FROM THE ARCHIVES: Pioneer days through the eyes of an early resident

From the Archives | Sandy Main

When Julia Winslow came to Greenville some 165 years ago “the surrounding country for many miles was covered with pine and oak, and Indians were plentiful,” according to the Independent Daily News. “Greenville was then only a few scattered houses and one or two stores, as well as the hotel…, which finally became known as the Phelps House.”

Julia married William Backus in 1851 and they lived the rest of their lives in the area. Some of her recollections of early Greenville were given in a sketch of her life written by Mrs. H.L. Bower and read at the Greenville Pioneer Society picnic in 1920, when Julia was 90 years old.

“Not long since, during a conversation with Mrs. Backus, she related to me some of the experiences of the early pioneer days. It was no uncommon thing for the folks to be served at meal time with baked potatoes and water gravy, not even being enriched with milk or butter. All fared alike, there were no complaints, no grievances brought forward. The people were expecting better days, which came sure enough, in due time.

“In the sixties and seventies busy mills lined the banks of Flat river, bringing prosperity and growth to the once small hamlet. John Green erected the first saw or lumber mill in this vicinity, others followed in quick succession.

“It may not be out of place at this point, to mention a few more of the early pioneers of Greenville. Report says Josiah Russell was the second (John Green being the first) who came in 1844. Mr. Russell was the first judge of the County court; Thomas Myers, the first millwright; Dr. Thomas Green, brother of John, the first physician; Abram Roosa, the first blacksmith. Henry M. Moore, a merchant, who was active in the organization of the county and who was instrumental in securing a law, locating the county seat at Greenville, where it remained during the next ten years.

“At the time in 1844, when John Green and Josiah Russell located here, not a white inhabitant was to be seen and one must go six miles to find a neighbor, which goes to prove what we are about to say, that in those days Indians and wolves were numerous, roaming about freely. Large bounties were paid by the state for wolf scalps, the Indians figuring largely in the deal.

“Mrs. Backus says she often felt timid, but no harm ever befell her or her family. As the country became developed, the number of inhabitants increased, which of course, greatly assisted in improving conditions generally.

“In 1871 the first railroad to reach our town was the old Detroit, Lansing and Northern, now a part of the Pere Marquette. In this same year Greenville was incorporated as a city, L. Judd Macomber being the first mayor.

“The first school house to be built in the village stood upon the corner of what is now Cass and Lafayette streets, just where Baker’s Jewelry Store is located. Here religious services were first held, also spelling schools, which as usual in those days, became very popular with the young folks. On one such occasion, our honored guest nearly spelled the school down, a young chap by name Richardson, won out in the contest by just one word.”

Five years after the above sketch was published, a story on the front page of the Independent Daily News announced, “Death claimed the oldest resident of Montcalm county, Mrs. Julia Backus, Saturday evening just before midnight, after an illness of a week with pneumonia. Mrs. Backus would have been ninety-six years of age this summer.”

The article went on to say, “Mrs. Backus has seen Greenville grow from a small hamlet to its present size, but has not cared for all the modern inventions. Automobiles were never liked by her, because of the noise and the accompanying dangers. She has always taken a delight in flower and vegetable gardens.

“Mrs. Backus has been a member of the Congregational church for years, having been one of the few living members present at its organization seventy-five years ago. She was an active member in the church and the community as a whole.”

Mrs. Backus’ husband died in 1900. Of her survivors, the article said, “One son, George Edgar, was born to them in April 1852, but he has since died. Her grandson, Jesse Backus, is in command of the medical corps of the navy at San Diego, Calif., and has a son, John Edgar, which makes Mrs. Backus a great-grandmother.

“Mrs. Backus has been a hard worker, like the other pioneers, and does not feel ashamed of that work. She has been extremely active for one of her age and has always been regarded as a true friend, as well as a home-maker.

“Mrs. Backus is a member of the Pioneer society of this city and surrounding country. Their annual picnic is usually held on her birthday, August 6, and her passing will leave many hearts filled with grief.”

Funeral services were held three days later at her home on West Cass street and she was laid to rest in Forest Home Cemetery.

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