FROM THE ARCHIVES: Early days were a struggle in Sidney Township

From the Archives | Sandy Main

Sidney Township in the mid-19th century was described by John S. Schenck in his “History of Ionia and Montcalm Counties” published in 1881: “Originally, Sidney was densely timbered, pine, beech and maple being the principal varieties.”

As lumbermen discovered the fine timber in the area, harvesting the pine forests of Sidney Township became the principal industry in the township’s early years.

“In an early day the fine timber-belts of Sidney attracted the attention of shingle-makers, and a number of their cabins were erected before there was any permanent settlement in the township,” Schenck wrote.

The first “regular” settler arrived in the summer of 1854, he said.

But the pine eventually was exhausted, and then “With the destruction of its pine forests, the inhabitants of the township are gradually shifting from the pursuits of lumbering to those of agriculture,” he noted.

Near the center of the Sidney Township grew up the settlement of Sidney, sometimes called Sidney Center to distinguish it from the township. A post office was established there in 1862.

The Greenville Independent called Sidney a “hustling town” when it sent a representative to visit there in 1914. The resulting story was headlined “Sidney enjoys big industrial growth.”

“Sidney, the central trading point of the township of the same name, is one of the hustling towns of the county. The history of Sidney dates back to to 1854, when the first regular settler, Phineas Swift, came into the township and built a cabin on the northwest part of the southwest quarter of section 27. He removed from the county, however, before many others came.

“A disastrous tornado and fire in 1855 and 1956 destroyed thousands of acres of fine timber in Sidney, but for many years, despite this, the township held its own as a lumbering center

“Henry Gilmore came to Sidney in 1854. He was married, and settled on section 28, entering also 80 acres on section 21. He built the first permanent dwelling in the township, and assisted by his sons, George W. and Noble H., built a large shingle shop for the purpose of making shaved shingles.

“Mr. Gilmore had the distinction of clearing the first land, planting the first garden and setting out the first orchard, as well as starting the first business in Sidney township.

“In the fall of 1855, J.B. Noah, with his son Josiah and a hired man, named James Jewell, came in. They cleared and underbrushed a patch for crops the following spring. Mr. Noah brought his family to the township in the month of May, 1856.

“On Sept. 29, 1862, Montgomery Blair, then postmaster general, established a postoffice at Sidney, with Joshua V. Noah as postmaster, a position which he held nine years.

“The first school in Sidney was taught in 1858, in a log school house which stood on the north line of the south east quarter of section 20. It was taught by Miss Martha Newberry, whose parents lived in Montcalm township. In 1862 a school was built in Sidney Center, which was taught by Nancy Lyons. Sidney was created a township in 1857.

“Dr. S. Derby, after whom Derby lake was named, settled at an early date on section 10, near the southeast shore of the lake, coming from Fairplain. He built a cabin and remained for a number of years. He was an eccentric character, besides being a physician, a gunsmith, watch repairer, and in fact a ‘jack of all trades.’ Afterward he left Montcalm county, going farther north, where he went into the hotel business.

“In 1857 the pioneers met with severe reverses in the shape of the heaviest frosts in the history of the country. The frosts came the 22nd and 23rd of August and killed the corn, the garden truck, except cabbage and turnips, and the grass. The leaves on the trees changed color and began to fall until several inches of crisp dry leaves covered the ground. These became ignited and the fire burned down into the mould and fallen timber. During August, September, October and a part of November, the crash of falling trees was heard constantly. At times the smoke from the burning forest hung over the country like a pall.

“Nearly everything of value to the settlers was destroyed. Even the newly built cabins were burned, and the pioneers were in the greatest straits with a cold winter coming on. Jacob Ferris introduced a bill in the legislature securing an appropriation to buy clothing and food for the stricken township. Wages were very low at that time and it was next to impossible to secure a job.

“From those early days of struggle, Sidney has developed into one of the best townships of the county, and the little town of Sidney has attracted statewide attention by reason of its aggressive progressiveness. Sidney is not even an incorporated village, yet it has all the characteristics of a city. The business men and the farmers are co-operating toward a bigger and better town, and present indications are that this worthy aim will be accomplished.

“The Sidney board of trade, composed of about 50 representative residents of the town and township, and constantly growing in point of membership, is an asset that any city in the state might well feel proud of.”

Next time: More about the board of trade and the town of Sidney 100 years ago.

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