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The Evolution of Bridgman

From a Sawmill to the Nursery Capitol of Michigan

Written and graciously submitted by Tom McCort

In the fall of 1856 George Bridgman arrived in Lake Township from Massachusetts and, along with Warren Howe and Charles F. Howe, formed the Charlotte Lumber Company. A large steam-powered sawmill was built at a cost of $20,000 near the present intersection of Lake Street and Red Arrow Highway. To facilitate the logging & milling operation, and the shipment of the final product by schooner, a pier was built into Lake Michigan. A narrow-gauge railway was constructed, running from the mill to the lake, along with several branches into the timber, about seven miles of track in all.

The area around the mill came to be known as Charlotteville after the company and in honor of Mr. Howe’s wife, Charlotte. A few years later, in 1861, a post office was established and given the name Laketon due to its being located in Lake Township. In 1863 the mill was destroyed by fire. Two other mills were erected on the same site and shared the same fate, the last one being consumed in 1870. Since most of the virgin timber had been harvested by that time, this last destruction of the mill prompted the Howes to move on to other pursuits.

Anticipating the eventual depletion of the timber, George Bridgman wisely diversified his holdings during the 1860’s, and gradually acquired several hundred acres of land east of the mill, including all of the present-day downtown area. He began engaging himself in the growing of fruit trees and general farming. In 1869 Mr. Bridgman entered into an agreement with the Chicago and Lakeshore Railroad, granting the company a right-of-way through his land. In return for the right-of-way and a reliable supply of water for the steam locomotives, the railroad agreed to erect and maintain a depot to serve the area.

Mr. Bridgman then laid out a village near the depot site, recording it at the Berrien County Court House in 1870. The railroad completed construction in 1871 and assigned the name “Bridgman” to the depot. The post office designation was officially changed from Laketon to Bridgman that same year.

The coming of the railroad quickly gave rise to the nursery business in Bridgman. Mr. Bridgman and other growers could now ship their stock to any part of the country, wholesale and retail. They specialized in fruit trees, berry plants, grapevines and ornamental trees and shrubs. Recognizing an opportunity, other enterprising farmers along the track from St. Joseph to New Buffalo entered the nursery business. But the town of Bridgman by far led the pack in terms of annual volume of nursery stock shipped, and it remained the epicenter of the nursery business in Southwest Michigan for nearly a century. Some prominent family names associated with nurseries in Bridgman are Baldwin, Ackerman, Whitten, Weston, Stahelin, Rambo, Kreiger, Dass and Rokely. Only the Rambo and Kreiger nurseries remain in business in Bridgman to this day.

George and Sarah Bridgman’s son, George W. Bridgman, became prominent in his own right. He worked for the Treasury Department during the Civil War, and he served in the Honor Guard for President Lincoln’s funeral. He became a lawyer and was Circuit Judge for Berrien County in the early part of the 20th Century. His son, George C. Bridgman, was Berrien County Sheriff during the 1920’s.

There being no other male children born to the Bridgman line, the surname was not carried forward to the present day. However Judge Bridgman’s sister, Sarah E. Bridgman, married Frank Ackerman in 1881 and they had four sons -- Walter, Robert, Earl and Willard Ackerman. Earl married and moved to Muskegon at an early age and raised his family in that area. Willard married but had no children. Walter and Robert married and raised large families in Bridgman, and through them many of George Bridgman’s descendants live in and around the Bridgman area today.

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Copyright ©, 2002 T.C. Wyman, All Rights Reserved.