Thomas Birkett- An Early Settler
In 1832, near the site of the Bell Road Bridge, Judge Samuel Dexter and Isaac Pomeroy built a sawmill. Daniel Sloan and Volney Chapin purchased the water power, known as the “Yellow Mills”, from Judge Dexter and erected a mill in 1846 at the intersection of Bell Road and the Dexter-Pinckney Road (then called the Stage Road or Plank Road).
Thomas Birkett, a miller by trade, had come to America from England in 1853 and worked as third miller for D.B. Sloan & Co. The following year he was put in charge of the entire milling business, a position he held until Sloan died in 1861.
Upon settlement of Sloan’s estate, Birkett bought a half interest in the mill and rented the interest of Volney Chapin for two years. Birkett then purchased Chapin’s interest and renamed the mills, Dover Mills, after Dover, England.
Thomas Birkett bought land from a number of owners in Section 1 through Section 12 in Dexter Township until he had acquired about 425 acres. This included the highest point in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan near Portage Lake called “Prospect Hill”. It later became known as Peach Mountain because of the many peach trees planted there over the years by Birkett.
The Dexter Leader reported in 1887: “Yellow, rare, large peaches on the market now ripe at Birkett’s orchard”. He added 300 trees the following year and three years later planted 1,500 peach trees and 100 pear trees. A few years later he advertised Crawford peaches for 50 cents a bushel. Today the University of Michigan Observatory occupies the site of Peach Mountain.
Birkett purchased salmon fry about this from the Northville Hatchery and placed them in the Dover Mills Pond. He raised shorthorn cattle, Clysdale mares, stallions, cols and fillies, as well as Toulouse geese, cashmere goats and Shetland ponies, often exhibiting at the Washtenaw County Fair.
During the 1870s Birkett advertised that he paid the highest price for wheat, barley, oats, buckwheat, etc. The flouring mill was turning out about 100 barrels of flour a day at this time.
The Dexter Leader reported March 5, 1885 “Birkett’s mill, heated by steam, burned. Fire started in some fuel near the furnace.” The mill, fully covered by insurance, was rebuilt. Birkett purchased power rights on the north side of the Huron River from Hudson to Dover and raised the dam five feet.
Four years later, in November 1889, “The Leader” reported the flour mill and barns owned by Birkett Mfg. Com. at Dover burned with all contents valued at $10,000.
Birkett built a large, Victorian, four-story frame home, with a mansard roof about 1871. Polished walnut woods were used throughout the interior. About 100 years later, when owned by the Marshall Shearers, the old home was badly damaged by fire. The remains were torn down and the present house erected on the site.
Birkett erected a small Episcopal Church in 1875 on Bell Road across from the house. Two years later it was dedicated. Services were held by pastors Wortley and Clark from Dexter.
During the dedication time, Birkett held a picnic at Base Lake for children and friends of Dover Sunday School. A 60-foot table was loaded with refreshments. There were two sets of croquet and swings provided. A yacht and other boats carrying guests made several trips on the river. The church was eventually given to a religious society in Detroit and the building moved there.
A post office had been located at Base Lake around 1855-58. It was relocated at Dover in 1882 and Birkett become the postmaster. The building, housing the post office, was torn down in 1892.
A school was also located at Dover as indicated by the following found in The Dexter Leader in September 1895: “Maggie McGuiness teaches at Birkett’s School this fall”.
Just before the turn of the century, Birkett had 24 deer in his park along the river containing 12 acres of open land and three acres of low land, covered with trees and underbrush. Here in “deer park” he also kept peacocks. People would drive out to see the deer and peacocks roaming about.
In 1883, The Dexter Leader reported that Dover had a hotel, store, blacksmith shop, pulp and flour mills and Thomas Birkett was postmaster. Over a period of time Birkett had acquired the Hudson Mills, the Peninsula Mills, Palmer sawmill and the basket factory, as well as a flour mill in Petoskey and extensive pine lands in the south. He organized the Dexter Savings Bank in Dexter and was its president. He purchased the Judge Dexter estate upon the death of Mrs. Dexter. This was inherited by his daughter, Mrs. Wirt Newkirk, who sold it in 1917.
By November 1897, the Dover Dam across the river was left to go to ruin. Men of Birkett’s Mfg. Co. took out all the timbers and left the embankment to be leveled by the current of the river.
Birkett discontinued farming in 1910 and sold his horses and 40 head of cattle. He offered to sell the old homestead and 71 acres. He had sold off portions of his estate before his death in 1916 but his daughter, Mrs. Newkirk, inherited the old home. Following her death, her son, Birkett Newkirk, inherited the home and 10 acres. The home was later sold and it changed hands until Shearers purchased the property.
A part of the Birkett farm holdings in Dexter Township included an area along Portage Lake near the Dexter Pinckney Road. Here in 1931 Birkett Newkirk, the grandson, brought in 1,500 tons of sand and built the Newport Bathing Beach with a beach house and picnic area enjoyed by so many for a number of years.
Birkett Newkirk’s daughter, Patricia Newkirk Hardy lives today in the area and is remembered as heading the Washtenaw County Deeds office a long time.
Adapted from The Chelsea Standard/The Dexter Leader, Thursday, April 9, 1998
By Norma McAllister, Special Writer