Thomas Jefferson Ramsdell
When listing the founding fathers of Manistee, we usually think of the lumbermen with their large fortunes and commanding residences. Yet the one man who probably had a greater interest in the development of the community than any other is frequently omitted because he was not a lumberman. Thomas Jefferson Ramsdell, for over fifty years, maintained a strong interest in and always worked for the improvement of this community. The list of offices he held is extensive as are the public corporations with whom he was associated and the numerous buildings which he constructed. The theatre which bears his name is a fitting reminder of this man who did so much for the betterment of the community.
Thomas Jefferson Ramsdell was born on a farm near Plymouth, Michigan, on July 29, 1833 to a family of Scottish descent which had already been in the United States for almost 20 years. As a boy, he divided his time between working on the farm and attending school. As a teenager, Ramsdell attended Plymouth Seminary in between terms of teaching school. However, his real interest was in the legal profession and he spent a year "reading law" with the famous J. W. Longyear. From this introduction, he went on to law school in New York State where he was graduated in 1858. After his acceptance by the bar he was appointed clerk of the Michigan Supreme Court, and it was here that he met Chief Justice Martin who suggested the lumbering town of Manistee as one of the best places in the state for an aspiring young lawyer. With a legal library, suggested by Martin, Ramsdell set out with a horse and cutter in the winter of 1860 for the remote community. There was no road north of Muskegon and it took him a week to
make the journey to Manistee.
Thomas Jefferson Ramsdell | 1833 - 1917
History has left us with many stories detailing the need of the wild frontier logging town for the young lawyer. There are accounts of men walking to Traverse City to get a document which would release them from the Manistee County jail. Other stories tell of the lumbermen writing
their own contracts with numerous legal problems developing from omitted items. Because of these problems, the young lawyer was welcomed by the entire community and treated with great respect.
In 1867, Ramsdell joined in partnership with E. E. Benedict, an association which continued until the retirement of both parties from active practice in 1897.
During the 1860's Ramsdell had time to pursue many other projects in addition to his law practice. In 1861 he was elected to the State House of Representatives. Besides serving as County Treasurer and several terms as Prosecuting Attorney, Ramsdell was a member of the school board for eighteen years.
Until 1866, there was no bridge across the river, making it necessary for anyone who wanted to cross to secure a boat. Ramsdell, along with several of the lumbermen formed a private corporation which built a wooden turn bridge at the Maple Street crossing and tolls were charged, allowing the investors a return on their money. The bridge was however of wooden construction and was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1871.
Thomas Jefferson Ramsdell Home
Ramsdell also opened the first hardware store in Manistee, was instrumental in the establishment of the first newspaper, helped to found the First National Bank, and established the Manistee Water Works. Thomas Jefferson
Ramsdell reportedly made his first investment in real estate by trading his horse and cutter to Delos L. Filer for forty acres in the southwest part of the city. Ramsdell was
the contractor for the original school house on the corner
of Oak and First Street. About 1880, Ramsdell began investing in business blocks," and eight years later, he commenced construction of the large building on the southeast corner of River and Maple Street.
Over the years many public places in Manistee were used for large entertainment, but in 1883 the Scandinavian Society built a large building on the corner of First and
Greenbush streets that met the theatre needs of Manistee until it burned on December 17, 1900. The Manistee Daily News for November 22 of the following year spoke of the need by the community for a good theatre, pointing out the
lack of entertainment in the previous year, and suggested
temporary arrangements until a subscription plan could be developed to build a new theatre. Eleven days later, Thomas Jefferson Ramsdell announced that he would build a new opera house on the corner of First and Maple Streets. In the following two years, the Ramsdell theatre was built and serves today as a lasting monument to one of Manistee's most public spirited pioneers.
In private life, Thomas Jefferson Ramsdell married an early Manistee school teacher, Nettie Stanton, and had nine
children, several of whom became famous in their own right. Ramsdell enjoyed almost twenty years of retirement before he passed away at his home on April 22, 1917. Several tributes were published accounting his early trials, his public interests, and his numerous attainments and
endowments being mentioned, but perhaps the final statement of the News Advocate editor said it best, "A simple (funeral) ceremony, but fraught with deepest significance, was this in which "'Finis" was written to the career of Thomas Jefferson Ramsdell, pioneer, patriarch, and distinguished citizen."