Byron, a small quiet village in the southeast corner of Burns Township, rates high in historical background. Over the years many interesting events have transpired in the little village and added to its richness. Because the Byron Community comprises only a part of the Township of Burns, which is the southeast township of Shiawassee County, a brief history of the township is necessary, for without this, much of the pioneer spirit would be lost.
Although the surface in places is level and inclined to be wet and swampy, in general it is undulating and well drained by the Shiawassee River and its branches. The stream known as the East branch unites with the Shiawassee at a point in the east central part of the township. This union furnished excellent waterpower, which determined the site of a village to be named Byron. There are two lakes, Euler and Kanouse, in the township, which have outlets that unite and flow as the Rowley Creek into the Shiawassee. The soil is fertile sandy loam and ranks well with that of other townships in the county. For years general crop and livestock farming have predominated in the community, the main crops being corn, oats, hay and wheat.
The first white man to traverse the region now included in the counties of Saginaw, Genesee and Shiawassee was a Frenchman by the name of Henry Bolieu. Many years have passed since he first paddled his birch bark canoe from the headwaters of the Saginaw into the river that flows through Shiawassee County. He came to so many rivers, both great and small, that he was puzzled as to which one was the right one to follow. Should he take the deep rapid one to the east, go up the broader stream, or would it be better for him to keep on his way in the stream he was paddling? Henry, to be sure of the matter, called to his friends, the Indians, near at hand in another canoe, and asked which river would best float Sho mak e man's canoe to the river of the Kechewondaugoning or the “Big Salt Lick” named after several salt springs and was the proposed Indian Reservation located in the northwest corner of the present township of Burns, the southwest corner of Vernon and small parts of Shiawassee and Antrim Townships. The answer shouted back to him was this – “Shiawas ee (straight ahead river)”. Thus it was that Henry Bolieu paddled on up the stream into the region which has been know to the world from that day on as Shiawassee and his arrival at the “Big Salt Lick” in 1816 marked the beginning of the geographical history of Shiawassee County.
His cabin was a famous landmark for twenty years in central Michigan. When a traveler, not familiar to this wilderness, asked for directions when leaving Detroit or Toledo, he was told, “You must go through the woods to the north or northwest till you come to the seventh river.” “How will I know when I come to the river?” “Why, the Shiawassee makes more noise than all the rivers in that country. Before you get within six miles of it you will hear the boom and roar of its rapids. When you come to the Shiawassee you must search along its bank until you come to a large clearing, in which, at a short distance from the river, stands one of the cabins of Hank Bolieu. Some apple trees and a patch of corn, which the Indians have planted, surround it. You will know the cabin for it has not only an outside oven but also a stone chimney.” Long after the cabins and log houses of the early settlers had disappeared, that stone chimney, which was a French one and built of boulders taken from the river, was left standing. About 1820 Whitmore Knaggs opened a trading station at this point now known as Knaggs Bridge on the Indian Reservation. The traders Grant, Godfrey and John Knaggs, a son of Whitmore, who commenced trading on the Indian Reservation in 1832.
Judge Samuel William Dexter arrived in Detroit June 10, 1824 from Athens, New York. Over the next four months he purchased 926 acres from the government. Samuel W. Dexter was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1792. His father was Samuel Dexter, a Harvard graduate, former United States Senator, Secretary of War and Secretary of the Treasury. His mother was Catherine Gordon, daughter of William and Temperance Gordon of Boston.
Samuel W. Dexter
Samuel W. Dexter was also a graduate of Harvard and in 1816 he moved to Athens, New York. There he met and married Augusta Emilia Prevost. They had two children, Samuel, who died at age twenty-two years and Augustine who died at two years. Mrs. Dexter died in 1822, the same year as Augustine.
Judge Dexter went back to New York after purchasing land in Michigan and remarried to Susan Dunham in 1825 and they came to Michigan settling in Dexter. This Mrs. Dexter passed away in August 1827 and on August 11, 1828, he then married Miss Milisent Bond of Webster.
He named the village of Dexter after his father and what he envisioned to be the eventual county seat, called Byron, after the poet. He located the proposed village on adjacent quarters of sections 13, 14, 23 and 24 on 13th July 1824. The patent conveying the same to him was dated October 20th, 1824. In 1836, Judge Dexter sold the lands to his brother-in-law, Francis J. Prevost, S.S. Derby, Calvin Smith and Pierpont Smith who formed the Association known as the Byron Mill Company. They set about to survey and plat the village.
Pierpont Lee Smith, his wife and two sons were the only ones whose lives were saved at the time of the Indian raid. The story of this written by Miss Nona E. Smith, granddaughter of Pierpont Smith and living at Burvill, Tennessee in 1929 is as follows: “My grandfather, Pierpont Lee Smith, came to Byron in its very early days, probably 1826, as he was one of the first settlers in that place where he had a grist mill. He brought his wife and two small sons from New York City. The only playmates my uncles had were the Chippewa Indian children as their tribe lived nearby. An Indian chief, while riding his pony by my grandfather's house, was seriously wounded by an enemy and fell from his horse. My grandfather carried him in, dressed his wounds, put a tent in the yard for him as he would not stay in the house, and cared from him for many days until he was able to return to camp. A few months later an Indian entered the kitchen of a white man in the settlement and asked for bread. The lady replied that she had none. The Indian said, “White Squaw lie”, and opened the door of the Dutch oven and took out a loaf of freshly baked bread. Just at this time the husband entered, saw what was transpiring, took his gun down and shot and killed the Indian. The tribe demanded that the whites give up the murdered man which they refused to do. Then the Indians said that unless he was given up by sunrise of the next day a wholesale massacre would take place. The whites refused to give up the man, and a swift runner was dispatched to Detroit, the nearest fort, for troops to come and save them. The Indians, however, did not wait for sunrise but began their attack in the night. My grandfather, hearing the shots and screams, took his gun and tried to run to the defense of his friends and neighbors, only to find an armed Indian standing guard at the door. Soon he discovered that his house was surrounded by Indians who would not let him out. The Indian Chief, whose life he had saved some months before, had placed his guard there with orders to protect that man and his family and not let him go outside. The troops arrived at sunrise only to find Byron in ruins and my grandfather and his family the only survivors.”
In 1828 Byron was one of the ten towns recorded in the twenty-one counties of the state of Michigan. Others were Newton, Grand Haven, Scotts, Pontiac, Detroit, Battle Creek, Jackson, Ann Arbor and Tecumseh.
In 1836 Byron was indicated by a dot on the territorial map, although all there was of the place at that time was a grist mill and two log cabins occupied by the families of Judge Dexter and his brother-in-law, Major F.J. Prevost. In June, 1836, Judge Dexter sold the above mentioned lands to his brother-in-law, S.S. Derby of Dexter, Calvin Smith of Ann Arbor and Pierpont Smith who formed an Association known as the Byron Mill Company. During this month there was a three days rain causing a great rise in the Shiawassee River, and the filling of the marshes with water caused the largest supply of mosquitoes ever known in Michigan. The men who were surveying and laying out the village of Byron were obliged to wear veils made of a kind of white lace, shaped like a flour sack and large enough to go over their shoulders and fastened at the top by the hat crown. Gloves had to be worn to protect their hands. When the surveying was completed a fine map was prepared representing the magnificent village of Byron with its broad avenues, several blocks of fine buildings, including stores, hotels, private dwellings, a fine dam across the east branch and a race to empty its waters into the main stream, a fine flour mill on the bank of the river, and a large side-wheeled steam boat lying close beside the mill laden with barrels of flour for Saginaw. But this boat never left its place beside the mill, although a flourmill was constructed in 1843. Even though the village had been laid out in the summer of '36 it was not until April 28th, 1837 that the plat of the village was recorded.
On the 28th of August 1836 Wallace Goodwin became a member of the firm by purchasing a fifth interest in the company. These pioneers intended to make an industrial city of the settlement. They built a dam on the east branch of the river for power and added a sawmill. A log house was built on the ground north of the present Red Mill, the first building in the village, and here they settled their workmen while building the dam and sawmill, hiring a man and his wife to do the work, at the so-called boarding house, which was not a small job considering the number of men employed and the amount of well cooked food they needed. You should have seen those hungry Irishmen as they gathered for their noonday meal and they would have rebelled if called to lunch instead of dinner. A Mr. Sadler bought this and hung out a sign “Cottage Inn”, which remained as such until 1847.
In January 1837, Joseph Layton, a blacksmith, was persuaded by Major Prevost to come to Byron from Washtenaw County. As an inducement, the Byron Company offered him two lots in a good location along the riverbank north of the present mill and lumber for a shop, which he accepted. He built the first frame building in the village, which after a few years was moved on top of the hill where Dr. Sleeth later occupied it and is part of the home now owned by James Lucas. Mr. Layton also built the first blacksmith shop where the mill now stands.
Major Prevost, who was the moving spirit of the enterprise, had been accompanied to Byron in 1836 by his wife and three children. His eldest daughter married Captain David Royce for whom the local G.A.R. Post was named and who was killed in “Battle of Falling Waters”. In the cemetery near the bank of the river stands a small monument in memory of Theodore H. son of F.J. and M.A. Prevost who died March 17th, 1837.
The village did not grow as rapidly as the founders had expected. The formation of new counties from the territory of the Shiawassee reduced Shiawassee County to its present limits, transforming it from one of the largest to one of the smaller counties in the state. The west tier townships having been reduced in width in consequence of the principal meridian line not having been run on scientific principles. It was a standing joke among the early surveyors that the Frenchman who run the line was afraid of getting lost and that had he run the line far enough he would have got back to Detroit. This reduction in the size of the county ruined the prospect of the projected village. Even the water power and splendid farmland could not over balance this disadvantage. After years of work the Byron Company was poorer in many ways than when they platted the village. It had been expected that the county seat would be laid here but county lines had been shifted moving the town 20 miles off center, thus destroying this possibility of county government. Because the business of the company had not prospered as planned it was sold to Bowman Dennis, S.R. Kelsey and G.T. Allen, who improved the mill, strengthened the dam, built homes and did business for a long time. After selling and dividing partnership, Mr. Prevost moved to California around 1850 and Mr. Goodwin left after marrying a young lady from Vernon by the name of Smedley.
Mr. Dennis was originally from Boston, always wore a silk hat, carried a cane and never lost his air or courtesies. He had two daughters, Mary Elizabeth, who married John D. Williams and Lucy, who married Ed. A. Sheldon. These girls had been educated in the East and brought refinement and culture quite unknown to this rural settlement. Mr. Kelsey became Judge of Probate after years and moved to Corunna.
Mr. Allen built the large frame house on the hill north of the red mill and at that time the best in the village. L.T. Roberts and family, Issac Middlesworth and family, E.A. Sheldon, Martin Comstock, Herman Meier and then sold to Dr. Holloway who made it over into a hospital, have owned this place. After a few successful years he left Byron and the home was taken over by Mrs. Beck Haas, who operated a convalescent home for old people until December 1967 when she gave it up. For a time it remained unoccupied but is now again a private home.
Although Whitmore Knaggs had opened his trading station at Knaggs Bridge as early as 1820 and was succeeded by other traders, the settlement of the township by farmers intending to become permanent residents did not begin until 1835. They settled more or less in clusters forming the basis of several distinct neighborhoods: The Chaffee, Green's Corners and North Ireland with the Knaggs Bridge and Union Plains being formed some twenty years later.