FROM THE ARCHIVES: Trek to Grange picnic turns out to be pleasant trip

From the Archives | Sandy Main

A brief notice headed “Harvest Basket Picnic” appeared in the Greenville Independent in July of 1881. It announced, “The farmers of Ionia, Kent and Montcalm counties will hold a harvest picnic on Aug. 4 on the McElroy picnic grounds at Baldwin Lake near Greenville. Order of the day: J.J. Woodman, Master of the National Grange. Will meet at Greenville at 10 a.m. and march to the lake. Dinner at 12 and speaking at 1:30 p.m. Everybody is invited to come and have a good time.”

The Grange, officially the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, is an agricultural advocacy group founded after the Civil War. With local Granges in rural communities around the country, by 1875 it had reached a membership of more than 850,000.

The Montcalm County picnic captured the attention of the editor of the “Agricultural World,” published at Grand Rapids, who attended the picnic and wrote a report for his magazine. He started out with a rather condescending attitude toward Greenville, which was then only 37 years removed from its first settler, but he soon was singing a different tune. The Greenville Independent printed excerpts from his article.

“The editor of the ‘World’ became possessed of the emigration fever. The objective point was Greenville, where was to be held, under the auspices of the Patrons of Montcalm and adjoining counties, one of those harvest picnics which have become so popular with the farmers of the state, and which have become noted for combining instruction with recreation.

“Just why Greenville had been selected we could not understand. In our mind the place had always been associated with pine stumps and timber and slab piles, with here and there a growth of stunted oak grubs, mixed with a very poor lay-out of unproductive farms. How far this mind picture was from the truth, subsequent paragraphs will show.

“Arriving at Greenville we at once proceeded to Baldwin lake, as pleasant a place as can be found in Michigan. The lake is about three miles in circumference, and has a well-kept boulevard extending all around it. On the west side are the boat houses, bath rooms, a dancing hall, and a number of buildings supplied with stoves and cooking utensils. A few rods west from the point, in the center of a beautiful grove, were the speakers stand and seats sufficient to accommodate a large number of people.

“Passing down a hill, the pleasant slope of which ended at the drive encircling the lake, and turning sharply to the right, we came upon a sight calculated to warm the heart of the average editor in search of recreation and notes. Before us was a large space of level land, several acres in extent, crowded and packed with farmers’ teams. And the horses were neither scrawny nor poor, nor were the vehicles patched and dilapidated concerns fit only for drawing wood or pumpkins.

“The horses were sleek, yet spirited and comfortable looking beasts, and the vehicles were such as thrifty, prosperous farmers who do not believe that life is bounded by the rails of their wheat fields would be likely to own. Right here our ideas regarding Montcalm county farmers began to change.

“On approaching the speakers stand, and while at some distance away we heard the familiar voice of Bro. Woodman. From the stand thousands of upturned faces were in sight, and although the mercury had ascended to 101 in the shade, the closest attention was paid the honorable speaker as he denounced the wrong and burdens imposed upon agricultural classes and argued against the apathy among farmers which, more than anything else, makes such things possible.

“We returned to Greenville at an early hour, and had a fine opportunity for examining the city.” Apparently the “World” editor stayed in Greenville overnight so he could attend a meeting of the County Grange on Friday. More about his impressions of the city itself later, but for now he continues:

“The country around the city, with the exception of a small piece near the railway on the east side of the river, will compare favorably with any in our state. Neat and pleasant farm houses, well-fenced and cultivated fields, with many other evidences of thrift, are everywhere.

“On Friday we met with the County Grange in the hall of Montcalm Grange. The attendance was not large owing to the dusty roads and the hot weather, the thermometer indicating 102 in the shade. The surroundings in this hall indicate a flourishing condition. The floors are neatly carpeted, the walls decorated with a profusion of evergreens and works of art, and there is a large library and other evidences of the intelligence naturally to be expected of a locality possessing the advantages of the one which charmed the editorial eye during one of the pleasant trips of our life.”

Next time: A look at the city of Greenville through the eyes of a big-city editor.

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