JOHN DOWER - A PIONEER TACOMA LUMBERMAN
By Louis Lehmann
Every day dozens of motorists drive by Lakewood's John Dower Road. Over the years hundreds of children have attended John Dower School. But few of them know anything about the pioneer lumberman commemorated by these landmarks. Yet some of the area's more elderly citizens may dimly recall the days when the John Dower Lumber Company was a thriving business at 733 East 11th Street in Tacoma until it was purchased by the St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber in 1942. (It is most unlikely that any would be old enough to recall that in 1922, it was one of the largest retail lumber companies in the United States). But Todd and Julie Currier, the current residents of 7517 Dowerdell Lane in Lakewood, know that they live in a historic home, formerly the residence of John Dower and the center of "Dowerdell", once renowned as one of the most beautiful country estates in this region.
In 1919, John Dower moved to Tacoma from Wadena, Minnesota to take charge of the St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber Company's yards in eastern Washington. Later he moved to Tacoma where he bought St. Paul & Tacoma's retail yards and increased them to 21 units. Expansion was not new for John Dower who began his career as a young Minnesota lumberman in 1890, soon after his marriage to Rose Miller in Wadena. Inspired by his father's small sawmill, he boldly bought a retail yard in Wadena without a cent of cash, giving a note calling for one-half to be paid in one year and the other half in two years. Within the next twenty years he built up a chain of 43 yards as he became respectfully known as "Short Length Dower" because of his successful marketing of shorter lengths of lumber which had often been discarded by the mills. During this period he and Rose had three children; Bruce - 1893, Blanche - 1894, and Helen - 1898.
John Dower had Cornish roots and a colorful life in Michigan and Minnesota. His father, Sampson Dower , was a miner who grew up in Crowan, most likely in a little cottage with walls of straw and clay mixed with dung. and a floor of mixed lime and ash. That family probably emptied slops and dishwater into an adjoining open drain. There it would decay and stink until heavy rains could wash it toward the nearby mine where the underground miners suffered from impure air, fouled by the stench of human feces. Such conditions led to the early death of Sampson's parents and his subsequent emigration in 1853 to work in the copper mines of upper Michigan where he met and married John Dower's mother, Mary Ann Jillbert, in 1854. Ten years later, John Dower was born (1864) near the Ogima mine where his father toiled.
He lived his first six years in Michigan's rough mining towns, characterized by drunken weekend brawls during which some of the men kicked and beat their wives, chasing them from one place to another until the poor woman would hide in some house to wait for her husband to sober up. Groups of drunken Cornishmen and Irishmen often battled each other in street brawls. Beatings, stabbings, and stonings left victims wounded and maimed. Insubordination and rudeness against legitimate authority were frequent problems . Threats of arson and murder became more dangerous.. Consequently in 1870 John's parents and their four children moved to Duluth, Minnesota, where Sampson did contract work on the development of the Minnesota Point harbor.
In Duluth, the Dowers were lucky to have a place to live during this time when so many people were flocking there to seek jobs with the harbor development. With no hotels in the city, thousands were homeless. John Dower would have seen many people living in tents or in the rudest kinds of shacks as temporary shelters. As fast as the sides and roof of a building were completed, and before doors or windows could be supplied, the place would be rented out for lodgings. The owner would chalk off on the floor space sufficient for a man to lie down, number the space and rent it out. Tenants had to provide their own bedding and blankets. They would buy a piece of ticking, sew it into a bag, and out and fill it with straw, shavings, sawdust, leaves, - anything that would answer the purpose of a bed, and then buy their blankets. Sampson's growing family fared better in Duluth where seven more of John's siblings were born before another move, this time to Wadena County by 1879 when fifteen-year-old John was probably helping his father to provide wood and piling for the railroad.
By the time he was eighteen, John and his brothers were working with their father in large scale lumbering activities near a little lake where they developed a little settlement; "Dower Lake", population 150. The settlement has long since disappeared but "Dower Lake" continues today as a recreational area outside of Staples.) Sampson and his sons next established a sawmill in Staples, developed an extensive lumber business around Fishtrap lake, and finally at Cushing where the family business literally went up in smoke when Sampson's mill and several million feet of fine lumber were destroyed by fire. After this the family settled into life on a large farm north of Staples
Family life for John's family was much different in those days. When a man needed a sack of flour, he took his axe, cut down a tree and traded it for what he needed. Every homemaker made her own candles, butter, soap, preserved and canned, and especially cared for meat - smoke, cured in a brine." Yet the family did have opportunities for fun. In 1880 they could have been entertained at Peake's Opera House in Wadena where the Wadena Dramatic Society presented "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and where holidays were celebrated by festive dances. After the "Thanksgiving Ball" Christmas Eve was celebrated by a "Grand Promenade Concert and Ball" - followed a week later by a "New Year's Ball." In 1883 they may have been impressed by Wadena's victory over Bluffton in a baseball game. Unless there was a misprint in the news report, the score was an incredible 140 to 0 A year later Sampson and his family took an excursion trip on an experimental run of a steam boat on the Crow Wing River. (The boat was removed from the area when it became evident that the river was not suitable for a steamboat line) T he Dowers may well have joined neighbors in such recreation as bicycling and water tobogganing at their former Dower lake settlement which had become a popular place of recreation by 1897. Some of their leisure pursuits in 1893 were less active..... "A basket social will be given at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Sam Dower in Thomastown, tomorrow evening. Free ride to and from the farm." But Dowers may well have frowned on some other sources of entertainment for area citizens. In 1889 more buildings in Staples were being sought for saloons. And it is unlikely that the Dowers agreed with the Wadena jury which decided that eight drinks per hour would not make a man drunk.
If the family attended services in 1890 at the Methodist Episcopal Church's first building in Staples they would have been in a dirt floor shanty about 16 x 24 feet, made of undressed boards and heated by a large stove in the middle. It was far different from the United Methodist Church which now stands in Staples where it proudly displays the beautiful "Faith-Hope-Charity" stained glass memorial window donated by "Sam Dower Sr. and Family".
When John Dower moved his family to Washington and built his prominent lumber company, other family members soon attached themselves to the business. His son, Bruce, managed the company's Yakima lumber yard which also employed John's brother. Sampson Jr., as a salesman. . His sister, Isabella, and her husband , James Boyd , moved to Tacoma where an unsubstantiated report claims he was involved in some lumber activities with some of the Weyerhauser family. His nephew, Clarence French, was a retail lumber plant manager. His brother, William, moved his family to Yakima where he ran a cigar store.
During his life in the Tacoma area, John Dower was active president of a number of organizations: the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce, the Franke Tobey Jones Home, and the Northwester Retail Lumber Dealers. He died Jan 13, 1943 and his remains are interred in the New Tacoma cemetery. But his legacy continues to be remembered in Lakewood through John Dower Road, John Dower School, and Dowerdell Lane.
Anderson, Margaret. Northside-Southside, Stories of Staples. 1989
Circuit Court, Houghton County, Mich. 24 Dec 1854, Marriage certificate: Sampson Dower and Marian Gilbert
Courter, Ellis W. "Michigan's Copper Country" pp 49-50, 53,57
Duluth and St. Louis County, Minnesota: their Story and People. page 175
The Famous and Not So Famous Verndale Historical Society. 1987. A-E page 321- 323
Hipple, William. "The Notable Career of a Western Lumber Retailer" in "Pacific Retail Lumberman" Sept 193
History of Pierce County
Lankton, Larry, Beyond the Boundaries pp 187-88
Sheets, John. "Todd County Histories"
"Staples Minnesota Golden Anniversary Celebration 1889-1939. Souvenir Program and History.
Tacoma News Tribune" Monday Mar 13, 2000. Photo of the John Dower Lumber Co. from the Richards Studio Collection, Tacoma Public Library; Obituaries, Jan 13 & 14, 1943
Tacoma Who's Who. 1929. Publ by South Tacoma Star
"Wadena Pioneer Journal"
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