3 floors of history

Dowagiac Area History Museum Director Steve Arseneau is gearing up for the institution’s Oct. 19 open house. Among the new items on exhibit is the bench behind him that advertised for the Oppenheim clothing store.

DOWAGIAC - The Dowagiac Area History Museum is living up to its name and offering more local history than ever, thanks to recent renovations, officials say.

And they're hosting an open house at 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 19, to celebrate the opening of the museum's second floor. The museum is at 201 E. Division St.

"It features a lot of never-before-seen stuff and a lot of one-of-a-kind things," Director Steve Arseneau said of the second floor. "There are quite a bit of things people haven't seen before.

"We got quite a few donations our first year here. We created some buzz and got some good stuff."

The museum opened in May 2013, relocating from Southwestern Michigan College after college officials said they needed the space for other uses. Dowagiac officials offered the building, which had been donated to it by the Behnke family.

The completion of second-floor renovations means the museum is done with exhibit space on each of the building's three floors, including the basement. Second-floor work began in January.

Arseneau said the second floor is being divided between the new Dowagiac history exhibit and space for temporary exhibits. He said he and volunteers realized a lot of good stories had been left out of the other exhibits that focus on Dowagiac.

The new Dowagiac exhibit is titled "Industry, Arts, Education and Leisure: A Dowagiac Story." It highlights the area's history from its 1848 founding and its first railroad service to the present day with the Dogwood Festival and Southwestern Michigan College.

Among the focuses will be the city's immigrant populations, including people who came from Germany, Poland and China as well as others who settled here such as Thomas Jefferson Martin, a black barber.

Among the never-before-exhibited items include a bench advertising the Oppenheim clothing store, an Amigo tractor made by the Demco in Dowagiac in the 1960s and the dress worn in the 1953 Miss America pageant by Velva Robbins, the only Miss Dowagiac to win the Miss Michigan contest.

The Dowagiac Union High School portion of the exhibit has familiar and new pieces. In the new category are a pillow cover featuring the names of students in the Class of 1898, a pillow from the 1907 football team and a football uniform from the 1940s.

The temporary exhibit space will host two to three exhibits each year with the first coming in February from Michigan State University. "Michigan Eats" will be up for three months and present information about the different food cultures found around the state.

His plans call for the next temporary exhibit to open next summer and be on Cass County military history. In general, he said the temporary exhibits will feature a wide variety of topics and will sometimes be augmented by related items from the museum's collection.

Arseneau said the second-floor renovation occurred more quickly than some people expected. The fundraising campaign began in spring 2014 and $70,000 had been raised by the start of 2015. That amount was augmented by $50,000 from the city.

"We had a lot of great donors, including museum members, volunteers, the Pokagon Fund and Wolverine Mutual Insurance," he said.

Among the volunteers is Sister Lakes resident Chuck Timmons. Timmons is on the museum's advisory committee and has been helping Arseneau build props for the new exhibit.

"It's nice seeing the items out on display," Timmons said. "It's been an enjoyable process. We've been able to bring out items that had been in storage and new donations."

The museum building has more than 6,000 square feet of exhibit space. The first floor highlights Dowagiac industry, including the Round Oak Stove Co., while the basement has more Cass County history and an area for programs.

Arseneau said that moving Dowagiac items to the second floor is freeing basement exhibit space.