Dowagiac turns 175 today

Published 6:00 am Thursday, February 16, 2023

DOWAGIAC — The Furnace City celebrated a milestone birthday Thursday. 

Dowagiac celebrated 175 years of existence Thursday, Feb. 16, reaching its demisemiseptcentennial year. Since its founding in 1848, Dowagiac has gone from frontier town to manufacturing city in the 20th century to a city that has adjusted to the 21st century ‘service’ economy. 

“It had its ups and downs, started slowly and then developed during that industrial age era and has had its ebbs and flows ever since then,” said Dowagiac Area History Museum Director Steve Arseneau. “I think today, I’d say that it’s on one of those higher points where you look at the downtown and how it’s a really strong downtown. I’m encouraged about what I’m seeing and I think that Dowagiac at 175, if the founding fathers could come back, I think they’d be pretty happy with what they’d see.”

A brief history of Dowagiac

In 1847, Nicholas Chesbrough, a right of way buyer for the Michigan Central Railroad, Mitchell Robinson and Jacob Beeson, of Niles, bought a section of Patrick Hamilton’s 80 acres of land. On Feb. 16, 1848, the group registered the platt at the Cass County Historic Courthouse in Cassopolis and Dowagiac was born. The platt was incorporated as a village in 1863 and as a city in 1877.

According to Arseneau, shortly after the railroad workers started working in Dowagiac, lots were sold to Ezekiel Smith, who built a general store where the Wounded Minnow and DNR Sports are today. 

“He quickly said about building a general store, to provide provisions for the railroad workers to be able to continue to work, build in the railroad line. Within a couple of weeks, you have a building up already and you’re starting to see the town develop.”

Arseneau said that the city’s development increased significantly from 1870 to approximately 1920, coinciding with the rise and height of Dowagiac’s furnace industry. During that time, Dowagiac became known as the Furnace City of America as it was home to four furnace companies: Round Oak, Rudy, Premier and Dowagiac Steel Furnace. The furnace boom was spearheaded by Round Oak founder and famed philanthropist P.D. Beckwith.

“You have really incredible growth in the industry of because of PD Beckwith and the Round Oak stove company and then subsequent factories where Dowagiac goes from 1,000 people to 6,000 people over those 30 to 40 years,” Arseneau said.

The 60s through the 80s saw the creation of Southwestern Michigan College in 1966 and the contraction of manufacturing in Dowagiac due to a variety of factors, including the creation of the interstate system which took Dowagiac off the road transportation’s primary highways.

Since then, Dowagiac has worked to reinvent itself for the current economy. SMC created education opportunities for local residents and brought professors and professionals to the city. Smaller scale manufacturing continues with Ameriwood and Lyons Industries and the reinvention of Front Street in the 90s brought life back to downtown. 

“City leaders started recognizing that they have to revive the downtown and I think that this is what set Dowagiac up for its revival that continues today,” Arseneau said. “I think that they were at least a decade ahead of a lot of the other rust belt cities across the Great Lakes region in that they recognized they needed to revive the downtown if they wanted to grow and survive as a city. I think Dowagiac was ahead of the curve on that and a lot of cities have been doing that over the last 10 years. Dowagiac revived its downtown in the 1990s and you can see the results of it today.”

Brushes with history

Dowagiac has had residents and natives rise to national fame unlike many communities its size. Examples include:

       •Beckwith’s Round Oak Stove Company became synonymous with heating stoves. 

  • Former slave Thomas Jefferson Martin moved to Dowagiac in 1855 and opened a barber shop. He claimed to have cut President Abraham Lincoln’s hair.
  • James Heddon is acknowledged the world over as the creator of the first artificial fishing lure. For several decades, his company Heddon was the largest manufacturer of fishing tackle in the world.
  • Dowagiac High School graduate and famed pilot Captain Iven C. Kincheloe set the altitude record in September 1956 when he piloted the Bell X-2 rocket to over 126,000 feet. He was the first person to achieve weightlessness in space and was at the edges of outer space.
  • Dowagiac graduate Chris Taylor won the 1967 state heavyweight title and went on to compete in the 1972 Olympics, earning him a bronze medal.
  • Dowagiac’s George Grady served as Michigan’s first African American police chief starting in 1965 as chief of the Dowagiac Police Department..

“It really is amazing how many people we feature in this museum, who are from Dowagiac or Cass County, who went out and did big things,” Arseneau said. “I think it’s per capita, maybe one of the highest highest percentages of people who really did impact the world.”

Ready for what’s next

Arseneau said the city has plans in the works to celebrate its 175th birthday. He is working on a proclamation from the city of Dowagiac commemorating 175 years. In addition, Arseneau will be kicking off the spring lecture series with a program on Dowagiac’s 175 years at 6 p.m. March 8th at the museum. Admission is free for museum members and $5 for the general public.

Dowagiac Mayor Don Lyons is the longest-serving mayor in the history of the city and has watched the community evolve over his many years as a Dowagiac resident. A historian himself, Lyons is proud of Dowagiac and its history and looks forward to the future of the city.

“A whole new economy, a whole new culture, a whole new world is being created around us every day,” he said. “You’re part of it and I’m part of it, too in a dying sense. My only regret is that I’m not going to live to see it because I just love what I’m doing. I love what’s happening. This whole country is being reimagined and reborn… I love that (the community) is proud of Dowagiac because I certainly am. I’m proud of what’s been accomplished not just under my watch but through the years. We’ve survived against a lot and here we are standing tall. I’m just the latest caretaker. 175 years is quite a while.”