Charles De Witt Lawton, Michigan


By Captain O. W. Rowland
Volume II

Published by the Lewis Publishing Company
Chicago and New York 1912

Charles De Witt Lawton –

The death of Charles De Witt Lawton, which occurred August 24, 1909, removed from Michigana man who had long been prominent in the state’s political, scientific and intellectual life, but who left behind the memory and influence of a life work that is bequest of value to the commonwealth.

Mr. Lawton was born in Rome, New York, November 4, 1835. The son of Nathan and Esther (Wiggins) Lawton, he was of strictly English descent and of marital ancestry, his paternal and maternal grandfathers having been Revolutionary soldiers in New York and New England regiments. The family is one of the oldest in the country. The original American Lawtons came from Lawton, England, in 1636, settling in Rhode Island as colonists under Roger Williams. [came from Cranfield, Bedfordshire, England, probably in 1639, settling in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, not Providence] The records of that colony give ample evidence of the distinguished and formative services rendered by them both previous to and during the Revolution. That those family traits have not been lost is proved by the recent record of Mr. Lawton’s nephew, Major Louis B. Lawton, who, for his bravery at Tien Tsin in bringing relief to the American forces through the open fire of Chinese bullets, was awarded a medal by Congress.

Mr. Lawton’s paternal grandfather [Oliver and Ann Rathbun Lawton] settled in Herkimer county, New York, in 1794 [1789], and his father, Nathan Lawton, moved from there to Auburn, New York, where for many years he was a well known and influential citizen. Mr. Lawton’s early life was passed in Herkimer county and in the city of Auburn, where he attended Auburn Academy. In 1858 he was graduated, with the degree of Bachelor of Arts, from Union College at Schenectady, which in that day was one of the largest American colleges. One year after his graduation he received the degree of Civil Engineer, and some time later that of Master of Arts. He then returned to his home city, Auburn, and with his brother George W. (the late Judge Lawton), took charge of Auburn Academy. Academics in those days comprised a large share of the higher educational institutions. Many students were enrolled who have since become famous, among them Hon. Sereno Payne, of New York. Mr. Lawton’s influence and friendship with them was life-long.

In 1861 Mr. Lawton married Lucy Lovina Latham, daughter of Oliver Sanford and Lucy Maria (Eastman) Latham, of Seneca Falls, New York. Mr. Latham was a prominent contractor and builder, and associated with his three brothers, was the builder of many government locks, bridges,canals and custom houses.

In 1865, his health not being good and advised by physicians to go West, Mr. Lawton, with Mrs. Lawton, removed to the village of Lawton, Van Buren county, Michigan, where his father owned a great quantity of land and which had received his name. he concluded to make his home here, and from that time on his interests have been identified with the growth of Michigan, with its mining interests, it agricultural interest and its development in every way, for Mr. Lawton was primarily and essentially the best of citizens.

To Mr. and Mrs. Lawton were born nine children: Charles Latham, general manager of the Quincy & Adventurer Mining Company of Hancock, Michigan; Nathan Oliver, superintendent of the Miami mine at Globe, Arizona; Frederick Percy, a physician at Traverse City, Michigan; Swaby Latham, of the law firm of Hanchette & Lawton, at Hancock; Eugene Wright, of San Antonia, Texas; Margaret Brooks; Rebecca Estella; Marion Agnes, wife of Dr. Thomas J. Swantz, of South Bend, Indiana; and Gertrude Genevieve, wife of Clarence R. Van Vleck, of Jackson, Wyoming. The family home has long been an intellectual and social center, owing much to the culture, accomplishments, dignity and charm of Mrs. Lawton, who has wielded a sympathetic influence in the growth and progress of the town.

Mr. Lawton’s brilliant mentality soon won for him a prominent place in his community, and there early recognized in him those qualities which won for him so many successes in after life. Together with his brother George W., who had preceded him to Lawton two years, and the late Nathan Bitely, he embarked in the nursery business and began cultivation of grapes, which has since grown into such a magnificent industry.

Finding the soil to be of a sandy nature and seemingly unproductive, they began to investigate in a small way, until the growing of grapes became widespread. The first big planting was done by Mr. Lawton in 1865 and 1866, when he put out five thousand vines secured at Geneva, in the famous grape district New York. However, Mr. Lawton was a man of varied interests. He was prominent in establishing a blast-furnace in Lawton for the manufacture of charcoal pig-iron from Lake Superior ores.

In 1870 Mr. Lawton was appointed assistant professor of engineering at the University of Michigan. From the university he spread into practical work, and in 1872 and 1873 assisted Major T. B. Brooks in the geological survey of the Marquette Iron region and the Menominee Range, where so much wealth was then discovered. He continued in the work of developing the Upper Peninsula, and in 1877 and 1878 assisted his nephew, the late Charles E. Wright, in the field work and in the preparation of his report as commissioner of mineral statistics, eventually taking over the active duties of the mining department and writing the immensely valuable reports of 1880, 1881 and 1882.

In 1884 Governor Alger offered him the position of state geologist, but he preferred to continue his work as commissioner of mineral statistics, publishing each year a report covering the mines and mineral interests of the state. This office, a purely scientific one, he held until 1891, and his reports for the years of his tenure of it are now much sought for and prized by men in all parts of the world who are interested in Michigan geology and Michigan mines, as they were and still are absolutely to be relied on. His knowledge of the mineral ranges of the Northern Peninsula was vast, and his ready pen made his reports not merely technical but delightful to read. Mr. Lawton was never a permanent resident of the Upper Peninsula, but his numerous visits to the copper and iron region, his interest in geology and his friendship for the early mining men of that section made him in spirit one of them, and the Northern Peninsula was always glad to claim him as one of its loyal friends.

In the meantime he never relinquished his interests at home and throughout Van Buren county. Practically all the county was surveyed by him, and he made the first and the subsequent surveys for what was known as the Narrow Gauge Railroad. In this way he had an intimate and wide acquaintance with all parts of the county and with all its residents. His notes and surveys, because of their accuracy, would, if published and edited, be a valuable reference in the archives of the county.

Mr. Lawton always retained interest in farming. Besides the running of his fruit farm, he owned and managed a grain farm in Porter township, and was always an active and a large contributing member to the various horticultural and agricultural societies of the county and state; and being a fluent writer, he was a frequent contributor to the various journals.

His father a Whig before him, Mr. Lawton was always a staunch Republican, one of the noble old Romans who laid the foundations for the new Republican party under the oaks of Jackson. As an intrepid Abolitionist he cast his first vote for Fremont, and was ad advocate of the nomination of William H. Seward, for the presidency at the time of Lincoln’s nomination; as he and Mr. Seward were fellow-townsmen and friends. Mr. Lawton’s father was a delegate to the national Republican convention at that time.

Mr. Lawton was always actively interested in county, state and national politics. In county and state conventions he led the list of delegates, and ever exercised a potent influence. He was an easy speaker as well as vigorous and fearless writer, and his speech-making tours throughout the state made him a familiar figure to thousands. He was an honorary member of the United States Historical Society and of many Michigan state organizations formed for the betterment and enlightenment of the people.

In 1897–the only election in which Mr. Lawton figured as a candidate–he was elected on the Republican ticket by a large majority regent of the University, which office he held eight years. Probably few men had his love for educational institutions or were better fitted to help govern them. He was especially endowed with a keen mentality, a broad insight, a scholarly and well furnished mind, for he was a man of much learning and vast information, all of which made him a valuable public servant. Always ready to be of service to his fellow-citizens as well as to his state, for thirty years he was a member of the school board of his village and gave to his duties as such the same degree of attention and interest that he devoted to other claims upon his time or faculties.

Mr. Lawton was a man of great versatility and a rare diversity of gifts. Handicapped at the very outset of early manhood with a weak side, and often enduring severe pain he, nevertheless, manifested an ever restless and intense diligence in the attainment of knowledge or in the pursuance of some line of work. He was a natural student and possessed a remarkable memory. In his later years, during his hours of recreation, he was always to be seen reading in the original some French, German, Spanish or Italian classic.

Mr. Lawton was the ideal American citizen. While discriminating in his friendships and scholarly in his tastes, he was, however, democratic in his ideas, sympathetic and approachable toward all. He was a man of the soundest judgment, wholly sane, unbiased and unprejudiced in his views, of the highest character, uncompromisingly honest, broadly charitable, genial in his nature and delightful in his home.

To quote from the True Northerner: “Those who knew Mr. Lawton best appreciated his sterling worth and rare diversity of gifts. ‘He knew so much’ was the heartfelt testimonial of a discriminating and eminent friend. Yet, after a life-time of study, his wisdom was never paraded for applause, but treasured to himself, save when a friendship or service called it forth. He was ever the most modest of men.

“No citizen of our state was better posted on the current questions of the day, and few were better equipped in the classics. Concerning the most momentous issues, as with the commonest practical affairs, his opinion was lucid and his judgment sound. The record of Mr. Lawton made in mastering the geological status of Upper Michigan is a tribute to his intelligence and industry, and his long time official association with the affairs of our State University is one of the most notable achievements of his public career. In all his connection with the affairs of his busy life, no hint of dishonesty, incompetence or slightest shade of self-seeking was ever heard. His family and neighborhood life was simple, kindly and pure. Sturdy and straightforward, frank and fearless, he did what he thought was right, and left judgment of consequences to a higher tribunal than the vacillating opinions of men.

“The men of Mr. Lawton’s generation, with whom he so long affiliated, have, for the most part, passed from the stage of action. But the impress of their rugged honor and stalwart courage has been left as a legacy for those who succeed them. The life-work, the influence, the memory of such a man as Charles D. Lawton are a bequest of value to the commonwealth and will be appreciated for their actual value and increasing worth.”

In every field Mr. Lawton was recognized as a leader, a man among men, and one who will leave his impress upon his adopted state. The good he has done cannot be estimated, and his children, friends and fellow-citizens have a priceless legacy in the memory of his life.

He was the fifth in order of birth of the seven children of his parents, all of whom are now deceased. The others were Eliza, Nathan, Esther, George W., Albert W., and one who died in infancy. Mrs. Lawton was the first born of the nine children who blessed and brightened her parental home. All but her and her brother William Arthur Swaby, of Syracuse, New York, have passed away. Her sisters and brothers who have died were: Gertrude, Isadore, Oliver Sanford, Sanford, Jessie Maria, Stephen Eastman, Margaret Aurelia and Marion Agnes.