By: Dave McDonald, BCHS – President
Yes, Branch County claims two ghost towns in its history. In both cases even the buildings have become no more than ghosts themselves. Even their cemeteries are nearly beyond locating. The two villages were named Mason and Branch.
The photo shown gives you a view of the very last standing building of the county seat village of Branch. It was taken in 1905 and is now in the possession of the Branch District Library in Coldwater.
The village of Branch was created by chance. Three state commissioners were sent by Governor Cass to select a county seat for Branch County. They selected Mason, a small village immediately east of the current Oak Grove Cemetery. But, having failed to officially be sworn in to their positions before their visit, the decision was voided. So the state acted again in 1831, sending three new commissioners to Branch County. They selected a location just north of the only manufacturing site in the county, Black Hawk Mills. Their pick was nothing more than an open field, so the village of Branch was created by their action.
Locals like Elisha Warren and others, seeing an opportunity, purchased all the land around the new county seat and laid out village lots. The community started growing with a new County Treasurer & Register of Deeds, and a new Postmaster. Over the next 4 years they saw the addition of a general store, a distillery, a schoolhouse, a hotel, a new jail & courthouse and Branch County’s first newspaper, the “Michigan Star”.
But greed by the landowners to get top dollar for land kept businesses out of the village. A fatal mistake on their part. Branch was also off the main road, the Sauk Trail, making it inconvenient to visit. But the new village of Coldwater was directly on the trail, making it a logical stopping point. And Coldwater, determined to be the county seat, was giving land to new businesses.
By 1842 the continued growth in the eastern portion of Branch County gave them enough votes to win moving the county seat from Branch to Coldwater, and the one-time county center started down the slippery slope of no return to becoming a ghost town.
The final blow came when an offer to build a new grist mill at Branch for a price of only $75 was decline. The men then located the new mill on the river in Coldwater. The center for commerce in Branch County had found a new home.
By 1905 only a single building remained of the once active community of Branch. Today, only some buried building foundations and the cemetery remain as reminders of a lost community, a ghost town.
So, what about the buried treasure? Well, one of the landowners and residence of Branch was a fellow by the name of Isaac Middaugh.
The time was 1838 and Michigan was a true frontier state, including horse thieves, robbers and some unique opportunists of very questionable character. In the village was the Barlingame’s Hotel, known across the area as a wild roadhouse for Saturday night partying.
It seems that Isaac planned to attend the tavern’s frontier dance, but was fearful of leaving his money at home, alone. There was no bank in Branch, and he certainly had no intention of taking his loot to the roadhouse with him and inviting a robbery.
So, he waited until early nightfall, after the moon had risen, then took a spade and went to the west bank of the Branch creek. Going to the north side of the roadway along the creek he tied his gold coins in a canvas bag and proceeded to bury them for safe keeping.
The next morning, still suffering from the effects of the prior night’s folly, he discovered that he could not relocate the point at which he had buried the gold. Try has he might, and $200 in gold coin in 1838 was worth the effort, he simply could not uncover the canvas bag.
So, Isaac’s loss became another piece in the fatal story of a village that grew from an open field as the county seat, prospered, failed and never relinquished its buried gold treasure.
I wonder…on a full moon night can you still find Isaac digging in the mud along the shore of the Branch Creek?