Settled in 1835 by pioneers attracted to the arable soil, timber and water power available in the area, several mills, for lumber, wheat and corn and for wool carding, were built in the area. In 1852, mineral springs were discovered in the area. The water was analyzed by professors from then Michigan Agricultural College and found to be rich in magnesia, iron, soda, potassium, sodium, silica acid and lime. Soon people were coming from all over the world to bathe in the mineral springs, purported to be a “cure all” for any number of ailments.
Fourteen wells were ultimately dug to take advantage of the miraculous water and luxury hotels were built to accommodate the trainloads of people (six trains a day!) which brought visitors to the town. Soon Eaton Rapids was being called “The Saratoga of the West” after Saratoga, New York, famed for its healing springs.
In the late 1880’s, Samuel Horner developed a business processing locally produced wool. Well known for their fine blankets and other items, they prospered throughout the next decades and produced uniforms for American troops in both World Wars I and II. They closed in 1961.
In the 1920’s, John Davidson started the only mill in Michigan then spinning its own yarn. The Davidson Mill supplied 95 percent of the wool yarn for major league baseballs as well as high grade yarn for other uses. The mill burned in 1969. However, Davidson’s Old Mill Yarns in Eaton Rapids still sells quality yarn, much of it imported from Scotland.
Another notable local business was Miller Dairy Farms, which produced high-quality ice cream. At one time, they were the largest purveyor of ice cream in the US with 28 retail stores in two states; they partnered with 14 farms to maintain their operations. The old Miller Farm is now the site of the Eaton Rapids Historical Society and features a beautifully restored home as well as an ice cream parlor, open on weekends, a museum highlighting the history of the area, a church, a school which is used for children’s field trips, a blacksmith shop and a block of recreated businesses. The Miller Farm is available for parties, events and gatherings.
Businesses that now call Eaton Rapids home include Meridian Magnesium, which designs, engineers and manufactures magnesium die cast components and Dowding Industry, a facility which includes a stamping plant and a sheet metal fabrication plant.
But Eaton Rapids is more than a unique history. Don Wycoff, Director of the Eaton Rapids Chamber of Commerce, an Eaton Rapids resident and enthusiastic advocate for the city, says, “Since we no longer have the woolen mills or the mineral springs and the malls and big box stores have drawn commerce away from small towns, we feel it’s time to rebrand our community. We feel very strongly that our location is ideal, easily accessible from Lansing, Battle Creek and Jackson. The English Inn here in Eaton Rapids has thrived, and we would like to bring other fine dining restaurants into the community. And we are always working actively to recruit new businesses.”
He continues, “We want Eaton Rapids to be known as a friendly and neighborly community that offers unique experiences and is a good place to visit for a day or to settle and raise a family.”
Complementing the work of the chamber, the Eaton Rapids Development Corporation is a group of 35 private investors who are working to develop the downtown area. They have already purchased six pieces of property and are recruiting businesses.
Wycoff is definitely a proactive Eaton Rapids advocate. When the Saturn plant in Spring Hill, Tenn. closed and some employees were offered the opportunity to move to jobs in Lansing, Wycoff and his wife (a school board member) went to Spring Hill with a well-designed marketing package and talked with employees. The result was that 25 families moved to Eaton Rapids.
Currently, the city is working with a man who has one of the country’s largest collections of GAR memorabilia. (The Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization founded by veterans of the Civil War.) He is interested in bringing his collection to Eaton Rapids as its permanent home. The city’s park is called the GAR Park, and there is a GAR building downtown, which was recently purchased by the collector.
Throughout the year, Eaton Rapids puts on several events. Wycoff says, “Every December, the Chamber puts on its Hometown Family Christmas, a full-day of activities along with a light parade, the lighting of the Christmas tree and a community carol sing. There’s always a Fourth of July parade as well a Memorial Day parade. “
He continues, “In October, we had the first Urban Air event, sponsored by Woodland Travel Center in Grand Rapids. We had over 100 airstream trailers parked in downtown Eaton Rapids, both new ones and older ones that had been restored. The Airstream Corporation is interested in the event, and we are already planning for next year when we anticipate 200 Airstreams will come into Eaton Rapids.”
Each April, the Chamber puts on an Awards Dinner and in August is the Glenn Buege golf-outing, which raises money both for the Chamber and the Autism Association of Michigan.
The Eaton Rapids Paddle Club, a kayaking group, is working with Summit Sports in East Lansing to add some exciting rapids to the Grand River as it runs through Eaton Rapids. They’re hoping to create multiple white water runs which will be permanent.
Wycoff and others have a vision for the community: more people downtown, unique shops, fine dining restaurants, a welcoming atmosphere. And they’re on the way.
Eaton Rapids Chamber of Commerce
Article by Jane Whittington | Photo by Terri Shaver