The farm house at what is now Bear Creek Nature Park as it appeared in 1939.
Long before 107 acre Bear Creek Nature Park had official trails or a play area or decks at the marsh, it was a farm with chickens, ducks, cows, orchards and a garden. The Comps family rented the house on that farm from 1939 until they moved to their own home on Silver Bell Road in 1959. George Comps, a boy when the family moved there, wrote a long book called Incredible Yesterdays (published by Ravenswood Press, 1997) about his years on that piece of land. The book is available at the Rochester Hills Library in their local history room, the Oakland Township Historical Society and the Rochester Hills Historical Museum. All the quotes and black-and-white photos below are from Mr. Comps’ book, whose long-time friend and copyright heir Janet Potton gave me permission to use photos and quotes.
What an intriguing look Incredible Yesterdays provides of Oakland Township’s oldest publicly protected park as it existed 75 years ago! Bear Creek’s land was a source of sustenance, heat, income, play, beauty and peace for the Comps family during difficult times. So join me for a short visit to Bear Creek as it looked during the Great Depression and through the Second World War (current map of Bear Creek here). It was a very different world, but oddly familiar.
What Bear Creek Provided in the 1940s: Warmth and Food!
In 1939, during the Great Depression, the elder Mr. Comps lost his job and the family moved from Rochester to the home you see in the photo at the top of today’s blog. The Great Depression made life challenging for the Comps family. Unlike their house in town, this house had no electricity, no running water and no central heat at that point! But the owner, Mr. Devereaux, agreed to let them stay rent free for a year if they fixed the place up. So the maple syrup buckets on the trees in the photo no doubt provided a sweet treat much appreciated by the family!
The house was heated with a wood-burning cook stove in the kitchen and another in the dining room. “We burned wood that we cut back in the woods. When we first started cutting it was fun because it was something different, but later it got to be a real chore, hard work … Most of the wood we cut was oak and it was so hard it dulled the saw in a hurry.”
The many trees on the farm provided food as well as heat. And many of those tree species survive on the farm today. “Being we had an abundance of nut trees and bushes on the farm, we kids decided to gather as many as we could. There were hickory, walnut and butternut trees and many hazel nut bushes. We gathered nuts every year and spent a lot of time shucking them so we could dry them and have nuts to crack and eat in the winter.”
Sweets are always in big demand for a family so Dad and the boys went one winter night to chop down a huge oak to get at the bees’ nest inside. “When we got to the tree, there weren’t any bees to be found on the outside. Dad rapped the tree a few times and some did crawl out but it was too cold for them to fly … He said we’d have to cut the tree down to get to the honey. We could use the wood for heat. This tree was a huge oak about six feet in diameter at the base and extremely tall … Dad carefully took out the combs of honey and put them into the washtub we had brought along for just that purpose.”
Two Italian men came to the house shortly after the family moved in asking for permission to hunt for mushrooms. Permission granted, “They did come, several days in a row, and they always had a big basket of mushrooms.” Mrs. Comps’ didn’t charge the gentlemen for their mushrooms and when they offered her some for the family, she graciously accepted them, but then decided she wasn’t quite sure they were edible and threw them away – a wise thing to do if you don’t know much about mushrooms.
Hunters also came to hunt pheasants because at that time open fields and remnants stands of native grasses, like the Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) in the photo below, would have provided lots of ideal cover for them.
And of course the family had a garden as well. So the land that later became Bear Creek served the family well in terms of warmth and nourishment.
What Bear Creek Provided in the 1940s: Beauty!
Despite the hardships of the Depression, the Comps family made time for simple pleasures. When the skies were darker at night in Oakland Township than they are now, the family enjoyed the startling beauty of the Northern Lights. “It was an astounding sight when the sky would light up with all the colors from all around. The streaks of light would shoot up so strong and even from the south and make it look like you were standing under an umbrella of light. Directly overhead the shafts of light would meet but wouldn’t come together, creating a hole in the display … Just awe inspiring.” The skies in Bear Creek are still beautiful, but brighter night skies from nearby development makes seeing the northern lights a rare occurrence these days.
Mr. Comps remembered the steep hill sloping down to Gunn Road in the northern part of the Oak-Hickory forest. There he and his sister came across “hundreds” of garter snakes “curled up,” basking in the spring sunlight and named it “Snake Hill.” He said, “In the spring, the ground would be covered with wood lilies (trillium)” and the children picked some on Snake Hill to add to their Mother’s Day gift bouquet. Alas, deer eat trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) and other native woodland plants – and now trillium are found only in a few spots in the park. And in 20 years, I’ve never seen that many garter snakes! On a high hill on the east of the farm, probably where houses stand today, George found “wild columbine on a big hill” and transplanted some to his mother’s garden. (Hover cursor over photos for captions. Click on photos to enlarge.)
What Nature Provided in the 1940s: Pocket Money
Lots of animals that we’ve come to appreciate now were just considered “varmints” by farmers when the Comps children lived on the farm. Ridding the neighborhood of these “pests” was a way to earn a bit of pocket money. Crows were disliked by farmers because as Mr. Comps put it, they “would follow behind the farmer’s corn planter and dig up the kernels, eating them as fast as he planted them.” So in those days, Oakland Township paid a bounty that could be collected at the little store in Goodison. “They paid a dime for a rat tail, a dime for baby rats, a dime for a crow’s head and a quarter for a pair of groundhog ears.”
Muskrats pelts had value too. George’s older brother, Bud, trapped muskrats in the pond and the swamps. At first, he didn’t have the knack. But “After talking to the Old Timers at the Goodison store, he gained valuable information about where to put the traps and how to secure them … On his second trip to gather his loot he did very well.” Skinning and preparing the pelts for drying was “more than he bargained for” but he did it for two winters and “gave the money to mom to help alleviate the strain on the budget.” So nature provided a little assistance in a hard time for many families – but I’m glad now these creatures can live peacefully in their native homes.
What Nature Provided in the 1940s: Fun! Excitement!
Some of the fun in those days was a bit tough on nature. George Comps remembered “… frog hunting late at night and using barrel staves for hitting the frogs.”
But those barrel staves also made skis for sailing down the western slope on a snowy day. “The big hill was too steep to cultivate and the grass was short from the cattle grazing, thus making it a good place to go skiing and with deep snow, it could be excellent.” The western slope also provided a great place for constructing snowmen. “… this was the spot we started the snowball and by the time we got to the bottom the ball was so big we couldn’t move it … It kept on rolling, getting larger as it went down hill.” The children sensibly started the second snowball only halfway down the hill to make the snowman’s head! Nowadays I see evidence of kids sledding on that hill and still see the occasional remains of much smaller snowmen.
Kids weren’t quite as squeamish about nature adventures in the 1940s. One day the children went swimming in the Center Pond (which they called “Our Little Lake”) and came out with leeches on their legs (turtles show up with them these days!). After that they just brought a salt shaker with them because salting the “bloodsuckers” made them fall off! They actually built an earthen dam to make the pond a bit deeper. It became their place “to go ice skating in the winter and in summer we played on a homemade raft.”
When summer dried Bear Creek marsh (which they called Bear/Bare Swamp), “we could walk all over the swamp. The grass was so tall we couldn’t see out.” They came across various snakes, “mostly blue racers. We were never afraid of them because they were so fast and afraid of humans so they always went slithering on ahead of us.” The marsh no longer dries completely in the summer but the grasses and reed do get tall!
They’d “go to the stone pile by the swamp [Bear Creek Marsh] and find a soft rock that we used for chalk…we’d take it to the house and break it up so we could handle it.”
Nearer to the house, was “Whistle Swamp” so named because “… Dad took us there and showed us how to make whistles from the willow branches. This could be done only in the early spring when the bark…was loose and we could slip it off very easily.” “Whistle Swamp” seems to be the wetland west of the Walnut Lane, about halfway down.
Grass fires – which children find very exciting and terrify adults – have always been a part of Oakland Township’s “Oak Savanna” landscape – some natural, some used by Native Americans to clear and fertilize land. Later, after European settlers arrived and began to develop the area, the Comps family experienced fires in the prairies along that railroad, sparked by trains that passed through Goodison. “Spring was always a time when there were lots of grass fires, especially along the railroad tracks in the valley.”
Current Parks Commissioner Barkham also remembers seeing smoke repeatedly during the summers when she was a girl years later, as sparks from the trains made tall grass along the tracks catch fire. And imagine, no township fire department, just locals with brooms and shovels! That’s one reason we still have so many beautiful native plants growing along the Paint Creek Trail now! Many of our native plant communities depend on fire, whereas some invasive plants do not. The Parks and Recreation Commission now depends on safe, controlled prescribed burns instead of wildfires to hold onto our natural heritage, the amazing diversity of native plant and animals in Oakland Township.
What Nature Provided in 1940s : The Under-appreciated “Swamp”
In the 1940s wetlands were often seen as a problem and drained. Now we know they are crucial and beneficial for erosion control, fisheries, wildlife habitat, flood control, ground water filtering, native and rare species habitat and much more. The Comps affectionately named lots of “swamps” on the farm. True swamps are forested wetlands with standing water at least part of the year, while wet meadow and marsh more accurately describe other wetlands that Mr. Comps explored at Bear Creek. I can’t be sure I’ve located all these correctly, but what follows are a few of George Comps’ “swamps” today.
West of the house was the hay barn, where the cows that grazed the western slope presumably were kept. That area now is the playground field near Snell Road; the road is much wider now than it was in the 1940s. Behind the barn in the center photo below you can see the tops of two giant oaks that are still there. Those giants stand over the marsh that the Comps’ children called “the barn swamp.” Mr. Comps mentions that Michigan Holly, a native bush, grew in the middle of that area, so I’ll look for it in the spring!
“On the east side of the swamp…were two big oak trees. They grew about half way down the bank and their branches hung just a few feet above the ground at the top of the hill. We used to hang on the branches and bounce up and down.” Seventy-five more years have taken a toll as you’ll see at left below. I’m guessing that what Mr. Comps refers to as “the lane” was somewhere near the path that starts north of the playground and goes all the way to Center Pond. Our Playground Pond on the right is likely what he refers to as the “Lane Swamp.”
“Across from it was The Duck Swamp where all Mike’s ducks would go when they wanted to take to water.” Since this one’s so close to the house location, I’m thinking that his younger brother’s domestic ducks took off to the wetland just west of the Snell path into the park where Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) were singing lustily this week.
Or perhaps he meant the wetland, just north of there, where today woodpeckers are constantly drilling in the trees. Not much open water for ducks now, though. It’s filled in with native buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis).
One thing we do know is that the “Walnut Lane” I refer to was “the lane” when the Comps children played on the farm. Mr. Comps describes going out on a moonlight walk with his sister when they were young. “We started out and went down the lane because it was easier walking. When we got to the lake, we heard an owl hoot and it sounded very close. At the end of the lane was a big huge oak tree and we stopped and listened. It hooted again and we spotted it sitting on the edge of a low branch.”
The “Little Lake,” our Center Pond now, shows how different the landscape looked when Bear Creek was farmed 75 years ago. Here’s another view of “The Little Lake” in 1940 and a closer shot of it today. Now the pond is surrounded by trees and thickets of dense bushes, some native ones and many invasive shrubs. The cultivated fields, once grazed by cattle or mowed for hay, are now full of wildflowers, again some native, many non-native, and some invasive.
When the Comps children took the moonlit walk to the Little Lake, George Comps waited on the south side of the lake while his sister found her favorite place on “the Big Rock” on the north side of the pond. Today, that rock, I’m quite sure, is still here, a short distance up the northern loop and surrounded by invasive bushes. George’s sister sat there to watch the water. Today, it can’t be sat upon and the view is obscured by woody shrubs. Eventually, stewardship will bring back some of openness that the Comps children enjoyed, though rather than simply grazed fields, we hope for widely spaced trees and native wildflowers with their faces to the sun.
What Bear Creek Provides Today: Peaceful Beauty
We, of course, don’t rely on Bear Creek Nature Park in the same way the Comps family had to, for food, warmth and pocket money. But it still provides its bounty for us by filtering and slowing stormwater, housing bees and other native pollinators to tend our crops, providing us with a healthy respite from our busy lives and many other ways. We leave the flowers and nuts to seed again and the bees, muskrats, crows and ground hogs live undisturbed within its boundaries. But they and all of the nature at Bear Creek still share the same beauty and peace that the Comps family treasured 75 years ago. “Mom liked to go wandering down to the woods. She was a decidedly observant person and never missed a thing when it came to nature. This was her way to relax and get away from the trials and tribulations of the day to day problems…” All of us who enjoy Bear Creek benefit in just the same way today.
My thanks to Mr. Comps for writing down such a lively and frank account of life on a plot of land much beloved by our citizens – and to his long-time friend, Janet Potton, who gave me permission to use photos and quotes from the book.