A farmer's mecca
For all of its life, the hamlet of Bridgewater has served the needs of local farmers. "It still does—what's left of them," says Glenn Mann, co-owner of the E. G. Mann feed mill and grain elevator.
Located in farm country, halfway between Saline and Manchester, Bridgewater at its height had a blacksmith shop, a farm-implement company, a lumberyard, and a farm co-op, which marketed the livestock, timber, flour, and feed produced by its members. The hamlet also included a barbershop, an ice-cream parlor, a bank, a tavern, and a general store complete with a smokehouse and an icehouse.
Although most of the early settlers of the area were from the East (Bridgewater takes its name from a town in New York), the hamlet of Bridgewater was largely built by German immigrants. By 1854 there were enough Germans in the area to start their own church, St. John's Lutheran. Organized by Pastor Frederich Schmid, who started German churches all over southeast Michigan, St. John's ran a German school for a time and continued to hold German-language services into the twentieth century. Former Bridgewater resident Jack Livingstone remembers that when his family moved to the area in 1937, many people still spoke with a German accent.
The Detroit, Hillsdale, and Northern Indiana railroad reached Bridgewater in 1870, making a beeline from Saline to Manchester. The station is still there, now used as a storage shed by Bridgewater Lumber. Businesses around the station catered to farmers shipping their crops to market; there were livestock pens, warehouses for wool and potatoes, and a dairy to process milk.
David Ernst, whose parents ran the ice-cream parlor and blacksmith shop, earned extra money as a schoolboy by helping around the railroad station. He sacked the wool fleeces and put bedding in cars for the livestock. "The train car was divided into two decks, about four feet high. So I'd go in and spread hay about eight or ten inches thick," he recalls.
At the center of Bridgewater's social life was its "opera house," above the implement company's storehouse. "It was called the opera house because it had a piano," explains Livingstone. Dorothy Armbruster, whose dad ran the car repair shop, remembers the dances there. "Dad played in the band every Saturday night, big band music," she recalls, "They put us kids to sleep on stage behind the piano."
On weeknights, locals and farmers often played cards in the Ernst family's ice-cream parlor. On weekends, they'd go to one another's houses for potlucks and play euchre or shoot the moon.
During the summers of the late 1940s and early 1950s, merchants sponsored outdoor movies every Tuesday in a lot between the general store and the railroad station. "There was a serial, a cartoon, and movie—like going to the theater," remembers Margie Wurster. They'd set up a projector on a truck and a big screen at the back of the lot. Families came and settled down on blankets and folding chairs or parked their cars across the road on the mill property.
From the 1930s to the 1960s, Bridgewater was home to one of the biggest chicken hatcheries in the state, owned by Luther and Irwin Klager. (Luther founded the Manchester Chicken Broil.) But as the number of farm families has declined, so have some of the businesses the hatchery once supported.
Train service to Bridgewater ended in 1961, and the general store closed in the mid-1970s, unable to compete with big chains. But the Bridgewater Lumber Company and the E. G. Mann Mill—both in their respective families since 1938—are still thriving. The former general store is now Bridgewater Tire, specializing in big tires for farm vehicles. The bank, a victim of the Depression, is now the Bridgewater Bank Tavern, with historic pictures on the walls.