Bear Lake, Michigan
Manistee County

History of Bear Lake Township

This township is in the second tier east of Lake Michigan, and, as a whole, is the host, township in the county. It embraces thirty-five square miles. The soil is mostly of a light sandy loam, with occasional streaks of clay, and is exceedingly productive when well worked. There are a large number of excellent farms in the township, and many of the farmers have accumulated a handsome property. More farms have been cleared up and been put in good condition in this town than in any other town in the county.


During the Winter of 1864-1865, the tract of land including the present towns of Bear Lake and Pleasanton was set off from the Brown town region, as the Town of Bear Lake. The first, election was held at the house of S. Anderson, in the Spring of 1865, and the following officers elected:

Supervisor, S. Anderson; town clerk, H. N. Hanaford; treasurer, D.E. Sibley; justice of the peace, J. A. Austin; highway commissioners, A. A. Cooper, R. F. Smith, William Probert; school inspectors, G.R. Pierce and Jerome Hulbert; constables, James Probert and Hiram Walker; directors of the poor, J. B. Mason and Darell Hollister.

About the first beginning in what is now Bear Lake Township, was made in 1863 by Russell V. Smith now a resident of Bear Lake village. Mr. Smith was born in New York State in 1830, and came to Summit County in 1843. September 8, 1805, he was married at Medina, Ohio, to Miss Harriet L. Crooks, of that place. Having heard something about the Grand Traverse region, he visited it in the Summer of 1863. From Traverse he walked to Bear Lake, following the Indian trail, and being favorably impressed with the appearance of the country, returned to Traverse and entered 172 acres of land bordering on Bear Lake. He then returned to Ohio, to bring his family to this wilderness world. August 20, they left their home in Ohio, and came by boat to Portage Lake. Leaving his family with a fisherman, he armed himself with a loaf of bread, an ax, and a compass, and started to find the place of their future home, and mark the route, for all that region was a trackless forest. While working his way along, he was surprised at the sound of voices, and soon came upon a man drawing a hand-cart loaded with provisions, and a lady with a baby carriage. They proved to be D. E. Sibley and family, who were seeking their homestead on the north shore of Bear Lake, almost opposite the one located by Mr. Smith. This was Saturday. An evergreen bower was put up, and Mr. Smith returned to Portage for his family. He got a pair of oxen, a horse and sled to transport their goods, and she wrapped her baby in a shawl and walked the whole distance.

The first religious services ever held in the town were held at their camp soon after their arrival. A Rev. Mr. Thompson, missionary to Africa, came along and word was sent out to settlers some miles away that he would preach a certain evening, and quite a gathering was the result. A large fire was built near the evergreen bower, and the audience, seated upon logs, or upon the ground, listened to the tidings of the gospel of peace. It was in God's great cathedral, without pulpit or cushioned pew, yet no preacher ever was surrounded by more inspiring circumstances, or spoke to a more appreciative audience.

The first work before them was to build a log house. Mr. Smith chopped the trees and got the logs in readiness, and then got help from a Norwegian settlement some ten or twelve miles away, to pile them up. This old log house still stands in Mr. Smith's yard, just back of his present house, and a lithographic view of it may be seen upon another page.

Experiences and hardships followed that would stagger the belief of persons unfamiliar with tales of pioneer life. He had always followed a trade, and was unused to any kind of farm labor, but he possessed a brave heart and a wife no less brave than himself. Together he logged a little spot of ground, and while he went away to work by the month, she raised the vegetables, planting potatoes with a hand spike, and doing many other things in the same rude

At one time, while felling trees near the shanty, they came down upon it and demolished the roof. Fearing that this might happen, they had removed the children and dishes to a safe place. Shortly after he had repaired the injury a violent storm blew the roof off just at night, and the family were obliged to seek shelter under the bank of the lake, and covering them with blankets, he kept a huge fire going the whole night.

All supplies came from Manistee or Traverse. When they first came an Indian carried the mail once a week through from Manistee to Traverse. The nearest post-office was Norwalk. Often a barrel of flour would be brought for them to a point a few miles distant, and taking a handcart, the two would bring it to their cabin.

For the first four months Mrs. Smith never saw a woman, except at the time of their first arrival. The first Winter the entire family were sick with small pox, and the heroism of the wife and mother was severely tested. Mr. Smith was taken sick at Lincoln, where he was at work for Charles Mears. It was twenty-five miles to his home, and the snow was deep and unmarked by any road. Weak as he was, he walked the entire distance, though often sinking down upon the snow from exhaustion, and when at his he reached home, he found every member of the family sick. There were no doctors, but the nursing of the mother brought them all to health, and without, a single scar from the dreadful disease. For a long time their house was the only stopping-place on the trail, and by Spring their year's stock of provision was gone, and their money nearly gone, but he was always able to supply actual necessaries, and all their hardships the family never knew the want of plenty to eat and comfortable shelter.

In time, however, other settlers came in. He cleared his land and prospered. Most of the present Village of Bear Lake stands upon a portion of his original farm, and he has recently platted an addition of thirty acres. For some time he kept the principal hotel in the place, having used his dwelling for that purpose, and named it the Russell House.

Both Mr. and Mrs. Smith have always been prominent members of the society of the place, and are among its most esteemed residents.

The first postmaster was Jerome Hulbert, who took the office in 1867. He was succeeded by J. B. Mason, and then, J. N. Tillson, the present postmaster.

J. Edmonson and James Smith came in the Fall of 1863, and located about two miles south of Bear Lake.

Simon Anderson had already taken up a homestead, chopped some trees on it, and went away, but returned in the Spring of 1864.

Settlers gathered in, gladly welcomed by the oldest inhabitants. Openings were made in the forest, and fruit orchards planted.

During the Summer of 1866, Henry Erb brought in a few goods from Milwaukee, and partitioned off a small room, possibly 6x8 feet, in his log cabin; put up a counter and shelves, and called it a store. And there the settlers flocked for needles, pins, sugar, tea, etc. The Rev. Mr. Lewis also had an accommodation store, containing the same commodities with the exception of tobacco. Immigrants from the east, west and south were at this time coming in crowds to take up the government land, and the business of cutting trees was constantly increasing. But with the hurry of clearing land, building houses and putting in crops, the future well- being of the children was not forgotten. They must be educated, for to them would belong much of the future weal or woe of the town. A district school was started, and a good log house built near the farm of J. B. Mason, who was the second postmaster of the town.

The house was comfortably supplied with school apparatus, and Mrs. J. Guernsey, who years before had much experience in teaching, was again induced to put on the teachers' harness.

During the Winter of 1867-'68 the township of Pleasanton was set off from Bear Lake Town. There was now a much smaller range of territory, but the inhabitants were no less enterprising. Thorough going intelligent men found here a chance to begin a thriving business, on comparatively small capital.

The first grist mill and sawmill was built by Messrs. Carpenter & Harrington. Meanwhile, two good stores had been added to the town by T. A. Tillson & Co., and 8. A. Anderson.

Good school houses dot the town, and show how deeply the people are interested in education.

A good library was supplied by the early settlers, containing a large number of well-selected books, and newspapers and periodicals are found in almost every house.

The present officers of the township are as follows: Supervisor, James Dodd; clerk, John N. Brodie; treasurer, G. K. Estes; justices of the peace, D. D. Smith, Jerome Hulburt, Isaac Hilliard, A. B. Chamberlain; road commissioner, E. A. Bodwell; school inspectors, George McKnight and William Kingscott.