Faces in the Crowd: The Road to Marion Town: A Review

August 2, 2019

Jim Lithen will be signing his book, “The Road to Marion Town” this Saturday during Old Fashioned Days at the Artist on Duty/Parkhurst Brothers Publishing building.

By Aaron Michell

Jim Lithen’s 1000 page, three-book compendium, “The Road to Marion Town” hit the shelves just over a year ago today. And with Marion’s Old Fashioned Days celebration just around the corner, his book offers anyone with even a slight interest in our area’s history, a chronicle that no other publication can rival.

As we celebrate our town this upcoming weekend, “The Road to Marion Town” is in and of itself a celebration of how our town, our county, and the surrounding areas came to be. Through Jim’s straightforward and succinct prose, along with his research, analysis, and inclusion of the primary sources of the era, he offers the reader the rare chance to go back in time.
But Jim doesn’t just paint a picture of 19th century Osceola County for us to ponder. He actively takes the reader to the 19th century by weaving characters and their stories together. With vivid descriptions of the culture, landscape, and pioneers – and the successes and hardships that each one faced – the reader instantly becomes a part of the Osceola backwoods. And anyone familiar with the roads, rivers, townships, buildings, and one-room schoolhouses of Osceola County will find this book to be an invaluable resource – while perhaps offering some additional insight into their own family tree.

And when needed, Jim will challenge different opinions and perceptions of the time – through a meticulously researched and fact-checked approach – in the pursuit of truth. His book doesn’t just retell stories of the founding of Marion Town; his book is the story of the founding of Marion and Osceola County, unabridged.

Each story Jim tells – and there are so many stories – is supplemented by primary material from the day – whether it’s the Evart Review, the Hersey Outline, the Lake City Journal, the Clare County Press, the Missaukee Independent, the Cadillac News and Express, or even the Marion Centennial Book. And when sources appear conflicting or arbitrary, Jim gives the reader the opportunity to determine fact vs. fiction for themselves.

“The Road to Marion Town” is a book that should be taught in every Michigan History classroom in Osceola County. It’s a history book. It’s a reference book. It’s entertaining. It’s long, but succinct. It’s in-depth, but it will leave you wanting more. This book gives you the background story behind every story of our founding – some 50 chapters and 990+ pages worth.

And for the thousands of descendants of those pioneer families, and the dozens of communities mentioned throughout the book, there are so many stories yet to be explored. But without “The Road to Marion Town”, it’s possible many of those stories would’ve simply disappeared. Thanks to Jim and his book, the story of Marion Town will last forever. Included below is just a tiny sampling of passages from “The Road to Marion Town: The Settlement of Osceola County, State of Michigan.”

From Chapter 11: “The Civil War Settlement Along the River Road”:
“In Michigan the state was swept by a great surge of patriotic fervor, leading to the departure of the First Michigan Infantry, 798 strong, from Fort Wayne in Detroit on May 13. A month and a day after Lincoln’s call for troops the First Infantry of Michigan was the first regiment to arrive from the western states at the national capital, causing Lincoln to exclaim, ‘Thank God for Michigan.’ Before the war ended 90,000 more would go from Michigan and 15,000 of those would not come back.”

“As the River Road made its way northeast along the north shore of the Muskegon River through Muskegon, Newago, and Mecosta Counties, it had not crossed an entering river of significant size. But in Osceola Territory, crossing the Middle Branch River was a different story. Not only did the Middle Branch carry abundant water, especially during the spring run-off, but the mouth of the river was at the bottom of a deep gorge, preventing a crossing anywhere near the mother stream. The only recourse for the road builders – pathfinders may be a more appropriate term – was to follow the Middle Branch upriver from its mouth to find the first place that availed itself as a crossing. The chosen location would be but a stone’s throw from where the river is today bridged, in extreme South Middle Branch Township, Section 35. Here the old River Road reappears for a couple of miles as today’s Fifteenth Avenue and Twin Lake Road. About a quarter-mile south of this bridge the Marsh Halfway House buildings were
constructed and the business soon became known as Marsh’s Hotel or Marsh’s on the Middle Branch.”

From Chapter 20: “The Origin of Marion Town”:
“The origin or metamorphosis of Marion, as set off from its neighboring townships, took place over about a ten-year period. As has been learned, the Watson brothers, James and William, were the town’s first homesteaders in 1868, when they established the Watson farm and then the Watson Road. At the time, this was the main road into and through the township, its destination being the logging town of Pin Hook on the Clam River in Missaukee County. By 1877, when Marion Town was formalized, at least twelve ‘freeholders’ or landowners, a stipulation of state law, had to be and were living in the township. About half of these freeholders were living alongside or in proximity to the Watson Road and the other half were living remotely throughout the town.”

“Lastly, during the operation of Clarke’s centrally located lumber camp, it is hard to believe neighborly settlers hadn’t stopped by to wet their curiosity and enjoy the fruits of human interaction, for there was way too little of this in the backwoods. Men like Isaac Hall, James Sawtell, Nate England, James Kelley and Charles Barlow were far too social not to have established some form of contact. Perhaps in this way, the Clarkes were able to gauge the need for a sawmill and a store, for in 1876, Mary Clarke began operating a general store next to the lumber shanty that was now their home. And a few bends downriver Chris Clarke milled his first board at the Middle Branch River’s most extreme point of gradient change.”

From Chapter 22: “The Middle Branch of the Muskegon River & The Early Days at Clarkes Mill”:

“Population growth during the first decade of Marion Town occurred at a snail’s pace and, according to Walter Chadwick, was slower yet at Clarkes Mill. “Walt,” as he was known, arrived at Clarkes Mill in June of 1887, as a fourteen-year-old boy, when his father John began installing his steam-powered sawmill on the northeast shore of Clarke’s millpond. Fifty-one years later he recalled that “Mr. and Mrs. Christopher Clarke were the only other people here at that time” and that “in the summer and fall of 1887 many other families came to Marion, attracted by the lumber industry.” In his lifetime, Chadwick would become an esteemed citizen and central to the community. He plied his trade of barber, played catcher on the town baseball team, and maintained first nozzle-man status on the village fire department. As much as anyone, he bridged the gap from pre-settlement days at Clarkes Mill into the bustle of the twentieth century. However, his 1887 recollection of the Clarkes ‘being the only other people here at that time’ needs to be scrutinized.”

“It appears a credible argument could be made that identifies Mary Clarke as at least a few of the seventeen anonymous Marion Town writers submitting correspondence to the Evart Review during the 1880’s. Interestingly, when processing the entire body of work submitted by this gaggle of Marion correspondents, a likeness in style and subject matter is consistent under more than one pen name – six in particular. Under these pen names the news often revolves around the operation of Clarke’s sawmill, containing information that would be privy only from husband Christopher.”

From Chapter 42: “The Osceola County Railroad War”:
“About two miles down the grade from Clarkes Mill, on both sides of the Marion and Middle Branch town line, three defiant pioneer families owning contiguous properties didn’t need much time with railroad officials before deciding to end negotiations regarding right-of-way procurement. The best of their farmlands was being compromised without the promise of fair compensation – and the company’s strong-armed, arrogant manner had created an irreparable alienation beginning to be described in combative terms. Of the three resistors, Delanson Chapin and Avalma Dickinson were Civil War veterans with distinguished records, and the third, Joseph Lux, was a rugged individualist if there ever was one.”

From Chapter 49: “A Requiem for the Early Days”:
“The Road to Marion Town literally and figuratively takes leave here; a long journey that ended at a crossroads settlement alongside a winding river and a jerkwater railroad during the last years of the American frontier. As for Marion Town’s fourteen-year black hole of history it would be remiss not to shed daylight on a few skeletal remains as well as note a definitive shift in the village’s formative makeup.”

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