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

By dhowell - Posted on 18 November 2009

by Ray Berg (August, 2008)


In the previous parts of this article, we have learned about the earliest days of Manchester Village. It began with General Land Office surveyor John Mack first stopping in July 1824 at the River Raisin in today's downtown Manchester, and noting the location as a "good mill seat." We saw how John Gilbert, a wealthy businessman and land speculator from New York, used this information while on the survey team for the Chicago Road, bought up this good spot in 1826, and subsequently established the first Manchester milling operation in 1832. We've also seen how the brothers Stephen and James Harvey Fargo, acquaintances of Gilbert from New York and Ypsilanti, established the first general store in August 1833 across from the mill as Fargo & Fargo.

In the most recent article, we also saw that James Harvey Fargo's grandson, William G. Fargo (1867–1957), was instrumental in preserving the original mill and general store ledger records, genealogical information, and a variety of other resources. These have been very helpful in preparing these articles, and getting a true picture of life in early Manchester. These records reveal several findings not previously written about the earliest days of Manchester:

  1. The Fargo & Fargo general store ledgers show a very rapid growth in early Manchester village and surrounding areas once John Gilbert got things started, as determined by the hundreds of accounts opened up beginning in 1833. The speed of settlement is surprising, but may have been caused by the strong degree to which the settlers generally knew each other back in New York State, coming from the same New York towns. In other words, they generally came as family or neighbor groups to Manchester, not as individual pioneers one by one. The Gilberts, the Fargos, the Kiefs, etc. came as a planned group.
  2. The diversity of goods available at the Fargo & Fargo store extended well beyond the basic staples you might expect at an 1830s general store, including luxury items like silk, perfumes, and foreign teas. These were available from the store's beginning in 1833. Our ancestors did not want for the finer things in life, and apparently had come to Manchester with money, not necessarily as struggling pioneers. Many had come because of the Anti-Masonry movement which erupted in 1830–1831 in central New York, and committed Masons such as Gilbert and the Fargo brothers simply decided to leave New York, and go elsewhere and multiply their money!
  3. And cultural influences came right along with the money and way of life! We learned more about James Harvey Fargo in the most recent article, and his key role in the development of early Manchester Village, its platting, and early governance (he served as first Manchester Township Supervisor from 1837–1839). He ran the successful and very profitable Manchester Mill and the General Store (the 1830s were boom times for mills in Washtenaw County). His premature death in November 1840 interrupted his influence and leadership, but the available records carry one other item of interest he brought to Manchester – the Manchester Village Lyceum.

    Fig. 1. Earliest known view of Manchester, circa 1855 (Click image to view larger version)

    The Lyceum Movement

    The Lyceum movement in the United States during the general period 1826–1860 was a series of organizations that sponsored public programs and entertainment. It flourished particularly in the northeast and midwest, and was named after Aristotle's Lyceum in ancient Greece, which was the school outside Athens where Aristotle taught in the third century B.C. Lyceums and agricultural societies were important in the development of adult education in America, and improving the social, intellectual, and moral fabric of society. The Lyceum movement was particularly influenced by the development of the Erie Canal and the railroad, which allowed noted lecturers and entertainers to easily travel from city to city. After the Civil War, lyceums evolved into the Chautauqua movement and vaudevilles, and became more entertainment and elaborate. The first American lyceum was founded by Josiah Holbrook in Massachusetts in 1826. The mark of an up-and-coming American town in the 1830s and 1840s was to start a lyceum. Manchester was no exception.

    The Manchester Village Lyceum

    Clearly James Harvey Fargo had experienced the lyceum movement, for he organized the Manchester Village Lyceum on Saturday evening, November 25, 1836 at the Manchester Village schoolhouse. He felt strongly that culture and adult education were an important part of life in the new village, and recruited several prominent citizens to participate. Sitting as Chair for the organizational meeting, he led the membership through the development of Articles of Organization which he had previously drafted (see Figure 2). The "objects" of the Lyceum were stated as "the discussion of morral, political, scientifical and literary questions."

    Fig. 2. Page 1 of the Articles of Organization, Manchester Village Lyceum (Click image to view larger version)

    Provisions were made for weekly 6:00 PM Saturday meetings, for lamp oil and candles, and for "some boy to light the fires in the schoolhouse" prior to the meetings. The articles also called for the collection of funds, and for the appointment of debating teams (affirmative and negative), whose arguments would be heard and an outcome decision made by the presiding President. Presidents held four week terms. Dues were 25¢ at initiation.

    The initial membership list is shown in Figure 3. It's an early glimpse at 1830s era residents who were interested in this intellectual stimulation. At the next meeting, Messrs. Lamb, Huff and Norris joined. Another member who joined was James W. Hill, the first settler of Freedom Township, who was introduced in a previous article. Hill had to ride a horse four miles into Manchester on a winter's night to participate!

    Fig. 3. The founding members of the Manchester Village Lyceum (Click image to view larger version)

    The Debate Topics

    So what did they discuss? Twenty-six questions for debate were initially proposed by individual members and a Committee of Questions. Here are some of them the group came up with (not all were eventually debated, as we'll see):

    • Which is the greatest source of wealth to the people of the U. S. – agriculture or manufacturing? (introduced by James H. Fargo)
    • Do the works of nature excite man more than those of art? (Committee of Questions)
    • Ought the sale of ardent spirits be prohibited? (Committee of Questions)
    • Is ambition more deleterious to the world than superstition? (J. Fargo)
    • Do the rich enjoy more happiness than the poor? (L. M. Pike)
    • Ought Michigan be admitted into the Union without compromise? (A. Walker)
    • Does anticipation afford more happiness than participation? (L. M. Pike)
    • Are debating societies useful? (A. W. Morris)
    • Have we conclusive evidence of the immortality of man? (Marcus Carter)
    • Were Brutus, Cassius and their associates justified in taking the life of Caesar? (M. Huff)
    • Is yearly spirit in a Republican Government salutary? (J. H. Fargo)

    As can be seen, topics ranged from very practical and timely, to quite ethereal and classic. The topic would be assigned one week ahead, and one or two members would be tasked with preparing and presenting affirmative and negative arguments. Arguments were presented at the next lyceum meeting, and the President would then often call for open discussion, but had final responsibility for deciding for the affirmative or negative.

    An interesting topic debated in late 1836 was "Is War Justifiable?" The topic was debated extensively without clear resolution, until the Committee of Questions modified the question to "Is War Justifiable to Instill Democratic Principles in an Oppressed Country?" The context of this debate question was most likely the beginning evolution of Manifest Destiny. This policy germinated in the later years of Andrew Jackson's presidency (his term was coming to an end at that point), the recent war over Texas in 1836, and the perception among some that America had a God-given right (duty?) to spread democratic principles in places like "oppressed" Mexican territories. Walker Morris and James Fargo argued the affirmative, and Marcus Carter and L. M. Pike the negative.

    President Emanuel Case, Esq. decided in the affirmative on November 30, 1836. A precedent for future American debates on invading other countries had been set in Manchester.

    James W. Hill, a lawyer as well as a farmer, proposed a topic on February 8, 1837, which led to heated debate and an overflow crowd in the schoolhouse:

    • Is the statute law which imposes a fine and imprisonment on any person who may deny the being of a God, or speak reproachfully of Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost, the Christian religion, or the books of the Old and New Testament, or shall expose or ridicule any of them, consistent with natural liberty, the freedom of speech, and the freedom of the press?

    President Marcus Carter, upon hearing all the arguments that night, decided in the affirmative.


    Something happened after this. On February 15, 1837, at its next and 12th meeting, the Lyceum members voted to suspend operations until "later in the season," specified as the second Monday of November next (i.e., nine months hence).

    The Lyceum never reconvened. What may have happened? Did Hill's topic arouse too much anger and ill feelings? 1837 turned out to be an eventful year locally and nationally. Michigan was admitted to the Union. Manchester Township was formed by breaking off from Bridgewater Township. James H. Fargo took on the role of Township Supervisor. But what really may have distracted the esteemed members of the Lyceum was the financial panic and economic depression which followed the "Wildcat Bank Fiasco."

    These bank failures were caused by federal laws (or lack thereof), and subsequent state banking laws, which allowed the formation of local banks and the issuance of local paper money supposedly backed by gold deposits. Manchester was not immune – it had proudly formed the Bank of Manchester (see Figure 4). Many of Manchester's prominent citizens invested or participated in this bank, which failed spectacularly when caught in a massive fraud. The shock clearly disturbed the community's financial roots, and participating in a weekly Lyceum may not have been at the front of their minds anymore. Anyways, the Lyceum register ends abruptly and there is no evidence it ever started again. And we really don't know why.

    Fig. 4. Bank of Manchester $5 Note, 1837 (Click image to view larger version)

    We'll look next time at the complete history of the Bank of Manchester in the 1830s, and what its impact meant to our local community. We'll also continue with more on the Fargo brothers and some of the other citizens who participated in the Lyceum's brief days. Stay tuned…

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