Bay City Times Tribune - May 13, 1923 (Page 5)
Bay City Colony of Jews Become Pioneers in "Thumb" Country.
BY F. W. LA ROUCHE.
When early in 1891 a little band of Russian Jews made their way east from Bay City into the now rich and fertile land of Huron county, they little realized the trials, the misery and the privation that lay in store for them in their attempt to adapt themselves to the life of the backwoods farmers.
Of that group of sturdy pilgrims there is not one today who remains to work the soil they settled. And there is only one man now living in the county who experienced the hardships and desperation of this Jewish farm tragedy in America.
Mose Heidenreich was a wandering peddler, who used to come through Bad Axe with his wares. Late in the year 1891 he fell in with the members of the colony, gave up his business and cast his lot with them. He was the last to give up his farm and has never left the county. He lives in the north end of the town of Bad Axe. He still believes that under the proper conditions the project might have been successful.
The first families that came here in 1891 had become interested in the Jewish farm movement through influence of Martin Butzel, a Detroit man who was the agent of Baron De Hirsch. De Hirsch was a French Hebrew who cherished the idea that some day he would be instrumental in bringing his race back to the soil from which they had been divorced for 2,000 years.
To this effect the Baron secured the services of influential men in every part of the world causing them to select suitable localities for farm colonies and then interest the proper type of families in the venture.
Butzel decided on abstract of land in Verona township two miles north and two miles west of Bad Axe.
The land was owned by the F.W. Hubbard Company, who agreed to sell to the colonists on a satisfactory basis and to helm them in every way possible. This the Hubbard Company and Mr. John Ryan did. They helped the families to get their goods here, solved many of their problems and in general attempted to make their new and strange existence as comfortable and pleasant as they could.
The neighbors of the colonists also helped the Jews in many ways.
Of this number of nine were from Bay City and two from Detroit. All of them had but recently immigrated from Russia.
The original eleven were Hyman Lewenberg, Aaron Kahn, Wolf Bearman, Sam Eckstein, Joseph Beckman, Moses Rosenberg, Abraham Goldman, Uriah Steinborn and Sam Steinborn of Bay City, and Charles Dante and Ruben Neisular of Detroit.
Eight More Families Come.
During the next five years about eight more families joined the colony. Some of them paid as much as $25 down for the 60 acre tract while others paid less. A few of these late comers were financed by the Baron De Hirsch fund but most of them paid their own way.
Butzel gave each man a cow and a horse and paid the sum of $15 on a tract of land for each of them. None of the men received the titles to their farms. All of them were penniless or nearer to that state than was altogether comfortable.
From time to time Butzel would extend his assistance to the colonists in one-way and another. Sometimes he bought them groceries, clothing and a few farm implements. At another time he would pay the interest on their debt or perhaps give them a little money.
But all of this time the colonists were fighting a losing battle. None of these people had ever had more than the most elementary training in the work of farming. None of them had any money. The land was covered with a dense growth of brush; no one seemed to know just how it should be cleared. There were no roads and close communication was impossible. The land was low and there being no drains it would flood much of the time.
One man constructed a barn by weaving little polar saplings together, an almost endless task, which must have required an infinite amount of dogged persistence.
This same persistence and determination marked the history of more than one of these unfortunate farmers. Many of them had a strong love of the out of doors and would have liked nothing better than to be able to establish homes here. Thus in spite of insurmountable difficulties they struggled along in poverty and privation until one after another they surrendered to the inevitable.
The people needed instruction and assistance in the many duties of the farmer and this was exactly what they did not have. It was not a part of the Baron De Hirsch scheme to furnish practical and expert farmers to guide these people in their undertaking. But it could not be made over night. Butzel secured the services of one Abraham Woodie who came here and for a period of two years undertook to make farmers out of the colonists. At the end of that time he gave up on account of ill health, and though he had seemingly made considerable progress all of his results disappeared after he left.
Altogether it would have been a hard bitter struggle for an experienced farmer. It was tragedy for these people.
Old records at the Hubbard bank show how these men made occasional small payments on their farms, some of the amounts being as low as $1. Few of the payments exceeded $4.
It was a miserable up-hill fight and before many months had passed the little colony began to disintegrate.
In spite of the hardships and the bitterness of their lot these people found time to engage in a sort of school where they sent their children to learn the Yiddish tongue and to be taught the history and the customs of their people. The records gave no information as to who taught the school.
Then, too, they built themselves a synagogue, where they regularly held their worship. The old building has since been remodeled and now forms part of a residence.
Gradually the size of the colony began to diminish and one by one the settlers gave up their cheerless homes and unproductive land and made their way to the city. One after another the farms were taken over by Gentiles and in 1906 only Mose remained of the original group.
On the land that once comprised the colony there are now eight families, all of whom are the proprietors of fertile, productive land, own fat, sleek animals and give every indication of prosperity. The men now on the land are: John Drews, Otto Gregory, Guy Townley, Alex Roeder, Andrew Smith, John Moore, Colon McIntyre and Steve Cermack. Joseph N. Rankin also owns one of the 11 original 60-acre farms.