Ralph Fowler — The Founder

Ralph Fowler

photo courtesy of Fowlerville District Library

Mary (Smith) Fowler

2nd Wife of Ralph Fowler

photo courtesy of Fowlerville District Library

Ralph Fowler was born to Walter and Lucy (Campbell) Fowler in Trenton, Oneida County, New York, in October 1808 or 1809 (biographies disagree as to the exact date). Walter Fowler, his father, was a major in the War of 1812, but did not see active service. Walter’s father, David, was a captain in the Revolutionary War. 

Ralph grew up on a farm in Trenton (in northeastern New York) with his brother, John. It is unknown whether or not there were any other children born to Walter. Ralph only had one winter of school until after he was married. Around 1830 he hired out to a local farm, where he worked for eight months. Following that he rented a dairy farm with his brother-in-law, which they worked for two years.

Fowler married twenty-three year old Martha Smith on November 14, 1832. He was twenty-four. The following spring the couple moved to Geneseo in Livingston County, New York, where they rented a farm of 300 acres and 80 cows from James S. Wadsworth. Geneseo is in the western part of New York, not too far from Buffalo, and very close to the, then new, Erie Canal. He worked for Wadsworth for a year and a half, and then became a “home-agent” for his employer, in charge of 1000 acres. The general sent him to school so that Ralph might be more qualified to run the estate. For six months a year during the next two years Fowler attended school three nights a week, and acquired what education he was to have. By 1835 he had saved $2000, and was ready to strike out on his own. 

By 1835 the United States government was selling land in the territory of Michigan. Fowler apparently purchased 800 acres of land in what was to become Handy Township in Livingston County. The initial purchase, 320 acres in section 10 was made on August 24, 1835, followed by purchases of 240 acres in section 15 on August 27, 80 acres in section 11 on August 28, as well as  80 acres in section 2 and 80 acres in section 3 on November 5 of that year. Those purchases on recorded in the land tract book in Livingston County, although it should be noted that the federal land grants for the purchases are dated from April 10, 1837 through April 15, 1837.

John B. Fowler, Ralph’s brother, also purchased land in Handy Township, a total of 284 acres on April 18, 1836 (with land grant dates of August 2, 1837). John, along with Martin W. Randall, was the first of the brothers to visit their land in the territory. They left Geneseo on foot in the spring of 1836 and walked, through New York and Canada, to Handy Township. They met Amos Adams in the new settlement that would become Howell, and helped them find the property in which they were interested. The two returned to New York, where they told Ralph about the land. John returned to Michigan in September 1836 with his brother Ralph, this time traveling by steamboat from Buffalo to Detroit. Once again making their way on foot, they came to Howell and met up with Amos Adams. After Adams showed them the land Ralph had purchased, they started on their return trip home, and Ralph decided to move his family to Michigan. He and the family left their home in Geneseo on October 17, 1836 and arrived at their new, partially finished home in Handy Township on November 9. That original home was built with no planks, using only logs for the walls and rafters, split basswood logs for the floor, and oaken shakes and shingles for the gables and roof, with a stick and mud chimney. The only other families living in the township were those of Calvin Handy (for whom the township was named) and Harvey Metcalf. John Fowler did not return with his family until the following spring.

Ralph was not content to just scratch out a living in the new state (the territory achieved statehood in 1837). He worked tirelessly to promote the area, and to improve it, as well as to make money from it. In 1838 he convinced the state legislature to create Handy Township (prior to that it was part of Howell Township). That same year he was elected the first township supervisor. He served in that position two more times, as well as justice of the peace numerous times. He was elected to the state legislature in 1844 and in 1848, becoming the first state legislator from the township. In November 1849 he had Amos Adams plat out a village on some of his land. In 1852 he gave away every other lot in the new village to anyone who would build a good house on that lot. Of course, this caused people to settle in the village, bringing ready customers for some of Fowler’s business ventures.

Those ventures included a stage line between Howell and Lansing. First, however, a road needed to be constructed. In 1842 the state legislature had approved a small amount of money to open a road from Fowlerville to Lansing, but it wasn’t used very much and quickly grew closed with brush. Fowler, along with O. B. Williams of Williamston, went over the route and sought subscriptions to re-open the road. They succeeded in raising $600 in money and goods, and went to work on the route. Fowler started at Fowlerville, and Williams at the Meridian line—approximately where Meridian Road is today), working towards each other. They each had a team of three men and two yoke of oxen. In the course of three weeks the road was cleared and bridges built over the Red Cedar River where it crossed the road.

The next job was to get the mail route changed so that it went through Fowlerville and Williamston. A Mr. Seymour of Lansing, along with O. B. Williams, Fowler, George Curtis of Fowlerville, and H. Gates of Howell, established a stage line to run between Howell and Lansing. The stage was very rudimentary; a lumber wagon drawn by a pair of horses. It made trips three times a week; a day one direction and a day in the other. The stage ran for a year. By that time the goal of getting a post office established at Fowlerville and Williamston had been accomplished, and the original owners sold out. Fowler lost money on the deal, including a horse valued at $125 and owing the company $10.

Fowler also donated six acres for a saw mill in the new village to Russell Fuller, and boarded the workmen free of charge, and then later bought the mill. He gave the site, $150 in cash, and four village lots to the builder of the first gristmill. He also donated the original sites for the Methodist and Baptist churches, and built the first store building in the town. That store was on the southeast corner of Grand River and Grand Avenues, where the former C. D. Hamilton store, more recently known as Ruth’s Resale, is located. According to another source, he also built the first hotel. He was instrumental in getting the plank road built between Howell and Fowlerville, owning $1000 worth of stock in the plank road company, and furnishing the planks to build the road. And if all of those weren’t enough, Fowler worked tirelessly to promote the value to the community of having a railroad line through town, as well as to get the railroad company to build it.

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According to one source, Ralph’s original house was replaced by a frame house around 1844. However, Fowler himself, along with the History of Livingston County, said that the first framed house in the township was built by Richard P. Bush in Section 12 in the year 1853, so the date for Fowler's house must be incorrect. Nonetheless, that house stood for more than 100 years on Grand River Avenue, just west of today’s Fowlerville Hardware, where the new empty lot is. For much of the twentieth century it was owned by George Peckens. The home was purchased by Bob Smith of Bob Smith Ford in the late 1960s and was torn down. 

Ralph and Martha had six children. The first two, George and Lucy, were born in Geneseo, New York. The third, Charles, was born June 11, 1837, and was the first pioneer birth in Handy Township. The remaining children, Joanna, Walter B. (who died as an infant), and Walter, were all born in Handy Township.

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Martha Smith Fowler died at the age of thirty-eight on August 11, 1846, less than a year after her youngest child was born. At the time of her death the cemetery was located just east of the village, near where the 700 block of Grand River is today. When the cemetery was relocated to the present Greenwood Cemetery on Cemetery Road, a larger monument for the Fowler family was erected. Martha’s original headstone somehow ended up in the storage area above Fowlerville Decorating Center. Decorating Center owner Ron Daly donated it to the Livingston Centre Historical Village at the Fowlerville Fairgrounds in 1991.

Ralph’s brother, John, had married Martha Smith’s sister, Mary in 1835, before leaving New York. John and Mary had two children, Rufus and Eugenia. Both of them were born in Handy Township. John died in 1842, not long after Eugenia was born.

The result of these deaths were two families with one parent raising young children in an undeveloped wilderness. Whether for love or practicality, Ralph Fowler married his former sister-in-law, Mary Smith Fowler on December 10, 1846, just four months after his first wife died. The new, blended family had eight children, aged thirteen years to thirteen months.

The new Mrs. Fowler was born in Linden, Caledonia County, Vermont on July 9, 1810. At the age of twelve her family moved from Vermont to New York State, and then came to Michigan in 1837 just before her twenty-seventh birthday. She lived in Fowlerville until she died of typhoid fever, on October 1, 1887. She is buried in Greenwood Cemetery with her two husbands and her sister.

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Ralph Fowler died just five days before his wife, on September 26, 1887. He, too, is buried in Greenwood Cemetery. His legacy lives on in the town named for him.

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