“If we get all the way to Decatur I’ll know we’ve passed it, but I think this might be it right here. Yep, that’s it right here!”
Bonnie Nye (whom you might remember from an earlier "Why's That?" episode on I-94 road markers) and I are driving in the country near Decatur, on Van Buren County Road 669.
We stop by a shed at the edge of the road. A pipe sticks out near the bottom of one wall, and water pours out of the pipe into a basin sunk into the ground.
“There’s a little frog down in there,” Bonnie says, peering inside.
The property owners say this is a spring that drains to the Dowagiac River. Bonnie says she’s been visiting the spot since 1974.
“When I first moved out here to Van Buren County, one of the locals told me about it and brought me out here to see it,” she said.
Bonnie is curious about the spring’s history. So is Rodney Reid, the curator of the Public Museum in Lawton. Bonnie and I meet him at the Van Buren District Library in Decatur. Like Bonnie, Reid has known about the spring for decades.
“Back in the ‘70s when I was coming of age, there was nothing to do. There’s a great Steve Earle song where it says, ‘There ain’t a lot that you can do in this town, drive out to the lake, turn back around.’ And Gravel Lake was the back way on that road,” Reid said.
On the way, he adds, he and his friends would pass by the spring.
“Or like midnight cruises in the middle of the summer, always stop there, get a cold drink of water. So a lot of fine memories of that.”
Reid says that research he’s done on the area indicates that County Road 669 follows the path of a long-established Native American trail.
“The Native American lore is that one day there was a great rumble and all this water disappeared, and so the theory is there was a big earthquake that swallowed up all this water and just left swampland, so the main Native American trail went around the swamp, of course or the big water at the time,” he said.
The Van Buren District Library’s Amy Druskovich says that in the 19th century, the route by the spring served the stagecoaches that carried passengers and mail between between Paw Paw and Dowagiac.
“Oftentimes there were several that would run a day down the routes,” she added.
Druskovich found a written account that mentions the stagecoach drivers watering their horses at the spring.
“There is a comment in there about when the stagecoaches, the horses knew when they were getting near and they would step up and get a little extra push to get to the fresh water,” she said.
As Druskovich explains, the water wasn’t the only feature. In the 1830s an inn was built next to the spring.
“The Greenman Inn, the building - the structure has been razed so it no longer exists, and there is a house now at that location, but it talks about overnight guests staying,” she said.
Various accounts describe the ballroom on the second story, where guests and locals danced on a custom-built, springy wooden floor.
The building stood for about 120 years, but in the early 1950s it either burned or was demolished.
A couple of months after Bonnie Nye first took me there, we return to the spring with Rodney Reid. He says that when he stopped here on midnight drives with his friends in the 70s, he didn’t know about the inn that had stood there as recently as a couple of decades before.
“To us it was just a place to stop and get a drink of water. You know, cool spot. But once you find more and more about it, the history, it means more,” he said.
I ask Bonnie if she still drinks from the spring.
“I do, I have this summer,” she says, dipping in. “It’s good.”
“You can taste the minerals,” she adds.
While drinking from the spring is a local tradition, “Why’s That?” cannot vouch that the water is free from harmful bacteria or chemicals. But, when a spring or anything else in Southwest Michigan makes you ask “Why’s That?” we want to hear from you!