Michigan became a state in 1837. Land north of the Grand River could not be purchased until 1839 when treaties with the local Odawa opened the land to settlers. But, settlers came, “squatted” and began clearing the land before this. They came from areas where land was becoming scarce and where crop failure, war and poverty created “poor” conditions. They came looking for farmland and new opportunities.
The timing of Michigan land opening up coincided with Canada’s Rebellion of 1838. This produced “Michigan Fever” in those seeking to escape war and fighting. Large numbers of Canadians and Americans living in Canada streamed westward across the border. Entire communities surrounding Lowell, such as Alton, were made up of settlers from Canada. Many of them settled with their same neighbors. Americans living in Canada had previously left New York or New England and now continued their westward migration with the opening of land offices in Michigan.
In the 1840’s Ireland suffered from a potato blight that devastated the nation. It destroyed the staple of the Irish diet and produced famine. Hundreds of thousands of people were driven from their homes and forced to emigrate. Many Irish immigrated to Vergennes and Grattan Townships. The area is still known as the “Irish settlement.”
The Swiss came during the 1880’s and 1890’s and settled near Alton. Later, some bought farms near Alto. The Swiss brought their skills, especially in woodworking and making cheese. Among these great cheese makers were Sam Wingeier, Fred Wittenbach, Chris Kropf, Sam Reusser and Christian Blaser. Chris Blaser is an example of success. He built a cheese factory in Alton in 1894. He received 900 pounds of milk each day for making cheese. He hired Gotfried Bieri as foreman of his factory and by 1905 the newspaper noted that Chris shipped 4 tons of cheese to Detroit.
Many people emigrated with neighbors and friends from their home countries. Once here, they settled close to them where they could share a common language, religion and culture. Immigrant groups formed churches where they could maintain traditions from their homeland. Examples of these are the Zion Methodist Episcopal Church built by the Swiss and the St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Parnell built by the Irish.
The Immigrant experience of the Kropf family follows.
On December 28, 1860, Samuel Kropf (1837 – 1885) and Magdalena Oesch were married and settled in a home on the edge of the small village of Schwarzenegg, Canton Bern, Switzerland. Their home, which set a few hundred yards down a lane behind the Kropf family chalet, was a long rectangular building on about 6 acres of land. It contained living quarters in one end with an area for livestock in the other. The roof rose just enough above the floor to allow for a loft, where the boys slept as the family grew.
The family grew to ten children: Friedrich, Jakob, Samuel, Christian, John, Karl, Gottfried, Lena and Rose. One son died at birth. Samuel was caretaker of 300 acres of government forest and also worked his farm. His work as Forester made it necessary for him to traipse in the woods in all kinds of weather, being wet and cold most of the time. At the age of 49 he was stricken with kidney failure and died.
Jakob (1864-1926) continued his father’s commission from the government and provided the major portion of the family income. Nevertheless, it was a difficult existence, even though everyone old enough to help did their share. They raised rabbits and sold them. They had cows and spread their manure on the fields to enrich the hay crop. They dug peat from around the house to sell and Samuel (1868-1927) worked in a cheese factory.
In the mid 1880’s, friends and neighbors began leaving for America and the idea began to grow in the thoughts of Magdalena’s sons. In 1886 Samuel accompanied the Gottlieb Roth family to the United Sates to look over the prospects. Many of the Swiss had settled in the area around Alton and this is where Samuel looked to bring the family. In December of1887 he wrote that his family should come. He had found work for Chris, John, Jakob and Karl on a farm nearby – at least for the coming summer and fall.
The decision was made to move the family so they sold their home and cows. In March of 1888 they left for America. The oldest son Fred had married his first cousin Elizabeth Kropf and they were expecting their second child. It was not a favorable time for them to leave, and his wife wanted to stay near her parents, so they remained behind. The family, now numbering eight, made their way to Bern and then by train to Paris, where they met another train that took them to the coast. There they boarded the ship that would be their home for the next eight days.
Most of their time was spent in a long room lined with bunk beds. All the immigrants were brought food to this room and they ate at a long table in the center of the room. During rough weather they were locked below deck, but on those days that were pleasant they spent much time above and often saw ships nearby. On one occasion the ships were so close they could even speak to the other ship as it passed by. The ship arrived in New York harbor in the late afternoon and they disembarked about 7:00 that evening.
The next day they left by train for Lowell where they were met by one of the Wingeier boys. Their possessions were loaded into his wagon, the family climbed up behind the horses and were taken to the Wingeier home one mile south of Alton where they stayed a few days until they could get settled.
One by one the children established themselves within the Swiss community.
Two years after Magdalena brought her children to the United States, son Friedrich, his wife Elizabeth, and their two young children followed. A neighbor had written that Friedrich missed his family so much that he sat and cried for them. So Magdalena sold a cow, sent her son the money, and shortly thereafter the last of her children arrived. Fred and his family, who in time numbered two daughters and four sons, settled on farmland north of Lowell. In 1897 he rented and moved his family into the big farmhouse on the south shore of Murray Lake. He raised crops on the south side of Lally Rd. and pastured cattle on the island in Murray Lake. A shallow marshy area between the lakeshore and the island enabled him to drive the cattle to and from the island.
~From Historical Narrative complied by Luanne Kaeb, Kay McDonald and Larry Wittenbach
A few of the farms where the Irish and Swiss settled are still in the family. Many of the family names remain. These are the direct descendants of those who left their homes and immigrated to America looking for opportunity and a better future for their families.
Image of Kropf family shortly after arriving in Lowell, 1892.