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1876 Historical Sketch of Bay County's Organization
  • by Gen. B.F. Partridge, presented Jan. 15, 1876 at Bay County Pioneer Society meeting.
  • Pioneer Society of Michigan, Volume I, 1876 - Reports of Counties, Etc. (Pgs. 102-110)

    Bay County




    The present passing events in a few years become a matter of history, or memory, or tradition. Memory may and does fail; tradition founded on the memory and the caprice of the memory, is more liable to be far from the facts; and about the only safe deposit of passing events is written history, made by those who were actors in the events of which they chronicle. And as one such, upon request of many, I shall try, unbiased and unprejudiced, to write the history of our county in its efforts of organization, and to its final admitted consummation, and thence to this date.

    Of the first efforts I only know in part, from others I glean the rest. The first efforts for its organization were made in 1855, when the Hon. J. S. Barclay, who was elected a member of the Legislature from Saginaw county, in November, 1854, and who resided in Lower Saginaw, then a part of Saginaw county, now Bay City, presented a favorable opportunity for the scheme and with hope of success. The Hon. Judge Albert Miller and the irrepressible Daniel Burns (Mr. Burns was then in the prime of life, with a bright future before him, more so than the common lot of man), were sent to the "Third House" for that purpose; and two more fitting men at that time, and at that juncture, could not have been selected for such a mission; but such was the opposition to the bill at that early and first effort that, although the bill came near passing, yet it was defeated by a small majority.

    The opposition to the bill in the "Third House" was strong, numerous and influential. The indifferent yielded to their influence and importunities.

    At this time Lower Saginaw was hardly known, save to our "up town" neighbors (those above Carrollton bar), and was their


    and East Town and Saginaw were in all their glory and prosperity; and the then "Little Giant", Lower Saginaw, was struggling for an existence against odds that seemed superhuman to overcome, but with will and dare to do it, finally succeeded.

    Also at that time the indifferent allowed the claims of its opponents that the matter was too premature, - "wait and see", and if necessary the organization, if hereafter it should be deemed proper, could be allowed.

    Just as if a right was to be allowed, and not at once conceded! The argument generally submitted to by the indifferent and urged by our opponents, - and those whose interests opposed our organization, or thought their interests were so opposed, - claimed they could defeat all subsequent bills of the kind. The effort, although it failed, was not without its effect. It brought the matter somewhat before the public, and the indifferent ones began to inquire more particularly in regard to the same, and many of them admitted the justice of the claims for our organization.


    Again, in 1857, the Hon. James Birney, Col. Henry Raymond, B. F. Partridge, and some others, were selected as a committee to the "Third House," to press the matter of our organization, and if possible to procure the passage of an act for the same. The Hon. T. Jerome of Saginaw City. Representative from Saginaw county, and Henry Ashman from Midland county, who were elected in November, 1856, in that session of the Legislature, both of whom, as they undoubtedly supposed their interests demanded and their supporters required of them, opposed our organization. They undoubtedly acted conscientiously in their opposition, and consistent with their pledges before election, but I will say here, I do not know, and it is not charged, nor ever has been to our knowledge, that either of them did anything in their opposition dishonorable or unmanly. I give hem credit that they acted, without doubt, as they thought their duty demanded. The Legislature at this time, one may say, was the same as unanimously Republican, and those sent to the "Third House" to represent our interest and organization were wholly so, we hoping thereby a "fellow feeling" might arise, and thereby the former opposition might abate somewhat. Such was the general effect. After a great deal of effort on the one side to secure our organization, and on the other to oppose and defeat it, a compromise was finally settled upon by the members of the "Third House" and the members for Saginaw and Midland counties, by the efforts and advice of the friends of the several parties interested; and it was a local matter, and the members of the counties interested therein finally approved of the bill, it passed the Legislature, and was approved by the Governor February 17, 1857.

    The territory of Bay county at that time contained but few voters compared to Saginaw county, for Bay county only took a small part from Saginaw county. Its largest territory came from Midland county, viz.: the organized county of Arenac, in which territory at that time, aside from Indians perhaps not ten voters resided.


    As long, stormy, and arduous as the efforts were to get the bill for our organization through the legislature, yet more difficult and arduous were the labors to firmly determine and consummate the same, - that is, our sure and settled organization. Section 1 of the act organizing Bay county reads as follows:

    That the following territory [described] shall be organized into a county, and shall be known and called Bay county [refer to the act of organization for the description, etc.] and the inhabitants thereof entitled to all the rights and privileges to which by law the inhabitants of the other organized counties of this State are entitled.

    The original act presented, or to be presented, to the Legislature was drawn by C. H. Freeman, then and now of Bay City, and practicing law. The description of territory was made by B. F. Partridge, and had that bill passed as then drawn no question would ever have arisen as to the legality of our organization as a county, but the opposition to it was so great that the compromise heretofore spoken of was effected, and changes were necessarily made in the bill, and section 2 was added, which became the bone of future contention.

    The said section, when first added, originally read at the commencement and ending as follows:

    "This act shall be submitted to a vote of the electors of Saginaw county, at the township meetings to be holden in said county [here providing how the vote should be taken, and the section ending], and in case a majority of the said votes upon the approval of this act shall be in favor of such approval then this act shall take effect upon the 20th day of April, 1857; but if a majority of said votes shall be against such approval, then this act shall not take effect, but shall be void.

    The honorable member from Saginaw county was perfectly satisfied that the act should pass in this shape, provided it was left to his constituents to say whether they should suppose it or not, or kill it and relieve him of the unenviable honor, as that would remove the contest from the Legislature to his constituents, who would kill it at once, for it was well known that there would be ten against one for the act if Saginaw county people had any right to vote on the question. Therefore the member for Saginaw and others who opposed the organization ceased their opposition to the bill in the Legislature, expecting to kill the whole thing at the polls; but ere the bill passed there came in this good fortune for Bay county, if so it may be called. The member for Midland county thought Saginaw county should not have all the honor of slaughtering in its embryo the future organization of this county, but thought, and perhaps justly so, that his constituents also should have a hand in the game of


    while yet its nurse was trying to dress it in its swaddling clothes; and for such purpose offered an amendment to said section by adding immediately after the words "Saginaw county" the words "Midland and Arenac counties." so that the act passed reads:

    "This act shall be submitted to a vote of the electors of Saginaw county, Midland and Arenac counties, at the township meetings to be holden in said county."

    The said vote was taken on the first Monday of April, as provided for in the act, Saginaw and Midland also voting thereon. In the territory comprising Bay county the vote was almost unanimous in favor of organization, there being 294 for to 14 against; but in Saginaw and Midland counties it was largely against, so much so one may say it was unanimous against us.

    Great were the rejoicings of those opposed to the organization of Bay county, especially in Saginaw City, as the county seat of Saginaw county was there. About one-third of the cases in the circuit court hailed from this part of Saginaw county, and necessarily contributed largely to their prosperity, we having to go there to court and leave what little money we had in the hands of lawyers and hotel-keepers, and as court fees, etc., and, besides, as long as we were on the tail of their kite we tended to assist in their prosperity and to correspondingly diminish ours.

    A "LOOP-HOLE."

    Mr. Freeman always claimed that the act only left the vote of its approval to the voters of "said county," - that is, Bay county, - and he now more vehemently than ever, as he saw from the opposition from the uptowns that the truthfulness of his said position was the only probable chance of success, set the same forth as the only true construction of the act, and advised an election of the county officers to take place as provided in the act of organization. Accordingly the same was held on the first Monday of June, 1857, when there were elected the following county officers: Sidney S. Campbell, Judge of Probate; James Watson, Treasurer; Nathan Simons, Sheriff; Elijah Catlin, County Clerk; Stephen P. Wright, a young and promising lawyer, and who afterwards went to the State of California, where he represented his county in the Legislature and his district in the Senate, and held the office of District Attorney for several years, and all with the highest honors to himself and his constituents, was elected Circuit Court Commissioner; Theodore M. Bligh, a young physician, was elected Register of Deeds. Both of the last named have passed to their final rest, respected, honored, and beloved by all who knew them; and C. H. Freeman, still a resident of Bay City was elected Prosecuting Attorney. All qualified as provided by the act of organization and prepared themselves for business in the discharge of their several offices.

    As I have heretofore said, the bone of contention was section second, - or, I should say, its true construction was such, - and as the decision on the act, including the vote of Saginaw and Midland counties, was largely against its approval, that is, if the vote of Saginaw and midland counties was counted, but not otherwise, -- Saginaw and Midland now claimed that the act was not "approved" and that, therefore it "never took effect and was void," and claimed jurisdiction severally of that portion of Bay county set off from them; and more especially so did Saginaw county, for its interests were greater, and in proportion to the magnitude of its supposed or real interests it set forth its claim. It set the same forth and claimed jurisdiction over that portion of Bay county taken off as described in the act the same as if such act had never been passed, and that the same was null and void, for it had failed to be approved by the votes of Saginaw, Midland and Bay counties, and the writs from the circuit court of that county continued to be issued by their County Clerk and to be served by the Sheriff thereof, the same as if Bay county did not in fact exist, in all the territory taken from Saginaw county, including that in Bay county.


    The citizens of Bay county saw the dilemma and confusion matters were getting into on account of the conflict of jurisdiction, and many of them - and we say the principal of them - advised an acquiescence in the claim of Saginaw. And now allow me here to say that a very fortunate thing it was for Bay county that Mr. Freeman had an undying and irrepressible belief in his position, - that is, that the intention of the Legislature was to submit the approval of the act to the electors of Bay county only, and who nos, in this crucial time of our existence {for as a fact we did then exist, although it may be it was in a doubtful state, yet, as a fact nevertheless true}, put forth and argued his position more vehemently and persistently than ever and a few, and I believe I am justified in saying a very few, - partly to encourage him and stay his hands, and partly because they saw no other hope of success, gave him encouragement, hoping against hope that he was right, yet doubtful of the correctness of his position, still willing to give him all the encouragement they could until the final decision of the Supreme Court might settle the matter.

    Some of the more prominent persons of the upper towns who opposed the organization, as I have always understood, consulted quite a number of the best lawyers of the State on the question, and all were of but one opinion, and expressed but one, and that was that the vote was left Saginaw, Midland, and Arenac counties (Arenac was then an unorganized county, and was attached to Midland for judicial purposes), and that the vote was in the negative of the act of organization, and that therefore the same was not "approved," but was "null and void."

    Thus matters drifted, with clash of jurisdiction, and confusion was getting worse, when an opportunity was presented to test the question in a suit wherein Mr. Freeman was attorney for the defendant and that Hon. John Moore, Prosecuting Attorney of Saginaw county, was for the prosecution. For the opportunity so to test this question Mr. Freeman had long been waiting, and as he knew some such case must come, he patiently bided his time, as I shall narrate very soon. The late Hon. Wm. M. Fenton was associated with Mr. Freeman as counsel, and when he was retained by the defendant, pronounced at first sight, as all others had done, against the organization of Bay county; but when his attention was called more particularly to the wording of the act, and a few of the plain rudimentary principles of the construction of statutes, he saw at once his error, and entered into the spirit of the case. From that moment Mr. Freeman had a powerful assistant, true and faithful.


    Before going on with this case further, I will return to the winter of 1858, when there was an extra session of the Legislature. Mr. Freeman and Mr. Daniel Burns were sent to the "Third House" of that short session to see what could be done in settling the organization of Bay county, and if possible to get the county definitely and permanently organized by the Legislature. Mr. Jerome of Saginaw and Mr. Ashman of Midland now as strongly as ever opposed us, or any act tending to legalize the organization. They saw the confusion matters were in, but said it was all ourselves and our figuring that had brought it about, by pretending to organize when we ought not to have done so. But on this point, they were informed, others differed with them, and as there were differences of opinion, even if nearly all were one way (here I will mention the fact that the chairman of the committee on towns and counties believed that section two could have no other construction than such as Mr. Freeman gave to it, and he felt the necessity of something being done in the matter), yet the few had some right to demand respect. This they admitted, but still set themselves against anything like an organization. Many members of the Legislature, however, after they were shown how matters stood, thought that if we were not a county we ought to be one, and had shown ourselves worthy and well qualified to have an organization; but then, as it was a rule, although an unwritten one, that all llocal matters should be left to the members representing the district to be affected thereby, they did not wish to interfere, but they thought something should be done to settle the matters that were in litigation, by appeal or otherwise, and they were willing to assist in such a way.

    The chairman of the committee on towns and counties was in favor of our organization, and assisted greatly in getting the bill through the Legislature.


    Quite a number of suits had been commenced in the township of Hampton. Some laid their venue in Bay county and some in Saginaw county, just as the caprice of the plaintiff might suggest. The most of these suits were commenced in justice courts, and in most cases the defendant in the case, where judgment was rendered against him, appealed to Bay or Saginaw county, knowing that if we were Bay county the appeal to Saginaw county would end the suit, and vice versa; and the record shows that nearly all the suits were appealed, and a few cases had been commenced in Bay county circuit court.

    Mr. Freeman had carefully prepared three bills before he started for the "Third House." These bills were approved by those interested for Bay county, and it was understood that if the members from Bay county to the "Third House" could not get the one through that they wished, then they wee to do the best they could.

    The chairman of the committee on towns and counties readily approved bill number one, that had been prepared, which would, if passed, at once settle our organization. But Messrs. Jerome and Ashman had to be consulted. They could not be induced to be silent, should either of these bills be offered to the Legislature, and then the Governor would only recommend such a bill as all parties could agree upon, as general business demanded their attention before local bills. However just the Governor may have supposed he was, it only had the effect to give the members from Saginaw and Midland more power to kill the efforts made by our members to the "Third House." But the latter went to work with a will, and Mr. Freeman then made an effort to prepare such a bill as the members from Saginaw and Midland would not oppose, if they could not approve. So, after several days, it was accomplished.

    The bill provided that the circuit judge of the district in which said county of Bay was situated should hold court in Bay City, in said territory, and should hear, try, and determine all suits commenced in said circuit court, in said territory, and all appeals to the same, etc., with other section confirming jurisdiction in said territory.


    This bill meeting the approval of the members for Saginaw and Midland counties was duly recommended by the Governor and passed unanimously. The Governor had promised to approve the bill, but it having passed on Friday, too late to be approved by the Governor before he left the capital, he did not receive the bill until the next week. Messrs. Freeman and Burns left the capital for home on Saturday evening, well satisfied. When the Governor received the bill for approval he saw at once its force, I understand, - that is that the bill really established the organization of Bay county, - and he sent for Messrs. Jerome and Ashman, as I am informed, and drew their attention to this fact, and wished to know if they desired him to approve the bill. Mr. Jerome did not wish the bill approved, and it was not approved, although several other members urged the Governor's promise that the bill should be approved.

    Here it will be proper for me to say that one great objection raised to our organization was that it would be a Democratic county. But all joined in the assurance that such was nothing like a certainty, and that the probability was that a Republican member from Bay county would be in the person of James Birney, and Mr. Freeman stated that under the circumstances Mr. Birney would be his choice. But, I am told, that instead of abating or cooling opposition, it rather added to it.

    This was the last effort ever made through the Legislature toward an organization. Mr. Freeman and his friends now saw that any further effort must be through the courts, based upon the act of 1857, and acted accordingly, and resolved to fight it through on that line, and the war went on.


    Mr. Freeman and Mr. Wright arranged a suit to be sent up to the Supreme Court for a decision. But the suit upon which the question was finally settled had been bona fidely commenced. I now give the parties as well as the attorney in this suit, and they were all interested on either side equally as to the organization of Bay county, and the battle now must be fought on that line. It was Bay county or not Bay county. All parties prepared for action, each sure of the case in his favor. The case was one by the People. The late Dr. Dion Birney was the complainant vs. Daniel Burns. Burns was charged with perjury, said to have been committed June 29th, 1857, at the township of Hampton. The defendant filed a plea of abatement, alleging

    "the said supposed offense, if any was committed, was committed within the jurisdiction of Bay county and not within the jurisdiction of this court,"

    - meaning the jurisdiction of the Saginaw county circuit court. Upon this plea issue was taken and a case was made and certified to the Supreme Court, and was heard at the May term, 1858, at Detroit. Mr. Freeman had staked his reputation as a lawyer upon the result of this suit, and he prepared a full and exhaustive argument in the case, and whoever may read the same will come to the same conclusion.

    A little incident in the passing events of the suit I feel called upon to relate quite fully, as it tends to show the opinion of the legal profession on the question, and the worth and character of the late Hon. Wm. M. Fenton of Flint, perhaps as no other thing could do. And this is my apology.

    It is well know that Mr. Freeman did not attend the Supreme Court on the argument of this case, for the reason that a few days before the case was to come on for argument Mr. Freeman was confined to his bed with a fever, and was quite as insensible of what was going on in the case as old "Rip Van Winkle," except that the suit was uppermost in his wild and feverish head. Now, Mrs. Freeman comprehended the situation and knew that Mr. Freeman could not possibly recover to be in Detroit to argue the case, so she sent all the papers in the case, with the argument prepared (in writing), to Mr. Fenton, informing him of the situation of her husband. Mr. Fenton replied to her, "All shall be attended to", and the result shows that it was. The first time Mr. Fenton met Mr. Freeman after the case was decided, he said to him that when he arrived in Detroit several of the most prominent lawyers (giving names) advised him to drop the suit and not expose himself to ridicule, but to let Freeman alone fall, etc. He informed them that Mr. Freeman was sick and could not be there, and Mrs. Freeman had requested him to see to the suit, and he had written her that he should; that he was of their opinion till his attention had been called to some of the words and language of the act, and he should soon call theirs to the same points; that he had not gone far in the argument when it was conceded that his premises in the case were correct, and that when he had reached the close of his not very lengthy argument there was nothing for the Hon. John Moore to reply to with any force.

    But allow me to say that I am told Mr. Moore did all that he could in the premises.


    The case was submitted, and the next morning the court on opening gave the decision, which may be found commencing on page 114 of 5 Michigan Reports (1 Cooley), sustaining the plea, and thus declaring Bay county organized.

    The next morning after the decision was made the news was received here by the Detroit boat, that being the most reliable and shortest route by steamboat by the river in the season, and by skates and sleighs on the ice of the river in its season, but not any road for general travel nearer than East Saginaw on this side of the river and Zilwaukee on the other. There being no cannon here, and no military company with fire-arms, with which to sound the glad tidings of the reality of Bay county, the only anvil in the county was pressed into service; and such cannonading would drown, and did drown, the sleepy ideas of some of the sleepy people of this infant city, and send them along the path to prosperity and to wealth. The news brought the people to their right senses, and the city and county have rushed along the rough track of building up, and burning down, and rebuilding in more substantial style.

    So long as we belonged to Saginaw county our progress was slow. We might, we would grow, and did, but we were at the mercy of the upper towns, and thus the growth was noting like rushing business as it was done up the river, - like mushrooms, soon reaching their limits, and then! But our growth has been steady, substantial, and rapid, as predicted by all far-seeing business men, and hence the joy over our success was universal.

    As a city, - I mean Bay City, - from a little hamlet on the Saginaw river, we have superseded Saginaw City, and in a year or two more will be second to none in the Valley. And besides, there have sprung up in the immediate vicinity of Bay City the villages of Salzburg, Wenona, Banks, and Essexville, all lively, thriving places, the smallest of them larger than Bay City was when she became the county-seat of Bay County and when the county commenced its career she could not count more than 1,500 inhabitants. At this date we can safely count near 30,000 and our material and financial interests have grown in proportion, and from two towns we have now seventeen organized in the county, in which there are found at this date at least twelve villages, besides the thriving city of Bay City, with her sixteen thousand inhabitants.

    Also, this county has grown from a board of supervisors of two only (Judge Campbell and Mr. Willard) to that of twenty-eight on the present board. The first board had but little to do, and never diagreed about the finances of the county. They paid the Prosecuting Attorney $50 a year; now he is paid $1,800. Other officers were paid in the same proportion. Sheriff Simons moved from the county, and his office became vacant. The proper authorities appointed B. F. Partridge to fill the vacancy. Immediately after this the Sheriff leased a place for a court-room, and prepared a jail. The jail occupied the lots where the River Bros.' blacksmith shop now stands, and was swept away in the first great fire in Bay City. The court-room building now stands as it did then. We now have a court house in which all can have a feeling of just pride, a jail second to none in the State, many stately private residences and business places, many very fine churches, several large and elegant hotels, two fine bridges (one being rebuilt of iron), several railroads and fine depots and railroad bridge, machine-shops and iron foundries, manufactories, mills, salt blocks and lumber yards, that bespeak the cultivated taste and business abilities of the people of the city and county, and furnish employment for thousands of people, and that required an investment of an immense amount of capital. The banks in the county rank among the best in the State. The farming interests of the county have kept pace with every other branch of business. From 21 farms in Bay county in 1855, the number now runs up to 2,600.

    All these go to show that the thrift and prosperity of the whole people.


    all others of the same number of inhabitants in the State for its safety from fire and convenience for water, using the Lake Huron water through pipes from the lake to the city; her streets are beautifully lighted with gas; her streets are finely paved, and her parks beautifully laid out and ornamented; her street railway is finely furnished, and seems to be a paying institution; her places of amusement and public library are of the finest class, Westover's opera house being the best place of the kind in the valley; and the numerous vessels and steamers and tugs in the harbor of Bay City at all times show her great commercial advantages, her custom-house reports and clearances being greater in number than those of any other city in the whole State, altogether showing an unmistakable evidence of prosperity and practical business talent not surpassed by any other section of the State of Michigan. No man need be ashamed to register his name in hotels in other cities as a resident of Bay City.

    Related Notes & Pages
    Gen. Benjamin F. Partridge.
    Gen. B.F. Partridge

    Related Pages:
    Partridge, Benjamin F.
    People Referenced
    Ashman, Henry
    Barclay, J.S. (Hon.)
    Birney, Dion (Dr.)
    Birney, James (Hon.)
    Bligh, Theodore M.
    Burns, Daniel
    Campbell, Sidney S.
    Catlin, Elijah
    Fenton, Wm. M
    Freeman, C. H.
    Jerome, T. (Hon.)
    Miller, Albert (Judge)
    Moore, John (Hon.)
    Partridge, Benjamin F. (Gen.)
    Raymond, Henry (Col.)
    Simons, Nathan
    Watson, James
    Wright, Stephen P.
    Subjects Referenced
    Arenac County
    Banks (village)
    Bay City
    Bay County
    Bay Co. circuit court
    Carrollton bar
    East Saginaw
    Essexville (village)
    Gas lights
    Hampton twsp.
    Lake Huron
    Lower Saginaw
    Midland County
    River Bros.' blacksmith
    Saginaw County
    Saginaw Co. Legislature
    Salzburg (village)
    Street railway
    Supreme Court (MI)
    Third House
    Wenona (village)
    Westover Opera House
    Internet Resources
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  • WRITINGS: History As It Was Written Then.