Mattawan’s History

Mound Builders Era

Some of the first people of the region, more than 400 years ago, were the Mound Builders. Their name derives from earthworks of various sizes which they constructed. They were able to produce copper cookware, arrowheads, and stone implements that are occasionally found in this region today. Many believe that the civilization Mound Builders migrated to Mexico.

The Pottawatomie Migration

The Pottawatomie Indians migrated to southwest Michigan from Southern Wisconsin around 1740. They did not believe in land ownership but protected the land on which they camped. Their shelters were wigwams constructed of bent saplings, bark and grass matting. Chief Pokagon, their spokesperson, was educated and articulate. His writings are recorded in Michigan history. Although he and his followers were exempted from the Chicago treaty of 1821 and the later treaties of 1828 and 1833, a majority of the Pottawatomie left Van Buren County prior to statehood in 1836.

The First Settlers

Joseph and Mary Johnson were some of the first settlers with European ancestry that came to the Mattawan area in the mid-1830’s. After living in the area for several years, they were given a government land grant in 1837.In 1836, a sawmill was started by Mr. Samuel Wells. This provided early settlers with a means of employment. They began to clear land and bring their lumber to the mill. Wages were low and money was scarce. For many, a day’s work only yielded a dollar. People often traded goods and services for things that they needed.  Nathaniel Cheeseboro arrived in the area in October of 1846. He was an attorney and came to buy right-of-way for the Michigan Central Railroad. He bought land from Lyman Lawrence to set up a station and car shops. In 1848, Mr. Cheeseboro named the station “Mattawan”, meaning “good pelts”, after a town Mattewan on the Hudson River in New York State were some of the first settlers lived before moving “west.”The railroad and its telegraph became Mattawan’s link to the world in 1848. Money began circulating more freely and Mattawan soon started to feel like a part of the outside world. Newspapers published stories about the excitement of riding on a train. If a person went to Detroit or Chicago, it made the headlines.  As more people came, Mr. Lawrence had four blocks of his land surveyed and filed a deed with the Register of Deeds in Paw Paw on November 9, 1850. He named the town-site “Mattawan”, after the railroad station. Further additions to the plot were made in 1853 and 1857 by Charles Scott and Elias Kinne.  In 1851, Mr. Cronkite built the first grocery store. He later sold the store to Rev. J.J. Bliss, the first postmaster, who kept all the mail in a cigar box. The store was also a training school for telegraphers. The Antwerp House Hotel was built by J. A. Parmenter in 1856. It was later sold to George Conklin who renamed it the Willard House. Another hotel was built by Henry Durge in the late 1850’s called the Phoenix Hotel. The hotels were the center of attention for social gatherings and dances. A meal cost about a quarter. A cold bath was a quarter, with hot baths at 35 cents. Room rates at the hotels were about a dollar a day. Haircuts were a dime. Dr. Ide, Mattawan’s first doctor, made house calls for $2.00. His first offices were in the hotel.  Lumber-jacking started booming in the 1860’s. To some extent, it was the result of New York immigrants who needed cleared land for grape and peach seedlings. As other transportation became available and the resources for lumbering diminished, the industry vanished. The town had approximately 800 inhabitants. There were seven stores, a grain elevator, a coal and lumber yard and a slaughterhouse. A Methodist Church was established in 1865. This was followed in 1867 by a Congregational Church, which met in a temporary building of poles and thatch called “The Wigwam”. The Methodist Church disbanded in 1917. In 1870, the Union House Hotel was added to a growing business area at the corner of Front and Murray. Mattawan’s first school, built in the 1840’s, was wooden. It was located on the land located near the intersection of Main and McGillen. A second wooden school was built in 1868 on the site of the present St. John Bosco Roman Catholic Church. It was replaced with the first brick building that was built in 1890. It later burned in 1904. A second brick building, at the same site, was built in 1905. A third brick building was built in 1911. Five small rural school buildings were merged into a “consolidated” school. Students from Mattawan and other areas of Van Buren County came each day, but some students and teachers that lived further away stayed with families close to the school. The teacher had many duties. Besides teaching, the teacher had to do all the custodial chores such as sweeping the floor, washing the windows and keeping the fire going. The pay was about $35 a month.

Van Buren County Was Formed

Van Buren County was formed by an act of the legislative council of Michigan and approved by General Lewis Cass, Territorial Governor on October 29, 1829. The County was named after Martin Van Buren of New York who was then serving as President Jackson’s Secretary of State. At that time, the County was divided into seven townships. However, in 1854 it was reorganized to the present configuration.  Continued Growth throughout the 1900’sA second railroad track was laid in 1902, which led to continued growth. By 1906, many new buildings had been built. The first auto show was held on Front Avenue. There was another hotel built. A grape juice factory was built just south of the railroad tracks on Main Street by Phil Dietz. The building was later sold to Armour. It was later purchased by Welch’s. The building became the Campbell-Murch pickle processing plant in the 1960’s. It has housed several other businesses since that time.  Members of the Sunshine Club continued to operate the library with donations of books, books loaned by the county library and volunteer personnel until the 1950’s when club membership dwindled. Funds for necessary expenses were no longer obtainable. The few remaining club members found it increasingly difficult to operate the library even for a few hours a week. The building was also in need of repairs and redecoration. In 1957, the library became a branch of the county library through a joint agreement between the Sunshine Club, who would furnish the building, the Antwerp Township, who would help with local expenses and the Van Buren County Library who would employ the necessary personnel.  Several large fires occurred as Mattawan grew. One of them destroyed the train station. Another demolished several buildings, including hotels in the business district.  The ambition of the Mattawan Sunshine Literary Club from the time it was first organized in 1905 was to establish a public library for the village. In 1906 as the result of a donation of books, a circulating library was started. In 1914, a donation from Fred Remington enabled the club to erect a building on a lot previously acquired from Mrs. Mary Merrifield. Courthouse records show a sum of $30.00 paid for the land.  In 1923, the Red Arrow Highway was a small dirt road. Much of the area had to be logged to clear the way for the road. At the time, the school operated four buses.

Times of Tragedy and Rebuilding

A new brick school building, now the Center Building, was built in 1936. The gymnasium area burned in 1938. It was rebuilt. A second story was added to the building in 1939.During World War II in the early 1940’s, a Prisoner of War Camp was established in Mattawan. The P.O.W.’s worked at the grape juice factory which was then owned by Welch’s. Many of the prisoner’s of war became well-liked and some even stayed in America after the war.  In May of 1945, a tornado demolished the then bus garage west of the Center Building. It was rebuilt and is now used as a maintenance facility. In 1953, a new elementary school (now the Early Elementary School) and in 1959 a new high school (now the Later Elementary School) buildings were built near Cook’s Drain (creek) on Murray Street. The St. John Bosco congregation first met in 1953. St. John Bosco purchased the 1911 school building and opened a parochial school in 1957. The parochial school later closed in 1970. Students transferred to the public school.

Interstate Highway Drives Commercial Growth

The I-94 Expressway opened for traffic on November 25, 1959. The Village of Mattawan incorporated on January 18, 1960.  International Research and Development Corporation, now MPI Research, opened in 1963. West Point Hills and Faith Baptist Church were established in 1964. Several new businesses including the Olson shopping plaza were established near the expressway in 1960. This plaza has since been razed and replaced by other businesses to service a growing community.  The character of Mattawan changed as travel was easier. Stores in the business district began to close as many people went shopping elsewhere with their new found mobility.

Accommodating Growing Enrollment

A large addition was added to the now Early Elementary School in 1969. The concept of a middle school was soon adopted, creating an elementary school, a middle school, and a high school. The new Middle School opened in 1978. In 1979, a new classroom wing was added to the then High School (present Later Elementary School). The present High School was opened in 1989. Additions were added to all buildings since the High School was completed.  In 1990, the grade configuration of buildings was changed to K- 2, 3-5, 6-8 and 9-12 with the completion of the new High School. Mattawan Consolidated School has evolved into a central focus for the Village of Mattawan as well as the more rural areas. Even with population growth, there has been a concerted effort to maintain the good qualities of a “hometown” feel with a rigorous academic and comprehensive activity program for students. The annual school homecoming parade provides a glimpse of the reality.  Pictures and artifacts of the early days of Mattawan may be observed in the first-floor hallway of the Center Building of Mattawan Consolidated School.