“Just a little off the beaten path”
When Judge Caleb Eldred came to Climax in 1834, ending months of weary travels to find a farm site, the area was a vast prairie for miles in the newly-formed county. To get a better view, his son Dan climbed a tree and said, “this caps the climax of everything we saw.” So they named the place Climax Prairie. Today, this historic and innovative village is just five minutes from Interstate 94, 15 minutes from Kalamazoo and Battle Creek.
The First White Settlers
First known white settlers were John Mullett (1825), Calvin White (1831), and the Farnsworth brothers in 1832. Before then, the only break in the sprawling prairie was a series of what may have been Indian earth mounds with surrounding trenches. Early settlers’ children played at the mounds and called it their “fort.” Eldred built his house, the oldest in the village today, in 1835. He organized Climax township in 1838 and held the first meetings in his house, still sharing local commerce with the Indians.
Hiram Moore and John Hascall’s harvesting machine was demonstrated here in 1836 as a farming experiment. Believed to be the forerunner of the modern combine and the more celebrated McCormick Reaper, the Harvester could cut and thresh up to 20 acres of wheat a day. However, it was so huge it took a team of 16 horses to pull it and eventually proved impractical in its early application. Besides its use and acceptance problem, it seems McCormick beat Moore to the patent office. The rest is International Harvester history. In its early years as Climax Prairie, the village had its share of ups and downs as a farming town.
Railroads Spur Growth
Spurring Climax’s growth was the arrival of the PR railroad in 1866 (later C&LH). In 1877, the village and post office names were shortened to Climax. By 1879, the village had grown to nearly 700. Over the next forty years, the township around Climax began to decline, losing as much as forty percent of its population, mostly to nearby Kalamazoo which experienced tremendous growth. Much of this growth can be attributed to the network of railroads which by 1910 saw 56 companies operating 454 passenger trains.
Ironically, it was Climax that boasted of being the halfway point between Detroit and Chicago or so said a sign on its depot. It was also a stop on the Underground Railroad for the Negro slaves working their way to Detroit and freedom across the river in Canada. The depot has been closed for about 35 years, but a double track railroad line still passes through the village.
Rural Free Delivery
The first Rural Free Delivery mail service in Michigan was started in Climax in December, 1896. Two postmen, Lewis Clark and Willis Lawrence, Judge Eldred’s great-grandson, set out on their routes, one by horse and buggy and the other on a bicycle. A memorial to this event, dedicated in 1917, is next to the Lawrence Memorial Library. On four sides of the memorial are bronze tablets, contributed by the State Grange, the D.A.R., the Michigan Rural Letter Carriers Association, and the Climax Men’s Fellowship Club. The ten-foot high RFD Memorial was built with nearly 300 stones, one each was contributed by farmers on the rural route.
The library building was the site of the village post office until 1964 when a new post office was built. The old post office building, opened in 1836, was given to the village by the Lawrence family descendants with the provision that it be used for a library. The Prairie Historical Society maintains its collection of local history in a room in the library.
Rebirth and Comeback
In more recent years, Climax has experienced a rebirth and a comeback. In fact, it is now larger than it ever was. Yet, much of Climax harkens back to its past and there are still several farms, some century-old historic farms, within or on the very edge of town. In order to preserve prime farmland from non-farming development, the Love and Leach families have placed some acreage in protection under the Development Rights Agreement Program. Efforts to keep the bulldozers at bay continue.
A 1992 picture book, Homes of Yesterday, portrays 20 19th century homes still there in the village. Nearly half of the town’s 350 homes, many renovated or enlarged, are from its early years. The oldest home (ca. 1835) in the village is Judge Eldred’s residence. Past Prairie Historical Society president Billie King lives there now. Throughout the village, but mostly around its perimeter, are a variety of larger homes in new subdivisions. According to Dr. Norm Lyons, township clerk, the village has had its biggest spurt of new development in the past ten years and the population likely exceeds its last Census count of 800. The town has grown big enough to have its own water and storm drain systems. The schools have been part of a Climax Scotts Consolidated District since 1958. None of the early one-room schools, including one that was also Judge Eldred’s summer kitchen, remain. The Climax School (1880-1926) was replaced by one that now is used by the Climax Prairie Lodge. The United Methodist Church of 1870 continues. The first church in Climax, now a private residence, was the Baptist Church (ca. 1847).
Climax today has a variety of village amenities including a convenience store, beauty shop, auto body repair business, gift shop, and a restaurant called “The Harvester.” It is also the home of CTS Phone Company and Lam-Tech, Inc. Village president is Don Stevenson [Bill Rogers, as of October 2007]. In its earlier days, the village was a major flour milling center. Scott’s Mill (ca. 1838) and Eureka Mill (ca. 1870) were once famous for their fine flours, the Eureka operating until 1954. Until 1912 there was a weekly newspaper called the Climax Cereal. Later that year, the Climax Crescent began publishing a new weekly newspaper and still does. So, there has been much sowing and reaping in Climax since the days of Hascall and Moore’s harvesting machine.
Through its history, Climax has been just a little off the beaten path, like some of the other towns called Climax in 16 other states. Its relative closeness to major highways today and the appeal of small town living are principal reasons for its recent upswing. Climax is resilient with a solid mix of age groups – the young families moving in and building and older families preserving the past with gusto. This historic village has had its share of ups and downs, but its flair for inventiveness and innovations has helped keep it going.
The above sketch appeared in Michigan Shadow Towns: A Study of Vanishing and Vibrant Villages, by Gene Scott, made possible in part with the assistance of a Michigan Humanities Council Development Grant. Co-sponsors are the Livonia Historical Society and Redford Township Historical and Genealogical Society. “Not copyrighted 2005. Others are welcome to use this information as long as credit is given. History is meant to be shared.” The photographs did not appear in the book. The photograph of Hiram Moore originally appeared in Farm Implement News, 22 October 1931, page 16. The source list below was compiled by Kalamazoo Public Library. Additional sources are given in Michigan Shadow Towns. Updated October 2007.