The big fire of 1902 was started by a burglar at Schuh’s Harness Shop (now Jayda Gale Distillery). It burned the whole block of South Main Street from Pine to Superior streets. The barn in the background still stands today. (Photo courtesy of Then and Now Genealogy Library of Allegan County).The Schuh Furniture House is in the background of a celebration in Wayland after being rebuilt from ashes in the fire of 1902. The building is now Jayda Gale Distillery.

Wayland city looks back over 150 years

By: 
Virginia Ransbottom, Staff Writer

As an ode to its colorful history as “The Dahlia City, The City of Wayland will commemorate its 150th anniversary with a dahlia-themed celebration July 20-21.

Wayland’s been called many things through the years.

In its earliest years, it was Lumbertown, named when Wayland’s first property was sold to Col. Isaac Barnes for use as a mill site for lumbering along the Rabbit River in 1836.

It was also called Lomax City when it was platted and Chambers’ Corners when the plank road ran through it. But when the village was incorporated in 1868, supervisors gave Wayland its name permanently affixed to the town. It was apparently named after a city in New York.

Even with an official name, Wayland also had its nicknames: “The Dahlia City” for its former fields of flowers and “The Cow Town of Michigan” after its immense dairy farms circling town.

But before Wayland became a village, it had to be carved out of a wilderness of extensive pine groves that were densely populated by wolves—so much so, that those caught after dark without a torchlight could soon be stalked, surrounded and devoured. Bear and deer were also plentiful.

And well before outsiders surveyed the land in 1826, the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of the Pottawatomi Indians lived in settled villages across the area, farming corn, hunting game, harvesting wild rice and making maple sugar.

The earliest white settler within what is now the City of Wayland was Nelson Chambers and his family who arrived in 1837. Chambers helped clear the land for farming, using the trees to shave shingles and hauling them by oxen to Battle Creek sales.

By the 1840s several families had settled in the area and by 1844 there were enough children to justify the establishment of the first school—a small log structure that formerly did duty as Chambers’ shingle shanty.

Nelson Chambers also operated the Wayland halfway house, which was built in 1854 on the east side of Main Street where city hall now stands. That’s how Wayland was nicknamed Chambers’ Corners.

The following year, the plank road was built going right through Chambers Corners. The hostelry in the forest was a popular stopping point for travelers between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, which was a two-day trip.

Had the road of thick-sawn wooden planks not been built, Wayland probably would have been left behind. Before 1850, there was no direct route between the two cities, but in the plank road’s heyday, the busy toll road made the little town a natural stopping place and the town began to grow.

Chambers’ Wayland House Hotel became a hub of activity, providing food and lodging. Chambers’ had a large livery barn south of the hotel and in back of the hotel was a large hog lot. Ben Chambers, son of Nelson, used to make a nuisance of himself hanging around the hotel all the time with his dog. To get rid of him, his father would holler out, “Ben have you fed the hogs?” “Yep,” answered Ben. “Well go feed ‘em again!”

After Nelson died, the hotel was kept by his son until Aug. 8, 1891, when it was destroyed by fire along with all the buildings on the corner east of South Main Street. The hotel lot remained vacant for many years.

While another hotel was built across the street in 1856, by Mr. Smith and Manley, it too burned down along with the whole block in 1902.

The greatest enemy to Wayland in the past had been the strange and mysterious fires, and very seldom has a town of its size been visited by such heavy losses. Wayland was devastated by a series of fires and residents would come to believe it had a fire bug. With so many wooden buildings, heated by wood stoves and lit by oil lamps and candles, fire was a constant threat.

Wayland’s first large fire was in 1883. It took a whole row of buildings on the west side of North Main Street, which consisted of two blacksmith shops, a carriage works and home of Wm. Stockdale. These were quickly replaced and business resumed.

The second fire was January 1883 when a blaze started on West Superior Street and spread east to Main Street. The loss was very heavy. The next disastrous fire was in 1891 when all the buildings on the corner east of South Main Street were consumed. Besides the Chambers’ fine hotel, barn and sheds, the loss included a skating rink, fitted with a stage and scenery and used as an opera house.

July 20, 1902, shortly before midnight, fire was discovered in Schuh’s furniture and harness shop at 152 W. Main St. It destroyed the southwest block of Main and Superior. Only one building was unscathed and can still be seen today: the modest red barn in the parking lot near Bentley’s Party Store at 145 W. Superior is the lone survivor.

It was believed the fire was started by a burglar after pillaging Schuh’s shop. It spread rapidly to adjoining buildings, including the grange hall, Yeakey’s meat-market, the C.H. Brush hardware store, the opera house (occupied below by Wilson’s furniture stock), Sessions’ confectionery store and the large general store of D.W. Shattuck, all on South Main Street. Last to burn was the New Wayland Hotel, which had been recently remodeled.

The town had no means of fire protection except for the “bucket brigade” common in small towns. Even so, after battling the blaze for two hours, they were able to save the rest of the central business district. The buildings burned were the oldest businesses in town.

Many other mysterious fires also occurred. The school house; M.E. Church; the creamery; E. S. Fitch factory, J.L. Smith warehouse, and many small buildings, until citizens came to believe Wayland had a fire bug. A night watchman was appointed. That was evidently the remedy, as the unaccountable fires ceased.

Three generations of the Schuhs ran the first business to burn and like other businesses on the block, they were the first to rebuild with brick. Schuh’s eventually became Looyengoed’s furniture store, Wayland Carpet and now is Jayda Gale Distillery.

The Wayland Hotel rebuilt in brick and has operated as a tavern since. It was designed by Fred Eely, the same architect who designed Henika Library. Today it is still called the Wayland Hotel and is a bar and grill.

In 1906, a water plant was installed as was the village’s first electric service. Electric lights replaced old gasoline and kerosene lamps along the streets and in homes and stores.

The electric plant was powered by a diesel engine and located in a small building on Elm Street. The plant worked only from sundown until midnight. All late-evening parties had to be planned so people could get home before the lights were turned off. In 1921, the town got 24-hour service.

A wooden pump had been placed in the center of the intersection of Main and Superior streets. Wastewater from the pump served a cistern that furnished the water supply for the fire department. In 1924, a Model T fire truck with a 100-gallon tank was used until a modern 1928 Reo with a front mounted pumper was purchased.

While all these factors helped to put out fires where they started, there were still a few that old-timers can remember.

In April of 1959, a blaze destroyed one of Wayland’s largest industries: Luxaire Cushion Company, a foam rubber warehouse that produced clouds of smoke that could be seen for 10 miles. This time, an oven used to bake the product was the culprit.

On July 14, 1965, four businesses on the west side of North Main Street were destroyed. It started at Herb’s Auto Agency and spread to Dewey Brother’s Appliance and Automotive Agency, Auntie Ruth’s Restaurant and Mutschler’s Electric Company.

This was Part 1 of a three-part history on Wayland. Part 2 will pick up where this leaves off and will recount the more recent past of the town.

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