Biographical Sketch of James A. Rumsey

James A. Rumsey, was one of the early pioneers of the Grandville Avenue district. He came to Grand Rapids in 1837, coming down Grand River from Jackson by way of a flat boat built by himself and Deacon Henry Stone, and upon which they brought their tool chests, and other earthly belongings.

At the time of Mr. Rumsey’s arrival in Grand Rapids, the place was very small and crude. An Indian mission had been established and the place was a trading post for the Indians. There were probably less than 500 white people living in Grand Rapids and the only highways consisted of the river and a road cut through the woods from Jackson via Yankee Springs.

Mr. Rumsey’s first work consisted in assisting Deacon Stone to build a house upon a couple of lots which he purchased soon after his arrival and which were located upon the north end of Kent street, upon the then newly platted Kent plat. After the house was finished Mr. Stone returned to Ann Arbor, for his family and Mr. Rumsey obtained employment on the ‘old Sweet Flouring mill’, which was then being erected upon what is now the site of the Berkey & Gay Furniture factory upon the west bank of the canal. After the mill was completed, Mr. Rumsey, who was a cooper by trade, engaged in making flour barrels and made the first barrel ever made in Grand Rapids.

After two years in Grand Rapids, he returned to his old home near Canandaigua, New York on a visit Returning soon to Grand Rapids, he entered the employ of John W. Squier, who had erected a flouring mill upon the east bank of the canal about where the Leitelt Iron Works now stands. This mill was built of stone, and the grinding was done with the old style burr stone. Here Mr. Rumsey was employed as a miller.

After a few years he went to Grandville and assisted in the building of a flouring mill at that place, and for a time was the miller there. In those days the millstones had to be dressed or sharpened with steel picks operated by hand and it required a man of experience to properly lay off a stone for dressing and in this he was adept. In 1842 Mr. Rumsey entered the employ of Henry R. Williams who was engaged in the mining, grinding and calcining of gypsum-plaster near where the Alabastine No. 1 mill now is. Mr. Williams afterward became Grand Rapids first Mayor. Mr. Rumsey’s part of the business was to attend to the grinding of the gypsum rock, and the calcining of the ground plaster. The calcining was then done in open kettles, and the plaster as it was then called had to be stirred by hand, instead of by machinery as at present.

Early in 1841 he purchased the east half of the north-east quarter of Section 14, Walker township and started to clear up a farm. He afterwards abandoned the making of a farm there but retained possession of the land. This realty is now a part of the city and the larger portion of it in the possession of his children.

It was in the year 1848 that Mr. Rumsey acquired the farm on Grandville road, known as the Rumsey farm and in 1850 moved upon same and became a farmer once more.

At about the same time he acquired eighty acres of land, being the south-half of the northwest quarter of Wyoming township and erected thereon, near the mouth of Silver Creek, a Mulay saw mill, where he did custom sawing, and carried on a lumbering business. This mill, which was known as the "Red Mill", about 1860 was converted into a mill for the grinding of plaster. This was about the time that George H. White & Company came into possession of what was then known as the "Old Plaster Mills".

For ten years Mr. Rumsey carried on the plaster grinding business, and during a portion of this time occupied the position as Superintendent at the "Old Plaster Mills". During this period land plaster was used extensively as a fertilizer and as Grand Rapids had but the one railroad, the old Detroit & Milwaukee, the ground plaster had to be handled by teams a distance of four miles for shipment. This gave employment to many men and teams and during the winter farmers all through southern Michigan, and even into northern Indiana, would bring grain and pork to the Grand Rapids market and take home plaster.

In 1847 he was married to Cornelia L. Stone, daughter of the man with whom he first arrived in Grand Rapids, and his first employer here. With his wife he lived for 58 years until her death in October, 1905.

It was during the year 1858 that Mr. Rumsey built the large brick farm house upon Grandville Avenue. This, at that time, was considered as one of the finest residences in the city. The white pine lumber used for the interior finish of this house was sawn at the Red Mill by Mr. Rumsey. During 1908-09 this old landmark of more than fifty years, was torn down, and a large part of the material entered into the construction of the building at the corner of Grandville avenue and B street, and now the home of the Michigan Exchange Private Bank.

About the year 1880 he having acquired a competency retired from active business. He spent a good share of his time after this at Mr. J. Stryker’s feed store on the corner of Grandville avenue and Rumsey street or at Henry Haan’s shoe store on the corner of Grandville avenue and A street, where he loved to talk about the good old pioneer days of early Grand Rapids, when every man knew every other man and there was no distinction of caste.

He loved the plain farmer and the rugged woodsman. He had always been a hard worker himself and he admired the man who worked. Mr. Rumsey never cared for style or dress yet he and his wife were ready to assist a worthy one in distress.

Born 8 November 1814, he died 16 March 1906, at almost 92 years of age – 70 years of which were spent in the Grand River Valley. He was respected, revered and loved by those who knew him best.

(Article from the Grandville Ave. Record, 3 May 1912, page 4)

Transcriber: ES
Created: 18 April 2006