Township 8 north, of range 8 west, known as Otisco, lies in the northwest corner of Ionia county, having Montcalm County on the north, Keene township on the south, Orleans township on the east and Kent County on the west. Otisco occupies the central point of one of the finest wheat-producing regions in the State and is itself especially favored in respect to wheat-growing soil, which, upon the plains, is remarkably fertile. The "plains of Otisco" passed, in the days of Ionia County pioneering, into a proverb, and not only captivated the first comers into that section, but speedily attracted a large volume of population by reason of their reported richness as an agricultural field.
The Flat River, a logging and mil-stream of some importance, enters the town on section 2, and, flowing in an eccentric course southward, passes through no less than thirteen sections, covers a course fully ten miles in length, and emerges finally at section 32. At Belding and Smyrna the water-power of the river is utilized to valuable purpose. There is likewise a water-power at Kiddville, on Dickinson Creek, and still another on Seely Creek, at Smyrna.
Otisco is a prosperous and growing town with not only valuable agricultural interests, but manufacturing industries of considerable consequence, especially at the village of Belding. The latter place is the largest of the four villages in the township, the other three being Cook's Corners, Smyrna, and Kiddville. Kiddvile, on the Detroit, Lansing and Northern Railroad, is connected by a branch railway with Belding, two miles distant. The other villages have no railway facilities.
THE PIONEERS OF OTISCO
It appears that before the eye of the hardy pioneer had rested upon the plains of Otisco in earnest of the pioneer's intention to settle, the value of a water power on Dickinson Creek (so called) near its confluence with the Flat River engaged the attention of George W. Dickinson, a New York man, who in the year 1836, in company with Thomas Cornell, then and now of Ionia built a saw-mill on the mill-site mentioned. Dickinson was the working and resident partner at the mill, and with him, as a mill-hand, came, among others, Patrick Kelly, who in a little while pre-empted some land near the mill and became a permanent settler. Latterly he has resided at his son's place in Orleans.
Among Dickinson's mill-hands in 1836 and 1837 were Asa Palmer, William G. Bradish, Hiram Baxter, and Thomas palmer. In July, 1837, Asa Palmer and Rosa McDonald (a servant in Dickinson's family) were married at Dickinson's house by Squire Horton, then a resident of Otisco. That was the pioneer wedding in the township, although residents of the town (Ambrose Spencer and Evelina Melvin) were married before that at Ionia, whither they had to go for the performance of the ceremony, since there was nobody in Otisco prepared to do it. Not long after their marriage Palmer and his wife moved to Orleans, where Palmer lived until his death, and where his widow still resides.
Pretty soon after Dickinson and his men made their appearance in Otisco there came to the southern portion of the town Daniel Horton, Nathaniel Horton, and Munson Seely. The Hortons located on section 32, and after tarrying about ten years moved to Iowa, where they died. Seely pitched his tent upon section 21, near where Smyrna now peoples the plain. He grew tired of staying there, however, and in a few years passed on to Muskegon county.
The little hamlet known as Cook's Corners was the centre of the first important settlement in Otisco, and it became right speedily a place of considerable local repute, chiefly because of its famous tavern. The country thereabouts was, and is, a handsome burr oak plain, and when, in the fall of 1837, Amos Russell, John L. Morse, and Abel Adgate, of Oakland County, journeyed out to Otisco to look at the country, they were captivated at once, and Russell and Morse straightway made land pre-emptions. Adgate fancied the land as much as did his companions, but his taste of trouble experienced in the tough time they had in getting from Ionia to Otisco dulled the edge of his ambition, and so he concluded he did not want any land.
In November, 1837, Russell and Morse, accompanied by R. R. Cook, started once more from Oakland, intending to make some improvement on their Otisco lands (Cook having meanwhile also made a pre-emption), but, the inclement season setting in earlier than they expected, they were forced to abandon their undertaking and return to Oakland for the winter, after having completed one shanty and partly finished a second. Upon their return journey to Ionia they undertook to effect a shorter cut than the way by which they had come (via the mouth of the Flat River), and, as a consequence, they were swamped in the river, lost in the wilderness, and mired in swamps; but they stuck to it like heroes, and got through alive, although the business was discouraging and tough enough to make them feel more than once like giving up.
At the time of the appearance of Russell, Morse, and Cook there were already before them (besides the mill people at Dickinson's) Nathaniel and Daniel Horton, on section 32; Ambrose Spencer and Munson Seely, in the same locality; Volney Belding and R. W. Davis, keeping bachelors' hall in a shanty just north of where Cook's Corners now are.
In February, 1838, Amos Russell, Rufus R. Cook, and J. L. Morse gathered their families and effects for another start towards Ionia County, intending that time to stay. With them started also William Russell, Calvin Gage, and Charles F. Morse, three young men who went on as hired hands. The party navigated the Looking Glass and Grand Rivers in flat boats as far as the mouth of the Flat River, and thence by Indian trail they moved to their destination. From Ambrose Spencer's they had to cut their road, and when they reached the present Cook's Corners they found on Cook's place the shanty Cook, Morse, and Russell had put up the previous year. It was a poor affair, fourteen feet square, without chimney, floor, window, or door, and although it did have a "shake" roof, it was just a trifle better than no roof at all. Poor as were the lodgings, all hands, to the number of thirteen, lived in the cabin a week. When the beds were made up for the night the rest of the household furniture was set out of doors, for there was just room for the beds, and they in turn had to be bundled out of doors in the morning to give the women folks a chance to keep house.
The first births in Otisco occurred in the Cook's Corners settlement, the first being Eliza, daughter of Amos Russell (now Mrs. Loren C. Fales), and the second A. B. Morse son of John L. Morse, and now a prominent lawyer of Ionia City. The first death was that of Clarissa Fisk, in June, 1841. The first cemetery was surveyed by Thomas Cornell, on section 21, Dec.6, 1842.
It must be borne in mind that the land occupied by settlers previous to Aug. 5, 1839, was simply pre-empted, for the Otisco lands were not put upon the market until that date. There was therefore danger that at the land sale land sharks might bid against the pre-emptors for possession, since the improvements thereon would prove a tempting inducement to do so. To prevent such action the settlers joined for the purpose of mutual protection, choosing Asa spencer to bid in their respective claims, while they themselves proposed to visit condign punishment upon the head of any offender. That determination was widely understood, but, despite its generally wholesome influence, one rash individual made a counter bid. Promptly enough the irate settlers collared him and gave him fifteen minutes to choose between leaving the country and being pitched into the Grand River. He decided in two minutes to leave the country, and that was the last seen of him in those parts.
Among the early comers to the neighborhood of Cook's Corners, in 1839, were Joseph Fisk, John Shaw, Tiberias Belding, Nathaniel Fisk, and Loren Benedict. Mr. Benedict built in 1839, on section 9, the first framed house in Otisco. In 1840, R. R. Cook built the first framed barn.
In 1840 came Samuel Demorest, and, in 1841, Silas Kimberly, Frederick Kimberly, and Horace Luscombe. In the fall of 1841, E. S. Jenks, Elder Slade, and William Alexander, of Rensselaer Co., N. Y., came West in search of land, which they expected to find in the Flat River country. Jenks' father urged him to avoid Flat River, for, according to his notion, Flat River must run through a flat country, and a flat country meant fever and ague; wherefore the elder Jenks argued that his son would surely be down flat upon his back as soon as he got there, and would have to be fetched home in the end.
Jenks and his companions went out from Ionia to Otisco afoot, and, besides a rough tramp, had a wretched experience with mosquitoes. Slade and Alexander concluded that in such a country they did not want to live, Jenks thought he might do much worse, and so he was the only one of the party that bought land there. His selection included sixty acres on section 6, and, after arranging purchase, he went with his two friends to New York State. By the time he got there Jenks was considerably enthused over Michigan and by his enthusiasm so influenced his neighbors Richard Ellis, William Stokes, and Charles Gibbs that they determined to pack up, sell out, and make for Michigan with their families as soon as ever they could. Accordingly, in the spring of 1842, Jenks, Ellis, Gibbs, and Stokes, with their families and effects, set out for Michigan, accompanied also by John Gibbs, who wanted to "see the country," and who became later also one of Otisco's settlers. The company proceeded via lake to Detroit, and thence, with five ox teams, through swamps and forest, by the of Scott's, at De Witt, to Otisco, where they landed in May (eleven days after leaving Detroit) and housed themselves with Tiberias Belding who was then living on section 9. At the time of his first visit Jenks had rolled up a "pen" on his place, fourteen by twenty-four, and into it he moved his family. In that "pen" Mr. Jenks and his family lived for five years, and that it was a pretty poor sort of home may be inferred from the fact that Jenks' father, coming out to visit him, and being shown the building, exclaimed, "Good heavens! Does Erastus live in that thing?"
Richard Ellis settled on section 3, Charles Gibbs located in Boston township, and Stokes on section 10, in Otisco, whence he subsequently moved to Montcalm County.
When Jenks made his home upon section 6 his nearest neighbor was Sheldon Ashley, in Kent county, about a mile to the westward. Presently he had a nearer neighbor in E. B. Tuttle, who moved to section 6, upon the Enoch Brown place, Tuttle settling the farm to Brown about 1850.
Elder Wilson Mosher, a famous pioneer preacher, was an early comer to the neighborhood. His home was on section 7, where his widow now lives. Elder Mosher was an energetic preacher and worker. His motto was "Preach and work," and from the pulpit he once delivered it as his opinion that a lazy man could not well be a Christian. He thought nothing of going ten miles to preach a funeral sermon, and so ready was he at all times to answer calls upon him that he would drop at once whatever work he was engaged in and go, while, as to pay for his services of time, that never occurred as a thought, much less as a request.
Early settlers near Cook's not before mentioned were J. M. Brown, Mr. Boynton, C. F. Morse, George Cooley, and M. R. Weter. Weter bought his farm of Mr. Penney, who made the first improvement on it. Later came Hiram Hovey and William Slawson.
To return to Cook, of Cook's Corners, history recites that in the fall of 1846, upon the opening of the Grand Rapids and Lyons road via Cook's, Mr. Cook built a tavern, which became in due time a place of popular resort. There was a good deal of travel over the road, and the tavern did a flourishing business. When the stage line between Ionia and Greenville was started Cook's was made a stage house, and until the completion of the Detroit, Lansing and Northern Railroad to Greenville was a busy and prosperous roadside inn. Although the tavern has always been known as "Cook's," Mr. Cook was, as a matter of fact, its landlord only the first year after its erection. He then leased it to Nathaniel Fisk, and, after Fisk, Hiram Weeks was the landlord for fifteen years or thereabout. From the hour it was finished the tavern has been continuously open to the public to this day.
In 1839 the Otisco post office, which was established at Dickinsonville (now Kiddville) in 1838, with George W. Dickinson as postmaster, was transferred to Cook's Corners and given in charge of Rufus R. cook, Dickinson not fancying the trouble of having to carry mail to and from Ionia. Cook did not mind it so much, but when he went out on his regular mail carrying expeditions he always took good care to kill two birds with one stone by carrying grists for himself and neighbors to the Ionia mill.
In 1850, Mr. Cook opened a store at the "Corners," and after a while took in as a partner J. L. Morse, with whom he carried it on many years. May 1, 1856, Mr. Cook platted the village of Cook's Corners, and recorded it as occupying the northeast quarter of the northwest quarter of section 16.
James S. Patterson and Joseph Weeks were the earliest blacksmiths at the "Corners." The first school taught in the neighborhood was kept at a point about half a mile to the westward, by Julia Ann Ackley. In that school, also, one of the early teachers was Seth Reed, afterwards in eminent Methodist Episcopal diving in Michigan. J. S. Gage, who located at the "Corners" in 1846, set up a wagon shop there in 1855, and still follows the business. Rufus Cook's old store has been kept since 1865 by J. C. Stockholm, who has likewise been postmaster since then. The list of business interests at the Corners includes also the bed-spring factory of Hawley M. Cotter.