December 28, 2012 by Amy Elliott Bragg
Meet Christian Clemens, founder of Mt. Clemens
Mount Clemens is one of those lucky Metro Detroit communities that cares a lot about its history. When I spoke at the Mt. Clemens Public Library in November, someone told me that the turnout for my talk — maybe twenty-five people — was about average for someone who wasn’t talking about Mt. Clemens. A talk about Mt. Clemens, he said, would draw a standing-room-only crowd.
The “Bath City” era — when Mt. Clemens’ supposedly curative mineral baths attracted celebrity visitors and resort hotels — is the big historical ticket here. But before it was busy tourist town, Mt. Clemens was an outpost in the woods, about a days’ journey from Detroit.
General Friend Palmer remembered Mt. Clemens in the pioneer days:
It was at best only a straggling village, with the business, etc., centering around the square in which was the old wooden court house, jail, and meeting house as well, patterned after the St. Clair county court house, or the latter was patterned after the former, I don’t know which.
… The passenger to and from Mt. Clemens at the present day, comfortably seated in the luxurious electric cars, can hardly realize, in passing over the road, the different aspect the same route presented in the ’30s and ’40s. Then it was almost a dense wilderness, relieved now and then by a settler’s log dwelling; now it is a continuous settlement the entire route of prosperous farmers, with their commodious dwellings, in lieu of the rude log cabin.
Christian Clemens, pioneer settler of Mt. Clemens (every historical record calls him that! as if it were his title!), was born in 1768, and came to Detroit from his native Pennsylvania in 1795. In 1798, he was a member of the party that surveyed what would become Mt. Clemens. Around 1800, Christian Clemens moved from Detroit to his wilderness home in Mt. Clemens and opened a distillery on the banks of the Clinton River. During the War of 1812, Clemens was captured by the British and held prisoner at Fort Detroit. According to a strange story in History of Macomb County, Clemens was friends with his jailers and sometimes, you know just casually, scaled the walls of the Fort at night and went to hang out with his family in town.
For at time, Christian Clemens’ house in Mt. Clemens was a stopover for settlers coming to town. General John Stockton, in an account delivered to the Michigan Pioneer Society in 1883, writes that his was one of five families staying at the place in 1817:
We came through from Detroit in a day on the Lake road. There were already four families in Judge Clemens’ house, but we moved in, making the fifth family, and remained there till we could build a log house, which was not many days.
In 1818, the village of Mt. Clemens was named after its most prominent settler and — perhaps because Christian Clemens owned most of the land in the town, and agreed to convey land and money for the courthouse — appointed it the seat of newly-established Macomb County. Christian Clemens became Chief Justice of the County Court, County Treasurer, and Probate Judge.
The best way to get to Mt. Clemens from Detroit was once by water — up the shore of Lake St. Claire and up the Clinton River, “a journey of some sixty or seventy miles to get eighteen or twenty,” B.F.H. Witherell once wrote, and early residents of Mt. Clemens traveled in big canoes, hauling provisions in from Detroit. In 1822, Judge Clemens founded a stage line that ran weekly between Detroit and Mt. Clemens. It took a day, cost a dollar, and Clemens claimed it was the first public stage line established in Michigan.
Was Mt. Clemens the most fun pioneer settlement ever? Writes John Stockton:
In the winter season we had no lack of amusements. Not unfrequently twenty and even thirty sleighs well filled, and provided with music, would come to Mt. Clemens and dance till 2 or 3 o’clock, then go to st. Clair and dance, come back here and dance, then go to Detroit and dance again. At another time we would go from here to Detroit, thence to Monroe, and thence to Maumee, and dance at every place.
General Palmer once encountered a brass band hanging out in the woods on his way up to Mt. Clemens:
We had proceeded a mile or so thusly, when all at once from the side of the road, apparently in the dense forest and from out the inky darkness, came the sounding rattle of a snare drum. Goodness, gracious! how it startled us, the horse swerved into the bushes on the side of the track …
After getting the horse on the right track again and finding my cousin all right, I sung out to some one to find what all this disturbance was, and the cause. A voice in German-English said that the owner of it and the drum had been a short distance up and off the road to a friend’s house where a rehearsal of a brass band they were forming had been going on, ad hoped his sudden serenade had not rattled us and the horse. I told him I thought it a queer time and place to raise such an alarm without notice.
I like to tell the story of Stevens T. Mason celebrating the groundbreaking of the ill-fated Clinton-Kalamazoo Canal at a banquet in Mt. Clemens in 1838; he is said to have drunk 14 toasts and jumped up on the banquet table. What I didn’t know is that in 1831, Stevens T. Mason sought the blessing of Christian Clemens himself in his campaign for support of the canal. What? How was he still alive? Oh gosh, and he told Governor Mason: “Do your duty, boy, and we will stand by you.” And he was at the banquet! By then a vaunted elder of the old days! Christian Clemens!
He died in 1844, and was buried in what is now Clemens Park. He’s still there! You can go visit. I did.
The Mt. Clemens Public Library has tons of local history resources if you want to learn more.