Discovering the People of Fayette
Laakso, Brenda, Michigan History Magazine
As Fayette Historic Townsite's site historian for the Michigan Historical Center, I conduct research to discover more about Fayette's diverse nineteenth-century community.
The Delta County Courthouse in Escanaba provides a treasure trove of documents. Birth, marriage and death records dating back to 1867--the year of Fayette's founding--are bound within large tabletop-size volumes, each entry painstakingly handwritten by nineteenth-century clerks.
Beginning in 2000, and as often as time allowed over the next few years, I drove an hour to Escanaba for an investigative study of these rich primary documents. Although it seemed at times like I was taking up permanent residence at the county clerk's office, I carefully examined each volume page by page and jotted down all Fayette references. Not only did my research provide valuable demographics, including birth, marriage and mortality statistics, but also nationality, occupation and additional names of residents that helped to better define Fayette's nineteenth-century population.
Preserved as a state park since 1959, Fayette began its industrial era nearly 140 years ago. In 1867 the Jackson Iron Company laid the town's foundations with construction of a large blast furnace operation to smelt and purify raw iron ore into refined bars of pig iron. The furnace went into blast on Christmas Day of that year, and for nearly twenty-four years the company fueled the local economy while catering to this country's post-Civil War demand for processed iron. By 1891 a downturn in the iron market, in addition to depletion of the company's fuel supply, brought an end to Fayette's iron smelting operation.
At its peak, Fayette burgeoned into a self-sufficient community of nearly four hundred residents. Just over 68 percent were immigrants. French Canadians made up the majority, while most others originated from the British Isles and northern Europe. Among Fayette's native-born population, residents from Michigan, Wisconsin, New York and Ohio led the way,
Fayette's growing community averaged six weddings per year. The brides were quite young, with just over 45 percent marrying between ages fourteen and nineteen. Their male counterparts were somewhat older, with 68 percent marrying in their twenties. One youthful Fayette marriage occurred on July 19, 1887, between twenty-nine-year-old Joseph Bourbeau and sixteen-year-old Louise LaFreniere. Years earlier, Joseph had vowed to marry ten-year-old Louise when she "came of age."
While women often married at a younger age, men waited until their mid- to late-twenties, allowing them time to establish a career and financial security for their familial responsibilities. Half of Fayette's bridegrooms were unskilled laborers, the company's lowest-paying occupation. On average, laborers earned $39 per month and most likely struggled to make ends meet while living with their families in Fayette's lower-income log cabin neighborhood. The town's middle-class of skilled workers, including blacksmiths, butchers, carpenters, machinists and office employees, typically earned $55 to $75 monthly and lived across town in comfortable framed dwellings.
Of 141 available marriage records, eight brides listed occupations: three seamstresses, one dressmaker, one tailoress, one domestic and two servants. During the nineteenth century, few opportunities were available to women other than marriage. Society frowned on educating girls for anything besides domestic work, which raised the concern stated in Harper's New Monthly Magazine. "We leave her at the mercy of chance, knowing that the time may come when she whom we have not taught to do any bread-winning work will have need of bread, and will know no way in which to get it except through dependence, beggary, or worse."
Melanie Cabocel, a twenty-four-year-old widow and mother of three, took in laundry at Fayette to support her family, earning up to $6 per month. …