Childhood Years
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Childhood Years

Harriet Quimby In Michigan by Steve Harold

Harriet Quimby is believed to have spent her first twelve [eight] years on her parents’ homestead in northern Michigan. Although the homestead process was similar on frontiers across North America, details are different depending on time and place. This paper is intended to provide perspective regarding the early years of Harriet Quimby’s life.

Childhood Years

William Quimby was one of thousands of Civil War veterans who took advantage of the recently passed Homestead Act to obtain 160 acres of land from the United States government for free if he could make a productive farm of it. After 25 years of studying the process, it still seems overwhelmingly difficult to me. Homesteaders would look over the available land and then journey (usually by walking) to a federal land office to register the property. They would then move onto the solid climax hardwood forest and start the farm. Since livestock, horses or oxen, cannot eat hardwood, the first year was usually spent without beasts of burden. Thus, trees were chopped down with axes; sawn into small for a person to move; collected in piles; and burned enough pieces. When sufficient land was cleared by this method to plant grass, oxen could be acquired to move the logs and then the process moved along at a faster pace. The first two decades all the fields had many stumps in them around which it was necessary to plow.

While the land was being cleared a log cabin was built. Since lumber was a scarce commodity, floors and roofs were often made from split logs. Lumber was unavailable in the first years because there were no roads and few beasts of burden to take the readily available logs to a sawmill or to haul the lumber from the mill to the home site. When lumber was necessary it was usually carried on a man’s back from the mill to the home site. The cabins usually only had a single window and door. Furniture was handmade and a stove would have to be shipped from the nearest hardware store and than carted several miles by some means.

The Quimby homestead was located three miles from Lake Michigan about 25 miles north of Manistee. In 1867 the immediate area contained about a dozen settlers who had each cleared several acres and were living in log cabins. There were few roads (none we would consider usable), and no stores, schools, or churches. Most people walked the Lake Michigan beach to Manistee unless they had an opportunity to hitch a ride on the rare boat visiting a pier three or ten miles away. Professional medical help was available to those who walked to Manistee although several local women were capable midwives. William Quimby filed his homestead papers on January 13,1861 and it is difficult to imagine he moved onto the property immediately since there would have been several feet of snow on the ground. The federal land office at that time was in Traverse City 60 miles away and there was no public transportation available within 150 miles of any kind. Thus, he must have done a lot of walking through snow covered forest trails to file the homestead papers.

We can speculate that William, Ursula and Jamie Quimby arrived by boat the following spring at a nearby primitive pier on Lake Michigan. Everything they brought with them was carried three miles through the wilderness to the homestead. They probably camped out through the summer as they cleared land and built their cabin. Lumber could have been purchased from a sawmill at the pier where they arrived but as there was no road the lumber would have been carried on their backs the three miles to the home site. Nails, hardware, and glass would have been purchased in Manistee, a 25 mile walk down the lake shore. The window and door would have been made by hand. A stove to cook on was always the biggest furniture problem as this had to be purchased in Manistee and somehow freighted to the cabin. The Quimbys may have been able to grow a few potatoes and some rutabagas their first year on the property. A limited number of food items perhaps ten) was occasionally available from another saw mill about ten miles away. The majority of food items were purchased at Manistee and somehow carried to the home site. A nearby family of the same size used 1600 pounds of flour in their first year along with 22 bushels of potatoes. They were able to purchase the potatoes locally and saved all the peelings to plant the following spring. This same family was able to grow about 60 bushels of potatoes on their homestead the second summer they were there.

For the first year homesteaders were on their property they worked from sunrise to sunset seven days a week to survive and get started farming. There primary social interaction was through work bees where three to ten or more neighbors would get together to exchange labor to accomplish difficult tasks: build a cabin or barn; move logs, or even plow new ground. Although no records were kept these bees were actually labor exchanges where everyone helped each other. Often entire families went to the bees and there was lively social interaction, especially at meal times.

By the time Harriet Quimby was born her parents life style on their homestead was somewhat improved. They should have had a frame house of several rooms and a good barn for the livestock. They should have had at least ten oxen, a cow or two for milk, pigs and chickens and perhaps 20 or 30 acres of the land would have been cleared and brought into production. Thus, they would have been able to provide almost all their own food.

Roads had been cleared and ran straight through the wilderness allowing ox carts or horse drawn wagons to be used for transportation. A store with an adequate inventory had been built at Pierport just five miles away. Items not available in the store could be ordered and would arrive at the store the next day by boat from Manistee.

By 1875 the homesteaders had reached a point where they could enjoy their communities. People continued to socialize and share heavy work tasks with neighbors. Schools had been built throughout the area; there was one just over two miles from the Quimby home. Churches were just being built but there were already regularly scheduled services in several denominations. Transportation was still expensive or time consuming. A journey to Manistee with oxen or a horse and wagon would require at least two days. Alternatively, a coastal ferry touched regularly at Pierport (five miles away) providing easy transportation to Manistee or Frankfort at a cost equal to a day’s wages; it still required two days but more time could be spent on the necessary business.

The Seymour Calkins family lived on the adjacent farm to the Quimbys and Judd Calkins, who was just ten years older than Harriet Quimby, carefully recorded memories of his childhood when he was 70 years old. He recalled: “The social life of our community was wholesome. People of that day craved pleasures and contacts as much as people do today — but not the hectic and exciting kind that it takes to satisfy the modern family. Our social life was confined to a radius of six or eight miles.” In the early 1870’s the National Grange, a secret organization intended for the mutual benefit of the farmer – socially, financially, and intellectually- was organized. The social features made it quite popular among the farmers, and the ritualistic work was quite interesting.”

Another simple pastime was visiting between neighbors. Mrs. Able would take her knitting, sewing, or what not, and go to spend the day with Mrs. Capers. Perhaps after supper, Mr. Able would come over for a couple of hours. But after all was said and done, there was not much idle time to indulge in gossip, and not much gossip to indulge in. “Days were long, and nights were short. I did not learn to hunt, fish, or go swimming, to dance, play cards, or to smoke. After I was older and got away from home I had lost all inclination to learn these various accomplishments.”

Judd Calkins also recalled his schooling and the social activities of children: “Our country schools ranked very high compared to the average rural school of today. The curriculum included everyone, from the kindergarten to high school, with one teacher to handle all the subjects. Our teacher had no time for frills, but if a child was so inclined, he could get a good practical education if he could manage to remain in school until he was fourteen or fifteen. “There was one diversion we really did enjoy, and that was the spelling school which was held once every two weeks. Each Friday afternoon the two best spellers would choose sides, stand on opposite sides of the room, and spell until no one was left standing, or until one person remaining was declared the champion. This was rehearsal. The regular spelling school was held in the evening, and representatives from neighboring schools within driving distance would come and take part. Parents and small brothers and sisters were the spectators. After exhausting our old Saunders Speller with all the foreign, French, and catch words we could find, we generally had to fall back on Webster to get down to the last contestants. “As for toys which every child enjoys and longs for had a little wooden cart and a small sled, both home made. My books included a small copy of Mother Goose rhymes and a copy of Robinson Crusoe. Had there been any more books or toys I am positive I would remember them. There was always some small gift at Christmas, along with candy and nuts.”

By 1887, the Quimby homestead should have been a productive farm and we can only speculate as to their reasons for abandoning it. The soil of northern Michigan is so thin it has a short period of productivity when the forest is cleared away. Consequently, the older fields of the Quimbys could have declined in productiveness to the point where the farm may not have supported the family of four. At the same time, the property seems to have reached the high point of a century in market value. The high value was undoubtedly related to the fact that the hardwood timber, perhaps 120 acres yet uncleared, was suddenly marketable as a large commercial sawmill along with a substantial village – Arcadia – had been built just six miles away. Further, this enterprise had announced the future construction of a standard gauge railroad, which would pass within a half mile of the Quimby farm solving the transportation difficulties.

For whatever reason William and Ursula Quimby secured a mortgage for $2000 on their property from an outside investor on June 22, 1887. History does not record or show us what they did after that. They may have already been gone two months later when their oldest daughter, Kittie, was married in a private residence ten miles away. In any case the mortgage was foreclosed two years later with court records indicating the Quimby family had disappeared without a trace. By most standards, it can be said that Harriet Quimby’s first twelve [eight] years were sheltered. From the facts of the rest of her life, we know she had a good founding in the basics. She was obviously an intelligent woman who made the most of her one-room school education. Her parents gave her the basic moral and cultural values necessary to life. Finally, her mother was a strong, independent, liberated women, perhaps the subject of another paper who raised her daughter the same way. This was Harriet Quimby’s foundation for life.