ORIGINAL BY KEITH LECUREUX
History of Albee Township 1976
Fry Road crosses highway M-13 in the northwest portion of Albee Township, seven miles south of Saginaw, Michigan. To the west of the intersection, four miles down Fry Road lies what was thousands of years ago, the absolute bottom of Glacial lake Saginaw. Geologists guess that around 9,000 B.C. the old lake began draining away to reveal a large area of muck land. The marsh that developed had a low point only three feet above Saginaw Bay. Submerged much of the time, it could only support some bottomland timber and in a dry summer, great quantities of tall grass called marsh hay. Today it is a mammoth farm of nearly eight thousand acres. It is split into twenty or more plots individually owned by a group of progressive farmers who work cooperatively to keep their land – some of the most valuable, productive parcels of earth in the U.S. dry.
In the 1800’s the semi-marsh south of Saginaw – all of it government owned – was considered worthless. Early farmers in the county shook their heads at the six-foot watermark on the trees; they shook their heads at the low price of such land. Marsh hay, however, made good forage and despite the danger of losing equipment in the muck, large amounts of it were harvested. Spring duck hunting in the lowlands was also considered profitable although the risk of a flash flood was great.
But farm that muck? Impossible..until 1880. At that time a man named Harlan P. Smith, manufacturer of buggies and a prominent dealer of choice farmlands, began making plans for draining what he recognized as fabulously rich ground. For nearly five hundred and fifty million years, alternate periods of submersion had left the swampy land with sediment deposits of salt, gypsum, and organic matter. Besides that, many summers of marsh hay, blown flat by winter storms and gradually decomposed, had contributed to enriching the soil.
Harlan Smith was right. Held from the non-observer was a promise. But along with the promise was an obvious problem. Smith considered it worth solving. Together with a law firm, composed of Charles H. Camp and George B. Brooks, he purchased ten thousand acres of marsh, becoming a pioneer in the land reclaiming business.
After studying the subject, Smith made his plans. A two-mile ditch fifteen feet wide was to run north into the Flint River draining excess water from approximately four hundred acres of muck. The project would take a long time; years in fact, since he figured the heaviest digging equipment practical would be shovels and plenty of men. But smith had the money if there was a contractor willing to tackle the job. Bids went up and a man named Schrems, originally in the beer business, won. An agreement was made. If Schrems could complete the ditch, bridges and all, in eight years, Smith would award him a buggy as a bonus. Schrems got the buggy.
A camp, later to develop into the village of Alicia, was pitched to accommodate a foreman, a crew from fifty to one hundred local farmers and a cook named Mrs. McCarthy. The boss stayed home, visiting the camp two or three times week to keep track of the proceedings and to bring in groceries.
The “proceedings” were rather slow. In many places the mud was so deep planks had to be laid. Even then accidents could not be avoided. Men lost their shovels and boots and bogged horses were often left to die. Surveyors were forced to use compasses to keep from getting lost in the seven-foot-tall grass. It was said the glow of the fires burning off the troublesome hay could be seen from the city.
Work went on steadily, nevertheless and in the required time the job was completed. Schrems got his buggy and Smith got his land. Small portions of the drained ground were immediately cultivated, but men were hard to hold in such an out-of-the-way place and expenses were found to be not much less than the income. This first experiment was no success financially, but it was encouraging to know that with more money and a little know-how, ten thousand acres of worthless swamp could be converted into arable ground.
Smith, Camp and Brooks finally sold their farm to the wealthy, enterprising Saginaw Realty Company around 1900. Modern equipment was installed as part of the company’s development program and for several years, under the charge of a young businessman, Emmet T. Brown, the farm was in operation. However, the annual floods that delayed spring planting so drastically soon made it evident that a more sophisticated reclaiming technique was necessary.
On February 22, 1903 the Owosso Sugar Company bought the whole works, ditched and unditched, from Saginaw Realty. Stories of the rich land had attracted a group of Pittsburgh Capitalists who owned controlling interest in the sugar company. They soon proved that enthusiasm was not superficial. A dredge was floated down the Saginaw River to the farm site and set to work digging into the banks at the lowest point of the natural basin. The steam-powered dredge was a clumsy-looking monster set on a barge. It dug away the earth in front of it forming a canal, which in turn transported the dredge. The earth was piled beside the canal and a dike, twenty feet high in some parts, was constructed. The system was highly efficient. As acre after acre of land was reclaimed it was tested and found productive enough to offset the expense of the operation. Work continued. In a few years thirty-six miles of dike and ditch surrounded the huge tract of land. For sixty-two years this same dike has weathered everything from seventeen-foot floods to burrowing woodchucks. Later in its history it suffered its first and only break, but it was soon patched.
Digging drainage ditches and installing steam driven pumps, final steps in reclaiming the lowlands, were next. As these steps were completed, the wastewater drained to the lowest point of the farm and was dumped into the Flint River at the rate of ten thousand gallons per minute per pump. The swamp was soon dry. And “the largest farm east of the Mississippi,” The Prairie Farm, was born.
“Mosquito Road”, sided by deep ditches and wet, nearly swampy land, ran from St. Charles to the southwest portion of The Prairie Farm. It was the more dramatic entrance of only two in existence during the 1900’s. Driving down the road – and it was literally down- occasional small farms could be seen resting on plots of ground that were higher and drier than the land around it. As one got nearer to the basin, fewer farms were seen and marsh hay slowly replaced timber. To suddenly cross the dike and view a great expanse of open field where there should have been swamp, where acres of crops were growing, was unbelievable and quite a thrill for anyone, conservationist or not.
One mile from the “Mosquito Road” entrance was the village of Alicia. The Owosso Sugar Company headquarters was located here along with a general store, a post office, a boarding house, dance hall, refreshment parlor, several large barns, a few cattle sheds, some wagon, machinery and tool sheds, eighty yellow, framed workmen’s cottages and a large grain elevator. Running beside all of this was a spur track connected to the Grand Trunk Railroad. The railroad brought in supplies and lumber and shipped out produce. A generator and water plant supplied the electric light and running water free for all the farm’s inhabitants. Telephones and regular postal services were also available to the Alicians. The Prairie Farmers of the early 1900s required such conveniences. They lived isolated lives. In time of flood this was especially true. Even boats had a hard time getting through the swirling waters.
Pitcairnia and Clausedale were smaller establishments built some time after Alicia. They contained barns and worker’s shanties. A foreman also resided at each village. At Pitcairnia there was a large mint distillery.
Under the Owosso Sugar Company, The Prairie Farm was a highly organized establishment, well equipped with modern machinery- steam tractors and twelve-blade gang plows for instance. The farm’s equipment was a great help, but growing sugar beets is a tedious job requiring many hands and backbreaking work. From three hundred to three hundred and fifty workers were needed during the summer. Seventy-five steady laborers kept the farm in top shape during the winter. Before the First World War they were immigrating Slovaks who came to America seeking their own farms. After saving a few hundred dollars, they would leave The Prairie Farm. This supply of ambitious peasants was soon cut by the war, though, and the Owosso Sugar Company began hiring Mexicans. They were the first in the state, if not the country, to do so.
By 1917 the farm had been whipped into good shape and was running smoothly- as smooth as it would run for a long time. Seven thousand acres were under plow, producing sugar beets, peppermint, corn and rye; the land was worth eighty to ninety dollars an acre and the owners were making steady money. It was a time for optimism and experimentation. The swamp milkweed plan of 1915 was a failure though. Its silky floss, a tough fiber, was hoped to be of some use to the textile industry but nothing developed. Another scheme was to graze sheep on the grassed-over dikes. This practical scheme was a success. But there were greater ventures than these, the greatest of which brought international fame to the Prairie Farm.
There came from Holland in the year 1887 an agriculturist and stockman experienced in the techniques of scientific farming. His name was Jacob DeGeus. For seventeen years DeGeus gained recognition and respect while working for various Michigan companies as an agricultural consultant. In 1904 he became interested in the Prairie Farm project and the Owosso Sugar Company hired him. By the year 1905 he had advanced to the position of general manager.
Being a stockman, Jacob became quickly involved in the development of the farm’s livestock. Only the best breeds were allowed a place in DeGeus’ barns. Purebred Friesan, pure bred Holstein, and purebred Hereford cattle were raised in large numbers. There were improved Duroc Jersey swine and there were registered Delaine Merino Black Top sheep- all in animals of the highest quality.
When DeGeus first came to the Prairie Farm seventy-five teams of horses-some were three horse teams-were kept in harness. Although these horses were good, they were not prizewinners. The year 1913 saw this changed. Jacob DeGeus himself traveled to Belgium, seeking out the best blood of draft horse that that county could produce. He was successful in a spectacular way. From Belgium to he returned with the offspring of the “Champion of all Breeds of Draft Horses” of the Paris Exposition of 1900. The Belgians were reluctant, of course, to see their pride and joy leave the country. How Degeus managed this feat is a wonder.
The Prairie Farm breeding stables were established. From them came the necessary workhorses but more importantly there came two of the best-bred stallions in the United States at that time, Garibaldi, all around champ, and Sans Peur. The New York State Fair of 1922 awarded DeGeus high honors for his excellent horse show. Scores of other exhibitions here and abroad also made champs of Jacob DeGeus’ pets. It was soon boasted that America could raise horses as good as any Belgium produced.
Jacob DeGeus retired in 1924 to work his own farm. He was succeeded by J. C. Coon of Lansing, Michigan who stayed with the Owosso Sugar Company for the next nine exasperating years of deflation. The farm’s income fell lower and lower. Taxes of eight to nine thousand dollars per year went unpaid for as long as four years. Selling the horses didn’t help, and matters got worse. Those years of scant profit were extremely discouraging and the farm owners were finally persuaded that they could not continue as they had in the past. A plan was agreed upon-to sell the livestock and equipment and lease the land to neighboring farmers for a share in the crops.
It was obvious that greater things were in store for the old lakebed, though, when a group of poor people led by a Socialist, Joseph J. Cohen offered to buy the land plus everything on it. The leasing plan was scrapped and The Prairie Farm changed hands on June 28, 1933.
Joseph J. Cohen was born in Russia in 1878. “My first recollections,” he says, “are those which impressed upon me that I was born a Jew, a scion of a persecuted race suffering religious oppressions, misery and injustice all through the ages.”
Being an intelligent child, Cohen was sent to school to become a Rabbi. He did well but in 1890 religious doubts cropped in his mind and he began to show an interest in the revolutionary ideas spreading through Russia in that period. He left school to become a forester. The job left much spare time for studying political theory. In 1898 Joseph joined the Czarist army and continued his study. While in the army he organized a group that prepared itself to aid a full-scale revolt if one should occur.
In 1902 Cohen left Russia for the United States. Until 1932 Joseph Cohen worked with a number of reform movements. In time he left these pursuits to become editor of a Jewish Libertarian periodical. While working on the magazine, he also ran a successful camp libertarian children. Success breeds ambition and Cohen dreamed. He envisioned a collectivist society, a free organization uninhibited by the demands of any type of man-made rule.
When the idea was well formed, Cohen set out to lecture around the United States. By the end of January, 1933 he returned to New York with a few followers. He printed a call for more members in his magazine specifying his hopes and plans for pointing out the advantages to be gotten if the experiment was a success.
In the nineteenth century people looking for a better way of life organized many similar camps. All of them were social failures and only some were a success financially. Cohen realized this but he was not to be deferred. The resulting Sunrise Cooperative Farm Community was one of the last of its kind in America.
What follows is a crude sketch of Joseph J. Cohen’s idea of an ideal government. “Man,” says the theorist, “has forever been revolting against ones who rule over him through the control of material, natural resources or through the control of the state with its laws and regulations.”
After revolt the need for an effective suppression of autocracy and at the same time the need for a social order that encourages progress arises. Two methods for meeting this need have established themselves in the world today. One is a state control, which supposedly protects and supplies everyone equally. The second is a state control, which is itself controlled by the people. But there is a third method. A committee of former Sunrise Cooperative Farmers explains, “This third remedy is libertarian socialism. Instead of a system based on laws which people will be forced to observe through governmental force, its thinkers propose a social system built on the foundation of voluntary agreement and mutual cooperation…Ostracism and boycott providing a punishment for anti-social acts.”
It was during the depression that Joseph Cohen preached his little message and one hundred and fifty families, mostly poor Jews from the slums of big cities, sought relief by heeding his petition for members. The Prairie Farm was a real “find” for the group. It was private, already equipped, productive—promising. Each family contributed one thousand dollars—the magazine had stipulated this—and the farm was bought; the ball was rolling.
With a working capital of only one thousand dollars, however, and a debt of four thousand dollars it was a wobbly start. The community’s motto was “One for all and all for one.” Together they jammed into Alicia’s large dorm, “The Hotel”, and shared its facilities for their first few months. The people were understandably eager to get into something more livable and worker’s shanties, which were gradually being reconditioned, grew into status symbols. Families quarreled for first pick.
As soon as the people were settled business became less hectic. A committee of organizers was established and the people set to work farming. It was soon discovered, though, that farming was a big word. No one knew how. Cohen solved the problem by hiring some workers who had farmed under the Owosso Sugar Company. Even then difficulties arose and Jacob DeGeus, still living in the area, was called upon to act as an advisor. The pay demands of all these people became a serious strain. Cohen was dismayed as he surveyed the pay line “stretching from the office door the whole length of a city block.” The line got longer, though. Nearly two thousand acres of land had been planted by the Owosso Sugar Company before The Prairie Farm was sold. All of this needed to care and hundreds of workers were finally employed. “The place was too large and complicated,” Cohen said. “Work and worry were pressing in on us all the time.” Gang supervisors, bad people in a collectivist society, had to eventually be appointed to establish orderly labor. The first year for the Sunrise community as a farm was not a satisfying one.
1935 brought new hope. The land was completely theirs by this time. They could plant what they pleased. They did. Four hundred acres went to radishes, cucumbers, tomatoes and muskmelons. This seed crop, intended for the wholesale house, had to be forgotten that the more valuable basic crops, which they had also wisely included, might not fail.
Weeds were an especially frustrating problem. Hordes of workers—there were few horses—would invade the fields hoeing and digging from sunrise to sunset. Still, the fields would become choked. Heavy rains were another dreaded occurrence since the drainage system was in poor condition. Hip-booted workers could often be seen stuck up to their knees in soft, gooey mud. An effort, as supreme as individual effort could be, was put forth however, and the crops were seen through the summer.
But the harvest of 1935 was a most disheartening time for these poor people. The grain was ruined by a plague of armyworms and by heavy rain. The corn and soybeans were frosted and the sugar beet crop only yielded five tons per acre—less than half of what a sugar beet crop was expected to yield in those days. Farming wasn’t the community’s line.
The social aspect of Cohen’s experiment was not forgotten even as the problem of existence became more acute. If it had been, things would have probably gone better. From the very start there were political differences and the harder the attempt to organize, the wider grew the split.
During the second year of operation, a dissenting party of fourteen families disgusted at the way matters were being handled, packed up and left. This group had long questioned the efficiency of the organization and finally a woman among them had secretly written a letter to the Federal Rural Rehabilitation Corporation requesting and investigation. Somehow the letter was discovered before it got in the mail, and a meeting was called by the faction in power to discover the culprit.
Until accusations began to be made, the meeting was orderly. But no one likes to admit they’re wrong to an accuser and tempers began to flair. A box on the ears climaxed someone’s name calling and the rebel spirit of the group was aroused. The meeting goers took sides. Cohen describes the fracas thus, “Everyone was on his feet; the women were screaming, pulling each other’s hair and scratching like wild beasts; some men were going for each other with clenched fists, while others were trying to separate the combatants…All the hatred and resentment that had been accumulating for months broke uncontrollably to the surface, and the people picked out their adversaries in a blind instinctual kind of way, passing untouched those against who they had no personal grudge.” Later on in the year, after the fourteen disgruntled families had left, State authorities sent an auditor to The Prairie Farm. No corruption was found. The organization was a clean one—it just wasn’t successful.
With the departure of the group just mentioned and others after it, there also were a number of carefree, irresponsible loafers. Individualists like “Preacher” Hyman, who thought the Sunset Community would benefit from his own doctrine, and the lazy guitar player, who refused to do his share of the work, were continually creating difficulties and raising complaints from their fellow workers. However, since there was no authority to consult and no one had the right to force their will upon anyone else, even dedicated members found it hard to keep out of petty arguments. And petty arguments there were. Everything from how to fry eggs to who should work in what fields was bashed out vehemently. Cohen’s plans seemed doomed from the start.
Along with social upheavals, crop failure, and financial difficulty, there had to come such an inconvenient thing as fire. There were barn fires and shanty fires and even land afire. For one whole summer and fall during the Sunrise Community’s stay on the farm, fire smoldered just below the surface of the dry muck. It couldn’t be stopped and when the season was especially dry whole fields were sometimes turned to ash.
Despite the many problems, a few families managed to keep up the fight until 1938 when the remaining members left the impossible prairie farm to try again in Virginia.
Between their second year of existence and their departure from the prairie, the Sunrise Cooperative Farm Community was continually struggling to keep on the top of their debts. Cohen himself said, “We were rarely free from anxiety about our financial state.” They borrowed money from the Rural Rehabilitation Corporation, sold junk and old machinery that was lying around the farm and even tore up the old spur track to help meet payments. But the situation never completely cleared up.
In 1936 after much haggling and misunderstanding, an agreement was made with the Farm Security Administration (formerly the Rural Rehabilitation Corporation). The government was to buy the land and let it out to interested farmers for a cut in the yield. The Sunrise Community people would be given first pick of the plots available and would be allowed to farm cooperatively. This plan satisfied everyone and on June 1, 1936, The Prairie Farm again changed hands. The price was two hundred seventy thousand, six hundred and twenty-nine dollars.
Before this happened, however, the dissenters of 1935 returned to the scene with the intention of rendering havoc to the community. Then too, they were itchy to be included in the transaction that was soon to take place. Charles Sanders and a Mister Yoine, once on the Board of Directors, together with fourteen other departed members, charged the Sunrise Cooperative Farm with “conspiracy to defraud members, with dishonesty, tyranny, intimidation, corruption, misuse of funds, refusal give account for the money handled, and with subversive activity against the Government of the United States and the laws of the land.” It was a formidable threat, but after five days in court Joseph Cohen could again breathe easily. The charges were described as unfounded. The farm was then sold and all the debts were paid. 1937 started with a clean slate.
Twenty-five families continued to work cooperatively for two more years under the government, but the hardships were too great; crop yields were too scanty; prices were too low..And the grass never looked greener in Virginia. They went to Virginia and then they broke up.
For the next eight years The Prairie Farm was only used sporadically. An idea of moving three hundred poor families from unproductive Michigan farms to the Prairie Farm was never put in operation. A plan to raise Russian Dandelion as the source of a rubber substitute was forgotten after a trial planting of eighty acres. Farmers were allowed to rent the land all the while, but nothing important ever came out of their efforts. During the war, of course, all farmers made money and The Prairie Farm was put to good use. Other than wartime, these eight years of government ownership were years of neglect and deterioration. Buildings became dilapidated, canals broke up and dikes grew in need of repair. On March 1, 1945, The Prairie Farm was sold to a group of local farmers for the bargain price of two hundred sixty five thousand dollars. But the government didn’t step out of the picture completely until 1948. The reason was a sensible one, Even a quick look at the history of the Prairie Farm proves beyond a doubt that farming is not a socialistic venture –farming is an individual enterprise. To prevent future failures and to insure maximum development of The Prairie Farm land potential, The Saginaw Valley Cooperative Farmers agreed to split up once the Prairie Farm was back to normal.
On March 10, 1948, the business was completed and thirteen farmers went their separate ways, harvesting crops that others have been hard put to equal.
The thirteen original purchasers—Ben Albosta, Paul Abosta (president of the cooperative), Jacob Spindler, Emil Kaiser, Richard Price, Robert Fogg, Ed Brabant, Arthur Brabant, Frank Kunik, Tony Kulhanek, Frank Kulhanek, Steve Wallet and Walter Wallet—have added eight new farmers to their number since 1948. All of them have been a success. Together they cultivate seven thousand four hundred acres. Navy beans, their most important crop, yield from twenty five to forty bushel per acre. Sugar beets, in second place, yield twenty tons per acre. Wheat is also grown and corn, soybeans and a few pickles. One hundred seasonal workers work the farms during the summer.
Although the Prairie Farmers do not farm cooperatively, they do buy supplies, market crops and maintain the dikes, pumping station and canals as an organization.
The Prairie Farms unique drainage facilities have seen much attention. At the heart of the system are fairly new electric pumps and improved tiling and ditching. The efficiency of this network helps Prairie Farmers get on the land two weeks before the ordinary valley farmer. Sugar beets have a chance that much larger therefore.
Dry muck from drought and the resulting wind erosion problems are being met with a modern solution. Two irrigation sprinklers have been on trial since 1960. If they are successful more will be installed.
Besides land reclamation obstacles, there have been special problems in the use of fertilizer. The farm’s soil is not ordinary and many experiments have been conducted to discover the specific food chemicals it requires. The experiments were conclusive and better yields resulted.
The many difficulties that have been overcome are classical examples of land conditioning and on occasions Michigan State University has used the farm in teaching agricultural techniques. All of the advanced methods used on the Prairie Farm have contributed to the making of a more productive, more valuable farmland.
The Prairie Farm of today is seven thousand, four hundred acres of rich land wrested from the binds of nature. It is an exhibition of efficiency where it was once confusion; it is a tangible fact worth an estimated seven million dollars where once was but a dream.
Degeus’ horses are gone of course; the villages no longer stand; the mint distilleries have been torn down and dreamers have long since fled. Instead there work twenty-one independent farmers growing market crops that would astound buggy-maker Smith and make him proud to know he started it all.
Transcribed (without permission) January 17, 2003
Kenneth Stevens Heacock
The original date of this article is not given. The fact that two irrigation systems have been on trial since 1960 and if they prove effective more will added” tells me it was not written in 1976. The article was apparently written at an earlier date and included in the History of Albee Township.
Perhaps Keith wrote this as a term paper or something to that effect.
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