The Lowell Area Historical Museum is offering a weekly feature to explore local history. This week, museum staff is telling us about the history of M-21 in Lowell, Michigan. To learn more about Lowell history, visit the museum website to explore its collection of local artifacts and records.
“From walking and ox carts to automobiles, Lowell has seen many changes in how individuals zoom from one place to another.” – Z is for Zoom, ABC’s of Lowell History Round 3
As with the rest of the world, the automobile dramatically impacted life around Lowell. With a small city center and a sizable agricultural region surrounding, the car shrunk the disparity in lifestyle between the “townies” and the farmers. Suddenly, people could live on farms and work in the city. In order to accommodate automobiles, roads had to be improved. A major contributor in the growth of Lowell was the development of M-21, as there was no paved roadway connecting Lowell to Grand Rapids. This state highway was intended to be international, going through Ontario and then into New York.
While following the river from Lowell to Ada seems so natural to us today, there was a debate about that route. In 1927 a new county park had been proposed, and Melville McPherson, supervisor of Vergennes Township, presented an alternate route request for M21. This new route would take the motorist to the proposed county park, and then on to Ionia. This alternate route was to follow a similar route as the stage coach line that ran from Grand Rapids to Ionia in the mid 1800’s.
Members of the roads and bridges committee of the board of supervisors met for a picnic at the proposed county park along the north and west of Flat River above Fallasburg in Vergennes Township. Later the supervisors met together with the county road commission, and conferred with State Highway Commissioner Frank F. Rogers.
The community of Lowell voiced their disagreement to the rerouting of proposed M21, even stating “it goes without saying that any proposal to remove this State highway from Lowell Main Street will not be regarded as a friendly act by the citizens of the most populous town in Kent County outside of Grand Rapids.” Saranac leaders too expressed disapproval, as their town would also be bypassed. A delegation from Lowell met with the road board to make the case for the river route. There were nearly 70 delegates, including; State Representative Dexter G. Look, F.M. Johnson of the Lowell Ledger, Charles Doyle of the King Milling Co., Harry Day of the City State Bank, Dr. S.S. Lee, O.J. Yeiter, who was village president, R.E. Springett, M.N. Henry, F.J. Hosley, E.D. McQueen, L.W. Rutherford, R.D. Stocking, C.H. Runciman, and J.M. Hutchinson of the Lowell Journal. The delegation’s points were that the river route would have the most beautiful scenery in Michigan, it would be cheaper to upgrade the current gravel road then to keep maintaining the current road and build and pave another road. They pleaded with the board to not allow Lowell to be isolated from the main line of travel. Further, they promised to widen the road in Lowell to accommodate increasing traffic and D. G. Mange who had previously said he would not consent to splitting his farm on the southeast quarter of section 3 for M21 to cross, relented and agreed to allow the crossing. The gravel river road had followed the river all the way to Hudson. Land was needed to allow M21 to come right into Lowell. Bowes Road is where the previous gravel road continued on.
To the relief of the Lowell and Saranac delegation, Governor Green advised the delegations to go home and “rest in peace with the positive assurance that M21 would not be removed from Lowell”.
The construction of M21 was accomplished with labor from inmates from the Michigan Reformatory in Ionia. A ‘convict camp’ was set up on the Bibbler farm on the northeast quarter of section 34 in Vergennes Township. This is the southwest corner of today’s intersection of Vergennes and Lincoln Lake. The camp began with 40 men but grew to at least 165. The community was assured that the men were under the control of armed guards, Deputy Pat Bowes himself was on duty for 12 hours at night, and that the men were fed good solid meals. An organ was donated to the camp and the area ministers rotated holding Sunday services at the camp.
After the planning, the route disagreements, all of the work involved, and the waiting, a large celebration was planned at the completion. On Tuesday, October 30, 1928, Grand Rapids, Ada, Lowell and Saranac celebrated the completion of M21 in this stretch. Main Street Lowell was adorned with flags and “local businesses closed so that factory and mill hands and people in general could join in the celebration and in enjoyment of the band music”. Guests were welcomed at city hall and then a luncheon was served at the Riverview Inn east of town. Speakers for the event included Frank F. Rogers, State Highway Commissioner, Dexter G. Look, State Representative, Warren G. Townsend, Chairman of the Kent Count Road Commission, W.H. Anderson, Chairman of the State Highway Advisory Board, C.D. Livingston, State Commissioner of Insurance, and Charles Shean, Warden of Ionia State Reformatory. The tape was cut, and a four foot long floral key to the city was given to Frank Rogers from Dexter Look. The Lowell Board of Trade, the County and the State had created a roadway that almost a hundred years later, we cannot imagine being without.