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The History of Van Buren County, Michigan

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Judge Ransom
Hand-pump spray rig
106th Cavalry goes to World War I
Palisades Park, Michigan Post Office & Ballou Inn
Paw Paw, Michigan Post Office

Located in the southwestern Lower Peninsula, Van Buren County recorded its first permanent settlers when Virginians Dolphin and Nancy Morris erected a cabin in Decatur Township's Section 35 during the spring of 1829. According to Van Buren historian Oran W. Rowland, the Dolphin's "typical" log cabin was:

"... built of logs notched at the corners to hold them in place; the crevices were chinked with split basswood and daubed with clay to make the cabin warm and comfortable; the roof was made of oak shakes which were held in place by weight poles; the floor was of split basswood puncheons several inches in thickness, smoothed slightly on the upper side with an adze or axe. There were three small windows below and one in the gable; the chimney was made of sticks and mud and thickly plastered inside; the fireplace was spacious and wide, admitting of huge logs, in front of which the cooking was done."

The Morris cabin hosted Van Buren's first gospel sermon (delivered by the Reverend William Sprague, a Methodist minister who later served in Congress) and witnessed the birth of the county's first pioneer child, Lewis Creighton Morris, who was born on August 4, 1830.

Another early Van Buren settler was Peter Gremps, a New Yorker who arrived at present-day Paw Paw in 1833. (The name Paw Paw is derived from the tree by the same name that produced an edible fruit that resembles papayas.)

Gremps is credited with platting Paw Paw and founding the community's first mercantile store, flouring mill and public house. Begun in 1834, Daniel O. Dodge's tavern became "one of the principal stopping place" along the entire Territorial Road (present-day Interstate 94). Paw Paw's accommodations also influenced the location of Van Buren's governmental center.

In 1835, six years after Van Buren County-named after Martin Van Buren of New York, who served as secretary of state, vice president and president-was set off, a gubernatorial commission chose the settlement at Lawrence as the county seat. On March 28, 1836 a state statute confirmed this selection. The statute, however, permitted the county supervisors to designate where the circuit courts should meet; the supervisors selected Paw Paw, nine miles east of Lawrence.

In 1840 the supervisors secured the passage of a state law relocating the county seat to Paw Paw. Outraged Lawrence residents fought the move by urging that the issue be submitted to the county's voters. But that opinion was blocked when they were unable to obtain the necessary two-thirds support among the supervisors to authorize a referendum.

At the turn-of-the-century the village of South Haven exercised its status as Van Buren's largest community and sought the county seat. After a brief debate, the supervisors agreed to submit the issue to the voters; the election was set for the first Monday of April 1901. The supervisors also placed another measure on the ballot to fund a new county courthouse.

According to Rowland, the county seat war "was in earnest." Meetings were held across Van Buren supporting or opposing the move or the new courthouse. During the three-month campaign "the county seat question was the principal topic of discussion and conversation throughout the county and also occupied the most prominent position in the columns of its newspapers." Determined to win, South Haven procured passage of a measure authorizing the township to issue bonds totaling $50,000 to construct a new courthouse in South Haven. Paw Paw counteracted and adopted a similar act.

Van Buren voters overwhelmingly defeated the proposed new courthouse. The vote to relocate the county seat was also rejected by a majority of 356 in 8,520 votes cast. Paw Paw retained the county seat and soon placed $50,000 in a county building fund that was used to construct a new courthouse that is still used today. The Van Buren County Courthouse, "a handsome, dignified and richly decorated Classical Revival structure," was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

On the eve of the Civil War, Van Buren boasted over fifteen thousand people; hundreds of Van Buren men went off to war to preserve the Union. During the spring of 1861 the LaFayette Light Guard, a Paw Paw militia company, found no openings in Michigan units. Not easily discouraged, the Van Buren men traveled east and joined the Seventieth New York Infantry. The guard saw action at most of the war's major eastern battles.

Paw Paw's James Bullard went off to war with the Fourth Michigan Cavalry; on May 10, 1865 he and another soldier stopped and arrested two suspicious travelers near Irwinsville, Georgia. One of those was Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who was fleeing the defeat of his nation.

One Van Buren resident who wanted to go to war was Francis DeLong, an American Revolution veteran who moved to Van Buren in 1854. Born in 1760, DeLong had been captured during the Revolution by British forces at Charleston, South Carolina, and imprisoned. When DeLong heard about the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter at Charleston in April 1861, the century-old veteran declared that he was "ready to volunteer again and do all I can to save my country." DeLong was buried in Hartford after his death in 1862.

The Palisades Park, Michigan Post Office & Ballou Inn (circa 1930s)*, was a "Summer Only" post office that was established on July 12, 1910 with Grace A. Ballou as its first postmaster. It became a Contract Rural Station of Covert on July 1, 1957. On February 10, 1966 it became a Contract Rural Branch of Covert; then on July 1, 1975 it became a Community Post Office of Covert. The Palisades Park Post Office discontinued operation on October 28, 1978, along with the 49044 zip code. Mail service to Covert continued under the 49043 zip code.

The Paw Paw, Michigan Post Office (circa 1940s)*, was established on May 7, 1834 with Peter Gremps as its first postmaster. In 1885, the spelling was changed from "Paw Paw" to just one word: "Pawpaw". It was changed back to two words: "Paw Paw" in 1905. Today the zip code for the Paw Paw Post Office is 49079.

(*) Photo courtesy of Paul E. Petosky, Postmarks from the Past.

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Maritime South Haven,
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We sincerely thank Michigan History Magazine for granting reprint rights to this article, originally appearing in the July/Aug 1991 issue.

To subscribe, click Michigan History Magazine.

 


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