A Yoke of Oxen

by Ed Howard
Reprinted from Society News, the newsletter of the Arcadia Area Historical Society
June 2013. Volume 19 Issue 2.

The wild and raging cowboy paintings of artists like Frederic Remington vividly illustrate the role horses must have played in taming the Old American West, but, lacking the same eye-catching art, we seldom realize that it was oxen, not horses, that aided early pioneers in mastering our Great North Woods. Without hay or grass, horses could hardly have survived in the heavy forests of early Michigan. Oxen, on the other hand, with steady, brute strength, could work long hours with comparatively little feed and care. They survived on local vegetation, including maple leaves. As all around, oxen played their part in settling the Arcadia woodlands. In his talks, local historian Steve Harold makes very clear that early homesteaders like Henry Huntington and Henry Clay Matteson relied heavily on oxen to clear their land, portage their supplies, and raise their buildings.

But, there’s a particular pair of oxen that, through diaries and memoirs, we can know played a specific role in the lives and well-being of some local pioneers. In his diaries, John Howard relates how his father-in-law, John Hunt, used his “yoke of steers” (oxen) in 1866 to help Benjamin Hopkins clear the woods and raise his two-story log home. This home was built on a high point of land in Blaine Township; land which now lies within the triangular intersection of M-22 and Howard Road. Part of the building’s foundation is still visible; many of its boards were later used as materials for a garage that still stands.

John Hunt had settled less than a mile north of the Hopkins place in 1863, and he probably used those same steers to build his own first home, also of logs. Mr. Hunt became the first supervisor of Blaine Township. Descendents of Ben Hopkins later settled along Joyfield Road and Putney Corners and carried family names like Hopkins, Putney, and Wendt.

 oxen lgAt200An Ox Team

Ox: A neutered steer; generally defined as a working steer over 4 years old. Oxen harnessed together can pull over twice the combined weight that two individuals can pull.


The Ben Hopkins Log House Raised in August, 1866 

BlaineTownship1915At25pctThis portion of a 1915 map of Blaine Township pinpoints the location of the homes of Ben Hopkins and John Hunt.

But, the fame of those two oxen continues: Two articles ago, we used a portion of Olivia Gilbert’s memoirs wherein she described her arrival and first impressions of the home husband Sam had built along the shore of Burnham. That was in 1863 when settlements were far and in between. Thankfully by 1867, a few more families had settled near, because on December 19th of that year, tragedy struck. While Sam and his brother were away in Frankfort, the “little home" she "loved so well” caught fire and burned to the ground.

Few things were saved, and all winter supplies were lost but one barrel of flour. Olivia writes, “Myself and the little ones were forced to take shelter in an old shop which had a fireplace … and wait the return of the men.” It was a “lonely watch to keep.” But, when all seemed so hopeless, it would be John Hunt’s oxen that again brought hope. Benzonia was then the only place within reach where life-saving, winter supplies could possibly be found. So, as Olivia aptly recounts, “When my husband went for our supplies at Benzonia--he drove Mr. Hunt’s ox team and broke his own road through the unbroken front--through the snow and over logs where a team had never been before. He was gone three days.”

It was “the kindness of one of Benzonia’s noble pioneers,” a store keeper named Charlie Bailey that got them through that “long cold winter.” He advanced Sam “$30.00 worth of provisions and other needed supplies.” This, along with “articles of bedding and clothing collected by the kind ladies of Benzonia” tided them over until friends in Ohio could send money to pay the debt. They fixed up the old shop and cooked over a crude fireplace until navigation opened and Olivia could get a new stove.

Now, thinking again about how Remington demonstrated the importance of horses through his paintings of cowboys on wild, galloping stallions. Couldn’t we do the same for oxen? Couldn’t someone portray old Sam on that cold December day, flailing onward that special “yoke of steers,” blasting their way through that “unbroken” woods to Benzonia? Imagine him, straps in hand, scraggly white beard flaring over, shoulder against the gale--liking to the symbolic North Wind--or maybe a desperate, overdue Santa Claus.

Further considering, I guess Sam would have been only about 32 years old at the time. He probably wouldn’t have had that long, scraggly white beard. Maybe this is all the recognition that gallant pair of oxen will ever get.




GilbertSamAt200Sam Gilbert