Dexter Then & Now: A Bicentennial Celebration of History and Heritage
By Cynthia Furlong Reynolds
I have much to say about this country—’tis a strange place, different from any new land that I have seen, and better. - Samuel Dexter, 1825
Recently, four writer/historians and an editor gathered on the porch of Dexter’s Gordon Hall to celebrate the completion of an impressive two-year project: the publication of DEXTER THEN & NOW: Celebrating 200 Years, a picture-packed history celebrating the founding and the evolution of Dexter from a dream to a city. Like the city’s founder, they, too, had much to say—and show—about this “country.”
“I’d estimate that we used more than 90 percent of our photograph collection for the book, and we reviewed all of it, along with our print archives,” says Nancy Van Blaricum, a life-long resident whose family arrived in Dexter only two years after Samuel Dexter bought more than 1,000 acres of land there in 1824. A member of the Dexter Area Historical Society for 43 years, she and her husband Harlan live on a corner of the farmland her family purchased in the 19th
Van Blaricum is one of four members of the book committee, which also included DAHS President Beverly Hill, a 51-year resident and former elementary teacher in Dexter schools; Jan Weaver, another half-century resident and wife of a teacher; and Carol Mast Jones, a descendent of German immigrant Gottlob Mast, who arrived in 1847, and for whom Mast Road is named.
After they agreed to produce a book, the historians’ first task was to decide how to cover 200 years of history and generations of residents in a reasonable span of space and time. They wanted the book to appear before the city’s bicentennial celebrations next year.
Initially, they considered working with a national company that produces picture book histories of towns—“But we learned that we would have very little control over the content, so we decided to go off on our own," Hill says. "This has been an all-volunteer, two-year effort. My biggest surprise in the process was learning that we needed an editor, a graphic designer, and an ISBN number. I knew nothing about the book process at the beginning."
"We worried about including some people and leaving out others who also had great stories," Jones says. So they decided to focus on the town itself, with a biography section at the end featuring stories of Dexter Founder Samuel Dexter, his ambitious third wife, and the town’s early movers and shakers, most of whom have streets or schools named for them. Besides DAHS archives, they studied generations of Dexter Leader articles. “The advertisements were some of the most insightful glimpses into the past,” Weaver says. They also relied on histories and notes left by earlier town historians, among them Flora Smith and Norma McAllister.
The committee members divided the topics into thirteen sections, starting with “In the Beginning” and moving on to the Downtown, West End, Riverside, Schools, Churches, Cemeteries, Parks, Entertainment, Public Services, Utilities, Dexter in the News, and Biographies. Once the writers finished a unit, they shared their material with the committee, which made additions, subtractions, and corrections, before submitting it to the editor (disclosure: it was me), who revised and rewrote the copy where necessary, to make sure the text had a consistent tone, style, and content. Jan Weaver coordinated pictures and texts into preliminary computer layouts before turning chapters over to graphic artist Lisa Murphy.
“We carefully researched everything, to prove or disprove some of the myths—which meant we went down a lot of rabbit holes,” Weaver says, laughing at the memories.
“Some of those myths involved our founder,” Hill says. “One claimed that he arrived here with $80,000 in his saddlebags, which was a lot of money when land was selling for $1.25 an acre—and who would carry all that in saddlebags?”
“On the other hand, some legends about him are true,” Jones adds. The DAHS is careful to point out that it has no written evidence—but compelling oral traditions—that Judge Dexter offered Gordon Hall as a stop on the Underground Railroad. “And Judge Dexter really did decline to have the University of Michigan and the county seat located here. We didn’t need them. The town was already flourishing because of the railroad, our successful farm community, and all the mills here.”
When the historians unearthed discrepancies with facts, spellings, and dates during their research, they immediately corrected and updated their records and presentations, Hill says.
Some of the most tragic local stories are based on the historians’ family histories.
Nancy Arnold Van Blaricum is a descendent of Joseph Arnold, who moved to Dexter Township in 1826, with his wife Margaret and two young sons, Ebenezer and William Henry. While settling their farm, they had three more children, Mary, John Yates, and George Warner. In 1868, disaster struck. Ebenezer and John Yates were killed instantly when a boiler exploded at the Arnold Steam Saw Mill two miles outside town.
The Michigan Argus called it “one of the most fatal and terrible accidents which has ever occurred in our county, explaining, “Ebenezer Arnold, the elder brother, aged about 47 years, and well known to our entire community as an active, energetic, go-ahead businessman, stood by the engine at the time, reading a letter…He was throw full fourteen rods, and…though the skin was broken in but a single place, nearly every bone in his body was broken. His brother, Yates, aged about 35, was up stairs, but was thrown several rods and instantly killed by a falling timber striking him on the head and neck.”
Since John Yates died childless, Mary and George had moved away, and Ebenezer was a bachelor who supported both his parents and an aunt who had purchased land in Lima Township, Nancy Van Blaricum’s great-grandfather, William Henry Arnold, inherited and farmed all the family lands.
Carol Jones’s 2nd
great-grandfather, Gottlob Mast, grew up in Wurttemberg, Germany, with hopes of becoming a farmer, but when he was told, “You’re too short to be a farmer. You must be a shoemaker,” he immigrated to Michigan and farmed in Webster Township, on what is now the Nixon Farm. (“Mrs. Nixon is a Mast,” Carol Jones notes.) Gottlob died tragically in 1902, while out in the barn searching for chicken nests. “He fell down a chute and died,” Jones says. “Nowadays people don’t understand how dangerous farming can be.”
The Lutheran pastor refused to bury the farmer because he thought Gottlob had killed himself. So, the family promptly transferred their membership to St. Andrews (previously known as the German Evangelical Church), “where they were accepted.” Fortunately for future generations, Gottlob wrote his autobiography—in German. In 1904, his descendants purchased the farm on Mast Road where Carol Jones grew up. Now a Centennial Farm, it will remain a farm in perpetuity, thanks to a land conservation trust.
Gottlob Mast’s death wasn’t the only local controversy. Judge Dexter himself wasn’t immune from trouble. A decade after building his grist mill, he sold it to his brothers-in-law and a business partner named Jesse Millerd. Dexter’s relatives both died a few years later, and in 1839, Millerd insinuated that one death was due to excessive drinking. Salmon Matthews’ supporters called a public meeting to uphold their friend’s reputation. Among those supporters was the teetotaling judge. After heated debate, the committee decided against the accuser, who, nevertheless stayed in Dexter and managed another mill.
Even patriotic gestures can raise controversy. In 1897, H. Wirt Newkirk petitioned the government for a non-commissioned cannon, to be paid for by townspeople. He recommended that no one contribute more than a dollar—and a nickel for schoolchildren—so the entire community could join in the fundraising effort. But when the cannon arrived, arguments ensued about where to display it. Eventually it was rolled to Monument Park, where its stack of cannonballs proved too tempting for local boys, who frequently bowled them down Main Street. Eventually the cannon was moved to the American Legion grounds.
On Sundays and Wednesday nights, families flocked to Dexter’s many churches. Over time, numerous denominations were founded, named, consolidated, moved, and renamed. Some disappeared, leaving their buildings behind. Some buildings disappeared, leaving their congregations scrambling to find new homes.
On the other hand, the town had some rip-roaring Saturday nights--yet one of the few remaining records is a nostalgic essay Newkirk wrote that reported the village had as many as fourteen places where “booze” was sold in the 1860s and ’70s to the “200 men” from Detroit who arrived by train to help local farmers with their wheat crops.
“Every Saturday night, most of them came into town and things would be lively…until the wee hours of the morning,” Newkirk wrote. “The saloons would be full, and fights were a common sight, with perhaps three or four going on at the same time.”
The local marshal, he noted, “was wise enough to stay home at that time.”
“We did have a lot of ice cream stores, too, especially during Prohibition,” Van Blaricum interjects with a smile.
Finally, the Village Council tired of the nighttime shenanigans. In 1872, its members voted to build a “lock-up” on F Street with three cells, a hall, and marshal’s office. However, a month later, the Dexter Leader
reported, “Drunkenness prevails on the streets of Dexter.” Soon after, the newspaper ran a small classified ad written by a marshal with a sense of humor:
--Wanted—Three tenants for a new house, warranted burglar proof. Good location. No vermin—yet. Tenants for a night taken. Apply to the Village Marshal.
“These are the stories that make Dexter different from any other town in the Midwest,” Weaver points out, laughing.
Early black-and-white photographs (and a few Sixties and Seventies-era color photographs) tell more stories than a thousand words could manage. The earliest illustrate the judge's visionary town-building efforts. Later pictures highlight the residents' hopes, dreams, business ventures, successes, and disappointments. In many cases, they are the last records of the long-gone opera house, thespian societies, rollerskating rink, movie theater, Masonic Hall, Wooden Row, early schoolhouses, the train depot/community center, swimming holes, and the "improvements" fires and entrepreneurs brought to town.
The cost of Dexter, Michigan: Then and Now is $30. Proceeds will be divided between the museum and Gordon Hall projects. “This was strictly a volunteer effort,” Hill explains.
Copies are available at the Dexter Area Museum (which is open from 1:00 to 3:00 on Fridays and Saturdays). The books will also be sold during Dexter Daze in August, Gordon Hall Days in September, and, eventually, at several local businesses.
“We hope this book will help people understand how we got to this place and time, and how we became known as Dexter people,” says Van Blaricum.
Cynthia Furlong-Reynolds is an award-winning journalist whose byline has appeared in more than 50 newspapers and magazines. She has written nine histories, a dozen picture books, a series of early readers based upon a mouse’s adventures (Oliver’s Travels), a young adult novel, countless articles, and dozens of life stories for private individuals. Under the auspices of the Michigan Humanities Council, she regularly leads Prime Time family literacy programs in underprivileged neighborhoods, from the farming community of Hartland to downtown urban sites, among them Detroit, Ypsilanti, Garden City, and Down River.