The Lure of the Old Mill Stream

The City of Dowagiac is rightfully proud of its small town American charm. One aspect of its historical heritage is intimately connected with the Dowagiac Creek and fishing; angling, that is, rather than fly fishing. Trout is not the only game in town!

Looking back, Dowagiac might not have flourished without the railroad, but it owes its existence in the first place to its Mill Pond. According to local historian Berenice Vandenburg, a William Renesten, from Richmond, Indiana, constructed the first dam here in 1832. A dam up stream at Lake LaGrange or "Whit Pond" was constructed the same year. These dams were designed to harness the considerable water power of the Dowagiac Creek which falls 160 feet in Cass County. At the Dowagiac Mill Pond milling flourished for over a century. At one time the output of the grist mills helped to sustain a growing Chicago. The development of transportation and agriculture in the vicinity owed much to these mills' success.

Colby Upper Mill

One of them, the Colby Upper Mill, situated beside the Dowagiac Mill Pond dam, was once designated "America's most photographed mill" by the American Miller Magazine. It was near this picturesque spot that entrepreneur James Heddon liked to fish bass in late 1800's. James had inherited his family's apiary and became a famous bee-keeper. He also founded the Dowagiac Times and served briefly as the growing City's mayor. The apiary thrived under his stewardship and he was recognized as a leading honey producer and a well known writer on the subject of bee-keeping. His strain of bees and his improvements in the bee-keeping business long outlived him.

But it was another invention that secured his and his town's fame. Legend has it that James was whittling next to the Mill Pond one day while waiting for a friend to get off work at the Colby Mill. When his friend came out of the mill to greet him, Jim arose and absentmindedly threw the piece of wood he'd been carving into the pond where it was instantaneously struck by a big bass. In one of those serendipitous moments the notion of an artificial fishing lure dawned on Jim and he began to experiment in earnest. He whittled better and better wood plugs and, pressing a friend from the newspaper into rowing him around the Mill Pond, he tried out variations until the invention of the Dowagiac Lure was perfected around 1902. He marketed them through his honey business at first, until the fishing lures became the sweeter success.

Today collectors highly prize lures from the James Heddon and Son's Company. Some have gone at auction for amazing sums. The enterprise, which started in Heddon's kitchen, moved to a succession of factories and eventually succeeded in becoming renowned in the sports fishing industry for both its lures and rods. Although the actual invention of the artificial fishing lure must be shared with others, James Heddon was unquestionably prominent among them. He was posthumously honored by induction into the Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wisconsin in 1980. The company he founded is among the nation's top tackle manufactures. It was purchased and moved to Arkansas from Dowagiac in 1984. James Heddon & Son's holds a high place along with the Round Oak Stove Company in local business heritage.

One of James Heddon's friends and fellow journalists, Bob Davis of the New York Sun, dubbed James Heddon "the patron saint of surface bait anglers". He remarked that the Dowagiac lure "transformed bass, pickerel and muskellunge angling from a tedious, uncertain enterprise into an ecstatic joy." For many years when fishermen around the country headed out angling for bass they said that they were "goin' doh-wah-jackin.'"

The dam at the Dowagiac Mill Pond washed out in 1968 taking out a down stream bridge and threatening M-62. It was rebuilt by mill pond residents to DNR standards and is now on an inspection schedule. The Mill Pond and Lake LaGrange hold such fond places in local life and lore that their preservation is a priority. Neither threaten the trout fishery above Lake La Grange where a successful barrier has been in place since the 1970's to prevent warm water species from traversing the upper reaches of Dowagiac Creek.

Visitors to Dowagiac will want to visit James Heddon Memorial Park beside the old mill stream just past Dutch Settlement Road going north on M-62. They will also want to connect with the National Heddon Museum. This collection, which was first overseen by local historian Stan Hamper, is now owned and managed by the Lyons family. It includes the collection assembled by 'Trig' Lund, a former Heddon employee and collector and continues to grow under the Lyons' stewardship. The museum, in the former Heddon factory at 414 West Street, consists of family memorabilia as well as an extensive collection of fishing lures, rods and other items manufactured by the company in Dowagiac.

As of this writing the Museum is open Tuesdays 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. and the last Sunday of each month from 1:30 to 4:00 p.m. You can also arrange to visit by appointment by calling Don and Joan Lyons at 616-782-5698 or Dale Lyons 616-782-2567.


Stanley R. Hamper (consultant), Historical Reflections of Cass County, Cass County Historical Commission, 1981.

Stan Hamper, Waterpowered Mills in Cass County, Invictus, Decature, MI, 1993.

Michael Sinclair, Heddon: The Rod With the Fighting Heart, Centenial Publications: Grand Junction, CO, 1997.

Berenice Vandenburg, A Dowagiac Collection, Hardscrabble Books, Berrien Springs, MI, 1982.

South Bend Tribune, Sept. 27, 1987 "Heddon name endures, thanks to 'Trig' Lund".

Interview and correspondence with Joan Lyons. March-April, 2000


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