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History Lives Here Text

Recollections of Ray Nies

John Nies(prounced neece) returned from the Civil War and to Fillmore Townshipwhere he and his brothers ran the family farm. This account was later writtenby his son, Ray, who lived most of his childhood near his dad's hardware storein Saugatuck (now Wilkins).

 

Father kepthis mule driving job for some time, earning good wages for those days. Was henot a good mule driver? He had learned in the army and on the farm how tohandle animals. However, all this time he was looking for better opportunitiesfor his other abilities, and for a good investment for his capital, by now alittle over $500. One day his friend De Vries came to him and wanted to borrowthe money, offering to pay him 10 percent interest. De Vries explained that hewanted the use of the money to open a grocery store. Father asked if he couldafford to pay that much interest. "Why, yes, easily," said De Vries.

 

"Well,"thought Father, "if this man is so sure he can succeed in the grocerybusiness, and pay 10 percent interest on borrowed money, I think I'll take themoney and go into business myself, but not into the grocery business-too muchrisk there of losses on account of goods spoiling."

 

He lookedaround, studied the matter over, and finally built, mostly with his own hands,a tiny store building in the neighboring villageof Saugatuck, which was at that time avery busy little lumbering town near the mouth of the Kalamazoo River.It was some two or three miles above the then-prosperous village of Singapore,which was also a lumbering town, and which was later completely covered andobliterated by the shifting sand dunes of Lake Michigan, about which more willbe said later.

 

In thissmall home-made building he placed a small stock of hardware, and finished offtwo or three rooms upstairs for simple living quarters for wife and himself,for at this period he was married to my mother, who was a young girl of Dutchparentage living in Singapore.It happened she had come from the same large city in the Netherlandsthat Father had come from, but they were unknown to each other there. He mether here a year or two before their marriage. The business prospered in a smallway, and it was not long before an addition was necessary, and soon after thata residence next door was purchased for a home and it was in this home thatmost of the children were born, including myself.

 

The businesswas carried on for many years, and is going on today in another location. Italways has been moderately successful. There has always been plenty to eat andwear, with something besides now and then for small luxuries, and for helpingless fortunate people.

 

My very,very old aunt, my mother's younger sister, who is the only one left of hergeneration, told me not very long ago when I visited her, a little story of anexperience which happened in her childhood days, when her family was living inSingapore. This was long before it was abandoned to the drifting sands and hadvanished, and when Mother was a young girl there.

 

It was atnight, late in the fall of the year. It was bitterly cold and snowing hard. Thefamily was sitting around the fire when they heard loud cries from the river,which flowed close by. Grandpa ran out with a lantern, got a row boat, andpushed off into the water to find out what was wrong. Out in the middle of theriver he found a man struggling in the icy water trying desperately to get hiscanoe righted, which had capsized, and himself back into it. Grandpa pulled himinto his boat and quickly got him ashore. He dragged him over the snow up tothe house and into the kitchen by the fire, where it was seen that the man wasan Indian, who, because he was brim full of "fire water" had falleninto the river, which was brim full of ice water. The fire water inside him,though large in quantity, and of the strongest and most potent kind, was notsufficient to overcome the intense cold of the whole river full of ice wateroutside of him, and so he began to shout and yell far help.

Grandma,usually boss, protested indignantly against having a drunken, wet Indian on herimmaculate kitchen floor, and wanted him taken away at once, any place butthere was good enough; but for once Grandpa was boss and had it his way whichwas unusual. He insisted that although the man might be "only anIndian" and was drunk, he was still a human being and in distress, and wasgoing to be cared for right there and at once. "I won't have him on myclean kitchen floor," insisted Grandma. "He will cut all our throatsand have our scalps besides; we won't dare to go to sleep."

 

"No,"said Grandpa, "I don't think he will harm us. You go all to bed, and don'tworry. He stays here."

 

The canoewas pulled ashore. The Indian was left on the floor, and the family went to bedlate, and some of them slept very little that night. Getting up early in themorning, they cautiously and fearfully went out into the kitchen to see howtheir uninvited guest was getting along, but he was gone, and without a word,and they never saw him again. But all that winter, which was a very hard andcold one, every little while a nice, fat freshly-killed deer would mysteriouslybe found at the daybreak hanging from a small tree growing by the kitchen door,or sometimes a catch of large, fresh fish would just as mysteriously appear atthe same place. Although the giver of these gifts remains anonymous, Grandpaknew, and told the family who it was. He knew then that the people of that racenever forget a kindness or a favor.

 

Then one daya squaw brought to the house an Indian girl's dress, handsomely made of whitedoeskin, with white moccasins to match. They were most elaborately trimmed withbeads and colored porcupine quills. This, she said, was for the little whitegirl, meaning my mother.

 

Grandmother accepted the present, but would never lether little girl wear the garments. Perhaps, being prejudiced, she was afraidthat if they were worn, the Indians might steal both the dress and the little girlinside of it, and keep her as a member of the tribe in a distant place.

 

In my boyhood years I became quite friendly and wellacquainted with some of the boys of the few remaining Indian families in ourpart of the country. They were fine playmates, being good swimmers and skaters,excellent at all kinds of sport, such as baseball, football, etc. Years afterthey were gave I happened to run across some historical accounts written bysome of the very early travelers and missionaries about Indian life and readwith other matters, all of which I believe are authentic, tales of incrediblecures the old-time Indian medicine men made for terrible wounds, bruises, achesand pains by using their native remedies made of roots, barks and berries, herband leaves, etc. Some of those tales bordered on the fantastic. They wereinexplicable to these educated white men. -- but were they?

 

2. Fun on the Farm

 

What timeswe boys had in our village! Father bought a small farm, we boys thought, rathersuspiciously, mostly only for the purpose of having a place to send us to workand keep us busy during the long summer vacations. The farm lay on the edge ofthe village about half a mile from our house, which was located on the mainstreet.

 

On the farmthere were plenty of sand burrs to be hoed out, never pulled up, and milkweedsto be pulled up one by one, never hoed out, and this was back breaking work asit seemed, at times, that the milkweed roots went way through to China, andthere were a countless number of them, but I Liked the feel of the silky fibersin the seed pods when ripe, and often wondered why they were not spun and woveninto fine cloth, and whether the white, sticky, milky sap that bled out whenthe plant was punctured could not be put to some cosmetic, practical use.

 

There was apasture in a little, green valley at the farm with a pretty little creekrunning through it for our horses and cows. Up on the flat, higher land was theorchard, and at the side of the orchard was a round, compact, tiny grove of 10 or12 trees left of the original forest. What a delight this little grove was inthe heat of the day! There were some pines, two or three hemlocks, and a coupleof oaks. Here we kept our jug of water, and here we ate our noon lunch. For alittle fun we used to climb the trees and make a complete circuit of the grove,chasing each other, going from tree to tree like monkeys along the brancheswithout once going to the ground the trees in this tiny grove grew so closetogether.

 

Back of ourfarm a little way, separated from it by a dirt road, was a forest, not verylarge as I learned in my later years but when I was a little boy it seemed tobe immense. I used to half hope as I wandered through it that I might meet witha wild Indian (but not too wild), or a bear, (but not too close) although Ifelt fairly certain that they both had been gone from there for years. Therewere great beech trees in this forest loaded down with nuts in the fall, andover to one side was a little valley creek in which grew some splendid hemlocktrees. Here and there were places in the forest where in the spring one couldgather bunches of wild flowers, sweet scented arbutus especially, and in theirseason, luscious wintergreen berries, and here and there in the shade werebanks of green velvety moss on which to rest.

 

No, I nevermet with any wild Indians or bears in those woods, but in the summer time therewas occasionally a cow or two grazing along the winding trails, which I couldimagine to be wild deer. I loved this fair and romantic spot, and liked to bethere when I could, but one day my boyish heart was almost broken when, afteran absence of some weeks, I went to visit my beautiful woods, and found that acrew of axmen had been there and cut all the great hemlocks down, stripped themof their bark, and piled it up ready to be hauled to the tannery. There thenaked trunks lay with their ghastly, white bodies horribly gleaming in thelight, and there they slowly rotted away. I believe I felt as sad over theslaughter of those beautiful trees as ever a young boy could feel, and it was along time wearing off. 0h well, tanneries had to have tan bark, and remnants offorests were still common in those days, so what did it matter? The very placewhere those lovely trees once grew is now filled with just worthless brush. Thegiant beech trees were cut down long ago for firewood.

 

3. Summer Swimming

 

Then therewas the pure delight of a crowd of neighboring, barefooted boys going to Lake Michiganfor a swim on a hot summer's day when free from work. The road to the beach ledover the river, then through a mile or more up and down and around great sanddunes whose slopes were covered with sweet scented, shady woods. Once in awhile we would ascend one of the dunes to its summit, or we would spend a fewhours "exploring" those woods in other directions, followingovergrown, faint trails winding through the dunes that we would imagine hadbeen made by the Indians long ago, which was probably true. The last half mileof our journey to the "big lake" lay beyond the shady woods and overthe bare sand. The blistering heat of the sand on the soles of our bare feetwas exquisite torture although we had tough feet. There was no way of avoidingit. Running over it at top speed helped some. There was no shade whatever thislast half mile except here and there in long intervals a stunted bush, and wejust had to take it as best we could running from one bush to the next, andoften our soles became blistered. It's a bit odd how much heat we could standon the soles of our bare feet where we couldn't stand the slightest tickling ofa feather. However, the cool water at the end of the hot trail was recompenseenough for the pain, for we went again and again, always with bare feet. Attimes we would spend the whole, long summer day on the beach taking food fromhome or eating perch we caught fresh out of the lake and roasted on a stickover our fire, and we would be now in the water, and now lounging on the clean,dry beach sand in the warm sun. You might say that most of those boys were asamphibious as human beings could be. Bathing suits! They were not used. Some ofthe boys had heard of them, but few had ever seen any. When an ordinance, notvery explicit, was eventually passed after years of hesitation, to compel thewearing of bathing suits, the boys believed the law was depriving us of ourrights and of not much consequence, and thought they were complying plenty goodenough with all its requirement by simply wearing a string tied around theirnecks and a smile. Some wore the smile only.

 

This didsuffice for some years, but the time came at last when they had to wear suitsnot quite so abbreviated.

 

The beach atthat old time was for miles ours exclusively. The water was pure and sparkling,the air fresh, warm and sweet; there was no habitation in sight, and the sandbeach with never a rock, hardly a pebble was immaculately clean. Nature hadachieved her utmost in making this a perfect place for swimming and playingonce we had got there over the hot sand! How we loved it all the more forhaving to burn the soles of our feet to get there, and what jokes we played! Weducked each other, splashed water over each other, and hid each other'sclothes, sometimes tying hard knots in them, and soaking them well. When thevictim at last wanting to dress finally found them and tried to untie them,often having to use his teeth in his efforts, then the encircling crowd washilarious in its enjoyment, keep the time with clapping hands, laughing andsinging loudly in unison as they circled round and round him, "Chaw rawbeet!! Chaw raw beef?/ When beef is tough /A penny a pound/Is dear enough"as he struggled with the hard, wet knots, and not stopping until the victimsucceeded at last in getting his clothes untied or until one of the encirclingjokesters, who at last had enough and went to put his own clothes on, wouldfind them mysteriously tied and himself a victim.

 

(To Be Continued-page 425)