The Lowell Area Historical Museum is offering a weekly feature to explore local history. This week, museum staff tell us about the Old Residents’ Association which was originally made up of the first settlers to the area. To learn more about Lowell history, visit the museum website to explore its collection of local artifacts and records.
The Old Settlers’ Society of Kent County was formed February 22, 1858. The purpose of the association was to ‘gather facts about the early history of Kent County and Michigan and to form a social feeling among those who ranked as pioneers.’ To be eligible for membership, a man must have settled in Kent County, Territory of Michigan, prior to January 26, 1837. On December 27, 1871, a meeting was held to reorganize, and in 1876 changes were again made and the name was changed to ‘Old Residents’ Association of the Grand River Valley’. Changes were made along the way requiring a man (and later women were admitted) to be a resident of Ottawa, Kent or Ionia counties for 25 years or more.
In Lowell, the Association met for celebrations and remembrances annually beginning in 1877. They paid tribute to those who came before. This organization was highly successful in the preservation of the area’s history. While education was a high priority, the events were fun social times. There was a first class dinner and meeting, followed by a dance, usually at Train’s Opera House. Some years the celebration was held in the summer with a picnic in Island Park, followed by a dance in the evening. These members were of sturdy stock. Not only did they survive early settling and pioneering, it was not uncommon for these parties themselves to last until 2 or 4 a.m. They literally danced the night away.
The meetings were times of reunion. It wasn’t just the actual events, but since the events brought many former residents back to the area, the result was a weekend of visiting.
As the earliest pioneers began disappearing from the scene, it encouraged those left to strive to pass along their history. It was noted in 1891 that some of the individuals in attendance rarely left their homes, but for these occasions of upmost importance. This was a priority to them.
The educational aspects of the events were quite thorough in nature. One year the speakers dealt with issues such as the pioneer farmer, the pioneer table and the pioneer ‘roads.’ These topics could be so easily overlooked and yet great care was taken to preserve the memory of even these topics.
In 1900 the speaker pointed out that “the early settlers were men of rare ability and sterling character.” Many of them came without means and borrowed money to buy land paying two dollars for one to obtain it. The speaker settled at Fallasburg with only 50 cents which he paid for flour, leaving him penniless. He built a shanty (10’X12’) with a ‘three story’ bed and six people lived in it at one time. They had no fireplace and the cooking was done by the side of a log. They did not suffer any but enjoyed themselves “as well as people do now.”
In 1907 organizational meetings had been poorly attended so the officers wrote up a challenge in the newspaper. They pointed out that without exception all of the reunions had been huge successes. They were educational to the younger generation. Just because the earliest settlers were now gone, “shall we eliminate from this community the benefits derived from this annual reunion?” This worked! At the next meeting a large number showed up and decided to continue the event.
What an inspiration these early pioneers and settlers were, and what vision to preserve Lowell’s history. They worked so hard, but had fun along the way. Today the Lowell Area Historical Museum strives to continue that passion and vision.