From lumber heyday to library
The large building known as the Surrey House for the better part of a century will once again become a house of temperance when the Harrison District Library make it their new home in the center of Harrison. The long history of fine dining, beer and wine will be replaced by books, children’s story times other library activities. In it’s 136-year life it has been reinvented from saloon to fine dining and now fine dining to library.
The library has been outgrowing its location at the corner of Second and Main Street for many years. Located there in 1980 with a generous donation of the building to the City of Harrison from businessman John Collins. Through the efforts of Anne Smith, director for 32 years from 1970 to 2002 and the current director Sheila Bissonnette the library continues to grow and change to serve the needs of the community.
One of Harrison’s oldest buildings
The Johnson House opened in 1880 as a restaurant and hotel to cater to the growing population of the new lumber town of Harrison. The rush to lumber off the large tracts of virgin pine and other valuable timber grew the new town quickly. Saloons, businesses and thousands of lumberjacks flocked to Harrison. The Johnson House was the last house to give in to selling spirits. Most hotels or “houses” at that time would have also kept women working as prostitutes by choice or circumstance.
Robert F. Johnson opened the Johnson House in May of 1880. His first summer, he had a thriving business and built a livery barn to the north of the hotel. He closed for repairs in September for a short time and added an addition in November. It closed again briefly in December after the death of his wife Ellen, leaving him with small children [see legal sidebar.] He remarried the following spring.
The original building was the center portion that housed the bar with a south facing entrance on Beech Street instead of the west facing entrance throughout the later 1900s. An addition was added to the south and the third floor was added after 1900.
In 1885 John R. Brown owned the Surrey House. He came to Michigan in 1879 and worked for the lumberman Winfield Scott Gerrish for over ten years. He was later elected Sheriff of Clare County and was City Marshal in the City of Harrison in the 1900s. Brown dealt in real estate and farmlands after his lumbermen days were past and owned a considerable amount of farmland himself.
The hotel changed hands many times until the 1890s when it was bought by Daniel Lockwood. He operated it for a time as the Johnson House and later renamed it the Lockwood Hotel. Daniel and Mary Agnes Lockwood were long time local residents and all eight of their children were born in Harrison. In addition to operating the hotel Daniel was also a farmer and a well driller and he owned farmland in Greenwood township. The Lockwood family lived in a house next door to the hotel on Beech Street.
Daniel and Mary Agnes’ daughter Sarah Fredrika, nicknamed “Ted”, ran the hotel with her husband Bert Kane. They took over in 1924 and renamed it the Ohio Tavern. Presumably, it was called the Ohio Tavern because of the large amount of visitors from Ohio who stayed there. Unfortunately, Fredrika passed away from complications after an operation in 1931 leaving her husband and four small children. She was well loved in the small town of Harrison and her obituary is a heartfelt one.
Three other Lockwood children William (Willie), Joanna and Marguerite owned it during the bank foreclosure in 1932, the same year their father Daniel passed away suddenly. The three siblings William, Joanna and Marguerite lived in Ohio. Joanna and Marguerite were schoolteachers. The depression was certainly felt in Harrison as many people left to find livelihoods elsewhere and tourism didn’t become fully successful until after World War II.
By the 1940s the largest building leftover from the lumbering era stood empty and near condemnation. In 1945 two Flint businessmen, Edward Groehsl and Arthur Butterfield renovated the building and the Surrey House opened for business in 1946. A new porch was constructed with the west facing entrances we know today with doorways to the bar and reception area for the restaurant. Lodging was available with sleeping rooms on the second floor.
Edward Groehsl had been visiting the Harrison area for over twenty years hunting and fishing. He had a cabin on the Cedar River since the 1930s. After he graduated from Flint high school he attended the Naval Academy in Wisconsin. At the time the Surrey house opened he had worked his way up to vice-president of Citizens Commercial and Savings Bank. Edward Groehsl and his wife Dorothy had two small children in 1946. In the 1960s Groehsl ran the Northern Development Company, developers and builders of lake property.
Arthur Butterfield and his wife, ran the new venture and acted as manager and hostess. Also from Flint, Butterfield was a promoter of sporting events, fights, automobile races, and circuses prior to coming to Harrison. Flint was one of the leading fight (boxing) centers in the country during his time as a promoter. He was an avid trout fisherman and his goal was to make Harrison his full time residence with the success of the hotel.
There was considerable excitement in the community over the remodel and opening. Newspaper ads billed it “A Splendid Edifice and a Credit to the Community.” A lot of development was going on in the post war years and tourism from lower Michigan was becoming big business. A large restaurant and lodging establishment was a much-needed contribution to the community.
Groehsl and Butterfield’s ownership of the Surrey House lasted only a few years. In 1949, Omar and Lucille Austin and Leonard and Margaret Baker became the owners. Many Harrison residents recount their first job was working at the Surrey House. They ran an efficient establishment and demanded good behavior both from their employees and customers and were highly respected.
Ruby and Rumsey Swallow owned the Surrey House until the mid-2000s. In 1972, Rumsey Swallow, Keith First, and Keelan Nixon purchased the Surrey House from the Austins and Bakers. A year later Rumsey Swallow bought out First and Nixon ran the business for a time until bought out also by Rumsey.
Rumsey Swallow grew up working in his father’s business developments in Dodge City, namely the Townline Wilds. The Swallows were active in many aspects of the community. In the 1970s Rumsey went into the residential building business.
Under the Swallows ownership, over the years the Surrey House had many managers, several grand openings and a few sad closures. In 1980, the Surrey House suffered a fire. An electrical issue is believed to be the culprit and it caused extension damage to the bar and smoke and heat damage to the dining room.
In the 2000s Brooke and Kim Wood opened the Surrey House and ran it until it closed in 2011. From 2011 to 2016 the grand old building of the lumber era was for sale. Many people dreamed about what they would do with the building from micro-brewery to bed and breakfast and many ideas in between until the library purchased it along with a generous donation by Brooke and Kim Wood.
Many people over Harrison’s history have been associated with the large building in the center of town. Now that building will belong to all the people of Harrison and have a public use for all to enjoy for many years as the Harrison District Library.