1st Timber man on Flint River
(Ernie Force is ill. His column this week is written by the sage
of Metamora, Ed Parker. The hero of this article, Thomas
Brent, was the great uncle of Parker's maternal grandmother. - Editor)
by EDWARD PARKER
In 1836 there came to
Michigan a member of a wealthy and illustrious Virginia family by name of
Thomas Ludwell Lee Brent. He had with him a fortune of about $100,000 and
rumor had it that it was all in gold coin. Brent bought 70,000 acres of
virgin pine land, mostly in Genesee County but also in Saginaw, Lapeer and
Tuscola. As the pioneer holder of timberland along the valley of the Flint
River, his story deserves a place with the tales of other lumber barons which
have been written for this newspaper.
Like most young men of his
social and moneyed background, Tom Brent took the "Grand Tour" of Europe
in 1810. While visiting Spain he fell in love with a senorita, Francisca.
Her last name has been lost, but she supposedly was the daughter of a Spanish
grandee, and certain it was that everyone who met her was impressed by
her ladylike appearance. He brought his young bride back to Washington,
where he got a job in the State Department, due in part, no doubt, to the
fact that his uncle, Richard Brent, was a Senator from Virginia.
Francisca became a close
friend of Dolley Madison and confided to the first lady that she was homesick.
Consequently, President Madison appointed Brent to be Secretary of U.S. Legation
in Madrid in 1814. In 1822, President Monroe appointed him Secretary of
the Legation at Lisbon and he had become Charge d'Affaires there when diplomatic
relations between the United States and Portugal were severed in 1834.
When the Brents returned
again to Virginia they ran into a family quarrel caused by religious differences.
The Brent family had strong Roman Catholic roots going back to the founding
of Maryland, but when Tom's father, Daniel Carroll Brent, married into
the prestigious Lee family of Virginia, he became an Episcopalian. When
the son married a Spaniard of the Catholic faith it was not approved of
by the rest of the family. That was why he decided to make a new home for
himself in Michigan.
For their homesite, the Brents
chose a spot about 4 miles north of the present town of Flushing on a U-bend
of the Flint River. Beginning with a log cabin, as soon as cut lumber was
available, they built what in those days would be considered a palatial
house. It had a music room with the first piano in Genesee County, and a
private chapel where peripatetic priests served mass to the family. The rest
of the rooms were furnished with costly furniture trucked out from Detroit.
Mrs Brent had a complete wardrobe of formal dress and they entertained important
travelers in top style. They called their new home "Rosemont."
According to a story passed
down in the family, marketing trips were made in a huge canoe, paddled by
6 Indians up the river to the settlement then known as Flint River Crossing
(now the City of Flint), where the Saginaw trail from Detroit forded the
river. The Indians usually went on a spree, but the Brents had the current
with them for the return journey and only had to steer their laden craft.
Thomas Brent had been a successful
diplomat but he made a poor business man. He had expended his capital in
land to the point where he had no reserve to pay taxes. His first dam on
the Flint River to operate his sawmill was swept away by the spring floods
and a second mill on one of the tributary streams was not large enough to
be practical. He died of ague in the winter of 1858-9 and his coffin had to
be lowered out of a window because the winding staircase was too fancy to
permit it. His estate was badly in debt so that a large part of his acreage
was sold at distress prices.
The widow and her 2 children
handled the estate in even worse shape. Mrs Brent was an easy mark for
the land grabbers and her son Henry spent most of his time making fiddles.
Then one of the tenant farmers named Palmer started making a play for the
daughter, Charlotte. About this time Mrs Palmer died under peculiar circumstances.
Palmer was tried for murder but was not convicted because the evidence against
him was circumstantial. When Charlotte eloped with Palmer, it was the last
straw for poor Mrs Brent. She went into a rapid decline and died in a neighbor's
house as creditors were carting the furnishings out of Rosemont.
Thus ended in bitter tragedy
what might have been a lumber empire. The beautiful home went through a
succession of owners for 130 years, and was demolished in 1966 to make way
for the inevitable subdivision.
In Glenwood Cemetery, Flint,
lie the bodies of Thomas Ludwell Lee Brent and his 2 children, in unmarked
graves. All that remains of this venture are 2 streams in Genesee County
- Brent Creek in Flushing township and Brent Run in Montrose.
"So fleet the works of man,
Back to the earth again,
Ancient and holy things
Fade like a dream."