April 23, 2014 by Amy Elliott Bragg
Happy birthday to Bela Hubbard, prominent Detroit citizen and tree-hugger
Hey, it’s Bela Hubbard’s 200th birthday! Born April 23, 1814, in Hamilton, New York, Hubbard came to Detroit in 1835 and became one of early Michigan’s prominent citizens. He was a naturalist, geologist, explorer, memoir-writer, bird-lover, history-lover, tree-lover (see: a chapter in his book Memorials of a Half-Century titled, “Trees, in their social relations,” which includes poems, illustrations, and fond memories of fine examples of various specific trees throughout the state; of the black walnut he writes: “One near Kalamazoo — I hope it may be there still — measured, a few years ago, thirty-three feet circumference, at two feet from the ground.” I hope it’s still there, too, pal).
Upon his arrival in Detroit, Hubbard moved into the old Knaggs farmhouse, famous for its windmill and for its former proprietor, Whitmore Knaggs, an Indian agent and veteran of 1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers (under the command of “Mad” Anthony Wayne). In his memoirs, Hubbard wrote that he could sometimes, from his “vine-mantled porch,” hear the voyageurs out on the river, paddling and singing, the sound of their voices braiding with the sound of their paddles in the water.
In the 1850s, on the old Knaggs property, Hubbard built Vinewood, his romantically-named country estate. (Aside: How great was it when people named their estates?)
Today, the land that once belonged to Hubbard is part of the Southwest Detroit neighborhood Hubbard Farms. The Vinewood house was demolished in the 1930s.
In 1837, Hubbard set out on the first survey expedition of state geologist Douglass Houghton, along with C.C. Douglass and a spaniel named Dash (“no inconsequential member of the corps,” Hubbard wrote). Hubbard and Houghton were both young men — Hubbard was just 23. The crew surveyed the Saginaw River valley in search of salt wells, and in pursuit of an understanding of the brand-new state’s land, its plants and animals, and its people.
To celebrate Bela Hubbard’s birthday today, here’s an exploit from his adventures on the survey that illustrates just how wild Michigan really was at the time, and how far expectations (peddled in part by real-estate dealers) fell from reality. Just about any selection from Memorials of a Half-Century will reward the curious reader with wit and insight, so I recommend browsing it today. You can also celebrate Hubbard’s birthday with the Detroit Drunken Historical Society at Green Dot Stables at 7 pm tonight.
Near White Rock, on the Lake Huron coast, 50 miles from its outlet, at the boundary of the then surveyed portion of Sanilac County, we found a settler — the first we had met since leaving Saginaw River. Mr, Allen had been here three months, and, with five hands, was erecting a saw-mill on a dashing little brook that had nearly swamped us in entering. He had no neighbor, but the mistress of the house informed us they had been all summer in expectation and promise of the settlement at White Rock City of 200 families.
… Before the rage of real-estate speculation was at its height, and all through that wild fever, we had known of “White Rock City.”
Maps executed in the highest style of the topographic art — displayed in hotel bar rooms and other public places where congregated the thousand seekers after the fortune that courted the happy possessor of valuable lots and water privileges — had announced its unrivalled situation and advantages. They depicted the magnificent harbor at the mouth of a large stream, into which steamboats were entering. Saw-mills were converting the forests into houses. Around the Public Square clustered a Court house, churches, and other public buildings, not omitting the inevitable Bank, and the air of prosperity which pervaded the place was evident at a glance. Auctioneers had sounded its praises, and struck off its lots, at popular prices to eager buyers. None of the rising cities for which Michigan had become famous had so wide a celebrity, and distributed stock so liberally.
And now we were to see, with our own eyes, this western marvel, or at least its ruins. A large white boulder in the lake marked the entrance, and gave name to this modern Karnac. We found the entering river. It hardly admitted our log canoe. Harbor there was none. Churches, houses, mills, people — all were a myth. A thick wilderness covered the whole site. Excepting Mr. Allen, it was 40 miles to the nearest inhabitant. Where the Public Square had been depicted stood several large beech trees. On one of these we carved the names of our party, who were thus registered, for the benefit of future visitors, as the first guests of the “White Rock Hotel.”