Sunfield Township - Where the Sun and Fields Meet

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By Bruce Benedict
(Bismark Church, Circa 1960 pictured below.)

Bismark Church Circa 1964A look at the names (see list below) of the first pioneers shows them to have been of English ancestry or so-called “Yankees” from New England, primarily New York and Connecticut.  The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 opened a new and easy way to Michigan Territory via Lakes Ontario and Huron to Detroit and Toledo.  Also, by 1933, federal Indian policies had removed most of the Potowatomi and Ojibway from the area to west of the Mississippi.  This was instrumental to the opening of the way for government land survey and increased settlements.

The first houses were built of rough logs, a shake roof, a mud chimney and a split basswood floor.  The dense woods grew trees up to 60 feet in height before there was a limb.  From these trees straight logs about a foot in diameter and from 16 to 40 feet in length were cut for building houses and barns.

The Bismark area was fine quality timbered land with a variety of soil and timber.  It was generally well watered with a local creek (Sebewa), artesian wells and fresh water springs in the area.  This was inviting to those looking for timbered farmland.

As they cleared the land and started raising crops like hay, corn, oats and wheat, dairying emerged as -the principal industry in Bismark.  Cheese- making eventually moved from the farmhouse and dairy barn in the 1850’s to the local cheese factory.  Cheese is an effective way to preserve milk.

My Uncle, Carrol Benedict age 97, recalls his father Ernie recollecting that the Bismark cheese factory was a very busy place.  It was a large wooden structure with a large vat, a cheese press, a boiler and cooking room which had been built by a spring and the water run through it.  The waste was dumped out the back and smelled awful.

The local farmers would arrive early in the morning with their fresh milk in tin lined casks hauled with a  horse drawn dray.  The farmers used this time unloading as a social occasion to discuss farm problems and politics.  They would then drive up by the whey tank and fill their containers with the previous days waste to take home to their pigs.

In the factory the whey is drained off and the curds are scraped towards the edge of the vat so the whey can run off.  This is very hard work.  The curds are put in the press which is lined with cheese cloth.  The press is tightened with a long lever.  Then the whole area is cleaned by diverting the spring water through the vat area and basswood brooms are used on the floors and scrub brushes used on the equipment until it is clean.

Using the raw milk made better cheese since it provides a firmer curd and contains its own bacteria cultures and doesn’t require a milk clotting enzyme like rennet for protein coagulation.  It takes 10-15 pounds of milk to make 1 pound of cheese.  What cheese was not sold locally was  hauled to the stage coach stop at Delwood Corners and sent to stores in Vermontville and Ionia.

Food Supplies
People in Bismark didn’t actually go hungry, but many times beans and corn meal mush had to satisfy their appetites.
  In season, there were wild fruits such as plums, crab apples, huckleberries, raspberries and elderberries.  There were also beechnuts, acorns, hazelnuts, butternuts, walnuts and hickory nuts.

Hogs raised on nuts had lard so soft it wouldn’t harden and was used for lighting being put in a saucer with a wick over the edge and set on fire.  There were deer, turkeys, squirrels, raccoons, bears, pigeons and fish.  Bee trees were a rare source of honey.

The local Indians grew corn, beans, peas, squash and pumpkins.  They would willingly trade these goods for trinkets and cloth.

Income Sources
Maple sugar was a prime source of income as long as cane sugar remained above 10 cents per pound, but when the price dropped to 5 cents, little maple sugar was made for sale.
  The maple trees were cut down and burned for potash or black salt content.  Three hundred and twenty-two tons of maple sugar was sold in the county in 1874.

The primary products produced in Bismark during the 1800’s included hay, rye, wheat, barley, butter, cheese, maple sugar, wool , flax, oats, corn, buckwheat and potatoes.  Sugar beets were being grown by 1890.  Winter wheat and wool were the most important products.

Wheat had to be stacked outside before the barn was built and thrashed by laying the sheaves on the ground and driving the cattle around and around upon it and then cleaning by tossing into the wind.  Pretty primitive  stuff.

There were a lot of bees held in Bismark.  There were chopping bees to widen roads and for several years the wagon tracks were a series of curves to avoid big stumps.  There were quilting bees, barn raising bees, house raising bees, harvest bees and spelling bees.

A well prepared man needed a yoke of oxen, a lumber wagon, a cow, a dog and a rifle.  The sickle and the grain cradle, the scythe and the hand rake were the implements of harvest and hay fields.

Roads were terrible and sometimes impassible when not raised 18 inches to two feet above the surface by hauling logs across the road and rolling them close together.  They were called corduroy.  But they would sink two feet below the surface in the mire and were not very solid.

The “ague” (malaria) was a constant health problem.  Men were sometimes not able to work for days at a time.  There were no doctors.

Wolves and screech owls provided a nightly serenade.
  The wolves were plentiful, but  not much of a problem.  They mostly took chickens and pigs, however, they were known to follow people as they traveled from place to place.

Sunfield Begins
Sunfield Township became a reality in February of 1842.
  The first school was taught by Mrs. George Andrews in her house in the summer of 1842.  The house was located where the Bob Robinson family lives today.  (He is said to be the next Eaton County Treasurer). 

A log shanty school was then built south of the corner on section 34 next to Sebewa Creek.  In 1851 a frame school was built on the northeast corner of section 33 on an acre of land donated by George Andrews.  The subjects taught were reading, spelling, writing, arithmetic, geography and grammar.

In May of 1872 a township meeting was held at George Andrew’s house.  School district # 1 was made up of sections 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33 and 34. The west ˝ of 26 and the west ˝  of 35.  There were often over 50 students in attendance.  The Bismark School was a leader in the production of school plays in Sunfield  Township.

Most of the people in Bismark were Methodists.  They build their church across from the school house in 1871.  It was a large, lovely church with over 50 members.  It stood for 100 years.

The Bismark post office was opened in 1871 at the Loomis General Store and lasted until 1904 when the store burned down.  A lot of socializing took place at the general store, when people would meet there as they picked up their mail.  The mail was initially delivered once a week by a rider on horseback.

In 1870 the residents of Bismark were happy to learn that a railroad was to run through the area from north to south.  The Coldwater and Marshall Railway was to be built.  The name was then changed to the Coldwater and Mackinaw Co.  Right-of-way had been secured from Coldwater to Elm Hall in Gratiot County at that time.  The right-of-way had been graded a greater part of the way, culverts put in, bridges built and ties purchased.  The president of the railroad Albertus Green died in October 1875 and no work has been done since.

The tractor, telephone and automobile revolutionized cultivation, communication and transportation and ended the rural isolation of the small hamlets.  Many people left for the cities.  In 1860, 85% lived on farms.  In 1960, less than 20%.

The only remnants that remain of the once bustling Bismark community are the old school house which is a county historical building and the Methodist church steps across the road.

Bismark is gone – but not forgotten.

Much of the material for this article was taken from “The History of Eaton County”.

Bismark Pioneers – Beginning in 1836

Hoyt                                                               Hager

Wright                                                            Barnum

Dow                                                                Childs

Lenon                                                             Garinger

Collier                                                            Andrews

Shipman                                                        Hawkins

Aldrich                                                           Kinne

Steward                                                         Gorham

Flewelling                                                      Loomis

Hammond                                                     Pickins

Walsh                                                             Austin

Benedict                                                        Wellman

Lent                                                                Gaedert

Neff                                                                Fast

Sinclair                                                           Deuel

Fender                                                           Harroun                                         

Barber                                                            Chatfield

Lovell                                                              Lamb

Price                                                               Sprague

Campbell                                                       Joppie

Downing                                                        Spaulding

Berlincourt                                                    Harris

Brown                                                            Grinnell

Lake                                                                Moore

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