In the past few months, this writer has received many inquiries about the history of Melvin Halsted, his adventures, and the founding of the Town of Lowell. The following is a review of some of the stories already written about the founder of Lowell and the many trips he made seeking his fortune. The quotes are taken from Melvin Halsted's autobiography, written in the spring of 1900.
Melvin Amos Halsted was born March 29, 1821, the son of William and Patty (Haskin) Halsted, in Rensselaer County, New York, where his father farmed an estate on the Hudson River. His grandparents were Joseph and Katie (Agan) Halsted and Enoch and Lydia (Ackly) Haskin. After the death of his father in 1837, Melvin moved with his mother to Dayton, Ohio, where he farmed.
"In 1836 we migrated to western New York. I worked on a farm for $7 a month. I did not waste a cent that summer, and went to school in the winter. Our family moved to Dayton, Ohio, in 1837. Learned stone cutters trade and drove horses on a canal boat from Dayton to Cincinnati, then bought a farm one mile below Dayton in 1839.
"In 1842 I got married to Martha C. Foster. [daughter of Elijah D. and Ruth C. (Nichols) Foster of Troy, Pa.] That fall we visited Mrs. Halsted's father's family south of Indianapolis. While she was visiting I went across Illinois River at Beardstown, thence by way of Carthage to Nauvoo." [The Mormons had been settled there for two years.]
"In 1844 we went to Lake County, Indiana, and were so pleased with the country that the next year I sold out and moved there. I bought 80 acres of land from Simeon Beedle, one mile east of West Creek on the state road (Indiana 2). I then bought other land so I had two hundred acres under cultivation before I sold the farm."
The Halsteds then moved into a deserted log house near the present depot.
"In 1848 I went where Lowell now is in company with O.E. Haskins and erected a saw mill. There had already been some work done for a saw mill [near the Cedar Creek bridge on Main Street]. The dam was partly built by Abram Nichols and others. O.E. Haskins and myself made arrangements with Abram Nichols to buy the mill privileges and land, and deeded part of the 80 acres as we agreed back to Nichols.
"We put up the dam and got the saw mill running the winter of 1848. The next year we burned 400,000 bricks. As bricks sold slow, we built the first brick house in what was Lowell after that. I moved into the house in the spring of 1850." [The Halsted House is on the northeast corner of Halsted St. and Main St., and is on the State and National Registers of Historical Places.]
That year began the first of Halsted's many adventures out West and to other places: "April 2 of that same spring I started out for California on horseback. Went to LaSalle on the Illinois River, took my horse aboard a steamer, went to St. Louis, then by steamer to St. Joseph, Mo.; bought oxen and wagon and started as soon as the grass was good. On May 15 went northwest 250 miles to Grand Island, Nebraska; thence to Fort Kearny, thence 200 miles to junction of South and North Platte. Several miles before we got to the junction the cholera was fearful, hundreds died."
He arrived in the Sacremento area in September 1850.
In the spring of 1851 he started for home with the first mail train (mules) to Salt Lake. They traveled through deep snow, skirmished with Indians, swam the mules across the Bear River, and arrived in Ogden, Utah, on June 3. On the way, Halsted talked to Kit Carson Fremont, scout and guide, and bought some buckskin clothing from his Indian wife. Melvin arrived home in August 1851.
Halsted then bought out his partner's interest in the Lowell property, and built a frame flour mill which began in operation in January, 1853. This mill was on the west side of Mill Street, where Jefferson St. meets Mill St., and was powered by water coming down a wooden trough from the dam on Main St.
"In the fall of the same year , I laid out Lowell and gave out many lots to mechanics and others to settle up the town. Lowell was surrounded by good farmers and good land. The mills caused Lowell to begin to settle.
"The first store started in Lowell in 1854 [owner was Jonah Thorn]. In 1852 the first brick school house was erected. It was 20' by 30' and stood where Hago Carsten's harness shop is now [now the site of a children's clothing shop at 408 East Commercial Ave in downtown Lowell].
"In 1856, the Baptist Church was built." [This building, torn down in 1905, was replaced by another church building, now remodeled into a doctor's office at the corner of Mill and Main Sts.]
"In 1857, I sold the property and went to Kimmundy, Illinois, and bought an interest in a saw mill. I erected a flour mill and seven houses."
In the fall of 1858, off went Halsted to explore Missouri and Arkansas, as well as states east and south. On his way to California again in October, 1859, by the way of the Isthmus of Panama [crossed by train], he went through Harper's Ferry the same week as John Brown's Raid.
He then erected another flour mill 30 miles south of San Francisco, but soon sold the water rights to supply the city. He stayed two years in Virginia City, Nevada, went back to San Francisco for a time, and then returned to Lowell.
Returning with a large bank roll, he was able to buy back the Lowell Mill property, as well as the Foley Mill (east of Cedar Lake) and the McCarty Mill at the outlet of Cedar Lake.
On another trip in 1864-1865, Halsted and Lyman Foster went to the southern states to look for investments, and in 1866 he and James Turner returned to the south to raise cotton, but had to come back due to the unhealthy condition of the war-torn states.
"In 1867, I was elected Trustee of Cedar Creek Township and built the first grade school building under the new law in Northern Indiana. It served its purpose for 28 years when the present fine school house was built ." [The 1867 school building stood on the same site as the 1896 building, still standing on Main St.]
Halsted wrote that in the same year of 1867, the first brick mill was built near the dam on Main St., a three-story building with a mansard roof. It was to be a woolen mill, but only a carding machine was used for a time, then the building housed a wagon and plow factory for a few years until the machinery from the old grist mill was moved into the newer building. [The first frame mill was built in 1853 on Mill St.]
In the fall of 1869, he went to California by railroad, in company with J.H. Luther. He stopped on the way to talk to Brigham Young of the Mormons. The busy men built 14 houses in California; all sold by 1872.
Then Halsted's adventurous spirit sent him off on a hunting expedition off the Island of Santa Barbara, where he captured four sea lions, and on his return he sold them to showman John Robinson for $1200.
He soon turned his attention to railroad building, and through his hard work and influence, the railroad through Lowell became a reality, in 1880, with regular trains running by the next year. Halsted spent many years in the real estate business in Lowell, developing additions to the growing town. But he still dreamed of new horizons.
At the age 85, Halsted traveled with his grandson, Clifford Halsted, to Harrison, Nebraska, where he became a pioneer once more, homesteading 320 acres, which he later sold.
Martha, Halsted's wife, passed away in 1899, and in 1906 Melvin married Mrs. Palmer Cross, who passed away in 1911.* In 1913, at the age of 92, Melvin Halsted made another trip to California to visit old friends.
Melvin died March 26, 1915, at the home of his son, William, in Auburn, Kansas, at nearly 94 years of age. He was buried in West Creek Cemetery. He was truly a "Pioneer, Builder and Adventurer".
* NOTE -- Although this essay listed the date of death for Mr. Halsted's second wife as 1911, an unidentified newspaper obituary listed it as 1909. The Lowell Cemetery Index at the public library also indicated that she died in 1909, but Melvin Halsted's obituary put the year as 1911.
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