The Saga of a City
Moving rivers, a murderous banker freed, salt mines, lumber barons — highlights from Manistee’s first 150 years.
By Patrick Sullivan | April 20, 2019
Manistee became a city 150 years ago, in 1869, which makes it one of the oldest cities in northern Michigan. By contrast, while both Manistee and Traverse City first saw white settlers descend upon American Indian lands in the 1840s, Traverse City didn’t become a city, officially, until 1895.
Manistee, in its early days, was also one of the wealthiest cities in Michigan, thanks to its natural harbor and location that made it a virtual center of logging in the Lower Peninsula. That means that Manistee experienced tremendous growth the last years of the 19thcentury and the early years of the 20th, which makes the city a treasure trove of Victorian architecture.
So it is a city that drips with history, and fittingly, it’s got one of northern Lower Michigan’s oldest and most robust historical societies, one that operates two downtown museums and hosts self-guided interactive history tours throughout the year.
“There are a lot of older families that have been here for generations, and there’s always a continuing interest in what grandma or grandpa used to do, you know, grandpa used to work at the mills, or great-grandpa used to work at the mills, or great-great-great grandpa used to work at the mills, so there’s still a lot of generations of people here and they are interested in where they came from,” said Mark Fedder, executive director of the Manistee County Historical Museum.
Also, even casual visitors cannot help but get drawn to Manistee’s past, which calls out to them through that architecture.
“We’re basically surrounded by history,” he said. “These buildings played an important role in Manistee’s formation, and people appreciate that — not just people who were born and raised here, but visitors coming to Manistee.”
Events are planned throughout this year to celebrate Manistee’s sesquicentennial (see sidebar). Below are just a few highlights of the city’s early history.
MOVING THE MANISTEE
It became obvious way back in 1855, at least to one visionary, that Manistee had the potential to be a great sawmill town. Manistee Lake, which sits just a mile from the shore of Lake Michigan, makes an ideal harbor, as long as there’s a way to get logs and ships back and forth to the big lake.
The meandering, shallow route that the Manistee River took to connect the two lakes was not suitable for shipping in 1854. Samuel Potter, who in addition to being a logger was also the county sheriff, decided that the river should take a more direct route.
Potter oversaw the construction of dams and the fortification of the river channel with pilings in order to force the flow of the water to its present location, Fedder said.
“That was a big part of what made Manistee,” Fedder said. “That right there was the clincher that formed Manistee into what it became.”
Perhaps that project was the inspiration for a similar, failed project a few dozen miles north in Benzie County where, in 1873, some residents attempted to dig a canal from Crystal Lake to Lake Michigan. The project failed, and Crystal Lake merely drained 20 feet, shrinking the lake’s footprint considerably and exposing a shoreline of sandy beaches.
NOTORIOUS MURDER OF 1869
Herbert Field’s life started out an eventful one. Beginning at age 13, during the Civil War, he worked on a Union transport ship. At age 15, he spent three weeks in a South American jail. Later, he sailed to England and then Russia but was shipwrecked and stranded on the Red Sea.
So in 1868, at the ripe old age of 21, he was likely hoping for some quiet when when he settled in Manistee, Michigan, to take up banking with business partner George Vanderpool.
Initially, he had that quiet. The partners did well. Vanderpool was good at business; and Field was good with people. But it didn’t take long for the relationship to fray. Vanderpool accused Field of embezzlement, causing a dispute that led to the men’s decision to dissolve the bank.
But on Sept. 5, 1869, a day after they signed the papers to end their partnership, Field disappeared.
People immediately suspected Vanderpool, and he was arrested on suspicion of murder even before Field’s body was found. When Field was found, in Lake Michigan, near Frankfort, it was determined he had been killed by a blow to the head. And the sheriff recalled that the day Field had been reported missing, Vanderpool had been spotted in his office cleaning up a large amount of blood.
Nonetheless, despite having been tried three times for the murder, Vanderpool got away free,.
The first time, he was convicted in Manistee and sentenced to life in prison, but that conviction was soon overturned on the grounds that he did not receive a fair trial in Manistee. He was tried again in Kalamazoo, where the result was a hung jury. A third trial, held in Barry, resulted in a verdict of not guilty.
Fedder said the story resonates so much so many years later because of the drama and the mystery it contains. He and the director of the Manistee High School drama program are planning to produce a student play about the murder based on a script Fedder is writing. He hopes the play will be performed this November as part of the sesquicentennial celebration.
THE GREAT FIRE OF 1871
Manistee’s “Great Fire” would likely be more well-known — if it hadn’t happened on Oct. 8, 1871, the same day that Chicago, much of Wisconsin, and many other cities in Michigan burned to the ground.
“That happened at the same time as Chicago Fire, the Peshtigo Fire, and there were a couple other ones here in Michigan around that same time,” Fedder said.
Nonetheless, despite causing only a single death, the fire devastated Manistee and changed the course of its history.
Fedder said the fire — really, several fires –—started just north of the city limits and burned that part of the city in the morning. Once that fire was under control, other parts of the city ignited, and the fire seemed to hop the Manistee River to ravage the south part of the city.
Two-thirds of the structures in Manistee were lost on Oct. 8, 1871. To have lived through it, it must have seemed like the world was on fire.
The fire, like the ones on the other side of Lake Michigan, was caused by high winds, dry conditions, and too much available fuel in the form of wood scrap left over from logging and wooden buildings.
One of Manistee’s most distinguished citizens, Byron Cutcheon, a Civil War general and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, wrote about the fire in the Grand Rapids Eagle. He described the invasion of one wave of fire like this: “Down the circling hills on the lakeshore pounced the devouring monster. The burning sawdust, whirled by the gale in fiery clouds, filled the air. Hundreds of cords of dry, pitchy slabs sent up great columns of red flame, that swayed in the air like mighty banners of fire, swept across the Manistee, two hundred feet wide, and almost instantly, like great fiery tongues, licked up the government lighthouse, built at a cost of nearly $10,000 and situated a 150 feet from the north bank of the river.”
The fire both scarred Manistee and changed its shape. After, city leaders understood that buildings needed to be constructed out of stone and brick. That’s why the ornamental and imposing Victorian buildings of River Street are what they are today, Fedder said.
A HOUSE THE SIZE OF A CITY BLOCK
In terms of finance, there’s no doubt Manistee’s heyday was the lumber era.
“People always say that Manistee had the most … millionaires per square mile in the country — they were pointing to the 1880s or 1890s, into the early 1900s,” Fedder said. “Steve — the former director, he was here about 40 years — he always told me that it’s always been said but it’s never been substantiated. It’s local legend, but never really been substantiated.”
Perhaps the best evidence of the city’s extravagant wealth was the Canfield Mansion, built in 1876 on an entire city block.
The legendary status of that home, formerly located at 512 Fourth Street, stems less from its construction than its demise, however.
The home came into the possession of the daughter-in-law of the man who built it after she had divorced his son on the grounds of desertion. Belle Gardner later remarried and lived in the mansion with her husband, George O. Nye, in the early 1900s.
By the 1920s, however, the couple decided that the residence was too much. They had it demolished and used the brick to build a much smaller home.
“I’d like to think that it was sort of revenge against the [Canfield] family, so to speak, but I can’t substantiate that,” Fedder said.
Here is how the Manistee News Advocate described the old mansion upon its demolition in September 1923: “Comprising 26 lofty-ceiling rooms, including a spacious ballroom, billiard room and four bathrooms, the house in the late seventies was regarded as one of the most magnificent mansions in Michigan, and was the scene of many gay social functions.”
THE DISCOVERY OF SALT
There was something brackish in what bubbled up from the ground near the sawmills around Manistee Lake, so much so, that some of the owners decided around 1879 that it was worth a closer examination.
“There was a guy by the name of Charles Rietz, a sawmill owner, big lumber guy, and he noticed there were salt springs bubbling up around his property, where he had the sawmill,” Fedder said. “So he and several other lumbermen pooled some money together, and then with the state geologist, they started to drill for salt.”
The first attempts weren’t successful; drillers ran into solid bedrock at 500 feet, so all but one of the other lumbermen backed out. Reitz kept going, though, and eventually he struck salt on Feb. 7, 1881, at a depth of 1,976 feet, according to “Lumbermen’s Legacy,” a 1954 publication of the Manistee County Historical Society.
Reitz’s discovery would spark an industry that would, at least in part, replace lumber in Manistee.
It took a while for the salt industry to develop in Manistee, but in those early years, the sawmill owners had found a reliable source of extra income. They would pipe hot water into the ground, forcing brine back up to the surface, which they would collect, then evaporate to get salt.
“After he struck it, the other guys, they started drilling for it on their properties. That’s how the salt industry started in Manistee,” Fedder said. “That industry is still going, though not in the same exact capacity as it used to.”
Morton Salt moved into Manistee in 1930.
HOME FOR AGED WOMEN
Fedder has made it a priority in recent years to research the lives of women through Manistee’s history, a challenging task because often they are referred to in contemporary sources only by their husband’s name.
Nonetheless, he wanted to bring as many of them to life as he could. One that stands out, he said, is Carrie Filer, wife of a prominent lumber baron who served as a force for good through her philanthropy and commitment to the poor.
Filer and her husband lived in a Victorian mansion they called Roselawn, on the corner of Cedar and Sixth streets.
She is remembered for significant donations she made over the years — $2,000 given to the Pilot Club, an organization committed to sewing for and serving the poor. She gave $5,000 toward the construction of the Manistee Library ,and she purchased a chime for the Guardian Angel Church and an organ for another church, both of which are still in use today.
Perhaps most significantly, when she died Sept. 21, 1909, she had arranged to have her residence converted into a home for aged women.
The home served elderly woman for five decades until the building needed to be demolished in the late 1950s or early 1960s, Fedder said.
VESTIGES OF THE LUMBER ERA
In the early years of the 20thCentury, the lumber era in northern Michigan began to wind down. What had been considered an inexhaustible resource was now almost gone, and populations of sawmill towns started to decline.
In 1900, Manistee had a population of 14,000. Those people were tightly packed into the city limits. Manistee would have felt like a crowded, vibrant city. By 1910 the population had dropped by 3,000, a significant blow.
With the trees gone, the sawmills, the city’s main employer, could no longer operate. But the scrap and detritus left behind by the lumber era, and the jack pine and scrub oak that had sprung up in the clear-cut forests would feed a new enterprise — paper and cardboard manufacturing.
Once all of the lumber was cut, or almost cut, paper mills sprung up where sawmills once stood. One of the early one was Filer Fiber Company, which later became a plant for Packaging Corporation of America.
“It wasn’t as big as what it was, as big as the sawmills were,” Fedder said. “It wasn’t as big as it was before.”
Some of the paper mill jobs remain today. Manistee was forced to reinvent itself in other ways in its bid to survive the early 1900s, and many of those industries have come and gone, like garment makers, tanneries, and the Century Boat Company, which launched in Manistee in the late 1920s and closed in the mid 1980s.
“That’s a really interesting time period in Manistee’s history — the nineteen teens, the ’20s, the ’30s — because how does a town reinvent itself once its main source of income is gone?”
Celebrate the Sesquicentennial
Here are just a few of the events taking place this year to celebrate Manistee’s birthday. For a complete list, visit www.manisteemuseum.org.
April 29: “Bricks, Mortar, Cornices and Corbels” at the Ramsdell Inn (399 River Street). Learn about the beautiful downtown architecture of the town dubbed the “Victorian Port City.” Includes a presentation from Fedder and a walking tour. Tickets: $20. Time: 5:30pm.
May 15: “A Walking Tour of the ‘Hill’ Homes: PART 1” is a tour led by local historian John Perschbacher, who will discuss not only the homes that are still standing but also some that have been lost to time. The 1.5–2-hour tour meets at 2pm at the Manistee County Historical Museum (425 River Street). By donation.
June 6: “Manistee Before Manistee” is a presentation about Manistee before it was a city. Former museum director, Steve Harold will give a presentation at the Manistee County Historical Museum that will cover what was happening in Manistee before the city was incorporated. Time: 6:30pm. By donation.
June 26 through Sept. 30: “Moments in Manistee’s History” is a photo exhibit at the Manistee County Historical Museum that will explore moments from the city’s last 150 years. Curated from thousands of photographs, this exhibit will display an array of photographs pertaining to buildings and people to fires and events that all played a part in shaping the community. Cost: $1 per student, $3 per adult, $8 per family (parents and their minor children).