Saga of an Alpena Pioneer Family

The Story of George Colburn Herron and the Girl, Kate Link, whom He Married

By Lorraine Cochrane Mains

Somewhere in Northern New York or "York State" lived the Herron Family. The mother was Pennsylvania Dutch; the father Irish Catholic. When George was about eight years old, his mother died, leaving the father with six small children.

In those days it was the custom to apprentice children out to learn a trade. It is not known what the eight year old was to learn, but he was treated so cruelly that he decided to run away to Canada. Someone must have helped him, a boy of ten, to cross either at Buffalo, or across Lake Eire. Someone may have had friends in Cayuga, or he may have wandered, looking for work or food.

A mile or so from the Links, a family by the name of Mino took him in and raised him as their own child. He had six months of schooling, but was self-educated. In his later years in Alpena County, he held township offices for 20 years and was a devoted reader of "The Detroit Free Press" "The Toledo Blade" and "The New York Sun." Because of his wide reading, the neighbors often asked for his opinion on current politics.

At the beginning of the Civil War, he and a neighbor, Noble Breckinreed, went to Nashville, Tennessee, to prospect for a better place to live. Breckinreed enlisted; George, age 24, returned and married Kate Link, age 19. Kate’s brother, Jake, married Dorothy Mino, George’s foster sister.

The Mino’s were Methodists and non-Germans, so in the face of family disapproval, the young George and Kate moved to Port Huron. They lived there about five years where two children, George and Anna, were born.

During those years, George had become a "fair" carpenter, but the lure of a better fortune beckoned. To the north the pine lands were being opened.

Thunder Bay, Presque Isle, and Alpena sounded like fabulous new frontiers. For a dozen years sawmills had been buzzing, the first one at the mouth of the Devil River near the present site of Alpena. In 1860, 290 people lived in Alpena and Montmorency counties, Ten years later there were 2,256.

In 1865, the young Herron family sailed up Lake Huron to the boom town, Alpena. Sawdust filled the marshes. Board walks and cedar posts driven into the mud and mire made sidewalks and streets. George Herron built a home on Washington Avenue "near the flat-iron" and made a living at carpenter work. On June 5, 1866, a daughter, Kate was born.

Catherine, busy with three small children, evidently did not like the wild new town. Evenings would find George playing cards with the boys, and word had it that he "gambled." Kate’s dislike of card games was born. In later years she did not permit her children to have cards in the house. Flinch and dominoes were acceptable, however.

By this time George N. Fletcher had lumbered off the huge pine, 15 to 20 to an acre, on most of Alpena County. So at Catherine’s insistence, George bought 160 acres of land in Wilson Township at $1.60 an acre. The land was covered with maple, beech and hemlock and the six-foot huge pine stumps, "one of which furnished kindling for a whole winter." The family prepared for its move ten miles west and one and one half miles south of Alpena. The drive to the new home was over corduroy road, and it was all the young mother could do to keep the baby from hurtling out. She finished the trip on foot.

George built a log house, and finally, the house which now stands on the farm. He cleared land for crops. There was no sale for the timber left, so it was used for firewood. A fire burned off 20 acres, so that it was more easily cleared for farming. Stumps were so numerous that grain was "cradled" and hay cut with a scythe. In the burned-over hardwood, raspberry and blueberry bushes flourished. As the family grew, it was not unusual for Kate to can 100 quarts of raspberries and 100 quarts of blackberries besides making crocks of jam.

In the next 18 years, ten more children were born, three of whom died in infancy. The family included:

George, born 8/25/1862, died 2/24/1928, married Barbara Stambaugh

Anna, born 4/19/1864, died 8/2/1926, married William King

Kate, born 6/5/1866, died 8/10/1953, married James Willett

Frank, born 6/27/1868, died 3/9/1947, married Anna Compeau

Charles, born 11/19/1869, died -----------, married Ida Warren

Barbara L. born 3/23/1871, died 9/11/1873,

Fred, born 1/12/1874, died 5/12/1947, married Myra Spaulding

married Anna Alpenalp

Nellie, born 1/5/1877, died 6/19/1900, married Henry Aris

Estella [Story], born 3/11/1879, died ------------, married Henry Cochrane [Story]

Ida, born 12/30/1880, died ------------, married George Schenk

James, born 5/17/1882, died 8/1882,

Willie, born 5/17/1882, died 8/1882,

Elmer, born 12/2/1884, died 12/12/1915, married Mary McKay

Those were busy years for the new community. George Herron built the first log school, which also served as a Methodist church and Sunday School which the Herrons attended.

Mail came only when some neighbor went to Alpena 10 or 12 miles away with horses and sleigh or horses and wagon. In summer, mail came from Detroit by boat in a week; in winter, from Bay City by dog sled and considerably longer time was needed.

When winter came men worked with oxen in the lumber camps. George Herron lumbered on Wolf Creek and the Upper South Branch of the Thunder Bay River. A distance of seven or eight miles which can now be covered in minutes, it was then a day’s journey away. A crew of ten men, more or less, would go into camp for the winter. George would buy stumpage off 40 or 80 acres. The logs would be piled on the bank of Wolf Creek. In the spring one man would "water the timber," as getting it into the water was called.

The regular drive would pick up the logs. This was conducted by a pool of mill owners. Each log had a separate marking. Booms would form in Thunder Bay River near Alpena. In summer, crews with peavies would sort the logs, and finally, the winter’s work would reap profit.

As the four older sons grew up, sometimes the crew of ten men would half consist of Herrons: the father, George, and sons, George, Frank, Charles, and Fred. Oftentimes married daughters, Kate or Anna, would be camp cooks while their husbands joined the timber crews.

In those days Wolf Creek was aptly named. Charles, when age 13, remembers walking in the early dawn on the tote road between the oxen to protect himself from the wolves.

The younger members of the family consisted of the "three little girls," Nellie, Stella, and Ida, and the baby, Elmer. When father came home from a trip, he would take one on his lap while he read. "We were as still as a mouse," said Stella. "He was always a hard-working man, and when he came to the house, Mother would say, ‘Hush, children, Pa’s coming.’ That was enough. We would go into a corner and play quietly."

In May 1887, he went to town to buy a new plow. He did not feel well, but went out to try the new plow. He came in and felt he was fatally ill. He said, "I’ll never plow again, Kitty." He lived nine days and passed away, May 7, 1887, of pneumonia at the age of 51. The three little girls were sent out of the house during the illness. They picked flowers, adder’s tongue, which forever reminded them of the loss of a dear father.

The older children remembered that Pa had always been a good provider. They recalled that the first years after Pa died were pretty disorganized ones. Ma wasn’t used to buying groceries or handling money, and sometimes there wasn’t much with which to buy. Sometimes she had only enough sugar or fat to make one big pie at a time. There were eight at home, but she always said she didn’t like pie as she cut seven pieces.

Kitty, or Kate, lived for 30 more years. The older boys assisted with the farm for a few years. The fall of Pa’s death they harvested 1000 bushels of wheat and 100 bushels of rye, and for the first time, they "took it off" with a binder.

Kate even tried a second marriage for three years. She was 47 and "Daddy" Clark was several years older. Almost immediately the three older boys, Frank, Fred, and Charles left home. Life was pretty miserable. "We could not go anywhere, even to church as he was a ‘Catholic,’" said Stella. The marriage was doomed to failure. Daddy Clark left at Kate’s invitation, and his name was never mentioned by her or to her. He came almost empty handed, and when he left, he took two horses, two colts, and forty sheep. Everyone was relieved to see him go at any cost.

There followed a period of renting, then hired men, and finally, the youngest son, though severely crippled in a "run-away" accident ran the farm. Every Saturday for 20 years longer, Kate Clark went to town twelve miles, with horse and sleigh or horses and democrat to deliver butter, eggs and cream to her customers in Alpena. She must have made tons of butter in her day. She wore out a butter ladle. Life was never easy, and I don’t believe she expected it to be.

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