Thornapple Township & The Village of Middleville
Compiled and Written by Gary A. Finkbeiner
Thornapple Township (T 4 N, R 10 W) is situated in the extreme northwestern corner of Barry County. It is bounded by Irving Township on the east, Yankee Springs Township on the south, Leighton Township, Allegan County on the west, and Caledonia Township, Kent County on the north. The Township and its only incorporated village, Middleville, lie within the Thornapple River Valley watershed, about 20 miles southeast of the City of Grand Rapids and 11 miles northwest of the Barry County seat, the City of Hastings. The northflowing Thornapple River (named for the numerous, small thornapple trees that originally dotted its banks) flows through the Village of Middleville on its way to its confluence with the Grand River (about 17 miles north of Middleville near the village of Ada), which, in turn, flows westward into Lake Michigan after passing through the City of Grand Rapids. Thornapple Township was formally organized as a political unit by State of Michigan Legislative act on March 6, 1838, consisting of the present-day Thornapple, Irving, Rutland, and Yankee Springs Townships. The latter three townships were set off from Thornapple Township in 1839.
Thornapple Township can be subdivided into several small but pronounced geographic areas, all the end product from past glaciation that covered Michigan over 10,000 years ago. The small, relatively flat to slightly undulating geographical area lying immediately west and southwest of Middleville, covering most of southwestern Thornapple Township, is named “Scales’ Prairie” for the prairie-type tallgrass vegetation mixed with oak openings originally found in this area before white settlement. The prairie, in turn, is named after an early trader in the area, Robert Scales. Several small lakes (namely, Leeks, Harwood, and Davis Lakes) lie in the extreme southwestern corner of the Township. The area north of the prairie is marked by undulating, swelland-swale topography that originally consisted of dense hardwood forest, and possesses the largest lake in the Township, the long, linear Duncan Lake. The small Duncan Creek flows eastward from Duncan Lake to its confluence with the Thornapple River north of Middleville. The geographic area east of the River is for the most part relatively hilly and forested, and marks the highest elevations in the Township. The narrow northsouth trending present valley of the Thornapple River breaks the rest of the topographic expression found in the Township.
By the start of the Civil War (1861-1865), much of the former prairie and forested lands in the Township had already been cleared and converted to agricultural land. Today, much of this farmland is rapidly being encroached by urbanization and development, although a few large farms are still in operation. The era of dominance of the small farmer in the Township ended for all practical purposes by the late 1960s, with much of the area now serving as a “bedroom community” for the Grand Rapids Metropolitan area. Climate in the area is characterized by relatively cold, often snowy winters and by relatively warm and generally sunny summers with periodic frontal and convectional rainstorms. Population of Thornapple Township during the 2000 U.S. Census was 6,685 inhabitants, including 2,721 in the Village of Middleville. The Village is the second largest and fastest growing municipality in Barry County, exceeded in size only by the City of Hastings. The only other posted community in the Township is the hamlet of Parmelee (formerly known as Parmelee Station) located three miles north of downtown Middleville and three and one-half miles southeast of the Village of Caledonia in Kent County.
Early History (1834 – 1900)
The earliest known people to inhabit the Thornapple Valley and southwestern Michigan were Native Americans belonging to the Algonquin race, the Ottawa and Pottawattamie Indians. These Indians were at first relatively transient in nature, living, hunting, and fishing in this area during the winter, while often removing to northern Michigan during the summer months. Eventually, they established several small villages scattered throughout southwestern Michigan, including “Middle Village” located on “Scales’ Prairie” in Section 33, Thornapple Township and found lying on the old Indian “Gull Trail” about halfway between similar Indian villages located on the Kalamazoo River and the rapids of the Grand River (later the site of the City of Grand Rapids). The signing of the Treaty of Chicago in 1821 transferred land ownership of Thornapple Township and surrounding areas from the Ottawas and Pottawattamies to the United States government, although the Indians continued to inhabit the area for the next several decades or more. Numerous early accounts have been told of the early pioneer white settlers generally favorable dealings and trading with these Native Americans, including their children playing with one another.
The first white men to set foot in southwestern Michigan were French voyageurs and fur traders. Noted traders such as Louis Campau (1791-1871), the founder in 1826 of the settlement that later became the City of Grand Rapids, and Rix Robinson (1789-1875), who operated a trading post at the confluence of the Thornapple with the Grand River, were known to have traded with the Ottawas, Pottawattamies, and Chippewas (or Objiways) throughout the Thornapple Valley, including those on “Scales’ Prairie.” In the spring of 1834, the French trader Louis Moreau (a.k.a. Moran), who came to the area as a clerk for Louis Campau, and his 19-year old assistant Robert Scales of Kentucky built the first trading post and inn in Thornapple Township; Moreau’s Trading Block, located on the old “Gull Trail” near the Indian “Middle Village” in Section 33. Moreau remained on “Scales’ Prairie” for only three years before moving to Grand Rapids, but Scales continued to operate the trading post and inn until 1847, when he removed to Kalamazoo. The post was then abandoned and finally torn down in 1859. A State of Michigan historic plaque today marks the approximate site of the trading post, located near the southeast corner of Adams and Norris Roads.
The first, permanent white settler in Thornapple Township, and the fourth in Barry County, was Calvin G. Hill (1786-1867), a native of New York State, who settled here in the fall of 1834. He was a pioneer farmer and surveyor who owned 400 acres on both sides of the Thornapple River at what later became the site of the Village of Middleville. Hill served several important early elected posts at the County and Township level, including being elected the first Supervisor of Barry County in 1836, and the first Supervisor of Thornapple Township in 1838. Hill also served as the first postmaster in Middleville in 1843, and platted out the village sometime before 1850. In addition, Hill donated land for the Township’s first cemetery in Section 27 (formerly located on the west end of the village). He and his sons, Albert C. Hill (1814-1896) and Alpheus M. Hill (1830- 1864) played a large part in the development and settlement of Thornapple Township and the Village of Middleville. Albert was a noted “land breaker” in Thornapple Township before moving to Bowne Township in Kent County, while Alpheus was an early miller and sawmill operator in Middleville before dying of fever while serving in the Union army during the Civil War. Calvin G. Hill and his wife Charlotte nee Castle (1791- 1869) had 11 children; they, along with some of their descendants, are buried in the family lot at Mt. Hope Cemetery located on the east end of Middleville.
During the spring of 1835, Calvin G. Hill’s younger brother Elias Hill and family settled in Section 28, Thornapple Township. The third settler in the Township was Henry Leonard (1798 – 1863) and family; they settled November 1835 in Section 22 where he ran a roadside inn west of the river and served 1838 as the first Thornapple Township Clerk. Other early pioneer settlers of Thornapple Township and Middleville included Calvin Hill’s son-in-law Charles V. Patrick (Sec. 22; he also was an early hotel/tavern keeper in downtown Middleville), Ashbel Beach (Sec. 9 & 27), Alpheus Harwood (Sec. 29; Harwood Lake is named after this family), Lemuel Paull, Sr. (Sec. 23) and sons Charles L. and William W. Paull (the pioneer carpenters and bridge builders in Middleville; their sister, Sarah Paull Cameron, was the first school teacher in Middleville), Denison S. Bugbee (another son-in-law of Calvin G. Hill; Bugbee built 1846 the first dam in Middleville across 3 the Thornapple River), Benjamin S. Dibble (1836 pioneer settler in Sec. 2, Yankee Springs Twp., later removed to Middleville where he ran a store and rooming house), Ebenezer Duncan (Sec. 6; assisted Calvin Hill with the building of the first sawmill 1836 on Duncan Creek; Duncan Lake is named after him), Newton and Bainbridge Gage (Sec. 5 & 6), Arad Freeman (Sec. 5), Joseph L. Page (Sec. 6), brothers John and William Kilmer (Sec. 7), Huston Cisler and sons George and Joseph (Sec. 33 in 1839; Huston previously settled in Irving Twp.), William H. Brown (Sec. 21; he was later the founder in 1849 of the Village of Alaska in Caledonia Twp., Kent Co., MI), David Mattison (Sec. 34), George Stokoe (Sec. 33), Thomas Cranson (Sec. 32), Gershom B. Freeman (Sec. 23), Jeremiah B. Freeman (Sec. 12), George W. Cline (Sec. 12), Hiram Denison (pioneer blacksmith in Middleville), Ebenezer Rathbun (Sec. 25), Robert Harper (Sec. 20), Samuel Davis (Sec. 20), Leonard Stimson and son Asa G. Stimson (Sec. 10), Elijah H. Searles (Sec. 22), Charles McQueen (Sec. 24), John A. Robertson (Sec. 25), Thomas Riggs (Sec. 26), Charles A. Williams (Sec. 28), Cornelius Brink and son John (Sec. 4), William F. Hungerford (Sec. 3), Henry W. Burch (Sec. 3), Rawson White (Sec. 15), James Bell (Sec. 16; pioneer “herb doctor” in Thornapple Twp.), brothers George and John Cook (Sec. 20), Joseph Skinner (Sec. 12), Michael W. Wood (Sec. 4), John Sprague and son Eleazer D. Sprague (Sec. 35), George C. Lewis (Sec. 28; younger brother of “Yankee Bill” Lewis of Yankee Springs), John C. Russell (Sec. 3), Franklin Bliss (Sec. 24), Solomon Clark (Sec. 12), Jefferson Lee (Sec. 36), Jonathan R. Russell (Sec. 26), William Colby (Sec. 21), Oliver S. Kenyon (Sec. 19), John Moe (Sec. 12), Charles Blaxell (Sec. 24), John Latimer (Sec. 18), Cornelius Walrath (Sec. 11), Dr. Silas S. Parkhurst (the pioneer physician and druggist in Middleville), John Slocum (Middleville’s pioneer shoemaker), Abner C. Bruen (built 1849 the first gristmill in Middleville, and was the pioneer miller), Charles W. Fenton (a Middleville pioneer resident who was employed at the gristmill from 1850 to 1886); Abraham A. Mead (pioneer tailor in Middleville), Isaac N. Keeler (pioneer merchant), Theodore D. Nelson (second merchant in Middleville), Benjamin H. Fuller (first lawyer 1854 in Middleville), and Nelson Coman (second school teacher in Middleville; he was also an 1838 pioneer farmer in Sec. 4, Yankee Springs).
Like most early rural areas of southern Michigan, the pioneer settlers in Thornapple Township pursued, for the most part, subsistence agricultural activities for a living. Commercial trade and social gatherings of the area farmers were conducted in the Village of Middleville, located on the Thornapple River in the southeastern portion of Thornapple Township. Originally known as Thornapple, the formal beginnings of Middleville can be traced back to the removal of the post office from “Gates Corners” in Yankee Springs Township to this site in 1843. The post office, and subsequently the village, was named after the Pottawattamie Indian village, “Middle Village,” located on Scales’ Prairie as previously described. It was located on the old stagecoach route that ran between Grand Rapids and Battle Creek (a second stage-route later ran from Middleville westward to Wayland where it connected with the Grand Rapids – Kalamazoo line).
The following firsts for Middleville were established as follow: log schoolhouse, 1838; Thornapple River bridge 1843 and dam 1846; blacksmith shop, 1843; sawmill, 1846; gristmill, 1849; general store, 1850; and hotel, 1852. The 1850 U. S. Census listed 66 families residing in Thornapple Township at that time. Downtown Middleville in 1855 consisted of only five houses, two stores (one containing the post office), a school, a hotel, a sawmill, and a gristmill. The community was incorporated as a Village on March 27, 1867, two months before “Squire” Hill died. On October 25 that same year, the downtown area experienced its first major fire, destroying most of the businesses on the north side of Main Street. In 1868, the Hon. Harvey Wright, a local lawyer since 1861, built the first two-story, double-store brick building in Middleville, known as the Wright Block, where the 1867 fire had destroyed the previous buildings, and directly opposite of the Exchange Hotel. Early additions to the platted village (formally recorded on April 12, 1859) were added as follow: Keeler’s addition, 1869; Johnson’s addition, 1869; Braddock’s addition, 1870; Shupe’s addition, 1870.
The first school in Thornapple Township was a log structure built in 1838 by Charles L. Paull. The school was located in Section 22 on the west side of the Thornapple River within what later became a part of the village of Middleville (i.e., the site was situated on the east side of present-day Arlington Street/M-37 just north of the intersection with West Main Street). Around 1840, the school building was replaced with a woodenframe structure. In 1854, the school was removed to a brick structure built on the east side of the river in Middleville (located near the southeast corner of Ellis and Fremont Streets; Calvin Hill donated the lot for this 4 school building). In 1871, a three-story brick structure, the Union School, was built next to the brick-school at a cost of $15,000; the new building housed grades first through twelve. The first 12th grade commencement was held in 1881. In addition to the Village Union (Dist. No. 2) School, six other rural school districts were established in Thornapple Township as follow along with their year of organization and location: Moe (Dist. No. 1) School, 1855 in Section 12; Prairie (Dist. No. 3) School, 1845 in Section 28 (later removed 1871 to Sec. 29); Duncan Lake (Dist. No. 4) School, 1849 in Section 5; Murphy (Dist. No. 5) School, 1853 in Section 17; Parmelee (Dist. No. 6) School, 1857 in Section 3; and Harper (Dist. No. 7) School, 1868 in Section 22.
Early religious institutions played a very important part in meeting the social and spiritual needs of Thornapple Township and the Village of Middleville. The first public religious services in Thornapple Township were held according to the faith of those belonging to the Disciples or Cambellites. Calvin G. Hill, Henry Leonard, and other local pioneer settlers were members of this denomination who began meeting on a weekly basis in the village schoolhouse on February 12, 1843. The Rev. Marshall L. Wilcox, who also served as the village schoolteacher, was the preacher for the old Disciples church, which lasted only a few years, dissolving in 1847.
However, three other Protestant churches were soon established that have had a long history in serving the religious and spiritual needs of Middleville and the surrounding area. The First Baptist Church of Thornapple (changed to Middleville in August 1865) had its beginnings on April 23, 1853 in the old Prairie schoolhouse, but later moved January 1868 into a wooden-frame edifice built on East Main Street in Middleville (the land for the edifice was donated by I. N. Keeler and Calvin G. Hill; this old structure is still standing today, being used by the Most Holy Rosary Catholic Church). The Middleville First Congregational Church had its beginnings in Yankee Springs Township, but moved to the Village of Middleville in 1854 and occupied a wooden-frame edifice built in 1872 on Broadway Street. The First Methodist Episcopal Church of Middleville was formed on May 13, 1855 and occupied a wooden-frame edifice built in 1859 on Church Street south of the Old Union School (replaced in 1911 by the present brick church). The old gristmill in downtown Middleville was located on the north side of Main Street along the east bank of the Thornapple River next to where the modern dam stands. As stated previously, A. C. Bruen first built the gristmill on this site in 1849. After several owners later, Thomas D. French (1833 – 1915), an Englishman, purchased the mill in 1875 and first operated it as the Middleville Flouring Mill. In 1886, the old mill burnt to the ground, and was soon rebuilt by French into a much larger and more pronounced structure known as the T. D. French & Son Flour Mill, whose French’s Lily White Flour brand was noted throughout the State. His son, Reginald T. French, took over ownership of the mill in 1915. The French family sold it to farmers’ cooperative in 1939. The old mill, no longer in operation and in poor condition by the late 1970s, was torn down in 1980 to make way for the Lions Club’s “Sesquicentennial Park.”
The pioneer merchant of Middleville who contributed greatly to the early growth of the town was Isaac N. Keeler (1821 – 1893), a native of Saratoga Co., NY. In 1850, Keeler established the first general merchandise store in the village, and operated it until 1858 when he sold out to his older brother Philas A. Keeler (1815 – 1896) and switched to full-time farming of 380 acres on the northeast end of the town. In 1851, Isaac married Harriet E. Ellsworth (1832 – 1893), a local rural school teacher; they had six children, including sons Edwin A. (1853 – 1877), Isaac H. (1856 – 1923), William E. (1859 – 1927), Miner S. (1862 – 1938), and George L. Keeler (1865 – 1935). Isaac Keeler was elected the first President of the Village of Middleville in 1867, served on the Village School Board for several years, and was a prominent member of the Middleville First Baptist Church. In 1878, Mr. Keeler had the two-story brick Keeler Block built at the northeast corner of Main and Railroad Streets in downtown Middleville; with eldest surviving son Isaac H., they established a dry goods store, I. N. Keeler & Son, in the building; in 1880, William joined the partnership followed by Miner in 1883, the Keeler Dry Goods store stayed in operation until 1900 when John Campbell purchased the contents of the store, while Edward F. Blake bought the building to house his “Corner Store” general mercantile business (the brick block, later known as the Masonic Building and at one time housed the post office, is still standing today as the oldest building in the downtown area). With the financial help of their father, the four Keeler sons started 5 Middleville Manufacturing Company in 1890 in addition to running the dry goods store. After the failure of the first manufacturing enterprise during the “Panic of ’93,” the sons in 1894 formed the Keeler Brass Company in Middleville. The Keeler manufacturing plant was located along the east bank of the river on the south side of Main Street in downtown Middleville (later tenants of the plant included the Warren Featherbone Factory, the Globe Knitting Mill, Liebler Shoe Manufacturing Co., and White Products – manufacturers of hot water heaters). The old dilapidated three-story factory building was razed during the early 1990s with the site now consisting of “Stagecoach Park” stretching along the riverfront. In 1888, George L. Keeler was admitted to the Barry County law bar. In 1895, Miner Keeler was elected as State Senator for the 15th District (representing Eaton and Barry Counties). In 1900, the Keeler Brass Works was moved to Grand Rapids where it grew to be a large and successful manufacturing company. Isaac N. and Harriet Keeler, the patriarch and matriarch of this early Middleville influential family, are buried in the family lot at Mt. Hope Cemetery.
Another prominent landmark in old downtown Middleville was the two-story St. James Hotel, located on the south side of Main Street several buildings due east of the Keeler plant. Originally built in 1852 as a large, wooden two-story hostelry structure known as the Exchange Hotel (Ralph Bugbee was the original landlord, succeeded by W. W. Ralph and J. F. Emory), it was destroyed by fire in 1876. Rebuilt of brick, it was then renamed the St. James Hotel (a.k.a. Johnson House) by its owner and proprietor, James Johnson. Again, fire destroyed the hotel in 1913, and the rebuilt brick hostel was renamed the Middleville Hotel (the hotel again was destroyed by fire in 1981; the site today remains a vacant lot on the south side of Main Street).
Growth of Middleville was greatly facilitated by the establishment here in 1870 of a station depot along the Michigan Central Railroad (the railroad, built in 1869, ran from Jackson to Grand Rapids). Consequently, Middleville became a relatively booming hub of agricultural, commercial, and industrial activities during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The village’s first newspaper, “The Middleville Plain Dealer,” began publication in February 1870 by Marvin & Dunn (they soon sold out to Philip W. Niskern, a local attorney, who renamed the newspaper, “The Barry County Republican”). Middleville in 1872 had a population of 541; village industries listed for that year included Eli Shupe’s foundry and agricultural implements manufacturing; Williams, Corsett & Co. sash, door, and blind factory; A. D. Badcock gristmill and sawmill; J. D. Dietrich wagon works; A. Lynd wagon shop; Pferdesteller Bros. wagon makers and blacksmiths; Guileman Bros. & Co. blacksmiths; Bliss & Bush blacksmith shop; Albert R. Morgan tin shop; and Charles L. Paull & Son sawmill. In 1877, a new wooden covered bridge was built in Middleville by Orin Leonard (a son of Henry Leonard), replacing the old one. The Middleville Women’s Reading Club was formed in 1878, the oldest of its kind in Barry County. The village marshal, James Gibbs (1842 – 1879), was fatally stabbed in August of 1879 by James Jensen following the arrest of the latter and his brother on some trifling charge.
Prominent farmers on “Scales’ Prairie” in southwestern Thornapple Township during the 1860s and 1870s included Samuel Davis, Robert Harper, Ransom Goodspeed, Joseph C. Bray, Robert D. Searles, brothers George and Joseph Cisler, F. W. Collins, Charles A. Williams, George C. Lewis, David Matteson, brothers John and George Cook, Jonah W. Griffeth, Aaron Clark, Joseph T. Crumback, Thomas Cranson, John S. Johnson, William H. Gray, brothers Samuel A. and William N. VanEvery, William H. B. French, Samuel Clark Kenyon, Daniel Hubbard, James Irving, James Newsted, brothers George and Andrew Stokoe, A. D. Still, Jervis H. Lane, James Partridge, Charles W. Bassett, Nelson Coman, and George S. Matteson (the latter three were located in adjoining northern Yankee Springs Twp.). The first Prairie School, a log-cabin structure constructed in 1845, was located at the southwest corner of Section 28. The school was removed in 1871 to a woodenframe structure built near the northwest corner of Cherry Valley and Jackson Roads in Section 29. A horse racing track with a judges’ stand was once located near the northeast corner of Green Lake and Cherry Valley Roads in Section 21.
An influx of German immigrant settlers arrived in northwestern Thornapple Township and adjoining Leighton 6 Township in Allegan County beginning in the early 1860s and continuing through the early 1880s. Surnames for these German settlers included Brog, Stuebi (Steeby), Haist (Heist), Finkbeiner, Klumpp, Gackler, Kaechele, Guenter, Maichele, Frey, Aubil, Andler, Hupp, Nagel, Thede, Thaler, Schondelmayer, Schiefele (Schiefla), Schleeh (Schleh), Schad, Weber, and Vollweiler. Many of these German farmers attended the Leighton Zion Evangelical German Brethren Church, established 1863 about 1.5 mile west of the county line, although much of their business was conducted in the Village of Middleville or other surrounding towns.
Prominent Middleville businesses in 1880 included the following: I. N. Keeler & Son and George Luther & Son, dry-goods merchants; B. A. Almy, M. M. Prindle, John Campbell, and T. A. DeRiemer, general merchandisers; A. P. Dibble, E. M. Shufelt, R. W. Young, and C. D. Barrell, grocers; McKevitt & Severence, meat market; Charles Pitman, B. A. Almy, and S. B. Smith, hardware merchants; R. B. Messer, dealer in agricultural machinery; Parkhurst & Freeman, J. B. Kessler, and T. Mears, druggists; Kessler & Moore, clothiers; Amos Wakefield, shoemaker; M. F. Dowling, jeweler and postmaster; Bliss & Bristow, wagon works and blacksmiths (Charles Dietrich and Henry Masters were hired as wagonmakers); R. C. Talbott, livery stables; M. A. Dietrich, dray office; Orin Leonard, lumberyard; E. H. Lynd, barber; and Bowne & Combs, a private bank. James Johnson was the proprietor of the downtown hostelry (Johnson House), while Philip Leonard was landlord of the hotel (Middleville Cottage) on the west side of town. Aside from the mills, the only large industry in the village at that time was the foundry of Charles A. French, manufacturer of agricultural implements. Law attorneys in 1880 were William L. Cobb (since 1865), John Carveth (since 1869), Aaron Clark (since 1874), Milton F. Jordan (since 1879), and A. Philip Cady (since 1879), while physicians, besides the pioneer Dr. Parkhurst, included George W. Matteson (since 1867, also listed as dentist), Amos B. Hanlon (since 1869), Samuel C. Rich (since 1870), and John B. Ferguson (since 1876). Samuel R. Armstrong was the local veterinarian. Marcenus Wright was elected President of the Village of Middleville in 1880. The population of the village in 1880 consisted of 650 inhabitants.
Early Middleville had its fair share of devastating fires. However, the most tragic fire in terms of fatalities occurred by the burning of the two-story, double-store brick Almy Block on Sunday morning, October 21, 1883, in which, four persons lost their lives; cause of the fire unknown. The Almy Block, built in 1872 by Benjamin A. Almy (1844 – 1918) on the south side of East Main Street near the intersection with Church Street, was then owned and occupied by Capt. Sidney B. Smith (1826 – 1883), a heroic veteran of the Civil War, who used the building to house his hardware and agricultural implement business. While attempting to save some of the merchandise from the store, the east brick wall fell and collapsed on Capt. Smith, the store’s bookkeeper Silas A. Geer, Charles Bundy, and 13-year old Archie Welsh. Capt. Smith and Archie died instantly, while Bundy passed away from injuries later that night. Mr. Geer, who received severe scalp wounds and had his chest pierced by a heavy timber, passed away from his injuries three days later. In response to the above tragic event, the Village of Middleville organized its first fire department and in 1885 built the Engine No. 1 Firehouse, located on the north side of Main Street between the railroad tracks and Railroad Street, opposite Keeler Block.
In 1885, the local law attorney and businessman, John Carveth (1841 – 1910), was elected the State Senator representing Barry and Eaton Counties. John W. Saunders (1857 – 1926) purchased the local newspaper “The Barry County Republican” on August 1, 1890 from Frank A. Bacon, expanded and renamed it on January 1, 1891 “The Middleville Sun,” which he served as publisher and editor for 22 years. The Cold Spring Creamery was erected in the fall of 1893 and began operations on April 1, 1894, producing noted cream and butter products shipped throughout the Midwest. The creamery, a white wooden structure, was located along the western bank of the Thornapple River on Spring Street (one block north of West Main Street), and was in operation until the mid 1950s. Middleville in 1895 had a population of 750 inhabitants.
Parmelee Station (later shorten to Parmelee), located in Sections 3 and 10 at the intersection of the now-defunct 7 Michigan Central Railway and the east-west Parmelee Road, was established by the railroad company in August of 1874. The station was named after Erastus K. Parmelee (1809 – 1896) who in 1860 settled in Section 10, Thornapple Township. Mr. Parmelee, who donated land for the railroad station, was appointed station agent, and in 1878 was made postmaster upon the creation of the Parmelee post office. The post office was in operation until 1913. A small settlement grew-up around the station consisting of about a half-dozen houses, a sawmill, a blacksmith shop, a grain elevator, a general store, a rural school (Parmelee School located at the northeast corner of Parmelee and Stimpson Roads), and, in 1884, a Methodist Church was built on the north side of Parmelee Road east of the railroad tracks that is still in operation today (2005). The Parmelee Cemetery is located east of the church. A United Brethren Church, no longer in existence, was later built at the northwest corner of Parmelee and Stimpson Roads, while the Thornapple in Brethren Mennonite Church, more commonly known as the Shiloh Church, was located at the southeast corner of Parmelee and Cherry Valley Roads (today the old church building serves as an apartment house).
Parmelee Station in 1880 consisted of the railroad station and post office ran by E. K. Parmelee, agent; Sherk & Cline’s grain elevator (Aaron Sherk and George W. Cline); Frederick Alexander’s general store; and Benjamin F. Hungerford’s sawmill and blacksmith shop (he was previously a blacksmith in Middleville). Two religious organizations, a Methodist Episcopal class (H. W. Burch, class leader) and a United Brethren class (Mrs. George Cline, leader), were in existence at that time which worshipped at a neighboring schoolhouse on alternate Sundays. Later owners of the general store were Horace H. Hull (1833 – 1888; he ran the store for less than one year in 1889); Wallace W. Watson (1859 – 1917; Watson ran the store from 1890 to 1900; he was also appointed postmaster in 1890); Wesley H. Van Every (1852 – 1931; he ran the store and post office from 1900 to 1910); and again Frederick Alexander (1843 – 1930; he ran the store and post office until it closed in 1913).
In 1895, the hamlet of Parmelee had a population of 25 inhabitants. Businessmen in Parmelee at that time included George Burch, shoemaker; P. A. Carpenter, live stock dealer; R. T. French & Son, grain elevator; E. K. Parmelee, railroad agent; Edward Skiff, sawmill operator; and Wallace W. Watson, general store and postmaster. The old wooden covered bridge that spanned the Thornapple River one-half mile east of Parmelee Station was replaced in 1890/1 by a bridge made of iron (which later was replaced by the present concrete and steel bridge). All that remains today of Parmelee is the United Methodist Church, the old cemetery, and a few houses.
Later History (1900 – 1985)
Despite the removal of the Keeler Brass Company to Grand Rapids in 1900, the industrial base of Middleville continued to expand during the early 20th Century. In fact, it can be argued that the establishment here of the Keeler Brass Company provided the impetus for future industrial growth and expansion in the village. Prominent industries in Middleville during the first decade of the 1900s included the Warren Featherbone Company (manufacturers of elastic featherbone material for garments who moved into the old Keeler plant in April of 1901), the R. T. French & Son’s Flouring Mill (manufacturers of the French’s Lily White flour brand), the Middleville Salting Station of the Williams Brothers’ Pickeling Works, and the Cold Springs Creamery Company (later renamed the Middleville Co-Operative Creamery Company in 1909). It was claimed that the products of these industries became well known throughout the United States. Among the smaller but growing industries of Middleville included the George H. Joslin’s Evaporator, E. R. Smith’s Planning Mill, and the Wagon Works and Blacksmith Shop of Dietrich & Bristow (Charles H. Dietrich and John L. Bristow).
In commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the settlement of Thornapple Township, The Middleville Sun newspaper published a special supplemental issue dated September 22, 1904 describing the past history and present ongoing of the industrial, commercial, educational, and professional activities in the Village of Middleville (the supplement was reprinted in 1976 by the Thornapple Heritage Association). In addition to the previously mentioned industries, articles with biographic sketches were included on the merchants and professional people (i.e., doctors and lawyers). Middleville businesses listed in 1904 included: general store – The Corner Store (E. F. Blake & Co.); grocers – J. E. Dibble, Hodge & Lee (Marcus M. Hodge and Frank Lee), H. S. Moore, Walton & Culver (Charles S. Walton, baker, and Frank N. Culver) and W. W. Watson (former owner of the Parmelee Station general store); meat market – Lloyd Clever (his father, Conrad Clever, purchased the meat market in 1884 from McKevitt & Severence); drug stores – Frank E. Heath and John W. Armstrong; confectionery/crockery store – Cobb & Scott (Lavern Cobb and Joseph Scott); clothing stores – John E. Ackerson and W. A. Quinlan; jewelers – Marion F. Dowling and Stanley Wildren; millinery shops – Mrs. E. Joscelyn, Mrs. Eva Talbott and Miss Anne Winters; second-hand store – Wm. P. Corson (known as “Sheany Bill,” he also worked as a drayman and junk dealer, and dressed-up as Santa Claus during the Christmas season); hardware and implement dealers – Edwin J. McNaughton and W. D. Gardner & Sons; furniture dealers and undertakers – Henry J. Chapman and Edward H. Lynd; barbers – N. C. Kraft and Bert Benton; hotels – St. James Hotel (Wm. C. Gingrich, landlord) and the Morgan House; lumberyard – Rosenberg & Forbes; dray office – Monroe A. Dietrich (also dealt in ice, coal, wood, baled hay, and straw, and owned a storage warehouse); livery – C. M. Hinckley; blacksmith shops – Walter H. German and Chris Schondelmayer; harness makers – M. J. Bugbee and G. D. Whitmore; and wagon shop – Henry Masters. Professional people in 1904 Middleville included law attorneys – William L. Cobb, Hartley E. Hendrick, and Milton F. Jordan; physicians – Dr. Amos Hanlon, Dr. Lizzie Hendershott, Dr. A. J. Sheperd, Dr. Birge C. Swift, and Dr. Asa L. Taylor; dentists – Dr. George W. Matteson and Dr. J. E. MacDonough; and veterinarian – L. D. Van Velsor, D.V.S. Officers in 1904 for the Farmers State Bank, organized April 21, 1903 when a group of local prominent farmers purchased the assets of the old State Bank of Middleville, were Simon C. Heist, president; W. J. Robertson, vice-pres.; John G. Nagler, cashier; and Heist, Robertson, R. T. French, W. J. Hayward, J. J. Wadd, H. E. Turner, W. R. Harper, T. W. Ronan, G. E. Gardner, and Nagler, board of directors. The Village President of Middleville since 1900 was the popular long-time drayman, Monroe A. Dietrich (1848 – 1925), who was the last stagecoach driver over the Middleville – Wayland stage route in 1869. The postmaster for Middleville in 1904 was Richard M. Johnson (1853 – 1946), a former clerk in Capt. S. B. Smith’s hardware/implement store before the 1883 devastating fire, and a former dealer with Fred Spangemacher in farm implements. The old wooden covered bridge spanning the Thornapple River in Middleville was replaced in 1906 by a steel and concrete structure.
The Prairie Literary Club was established in 1900 by a group of women, mainly farmers’ housewives, living on “Scales’ Prairie.” Farmers on “Scales’ Prairie” around the turn of the 20th Century included William Cridler 9 and son Arthur, David E. Pender, Charles Baker, Ebenezer Garrett, brothers Frank and Thomas Heany, Charles Guffin, Jacob F. Brandstetter, Eli M. Brown, Giles Hatton, Grant Whitlock, brothers William N. and George T. Coman, Hamilton B. Carveth, brothers William and Horace German, brothers George H. and Edgar W. Tolhurst, Elias Gray, Hiram M. French, Clark O. Kenyon, Edward Hubbard, brothers Ferd B. and Ashley C. Johnson, Henry Beck, Charles E. Harper, William R. Harper, brothers Samuel P. and James B. Campbell, brothers Samuel G., George W., and Charles H. Davis, Samuel Harvey, Andrew Wieringa, and Gottlieb Kaechele. Others who located on “Scales’ Prairie” farms during the early 20th Century included Emanuel Sharp, Andrew Finkbeiner, Fred Slagel, Charlie Baughman, Phillip Bender, and Vur Adams. The Thornapple Farmers Club and the Prairie Literary Club held its Fourth of July Celebration in 1908 at the Oscar White grove located two miles northwest of Middleville.
On March 25, 1908, fire again occurred in the downtown area of Middleville. The “Wooden Row” business district, consisting of old, wooden-constructed stores located on the north side of Main Street, extending from High Street westward down the hill to the Quinlan brick store (just east of the old Keeler Block), were completely destroyed by the fire, along with several nearby houses and outbuildings. Five years later, the brick two-story St. James Hotel on the south side of Main Street was destroyed by fire on March 16, 1913. In both cases, the buildings were soon rebuilt and business in the downtown area resumed to normal. The Congregation Church located on Broadway Street was destroyed by fire on January 3, 1909. It was replaced by a brick edifice built at the northwest corner of W. Main and Water Streets (this building, although now vacant, is still standing). A major train wreck occurred in downtown Middleville on March 11, 1913.
The second decade of the 20th Century saw the beginnings of the gradual shift from horse-drawn transportation to the automobile. This transformation in the mode of transportation was reflected in the changing business environment of downtown Middleville – automotive repair garages and dealerships soon replaced blacksmith shops, wagons shops, harness shops, and livery stables. Earlier automotive dealerships and garages listed in 1917 for Middleville were Bennett & Gooding Garage (later Bennett Auto Sales), E. L. Gonyer’s Garage (agent for Overland and Ford cars), and David Perrault’s Auto Livery, while Middleville businesses in 1917 associated with horse-drawn transportation included Dietrich & Bristow Wagon Works, Moses J. Bugbee’s Harness Shop, C. M. Watters’ Livery Barn, and the blacksmith shops of Charles Carlson and Edward Finkbeiner. In 1924, John Vanderkolk came to Middleville from Hamilton, MI and established Middleville Motor Sales, a Ford dealership and service garage. His business was located downtown on the south side of East Main Street at the site later occupied by the Keegstra IGA grocery store. In May of 1931, two of Vanderkolk’s auto-mechanics, James R. Polhemus (1896 – 1979) and Arthur E. Kenyon (1905 – 1992), formed Central Garage, first selling and servicing Overland and Ford cars and trucks, later switched in 1935 to selling Pontiac cars and GMC trucks. Their first garage was located beneath the old Leonard Opera House on the south side of East Main Street in downtown Middleville.
Harry E. Bennett (1875 – 1951) was one of Middleville’s most prominent and successful businessmen during the first half of the 20th Century. In 1912, Mr. Bennett, a farmer and thresher in nearby Irving, came to Middleville with his family to open a garage for horseless carriages (what early automobiles were commonly referred to). It became known as Bennett Auto Sales Company and was one of the earliest of all Chevrolet dealerships. His son Clayton W. Bennett (1901 – 1974) continued to operate the Chevrolet-Buick dealership and garage, located on the north side of West Main Street near the west bank of the river, until 1953 when it was sold to Beebe. In addition to the automobile dealership, the Bennett family also opened other businesses in Middleville, including The Ideal Theater, The Arcade Theater, J. I. Case Farm Implements dealership, The Lakeland Theater, and Bennett Jewelry.
Another prominent Middleville businessman and industrialist during the first half of the 20th Century was Glen E. Blake (1886 – 1962). He was the grandson of Fordice L. Blake (1838 – 1908) and the son of Edward F. Blake (1864 – 1953), owners of “The Corner Store” general mercantile in Middleville. Glen first worked for his father in the family’s general store, but in 1917, he became the manager of the Western (formerly Globe) 10 Knitting Works factory in Middleville. He also founded Blake Motor Sales, having the dealership for Oakland and Pontiac cars, later Ford automobiles, and built the garage later occupied in 1953 by Central Garage. After getting out of the automotive business in the early 1940s, he converted the garage into a factory and, in 1942, established the Blake Manufacturing Company, first producing ammunition casings for the war effort followed later by manufacturing furniture hardware. Following World War II, he became associated with the Keeler Brass Company of Grand Rapids, resulting in the establishment of the Keeler Brass Co., Blake Mfg. Div. plant in Middleville. Glen was active in this business until his retirement in 1955. He served as member and president of the Middleville Village Council, on the board of directors and as president of the Farmers State Bank, on the Thornapple-Kellogg school board, and as a charter member and president of the Middleville Rotary Club (founded in 1938). Glen’s son-in-law, Lamarcus “Marc” A. Squier (1908 – 1999) joined Blake Mfg. Co. in 1945 and continued to work for the Keeler Brass Company until his retirement in 1970. Marc served several terms during the 1960s and early 1970s as Village President and held the position of Thornapple Township Supervisor from 1974 to 1980.
The United States entered War World I (1914 – 1918) on April 6, 1917, and the citizens of Middleville and Thornapple Township joined the rest of the country in contributing to the war effort by providing both manpower and funding, the latter primarily through the purchase of “Liberty Bonds.” Three Middleville area men lost their lives while in the service of their country during the war: 1) Pvt. Charles D. Benaway (b. Sept. 12, 1889, Middleville; d. Nov. 8, 1918, France from wounds received in combat); 2) Sgt. Arthur C. Finkbeiner (b. June 16, 1890, Thornapple Twp.; d. Oct. 29, 1918, St. Mihael, France, killed in action); and 3) Cpl. Otho K. Hull (son of Dr. Frank S. Hull of Middleville; d. October 15, 1918 from pneumonia at Ft. Custer near Battle Creek). In honor of their three fallen comrades, the local Leo A. Miller VFW Post No. 25 in 1925 erected a World War I Memorial stone monument at Mt. Hope Cemetery.
The 1920s were marked by continued growth within the Village of Middleville. In 1923, the Congregational Church’s Ladies Aid Society donated $2000 to establish a combined public and school library in the old Union High School (the Public Library in Middleville is still to this day housed in the ThornappleKellogg High School, one of the few in the State to be so situated). Businesses in 1926 Middleville included four grocery stores – A & P Tea Co. (Lee M. Johnson, mgr.), Abel M. Gardner & Sons, Frank Lee (also sold shoes), and Jay Oberley Groceries and Meats; Thompson’s Meat Market (Merritt E. Thompson); two general merchandise/clothing stores – John J. Vanderveen and James L. Rugg; Faulkner’s Drug Store (Ellis E. Faulkner and son Paul M., purchased Nov. 1919 from J. W. Armstrong); two furniture stores – Herbert G. Benaway and Henry J. Chapman; two hardware stores – Chester D. Baxter and Edward H. Finkbeiner (he also sold farm implements); Dessert & Brown Lumberyard (Thos. J. Berry, mgr.); four barbers – Arthur Brace Jr., Max E. Lynd, Karl D. Rock, and Wilbur T. Sprinkle; two undertakers – L. Russell Beeler and Herbert G. Benaway; three automotive dealerships/garages – Bennett Auto Co. (H. E. Bennett, prop., Dodge & Chevrolet sales & service), Walter J. Hayward (sold Overland cars, also insurance dealer), and Middleville Motor Sales (John Vanderkolk, Ford sales & service); three gas stations – Brog’s Shell Service Station (Henry A. Brog, prop.), Middleville Service Station (Malon A. Hilton, prop.), and Miller Bros. Sinclair Gas & Oil Station (John H. and Levi J. Miller); R. T. French & Sons Flour Mill (millers included George Campbell and Morton Freshney); Farmers State Bank (R. T. French, Pres.; W. J. Robertson, Vice Pres.; Chas. Robertson, Cashier); Middleville Co-Operative Creamery (Fred O. Stokoe, mgr.); The Middleville Sun and the Caledonia News (Oscar H. Segerstrom, pub.); Western Knitting Mills (Glen E. Blake, mgr.); New Western Hotel (American) (U. R. Layman, prop.); a restaurant ran by Miss Minnie Barnes (her father, Wm. G. Barnes, was the former publisher of the Middleville Sun); W. P. Corson, junk dealer; Edward K. Lewis, drayman; Post Office (Edward F. Blake, Postmaster; Victor Freshney, clerk; W. H. Corson, mail messenger; rural mail carriers included G. O. Griffeth, Harold Griffeth, Wm. McKevitt, and Ray H. Serven); The Ideal Theatre (Photo Plays) – C. W. Bennett, prop., billed as “The Home of the Pipe Organ” (played by Nellie Gillette, later md. Schenkel); Michigan Bell Telephone Co. branch office (C. L. Hiar, mgr.); Arthur Brace Sr. real estate agent; Glenn D. Whitmore insurance agent; A. N. Smith & Company (Ernest Dunlap, mgr.); two physicians – Dr. Amos Hanlon and Dr. Birge C. Swift; and one dentist, Dr. Raphael M. Serijan. Village government officials listed in 1926 were 11 President – John W. Armstrong; Clerk – Clifford A. Gardner; Treasurer – Edward Talbott; Marshall – Edwin B. Lepper; Water Superintendent – James Rugg; Health Officer – Dr. Amos Hanlon; Supervisor – William Kronewitter; and councilmen Burdette Wadd, Clayton Bennett, Max Lynd, George Juppstrom, Frank D. Pratt, and Glenn Whitmore. Justices of the Peace were Charles B. Campbell, Amos Freeland, Aaron Sherk, and William E. DeGolia. The Board of Education in 1926 consisted of President – Court L. Boley; Secretary – Glenn D. Whitmore; Treasurer – Fred O. Stokoe; Trustees William E. Holes and William H. McKevitt. In 1929, State Highway Route 37 was directed through the downtown section, resulting in the concrete pavement of Main Street and the construction of the present downtown bridge by the State Highway Commission.
The population of Middleville in 1930 according to the U.S. Census was 804. Although the 1930s were the time of the “Great Depression,” when money in general was in low supply, the community infrastructure continued to grow, mainly through the availability of government and private funding. With the aid of $144, 655 from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation of Battle Creek and $31, 654 from the Government PWA program, the Thornapple-Kellogg Agricultural School was built in 1931 on W. Main Street, one block west of the present M37 traffic light, at a cost of $251,790. That same year, the Thornapple Township rural school districts were consolidated into the newly formed Thornapple-Kellogg School District (thus ending the use of rural schools; former rural school districts in Yankee Springs, Irving, western Rutland, and eastern Leighton Townships were later annexed). The old Union School on the east side of town was demolished in 1935 (the site was later converted into the Calvin G. Hill Memorial Park). Municipal water and sewer systems in Middleville were also installed during the 1930s from Federal Government funding projects. A new fire barn was built on High Street in 1934. Also, at this time, the Consumer Power Company began naming the local township roads, mainly after local families.
During the first weekend in August of 1934, Middleville celebrated the 100th anniversary of the settlement of Calvin G. Hill in the area. Billed as the Middleville Centennial, the celebration was a three-day event that was well attended with people not only from the immediate local, but also from the rest of Barry County, neighboring Caledonia and Leighton, and even Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo. The celebration kicked off with a big parade featuring many area bands, a circuit rider, automobiles (both vintage and new), horse riders and bicyclists, horse and oxen drawn wagons, a beautifully flowered Centennial Queen and attendants float, other local and area floats, and a float honoring the local Native Americans on which rode Mrs. Sarah Isaac, 108 years old, a member of one of the local tribes. Various programs and plays were held each night of the celebration. Miss Orpha Headley was crowned Queen of the Centennial, whose reign was inaugurated during the opening program following the parade. H. G. Benaway, the Village President, presented the keys of the village to the new sovereign; Justice W. W. Potter of the Michigan Supreme Court crowned the Queen, and then presented a brief oral history of the community. Edward F. Blake served as chairperson of the general committee for the celebration.
Middleville in 1940 had a population of 833 inhabitants. That same year, Gerald E. White moved his hot water heater manufacturing company, White’s Products Corp., from Lansing to the old Keeler plant located along the Thornapple River, which would soon prove to be the largest economic stimulus in Middleville’s long industrial history. Middleville Engineering & Manufacturing Co., a tool and die shop, was established by Fred M. Keller (later the founder of Cascade Engineering in Grand Rapids) on Main Street in December of 1945, and added a larger die-casting production plant on State Street in the spring of 1946. William H. McKevitt (1874 – 1970) retired in May of 1949 from the Middleville Fire Department after 60 years of service, the last 35 years as Fire Chief (he also was a rural mail carrier for 30 years, retiring in 1937).
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, and the United States entered World War II (1939 – 1945) the following day, joining the Allies against the Japanese, Germans, and Italians. During the war, Middleville industries White Products Corp. and Blake Manufacturing were converted to producing 20 mm cannon links and ammunition casings, respectively, for the military. Five young Middleville area men lost their lives during the war: RM.SCL Robert G. Corson (d. 1942 in the South Pacific when his ship, the U.S.S. Atlanta, was sunk by the Japanese); Lt. James P. Dibble (d. Sept. 9, 1943, killed in action); Pfc. Burdette A. 12 Fishcher (d. Apr. 16, 1945 in Germany); Ens. Donald G. Hall (d. Feb. 16, 1942 in Virginia plane crash); and Cpl. Patrick J. Reynolds (d. May 11, 1945 in Florida plane crash). Corson and Fischer were Middleville classmates, graduating from the Thornapple-Kellogg High School in 1937, while Ens. Hall graduated the previous year and Cpl. Reynolds in 1943. Old-timers will recall that World War II was the most deadly and destructive war in world history.
Middleville in 1950 had a population of 1,047. It was described as an incorporated village located on the NYC System Railroad and Highway M-37. It had a bank and a weekly newspaper, telegraph and telephone connections, and daily bus service. Prominent industries in the Village in 1950 were White Products Corp., Blake Manufacturing Co., and Middleville Engineering and Manufacturing. Village officials were Vinal V. Tabor, President (he also owned Tabor Pharmacy, purchased in 1946 from the Faulkner family); Mrs. Blanche H. Segerstrom, Treasurer; Mrs. Doris T. Myers, Treasurer; Assessor, James Rugg; and Councilmen Irving Lutz, Marc Squier, Earl VanSickle (high school principal at that time, he became the Superintendent of the Thornapple-Kellogg Schools in 1952); Don Stauffer, and Robert Frost. The Postmaster was Ivan J. Payne, while Vur Adams served as justice of the peace. The Minnie McFall Elementary School, west of the T-K Agricultural High School, was built in 1951.
On October 19, 1952, a fire started by an unchecked welding torch destroyed the brick double block building built in 1872 on the south side of East Main Street located immediately west of the hotel. The building at that time housed Central Garage, the Kaljer Manufacturing Co. (formed in May of 1951, producing aluminum die-castings), and the upper-story old Leonard Opera House (used prior to 1931 as the school gymnasium, since vacant). After the fire, Central Garage moved into the old Blake Manufacturing plant up the hill at 210 E. Main Street while the Kaljer plant was rebuilt on the east end of town.
In order to promote further economic growth and development in the community, the Rotary Club and the Chamber of Commerce during the late 1950s campaigned Middleville as the “Nation’s Biggest Little Industrial Town” and “The Gateway to Yankee Springs.” Middleville in 1958 bragged of eight local industries: White Products Corp. (located in vastly expanded facilities on Lafayette Street with offices on E. Main Street); Middleville Engineering & Manufacturing Co. (located at expanded facilities on State Street); Blake Mfg. Div., Keeler Brass Co. (located on State Street); Michigan Electronics Corp. (fabricators of vacuum cleaner filter bags, started in early 1955, located in the old Keeler plant on E. Main Street); Vitroglass Corp. (porcelain enameling of water heater tanks and Plumbingware products, started in January of 1956); Pumblingware Manufacturing Co. (produced bath tubs, sinks, and lavatories, moved to Middleville in August of 1957); Kaljer Manufacturing Co. (then a subsidiary to the Jervis Corp.); and Getty’s Poultry Farm & Hatchery (located on Irving Road near the southeast end of town). Middleville businesses in 1958 included the Arcade Restaurant, Beeler Funeral Home, Bender Gulf Service, Bennett Jewelry, Blue Ribbon Grill, Brog’s City Service Gas Station (Clair Brog), Baumgardner Body Shop, Central Garage, Chuck Wagon Drive-In Restaurant, Crofoot’s Family Shoe Store, Dean’s Crystal Flash Service Station & Groceries, Dee’s Standard Service, Elwood Insurance Agency, Farmers State Bank, Finkbeiner & Brog Food Locker and Grocery (Ralph Finkbeiner and Fred Brog), Ed Finkbeiner Hardware, Finkbeiner Implement Co. (brothers Emory and Lloyd Finkbeiner), Oscar Finkbeiner & Son Elevator and Feed Mill, Fish Insurance Agency, Georgiana Beauty Shop, Geukes Meat Market, Harold & Marion’s Tavern, Harris Electric, J. B. Home Radio & TV Service, Dr. Robert Jewell O. D. – optometrist, Keegstra’s IGA Market, Lakeland Theatre, Dr. Harold L. Lasswell D.O. – physician, Leckrone Heating Co., Lee M. Johnson & Son Grocery, Jack Lewis Trucking, Lodholtz Variety Store, Lutz Plumbing Shop, Lynd’s Barber Shop, Marvels Beauty Shop, Middleville Building & Supply Co., Middleville Cleaners, Middleville Farmers Co-op Elevator, Middleville Hotel, Middleville Sun & News, Middleville Texaco Service (George Miller), Middleville Flower Shop, Dr. James Millard M.D. – physician, Miller Real Estate, Miller’s Standard Service, Dr. John Mulligan DDS – dentist, Neeson’s Beauty Shoppe, Norman’s Hardware, Peterson’s Dari-Dip, Regan’s Bakery, Sandefur Barber Shop, Skogmos Clothing & Dry Goods Store (Alice Steiner), Standard Oil Fuel Delivery (Charles O. Williams), Smith Drug Store, Sullivan Insurance Agency, Tolan’s Clothing Store, Van’s Hardware, Verlinde Chevrolet Co., Village Grocery, West Side Garage (Ken Cline), and Woody’s K. B. Supply Appliances. Middleville organizations in 1958 included four churches – First Baptist 13 Church, First Methodist Church, Middleville Chapel of Christian Reformed, and St. Augustine Catholic Church; two service clubs – Rotary Club and Lions Club; four fraternal orders – Masonic Lodge, Order of the Eastern Star, Rainbow Girls, and Pythian Sisters; six social clubs – Prairie Garden Club, Floral Garden Club, Thornapple Sashayers, Parmelee Friendship Circle, Thornapple Investment Association, and Women’s Reading Club; and other community organizations – Middleville-Thornapple Township Volunteer Firemen, Chamber of Commerce, VFW Post 7548 and Auxiliary, and the Farm Bureau. A new larger gymnasium and a music room were added to the back of the high school in 1957.
The 1960 U.S. Census figures shown Thornapple Township with a population of 2, 288, including 1,196 in the Village of Middleville. During the early 1960s, two new subdivisions, the Middleville Downs and Charleston Estates, were built on the western edge of the Village and annexed. The West (now Lee) Elementary School was also built during this time on W. Main Street. Middleville was marked by two tragic events during the 1960s. The first was the murder of gasoline station attendant William F. Hummell, Jr., age 19, on the morning of June 23, 1960 by Clifford Earl Porter, age 21, of R1 Alto during an armed robbery committed by the latter at the Major Oil Station (later Crystal Flash) located on M-37 at the south end of Middleville. Young Bill, the son of William “Trapper Bill” F. Hummell, Sr. of Yankee Springs, had recently graduated from the Middleville Thornapple-Kellogg High School on June 8, 1960. It was the first murder in Middleville since the fatal stabbing of Sheriff James Gibbs in 1879. The other tragic event was the drowning on the afternoon of May 5, 1966 of little Suzanne Louise Assfy, age 4-1/2 years, in the Thornapple River near the downtown bridge and dam. She was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Zaid Assfy, owners and operators of the Middleville Bakery.
According to the 1970 U.S. Census, Thornapple Township had a population of 3,363 with 1,865 of those inhabitants living in the Village of Middleville. The early 1970s saw many changes in Middleville with the relocation of the Post Office, the bank, the laundromat, Verlinde Chevrolet & Buick, and the Foodland Supermarket, and the establishment of the Middle Villa Inn & Bowling Center and other restaurants on M-37. Many of the farm-related businesses in the downtown section closed down at this time. A new larger and more modern high school was built in the spring of 1971 at the corner of Green Lake and Bender Roads. The first Middleville Old-Fashioned Fourth of July Celebration, sponsored by the local Chamber of Commercial, was held in 1974 marked by the presence of the horse-drawn Middleville Trolley built by Rollie Cox and Bill Kenyon. Donovan Dean and others interested in the local history formed in 1974 the Thornapple Heritage Association. On March 27, 1975, the old two-story brick Arcade Movie Theatre, located between the old Keeler Block (old Post Office, a.k.a. the Masonic Building) and Smith Drug Store on E. Main Street, was reduced to rubble by fire (site now a parking lot).
The 1980 U.S. Census had Thornapple Township with a population of 4,298 inhabitants with 1,797 of those residing in the Village of Middleville. The old French’s Flouring Mill, an historic landmark in downtown Middleville, being the largest old gristmill in Barry County, but then dilapidated and rat-infested, was torn down in April of 1980. Another landmark in downtown Middleville, the Middleville Hotel, was destroyed by fire on a very cold (record 20 degrees below zero) Sunday morning, January 4, 1981. Fire departments from Middleville-Thornapple Township, Hastings, Caledonia, Wayland, Hickory Corners, Nashville, Delton, Freeport, and Woodland fought the fire until 11 p.m. that night. Although no one was injured by smoke or flames, one firefighter from Caledonia was hurt when he slipped on ice. Because of the severe cold weather, the gutted brick structure resembled a smoldering ice castle. The NYC railroad was abandoned during the early 1980s and the tracks removed in 1983. Ernie Ball, the long-time Village Manager and Fire Chief in Middleville, retired in March of 1984.
The Middleville Sesquicentennial Celebration, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the settlement of Calvin G. Hill in Thornapple Township, was held throughout the community from Monday, September 24 to Sunday, September 30, 1984. Co-Chairmen for the celebration, the largest and grandest in Middleville history, were Rod Finkbeiner and Leo Verlinde, with Don Boysen and Gordon Bennett serving as publicity co-chairmen and Ken Bray fulfilling the position of funding chairman. Each day of the celebration was built around a 14 special theme: Dedication Monday – Steve Wiersum, chairman; Agricultural Tuesday – Bob Wenger, chairman; Industrial Wednesday – Dick Milock, chairman; Heritage Thursday – Carolyn Steensma, chairwoman; Education Friday – Gerry Page, chairman; Ceremony and Parade Saturday – Rod Kenyon, parade chairman, with Bill Kenyon, Rusty Kermeen, and Kit Roon serving on the ceremony activity committee; and Ecumenical (Religious) Sunday – Marion Cook and Francy Tobin, co-chairwomen. The celebration began on Monday with the “World’s Shortest Bridge Walk” across the downtown bridge (participants who completed the walk were issued a special commemorative wooden nickel) followed by political and dedication speeches, including dedication of the Lions Club’s Sesquicentennial Park at the site of the old French’s Mill along the east side of the Thornapple River. The Thornapple Heritage Association maintained an attractive temporary museum during the weeklong celebration that was housed in the old Baptist Church building on Main Street. On Thursday evening, Amos and Lib Palmer were crowned the Sesquicentennial King and Queen by the 1934 Centennial Queen, Mrs. Orpha (Headley) Dundas. The highlight of the celebration was the biggest and longest parade ever held in Middleville, running one and one-half mile, starting from the intersection of Grand Rapids and Fremont Streets, onto Main Street, through downtown, across M-37, and ending at the High School on Bender Road. The Saturday parade, consisting of 115 units, took nearly two hours to complete. The Grand Marshall for the parade was Art Kenyon, who drove his newly restored 1926 Pontiac car in the parade. Following the parade, a large midway, along with numerous refreshment stands and entertainment booths, was held on the high school grounds. The Middleville “Keystone Cops” (played by Walt Eavey, Norm Jahnke, Ray Page, Joe Sanford, and others) were out enforce during the celebration, arresting people on such nebulous charges as “being clean shaven” (Rep. Bob Bender) or “fattening up the town’s people” (Ross Sclafani of Phil’s Pizzeria); fines had to be paid before the “arrested” could be released from jail!
Downtown businesses in Middleville at the time of the 1984 Sesquicentennial Celebration included Bender’s Auto Body, Mulford’s Village Grocery (next to the bridge on the west side of the river), Mason’s Hardware, the Middleville Variety Store (located in the old Keeler Block – “The Corner Store” building), Thornapple Floral and Gift (Anona Steeby, sold Oct. 1, 1984 to Kim and Chris Selleck), Flying Colors Imprints (Gordon Bennett), Mutt and Jeff’s Ceramics & Gifts, Wm. R. Getty Realty, Smith Pharmacy (Dick Smith, registered pharmacist), Dr. Eldon Newmyer, D.C. (chiropractor), Ted’s Auto Service, Schondelmayer’s Barber Shop, Family Care Dentistry (F. James Budde, DDS and James E. Reagan, DDS), Central Garage Inc. (Pontiac – GMC dealership owned and operated by Art Kenyon and his sons Bob and Bill), Central Auto Parts Inc. (owned and operated by Rod Kenyon and his sons Craig and Tom), The Sun and News Newspaper (Donald E. Boysen, publisher and editor), Phil’s Pizzeria, and Gene & Joe’s Tavern. Geukes Custom Meat Processing was located at the end of High Street, while Dean’s Gas Station & Minimart and Robertson Plumbing & Heating were located on Grand Rapids Street. Businesses found along the M-37 corridor included the Middle Villa Inn & Bowling Lanes, Fates’ Sav Mor Supermarket, Pharmacy Care, Gavin Chevrolet – Buick, Inc. (formerly owned first by Bennett Motor Sales, followed by Beebe, and next Verlinde before Gavin), Gene Poll Realty, Booth Insurance Agency, Thornapple Kitchen Restaurant, Hastings City Bank – Middleville branch, Miller Real Estate, Dr. Douglas K. Shumway, D.O. (physician), Bender’s Union 76 Service Station, Norm’s Landscape & Snow Plowing Services (Norm Jahnke), Mutual Home Federal Savings & Loan Association (later PrimeBank and Caledonia State Bank – Middleville branch), Cappon’s Shell Gas Station & Convenience Store, Lon Lefanty State Farm Insurance Agency, Middleville Dari-Dip, U. S. Post Office, A & V Upholstery, Dee’s Standard Oil Service Station, Washland Coin Laundry, Newman’s Drive-In, Crystal Flash Gas Station, Michael’s Spirits & Food (later known as the Swamp Fox Restaurant & Lounge), The Bushwacker Nursery & Landscaping, and Stone’s LP – Bottle Gas. Beeler Funeral Home was (and still is) located at 914 W. Main Street, four blocks west of the M-37 traffic light.
Industries present in Middleville at the time of the 1984 Sesquicentennial were Baby Bliss, Inc. (manufacturers of baby clothing with plants located on Spring and W. Main Streets), Bradford-White Corp. (manufacturers of hot water heaters located on Lafayette Street), Lescoa, Inc. (metal stamping plant located at 900 E. Main Street), and Middleville Mfg. Div., Simpson Industries (automotive parts manufacturer located on State Street.). Middleville and Thornapple Township were the home in 1984 of nine area churches: First 15 Baptist Church of Middleville (founded 1853), Middleville Christian Reformed Church (founded 1953), Middleville United Methodist Church (founded 1855), Middleville Wesleyan Church (founded 1981), New Life Christian Fellowship (founded 1974), Parmelee United Methodist Church (founded 1884), Peace Reformed Church (founded 1965), Shepherd in the Pines Evangelical Lutheran Church (founded 1983), and St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church (founded 1950). A little less than two months after the Middleville Sesquicentennial Celebration, the community was saddened by the sudden death of the Village President, Robert W. Sullivan, age 62, an apparent heart attack victim.
One of the most interesting, noted, and long-time businesses on Main Street in downtown Middleville was the old meat market. The meat market began operations in 1874 under the auspices of McKevitt & Severence. In 1884, Conrad Clever purchased the market, and his son Lloyd Clever sold it around 1913 to Merritt E. Thompson, who in turn sold it to Arthur Geukes, formerly of Byron Center, in August of 1929. Arthur, his wife Florence, and family friend Gurney Keiser, all of Middleville, were killed on November 3, 1945 in an automobile-train wreck at Belmont Station, northwest of Grand Rapids. Their son, Chester “Chet” Geukes, took over Geukes Meat Market and ran it until 1978 when he retired and passed the reigns onto his son Donald Geukes. The downtown meat market on Main Street was closed in May of 1984; the business was moved at that time to a new facility built adjacent to Don Geukes’ slaughterhouse at 500 N. High Street (between the Bradford-White Corp. facilities and the Thornapple River). Retail sales were discontinued but custom meat processing, serving local grocery stores, restaurants and large order customers with high quality meats, continues to this day (2005).
Recent Developments (1985 to 2005)
Downtown Middleville experienced yet another major fire on June 27, 1987. This time Gene & Joe’s Bar and Grill, Phil’s Pizzeria, and the Village Hall (formerly the office of The Sun and News newspaper, and prior to that, the old Farmers State Bank), located on the south side of E. Main Street, were destroyed. An expanded Phil’s Pizzeria and the Cow Pattie Saloon (now Champs Bar & Grill) soon replaced the gutted buildings. Cause of the fire was attributed to a faulty electrical appliance in the back apartment. On May 13, 1991, the Thornapple-Kellogg Schools Bus Garage, located on First Street near the old Middleville Thornapple-Kellogg Middle School, exploded and caught on fire, destroying 24 school buses. The fire, from which smoke could been seen as far away as Kentwood, was battled by Middleville-Thornapple Township, Hastings, Freeport, Caledonia, and Wayland Fire Departments. Suspected arson was attributed as the cause of the explosion/fire. 16 A new bus garage complex was built on Bender Road.
The 1990 U.S. Census population figures had Thornapple Township with 5,226 inhabitants, with 1,966 living in the Village of Middleville. Middleville Heritage Days, an annual event started by the Thornapple Heritage Association in 1990 but now a community-wide celebration with its own planning organization, is generally held on the second Friday and Saturday in September. A new Veterans Memorial granite monument was installed in 1994 at the western end of the newer portion of Mt. Hope Cemetery. That same year, Fire Chief Robert A. Kenyon retired from the fire department, replaced by Bob Woodward. A new middle school was built during the late 1990s west of the present high school on Green Lake Road. An attempt to save the former Thornapple-Kellogg Middle School (built in 1931), spearheaded by the Thornapple Heritage Association and several interested local individuals, failed and the school was therefore demolished, replaced by yet another park-like area. The Thornapple Heritage Association has had better luck working with the Thornapple Township government in trying to save the old railroad depot located in downtown Middleville. Other active community organizations include the Lions Club, the Rotary Club, the Jaycees, the T-K Schools Booster Club, the local VFW lodge, the local garden clubs, and, of course, the churches, just to name a few. On the first anniversary of the terrible September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the U.S. Pentagon, a community-wide religious vigil for the victims of that horrible ordeal was held at the ThornappleKellogg High School’s Bob White Football Stadium.
Middleville today is the home of the largest single employer in Barry County, the Bradford-White Corp. with over 1000 workers. Another large employer in Middleville today is Metadyne (formerly Simpson Industries), a manufacturing plant located on State Street. An industrial park is also located near the northern village limits at the southeast corner of Whitneyville and Crane Roads. While much of the commercial activities in the Village have moved unto the M-37 corridor, the downtown area has recently undergone an aesthetic rejuvenation with the presence of two parks (Sesquicentennial and Stagecoach), the paving of the Paul Henry Trail (the former railroad tracks bed) that extends 3.5 miles southeast to the hamlet of Irving, clean up of the Mill Pond area, and the construction of Mill Pond Condominiums behind the old business district on the south side of Main Street and along the east side of the river. A new combined Fire Station – Emergency Services building was also constructed on High Street during the past few years. The few businesses left in downtown district are, for the most part, small restaurants and specialty shops, along with government buildings. Commercial growth along the M-37 corridor, however, continues, noted with the presence of five strip malls currently found along the highway. The local newspaper, The Sun and News, is now published by JAd Graphics in Hastings.
Middleville’s population growth during the past few years can be largely attributed to the recent development of several single-family residential areas: Thornapple Hills Estates (off from State Road on the east end of town), Riverwood Estates (north end of town off from Grand Rapids Street), Misty Ridge Estates (south end of town off from M-37), and, most recently, Rolling Oaks Estates (northwest end of town off from W. Main Street). Cider Mill Village, a permanent trailer park, is located in the northeastern part of town off from Grand Rapids Street. In addition to Mill Pond Condominiums, there are three Middleville townhouse/condominium developments: on the east end of town, High Ridge Crossing Condominiums and Eastown Townhouses, and on the north side of town east off from M-37, Town Center Condominiums & Townhouses. Middleville presently has three apartment complexes: Thorn-Barry Apartments (on Lincoln Street in the northeast end of town), senior citizens Lincoln Meadows (also on Lincoln Street off from Grand Rapids Street), and low-income Hunter Apartments (east end of town on State Road; formerly known as Thornapple Estates Apartments). Carveth Village, a senior citizen assisted-living complex, is located off W. Main Street, two blocks west of M-37.
Single-family residential subdivisions are also now popping up on former farmlands in rural Thornapple Township. Only a few large active farms remain in the township, such as American Embryos Inc. & Thornapple Veterinary Medical Center (on Patterson Road in Sec. 36), Masselink Dairy Farms (on Green Lake 17 Road in Sec. 21), Riestra Dairy Farms (on Gackler Road in Sec. 17), Tom Otto’s Turkey Farm & Store (on State Road in Sec. 24), and Gary Otto’s Poultry Farm (on Whitneyville Road in Sec.14). The Phil Bender and Bob Wenger families still do some farming on “Scales’ Prairie” in Sections 33 and 28, respectively.
Middleville area churches in 2005 are First Baptist Church of Middleville (housed in a modern edifice built in 1969, since remodeled and expanded, located north of the Village on the west side of M-37 just north of Finkbeiner Road), Good Shepherd Lutheran Church (housed in the old St. Augustine Catholic Church edifice on W. Main Street), Middleville Christian Reformed Church (located on W. Main Street, three blocks west of the traffic light), Middleville United Methodist Church (still located at the corner of Church and Ellis Streets but recently remodeled), Middleville Wesleyan Church (now located on M-37, 2-1/2 miles south of Middleville in Rutland Twp.), Most Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Church (housed in the old Baptist Church edifice on E. Main Street), Parmelee United Methodist Church (still located at the 1884 site as previously described), and Peace Reformed Church (located on the west side of M-37, 2-1/2 miles north of Middleville in Thornapple Twp.). Two of these churches, the First Baptist Church and the Middleville United Methodist Church, recently celebrated their 150th (Sesquicentennial) Anniversaries in April, 2003 and May, 2005, respectively.
The Village of Middleville officials for 2005 are Lon Myers, President; Mary Jean Havenaar, Clerk; Ron Howell, Village Manager; Chris Mugridge, Treasurer/Finance Director; Wayne Winchester, Public Works Director; Sgt. Tony Stein, Police; Geoff Moffat, Planner; and Trustees Floyd Bray, Charles Pullen, Michael Lytle, Dorothy Corson, David Newman, and William Nesbitt. The Village hall is located in the old White Products office, since remodeled, at 100 E. Main Street. Thornapple Township officials for 2005 are Donald E. Boysen, Supervisor; Susan J. Vlietstra, Clerk; Rhonda Fisk, Deputy Clerk; Debra Kay Buckowing, Treasurer; and Trustees Patrick G. Harrison, Rex Schad, Walter Eavey, and Michael B. Kelly. The Township hall is housed in the old Keegstra IGA store building located at 200 E. Main Street. Kevin A. Konarska is the Superintendent of Thornapple-Kellogg Schools; serving on the T-K Board of Education for the 2005/6 school year are Don Haney, Pres.; Scott Kiel, V. Pres.; Kim Selleck, Sec.; Tom Ward, Treas.; and Trustees Marty Wenger, Dave Smith, and Cindy Ordway.