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Shopping in Downtown Manchester Circa 1835 (Part 1 of 3)

By dhowell - Posted on 16 November 2009

by Ray Berg (April, 2008)

In previous articles, we looked at the life and accomplishments of Major John Gilbert, the founder of Manchester, and how he platted the original village and built the first water-powered mills. On November 23, 1835, he sold the remaining village lands he owned and the Manchester Mill operations to Stephen Fargo of Lenawee County for $8,000, and returned to his growing business operations in Ypsilanti. We now pick up the story with the three Fargo brothers: Stephen, James Harvey, and Alonzo, and look at the development of the Fargo & Fargo General Store, the first mercantile operation in Manchester.

The Early Fargo Family History

Historical records show the Fargo family first in Connecticut, then moving their way across New York, a common pattern of early Michigan pioneers. Our Fargo family first settled in Ann Arbor in 1825, coming from the Manlius, Onondaga County, NY, area, the same home as John Gilbert. A specific reference is made to the Village of Borodino in Onondaga County by William G. Fargo (grandson of James Harvey Fargo), to whom credit is given for preserving much of the information presented in this article. We’ll talk more about the Fargo family roots and development in Part 2 of this article.

Stephen Fargo was born about 1807, and first shows up in Ypsilanti in November 1830 purchasing land from William M. Harwood, one of the three initial founders of Ypsilanti. In fact, Stephen’s purchases along the east side of the Huron River and south of the Chicago Road (Michigan Avenue) place him as a direct neighbor of John Gilbert, who arrived two months later. This indicates that Fargo either knew Gilbert from New York, or became his acquaintance, which led to their connection in Manchester two years later. Stephen continued to make various land purchases in Ypsilanti in the early 1830s, but by 1833 is relocated to Tecumseh, where he partners with both Selleck Brougham and Joseph W. Brown in dry goods and general mercantile stores. Stephen was very ambitious, and branched his business operations into Manchester in August 1833, although he continued to reside in Tecumseh until at least 1841. Stephen remained single all his life.

James Harvey Fargo was born about 1803, and first appears in Washtenaw land records with the June 29, 1836 purchase from his brother Stephen of a large portion of the Manchester Village plat. It is likely that James Harvey was living and working with Stephen in Tecumseh, but relocated to Manchester in 1833 to run the family business in Gilbert’s mill. James Harvey married Elizabeth T. Kief, daughter of Artemus Kief, another prominent early Manchester settler. They had two children, William Harvey Fargo (1835–1906), who married Nellie S. Gilbert (1835–1902) on May 11, 1864 in Manchester, and who relocated to Jackson by 1863, and Charles Briggs Fargo, who married Susan and relocated to Cleveland, Ohio. James Harvey died November 16, 1840 in Manchester, was buried initially in the old burying ground, and then moved to Oak Grove Cemetery.

Alonzo Fargo was born about 1817, and first shows up in Manchester in the 1840 census. Alonzo probably clerked at the mill and store in the early days, and continued with a dry goods mercantile business in various partnerships in Manchester until the May 1853 fire, after which he relocated to Grass Lake to partner with his cousin George Lord in the Lord and Fargo operations. Alonzo was married first to Emily Caldwell, who died April 3, 1848 in Manchester. They had a son Edward H. Fargo. He later married Caroline Fisher in Grass Lake in 1862 and had a daughter Josie Fargo.

We'll follow the histories of these three families more in Part 2 of this article.

The Fargo & Fargo General Store and Manchester Mill (1833–1841)

We are able to learn much about the early operations of the Manchester Mill and the resident Fargo & Fargo general store due to the preservation of the early mill and store ledger books by William G. Fargo, grandson of James Harvey Fargo. William G. Fargo (1867–1957) donated these books and various files of genealogical material to the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan. We’ll learn more about William G. Fargo in Part 2 of this article, and how the family tradition of harnessing water power carried on through the family. But in the meantime, let's pick up with the establishment of the store by Stephen and James Harvey Fargo.

Fig. 1. The General Ledger and Day Book of the Fargo & Fargo General Store, and the Manchester Mill Wheat and Saw Mill Ledgers (Click image to view larger version)

As mentioned earlier, Stephen Fargo and John Gilbert had clearly known each other long before the purchase of the mills and village lands by Fargo on November 23, 1835. Stephen and James Harvey Fargo established the Fargo & Fargo General Store on August 21, 1833, with James as the resident agent and Stephen continuing the operations back in Tecumseh. The store was likely opened originally in the flour mill structure, but may have been located in its own building by 1835 opposite the mill on the southwest corner of what is now Main and Adrian Streets, at the Comerica Bank Building site. The exact locations will be confirmed as part of an ongoing, long-term study to reconstruct the business and residential map of Manchester in the 183–1840 period.

The first purchases at the general store were by James B. McRay, who on August 21, 1833 bought nails, codfish, and bed coil. He paid $2.71 cash and gave five bushels of oats at $1.00 for a total of $3.71. Other early buyers that day were Truman Cole, Jacob Ketchum and George Brown. The general ledger book runs from this date through 1838, and contains several hundred named accounts. It is a valuable tool for determining who was living in or near Manchester in these early days, and what they bought. Almost all accounts are in men's names—it is very rare to see a woman's name on an account, and only for very small cash purchases. As an example, let's look at John Gilbert's account page:

Fig. 2. The Ledger Page of John Gilbert (Click image to view larger version)

We see Gilbert purchased goods from August 21, 1833 through April 22, 1835. Among other things, he bought "sundries," glass, a silk camblet, a horse, mackerel, brooms, sugar, tea, coffee, whiskey, a stove, mittens and cranberries. A camblet is woven fabric with images embedded or burned into the fabric. For whatever reason Gilbert bought the camblet, he returned it for a full refund two months later! Cranberries? Were these being grown locally in bogs? And were they considered a preventive medicine (some research indicates yes)? You could buy food such as salted or smoked fish, clothing, hardware, sewing supplies, drinks of all kinds, and, apparently, place an order for something unusual to be shipped in. Sounds like Fargo & Fargo carried it all (for the times)! Transfers of goods between the Manchester and Tecumseh stores were common.

Along with the General Ledger book, the Bentley Library holds one of the "Day Books," which contain the day-by-day running account of operations. This book begins November 7, 1836 and ends May 2, 1838. A typical day (November 7, 1836) is shown below.

Fig. 3. November 7, 1836 at the Fargo & Fargo General Store (Click image to view larger version)

The Wheat Mill and Saw Mill journals are also preserved at Bentley. The Wheat Mill journal runs from September 1, 1837 to December 9, 1841, when Stephen Fargo ceased control of the mill. The preserved Saw Mill journal runs from December 1, 1835 through 1838. These journals provide an excellent record of early Manchester area wheat farmers, the transactions of flour, and lumbering operations around the area. The signed opening page of the Wheat Journal is shown below.

Fig. 4. The Signed Cover Page of the Wheat Mill Journal (Click image to view larger version)

It appears that Stephen and James Harvey Fargo ran a prosperous and successful mercantile store and mill operation from 1833 through 1841. As mentioned in the previous article on John Gilbert, the high profit margins of small wheat and saw milling operations in Washtenaw County began to decline by 1840 as more efficient operations opened farther west and railroad transport became available. This fact, combined with the untimely death of his brother and resident agent James Harvey Fargo on November 16, 1840, caused Stephen Fargo to sell the mill operations to Charles Noble and Austin Wing in September 1841. Stephen Fargo remained in Manchester until about 1845, selling off his remaining lands and home to Alonzo Fargo in 1843. He then relocated to Washington Township, Elkhart County, Indiana, where in 1850 he is again a mill merchant and very prosperous. By 1870, he is back in Grass Lake, Michigan, retired, and living at the home of his brother Alonzo. He died in Grass Lake at home on December 23, 1873.

Alonzo Fargo carried on in Manchester, operating the Fargo & Fargo dry goods and mercantile store under various partnerships until after the Manchester Mill fire in 1853 destroyed much of downtown. After this he relocated to Grass Lake and became very wealthy working with his brother Stephen and George C. Lord in milling and dry goods operations once again. Alonzo passed away sometime before 1900.

We'll pick up on Stephen, James Harvey and Alonzo Fargo in Part 2 of this article, where we'll look more at their lives and contributions in Manchester, and what became of them and their families. Lots more interesting stories to come…

[Previously published in M, Manchester's Magazine. Presented here by permission.]