America was built by calloused hands and the perspiration and perseverance of the stalwart farmer whose labor primed the land for generations to come. And so it was in the lakes area when the Colvin family trekked from Vermont to Michigan — back at a time when Michigan was still just a territory — to build what is now the only centennial working farm in the region today.
The Colvin Hoxie Spears Farm, established in Waterford Township on Cooley Lake Road between Hiller and Lochaven roads in 1831, is privately owned by Claire Pryor, a fifth-generation descendant of the Colvin lineage.
Today the farm yields between 600 and 800 bales of hay per year, and also churns out vegetables from a garden. Several horses are kept on the property — which Pryor no longer resides at, but instead has rented out since the 1990s — during the summer.
The farm continues to reap accolades from state and local organizations. Last year, it received the certificate of Special Congressional Recognition, in addition to its Centennial Farm designation by the Michigan Historical Commission and a special tribute from the state. In 2011, Waterford Township honored the farm with its 2011 Historical Award.
Pryor, a member of the Lydia Barnes Potter Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, joined the organization since her ancestors were early settlers in Michigan before it attained statehood in 1837.
The first generation of the family, the Colvins, were natives of Vermont but moved to New York’s Niagara County to farm. Fed up with crop failures, Nathan Colvin seized an opportunity to move to the “new” west thanks to President Andrew Jackson, who was giving away land grants to farm in the Michigan Territory.
Nathan and Margaret Batchelor Colvin, with their only surviving child, Lucinda, in tow, traveled west via the Erie Canal. They worked their way through Pontiac by ox cart to settle in Waterford. The other Colvin daughter, Mabel, died as an infant.
The land was granted to the Colvin family on Nov. 25, 1831. At that time, the parcel was comprised of 160 acres with another 94 acres annexed on June 17, 1837, just shy of six months after Michigan became a state. The deed was recorded in Four Towns, now known as Waterford Township.
“The Colvins came because of crop failures in New York and took a chance with Andrew Jackson land grants,” Pryor said. “Luckily they got a good piece of land — others were nothing but rocks and clay.”
The family started farming the land immediately. Although the Colvins initially erected a log cabin structure, within a few years they labored to build the front section of a farmhouse and relocated it to its present location at 6290 Cooley Lake Road.
“The Colvins decided to build a more permanent home by clearing the land and using the lumber to do it,” Pryor said.
The front of the house they built still stands today.
The Colvin farm consisted of livestock such as pigs, cows, sheep, turkeys, chickens and horses. They grew corn for the animals, sweet corn, wheat for flour, hay, and planted a vegetable garden and fruit trees.
“You had to hope your crops survived you through the winter,” Pryor said. “They made their own soap, grinded their own flour, raised a lot of potatoes, and canned everything,” she said.
Peach, pear and apple trees dotted the dense property.
The Colvins dug a well and built an outhouse. Wood was plentiful and used for heat and stock-piled in a large shed.
As was the custom in those days, families magnanimously helped their neighbors in building structures as gestures of hospitality.
The Pottawattomie, a branch of the Algonquin Native American tribes, used to camp on the shores of White Lake while hunting and fishing. The sect was customarily quiet and peaceful. However, in August 1833, Nathan Colvin became inebriated after helping a neighbor at a cabin-raising at a White Lake settlement. Nathan and two companions crossed Pottawattomie land; a dog belonging to the tribe attacked Nathan, resulting in Nathan killing the dog. This, in turn, angered the Pottawattomi, who wanted to avenge the dog’s death.
Two members of Nathan’s party quickly appeased the tribe by telling them he would be punished and pay for the dog. The incident passed without bloodshed.
During this time, there was a Native American pathway in the area where tribes would cross the land en route to Orchard Lake. Several times a year they would come looking for food, so the Colvin’s would leave out food and the passersby would leave peacefully, taking only what they needed and nothing more.
A treaty signed in 1833 moved the Native Americans westward; their presence gradually petered out as settlers arrived and built permanent homes.
Before long, Colvin became a prosperous farmer and donated land in rapid succession for a cemetery and then a schoolhouse that also served as a Protestant church, later named the Four Towns Methodist Church. Though the Colvins arrived in the lakes area as Quakers, they eventually converted to Methodism.
Lucinda Colvin married a mason, Frederick Hoxie of what is now Romeo, after a seven-year engagement. Before the pair married, Hoxie first headed out for California to pan for gold during a tenuous and savage time. During his trip, he and his two brothers scouted for a wagon train. One of Frederick’s brothers, John, was shot and killed by a Native American for riding a white horse at the time. Frederick and his brother, Timothy, after leaving John’s body, slipped back to bury their kin later that night.
Hoxie returned home to Lucinda in the 1850s with a pair of gold earrings to trade for township land that extended to the Clinton River. The Hoxies, however, were never able to build their home on that land. Nathan and Margaret Colvin asked their daughter to care for them in their old age in exchange for the entire 350-acre parcel. At that time Margaret was suffering from crippling arthritis.
Therefore, the newlyweds moved into the house on Cooley Lake Road and combined the two farms into the Colvin Hoxie farm. Between the 1880s and 1890s, Hoxie started a myriad of improvements to the farm. Besides the large barn, he built a smaller barn, outbuildings, a blacksmith shop, and a carriage house.
Lucinda bore one child, Clara Mariah Hoxie, who would later become the sole heir to the 350-acre farm.
Sometime after 1860, Clara Hoxie married Eugene Spies, a Swiss immigrant who was responsible for naming Lochaven Road after the region in Switzerland where he was reared; Lochaven means “looking lakeward.”
Eugene eventually changed his surname to Spears. He and Clara raised 10 children — seven girls and three boys.
“She made bread three times a week — 10 to 12 loaves from wheat grown on the farm — and baked cookies and cakes. She also sewed all the clothing,” Pryor said. “You had to be ingenious at this time. Everyone did chores.”
Apart from raising a brood of children, Clara was a midwife in the area.
Originally there were five bedrooms in the farmhouse, but no closets. So later they took three of the downstairs bedrooms and renovated them into two bedrooms and built closets, added a larger summer kitchen, and extended the basement.
“The basement was built with old planks, hand-hewed beams and rafters,” Pryor said.
The farmhouse had a large parlor and a sitting room. Many of the rooms were equipped with pot-belly stoves for heat in the winter.
In lieu of indoor plumbing, they had “slop jars” or “slop pails” filled with a small amount of water in the bedrooms. The pails had a lid, although some had crochet covers so they didn’t make a noise when used at night.
“They took the contents in the jar out to the outhouse in the mornings. Otherwise, it was too difficult to find your way to the outhouse in the dark,” Pryor explained.
Other customs included carrying a lantern up to bed at night and a hot potato or a ‘soap stone’ wrapped in a cotton feed bag to warm up the beds during the winter.
The Spears raised scores of livestock such as sheep, pigs, cattle, horses, chickens, and turkeys, as well as grew potatoes, corn, wheat, hay, melons, and vegetables. The family also sold milk, butter, eggs, seasonal vegetables, and sweet corn at the farm for many years.
“Eugene irrigated the land to water the fields,” Pryor said. “They were very poor and hardships were common.”
The Spears family owned two Belgian horses for labor and a few others to drive the buggy or race in winter sulky races — one of Eugene’s passions — where men would complete for the grand prize of a horse blanket.
In 1917, a flu epidemic swept through the area — a precursor for the 1918 influenza pandemic — and seven out of the 10 Spears children contracted it. Clara moved from child to child, emptying bed jars and cleaning linens at the river.
“Can you imagine what that was like?” Pryor said. “Eugene slept in the barn quarantined, but all of them survived while people around them were dropping like flies.”
When the U.S. entered World War I, the three Spears sons didn’t sign up to fight for two reasons. First, farmers were ineligible at the time; secondly, the family members were conscientious objectors due to their strong faith. During this time, the family saw the atrocities of war in the haggard faces of overgrown boys walking through the country, hungry and discouraged from seeking work.
“The Spears family never turned anyone away,” Pryor said. “They always fed these soldiers and allowed them to sleep in the barn if need be.”
The family almost lost the farm on more than one occasion. As a result, 100 acres were sold to salvage the property and three parcels were given to the sons.
The three brothers worked the farm, but also took on other trades. George, the eldest, became a builder and contractor, and Waterford treasurer. Frederick went into construction and Perry became renowned as a master carpenter who worked the railroad for years.
A few of the girls became teachers. Maude taught at the Four Towns one-room schoolhouse; Emma taught in the Farmington area; Zadie taught at Four Towns, and later at the Bogie Lake School which relocated to the Fisk Farm, as well as Scotch School in West Bloomfield until she was married. In those days, once a woman married, she could no longer work.
Rose and Hazel became homemakers. The youngest, Irene, became a teacher and principal of Carlton High School in Carlton, Mich.
Of the Spears brood, the youngest, Irene, married George Ellman. Together, they owned and operated the M.A. Ellman Office Furniture Company business for nearly 50 years and raised three girls, Claire, Marilyn and Jane.
Clara Spears held onto the farm until she died in 1943 and the farm was inherited by her daughters, Lulu, the eldest; and Maude and Emma, since the other women married.
As a reminder of the strong women who helped preserve the family farm, the North Star is painted on the farm’s smaller barn as a symbol of strength.
Due to economic constraints in the 1960s, parcels of land were sold off. Today, the farm is 12 acres and comprised of a small sheep barn, a hen house, and an outhouse. In one barn there is an upper hayloft where generations of Colvin women once played dolls or frolicked in the hay. While much of the farmhouse remains in tact, the summer kitchen was converted to a large contemporary kitchen.
The farm land is now a habitat for wildlife like turkey, deer, birds, and other small animals. There are currently seven bluebird houses on the property, along with vintage fruit trees, cultivated land and flowering gardens.
Pryor tends to the farm lovingly on a daily basis, arriving early each morning. She said it’s her responsibility to her mother, her aunts and her ancestors to preserve their heritage and that of the lakes area’s pioneers.
“I’ve compiled the research and got the awards for the farm. I accept them in the name of all the pioneer farmers in the Four Towns area,” she said.