Arcadia residents do not agree with many newspapers reports that Harriet Quimby was born in Arroyo Grande, Cal. They insist that she was born three miles from Arcadia. The image on the right is the schoolhouse where she received her early education. This photograph was taken by A. H. Stockman, an Arcadia photographer, and a man who was well acquainted with Miss Quimby’s father, William Quimby. Both the home she was raised in and the school have attracted much interest since the report that they were intimately connected with Miss Quimby’s childhood have spread around.
The old Quimby homestead has been visited by several parties of summer resorters, touring in their automobiles and has been the subject for many recent snapshots. According to Stockman- and the story is borne out by many other Arcadians- Miss Quimby was 8 years old when her father mortgaged the house shown in the picture and went to California with his family.
Where was Harriet really born?
by: Ed. Y. Hall
The objective of research is truth. There is, even now, eighty-three years after her death, great mystery surrounding the actual birthplace of Harriet Quimby. Was Harriet born in the state of California, Michigan, or New York? What is the date of her birth — May 1, 1875, May 11, 1875, or the same dates in 1884 or 1885? A researcher will find several different dates, years, and locations. There is some real confusion, not that it matters a great deal to the general public, but it is important to the state of Michigan and to the citizens of Coldwater, Michigan.
Early in my quest for knowledge about the origins of Harriet Quimby, I was lead to several different locations. Written material such as old newspaper and magazine articles, modem articles, and all of the usual data a researcher would eventually stumble upon was generally available. My first serious research stop was in the city of Coldwater, Michigan. I had been lead there by several magazine articles that stated she had been born there in 1875. I contacted the Mayor of Coldwater for assistance and was directed to Mrs. Alice Hughes of the Branch County Library. Mrs. Hughes and I exchanged several letters and phone calls. I planned a research trip to Coldwater to follow through with my idea to write a book about Harriet.
Alice assisted me with my research and gave me access to everything she had on Harriet. Alice informed me that she could not prove Harriet was born in the Coldwater area, but local lore placed Harriet’s parents, William and Ursula Quimby, as tenants on the Nelson farm in Ovid Township a few miles south of Coldwater. It was assumed that Harriet was born on this farm in 1875. Neither Alice nor I ever found any proof that Harriet was born there or that the Quimby’s were even in Coldwater in 1875. There was a section of land in the Ovid Township area owned by a “W. Quimby” initially thought to be Harriet’s father, William, but later detailed research found the section to be owned by a Wilsey Quimby. There is no evidence that William Quimby ever owned any land in Branch County.
In 1988, the local Branch County Airport was the site of a Michigan Historical Marker stating that Harriet Quimby was a native of Coldwater and that she had been born May I 1, 1875. Knowing that the State of Michigan does not lightly place historical markers without complete documentation, I made the natural assumption all was well and thoroughly checked out. Harriet’s birthplace and date of birth, data based upon the Michigan historical marker, were mentioned in my book. If the data supporting the marker was good enough for Michigan, it was certainly good enough for me.
I have always accepted from the very beginning of my research that Coldwater was Harriet’s birthplace. Wasn’t it mentioned in newspapers, magazine articles, and histories of aviation? However, there has been a nagging question in my mind as to there is no proof. Why can’t we find anything among Quimby relatives in the Coldwater area to give us the research thread we need to tie her to Coldwater/Ovid? All we really have are some newspaper articles reporting her early aviation exploits in August 191 1, that she was a relative of several residents of Coldwater and a claim by the Coldwater Courier that she was a “native of this city.”
Harriet Quimby is believed to have spent her first twelve 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.
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. 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 then 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 parent’s lifestyle 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 homemade. 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 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.
-Researched by Steve Harold