Colon, The Town That Magic Built

The Town That Magic Built

From The Colon Community Historical Society, origin unknown: “Many towns claim their own unique “magic.” But no other town has the MAGIC of Colon, “The Magic Capitol of the World.” Levitating bodies, floating light bulbs, rabbits from hats – all standard fare for the 1227 townspeople and many summer residents who call Colon home.

Home of Abbott’s Magic Manufacturing Company, the world’s largest producer of magic paraphernalia. Colon becomes the focus of international attention each August. The national media, including such prominent publications as The New Yorker, attempt to solve this magical mystery town and the townspeople who literally open up their doors for the Abbott’s Magic Get-Together, a four-day convention featuring seminars, demonstrations, and public performances by some of the world’s leading illusionists.

Colon’s role in the world of magic began in 1925 when Harry Blackstone, the great magicians and illusionist, bought property, which is still known as Blackstone Island. Blackstone and his troupe would spend the summer months in Colon, designing their shows and perfecting their craft. Before Blackstone hit the road, he would open with a show in Hill’s Opera House, a 600-seat auditorium. Thought it was a dress rehearsal for Blackstone, it was a chance to see a legend in one’s own hometown for the townspeople.

Among those who came to visit Blackstone was his Australian friend, Percy Abbott. Not only did Abbott perform magic, but he built tricks and illusions. Together, he and Blackstone formed the company that still bears Abbott’s name. Though the partnership did not last, the company certainly has. Under the leadership of Abbott and Recil Bordner, who directed the company until his death in 1981, the company became the most prominent and productive in the world of magic. Today, Abbott’s continues under the leadership of Recil’s son, Greg.

More than a few residents can perform a simple card trick upon request and man can share a story or two that further adds to the magical reputation of the town. Among the resident are those who can be prided for the inside scoop – people who have built magic props, performed shows, given lectures, written books and pamphlets on the art of magic. Remember, it’s a magician’s secret!

The merchants roll out the red carpet year around to serve visitors and answer questions regarding the village and magic. Perhaps they will even guide you to the cemetery where magic legends such as Harry Blackstone, Sr., his brother Pete Bouton, Percy Abbott, Ted Banks,  Monk Watson, Bill Baird, and Duke Stern rest in peace.

The State of Michigan has recognized the historical significance of Colon’s magic with the placement of a State Historical marker on the grounds of the public library. It explains the roles of Blackstone, Abbott and this small community in the world of magic.

For the residents of Colon and the many who come to visit, the magic extends beyond the four days in August, beyond the stage of the high school auditorium, beyond the black cement blocks of Abbott’s show room. It extends into the hearts and hands of its people who welcome you to be a part of the magic – the magic of friendship that is the community of Colon.

 

What’s in a Name?

 

? The name of the town is derived from the punctuation mark. To quote from an 1831 letter, “Arrangements were made and a surveyor laid out the lots. When completed we wished to give it a name … could not find one to wuit. Finally, I took up an old dictionary and the first word I put my eyes on was ‘colon’. Looking to see the definition … a mark of punctuation indicating a pause almost as long as that of a period, we called it.”

The village of Colon is also located on a freight line of the Penn-Central Railroad running between Jackson, Michigan and Elkhart, Indiana daily. The village, also receives freight hauling directly through Alvan Trucking whih has a branch office in the community. The nearest air service and other passenger service is either Battle Creek or Kalamazoo, both of which are over 20 miles away.

St. Joseph Co. and the region around Colon is a mainly agricultural area with scattered small towns and villages throughout the area. Neither the county nor the Colon area has as yet experienced the pressures of or the rapid urbanization which has been a part of the growth of much of this nation in the past several decades. In fact in the period from 1950 and 1960 all of the incorporated communities in St. Joseph County declined as a percentage of county population, which had increased 21% over that period.

In this rural setting then the village of Colon is wedged between two lakes; Palmer Lake, the larger, is to the south and Sturgeon Lake to the north. The village is also cut by Swan Creek which runs into the St. Joseph River from Palmer Lake. All three of the waterways of Colon are a part of the St. Joseph River drainage basin which is located on the northern border of the village. These lakes offer recreational opportunities to both the village and to the summer residents who have cottages on them. Colon also serves as the location for surrounding area’s major community schools with both the combined junior high-high school and one of the systems two elementary schools located in the village.

As part of the Southwestern Michigan area the region around Colon is predicted to experience steady growth for a long time in the future and with that growth, Colon should be prepared to accept part of the growth.

The first white settlers came to the Colon area in 1829. Previous to that time the area had been inhabited by a number of Indian tribes who left mounds and other marks of the habitations. By 1829, however, none of the Indians lived in the immediate area. Early in 1829 Roswell Schellhaus came from Ohio to the Michigan site looking for new land for settling. He however did not actually settle in the village as we know it today.

The first person to settle in the village area was a brother of Roswell who followed him. Lorancie Schellhaus settled in 1830 along Swan creed on some 119 acres building their first home there in 1831. One of their first efforts at farming was growing corn. Now days, fertile farm and gardens, as we as, wormwood and mint farms with distilleries, prove the sagacity of these brothers in choosing the location. In 1831 Charles Palmer moved into the area and settled on 300 acres east of Swan Creek by the lake shore. It is for Mr. Palmer the Palmer Lake is named.

In 1832 Lorancie built a dam on Swan Creek to provide power for a sawmill. This was the first of a series of mills located on Swan Creek and the firs manufacturing located in Colon.

A year or so after arriving in Michigan, George and Lorancie Schellhaus and an Indian trader, named Hatch surveyed the first town site for the village on land owned by Lorancie. The question of a name then arose and Lorancie solved this problem by opening a dictionary at random to the word “Colon”. When he read the definition and discovered the similarity between the anatomical meaning of the word and the position of the two lakes together with Swan Creek, he announced, “We will name it Colon! However, they failed to record the plat and in 1834 John and William S. bowman recorded a plat similar to the one originally surveyed. Later, we find that a township was formed separately from Nottawa and Leonidas which also carries the name Colon.

By this time the town had begun to grow mainly as an agricultural community. The first crops included wheat, corn, and potatoes, as well as some garden produce. In 1831 a physician, Dr. Issac S. Coskris had arrived and in 1836 Louis A. Leland became the first merchant of Colon. Though records of the village are incomplete, the township had shown a growth to a population of 386 by 1838. A flourmill was established in the village between 1838 – 1839, a wagon-manufacturing firm by 1845 and a foundry in 1847. Records show a township assessed valuation of $15, 392 in 1834 and this grew to $30, 808 by 1836.

During this era from 1850 to 1900 Colon saw many changes within the community. These changes and the stability of the community were enhanced by the building of a railroad through Colon in 1871. History, also, shows the establishment of the first Exchange Bank in 1872 by E. R. Hill & Co. which is the name it still carries. Charles Miller established a fruit drying and vinegar making company in 1874 and by 1876 it was employing 35 people during the 100-day season. As a result the assessed valuation in the township had grown to $477,113 by 1876 and the population was up to 1,354 persons.

The first road through town was built by male citizens donating labor and time; cutting trees and brush, filling marshes, and bridging streams so the postmaster could get to the Chicago road (U. S. 12) to get mail once a week. finally a road was cleared from Coldwater to Centerville, Now M-86 passes from these towns through Colon.

The first school was held in a log house. In 1847 the frame house, now being used for storage by the Lamb Knit Goods Co. was built for a school. A seminary was organized in 1858 and the brick building now occupied by Lamb Knit and Dr. Denton served as a schoolhouse until 1889. the Union School of Colon was erected in 1907 at the site of the elementary school on State Street. An addition was built in 1953, and a Jr.- Sr., High School, on Dallas Street in 1960 with extensive remodeling done to the elementary building.

In 1889 the Lamb Knit Goods Co. was established which still exists today. By the turn of the century Colon’s industry included among other thigs, the manufacturing of speed cars by the Anderson Bros. Who were originally the town’s wagon makers.

The Colon Library was founded in 1897, and located above a store. In 1914 the present building, on Blackstone Avenue, was dedicated.

Also during this era was the beginning of the entertainment industry in Colon. In 1897 the Hills put up a 600 seat Opera House and later a whole opera house block. The house had stage plays which stopped on their way from Chicago to Detroit by railroad. The entertainment tradition is still strong in Colon. Many theatrical people like Colon so well they made their homes here. In the middle of the 1920’s the great Harry Blackstone bought property in the northwest part of Colon and for many summers the company would prepare the following season’s production on what is now known as “Blackstone Island”. In 1927 Blackstone invited Percy Abbott to come for some fishing. Percy liked the town, fell in love with, and married, a local girl, and started a factory to manufacture tricks for magicians.

Also around the turn of the century several leading figures in Colon bred racing and trotting horses, training them on a half-mile track located on Blackstone’s Island.

In 1942 the road to Sturgis was paved, giving Colon hard-surfaced all weather road to main highways.

The early settlers were religious people as evidenced by the many churches in Colon originally established in the 1800’s.

The village of Colon, Michigan is located in eastern St. Joseph County and is part of the southwestern lower Michigan region. The village, itself, is about 15 miles north of the Michigan-Indiana state line; while St. Joseph County actually borders on the State line. Kalamazoo, Michigan is the nearest metropolitan area lying about 30 miles to the northwest of Colon, and Battle Creek, another large community offering services to the Colon area is about 25 miles to the northeast of the village.

The village also lies about equidistant from three major highway and transportation arteries connecting lower Michigan. I-69 lying about 15 miles to the east of Colon runs north and south and will eventually serve as the major link to all of central Michigan and run south to Indianapolis, Indiana. Presently this expressway goes only as far north as I-94, but parts of the expressway leading to Lansing, Michigan are under construction. US 131 on the west of Colon is a key north-south route for the western part of lower Michigan. It runs through both Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids, and there links with I-96 to Muskegon and the northern Lake Michigan shoreline. I-94 which is about 20 miles due north of Colon is the major east-west link between Detroit and Chicago, and passes through a number of major Michigan, Indiana and Illinois cities on its way. Colon, itself, is served by Michigan 86 which runs through the village going east and west, and therefore, serves as a link to both US 131 and I-69; and by M-60 and M-66 lying just north and west of the village respectively. M-60 also serves as an east-west traffic route while M-66 serves north-south bound traffic running into I-94 at Battle Creek on the north and Sturgis, Michigan, the largest city in St. Joseph Co., to the south.