according to the Lake County Baldwin Centennial edition of the Star from July, 1972.

A post office was established at Forman in 1874, and in 1876, a post office was established at Norway Hall, Reno and Willville. Post offices also were established at Deer Lake, Wingleton, Copley and Tottens. The first express office was built in Baldwin, advent to the railroad in 1874, and later, one in Chase in 1878. The Flint & Pere Marquette ran through Olivers, Chase, Summitville, Nirvana, Ungers, Forman, Baldwin and Wingleton, and the C& W. M. came into the county from the south and terminated at Baldwin. A branch of the Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroad went from Deer Lake to Luther.


With this year being the Sesquicentennial in Lake County, people are celebrating throughout the county by highlighting history unique to their communities. As this celebration is observed, a person can reflect on the following points: What is the history of a land? Who were the people who built it up and gave us the communities we know today? It all begs the question, what will our legacy be in another 150 years?