Archived Story

Museum fulfills mayor’s dream

Published 8:47pm Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Dowagiac Area History Museum culminates a dream for Mayor Don Lyons.
The building that housed the museum at Southwestern Michigan College is named for his father, longtime Board of Trustees vice chairman Dale Lyons.
“That museum did a marvelous job of preserving this community’s very rich history. The community was founded in 1848 and at the time was the smallest city in the United States,” Lyons said at the Dogwood Fine Arts Festival dedication Monday evening.
“It grew to the size it is now, 5,800, by 1910. Round Oak employed 1,200 people in that complex across the tracks. As you’ll see tonight, this town has breadth and depth of accomplishment,” from newsman Webb Miller, a war correspondent who received honorable mention for the Pulitzer Prize, to Chris Taylor, the 1968 graduate who medaled in the 1972 Olympics.
“The best part of it for me is we’re just getting started. Going forward, preserving what we had is an element, but it’s also about recording and interpreting events that are going to happen. It’s going to be the record keeper for Dowagiac’s great future. The museum will outlive all of us,” Lyons said.
Last Mother’s Day, the Behnke family gathered to consider the City of Dowagiac’s offer to purchase their paint and floor-covering building to transform into Dowagiac Area History Museum, moving Southwestern Michigan College’s collection amassed since 1967 into town.
“It’s fitting we are here one year and one day later opening a new Dowagiac Area History Museum,” City Manager Kevin Anderson said. “This is a real testament to this community that this whole block and this whole building can be transformed into something we can be so proud of. We can see where we’ve been, but it’s a testament to the possibilities we can yet be as a community. It’s testament, too, to cooperation among government entities.”
President Dr. David M. Mathews said the vision for SMC originated half a century ago with the idea citizens could “lift themselves up through education, transforming generations of lives.”
Established at the polls in 1964, it opened its doors to students in 1966.
If his dad, Dr. Fred L. Mathews, chairman of the Board of Trustees since its inception, fathered the college, Barbara Cook mothered the idea of a museum.
“SMC became recognized as “one of the 50 fastest-growing community colleges. We grew by an astounding 60 percent between 2006 and 2010. We have literally outgrown our space.
“To maintain two missions of serving area students, 70 percent of whom are financially disadvantaged and the first in their families to go to college, we looked for a partner,” Mathews said.
Director Steve Arseneau fell in love with museums and “caring for people’s treasures” as a fourth grader on a field trip to Milwaukee, Wis.
“This is my first museum move and the last time I’m ever going to move a museum,” Arseneau said. “To stay competitive in a global market, communities need more educational institutions. I’m glad to be in a community that recognizes that.”
He looks at the museum through the eyes of son Theodore, 2 1/2, and knows the 1908 car, Round Oak stoves, the model railroad and grain drills “are very cool.”
“Mayor Lyons came up with a brilliant plan Kevin Anderson executed beautifully. I want to thank City Council and the SMC Board of Trustees, most of whom are here,” Arseneau said. “The Behnke family sold the building to the city for a song. Three volunteers get special mention — Marty Strebeck of Coloma and Al Palmer and Chuck Timmons. They came in like it was a regular job.”
Behnkes came here from Germany to work in the Round Oak foundry.
Bill, a founding member of Dowagiac Athletic Boosters, started Behnke’s in May 1961 on Commercial Street.
Behnke’s moved into the former Lindsley Lumber building on West Railroad Street in 1972 and closed in the summer of 2010.
Bill, who died June 21, 2005, at 82, and Janice (Bakeman) had five children.
Lisa, Roger and Rick, Cass County undersheriff, attended with their mother.
Craig and Jonne are deceased.

Dowagiac Daily News

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