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St. Johns Heritage Rediscovered

February 1, 2018

dexterthby Paul Dexter

As we approached St. Johns on Highway 27 in our rented Chevy Suburban, my four siblings and I remembered similar road trips from our childhood more than 60 years earlier. Back then as youngsters, we drove with our grandmother, “Granny” Ms. Robert Chauncey Dexter, from Kalamazoo to visit our great aunt, “Auntie Y” Ms. Florence Jeannette Dexter, then still living in her parents’ stately brick home at 200 Church Street, now the residence of Mr. Jon Rise. We remembered eagerly anticipating Auntie Y’s offering of piping hot Constant Comment tea with cookies, while listening to her and Granny tell stories about our St. Johns ancestors and her beloved parents, Roswell Chauncey Dexter (1859-1936) and Jeannette Paine Davies Dexter (1862-1953). R.C. Dexter was the President of the St. Johns National Bank, and his reputation as “The Dean of St. Johns Bankers” always influenced our upbringing. He was also the Senior Warden of St. Johns Episcopal Church.

This Dexter sibling road trip finally came together last summer after much juggling of busy work schedules and making flight arrangements as far away as Hawaii and Jakarta, Indonesia. Our Dexter family is widely dispersed across the world, and after our father, John Roswell Dexter (1920-2016 and the last of his generation in our family), passed away two weeks shy of his 95th birthday in December 2016, we all felt a need to reconnect with our Michigan roots. Thus we flew to Ann Arbor this fall to spread Dad’s cremated remains over Mom’s grave there and to visit our cousin Julie. We then rented a large enough vehicle to carry us and our luggage and drove to Kalamazoo to spread the rest of his remains over his parent’s graves. There strangers willingly pointed us to where we could find Grandpa Dexter’s downtown bank vault and our great uncle Ellis’ sidewalk clock on which is cast my younger brother’s middle name. Then to Grand Rapids to see the older sibling’s elementary school and Dad’s first church as organist, and finally into St. Johns to see again our Dexter and Davies ancestor’s homes, graves in the Eureka and Mount Rest Cemeteries, and churches, St. Johns Episcopal and the former Greenbush United Methodist.


So it was on a perfect fall Saturday, October 21, 2017, that we arrived at the front door of the Paine-Gillam-Scott Museum where we were warmly greeted by Jan Upton, a volunteer. She had kindly offered to open the museum especially for our visit. We also met Judy Hubler and several other local historian volunteers. All generously shared their knowledge of our Dexter and Davies ancestors and even showed us documents relating to those ancestors researched just for us. They showed us an original Davies fanning mill (a large wooden contraption that separates hulls from seeds) and a milk safe, a large wooden cupboard that kept milk cool. Both are preserved by the museum and we felt very lucky to see them. This museum does a fine job through its many exhibits showing what regular life was like in St. Johns 100+ years ago. Our visit exceeded every expectation and I think our gracious hosts were pleased to have guests with genuine family heritage interests.

We also stopped briefly to again view Auntie Y’s home, still so lovingly preserved by the Rise family, and also to briefly see the former carriage house next door at 204 Church Street, where our Great Grandmother Jeannette lived out her last years. The younger generation of that day was fascinated by her long “hearing trumpet” as Dad and Auntie Y used to tell us. Longtime homeowners there, Barbara and Cayle Beagle, greeted me and then without hesitation, offered a gift of an ancient red elephant crafted of wood and an 1890ish photograph showing Auntie Y as a small child clutching that obviously precious toy. This was a totally unexpected surprise, and I pledged to cherish the heirloom and keep it in the Dexter family. Such wonderful spontaneous generosity!

Our Davies ancestor was Great Grandmother Jeannette, who married William T. Davies on September 22, 1856. Their story reflects the hard work, integrity and strong family orientation — five Davies families settled in Greenbush Township — that was so typical of St. Johns area pioneers. Along with clearing and farming more than 300 acres in Greenbush Township, William T. and his brother Robert E. started a prosperous factory in 1855. They initially partnered with expert cabinet maker and neighbor, David Sevy (another Greenbush Township pioneer), and manufactured fanning mills and milk safes for many years on their property, selling them directly throughout the region. The Davies employed 14 factory workers by 1880, donated the land for the now former Greenbush United Methodist Church in 1898, served as various town officials and contributed liberally to the church and the life of the community.

We then visited the North Scott Road home of David and Judy Hubler which was built in 1874 by William T. Davies. The Hublers have restored and preserved most of the original features of this beautiful house and they explained how it has changed over the decades. They discovered a painted decoration on the original front door and significantly modernized the energy systems of the house. They also rebuilt the original Greenbush Fanning Mill factory building and let us turn the crank on another original, but still functioning, Davies fanning mill. Their commitment to historical preservation is impressive and the Hublers also naturally preserve the warmth and welcoming nature of their home just like the Davies established long ago. Stories of large family holiday gatherings in that Davies home are told by Auntie Y in an oral history now preserved by the Clinton County Historical Society and can be found at this link:

Our St. Johns heritage persists in our family names — my older brother’s and my daughter’s middle name is Roswell, my first cousin’s middle name is Davies and several aunts, uncles and cousins carry Davies, William T. and Jeannette in their names. That heritage also persists in our hearts. Each of my siblings and I were truly moved by the generosity and warm hospitality that was so spontaneously offered by so many people we encountered on our road trip. That was especially true in St. Johns. As we departed back to our busy lives (business executive and musician in HI, music teacher in Jakarta, professional string quartet musician in NYC, singer in MA, and busy volunteer musician in WI), we felt, and we continue to feel, grateful and deeply privileged to have such wonderful St. Johns Heritage. We thank everyone who made that possible.

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