On May 18, 1847, William and Sarah bought his parents' farm, but on May 13, 1848, they sold it back and began planning to join his cousins Horace and Ira McNitt in western Michigan. When William left for Michigan in 1849, Sarah remained behind with some of her relatives.
Soon after his arrival in Michigan, William rented an 80 acre farm on section 24 of Wright Township in Ottawa County, only a short distance from Grand Rapids and fairly close to his cousins in Sparta Township of Kent County. About a year later, on August 22, 1850, William bought this farm from William P. Wells for $100 and returned to Ohio to get Sarah.
William may have built some sort of cabin on the farm while he was renting it or perhaps they lived with neighbors or relatives for a while. During the next few years, they built a house, cleared trees, and drained the swampy area at the west end of the farm. By September 20, 1851, they had accumulated enough money to buy an additional 40 acres.
The rigors of frontier life or the existence of nearby swamps must have proved too much for Sarah's health as she died at age 23 on September 30, 1853. The following year William married Hannah M. Wilder, whose family lived about four miles away in Alpine Township of Kent County. Hannah's father had died several years previously, so after the marriage her brothers Joseph and Eleazer came to live with them. Eleazer left after a few years, but Joseph remained until he reached adulthood.
On November 27, 1857, William and Hannah bought an additional 40 acres of adjacent land. They sold half of this addition to William's brother Samuel on January 21, 1859, and then bought another 40 acre parcel on April 19. This brought their farm up to a total of 180 acres.
In 1860, only 70 acres were classified as cleared and improved. Farm products included wheat, rye, corn, oats, potatoes, barley, hay, wool, butter, and maple sugar. Among the livestock were five horses, two milch cows, seven other cattle, 30 sheep, and three swine.
In the summer of 1864, William entered into a business deal which led him into a new field of endeavor. On June 3, he took over a lease on a sawmilling business in Walker Township of Kent County owned by Joseph Bullen, who was both Hannah's uncle and step-father. William ran the mill for a year before giving up the lease, but apparently operated it again in 1866 and 1867.
On December 1, 1868, William and Hannah formed a partnership with her brother Joseph Wilder and his wife Polly to buy the sawmill from Bullen. This business, located near the corner of Four Mile Road and Walker Road and powered by an overshot water wheel using water from a mill pond on Indian Mill Creek, became known as the McNitt and Wilder Mill.
The mill, which was almost 25 years old, had languished in the early 1860's, but William and Joseph soon rebuilt it into a thriving enterprise. Between 1864 and 1874, they increased the capital invested in the mill from $1,000 to $5,000, while the value of its products went from $450 to $10,000, and the number of employees rose from two to four.
William and Joseph found the new business profitable and began paying off their mortgage at a faster rate than the agreement required. As soon as they made the last payment in December 1876, William and Joseph dissolved the partnership. Joseph got the south end of the farm and $1000, while William kept the north end and the milling business.
In 1877, William and Hannah built the house which still stands on their farm. While it was under construction, a fire completely destroyed the mill, including some lumber intended for the new house. William finished the house and rebuilt the mill as a combination sawmill and gristmill. The new mill had facilities for sawing one million feet of lumber a year, but never produced that much as the lumbering business in western Michigan had passed its peak. The gristmill, with its two runs of millstones, had an annual trade of 1000 bushels plus a considerable custom trade. By 1884, William's capital investment stood at $10,000.
William died on July 5, 1884, two months short of his 61st birthday. His two sons had already left home, so Hannah closed the mill and sold its equipment. She lived with one or the other of her daughters until dying on May 7, 1915, aged 83.
Sources used in writing this chapter
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