The Early Days of Pigeon Michigan
By Arthur J Woelke
They came on foot, following the Indian trails from the shore of Saginaw Bay to the interior of Huron County, through dense forests and around grassy swales – one by one, hunters, timber cruisers, shingle weavers, fugitives from justice and a missionary to the Indians. Others came in pairs, as families, in surveying parties, or small groups.
Some came moved by man’s indomitable spirit of adventure, and others to escape former lives of oppression.
Gradually the numbers increased, In spite of tales carried back home of hardship and privation, Indians and wild animals, they continued to come, Some came in small skiffs, plying the rivers, or with ox-teams making wagon trails, bringing whatever meager supplies their primitive conveyances could carry, wading through swamps, fording streams, sleeping under the stars or crafting crude shelters of boughs until their livable log cabins could be built.
Many followed the Pigeon River inland for several miles. The river had been named several decades earlier by surveyors who completed the unfinished work of surveying Huron County left by General George Meade, when he was called to military service in the Mexican War in 1846.
Wild pigeons, or passenger pigeons, were so numerous along the banks of the river where they came to feed and nest, that the river was appropriately named the Pigeon River.
Many years earlier, ornithologist John James Audubon witnessed a flight that darkened the sky like an eclipse for three successive days. He estimated that an average-size flock, which took three hours to pass overhead, contained more than one billion pigeons. By the year 1900, everyone realized that the passenger pigeon had all but disappeared.
The last known passenger pigeon died at the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens on September 1, 1914.
In the 18605 and 70s, isolated log cabins were built along the Pigeon River by a growing number of immigrants. Among them were the Wilfongs, Harders, Muenteners, Sturms, Trosts, Nitzs, Muellers, Elenbaums, Links, Schluchters, and many more who first settled at the Ora et Labora Colony.
The Pontiac, Oxford and Port Austin Railroad laid tracks from Pontiac to Caseville, through the small village of Berne, in 1882. The number of passengers carried by the railroad in its first year was 52,715.
The die was cast for a new village when in 1886 the Saginaw, Tuscola and Huron Railroad crossed the north/south line one mile south of Berne. The railroad bed of the S. T. & H. had to be elevated through a large tamarack swamp that was described by a pioneer as “only fit for frogs and mosquitoes.”
The crossing was called Berne Junction. At that site the Junction House, managed by Henry Schultz, was built. It was the first structure built in the new settlement. Berne Junction was a designated stop on the S. T. & H. Railroad as late as 1890. Later it was listed on the train schedules as Pigeon.
When it became apparent that Pigeon’s potential growth was greater than that of Berne, Joseph Schluchter and the Leipprandt Bros. established branch businesses in Pigeon, and a few years later closed their ventures in Berne.
Promises of a superb agricultural development and a good business location brought many tradesmen, industrialists, speculators, merchants and farmers to the area.
They came from many ethnic backgrounds, subscribed to various religious convictions, and brought their occupational skills with them. Many immigrated through Ellis Island or Baltimore and first settled in New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. A good number began their lives in the New World in Canada.
Predominantly they were German, Scotch, Irish or English. German was the most commonly spoken language on the street and conducting business. John Diebel’s General Merchandise store on Michigan Avenue displayed “Deutcher Laden” on its awning, advising the public the proprietor spoke German.
Most of these early immigrants were devout, hardworking, practical men and women of some culture, education and political savvy. But not all Among them were drifters – the jetsam and flotsam of society. Almost all, however, had the moral philosophy of “doing unto others . . .”
They helped each other ~ building their log cabins, raising their barns, harvesting their crops, caring for sick neighbors and delivering their babies. They were usually happy and found many occasions to celebrate together. They grouped together for promoting their town, for cultural and social events, and for worship. In the first decade of the 20th century, there were fourteen churches of seven different denominations in the township.
Although the name “Pigeon”, taken from the Pigeon River, was pretty much established for almost fifteen years, as early as 1899 there was talk of changing the name.
Discussions on that subject became more frequent as the town was approaching incorporation in 1902. “Winsor City” was a favored suggestion. Village residents were polled. E.C. Leipprandt, E.W, E. Bundscho, James Spence, E.F. Hess, J.J. Campbell, and Ernst Paul were among those who favored a change.
Joseph Schluchter said, “I don’t think there would be anything to be gained by changing the name.” Albert Kleinschmidt agreed and said, “Not in favor of making a change.” G.B. Winter was quoted as saying, “I can’t see any reason for making a change.” Louis Staubus. Wm, Giese and Dr. Otto Frenzal were willing to accept whatever name was chosen.
Although the Pigeon Progress promoted “Winsor City,” and there was much sentiment in that direction, the village was incorporated as “Pigeon” Perhaps the name Winsor City was discarded because of possible confusion with the settlement in the southern part of the township, where the Winsor Evangelical Church and the Winsor School were located.
Also, nearby at the northwest corner of Brown and Geiger Roads, the first Winsor Township Hall stood until 1908,
When the Pigeon area was first settled, Winsor Township was part of Fairhaven Township. It was separated from Fairhaven in 1880.
The first area platted in the village was the Nitz and Applegate Plat by John Nitz and Charles Applegate in 1888.
Mr. Applegate built the first store in Pigeon the year before.
Moeller’s First Addition was recorded in 1893, followed by the Crawford Addition by Francis Crawford in 1897. The Diebel Addition by John Diebel and the Hyzer Addition by Abram Hyzer were added in 1898. Harry Gould bought 30 acres at the southeast corner of town and recorded the Gould Addition in 1903. Henry Moeller’s Second Addition was developed in 1912.
The village boundaries remained intact until 1947, when Dr. Clare and Clara Scheurer purchased property from Fred Wolfe and Henry Moeller, and designed the East End and West Side plats with streets and many building sites in 1947.
They also recorded the Northside #1 Addition in 1966 and the Northside #2 Addition in 1974. The Warren and Mildred Mclntyre development on the west side of town was annexed in 1971.
From its earliest beginnings the town grew steadily.
By 1900, there were more than 500 inhabitants. Serving this growing’ population were two banks, two elevators, a grist mill, seven churches, a first-class graded school, the post office, two large hotels, a fine opera house, two harness shops, two lodge meeting places, a photography gallery, two undertaking parlors, five blacksmith shops, two doctors, two millinery stores, seven stores carrying groceries, four clothiers, three hardwares, two drug stores, three furniture stores, amusement places and many other business establishments.
As the town grew there were many civic improvements. Early in the 19005, the road leading south from town, along the P. O. & N. tracks from Hartley Street, was moved to the present location of Main Street. The boardwalks were replaced with concrete. Curbs and gutters were built along the main streets. As cars became more plentiful, the hitching posts were removed.
The offensive stockyards, a sugar beet loading station, coal yards and the sawmills were gradually removed from the center of town.
A drainage system was installed to alleviate the annual spring floods. Several small industries were established, including a foundry near the intersection of the two railroads. Surrounding farmlands were expanded. Their production of cattle, hogs, chickens, hay, grains, apples, cheese and butter, flax, flour and the production of various industries were sent to city markets by the train carloads.
Along with the many successes Pigeon people experienced, there were also some tragedies. In 1901, the Diebel Planing Mill was completely destroyed by fire. The flax mills experienced the same fate in 1903. A fire on Main Street on August 3, 1923 completely wiped out Mose Kohn’s business and Mrs. Wesley Thiel’s millinery shop.
Two of the most disastrous fires occurred in 1916, when the Pigeon High School was totally destroyed, and the Black Store fire on Sunday morning, February 1, 1925. Mr. Black suffered a $200,000 loss.
Church services were canceled that morning. Parishioners went to the fire scene instead to assist the firemen in any way they could.
The wind was from the northeast that day. All the buildings in the path of flying embers were guarded by men with buckets and hoses to put out firebrands as they ignited roofs of homes and other out-buildings. The first mechanized fire truck did not arrive until two years later.
During the month of January in 1930, the Brueck Block caught tire. The American Bank and neighboring buildings suffered losses totaling $25,000.
Only minor damage was done in that fire to the Gem Theatre and Leipprandt’s Hardware, but in December of that same year. both Leipprand’s and the Gem burned to the ground.
The Cramer building was destroyed by fire in 1931. All of the above were wooden structures except Black’s. The wooden buildings were replaced with brick, which greatly improved the appearance of Main Street.
B1ack‘s Store was eventually torn down at a site now occupied by the Pigeon Telephone Central Office (switching) and Shetler Plumbing.
Over the years, there were many personal tragic events. Drownings, suicides, auto and train accidents that fatally injured people, a smallpox epidemic in 1910, epidemics of influenza in 1918 and polio in 1951 took their toll. The newspaper always expressed the condolences of the whole community with the obituary notices.
A devastating windstorm on March 28, 1913, which preceded the infamous Great Lakes storm in November of that year, lifted roofs from many buildings and completely destroyed the Williams Pickle Station. In July of 1936, a destructive hail-storm ruined all the gardens in the area and destroyed many farm crops.
World Wars I and I1 and other later conflicts brought sorrow to many homes.
When the 12th federal census was taken in 1900, 582 inhabitants of Pigeon were counted. That number increased to 687 in 1910; 780 in 1920; 836 in 1930; 949 in 1940; 1,025 in 1950; 1,191 in 1960; and fell to 1,174 in 1970.
Even though Pigeon expanded physically with many more homes, the population leveled to 1,247 in 1980. Smaller families could account for that decrease. The population numbers for 1990 and 2000 are exactly the same – 1,207.
This is only a small account of Pigeon’s past. A complete history would fill several library shelves.