Buchanan History – Issue 07

Historic photo of house at 106 W Dewey Ave ca. 1880, Photo from Buchanan District Library Historic Collection.

History’s Backyard—and More—in Buchanan

by Jan Wiezorek

Summer is a perfect time for lying on a hammock under a sprawling maple—in your own backyard.

And if you’ve ever walked along Buchanan’s historic West and North Neighborhoods, you may have noticed just how wonderful, rich and lush many of those deep backyards really are.

Deep lots have always been an important part of Buchanan’s history. The first lots for sale in the city were laid out along Main and Front streets by mill owner and real-estate speculator John Hamilton, in 1842. The lots were three surveyor’s chains deep, or 198 feet—with no alleys.

Volunteer Archivist Peter Lysy, with the Buchanan District Library, has a stereoscopic view from the 1870s that looks west from Front Street. Here and there, the viewer can see the tops of many large, backyard barns, graced with a distinctive cupola.

The backyard barn would have been used by the family as a home for the horse. Lysy says that some backyards would have contained a carriage house as well.

A large backyard was also a useful space for keeping the family chickens. (Some neighbors still have them today!) And Lysy wonders if a family way back then might have had a hog, too. That’s another reason for a large yard that affords distance from the family home. “You would want your barn away from the house because of the smell,” Lysy says.

The backyard also could have been the site of an orchard and kitchen garden, Lysy suggests, for growing fruit, potatoes, vegetables and herbs. Some households also purchased a small parcel of 10 or 20 acres outside of Buchanan to grow their own produce and sell it. Some early plat maps show such small acreage plots, he says.

About Main Street

Getting back to plat-maker John Hamilton: His plat of Buchanan (from Front Street north to Third Street) shows Main Street as the widest street—and it still is among the widest streets in the city today. Main Street was designed to be the main thoroughfare that, Lysy says, “points” directly to Mill Alley and the mill that John Hamilton and Andrew Day owned (the predecessor to the Pears Mill).

Main Street is not as wide beyond Third Street, though, perhaps because that section of the street was never part of the original plat that Hamilton designed.

And rather than laying out the city along the St. Joseph River, which one might think would be preferable, Hamilton chose to plat Buchanan’s streets near McCoy’s Creek, the millrace—and his own mill—to obvious entrepreneurial benefit. Also, both Hamilton and Day owned much of the land south of Front Street, and they were happy to sell parcels of it.         

In 1862, there was a fire at Day & Hamilton’s original 1840 mill—well over half the town was destroyed. So, thereafter, the city was rebuilt and grew, with Front Street becoming the place for business owners to reestablish themselves. Main Street, it seems, became somewhat less important.

Altered Over Time

Both the millrace and McCoy’s Creek have been essential to Buchanan’s growth. But while the path of the millrace has been consistent over the years, Lysy says, McCoy’s Creek has been altered over time. For example, a portion of the municipal parking lot behind Red Bud Trail was once a boggy area where the creek made a winding turn.

And the terrain near Niagara Mills on McCoy’s Creek (behind Buchanan City Hall) originally had a more gradual slope. But Clark Equipment later filled and leveled the land on both sides of the creek. That explains why the former mill area is hilly along the creek today.

Resources for You

If you haven’t read about Buchanan’s mill history lately, take a look at the graphic, billboard mural on West Smith Street at McCoy’s Creek Trail.   

The Buchanan District Library’s Local History Room also has many resources for lovers of Buchanan. To make an appointment, call 269-695-3681 or visit buchananlibrary.org.

And Redbud Hardware sells books on Buchanan’s early history. Take a look.

Photocopy of an original plat map of Buchanan by John Hamilton, Photograph by Jan Wiezorek.
Niagara Mills on McCoy Creek, 1910, Bradley photographer, Photograph courtesy of the Buchanan District Library.
Buchanan’s mill history mural on West Smith Street at McCoy Creek Trail, Photograph by Jan Wiezorek.
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