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Oscoda When I Was Young


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According to one lumberman who lived through Michigan’s lumbering era, “there is no other tree in all the world which has so much romance . . . as the white pine.” He was correct. It was the white pine that made Michigan the nation’s leading lumber-producing state from 1860 until 1910. The state’s biggest white pines were called cork pine. These trees were 300 years old and grew to stand 200 feet tall. Today, a few remaining cork pine trees are at Hartwick Pines State Park near Grayling and at Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary near Copper Harbor. During Michigan’s lumbering era, thousands of men, called shanty boys, cut down the dense forests that covered the state. Other men, called lumber barons, made great fortunes by operating companies that cut the trees.

My maternal grandfather, along with many other Finlanders, emigrated from Finland and settled around Oscoda and AuSable, Michigan where they worked for lumber companies, cutting the white pine forests and leaving millions of stumps. As a child I can recall seeing acres and acres of stumps where trees had once been. After the trees were gone, many loggers moved on to other states, but my grandfather stayed in AuSable. I can remember picking huckleberries in the cemetery, as mentioned in this story. And I played on the swings and slides on the school grounds on River Road (Adams). The Great Fire of 1911 which destroyed Oscoda and AuSable was before my time, but I have seen many pictures and heard many stories about it because it also affected my relatives who lost everything in that fire. This story below describes the towns as they were during my grandfather’s time there.

June Pelo

Oscoda When I Was Young

Houses in Oscoda and AuSable in the late 1800’s were made of wood. A lot of white pine was used for it was plentiful and, like a lot of things, was wasted, leaving a lot of stumpage which could have been cut closer to the ground. We see all this in later years. In those days it was who could cut the most timber, the necessity of housing and making a living, and the trees were there for the taking.

Houses were lighted with kerosene oil and their glass chimneys had to be washed everyday and wicks were trimmed so there were no points to smoke them up.

Every home had a picket fence and a gate which closed by a pail of stones and a chain to close it. Those days were hobo days, scissors grinders and organ grinders with monkeys which held out their tin cups for donations. It was told that tramps or hobos, who “rode the rails”, left a mark on each gate post where he received a handout.

The yards or grounds surrounding homes were never kept neat and clean. Most families had outside hydrants which got covered with ice and snow and fires in homes were a disaster. Garbage collected in yards all winter! If you opened a can of anything, you threw the tin outside to be hauled away in the spring. Orange and potato peelings and almost all unusable things were tossed on the heap. The farmers could feed a lot of these things to their pigs and chickens.

If fences came down, horses and cows roamed all over and at times if you heard a terrific squealing, it was a neighbor killing a pig. After killing it, they would drop it into an iron pot of scalding water to remove hair. People had barns for cows and horses back of their homes and large manure piles would build up which the chickens enjoyed. Somehow, I think the manure-pile chicken tasted or had a better flavor than those of today.

Some of the youngsters would come to the house at times to collect swill, as we called it, for their pigs. I remember two boys by the names of Warnie and Ronnie who did this. Later one of these boys became a very fine druggist. Also we picked acorns for fifteen cents a bushel for pig feed.

Our school was three different buidings. The first grade to the fifth were facing River Road, which was them called Adams. The schools had long, flat-topped stoves which burned long wood. I cannot remember of ever being cold. We were dressed very warm in fleeced underwear, wool or shaker-flannel petticoats, and heavy dresses. Compared to the bare legs and no caps today! We also had wool stockings and leggings that were fleece lined and buttoned above the knees.

The school rooms were painted green which was said to be a good color for the eyes and always had a picture of Washington. The drinking water was in a pail on a shelf at the front of the rooms with a dipper hanging on a nail. Can’t think there were many germs afloat, as we all drank from the same dipper. Diphtheria was one of the main killers and consumption took its toll. We were vaccinated and it was supposed to be good for seven years. We also had a pest house for smallpox victims but I don’t remember anyone being there in my early days.

At school, the outside toilets were an education in themselves, as most pubic toilets are. They had stalls partitioned off, but no doors – girls on one side and boys on the other side of the partition.

In the elementary school, the fourth and fifth grades were in the bell room, which called us up to school mornings and noons, and it was a privilege to be chosen to ring the bell for five minutes. Everyone walked to school and some had a mile or more to walk. Some came down the railroad tracks and over the trestle. Happy were the boys who could turn the bell rope over. Then the janitor had to climb to the belfry and fix the rope. As I remember, Mr. Dishaw was our first janitor and had one arm or hand off and I often wondered how he managed, having at least five rooms to clean in that buillding. If I remember rightly, he wore a sort of leather sleeve for protection on that arm.

The grammar room and high school were an L-shaped building. The grammar room, where the sixth and seventh grades were, faced west and the high school faced north. These rooms were connected at the back by one room which was both a classroom and sort of laboratory. There was a small library up front which was behind the teacher’s desk and “recitation” seats in front. For a while there were only eleven grades in the school but later they added the twelfth grade. In my class were eleven graduates, incuding myself. We graduated in June 1911 and in July the Big Fire burned all but about forty-five houses, leaving most of those on what we call Piety Hill. Not that it was so pious.

For recreation in those days we skated from where the bayou comes in from the river, past the Hull and Ely mill, past the Merkel Farm to “Sandy Bottom” which the boys called “Bare (bottom) Beach” for swimming in the summer. We bathed in Lake Huron and got into our cotton, sailor-like swim suits in a few old boat houses where some of the fishermen kept their boats. Seems the water was always cold in the lake. We had a roller rink for awhile and a glass-blowing outfit which was very interesting and we were given a glass pen holder which contained colored liquid. All of these amusements were in the downstairs of the McKay Building. [SW corner of US-23 and River Rd.] Upstairs was where the touring shows or “dramas” were played. The heroine nearly run over by the train or saw nearly cutting her in half as the hero saved her just in time. Don’t remember if the villlain was ever caught.

Then there was the Nickelodeon where we paid only five cents to get in. Saw Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and always illustrated songs played on a piano and sang by a hired singer. I remember “I’m Tying the Leaves So They Won’t Come Down, So Nellie Won’t Go Away.” Also, there was a singer called Doris Diamond here and someone said later on, “Where did she go?” “Oh,” they answered, “She was singing ‘Down By the Old Mill Stream’ and fell in and drowned.”

One of the fun and work occupations of those days was picking huckleberries. Some call them blueberries. Many people made a business of it, they were very plentiful. Sometimes we walked and carried our berries, other times if it was any distance we rode, as my grandfather had a horse and small wagon. There was the “eight mile patch” and the Seven Mile Hill and usually all along the railroad tracks. Some light blue huckleberries grew in the cemetery but anywhere we went that we came upon these light blueberries, Grandma would say, “John, I will not pick these ‘graveyards’, you go reconnoiter (a favorite word of hers) and find some black ones.” I picked enough once at five cents a quart to buy a Brownie Kodak which I wanted badly. Now you are lucky if you can get them for ninety-five cents a quart or even find them at all.

The mills ran steadily and strikes were never heard of. The sawyers got the big wages and many times I have seen sawyers cuting the big logs by riding back and forth on a carriage with the big, sharp saw cutting through the logs, making boards which were piled out on docks to dry and then shipped away to places where needed.

Our AuSable River at times would be full of logs in different pockets and these logs would have a mark on the end done by a marking hammer. The Circle L meant the Loud Company. Each company had its individual mark and these markers are very scarce today.

The mill companies had dump carts which backed up to a ramp in the mill and hauled away slab wood, fire wood for home heating or bark from the trimmings for the roads. The travel was rather light in those days and a bus to the trains (D&M) twice a day and a few farmers selling milk, eggs, beef and vegetables. One farmer ladled out the milk with his thumb down in it and in the early summer would call out “Spar Grass” when he had asparagus. Many a dog went to dog’s heaven from poisoned meat this man gave them but he could hardly be blamed, for many the sheep they had killed of his.

Clothing was very different, not syntthetic goods – wool and cotton mostly, bllue serge for men’s suits, black suits for funerals and black dresses and veils for women. Funerals were in the homes then and everyone was supposed to look as gloomy as possible. They congregated all night at the home of the deceased. A bottle was sometimes passed around and a lunch was served. I had an aunt who never missed a funeral whether she knew the family or not. We hve come quite a way from then and I still think we have quite a way to go to relieve the families of their obligations at that time.

The Leg-O’-Mutton sleeve was going out as I was coming into the world, but long skirts were fashionable. I have seen them sweeping the sidewalks and I wondered as a child how they maneuvered them without tripping, as they were full skirts with lots of gores. Then came the hobble skirt and they were so narrow one could hardly navigate in them. Some had slits in the side which helped.

If anyone had walked down our street in a miniskirt in the early days, I can’t imagine the excitement! Like as if a person from Mars would come among us now. There were always several young men in their straw sailor hats hanging around in front of the drug store passing remarks about the ladies that passed. Can you imagine what a miniskirt would have done?

Marvel Ellis Stickney

From AuSable-Oscoda Historical Society Pamphlet #4 “They Called the Area Home”

June Pelo

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