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History Lives Here Text

The Historic Significance of the Old Singapore Site Today
By James Schmiechen
April 2010

Only a very few persons who lived at Singapore left a written record - but considerable anecdotal evidence is available from individuals who have carried stories from one generation to another, the two most important being May Francis Heath, the granddaughter of Stephen Morrison (b.1835), the principal early industrialist of Saugatuck, and Henry Hutchins (b.1853) whose grandparents lived at Singapore. Both Heath and Hutchins spent a lifetime interviewing "old-timers" of western Allegan County. Heath's little Early Memories book has several dozen-index references to Singapore - mostly people who lived there at some point.

From a "historical significance" standpoint, Singapore's legitimacy as an historical site is not based on what presently exists above or underground, but rather that the site holds enormous meaning for the history of Michigan and the Great Lakes. Indeed, I would argue, as do some of the area "locals" who have ancestors buried in the Singapore cemetery, that it be kept undisturbed for the same reason as we keep Civil War battlefields undisturbed. The story demands an undisturbed site.

Second, the Singapore site and its history is an important historic resource not only in its own right but also as part of a larger cultural landscape that is made up of a number of parts that weave the story of a series of collisions, beginning with "pioneer time" and to the present, between highly charged social-economic interests and a very fragile ecological environment. This is what a cultural landscape is all about and it is my hope that people read "Singapore" as part of this larger picture.

Having said all this let me now get to the "meaning" of Singapore, as I see it, for the people of Michigan.

Singapore existed for about a half century, from about 1837 to the early 1880s. It began, as one pioneer descendent called it, as "an oasis in the woods" - a very early lumber/immigration port and shipbuilding town that tells of how an environmental disaster resulted from the clear cutting of nearby forests and the blowing sands that eventually buried the town. It was, in short, an early American 'disaster city'. Its first mill was constructed in 1835, being surrounded on the north and west by wooded virgin forest and on dunes rising to a height of about 50 feet (this is from a description in the 1870s by Mr. H. H. Hutchins, the son of an early Singapore settler). Like most of the area settlements, it started as a lumber milling camp and tried desperately to become a town but in reality its handy proximity to Lake Michigan turned out to be a disadvantage. The legally platted site (of 1833 - as dotted by juniper bushes) was large, about 40.8 acres - laid out as four by seven city blocks on flat sand that sloped upwards to the north from the harbor. The portion of that space actually used for human activity was apparently much less. Of this, the mill site was about 3 acres, the cemetery 1.6 acres, and the platted settlement (streets) area was about 36.2 acres. No cemetery records have been found but references to burials exist. A famous Indian trail (from Fort Dearborn north to Fort Michillimackinac) ran through the settlement.

 Singapore's structures tell us something about how the settlement functioned. Over time it had 3 or 4 mills, streets and boardwalks which connected all to a "general store" (where Harrison Hutchins worked as a boy in 1844) and, as well, we know where the brother-in-law of a decedent sold boots and who claims that in 1837 the Singapore store was the only mercantile establishment in the Saugatuck area. Mrs. Heath (b.1873) writes that her grandmother "held school" in Singapore's "town hall" until 1852 when a school building was constructed in the countryside nearby. In reality it appears that the school was housed in a disused mill shed and its school bell was a disused circular saw blade, but it was a school.

The settlement had two large boarding houses (but not at the same time) one of which one descendent called the "great focal point for all activities in those parts". This was probably the one called "the Astor House"  - a play on the name of the great New York hotel of the time. It could hold 50 residents, mostly families, at a time. The community had a number of houses, and, a one of Michigan's most famous "wildcat" banks. We know that religious and formal educational activity took place there. There was no church structure but church services, baptisms and weddings (Episcopal and Universalist), were held in the settlement, services being by itinerant ministers, which was common for many pioneer settlements. We do not know what happened to the "Astor House", but we know its general dimensions and layout - that it had a barroom and a big porch. One of the three or four mills was moved. One was destroyed by fire. We know that the town had a brick maker and that part of the town's port structure was of brick.

The bank itself, which now stands in Saugatuck, is certainly an important chapter in part of America's economic history of the era. Today the bank is celebrated as having the most elaborately decorated bank notes - a fortuitous signal, perhaps, that Saugatuck would one day be known as one of Michigan's most important art communities.

We can further cobble together some of Singapore's social history from the many people who arrived there by boat. Singapore was a sort of Michigan "Ellis Island" port of entry for immigrants from all over America, Canada, and Europe. Dozens of Saugatuck area families trace their Michigan origins to Singapore - many of them tradesmen (e.g. bricklayers, carpenters, sailors, engineers) who stayed on in the settlement for a time before moving on to opportunities (particularly land acquisition) in other settlements. At one time (around 1850) the boarding house held families from Ireland, Holland, Norway, Germany, and Canada. For example, Jonathan Wade, of Canada, lived at Singapore for seven years before moving inland to build another mill and found the nearby town of Douglas. Daniel Gerber, the founder of the Michigan family that invented processed baby food arrived in Michigan by way of Singapore in 1863. Early Dutch settlers of the nearby settlement that became Holland, Michigan came to Michigan by way of Singapore.

 Singapore was also a shipbuilding town that fits well into the history of Lake Michigan schooner ships such at the "Milwaukie" clipper that called at the Singapore. At one time Singapore had a shipyard where two of Michigan's earliest schooners, the "Octavia" and the "St. Louis" were built along with the 127-ton three-masted schooner "O. R. Johnson" - known in its day as the fastest and "smartest" schooner on Lake Michigan. One of the first area-built steamships was constructed at Singapore in 1838.

Most important perhaps, Singapore was a company owned lumber town and in that sense a laboratory for our understanding of the early Michigan economy. Photographs from the time tell us something about how the operations worked. Its business, of course, was not just lumbering production but also the shipping of lumber, largely to Chicago. Some of this entailed considerable innovation. For example, in 1873 the schooner "O. R. Johnson" carried over 6 million board feet of lumber to Chicago in 57 trips - in conjunction with a new transportation innovation: three-masted barges that were towed by steam tugs.

The first dwelling at Singapore was built in 1837 for Levi and Sally Loomis. At the time of the settlement's demise in 1873 it had 21 buildings. A fire had earlier destroyed five houses in 1866. No official census of the town exists, but Mrs. Heath claimed that there were 200 people in the settlement at one point. By 1883 there were only10-12 houses left, one mill and a hotel (according to a Mrs. J. E. Brown of Cedar Rapids). We know that the main mill had been removed to St. Ignace, MI. - a number of houses had been moved to Saugatuck. We know something of the architecture of the houses through a study of those that have been moved to Saugatuck - one of which (the Mulder House) suggests fairly sophisticated (Italianate) architectural treatment. What remained was bundled off as firewood or now buried in the sand. Until about 1980s it was possible to discern individual sand heaps collecting abound the remains of structures.

Was it really "Michigan's Pompeii"? Yes, it did fall to the blowing sands of Lake Michigan and it is an interesting story of a natural (or man-made?) disaster. Whatever said, it tells a good handful of stories that are fundamental to Michigan's pioneer era. Singapore was many things, but one it was not was a sustainable economy. When its mills had eaten most of the virgin White pine of the area, its days were numbered. As a Michigan legend, few are as captivating.

How much of it remains? This is unclear. Nothing appears to remain above ground. No archeological investigation has been carried on. Since about 1890 the Singapore site was left to rebuild into duneland. Some intervention into the site (a boatbuilding yard, now removed) appears to have upset the site but only in minor ways (some surface structures and some landfill into the original harbor).

There is only speculation as to what remains underground. Although physical remains may be important in archeological/historical designation by state or federal agencies, the true historical significance of Singapore is not dependent on what is underground. Singapore is a very unique undisturbed historical site lying in proximity to one of Michigan's most important early harbors (actually, two harbors) - also undisturbed by modern development. As a historian I would say its merit lies in the fact that the site is of significant human activity - a fact that has little to do with the reality that the structures are gone.

And to repeat my earlier observation, Singapore is also important because it is part of a number of historic "Saugatuck dunes" resources that are linked by geography and natural and human history - two Lake Michigan harbor sites, a recently restored lakeside mansion (the "Felt") an important art school, several park, camp and public beach areas, cottage settlements, a chain ferry, water pumping station, the old harbor/lighthouse, old Fishtown site and the nearby villages of Saugatuck and Douglas.