When Jim Cole invited me to his 120-year-old farmhouse to see a 160-year-old picture of Hillsdale College, I wasn’t sure what I had gotten myself into.
“You ain’t scared of big dogs, are you?” he asked over the phone.
I brought along beef jerky to cajole the two hounds that guard his driveway.
He told me that the Cole family first settled at the four corners of Hillsdale, Reading, Allen, and Cambria Townships back in 1840. John Cole, Jim Cole’s great-great-grandfather, worked as a lumberjack in Saginaw until he saved enough money to buy a farm and move to Hillsdale. Since then, the Cole family has farmed the acreage along Cole Road.
“You could get lost between here and Hillsdale back then,” Cole said.
It’s difficult to imagine woodland completely covering all of the corn and soybean fields that surround Hillsdale. And it’s nearly impossible to imagine the task of clearing those woods, uprooting each stump and boulder, to make fields for planting.
“It must’ve been nothing but hard work for the whole time they were alive,” Cole said.
Despite the hardship of settling virgin land in the mid-nineteenth century, John Cole became a successful farmer, raising roan shorthorn bulls that he showed and bred at the Hillsdale County Fairgrounds. He also produced and sold maple syrup and honey from his farm.
According to the family stories that Cole told me, John’s cattle were rustled twice by bandits.
“Once, he trailed them all the way up to Homer. He had a 10 gauge shotgun. He found those guys, and they had all of the money they had gotten for selling the cows, except for what they spent in the bar.”
Another time, a group of rustlers made it all the way to Angola, Indiana with his cattle. But once he caught them, he couldn’t navigate his way back home around the hundreds of lakes that cover northeastern Indiana.
“So he had to put a note on a dog and sent him home,” according to Cole. When the dog reached Hillsdale, his family sent a group of Indians to help him home.
“He worked pretty hard for what he got, to take off and chase his cows and be gone for days and weeks to wherever.”
Cole led me up the steep steps of the old farmhouse into a bedroom with green wallpaper. On the far side of the room was a time-worn certificate in a hefty frame.
Sometime between 1855 and 1862, John Cole donated $100 to Hillsdale College, only a few years after the college moved from its Spring Arbor campus. During this time, the college struggled financially and often solicited local people for donations. In return for his generosity, the Hillsdale College gave John a large lithograph that reads:
“This certifies that John Cole of Reading, Michigan, having executed to the Treasury of Hillsdale College his promissory note for the sum of One Hundred Dollars, will upon the payment of the said note be Entitled to FREE TUITION FOREVER in any of the regular courses of instruction in said college.”
Signed, President Edmund Burke Fairfield and Secretary-Treasurer Henry J. King.
If it wasn’t for the boldface writing “Hillsdale College, Hillsdale, Michigan,” you might mistake the picture for something else, because it displays the old Central Hall, which was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1874. Construction on the current Central Hall began the next year.
Mossey Library Archivist Lori Curtis said that the college archive has several examples of perpetual scholarship certificates like Cole’s. It was common in those days for President Fairfield and Professor Ransom Dunn to solicit local churches, businesses, and farmers for donations to build the endowment.
Cole said he was unsure why his great-great-grandfather donated to the college. He never attended college classes and was not a member of the Free-Will Baptist Church.
Cole doesn’t visit the college often, however he helped to construct the Mary Randall Preschool building on campus during the late 1960s.
The picture has been hanging in the upstairs room of the farmhouse for at least 80 years. Cole says it will probably still hang there until he passes on. It is a testament to the Cole family legacy, pioneer men and women who built Hillsdale county and made it a place suitable for a liberal arts college.