Editor’s note: We live in a time where women, and men, can easily and safely navigate any woods filled with dangerous wild animals, say in a helicopter, armed with a hunting rifle. Think Sarah Palin. In simpler times, people walked through the woods. And they just hoped not to stray from the path, to find themselves in the company of a literal or figurative grizzly bear, or – as Laura Bien describes in this installment of her local history column – wolves.
In the early 1800s, thick forest covered much of the land south of Ypsilanti.
The virgin forest nourished huge flocks of passenger pigeons on migratory routes passing north. Often they passed low enough to be knocked from the air with sticks. After one such harvest, according to one Ypsilanti city history, “at dinner that day, there was a tremendous pigeon pot pie, sufficient to satisfy everybody, although there were twenty at the table.”
But the forest also held danger. One large swamp in Augusta Township was named Big Bear Swamp, and wolves and panthers roamed in our county.
Into this wilderness in 1828 came Andrew Muir with his family. They had fled an economic recession and spiking farm rents in Scotland and immigrated with other relatives to America. Members of the McDougall family also made the trip.
After the weeks-long Atlantic crossing, 26-year-old Mary Muir and 29-year-old George McDougall married in Rochester, New York on Halloween in 1828.
The families traveled by boat and overland to Michigan. Andrew Muir bought a small farm near the intersection of modern-day Stony Creek and Bemis roads, about 6 miles south of Ypsilanti. He invited his daughter Mary and son-in-law George to share the property. However George, who had worked as a miller back home in Ayrshire, chose to settle just south of the small Ypsi settlement and work at its flour mill there.
Mary often walked down to her father’s farm late in the week to see her parents and stay overnight. On Sundays, George would travel down to visit and he and Mary would return to their home.
One winter day, Mary prepared to visit her parents. She set the table for her husband and made sure his dinner was ready for his return from the flour mill. Mary adjusted her pretty new calfskin shoes, tied her plaid wool scarf over her dress, and left the house.
She set off on the faint Indian trail that wound through the six miles of forest to her parents’ farm.
The days were getting shorter and it was shady under the trees, but Mary knew she could reach her parents’ home before nightfall. Snow covered the forest floor, blanketing fallen logs and the crunchy layer of leaves.
In the distance, Mary saw it: an enormous fallen tree blocking the path. There was no climbing over it – she had to go off the path to find a way around.
The fallen tree trunk extended far into the surrounding trees. Mary picked her way to its end, working her way around. The afternoon light was fading.
On the other side, Mary searched for the path. That must be it – she set off again.
Mary walked on. This was odd – it was twilight and she should have been at her father’s farm. And the path looked strange. It dawned on her that at the fallen tree, she’d stumbled on a different path – one that was leading her into the wilderness.
Night was coming on. Mary guessed she must be close to her father’s farm and decided to leave the path. She picked her way through the forest. Under the dark treetops the snow glowed a soft white.
Some time later, Mary knew she was lost. She decided to return north to Ypsilanti and safety. Mary looked up through the bare branches and found the Pole star.
Mary pushed away branches and stepped over logs. The temperature was dropping. She glanced up at the star. Mary tripped and fell, scraping her shoe.
She ran a finger over the side of her shoe. She felt a rip where the stitching had split.
Mary was exhausted. She decided she would see better next morning. There was no help for it but to try and rest. She found a nook between a log and a tree trunk and sat down. She unfolded her shawl and draped it over herself, curling up on the frozen ground. Tiredness overtook her.
Mary’s eyes flew open and she sat up. Then she heard it again – a distant wolf howl. Silence. There it was again – and another. A third.
Should she run? She might fall again in the dark. Better to stay. Perhaps they didn’t know she was here. Was it near morning? Mary took out her husband’s watch and tried to read it. She hadn’t taken the key to wind it – it had stopped at one o’clock.
Hours later she saw a faint dawn light. She got up stiffly and began walking. The sun passed overhead. The rip in her shoe had widened, and the front sole slapped as she walked. The insole on the other shoe was fraying, letting in snow. It was late afternoon.
Mary heard a dog bark.
She altered her course toward the sound. Suddenly she came upon two cows in a clearing. Mary nearly collapsed with relief. She couldn’t see their farmhouse and couldn’t go any further. But the cows would return home for milking-time.
Mary propped herself against a tree, facing the cows. She dozed.
When she awoke, they were gone.
Mary jumped up and looked around. She heard a twig crunch and ran a few steps. She saw the flick of a tail among the twilight trees. Mary ran after it.
At the farmhouse three miles south of Saline and fifteen crow-miles from Ypsi, the farmers welcomed Mary. They fed her, tended her feet, and put her to bed. They told her that if she’d walked in a slightly different direction, she’d have been nowhere near a settled piece of land.
The next day, they drove her in their wagon back to Ypsilanti.
Sources: (1) Harvey Colburn, The Story of Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Historical Society (reprint), 1923, p. 50; (2) Beakes’ “Past and Present of Washtenaw County;” (3) Chapman’s “History of Washtenaw County;” and (4) “An Incident of Pioneer Life,” Mary McDougall, published in the 1894 “Aurora” Eastern Michigan University yearbook.
Last column’s Mystery Artifact featured a pot-like object with a rotating inner cylinder. Irene Hiebler correctly guessed that this is a coffee bean roaster. It was made in Ypsilanti in the 1870s or thereabouts by the Parsons Brothers. “Parsons Bros. is one of the most enterprising firms in the city,” reads an article in the September 21, 1878 Ypsilanti Commercial.
“They always have some new patent which they are about to try, and … the next new article of manufacture is to be a noiseless wind-mill … [they are also making] a cheap and easy spring bed … In 1873 Parsons Brothers sold $10,000 worth of washing machines … the greatest novelty, however, is the ‘O.K.’ coffee roaster.”
Today’s Mystery Artifact is something that Mary McDougall never owned. It’s likely Andrew Muir and George McDougall didn’t, either, though they may have liked to. What might it be? Take a guess and good luck!
Laura Bien is the author of “Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives.” Have an idea for a column? Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.