March 16, 2012 | Myrna Anderson

A Calvin senior writes about his hometown, which was devastated by a tornado on March 15.

While grading assignments for the Feature Journalism class she teaches at Calvin, Spark editor Lynn Rosendale read a paper by senior T.J. Fenske about a town called Dexter, Mich. A few minutes after she read it, Rosendale turned on her TV and learned that Dexter had been hit by a tornado, which obliterated many of the landmarks her student had described. Fenske agreed to share the article with News & Stories. Photo courtesy of Fox 17 News.

Small Town Has Big Effect On Its Residents

“Eighteen years,” he said as he sat on a park bench in downtown Dexter, Mich. “That’s how long I’ve called this place my home.”

Austin Shapiro, now a senior at the University of Michigan, took time to reminisce on his hometown and how it has shaped him as a person.

“Dexter was where I made my first friend,” Shapiro said.  “Heck, all of my first times took place in this town.”

The village of Dexter has filled many of its residents with fond memories, and such a close-knit community embraces all that Dexter has to offer.  Restaurants, locally owned businesses, parks, festivals and the popular Dairy Queen fill its limits and make the village what it is today.

Dexter is located nine miles northwest of Ann Arbor, Mich. with a population of 4,067 people.  Judge Samuel William Dexter, an early American statesman, founded it in 1824. 

The village gained popularity in the early 20th century for its farming and agriculture, but the town also played an important role in World War I by assembling parts for dreadnaughts, battleships used during the war by the British and U.S. Navies.

Dexter takes great pride for its work in World War I, and to remember the workers’ efforts they named Dexter High School’s mascot the Dreadnaughts.  While few outside of Dexter know what a Dreadnaught is, the citizens of Dexter are quick to fill people in.

“My friends at college were like, ‘What’s that?’” said Shapiro.  “It’s not until I explain to them that it’s a World War I battleship that they say, ‘Oh wow, that’s pretty cool.’”

While the Dreadnaught mascot is important to the community, they also treasure the events and businesses that give the village its identity. The iconic business of Dexter is the Cider Mill. It was founded in 1886, and they still make cider as it was made over 130 years ago, using an oak-rack press.

The mill is open from late August to mid-November and they serve apples, doughnuts, caramel apples, apple nut bread and freshly made cider. It also holds events, such as wine tasting and Apple Daze. Hour Detroit, a magazine in Metro Detroit, named the mill one of the 101 places to visit in the greater Detroit area.

 “When the Cider Mill opens, we all know it’s fall,” said Amy Baldus, a 21-year resident of Dexter. “There is so much heritage with it, and the smell of the cider—along with the colored leaves and fall breeze—is something I look forward to each year.”

The Cider Mill is also home to the award-winning Dexter Cider Mill Apple Cookbook and five other products: Apple Nut Bread, Walnut Crumb Topping, Gingersnap Cookies, Applesauce Fudge Brownies and Apple Scones.

The Dexter Cider Mill is not the only place that serves food in Dexter. The village offers a variety of locally owned restaurants for the public to try, but there is one restaurant that has people driving up, literally.

Located on Main Street at the end of town is the historic A&W Drive-In restaurant.  Simply drive up, roll down your window, turn on your lights and a server on roller-skates will roll out to take your order. 

Shapiro thinks there is nothing better for a night out than eating a chilidog with some A&W Root Beer while sitting in your car.

“It’s just a fun way to eat out,” said Shapiro.  “The food is great, but it offers a unique environment that we just don’t see very often anymore.”

Shapiro likes to compare the A&W drive-in environment to that of the 1950s, when radio was the main media source instead of the televisions and cell phones that fill restaurants and bars today.

“It feels like you’re going back in time to the ’50s,” said Shapiro. “You finally appreciate the radio for what it was 50 years ago because it’s all you have for entertainment while eating.”

Dexter’s old-time atmosphere isn’t just in its A&W drive-in or Cider Mill.  The Dexter Bakery was established in 1973, serving everything from freshly made donuts to cakes, pretzels, bagels, muffins and sandwiches.

The bakery opens at 5 a.m. every morning, and it’s a hot spot for the bikers and runners who include it in their morning route.

Cindy Fenske, a resident of Dexter for 30 years, has been going on morning runs through the village of Dexter for some time now, but just like every runner, she needs her energy.  To get that energy she makes the Dexter Bakery her finish line every Saturday morning.

“When I first started running I kept passing the bakery and it was always crowded with people,” Fenske said.  “I decided to stop in one day, and the rest is history.”

Fenske also enjoys the annual Dexter Daze festival that takes place every August.  The festival allows hundreds of booths to fill the downtown area with artisans, crafters, and entertainers from around the state. The festival brings the community of Dexter together for a weekend of fun and fellowship.

“The event is quite amazing,” said Fenske. “The streets are just filled with people.  There are crafts to do, (there is) art for sale, bands playing, and lines for downtown restaurants are out the door.”

Before 1971, Dexter Daze was known as Sidewalk Days, and local merchants displayed their goods for purchase on the sidewalk in front of their businesses. The following year more activities, such as movies, a pie-baking contest, square dancing and a parade were added to the event.  By 1975, the name officially changed to Dexter Daze, and the amount of people attending has increased every year since.

“I’ve gone to Dexter Daze since 1983, and it’s been neat to see it grow,” said Fenske. “It just keeps getting bigger, and that just makes it better each year.”

While the residents appreciate the rich history and traditions of Dexter they also fear the commercialization that is taking over the village. There are advantages to the additions of more strip malls, grocery stores, and car dealerships, but there are also disadvantages.

The closing of the Dexter Pharmacy is a prime example of the effects of commercialization. The Dexter Pharmacy was the main source for prescription drugs and convenience items in the village, but the recent openings of Busch’s and Meijer have shut down the independently owned store of 30 years.

A local restaurant, the Lighthouse Café, also closed after the opening of several new restaurants with different varieties of food and finer dining. It had been in the community for 15 years.

“It’s bittersweet to see this once quiet and peaceful village turn into an upbeat commercialized town,” said Shapiro. “I’m happy Dexter is growing, but I’m also sad to see all the things I grew up with disappear.”

Baldus and Fenske have the same feelings and both recalled when they used to hear their village called “Hicksville, USA.” 

“Dexter used to be in the middle of nowhere,” said Baldus.  “In high school, the other schools thought we were all farmers.  It wasn’t true, but it does show that Dexter went to the beat of its own drum.”

“I just remember the people of the village being much closer-knit than they are now,” said Fenske.  “Now that more people are living here, you just don’t see that anymore.”

Dexter has been changing. Its 2000 population of 2,338 people has nearly doubled in the past 10 years. The average household income has also increased from $74 thousand to $94 thousand, evidence that the village is slowly being pushed closer and closer to the suburban lifestyle of nearby Ann Arbor.

As Shapiro sat on the park bench, he looked at the stone statue of Samuel Dexter standing with his musket at the intersection of Main Street and Broadway in the downtown area.

“I miss this old place,” he said softly.  “I miss the slow pace, the friendliness of the people and, well, it’s just different.”

Shapiro and the rest of the residents are adjusting to the new ways of Dexter, but they realize that the change and growth of Dexter is not a bad thing.

“Change is going to happen,” said Shapiro. “I just hope that Dexter has the same positive affect on those growing up here as it did on me.”

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