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The City of Dexter is not the only one celebrating 200 years on the banks of Mill Creek. The Bates family, with their roots deeply embedded in the area’s history and soil, marks a bicentennial legacy of pioneering spirit, resilience, and an unwavering bond to this community.

The Bates family saga unfolds as a narrative deeply interwoven with the fabric of the community, spanning over two centuries. This story, recounted mainly by Hobart “Hobey” Bates and John Bates Mann, first cousins who carry the legacy of their ancestors, offers a glimpse into the pioneering spirit, resilience, and communal bonds that have defined their lineage since Vrelon Bates set foot in the area in soon after Dexter’s eponymous founder, Judge Samuel Dexter arrived in 1824.

Judge Dexter built a sawmill in what was known as the Mill Creek Settlement. He hired Vrelon as his sawyer. This initial engagement laid the groundwork for what would become a substantial familial footprint in Dexter, with Vrelon acquiring land that would eventually total 320 acres.

John describes the expanse of Bates farm, saying, “He bought this land I live on now in 1836, and then later he added from Shield Road down to Trinkle Road.”

The narrative of the Bates family is not just one of land acquisition but also innovation and adaptation. Around 1840, Vrelon, seizing the opportunities of his newfound home in the Michigan Territory, erected his own sawmill on Mill Creek near Shield Road, a move emblematic of the frontier spirit of the era. He paid a local man, Obed Taylor, to dig the mill’s race in exchange for 40 acres of land. Taylor dug the race by hand using a pick and shovel. It took him three years to do it.

Pencil sketch of an 1800s mill in the style of 1860s art

An AI rendering of what Bates Mill might have looked like on the banks of Mill Creek near Shield Road. Sketch created by DALL-E image generator.

The torch of industry was passed down through generations, with the sawmill later converted into a grist mill following the Civil War, occasionally providing some entertainment for readers of the Dexter Leader.

In its March 11, 1881 edition, the Leader reported a DUI involving Bates Mill: B.C. Whitaker and a machine agent were out canvassing lately; the last place they stopped was at Samson Parker’s. Retvrning [sic] home, when they came to the Bate’s mill race, instead of going across the bridge, as most folks do, they run off into the race. They had to strip the harness off the horses before they could get them out. In the melee Mr. Whitaker had two of his teeth knocked out. By the way, Samp [sic] said he found his bottle next morning near the place of the accident.

And on August 5, 1886, By the burning of the grass surrounding it, Bates’ mill had a close call to being converted to ashes.

Men standing with large millstone from the 1800s

Clipping from The Dexter Leader’s November 7, 1990, edition noting the donation of the Bates Mill millstone donated to the Dexter Area Museum where it sits out front.

The family’s contributions were not confined to milling. “Vrelon’s sons, Charles Franklin Bates and Henry Bates served in the Union Army during the Civil War,” says Hobey.

In 1999, John shared old family letters with the Dexter Leader, which described the two young men’s experiences.

C.H. Barlow of Dexter had enlisted earlier and wrote a letter to his friend Charles, trying to dissuade him from enlisting. Describing how his company was ordered to retreat, Barlow wrote guns were popping every second down at Bull Run – the road was crammed full of panic stricken soldiers, teamsters and civilians fleeing from the field of battle. – wagon loads of wounded men came journeying over rough roads and their groans sound in my ears yet – if I was in your place I should not enlist yet till it absolutely necessary but wait. If you so enlist you will see the time that you will wish that you were back in the land of bread and butter again.

Another enlisted friend wrote of how they were scavenging abandoned gardens for food. Still, another wrote about the atrocities he had witnessed, telling of one of their wounded having his eyes gouged out. Another reported how a group of confederates were cutting the throats of their prisoners. The letter writer had lost two fingers from a land “torpedo” that the Confederates planted in the fields.

None of this deterred Charles, who enlisted with 28 other locals who became known as “the Dexter boys.” However, Charles was eventually discharged due to health reasons.

Meanwhile, Henry wrote his brother: the rebs are raising the devil in this part of the world sutch a slauter of men you never see our loss is about 300 killed and wouded we was attacked tues morning by forrest & morgan. The fight lasted until 10 o’clock wed they raised the lag of truce and gave us until five o’clock to plant our dead…” And, “our loss is large the number of men there was not enough of the land force left to buery the dead.

“When they came back, Henry married, moved to Kansas, and took up farming,” says Hobey. “After the war, Charles was appointed by the government to go to an Indian Agency in Yankton, South Dakota. His job there was to teach the Indians about agriculture. After several years, he returned home to the farm.”

Old newspaper clipping advertising a flour mill in 1886

Bates Mill was a weekly advertiser in The Dexter Leader as seen here in the November 25, 1886 edition.

The family’s story weaves through the fabric of American history, touching on moments of national significance like the Civil War and the Great Depression and personal milestones that highlight the Bates’ resilience.

“Grandpa needed labor during the Great Depression, and the Work Projects Administration would send workers out here to do farm labor, put in fences and things like that,” says Hobey. “The only thing grandpa had to do was to feed them lunch every day.”

“My mom said we didn’t really feel the Great Depression like the people in the towns did,” adds John.

Women dressed in period costume riding a parade float in celebration of the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976

For the Dexter U.S. Bicentennial Parade in 1976, Dexter’s founding families each had a float. Pictured here are the “Bates Belles.” Courtesy of Dexter Area Historical Society.

Beyond their contributions to agriculture and industry, the Bates’ narrative is also a story of personal triumphs and challenges. Hobey’s father and uncle were pilots in World War II. The war dramatically changed things in the United States. The transition from farming to professional work in the mid-20th century, with the family’s involvement in Argus Cameras and Ann Arbor Machine Tool and Die, illustrates the Bates’ shift with the rest of the workforce in the American economy.

Charles’ son, H. Carl Bates served on the Dexter School Board from 1926 to 1955, and for 28 of those 29 years, he was president. Bates Elementary School (now Bates Administrative Building) is named after him in recognition of his contribution to the community’s school system.

Old newspaper clipping of local dignitary having a school named after him

Clipping of the July 13, 1955 edition of the Dexter Leader announcing the name change of Dexter Elementary School to Bates Elementary School with the original name placard which has since been replaced.

In 1955, upon hearing the school would be named after him, the Leader says Carl Bates was speechless. When he found his words again, the Leader reports: Mr. Bates expressed his appreciation for the honor. He said being on the school board had not been bad that the people had given the board good backing and whatever the board had been able to accomplish was the result of the efforts of all the community.

Two photos of the same elementary school comparing its looks in 1968 to 2024

(Top) Bates Elementary as it looked in 1968 (Courtesy of Dexter Area Historical Society) compared to its appearance today as the Dexter Community Schools Administrative Offices (Photo by Doug Marrin).

The Bates family also played a pivotal role in establishing the Dexter Mill, a cooperative effort that underscored the importance of community in facing agricultural challenges. “One of the things that our grandpa did was that he and some other farmers got together and started the Dexter Mill,” shares John. “It didn’t start out as the Dexter Mill. It was the Dexter Co-Op.”

In 1919, Carl Bates was a member of the group that formed the Dexter Agricultural Association, a co-op of farmers banding together to eliminate the middlemen taking advantage of them through fixed pricing. Carl served a few years as president beginning in 1924. The association evolved into what we know today as the Dexter Mill.

A farm in the 1970s in the Midwest of America

The Bates Farm in the 1970s. Courtesy of John Mann.

The Bates’ deep roots in Dexter have afforded them a unique perspective on the evolution of their community. Hobey’s reflections on the changing landscape—both physical and societal—speak to a broader theme of transformation and adaptation. “You watch things change for yourself over the years, and your parents also tell you what it was like,” he muses. “The village was self-contained 60-70 years ago. We had grocery stores, department stores, a lumberyard, a train station, and a lot of other things you didn’t need to go somewhere else to find.”

John’s anecdote about a simple act of trust at a local store encapsulates the profound sense of nostalgic community that has, in many ways, been diluted by modernity. “One day, I went to the grocery store and got up to the register to pay and realized I didn’t have my wallet,” he recalls. “The cashier said, ‘Just pay the next time you come in.’”

The Bates family’s story is more than a chronicle of their lineage. It’s a microcosm of American history seen through the lens of a single family’s experiences, contributions, and reflections on change. In parallel to Dexter, it encompasses 200 years of pioneering spirit, community building, resilience in the face of adversity, and the inevitable march of progress that reshapes the landscapes of our lives and our connections to the rich tapestry of American life in a small town.

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