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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Judd Lumber Company,
the Oldest in Michigan
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
Round Oak Synonymous
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
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
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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