Seventy-two years ago, in the early morning hours of March 31, 1949, Willard and Martha Dow walked out of the front door of their home at 923 West Park Drive. They would never walk through that door again.
Today, the Willard Dow home is owned by Irving and Janet (Cuddie) Snyder. Janet is a native Midlander. Irv came to Midland in 1960. Both are in love with the history of this small town. And piece by piece, they are lovingly restoring the home and grounds to their original glory.
Robbyn Durance, Victor Nelson (Janet Snyder’s cousin) and I were given the rare privilege of spending an entire afternoon with Janet and Irv, walking through the rooms in which Willard and Martha Dow spent 25 years of their married life.
The house was designed by a Detroit architect named Bloodgood Tuttle in 1924. (Two years later, Tuttle would design the Midland County Courthouse.) Walls and ceilings have been repainted to restore the house to its original look as much as possible. Stained-glass windows let a flood of sunshine into the rooms. Janet said she was told that the shields, meticulously painted in the windows, are worth more than the entire house.
A grand piano occupies a room with a spherical ceiling, A galley kitchen with a separate pantry has been restored. The bedrooms on the second floor are spacious, each having its own private bathroom. The original fixtures from 1924 are still in use except in the master bedroom and the powder room on the first floor. One bedroom contains a Civil War four-poster bed that belonged to Irv’s family.
Narrow, carpeted stairs lead us to the children’s part of the house. Leaning against a wall, in a now vacant room, is the rocking horse once belonging to the Dow children. Janet found it sitting on a curb and asked if she could have it. The rocking horse originally had real horse hair on it, but through the years the horse hair fell into disrepair. The paint on the rocking horse faded. And when it was set out on the curb for garbage pickup, it was shorn of its horse hair and paint. That little rocking horse is part of the history of the childhood of Willard, Alden, Helen, Ruth, Margaret and Dorothy Dow.
The garden surrounding the Snyders’ house is in the process of being restored. A pond, filled in by previous owners, is now a pond once again. Janet said, “Willard’s brother Alden used to row a boat from his home to Willard’s.” The pond is one of a series of ponds that once connected the two brothers’ homes.
In full view of the patio, banks of rhododendrons grow in profusion, just outside the large sunroom. Great stone slabs pave the garden area. Janet said, “The rhododendrons are Irv’s favorite. You should see them when they’re in bloom in the spring.”
The interior of the home has been restored. The furniture, paintings and rugs all belong to Janet and Irv. But all have been meticulously selected in an effort to restore the look of a home once treasured and loved by Willard and Martha Dow.
Walking through this home invoked a quintessential sense of sadness. We are visitors today. The original owners have been gone a long time now. On March 31, 1949, the owners became a part of history. And so did this house.
There was a feeling of time telescoping as we walked through this house. It belonged to two people we never knew. Their children played here. Slept here. Meals were served here. Christmases and Thanksgivings were celebrated here. Birthdays.
Willard’s mom and dad, Herbert and Grace, walked through these rooms. Willard’s brother, Alden, and his sisters, Ruth and Margaret and Dorothy, came to visit. Twenty-five years of living went on in this home. In these rooms. In these gardens. Are their footsteps still audible? Are their words caught in the leaves of the trees in the gardens? When we love a place, do we leave part of ourselves there forever?
The French have a word for this memory. Sillage. It means a scent remains behind even after one leaves the room. As in perfume. As in the wake of a boat going through the water. We pronounce it like it looks: sillage. But the French pronounce it see-ahge.
Willard Dow became president of The Dow Chemical Company at the age of 33 when his father, Dr. Herbert Henry Dow, died at the Mayo Clinic in 1930. This is Willard’s story. Of how he grew up, the oldest son of Herbert and Grace Dow. And his mark in Midland’s history. Someone said once, “Midland is the town that never knew the Depression.” How was that accomplished? Men working. Earning a weekly paycheck. Willard Dow was the answer.
And then, miraculously, he brought our town through World War II. All before he reached the age of 50.
The year 1897 was a banner year for a young Herbert Henry Dow. His first son was born January 4, 1897 and The Dow Chemical Company began the same year. A business that was to blaze new trails in the chemical field. Named Willard, the new baby boy had two older sisters, Helen and Ruth. In 1899, a baby named Osborne was born. Osborne died on October 3, 1902. Willard had turned 5 on January 4 of that year. The Dow family was devastated by the loss of their 3-year-old son.
In 1905, a third son was born and was named Alden. In 1907, Margaret was born, and in 1908, Dorothy was born. There would always be a subtle line dividing the children: those born before Osborne’s birth and those born after Osborne’s death. Eight years old when Alden was born, Willard, along with his two older sisters, grew up separated by age and family tragedy from their younger siblings.
While Alden chose to become an architect (Dr. Herbert Henry Dow had wanted to be an architect), Willard obediently attended the University of Michigan with the idea that he would work at The Dow Chemical Company after graduation, continuing in his father’s giant footsteps.
As a young man, Willard walked through the Ellsworth Clock Room as the day shift changed. Wearing overalls and a cap. Carrying his lunch in a pail like all the other Dow workers. He spent each summer between his college years working at the plant, working with the men in various parts of the company, gaining first-hand knowledge that would stand him in good stead later on.
Dr. Herbert Henry Dow expected much of his first-born son and Willard didn’t disappoint his father. Mark Putnam once remarked about Willard, “His father had a strong belief that a properly reared boy should learn the meaning of work, and so it was part of Willard’s education to work with other people. It was this experience in various jobs around the plant that gave him his intimate contact with the men and a realization of their problems.”
Part II of the Willard Dow Story will appear on September 15.