A Story of Midland

by Lawrence H. Conrad

[Author of “Temper,” “The Author’s Mind,” Etc.]


        The writer of fiction grows ashamed of himself and of his craft when he visits the quiet little town of Midland, Michigan. For there, in the very heart of a “pleasant peninsula” has been enacted in the last twenty-five years a story that has all the elements of our modern “success fiction”, and that could not be made to seem more real or more typically American, even if you took the liberty of distorting the facts. In telling this story, there are a dozen lessons you could point out, and all of them would be valuable if applied to other towns in the state. Midland itself has chosen to point out the historical lesson, and in doing so the little town seems to this writer at least, to have advanced many steps beyond its more spectacular sisters.

        Picture Midland in 1900. By count there were about 25oo souls, though many of these, the residents now believe, had deceased to their eternal reward, and the census-taker had secured their names from their grave-stones. The brave period of the town’s growth had passed; Midland had cut itself out of the woods; its wealth and beauty had “gone down the river” with the logs. There had been a flourishing salt industry, too, from 1870 to 1890. The scrap from the lumbering generations had made an excellent fuel for the production of salt, and that commodity had become very cheap. A barrel of salt sold for forty-six cents, or twenty-three cents if you brought your own barrel. With the lumbering finished, the mills could no longer furnish bolts and scraps to be burned. The fires went out; the wells were being abandoned. Midland turned over in alarm to find itself penniless in a desert of stump-country, and with no further means of support.

        Midland was not alone in facing this prospect. All over the state the pioneer lumberman had gone in to get the most visible of the earth’s treasurers; he took what he wanted and withdrew. Those hardy souls who went into the woods with him, who settled there, lived, bore their children and buried their dead, keeping the drama of life in motion, found themselves, soon or late, dependent upon their own resources to sustain life. Many a story could be written of the abandoned town left in the desolate waste behind the woodsman’s axe. Some towns died outright; some only ate out their hearts in misery; some of them are still sitting, beggarly, by the roadside, taking an alms from the tourist in exchange for hot dogs and gasoline.

        The settled folk are the ones to pity; they who have memories to cherish and graves to water with their tears. It is the youth of the place that gets up and moves. So in Midland; the flower of the town sought other and fairer fields, and with their going the hope of rehabilitation burned low. Something of a panic spread. Homes were burned for the insurance they would bring. Insurance companies, alarmed, took counsel, preparing to withdraw. The rumor of this, running through the village, bred hysteria. This notion took hold of the residents; “If you’re going to burn out, better do it now.” More and more conflagrations followed. There were twenty fires in one week. Midland had eaten the cake of its natural resources, and its people were in despair. It was a town all but sacked by its own population.

        If I were writing fiction and making this up as I go along, I would insert at this point in the narrative a strong character, a man with an idea, a “man on horseback” who should cry out outrageously to the fleeing residents and by his encouragement and his example stem the tide of their retreat. Things do not happen so swiftly or so dramatically in life as they do in fiction, but the same things do happen, and in the story I am telling, such a man appeared.

        He was, in fact, already on the ground, and the situation of the town was not so hopeless as would appear from a recital of the facts. The town had one obvious resource. It could not take salt at the current market price if it had to buy expensive fuel; but it could make something more valuable than salt; it could make bromine. Actually, in the midst of the alarm and the hysteria, there was pumping steadily in Midland the largest bromine well in the world. Moreover, there was at work in that town, with no intention of leaving, a young man now grown gray, who must stand out as the hero of this story.

        Herbert H. Dow came to Midland in 1890, a graduate of the Case Technical School in Cleveland, and with as good a background in engineering as you could expect of a youth at twenty-four. He had no money, though his partner had some $3000, with which they purchased an abandoned well and set up operations for the manufacture of bromine. They made a small beginning and grew very slowly. After ten years of effort, Mr. Dow was in no position to assume the posture of a “man on horseback” or to pose as the savior of a town. He was, in fact, suspected, distrusted, and genuinely despised. The town’s darkest years were his also.

        Let me give you the human side of this picture. The populace frankly called this man a fool. They were bred in lumber and salt; they had come to a philosophy of despair. Mr. Dow was bred in chemical research; he knew that the salt-manufacturer had thrown away bromine worth ten times the value of the salt he saved; he brought with him a philosophy of hope. He went cheerfully along in the face of their reviling, paying his board-bill with stock in his company. Beginning in 1900, two important lawsuits were brought against him by residents of Midland. It was charged that his chemical plant had seriously depreciated property values in the town and that the stinks he made were a menace to the public health. Individual citizens attached themselves to the suits, claiming damages for all sorts of absurd reasons. Either one of the lawsuits would have ruined his business utterly; but neither one was successful. It is interesting here to note that these suits were heard in the old Midland county court-house. The building has now been removed.

        Fighting not alone the battles of science, but the opposition of his neighbors as well, Mr. Dow continued his work. The period from 1900 to 1917 would make a splendid conservation story all in itself. For that period is a history of the utilization of one after another of the by-products of bromine, and of the by-products of the by-products of bromine. The plant grew and expanded, as it had to by the force of the principle that has governed its operation. This principle is important enough in the history of industry to merit space in this article, for it has made possible all of our industrial miracles.

        The lumberman went out after lumber. He took it all ruthlessly, with no thought for the future. He left the scrap from his mills for others to use if they cared to. When he had taken all, he was through. The salt-manufacturer dug for salt. What was not salt, he threw away. When he could no longer compete with the salt market, he quit. We do not do that any more; we have learned our lesson. The new principle in industry is this: You set up a machine to make an article; you catch the scrap. Then you set up a machine to make something useful out of the scrap; and again you catch the waste material. Thus, after thirty-five years of operation, the Dow Chemical Company has not begun to make what will be its ultimate chief product. It has kept so busy using up the waste from the waste from the waste, that it hasn’t had a chance to find out yet what its ultimate chief product will be. The beauty of this industrial principle is that the plant that employs it is compelled to expand constantly. To list the products of this chemical plant at the present moment requires a catalogue.

        Beginning with the entry of the United States into the war in 1917, the tremendous value of the Dow industry became manifest, and the hundreds of useful products and processes developed by the years of patient research were place at the disposal of the government. The town’s fool was a fool no longer, but its most important and valuable citizen. Steadily to the end of the war the plant grew and expended and developed, never once catching breath from one marvelous discovery to the next. And at the close of the war its facilities continued to supply the needs of humanity, competing successfully with the products of chemical plants the world over.

        During these years, something happened to Midland. It found itself grown to a population of 7000 and more, supporting a ten million dollar industry with 1700 employees. It found its population made up of skilled, well-educated men and their families. It abandoned the old-fogey spirit and found itself stepping more and more rapidly to keep up with the march of events. It re-vamped its schools; it built new places of business and recreation; it started looking up and being cheerful; it dreamed dreams once more and worked toward their realization. Midland right now is full of fools of the sort it once reviled.

        In the meantime, the profits from the chemical company were being put to a good use and one which, far from depreciating property values, has made of Midland one of the prettiest towns in the state. You will remember that the lumbermen left Midland barren. As you go to it now, from any direction, you pass through a desolate waste in which scattered stumps and tree-trunks, blackened by fires, lend a deadly monotony to the landscape for many weary miles. In the town itself, however, there is the Dow Estate, open to the public, which draws tourists from everywhere. Here the visitor finds a welcome relief and refreshment from the scenes of his journey.

        There are more than seventy acres in lawn and garden, profusely planted and kept with a skill that keeps alive the fullest degree of beauty. The atmosphere is one of quiet loveliness, and on its grassy lanes, shut in by a delightful series of little rolling hills, you can lose yourself and give up to the intangible things, wandering at will for more than an hour without seeing the same thing twice. At every turn and on every hand a new wonder opens. Here your vista leads gently upward till you see the sky. There a great sea opens before you of multi-colored flowers. The air is sweet and fragrant and full of the freshness of early morning. At a turn, you come suddenly upon a winding, artificial river, clear and clean, and on a wide bay the white swans float, as still as a painted picture. Again as you round a hill and look upward there is a sparkle of water in the sunlight and a little stream comes winding down, over step after step of its stony cascades, fills a great swimming-pool at your feet and overflows into an outlet that goes quickly around the hill under a quaint Japanese bridge.

        All this is a work of restoration, giving back to Midland some of the beauty that was once hers by natural right. The contagion of it has run through the village until many a house there has become an “estate” with its own little landscaping scheme and its own little gardens, tiny but beautiful. It is as though the very flowers from the Dow gardens had broken out and spread their seeds here and there through the town. So that, as the town grows, it becomes not “strong and coarse and cunning,” but mellow and human and alive to the subtler jobs of life.

        Midland has not gone hysterical with its development; Midland is not having a boom; it is merely enjoying a sound, healthy growth. The town has learned by heart the industrial principle that is slowly saving the nation’s natural resources. It has learned, too, to apply that principle everywhere and to value it above everything. In the height of its job, Midland has built upon its main street a new County Court-House that is at once a kind of civic sacrifice of thanksgiving for the city’s deliverance, and an earnest, a testimonial of a valuable lesson well learned.

        Nowhere in America will you find another court-house like this one. It is a unique piece of architecture in the state. Every scrap of material used in its construction was gathered within the boundaries of the county it serves. In addition, there have been built deeply into its outer walls symbolical and historical figures commemorating the early history of Midland County. The work is of plastic mosaic, a kind of stucco, in several colors, the color-constituency being of local manufacture, mixed with powdered glass to insure permanence. The scheme is a background of tan varied through buff and yellow, upon which are worked figures in the darker shades of green. Each wall becomes a great mural upon which the artist, Paul Honore, of Detroit, has secured some remarkable effects, reproducing in heroic proportions the figures of trader, trapper, lumberman, and pioneer. On the side toward the main street these rugged figures compel the eye, turning the mind at once to the thought of the continuity of human experience. At the back of the building, toward the Pere Marquette railroad, they are even more striking and provoke an interest and a curiosity in all who pass through the town. The two ends of the building are relieved by symbolical figures of a great pine, forlorn and desolate, with a solitary, drooping limb.

        Those who enter the spacious building find still more of historical interest, for in its corridors and upon the walls of the beautiful Circuit Court chamber are oil paintings by Biron Rodger and Paul Honore, depicting the negotiations with the Indians, the lumbering, and the simple farmyard scenes that formed the background out of which the development of the county has proceeded. This art work which makes the building unique and which has drawn attention from all over the United States has been made possible by the personal contribution of Mr. Dow. It was in the Midland County Court-House that he sat, twenty-five years ago, fighting to maintain his business against a score of fores - against almost the entire town. He was thirty-five then. Now at the age of sixty he is the best known and best loved man in Midland. He has made a donation to the county of one-third of the cost of the new building.

        To Mr. Dow belongs credit for the conception of a court-house building that should be at once a monument of commemoration, a thing of civic pride, and an original architectural standard for the state. Not a person sees it but he goes away wishing that his won county could do a similar thing. Not a visitor passes through its halls but he is set to wondering what figures his own county could use in decorating a similar building. And with that, there is set in motion one of the healthiest of all human impulses; the desire to know something of the beginnings of one’s own community, of the struggles and sacrifices that have made possible our present institutions. Midland has set an example to the state of Michigan by publicly declaring its early history in a building that is genuinely artistic and a joy to the eye.

        In this commemoration is an assurance of sound future growth. Some folks progress by forgetting the past, by putting out of their minds the low estates and early beginnings out of which they came. Standing upon the shoulders of their pioneer ancestors, they pretend to have under their feet a solid earth of their own achievement. So doing, they become dilettante in the affairs of life, unsympathetic and arrogant toward their fellows. But Midland remembers, commemorates, celebrates its beginnings. It has deliberately chosen to take its stand upon the earth, to accept the traditions that lie behind it of fearless exploration, honest husbandry, and scholarly research into the secrets of nature. No Michigan town could find an example and a standard more sound or more worthy of emulation than this little town has set.



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