FROM THE ARCHIVES: Early minister’s memories of Montcalm
The Rev. Norman L. Otis, described by the Greenville Independent as “one of the best known ministers of Montcalm County,” began preaching in the eastern portion of county in the late 1860s when the area still was being settled.
Otis was a graduate of Olivet College and preached for 50 years, first as a Methodist Episcopal pastor and later as pastor of Congregational churches. He served churches in the Carson City, Crystal, Hubbardston and Butternut area.
Otis was chaplain of the Eighth Michigan Cavalry in the Civil War, and later in his life served as a justice of the peace for 24 years. He lived on a farm in Bloomer Township for many years.
Otis also was a writer and thanks to him we get a glimpse of the Montcalm County of long ago.
“Rev. N.L. Otis has for years been occasionally writing interesting reminiscences of pioneer life in the east part of the county,” the Independent said in 1912. His writings appeared in newspapers in the local communities and were reprinted in the Independent.
In an article from the Crystal Mail in 1912, Otis talked about the early days at Crystal, describing hardships he encountered not for himself, but for his horse.
“When the writer first began to preach regularly at Crystal about forty-four or forty-five years ago, the roads were so bad that he often went to his appointments on foot. And then it was sometimes difficult to get horse feed at certain times of the year. When we went on horseback we sometimes took a sack of oats along behind the saddle, as we did the first time we visited the Salt river region in Isabella county before the civil war.
“Two or three times in our experience we could get nothing for a horse to eat except corn cobs. In an extremity, a good housewife would sometimes let the minister have a pint of flour or cornmeal and a little straw out of her bed tick which, when moistened and mixed together, served as a ration for his faithful beast until he could get better. The hospitality of pioneers was proverbially great.
“The writer had one valuable horse that was not afflicted with a fastidious appetite, which could make a good meal on pumpkins or cabbage leaves when nothing more substantial could be obtained.”
In 1909 some “County Reminiscences by Rev. N. L. Otis” were printed in the Palo Post and picked up by the Independent.
About Greenville, Otis said: “The writer first saw Greenville 50 years ago. Greenville was then a place of probably 500 inhabitants, beautifully located on the west banks of the far-famed Flat River, which soon after became a great thoroughfare for lumber rafts and pine saw logs. It then had, as now, an upper and a lower dam with mills at each end of town.
“We were at once impressed with the natural beauty of the town and its environments, and predicted for it a healthy and rapid growth. It was very fortunate in having as its first settlers a select class of inhabitants, which fact greatly helped the reputation and life of the place.
“In conversing with several of the business men we found that the one subject uppermost in their minds was the county seat question. And, strange to say, after a lapse of 50 years, that is still a very prominent question with them.
“But, regardless of that consideration, nothing will ever seriously retard the advancement of Greenville, which is, and always will be, the chief metropolis of Montcalm county.”
Otis went on to briefly describe Fairplain Township: “In passing through Fairplain, en route for Greenville, we were charmed with the natural beauty of that fine farming section and the appropriateness of its name.”
He concluded with this description of Carson City:
“Carson City was founded in 1866 by Messrs. Scott and Ladue, who erected the first saw and grist mill in the place. Previous to that, the locality was known far and near as the Roop settlement.
“The first merchant who settled there was H. P. Miller, who went from Palo, taking a stock of goods with him. He finally built the Miller House, which is the only hostelry in the place.
“Surrounded by a splendid farming country, Carson City has a far better trade than most towns of its size, and its shipments of grain, live stock, etc., are phenomenal.”
Otis died at his home in Bloomer Township in 1916 at the age of 82 and was buried at Crystal.