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A History of Trist: A Little Town That Is No More

Courtesy photo. Miller's House in Trist about 1870.
Courtesy photo. Miller’s House in Trist about 1870.
Courtesy map. Trist map showing layout of town.
Courtesy map. Trist map showing layout of town.

(Chelsea Update would like to thank Tom Hodgson and the Waterloo Natural History Association for the information and photos in this story.)

In the 1960’s, early in my career as park interpreter (naturalist) for Waterloo Recreation Area, I was assigned the task of researching an old grist mill and pond along Trist Creek. The purpose was to gather enough information so that the mill might be restored as an historic site.  Although the mill was never restored, the information uncovered was fascinating and provided a window into the world of the early settlements in Waterloo

The U.S. Government encouraged immigrants to settle in Michigan by offering land free to those who would establish residence. The settlement that later became the town known as Trist began in September 1834 when Richard Shaw established residence and was granted 40 acres on the north part of the NE quarter of Section 4. Two years later, William Page applied for 80 acres on the north part of the NE quarter of Section 4, and Solomon Nichols applied for 80 acres on the south part of the NE quarter of Section 4.

Prior to the introduction of electric power, moving water was often used to operate grist and saw mills.  In 1837, Ralph Updike came to the area and was impressed with Trist Creek, which had and still has a strong year-around water flow. He began buying up the water rights surrounding the stream with the intention of building a mill and pond. By 1844, Updike had purchased all the land that was later occupied by the mill and pond.  Both were constructed between 1844 and 1846 at a cost of about $4,000.

Courtesy drawing. Artist drawing of the mill in 1874 atlas.
Courtesy drawing. Artist drawing of the mill in 1874 atlas.

The pond had two dams. The first was an earthen dam through which water passed through the flume to the mill race. The water coming through the flume could be controlled. The second was located northeast of the town and actually controlled the water level.

The mill was a 3-story building with a horizontal water wheel in the basement. The wheel was recessed in a circular “wheel well.”  Water travelled down the flume down the mill race to the penstock and into the wheel well.  It turned the wheel and then poured out through a hole in the bottom of the well. The turning wheel powered two grinding wheels and several grain elevators.

The mill did not produce large quantities of finished flour to be sold to a mass market. Instead, it ground rye, corn, wheat and buckwheat in small lots as farmers needed it. So, when a farmer needed flour, he would travel to the mill in a horse drawn wagon with a bag or two of grain, and the miller charged a fee for the grinding. Often the farmers did not have cash to pay so the miller would take his fee in kind, taking some of the finished product. When the miller had accumulated enough flour, it was bagged, loaded on a wagon and taken to Grass Lake where it was transferred to the Interurban Railroad. The railroad took it to Jackson where the miller sold it to local stores and restaurants.

Courtesy photo. Trust Mill no longer in use from WRA archives.
Courtesy photo. Trist Mill no longer in use from WRA archives.

The mill was a community focal point that attracted farmers from all over the area, which in turn attracted other businesses including a blacksmith shop, carriage shop and a general store.  For the first 50 years of its existence, the little community did not have an official name, but was known locally as “Calf Town” because each residence was home to at least one cow or calf – some of which were rather vocal.  One could hear the mooing of the cows and calves when still some distance away.

The community of Calf Town petitioned the U.S. Postal Service for a post office. And, as the story goes, they were refused as the Postal Service did not want a post office in a place called Calf Town. So, residents decided to name the town after a gentleman name Trist, who was the U.S. ambassador to Mexico at the time. There is no way verify the accuracy of the story, but it is fun to tell none the less.

By 1890, there was a post office in Sam Siegrists General Store.  Whether this was official or not again is unverifiable. It was known that twice a week Sam went to Grass Lake and picked up the mail for all the local farmers and residents. As there was no rural mail service, everyone had to go to the general store to get their mail.

The mill changed ownership several times, once being owned by Tobias Laubengayer when it was called Laubengayer Mills. Its final owner Jacob Faist purchased the mill in 1877 and operated it until it closed in 1924.

Trist had several close brushes with prosperity, but none were ever fully realized.  In 1870, the Michigan Airline Railroad purchased a right of way through the town and much of the surrounding land.  A depot was to be located in Trist, laborers were imported and with the help of wheelbarrows and teams of oxen, several miles of railroad bed were constructed. For some unknown reason, the company had a change of heart and the work was stopped, never to be resumed.

In 1929, the promise of good fortune again came to Trist. The Pure Oil Company purchased the mineral rights from many of the local land owners with the intent to drill for oil or natural gas. The deeds even promised the land owners enough free gas to heat and light one dwelling. However, the wells were never drilled.

The town began its death-throws in 1924 when the mill closed and breathed its last gasp in the early 1940’s when the general store closed.

Trist is now no more than a collection of homes and building alongside the road.  All that remains of the mill are a few field stones from the foundation.  The miller’s home located about 100 yards west of the old mill, is still standing, as is the general store, which has been re-purposed as a private home.

To visit Trist, take Clear Lake Road north from I-94 to Trist Road, and proceed west 1.2 miles to where Trist and Seymour Roads cross. Take the right fork. Go down the hill and past the Waterloo Golf Course where the road will make a sharp turn to the left. The next half mile or so will take you through the community of Trist.

Courtesy photo.Trist Mill Pond Dam.
Courtesy photo. Trist Mill Pond Dam.
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3 thoughts on “A History of Trist: A Little Town That Is No More”

  1. I have cycled by Waterloo Golf Course and this group of homes frequently during the last 30 years and never suspected there was such history. I’ll look at these buildings differently in future rides. Thanks, Tom!

  2. This beautiful area reminds me of my husband’s homeplace in Harlan, KY. The Trist area was also home to a wonderful matriarch who recently passed away, Georgia Edith Shepherd. She also moved from Harlan and started a business, Waterloo Upholstery, that continues today at the family place on Trist road. The family’s long history in the Trist area might also be an interesting story.

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