Diamond jubilee: Past and present royalty attend opening of Miss Dowagiac exhibit

Published 5:46 pm Thursday, January 23, 2014

Reigning Miss Dowagiac Amanda Hassle talks to a few of the contestants for this year’s pageant, which takes place on Feb. 22. (Leader photo/TED YOAKUM)

Reigning Miss Dowagiac Amanda Hassle talks to a few of the contestants for this year’s pageant, which takes place on Feb. 22. (Leader photo/TED YOAKUM)

In a museum filled with items like old wood-burning stoves and pictures of factory workers lining the walls, the collection of decorative dresses in the building’s basement may feel out of place.

However, the elegant clothing is just as large a part of the fabric making up the history of Dowagiac as anything else on display there.

The Dowagiac Area History Museum unveiled its new “Miss Dowagiac Diamond Jubilee” exhibit Wednesday night during the Dowagiac Chamber of Commerce’s Business After Hours event. The event drew a huge crowd, with visitors ranging from public officials with the city to past and present pageant winners.

The exhibit displays artifacts and regalia of the event, weaving the tale of the pageant’s 75-year history, from its humble origins during The Great Depression to its current incarnation. Among the items on display were dresses worn by past Miss Dowagiac winners, including the dress worn by Miss Michigan Velva Robbins at the 1953 Miss America pageant.

The contrast between the new exhibit and the museum’s usual fare wasn’t lost on the museum’s director, Steve Arseneau.

“Needless to say, Miss Dowagiac isn’t my specialty,” said Arseneau. “If you look upstairs, I like labor and Dowagiac’s industrial history.”

However, the director was contacted by Robbins shortly after the museum opened and she asked if the museum would be interesting in showing off some of her old memorabilia. Shortly thereafter, representatives with the pageant got in touch with Arseneau, asking if the museum was interested in setting up an exhibit to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the pageant.

“The timing couldn’t have been better,” he said.

Multiple generations of Miss Dowagiac winners were present at the opening, from reigning queen Amanda Hassle to 1939 winner Maureen Springsteen.

The opening of the exhibit took place one month before the 2014 Miss Dowagiac pageant, which is scheduled for Feb. 22. All but two of this year’s hopefuls were present at the museum Wednesday evening, publicly introducing themselves to the community for the first time.

“These girls work very, very hard to prepare for this,” said Tracy Urbanski, one of the members of the pageant’s executive committee. “They learn how to be all-around well-rounded women, so they continue their life at college and be successful. We hope there’s just a little bit of that success we can take credit for.”

Since the pageant introduced the scholarship program 14 years ago, the committee has paid out more than $39,000 to winners, many of whom used the money to attend school in Dowagaic at Southwestern Michigan College. Last year, winners received $4,550 worth of scholarship money.

“These girls said, ‘if we had not done this, we would not have business suits,’” Urbanski said. “How many 18-year-old girls have business suits? If you talk to these girls five years from now, they will tell you how many times they have actually used their suits and been interviewed.”

The pageant runners also sold mugs celebrating the 75th anniversary of the event for $10, the proceeds from which went toward covering this year’s expenses.

The new museum exhibit will run through Aug. 2.