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Below is a family biography included in Portrait and Biographical Record of Berrien and Cass Counties, Michigan published by Biographical Publishing Company in 1893.  These biographies are valuable for genealogy research in discovering missing ancestors or filling in the details of a family tree. Family biographies often include far more information than can be found in a census record or obituary.  Details will vary with each biography but will often include the date and place of birth, parent names including mothers' maiden name, name of wife including maiden name, her parents' names, name of children (including spouses if married), former places of residence, occupation details, military service, church and social organization affiliations, and more.  There are often ancestry details included that cannot be found in any other type of genealogical record.

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PHILO D. BECKWITH. No name is more closely connected with the history of the city of Dowagiac than that of the late Mr. Beckwith, and this volume would be incomplete were no mention made of his life. He was born in 1825, upon the tract of land known as the Holland Purchase, in the town of Eagle, Allegany County, N. Y. His parents were descended from New England ancestors, and the family pedigree reaches back to the sturdy old Puritan stock, representatives of which first landed on our shores at Plymouth Rock. In those early times, when poverty was the rule and wealth the exception, the parents of our subject were in such straitened circumstances that they were not able to furnish their son the benefit of even the scanty education of a country school.

The father, Stephen Beckwith, died in the prime of life, leaving two children, a son and a daughter, to be cared for by the widowed mother, who for some years earned her own living and that of her children by the use of the needle. At the age of fourteen years the lad was placed in the care of a maternal uncle, who provided for him a comfortable home, and who, being the owner of a woolen mill, trained him to work in this mill. Two years afterward young Beckwith was transferred to the care of another uncle, also on the maternal side, who resided near Rochester, N. Y. While living with that uncle he enjoyed the privilege of attending the district school several months, in all less than a year, the only schooling he ever received, although plenty of it came in the greater school of a busy and useful life.

In 1843, at the early age of eighteen years, Mr. Beckwith married Miss Catherine Scott, a young lady of his native town. A year later he removed with his wife to Michigan, arriving at Battle Creek in the spring, penniless and without friends. However, he soon found employment in a woolen factory, and afterward in a machine shop, both positions occupying about nine years. During that time, although receiving the nominal wages of only $1 per day, yet the journeyman worker managed to save enough money to purchase a home, which he afterward sold for $600. This same money in after years became the nucleus around which has since been gathered the handsome fortune now possessed in the Round Oak Stove Works. But the path leading to this fortune was at times in the earlier days far from flowery. Difficulties, which to a nature less gifted and persevering would have been insurmountable, were bravely met and vanquished.

Mr. Beckwith removed to Dowagiac in 1854 and built a small foundry and machine shop, 25x60 feet, on the east side of Front Street, opposite the Continental Hotel. This foundry was run by horse power and its object was the manufacture of plows. The beginning was graduated on so small a scale that the first year the proprietor employed only one workman with himself, and in this way he struggled along for four years, making on the whole some progress, but in so slow a degree as to be entirely unsatisfactory. With the view, therefore, to bettering his condition, he disposed of his property and purchased a plot of land on Dowagiac Creek, at the foot of Front Street, but within the village corporation. On the new site he improved the water power, built a shop, and furnished it with tools and machinery. The manufacture of plows was still the object in view. But the howl of the wolf, the dashing of the deer and the depredations of old Bruin in many portions of the State were still too common to warrant the rapid introduction of this farm implement. The forest haunts of those wild denizens must first be converted into arable lands.

While conversing with John S. Gage, a practical farmer of Wayne Township, Mr. Beckwith received a happy suggestion. At that time nearly all the grain in Michigan was sown broadcast by hand. This enterprising farmer, having conceived the idea of a machine which, by sowing the grain in drills and by horse power, would do the work in a far better way and more rapidly, saw also that the proprietor of the Creek Foundry was just the kind of a genius to materialize it. No sooner in the conversation was this idea broached, than Mr. Beckwith seized it, became fully possessed of it, and as the result forthwith manufactured and introduced to the farmers of Michigan the celebrated Roller Grain Drill.

With the new impetus given by the drill enterprise, employing a score of workmen, the proprietor, with a view to being located nearer the railroad and to use steam instead of water power, sold out the Creek foundry, after having used it nine years, and purchased land on the east side of the Michigan Central Railroad, opposite the depot at Dowagiac. On this new site two brick shops were erected, which by many additions have since grown into the present well-known Round Oak Stove Works. But the manufacture of the Roller Grain Drill was at first the paramount object in view. Some progress had been made in this enterprise, but not enough for the accumulation of capital sufficient for the building of the new foundry, the purchase of new machinery, and the manufacture of the required stock of drills. To make up the deficiency a large sum of money was borrowed. With the new facilities now on hand, the proprietor manufactured an unusually large stock of drills, hoping by their ready sale to meet his heavy obligations, but it was just after the close of the Civil War and times were unpropitious. Prices of all produce and property had fallen some seventy-five per cent. Of course this indicated in reality a wholesome state of things. During the war prices had become fictitious, and they were now seeking proper adjustment upon the basis of real values, but the effect of the decline was at first discouraging. Farmers, like other classes in the community, regarding the transition in an unfavorable light, felt that they must curtail their expenses and were slow to purchase new machinery. The Roller Grain Drill, moreover, being made of the best material and in the most thorough style of workmanship, was of necessity high priced.

It frequently happened that some stock had to be carried over to the next season; besides, the proprietor was paying interest on all his borrowed capital at the exorbitant rate of from fifteen to twenty-five per cent. With such heavy odds against him, it is not strange that he could only pay the interest on the burdensome debt from year to year. As old obligations became past due and could no longer be extended, he contrived to meet them by finding parties who, at a high rate of interest, could be induced to grant him new loans. In this way, with a will that was indomitable, united with a courage that never faltered, five years or more of the next thing to bankruptcy were struggled through.

It was a new invention that finally, in the hour of frowning fortune, proved the tide at which affairs turned and led on to smiling prosperity. Ever fruitful in resources, when the demand for the Roller Grain Drill was insufficient to meet the large expenses incurred in its manufacture, Mr. Beckwith invented the best heating, as well as the most durable, stove that has ever been placed on the market. But this, like all other inventions, had its days of trial. Only three hundred were made and sold the first year. Great were the obstacles on every hand. The inventor had never had any experience in stove-making, nor did he have any workmen on hand who had ever been employed in a stove foundry. By the closest application and perseverance he was obliged to gain a knowledge of the business and then to teach it in all its details to his workmen.

The burdensome debt with its usurious interest still continued. Home or local encouragement seemed to be a minus quantity. Here was a new enterprise struggling to assert itself within the limits of the corporation, and yet it is a notable fact that the men of capital in Dowagiac did not extend the hand of fellowship by any investment in it, or by loaning money to the proprietor, or contributing in any other way to its success. One hardware firm, which was handling the stove, expressed the public opinion, when it asserted that “a few of these stoves may be sold this year, but next year the thing will play out.” During all this period of trial, the proprietor steadily prosecuted his business with quiet persistency. It was a fortunate thing that when old loans became due, the President of a bank in Battle Creek, learning that our subject was pressed for means, lent him a large sum of money, and, what was more fortunate, the interest was placed at the legal rate. As soon as the merits of the stove became known it found a ready sale. Indeed from year to year its sales increased so rapidly that the proprietor found it difficult to fill the orders and was often obliged to run the works day and night. As means could be spared from the business, payments were made from time to time on the immense debt, until finally the last dollar of principal and interest was canceled, since which time a handsome fortune has been accumulated.

In inventing the Round Oak Stove, Mr. Beckwith “builded better than he knew.” In its improved and perfected form, nine sizes of which are now on the market, adapted to burn either wood or coal, it has gained an enviable reputation throughout the country. It might well have been a source of pride to Mr. Beckwith that from first to last no outside party ever invested $1 in the business. Purely from his own ability he brought into existence an enterprise which has revolutionized the stove business of America and also by this means raised himself from poverty to opulence. Until the time of his death he retained the management and superintendency of the stove works, and so popular was he among his workmen that strikes or other dissatisfaction never occurred.

Aside from the duties imposed by his business, Mr. Beckwith found time through the passing years to fill offices in several social societies. He served many times on the City School Board and also filled the positions of Mayor and Alderman frequently and successfully. His death occurred January 11, 1889, and was widely mourned as a public loss. He is survived by his widow, who through all his adversities was his true helpmate, and who rejoiced in his success as none other could. Catherine Scott was born in Syracuse, N. Y., September 22, 1827, and is the daughter of James Scott, a native of New York, who came to Michigan in 1843, and located at Battle Creek. The land which he purchased there was wholly unimproved and he devoted his attention to clearing and improving the place. His wife, whose maiden name was Jane Shears, died in 1848. After her death he lived in Battle Creek for a time and later removed to Dowagiac, where he died. He had served in the War of 1812, and on account of injuries received in service was a pensioner of the Government. He had five children, of whom only two are living. Catherine Scott became the wife of Mr. Beckwith on the 1st of October, 1843, the ceremony which united their lives being performed at Eagle, N. Y. Though now in the twilight of life, she enjoys good health and retains possession of her mental faculties.

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This family biography is one of numerous biographies included in the Portrait and Biographical Record of Berrien and Cass Counties, Michigan published in 1893. 

View additional Cass County, Michigan family biographies here: Cass County, Michigan Biographies

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