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A Community Rich in History
Locals still refer to this 1900s storefront as the Oppenheim Building.Dowagiac is a historic community that is rich in history. Reminders of our heritage are still found throughout the city, where day-visitors can view stone mansions, reminiscent of the Victorian era, and potbellied Round Oak Stoves that once warmed our homes. Members of the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi Indians, one of the earliest settlers to this area, continue to call Dowagiac home, as do such longstanding businesses as Judd Lumber Co., the oldest lumber company in Michigan, and Mennel Milling Company, which is the oldest mill in the state that is still in operation on its original site.

  • Potawatomi Indians  
  • Round Oak Stove Co.
  • Water Mills  
  • Roller Grain Drill
  • Dowagiac Creek  
  • Dowagiac Inventors
  • Advent of the Railroad  
  • Stone Mansions
  • Judd Lumber Company  
  • Beckwith Memorial Theatre

    Influence of the Indians

    The name Dowagiac came from a Potawatomi Indian word, Ndowagayuk, which loosely translated meant foraging ground, reflective of this area's abundant supply of wild game, fruit, vegetables, grain and medicinal herbs. By the Treaty of Chicago, signed in August 1821, the Potawatomi, Chippewa and Ottawa ceded to the United States land today known as Cass County, which was named for General and Michigan Governor Lewis Cass. When the first permanent white settlers arrived in 1824, the Potawatomi Indians were dominant in the area.

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    Mills Attract Early Settlers

    Colby Mill of DowagiacThe Dowagiac Creek gave the city its start when William Renesten established his carding mill in 1831. Two years later he dammed the creek to create the millpond, still to be seen at the edge of the city limits on M-62 East. In 1833 his grist mill was built. It was sold to Holmes Spaulding the following year. Spaulding also built a saw mill at the same time. Settlers wishing to live close to the mills began to settle in the area.

    Horace Colby purchased the grist mill in the 1860s. It was known as the upper mill. Colby also owned another grist mill, a quarter mile downstream, known as the lower mill. Today, it is owned by Mennel Milling Company, which is the oldest mill in Michigan still in operation on its original site.

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    Importance of Dowagiac Creek

    Waterpower supplied by the Dowagiac Creek continued to be important to Dowagiac manufacturers for many years. The creek furnished power for the Colby Mills, saw mills, a plug tobacco manufacturer, foundry, chair company, feed mill and a cider and vinegar producer. Filling the water tanks on passing trains was also accomplished by waterpower.

    A stagecoach route that followed the Grand River Indian Trail, linking Kalamazoo to the Carey Mission where Niles is located, also brought land seekers to the area by 1836. Soon after the stagecoach line was established, James McOmber built his tavern at the northwest corner of North Front and Prairie Ronde.

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    Railroad Leads to Further Development

    When Michigan Central railroad came through Dowagiac in 1848, the area soon became a wheat shipping station. On wheat day, farmers waited in line for many blocks to unload their grain. They also made use of the rail service for shipping stock.

    Town planners intended Main Street to be the principal street, however, the merchants wanting to be near the railroad, built their businesses along South Front Street.

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    Judd Lumber Company, the Oldest in Michigan

    Mark Judd, the great-grandfather of Dick Judd, was the founder of Judd Lumber Co.Among the early businesses was a company located southeast of the train depot on Robinson Street. Known as Judd Lumber Company, it is today owned and operated by the fourth generation of the Judd family. The business, founded by Mark Judd and others in 1859, began as a planing mill, located near Dowagiac Creek. Mark Judd's son, William, joined the business in 1886 and a retail lumber yard was added. Judd Lumber is the oldest lumber company in Michigan to receive a centennial business certificate.

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    Round Oak Synonymous with Dowagiac

    Philo D. Beckwith, who came to Dowagiac in 1854, is said to be the person who was most responsible for changing the business complexion of early Dowagiac. The name Round Oak soon became a household word as people throughout the country purchased his potbellied stoves, furnaces and kitchen ranges, which were made between the 1860s and 1940s.

    The complex of Round Oak buildings on Spaulding Street now house Ameriwood Furniture. Today, a small collection of Round Oak Stoves is displayed within the offices of the Greater Dowagiac Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Development Authority, located within the historic Dowagiac train depot.

    The stimulus of the Round Oak Company was responsible for other local furnace companies, including Rudy Manufacturing, Premier Furnace Company, Dowagiac Steel Furnace and Dowagiac Manufacturing.

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    Roller Grain Drill Revolutionizes Sowing Methods

    For a number of years, Dowagiac was a leading manufacturer of farm implements. Beckwith, with the assistance of his son-in-law, Fred Lee, manufactured the roller grain drill, which was invented by John S. Gage in 1860. The drill revolutionized the process used to sow grain, previously done by hand.

    The shoe grain drill, an invention of William Tuttle in 1867, developed into the business known as Drill Works, which was the first stock company in the county. Its motto was "Dowagiac drills and seeders are the leaders."

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    Inventions Lead to Thriving Business

    James Heddon's Sons was another important Dowagiac manufacturer, dating back to 1898. According to legend, his first bait, formed to look like a fish, was hastily whittled from a piece of wood, as he stood along the shoreline of Mill Pond awaiting friends. Much to his surprise, a bass quickly took the bait. From that accidental beginning, the business of making artificial fishing lures was born. The Heddon company was sold and moved from Dowagiac in 1983. Heddon's former corporate office on West Street now houses the National Heddon Museum.

    King Gillette, inventor of the safety razor, also spent his early years in Dowagiac. He marketed his first razor in 1903. Within two years, sales boomed for the Brookline, Massachusetts salesman.

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    Stone Mansions Exhibit a Stately Past

    Fred E. Lee, who assumed management of the Round Oak Company after Beckwith's death in 1889, built the architecturally interesting Lee The Lee Mansion on West High StreetMansion at 405 West High Street. This landmark, then called the Rockery, was built of native stone in the 1890s. Both the main house and the carriage house are now apartments. Much care was used in saving its unique period features that include parquet floors, imported marble fireplaces, and stained and leaded glass.

    The Gardner home and Lee Mansion are two examples of unique architectural styles that can be seen on a tour of Dowagiac's residential district. The Gardner Mansion on Green Street.
    About 1900 Archie Gardner, the grandson of P.D. Beckwith, built the Gardner Mansion, known as the Maples at 511 Green Street. The entry hall, a room of unusual beauty, has woodwork of bird's eye maple and a lovely cat's eye maple stairway, which was exhibited at the Columbian Exposition in 1893.

    Gardner is also remembered as the owner of the first car that arrived in Dowagiac on August 1, 1899. The event drew curious crowds. Ironically, the temperamental car often returned home, pulled by a team of horses.

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    Beckwith Memorial Theatre Attracts Top Performers

    In 1892 in memory of PD Beckwith, his daughter Kate and son-in-law, Fred Lee built the Beckwith Memorial Theatre in the downtown at Front and Beeson streets. Regarded as one of the finest theatres between New York and Chicago, it hosted such well-known names as William S. Hart, Roland Reed, Robert Mantell and Otis Skinner.The original Beckwith building

    The building also contained space used for a bank, city hall and Round Oak Company offices. The busts that decorated the building's exterior included Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Emerson, Whitman, Shakespeare, Sarah Bernhardt and Susan B. Anthony. When the building was razed in 1966, the busts were salvaged. Eight are today used in columns standing at the entrance to the Lyons Building at Southwestern Michigan College in Dowagiac.

    More than 100 years later, the arts have returned to this historic site, as families gather for the Beckwith Park Summer Concert Series to hear instrumental and vocal performances.

    To receive the Historic Dowagiac Brochure of the Downtown Development Authority, which was authored by the late Stan Hamper, CLICK HERE.

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