The early pioneers lived in a world so unlike ours that it would seem to be a foreign land, with different challenges, different expectations and different possibilities. Yet within each time frame in our history the same kinds of stories happened in many families. The stories of the generations of Browns who settled in Pittsford in 1857 are an example.

The story so far discovered begins with John M. Brown, who was born in the late 1700s or early 1800s. He lost his father when he was nine and for some reason his mother—if he still had one—was unable to care for him. Today, if no family stepped forward to adopt him, he would enter the foster care system. In John’s case he was “bound” (something like an indentured servant) to a carpenter and joiner. Apparently he was industrious and planful. At age 17 he was able to buy out the time still owed to his master and to begin working for himself. After he married he moved from Connecticut to Montgomery County, New York, where he utilized his trade to become a contractor and builder in the early days of railroading. The railroad was a pathway for many young men as they began their adult lives. It provided a good income for John, and he was able to buy a farm, through which ran a steam known as Flat Creek. His property became known as “Brown’s Hollow.” John saw the possibility of additional, more stable income if he built—both for his own use and for that of his neighbors—a grist mill for wheat and a saw mill to process lumber that was cut to clear the land for farming. When he was still a youngish man John saw the possibilities in the “west” and bought 1,300 acres of timbered land in Williams County, Ohio that he never developed himself. He farmed and ran his mills in Montgomery County until his death in 1857. 

John’s wife, Elizabeth Lyker Brown, like women at that time in history, had a physically demanding life. Marriage was pragmatic, more a business partnership than a romantic connection. Each spouse had their own job description: A women needed a husband if she was going to leave their parents’ home, and a man needed a wife to take care of the endless chores of daily life and to give him children to work the farm and take care of their parents in their old age. People simply didn’t expect happiness as we do today; for people like John and Elizabeth, joys came unexpectedly—and perhaps more sweetly—amid the demands of everyday life. In an 1888 book entitled Portrait and Biographical Album of Hillsdale County Michigan Elizabeth was eulogized. “She acted well her part in life’s struggle, and at its close at the old homestead, was laid to rest by those whom she had loved so well, and who will long cherish and revere her memory.”

Cornelius was the sixth child of John and Elizabeth, born on the family farm on July 24, 1827. As was often the case at that time, what the father did, so did the sons … while the daughters hoped for a good marriage to a man whose place in the community would give her reflected social prominence and power. Cornelius helped his father with the farming and the mills until his marriage, at which time his father dispatched him to the forested land he had previously purchased in Williams County, Ohio. Cornelius was instructed to “improve” the land, which meant to clear it for farming. This he did for eight years, managing to liberate 100 acres of its trees. He returned to Montgomery County, New York, there to live on the family homestead. 

The following illustrates why genealogical researchers have to check and double check their sources. The Portrait and Biographical Album … which previously had said Cornelius married before going to Ohio to work his father’s land, also indicates that Cornelius was married on Feb. 28, 1857 to Helen Maria Hoag, who, like Cornelius, was a native of Root Township, Montgomery County, New York. It wouldn’t be unusual if Cornelius’s first wife died early in their marriage because Cornelius’s first child, Erford, was born in 1851. Or maybe the author of the article got the date of Cornelius’s first marriage wrong. At any rate Cornelius and Helen moved to Pittsford Township in Hillsdale County in the same year as John’s death. There they farmed 114 acres, 95 of which were cleared. They had a “commodious brick house with a frame barn, and all other necessary farm buildings,” which sounds like substantial wealth. Part of that prosperity was no doubt due to the fact that Cornelius was apparently particularly good at stock-raising. 

In the spring of 1878, at the age of 51, Cornelius, for some inexplicable reason took off with others from Hudson to try their luck at silver mining in Colorado. This was one of the ways available to dreamers of that time to get rich quick. It was a short-lived adventure that started off with high hopes, based, it seems, on a report from the “Daniels boys,” who apparently had already reached Colorado to mine silver. 

A Hudson newspaper ran an article in May of 1879 entitled “From the Silver Miners.” It was based on a letter from Cornelius Brown, who was writing from Rosita. They were very busy “building a house to live in; expect to live very romantic and comfortable, at a small expense.” In fact, building the house seemed to be the primary occupation initially, since they had not yet worked on the mine because of it. Cornelius, ever the farmer, noted that “This is no farming country; there are a few potatoes raised in the wet valleys.” He was also affected by the altitude, saying,” It is tiresome walking here in the light atmosphere and terrible mountains.”

In another letter written in June, Cornelius announced that they “have commenced tunneling the mountain with the prospect of reaching silver ore soon … working night and day, blasting from eight to twelve times every 24 hours. It is a fine mining country; a great deal of ore is lying about in piles for the lack of crushing mills; many mines are idle from the same cause.”

tom, Cherie, Chester and Erford Brown in 1935 or 1936 

tom, Cherie, Chester and Erford Brown in 1935 or 1936 

How long they stayed or how much silver they found isn’t mentioned. Evidently Cornelius, his wanderlust sated, returned home not too long after his exploit had begun. Perhaps being away had reminded him how important were his family and the life that he had been living. Perhaps the building of the house meant that Cornelius took his family. Perhaps he saw it as one last chance to have an adventure after a life lived within the acceptable bounds of what a man was expected to do. 

Helen and Cornelius had three children. Eugene died when he was nine, an unfortunate reality in the time before antibiotics. In 1888 Bertha lived with her father, perhaps because she hadn’t married or perhaps to care for the domestic chores after her mother died in 1885. 

Erford Cornelius Brown is the child who is most interesting to us because he married Alice Jane Fountain. Alice was the sister of Jerome and Hiram Fountain, whose letters from the Civil War were donated to the Hillsdale County Historical Society by one of their descendants, Ed Pickell. (CLICK HERE if you would like to read about the Fountains. CLICK HERE if you would like to read the letters from Jerome and Hiram.) 

According to his obituary in October of 1938 (which is probably a pretty accurate account of his life), Erford was born on July 30, 1851 in Williams County, Ohio before coming to Hillsdale County with his family when he was a boy. He spent six years in Manistee, then farmed in Hudson before spending 41 years as a farmer in Reading. Erford had four children, one of which was Chester Erford, who was also a farmer and occasional truck driver in Hillsdale. Erford lived to be 87 years old, but Alice Jane Fountain Brown died several years before him.   

Tom and Jean Bay Brown on their wedding day

Tom and Jean Bay Brown on their wedding day


Chester had four children and one step-daughter: Juanita, Tom, William, Elizabeth and Geraldine. Tom was born in 1913 into a world more familiar to those of us living today. Tom started at Hillsdale College, but dropped out when he met and married Anna Jean Bay, called Jean.










tom at his gas station

tom at his gas station

He worked at Watkins Oil and had his own gas station for a time in the 1960s. Jean and her sister, Inez Bay Knickerbocker, were leaders in the Camp Fire Girls, which was the group for girls at that time. Tom had his own special place in Hillsdale County history, having been the driving force behind the Tip Up Festival in Hillsdale. If you would like to see some pictures of the Hillsdale Tip Up Festival when Tom was mayor, CLICK HERE.

Tom and Jean had two girls, Cherie and Sonya (Sunny).



Tom and Jean lived on Second Lake and experienced the terrible tornados on Palm Sunday of 1965. Even though they rebuilt their home they never really felt safe after that. Their daughter Cherie lived in Jackson and eventually Tom and Jean moved to Jackson to a senior apartment to be near her. 

Cherie’s son, Stephen Schow, married Bonnie Yates … and they have evolved as the family genealogists. They contacted the Hillsdale County Historical Society after one of their searches turned up the article on the Fountain family of Pittsford and Civil War soldiers Jerome and Hiram, Stephen’s great-great-great uncles.

Aren’t the connections you find when searching for your roots fun!

JoAnne P. Miller (with much research from Stephen and Bonnie Yates Schow)