Phone: 269-683-3720
Email: chamber@nilesmi.com
321 East Main Street
Niles, Michigan 49120

History of Niles

 

building springThe Four Flags Area Chamber of Commerce is located on 321 E. Main Street in the historic Andrew Carnegie Library.  Built in 1902, the Carnegie Library is a Michigan State Historic Site.  The citizens of Niles raised $3500 to purchase the land necessary for the library. 

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Why The Four Flags?

Historical soil is the tract of land upon which the City of Niles has been built.

In the present day boundaries of our city during the 17th and 18th centuries the flags of four powers were unfurled as they, in turn, took possession of the surrounding territory.

1691

FrenchThe French built a blockhouse and a fort on the East Side of the St. Joseph River, one mile south of the center of Niles, MI. The fort easily controlled the stream, which was navigable by boat or canoe for one hundred and fifty miles from its mouth at the present city of St. Joseph, MI, where it flows into Lake Michigan.

1761

BritishThe British 60th Regiment, then called the Royal Americans, took the blockhouse. The French flag came down and the English ensign went up.

1781

SpanishThe Spanish under Don Eugenio Puree with two great Indian chiefs and tribes surrounded the little blockhouse and fort and took the English soldiers as prisoners.  The Spanish colors were raised. After confiscating the provisions, the Spanish burned the fort and eight other buildings, and returned to St. Louis boasting possession of the lands along the St. Joseph River.

1783

AmericanThe Americans, through a treaty of peace with the British, possessed all of the territory extending between the two Great Lakes, Michigan and Huron.

Over this area of ground upon which was built the city of Niles, MI, the French, English, Spanish and American nations unfurled their flags, hence the name “The Four Flags”.

Today, all roads lead to Niles as a center of business, industry, recreation, and culture.

The Settling and Naming of Niles

The City of Niles is located where important Indian trails crossed the St. Joseph River. When the French built their trading post and mission station here in the 1690s, the river was called, the “River of the Miami’s”. The mission was known as the “St. Joseph of the Miami’s”, and over the years both the post and river gradually became known as the St. Joseph Post and the St. Joseph River. It wasn’t until 1746 that the name “Fort St. Joseph”, became part of the common and official vernacular.

In 1882, Isaac McCoy established a Baptist Indian mission and named it the Carey Mission after Robert Carey, an early Baptist missionary. For a time, the area was known as Carey. What would later become officially named Niles was also known by the Indian name “Pogwatique” - another spelling is “Pawating”.

Squire Thompson is credited for being the first white settler in Niles. He settled on the flats of the river in 1823. He was soon joined by William Kirk. As others came, they were soon in need of a gristmill, and one was built in 1827 by Eli Ford on Dowagiac Creek. Obed Lacey, Isaac Gray, William Justice and S.B. Walling plotted the city of Niles in 1829 and named it after Hezekiah Niles, a famous Baltimore journalist, and publisher for the “Niles Weekly Register”. The newspaper was a highly esteemed political piece distributed throughout the nation. A bound copy of the 1829 edition can be found in our museum.

Niles was incorporated as a village in 1838 and was the first city in Berrien County. Hezekiah Niles was a Quaker and never even visited Niles, MI.

Lacey became the first Postmaster in 1830. In those days, soldiers carried the mail on foot from Detroit to Chicago. A second gristmill was built in 1829 and the first flour mill in 1830. Also in 1830, Titus B. Willard became the first teacher; Dr. Brasmas Winslow was the village’s first doctor, and the Finch brothers began operating Niles’ first ferry. This was a boom period and keelboats were rarely out of sight on the river.

In 1833, the well-known settlers John B. Reddick, Jacob K. Brown (an architect) and Nathaniel Bacon (a lawyer) had joined the ever-growing community. H. Barnes started our first newspaper, “The Gazette and Advisor”. Then in 1836, one year before Michigan became a state, the Bank of Niles was established, with Jacob Beeson as President. It was generally considered a “wild cat” bank.

In 1838 Niles became an incorporated community. Mr. Winslow was elected as the first village President. During this time another center of trade, Bertrand, was flourishing to the south of Niles. Joseph Bertrand had a trading post on the river near the Bertrand Bridge. Being the old Sauk Trail between Detroit and Chicago, a great number of travelers passed through the area, with some stopping to make their home. At one time Bertrand was larger than Niles, but when the railroad came through, Bertrand was bypassed and her reign of prosperity came to an end.

Jacob K. Brown

An early Niles builder, Jacob K. Brown, was the one man responsible for most of the fine early homes in Niles. When his obituary notice was published on October 16, 1890, he was credited with having constructed 21 schools, a dozen mills, and 50 stores, dwelling houses and other buildings during his residence in Niles.

He built his first home on the East side of 4th Street, just north of Main. This house was sold to Henry Hoffman for a schoolhouse and he then purchased a lot south of this house and built a residence for himself. In 1860 Brown built 6 stores, among them the building which was occupied by the Niles Mirror, the Latimore Drug Store, the William R. Beeson Store, a store for G.A. Colby and a store for E.S. Bader, which was later occupied by Colby and Griffin druggists.

In 1867, Mr. Brown completed construction on the Pike Hotel, which stood where the Four Flags Hotel now stands.

The Dodge Brothers

The Dodge Brothers, John and Horace, were born in a small wooden cottage on N. 5th Street. Their parents were poor and many residents often saw them barefoot, even in cold weather. John Dodge was born on October 24, 1864, and his brother, Horace, on May 17, 1868.

After his graduation from Niles High School, John entered his father’s machine shop, and it was here that he gained his mechanical experience. His brother joined him after graduation and they later put their experience to work for them in creating their first automobile.

In 1886, John Dodge left Niles for Detroit. The brothers worked as machinists, then made bicycles and automobile transmissions. The brothers built the first Dodge automobile on November 4, 1914 in the Hamtramck plant. Both the brothers died in 1920.

Ring Lardner

Ring Lardner was a sportswriter, humorist and sardonic observer of the American scene. Possibly the best-known American author in the 1920s, he began his career writing sketches of the sporting events for Niles Sun, and later wrote for papers in Chicago and New York. His death occurred in New York on September 25, 1933. Lardner’s achievements were favorably compared to those of Mark Twain.

Montgomery Ward

Aaron Montgomery Ward, founder of the first mail order house in the world, lived in Niles as a young boy. Born in 1843, he worked for 25 cents a day in a Michigan barrel factory when 11 years old. While a traveling salesman, the idea of selling goods by mail came to Ward. In 1872, he began the mail order business in a Chicago livery stable loft with a single sheet catalog listing a few dry good items. When Ward died in 1913, annual sales were $40,000,000.

 

Along the Banks of the Old St. Joe
By Timothy Snyder

An Indian brave once stood here strong
Beat his drum and they’d chant their song
Along the banks of the Old St. Joe.

In 1689, Father Allouez came here to preach
He was admired by the tribes he tried to teach
Along the banks of the Old St. Joe.

Then, Squire Thompson was the first settler here
And Bertrand’s trading post was near
Along the banks of the Old St. Joe.

Issac McCoy built the Cary Mission
The native Indians kept their proud tradition
Along the banks of the Old St. Joe.

Fort St. Joseph defended the city of Niles
Soldiers carried four different flags across the miles
Along the banks of the Old St. Joe.

The Old Chicago Road brought more people to this settlement
It opened the community for further development
Along the banks of the Old St. Joe.

In 1873 Michigan became the 26th state
That brought progress to make this area great
Along the banks of the Old St. Joe.

They built good schools and a sturdy bridge
They built Pawating Hospital high on a ridge
Along the banks of the Old St. Joe.

Business was flourishing on Main Street hill
They built a dam for French Paper Mill
Along the banks of the Old St. Joe.

They built the railroad so the trains came through
The people grew gardens and had things to do
Along the banks of the Old St. Joe.

Industry provided steady employment
They built a park for people’s enjoyment
Along the banks of the Old St. Joe.

So, that’s the history of Niles, and as we all know,
It’s a beautiful place for people to go
Along the banks of the Old St. Joe.