After the treaty of Saginaw in 1819 with the Chippewa Indians, the government acquired vast tracts of land. It sold the land to the us citizens for a low price of $100 for 80 acres to be used as farming. The marshy swampland south of Saginaw between St Charles and Spaulding Twp. was not appealing to many, until a Saginaw attorney Harland P. Smith and investors purchased 10,000 acres of the muddy wetland and named it Prairie Farm (maybe because Swamp Farm did not sound that appealing). They believed that if they could build dikes and ditches they could drain the swamp and use the fertile ground to grow crops. The project proved to costly, and by the 1890’s they sold out to the Wicks Brothers of Saginaw, who continued with digging drainage ditches and building dikes.
With the price of sugar rising, because of the limited supply of sugar cane, sugar beets became a popular alternative and Michigan was going thru a sugar manufacturing boom. In 1903, the Owosso Sugar Co. bought Prairie Farm. Owosso Sugar was owned by the Pitcairn family, multimillionaire owners of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co. and they had the backing needed to complete the drainage work, and cultivate most of the land. They built 36 miles of dikes to keep the land from flooding in the spring, and also built a pump station on the Flint River, and a generator to supply power to the pumps and the farm.
During the early 1900’s many European immigrants came to work at the Prairie Farm, and by 1917 the farm was the largest farm east of the Mississippi. After World War I started, and there were less Immigrants from Europe, the farm began hiring Mexican immigrants. The farms primary crop was sugar beets, but also grew, corn, wheat, soy beans and peppermint. The farm also raised sheep and pigs. By the 1920’s overproduction of crops, and economic decline, caused the Owosso Sugar Co. to go out of business in 1928.
In 1933 Russian Immigrant and newspaper editor Joseph J. Cohen purchased the farm to start a self sustaining farming commune and called it Sunrise Cooperative Farm Community. To join the commune, families had to give the co-op farm a non refundable $1000 and they lived and worked on the farm. All land and property was owned by the community. The problem the community had was the people joining the commune were city folks with little farming knowledge, they soon had to hire experienced farm hands, and took on large amounts of debt to pay the workers. They managed to get by for a few years but in 1935 the crops were destroyed by an army worm infestation.
In December 1936, the cooperative sold Prairie Farm to the Federal Rural Rehabilitation Corp. a “New Deal” agency established to revive the agricultural sector. Sunrise briefly operated the farm as a government tenant, but by January 1937 there were only 25 families left. In 1945, the federal government sold Prairie Farm to an association that subsequently divided the land into parcels, and sold them to private farmers.
Reminder: I will be at Zauel Library on Tuesday, November 19th at 7:00pm giving a presentation on why I started Pure Saginaw and Lost In Michigan. I will also be sharing some of my photos and stories. I hope you can join me next week
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