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NEAR the southern line of this city, on the west bank of Grand River, and below the town, on both sides, is the outcrop of gypsum strata which undoubtedly underlie nearly the whole of the very large region extending several miles from this point on the west, to the Muskegon River on the north, and to Tawas Bay on the east. The discovery of gypsum in this State dates as far back as the time when General Cass was Governor of the Territory; but the question whether or not it could be profitably worked, was not practically tested till 1841. It was known by the fur traders and missionaries here, as early as 1827, that gypsum existed near the surface in the neighborhood of the mouth of Plaster Creek, where an Indian showed the rock to one of the people attached to the Slater Mission; but at that time its great extent and value were little known. Dr. Douglass Houghton, State Geologist, here in 1838 to select a point for the sinking of a salt well below the rapids, made a report which led to the development of the Grand Rapids plaster beds. On the left bank of the river the gypsum appears as surface rock, covered only by the drift soil extending as far as Grandville. On the other side, a short distance from the river, it lies under the drift and some thirty feet of rock composed of alternating layers of water lime, clay, slate and gypsum; a sectional cut from the surface downward showing: First, loam and yellow clay, second blue clay, 4 feet; third, water lime and clay slate, 4 feet; fourth, clay slate, 4 feet; fifth, gypsum, 8 inches; sixth, clay slate, 2 feet; seventh, gypsum, thin stratum; eighth, clay slate, 3 feet; ninth, water lime, 1 foot; tenth, clay slate, 4 feet; eleventh, gypsum, 7 feet; twelfth, clay slate, 1 foot; thirteenth, gypsum, I3 feet. The strata have a dip at this point apparently to the northeast, well-boring near the head of the rapids showing the 7 foot layer at a depth of 63 feet, and the 13 foot bed at 74 feet. Several strata of gypsum below these beds have been penetrated by the sinking of wells—the aggregate of all the strata being about fifty feet. An analysis of the Kent county gypsum made in 1860 by Dr. S. P. Duffield, of Detroit, showed the following constituents: Water, 19 parts in 100; lime, 32.67; sulphuric acid, 44.44; organic matter, 3.89; with only slight traces of sodium and potash. These gypsum quarries are a mine of apparently inexhaustible wealth to our city. The development and manufacture were begun in 1841, by Warren Granger and Daniel Ball, who advertised:


The subscribers have now completed their Plaster Mill on Plaster Creek two miles south of this place, which is now in operation. They respectfully inform the public that they have on hand at the mill, or at either of their stores at Ionia or this place, a constant supply. As the quality of the Grand River Plaster is not equaled by any in the United States, they hope to receive a share of patronage, as the price is less than it can be obtained for at any place in Michigan. Wheat, Pork, and most kinds of produce received in payment.

GRANGER & BALL. Grand Rapids, Dec. 21, 1841

In that week the mill turned out forty tons. The price at the mill was $4 per ton. Ball afterward sold his interest to Henry R. Williams, who did much to create a market for the article by his enthusiasm in making its merits known. He conducted the mill for some years, and in 1852 it passed into the hands of E. B. Morgan & Company (N. L. Avery). That first mill was the one at the crossing of Plaster Creek by the Grandville Road, and for several years was the only one here. It was a small establishment, but its success, and the demand for its product showed the value of the gypsum deposit, and led to the starting of other similar enterprises. James A. Rumsey, from 1842, for near thirty years was most of the time connected with the work, as manager or otherwise. In the winter of 1848-49, the demand for plaster was beyond the capacity of that mill to supply, though it ran day and night. Large numbers of teams came from the south, some as far as 100 miles, and were obliged to return empty. In January, 1852, shipments by teams southward were sixty tons or more daily. After Morgan & Co., N. L. Avery & Co. purchased the Plaster Creek works, the members of the firm being Noyes L. Avery, Sarell Wood and Benjamin B. Church. In December, 1857, this firm dissolved, and was succeeded by Sarell Wood & Co. (Sarell Wood and Barney Burton). A short time afterward Mr. Burton withdrew, Charles A. Todd and Abel Thompson succeeding him in the firm. About 1860 Freeman and Silas F. Godfrey began operating in gypsum, and in 1864 they, with Amos Rathbone and George H. White (G. H. White & Co.), purchased the old plaster mill property and a large tract of land extending down Plaster Creek to Grand River. The Godfreys built a mill near the mouth of the creek, and also made extensive additions and betterments to the original mill. In this venture the estate of Alfred D. Rathbone also had an interest. The firm name in the plaster business, operating the Florence Mills, as the new ones were called, was F. Godfrey & Brother. This quickly grew to be among the foremost of manufacturing enterprises. Later, the first mill and some 120 acres of land connected, have passed to the possession of the Alabastine Company, working in calcined gypsum, while that has also become the leading product of the Godfrey mills. The old mill as a manufacturing establishment has gone out of use.

FREEMAN GODFREY was born at Vershire, Orange county, Vermont, September 5, 1825. His grandfather was a native of Northwood, N. H., and settled in Vermont in 1789, being among the pioneer settlers of the Green Mountain State. His father and grandfather were farmers. The family name is old, and can be traced through eight hundred years back to its French-Alsatian origin in the German province of Lorraine. Early in its history is found mention of Godfrey of Bouillon, Grand Master of the Knights Templar, in the days
of Philip the Fair. Freeman Godfrey, the subject of this sketch, was taught the rudimentary branches of an English education in the district schools of his native town. A healthy, active, ingenious lad, with an inquiring turn of mind, he soon developed mechanical skill and turned his attention to the making by hand of various farm implements, and exchanged his products for the farm labor of his neighbors. Between this occupation and working in a saw mill, work on his father's farm, running a threshing machine, and making charcoal each a portion of the year, he passed the time until 1845, when he went to Lowell, Massachusetts, and worked nearly a year in a cotton mill. Going afterward to Pittsburg, Pa., he entered into an engagement to peddle brass clocks in Ohio and Indiana. In 1851 he was working as a contractor on the Terre Haute and Alton Railroad, and in the following year he took a contract on the line of the Illinois Central Railroad, which he finished in the fall of 1856. In December of the latter year he came to Grand Rapids to engage in constructing the Detroit and Milwaukee Railroad, which work was completed in 1858. He then took an interest in the construction of the Transit Railroad from Winona to Rochester, Minnesota; but the financial panic and revulsion of those days cut short the enterprise. In the winter of 1859-60 Mr. Godfrey took a contract on the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad, and graded a portion of the line, but the work soon stopped for lack of available funds on the part of the company. But later, while that road was temporarily in the hands of a receiver, Mr. Godfrey took for construction the northern ten miles of the second twenty-mile section north of this city, and put it through a previously unbroken wilderness of timber lands in five weeks and two days —in time to save to that company its land grant, of which the forfeiture had been threatened, as is stated in the chapter on railroads. He was actively interested in behalf of the Grand River Valley Railroad, aiding in the location of its line, soliciting stock subscriptions, urging city aid, and assisting in the purchase of its station grounds in this city. He was also prominent in the organization of the Grand Rapids and Holland Railroad Company, of which he was elected President. He located its line, arranged to obtain funds, and contracted to construct the road in four months, furnishing all but the iron, also to do the fencing, and engineering and secure the right of way, for $7,500 per mile; all of which, with the assistance of three friends, he completed within the stipulated time. Aside from the above has been his extensive private business, chiefly that of plaster and stucco manufacture and trade. In 1860 he purchased some land within the city limits, and soon thereon opened a gypsum quarry; built a water and a steam mill, each with two run of stones; also calcining works with two kettles having a capacity of forty barrels each; designing the plans for buildings and machinery and superintending their construction. The firm of F. Godfrey & Brother was soon thereafter formed, about 1865, the brother being Silas F. Godfrey, and their land and calcined plaster business has been from the very start successful; their products finding ready market throughout the West, from Ohio to California. In 1865 they purchased one-third of the old plaster quarry and mills, of which George H. White & Company had the other two-thirds; and on this ground Mr. Godfrey designed and superintended the construction of a new water and steam mill, with three run of stones; also calcining works with forty-barrel kettle; opened a new quarry, and with the other parties built up the large trade owned and maintained by G. H. White & Co. In 1875 the Michigan and Ohio Plaster Company was organized under Michigan laws, a stock corporation of which Freeman Godfrey was made President, and he has since filled that position, having the management of the business. This company purchased and marketed the plaster product of nine firms— one in Iowa, one in Ohio and seven in Michigan. When the Grand Rapids National Bank was organized, in 1880, he was chosen Vice President, and director, which positions he still holds. Of the Diamond Wall Finish Company, organized in 1883, he has been President continuously. In 1887 he was among the foremost in pushing the project of sinking an experimental well, and was made President of the association organized for that purpose, which bored what is known as the "Godfrey Well," or "Deep Well," described in another part of this book. Besides the evidences of his constructive abilities in railroads and plaster works, several blocks of buildings in the business portion of the city testify to Mr. Godfrey's skill, taste and good judgment in architecture. He has a mind fertile in expedients and inventions to carry forward projects in which he becomes interested and is eminently practical in suggestions and in details. Having opinions, he is frank to express them, and is equally candid in the advancement and discussion of theories. He is no idle spectator of the doings in public affairs, but shows a quick and active interest in the general welfare and methods of improvement. He has never been an active politician, but in political matters his aim has been to follow such light as seemed to him best, independent of strong partisan attachments. He has but once consented to accept official preferment, and that was an appointment in 1888 to be Member of the Board of Public Works, a place which he occupied until the spring of 1890, attending to its duties with promptness and fidelity, where his advice and counsel commanded respect and carried weight. In March, 1851, he married Abby E. Eastman of Vershire, Vt. She died in this city March 21, 1890. They had five children, of whom four -- three sons and one daughter -- are living and at the family home. His father died in April, 1877, in the 79th year of his age, having then for some years been a member of the family, where he was tenderly and filially provided with all that would contribute to comfort as he neared the end of life's journey. Mr. Godfrey has been successful financially far beyond the common lot of men. Of a sanguine temperament, quick in perception and prompt in action, with force of character and steady persistence in his purposes, his plans have prospered, and he may be counted among the wealthiest of the citizens of Grand Rapids. Upright and benignant, and suavely sociable, in conduct and bearing, he has a firm place in the esteem of all with whom he is associated.

GEORGE H. WHITE, as merchant, lumberman, manufacturer and dealer in real estate, was prominently active among the business men of Grand Rapids during some forty-six years. He was born at Dresden, Yates county, N. Y., Sept. 9, 1822; a son of Joseph and Lucy (Rowley) White, who were born near Watkins by the head of Seneca Lake. He was the eldest of five children, but one of whom -- William B. White, of this city -- is now living. George in his boyhood attended the schools of his native town, and at thirteen years of age went with his grandfather, Ezra Rowley, to Fountain county, Indiana, where he worked a year on a farm. In 1836 he entered a store as a clerk, and in the following year went to Covington, the county seat, where he was also engaged as a clerk until 1842, in which year he came to Grand Rapids, arriving May 2, entered the store of A. and G. B. Rathbone, and remained there two years. Afterward he operated for many years as a partner with Amos Rathbone in mercantile and the lumber trade, conducting, meantime, for some five years a store at Rockford, Kent county. In 1863, and for two or three years, he was engaged in the manufacture of lumber on Rouge River and at Grand Rapids, in connection with William T. Powers, doing a successful business. In 1865, with Amos Rathbone and others interested, under the firm name of George H. White & Company, he purchased the "old plaster mill" property, and in connection with it a large tract of land; and there for upward of twenty years he, with others, carried on a heavy and profitable business in the manufacture and sale of land and calcined plaster. With Amos Rathbone he built nine brick stores on Monroe between Ionia and Division streets; also in 1873-74 one-third of the Aldrich, White and Godfrey block, the fine four-story stone building in which are now the Grand Rapids National Bank and several large stores at the corner of Monroe and Ottawa streets. He also dealt much in real estate, being one of the owners of Godfrey & White's city addition. He was a stockholder in the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad, was chosen one of its Directors in 1867, and was also a member of the Continental Improvement Company, through whose efforts that railroad was completed from Fort Wayne to Petoskey. He was a charter member of the eleventh lodge organized in Michigan of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, which he joined in 1848; from 1861 a member of the fraternity of Freemasons; also a Knight of Pythias. In religious views Mr. White was inclined to the Universalist faith; though his family were regular attendants at St. Mark's Church. Politically, he was a Whig while the Whig party existed; afterward through life a Democrat. December 12, 1853, he married, at Rockford, Michigan, Sarah A. Hetfield, of Covington, Ind., who survives him. To them were born two daughters -- now Mrs. C. B. Judd and Hattie H. White. Mr. White held and creditably filled several official positions of trust and responsibility: Register of Deeds in 1844-45; Supervisor of Algoma in 1855; Mayor of Grand Rapids in 1861 and 1862 -- two terms -- and Representative in the State Legislature for the term of 1863-64. From early youth Mr. White was dependent upon his own exertions. As a business man he was energetic and enterprising; working his way to a handsome competence in life, and at the same time aiding prominently in the progress and improvement of Grand Rapids. In social contact he was genial and accommodating, and as a citizen public-spirited -- one who has left an abiding impression upon the town and community in which he lived. He died September 10, 1888, at his home in Grand Rapids.

The first gypsum quarry opened on the right bank or north side of Grand River was that of Richard E. Butterworth. In 1849 he built a small mill near where now is the upper factory on that side of the river, below the city, and carried on the manufacture there till about 1856, when he sold the place to Hovey & Company for $35,000. Soon after the discovery by Butterworth, two other quarries were opened adjoining or near him, at one of which works were started by John Ball and Bernard Courtney; the other belonged to Adin J. Hinds, who soon sold out and moved away. Mr. Hinds, when a boy, assisted in the sinking of the salt well above Bridge street, and from the talk which he then heard concerning the dip of the strata was led to a successful search for the thirteen-foot stratum at his farm. The quarries on that side extend into the hill, under from 50 to 75 feet of earth and rock, and by the quarrying caves have been made, many acres in extent. A very heavy business is carried on by the plaster mills now in operation on that side of the river, below the city.

Hovey & Company organized in 1856, and built their mill the following summer. They mined about 2,000 tons the first year, and did a steadily increasing business until 1860 when the Grand Rapids Plaster Company was incorporated, and the firm merged in that, its members being: Francis Fisher, James W. Converse and Francis K. Fisher, of Boston; Charles H. Stewart of New York, and William Hovey—J. W. Converse President; Solomon L. Withey, Vice President; C. C. Converse, Secretary; William Hovey, Treasurer and General Agent. Their factory has been known as the Eagle Mills. Mr. Converse is still at the head of the company. In 1888 Wm. S. Hovey was Treasurer and Agent; Wm. McBain, Secretary.

JAMES W. CONVERSE, familiarly known among his acquaintances as Deacon Converse, is a resident of Boston, but has for forty years been so largely interested by investments in this city, and has spent so much of his time here, as to seem like a citizen of Grand Rapids, of whom it is proper to give some personal account in these pages. Mr. Converse was born in Thompson, Conn., January 11, 1808. When he was six years old his parents removed from that place to Woodstock, Conn.; two years later to Dover, Mass., and thence to Needham. In 1821, while yet a poor boy, he left home and went to Boston, and then and there entered upon a successful and honorable career -- one which should be an inspiration to the youth of this and coming generations. In that year, too, he joined the Charles Street Baptist Church. Mr. Converse was also one of the original members of Federal Street Baptist Church, Boston, organized in 1827. In 1828 two of his uncles assisted him to begin business in the Boyleston Market. January 1, 1832, he formed a co-partnership with William Hardwick, under the firm name of Hardwick & Converse, for carrying on the boot, shoe and leather business. January 1, 1833, he entered partnership with Isaac Field, under the style of Field & Converse, in the hide and leather trade, at 43 and 45 Broad street, Boston. September 5, 1833, he married Emeline, daughter of Nathan and Nabby Coolidge, of that city. October 8, 1833, he bought a house on Pearl, between High and Purchase streets, Boston, where he lived some ten years. May 16, 1836, the Mechanics' Bank, Boston, was organized, and Mr. Converse was then elected one of its Directors, and continued in that position until 1888. Alvan Simonds at the same time was appointed Cashier of the bank, and they were together in the banking business fifty-two years. July 5, 1837, he was elected Deacon of the Federal Street Baptist Church. In 1838, Isaac Field withdrew from the firm of Field & Converse, and his brother, John Field, took his place. This firm in later years became noted in this and foreign lands as among the most reliable and honorable in its line of business. It enjoyed excellent credit through all the panics of thirty-seven years. In 1845 Mr. Converse moved to Jamaica Plains as a place of residence, uniting with the church there and becoming one of its Deacons. In 1847 he was elected President of Mechanics' Bank, a position which he held until 1888. This bank never failed nor stopped. In 1865 he returned to Boston, where he still lives. January 1, 1870, he retired from the firm of Field & Converse, since which he has been very busy building railways and in manufacturing enterprises. Much might be quoted from the testimony of his contemporaries as to the business integrity of Deacon Converse— commendations not only from merchants and public men at the East, but from prominent citizens in the West; ascribing to him a character for uprightness beyond reproach, and free from suspicion of ill-will or wrong doing toward his neighbor, during all his more than three-score years of commercial life, with its numberless cares and perplexities. Perhaps the words of the Rev. William Howe, D. D., may convey an idea of him as he appears to one who is familiar with his life and labors. Dr. Howe writes:

The Christian character early formed, and supplemented by correct business principles and enterprise has led to a prosperous life and ultimate affluence. He has been content to patiently work his way to the goal without aspirations for civil, religious or political distinction. He frequently has been called to occupy positions of honor, trust and great responsibility, which he has ever filled to the satisfaction of his friends and great credit to himself. His influence, like the silent unseen forces of Nature, has been widespread, beneficent, and rich in results like an unseen hand lifting the weak and fainting, and helping the perplexed in business crises over the dark chasm which seemed ready to engulf them. United with this private sympathy and aid are his charities only known to himself and his Lord, and his public gifts widely known and appreciated. He has been connected with several churches, and all have shared in his generous aid and support. Several church edifices have arisen wholly or in part by his munificence. A worthy object of Christian benevolence, at home or abroad never fails to claim his attention and enlist his sympathy, and aid in larger or smaller sums. It is worthy of honorable mention that he never treats an applicant for aid coldly or rudely, but with Christian courtesy; when undecided as to the merits of the case, often saying:

"I have nothing at present for the object but may have; call again." In all this appears the guiding principle of a faithful steward.

Mr. Converse first visited Grand Rapids June 3, 1850, to save to the American Baptist Missionary Union its rights in the property that had been the Baptist Indian Mission reserve on the west side of the river, south of Bridge street. In that he succeeded, and afterward purchased the property; which in 1856 he caused to be platted, and which is known as the Converse Addition. In a large portion of it he caused the streets to be graded, to the great advantage of the purchasers of his lots, as well as enhancement of their value. He also purchased an interest in the gypsum quarries and mills southwest of the city, with William Hovey and others, and in 1856 a company was organized under the name of Hovey & Company, which was in 1860 incorporated as the Grand Rapids Plaster Company, and of which Mr. Converse was chosen President, a position which he has since occupied continuously and still holds. In the fall of 1857 he was one of the organizers of the Pearl street Bridge Company, and furnished most of the funds for the construction of the bridge in 1858. He was also largely interested financially and otherwise in the construction of the first railroad from Kalamazoo, by way of Allegan, into Grand Rapids. He also furnished the funds for the construction of the railroad to Newaygo, then bearing the name of Grand Rapids, Newaygo and Lake Shore Railroad, he taking and negotiating the bonds maturing July 1, 1891. This was in 1871. Mr. Converse has since been interested in several other manufacturing industries in this city and about; is President of the Phoenix Furniture Company, also President and principal owner of the Converse Manufacturing Company, which is the successor of the Newaygo Furniture Company, having factory, stores and mills at Newaygo. His work and investments hereabout have contributed much to the growth and progress of Grand Rapids. Nor has he been unmindful of the welfare of the Baptist Church people here. The Second Baptist Church, at the corner of California and Gold streets, is the outgrowth of his liberal munificence; he having, in 1883, made a gift to the society of the lot and built and furnished the house of worship thereon.

William Hovey was a native of Concord, Mass., born December 3, 1812. In the earlier part of his life he was a carpenter and joiner and manufacturer. He came to Grand Rapids in 1856, and engaged in the manufacture of calcined and land plaster. In 1860 he was one of the organizers of the Grand Rapids Plaster Company, and was thereafter its General Manager and Treasurer during his life; also business agent here of J. W. Converse. Ever after 1827 he was a member of the Baptist Church. He was a man of enterprise and a valued citizen. He was averse to holding office, but in 1879 accepted that of Member of the Board of Public Works. He was a Republican in politics. He died November 2I, 1881, in this city, much loved and mourned.

The manufacture of stucco or calcined plaster from gypsum, was very early commenced here, and the article produced is of excellent quality. The story of the first experiment at Grand Rapids in the making of stucco is well worth the telling. The first plastering and laying of brick chimneys with lime mortar was done in the house of Louis Campau, at the corner of Monroe and Waterloo streets, by James Clark; and the lime used was made by William McCausland, the first burned here, in a kiln by the river bank near Huron street. Richard Godfroy's house was the second one plastered, and on the gables outside was put a stucco finish. Mr. Clark had learned how of the elements. It is easily worked, and has been shaped into a variety of useful and fanciful articles and ornaments, such as napkin rings, cups and saucers, vases, etc., but this use of it has not developed any important business interest.


The land plaster and stucco trade has been a very important factor in the business of this city and its vicinity. In the early part of 1859 large shipments were made over the Detroit and Milwaukee Railroad, of plaster for farm use, the first of the sort by railway. It sold in Eastern and southern parts of the State, in competition with supplies from the East, at $7.50 per ton. In Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Western Ohio, also, it won favor as a fertilizer, and the demand rapidly increased. But the market conditions for the gypsum product have greatly changed. Up to about 1880 or later, two-thirds of the output from Kent county was in land plaster, and the minor portion in calcined plaster or stucco. The proportions are reversed. In 1889, 15,000 tons of land plaster and about double that amount of the calcined product would represent approximately the amount of the export from Kent county quarries and mills.

Document Source: Baxter, Albert, History of the City of Grand Rapids, New York and Grand Rapids: Munsell & Company, Publishers, 1891. (Name Index)
Location of Original: Various.
Transcriber: Jennifer Godwin
URL: http://kent.migenweb.net/baxter1891/38gypsum.html
Created: 17 December 1999[an error occurred while processing this directive]