Dowagiac Eats: The agricultural side

Published 10:19 am Thursday, February 11, 2016

You have probably read about Michigan Eats: Regional Culture Through Food at the museum in the past week or so.

The MSU exhibit explores Michigan foods’ influence on regional culture and vice versa (how culture influences regional food). To supplement the exhibit with local stories, I explored food in Dowagiac and Cass County and discovered many interesting nuggets of local food history.

Going back to the local Potawatomi growing corn, beans and squash on these lands, agriculture has long been a key to survival. Early settlers in the 1820s and 1830s began growing wheat, corn and other basic crops for subsistence shortly after clearing the land and they erected mills along creeks and rivers to make flour and cornmeal.

By 1860, Dowagiac was the major wheat-shipping hub of southwest Michigan with farmers coming to town from a 25-mile radius to drop off their wheat at the freight house.

According to local legend, Dowagiac had more wheat going through it than Chicago at that time. This phenomenon was captured in a well-known photograph called “Wheat Day 1860,” which shows wagons loaded with wheat lined up along Beeson Street waiting for their turn to drop off their load.

Cass County has had crops come and go, most notably mint. In the early to mid-1900s, Cass County was part of the major mint-growing operation of southwest Michigan. According to Michigan Eats, 90 percent of mint harvested globally used to be grown in the Kalamazoo area (which included Cass County). The ‘muck’ land was perfect for growing spearmint and peppermint and several Cass County farmers capitalized on it.

A photograph from the museum’s Lee Dodd Collection (he was a Sumnerville resident who documented local history) identifies a group of workers on the first Cass County mint farm in Milton Township in 1906. The Beebe family ran mint distilleries on several thousand acres in the Baroda, Niles, Glenwood and Dowagiac areas. Mint farming continued in the area into the 1940s, when a blight hit the crops and ended the practice in Cass County. Today, most Michigan mint is grown in Clinton County.

Cass County sits on the eastern edge of the southwest Michigan Fruit Belt that boasts of having the best environment and soil for fruit growing in the world. Early settlers quickly learned that they had a perfect micro-environment with rolling hills, good soil and Lake Michigan providing the perfect climate for peach, cherry and apple trees, grapes and other fruits. Tests done by MSU have proven that the fruit grown here contains more sugar than fruits grown in other well-known fruit growing regions across the globe, including California and the grape regions of France.

For the exhibit, the Sprague family near Indian Lake loaned the museum a journal kept by orchard farmer Myron Tice in the 1870s. Several pages include maps of orchards with varieties of pears, apples and peaches identified. This shows how diverse and varied the available fruits were in the area even 150 years ago!

My favorite local fruit is the strawberry and I thank avid Round Oak collector Bill Krohne for my fixation on that fruit in the summertime. Bill grows some of the sweetest strawberries around, but his sphere of influence goes well beyond his farm stand in Sister Lakes. He and one other Sister Lakes area grower also grow strawberry plants that they ship to farmers across the eastern United States — these two growers provide over 90 percent of the strawberry plants east of the Mississippi River.

So, if you are biting into a Florida-grown strawberry this winter, there is a good chance that the plant originated in Sister Lakes, Michigan!

Flourishing local agriculture also led to several successful business ventures in the food production industry. The Dowagiac Manufacturing Company manufactured grain drills (planters) for decades in a factory on South Front Street; Overton Machine Company later used that factory to dry milk and other produce for shipment across the globe; and William Burnette cast aluminum pots and pans at a foundry in Keeler and later built one of the state’s largest fruit and vegetable canning facilities.

I intended to write about both local agriculture and restaurants that I highlighted in the exhibit, but as you can see, I wrote more about agriculture than I thought I could. Next month, look for my article to explore Caruso’s, the Wigwam Restaurant and other Dowagiac restaurants.


Steve Arseneau is the director of the Dowagiac Area History Museum. He resides in Niles with his wife, Christina, and children, Theodore and Eleanor.