Doctor James Phelps Mason, Michigan; His Civil War Store-card

Doctor James W. Phelps 

Mason, Michigan

I was researching another Civil War Store card that I had purchased when I came across the Mason, Michigan Store Card. Mason was a single merchant town with a rating of a 6 suggested by the 2002 work by Byron Kanzinger “The Civil War Token Collector’s Guide,” which makes it scare and difficult to locate.  I was going through boxes of CWTs at the ANA spring show in Atlanta in 2006 and came across this example. The price was more than I wanted to spend, but I purchased it from Steve Hayden and I am glad that I did. It remains one of my favorite pieces.

It sparked interest in who was this James Phelps was. What was his story?  I made a trip to Mason, Michigan to see what I could uncover, and it turned out to be a very rewarding excursion.

Mason was — and is — a picturesque community south of Lansing, Michigan, the state capital.  The town was founded in 1838 by lumbering interests who set up a saw mill. Farmers learned that the rich land would grow a ride variety of crops and they also introduced different varieties of fruit trees upon settling in the area.

Mason grew, and by the time of the American Civil War, it was a prosperous community serving the interests of farmers, lumbermen and the townsfolk. Michigan’s white pine forests created jobs and money, and Mason was able to capitalize on the bountiful supply.  It had now grown to include a new lumber mill, a grist mill and two competing hotels. 

One of Mason’s civic leaders during this time period was Doctor James W. Phelps. Doctor Phelps emigrated to Mason to make his fortune in the 1841 from the rural area of western Wayne County, which is now Plymouth, Michigan. He was the second physician to practice medicine in Mason.  He was married to Mary C. Phelps, and they lived at S. Barnes near the NE corner of Oak Street.  Doctor Phelps and six other men from the town met and formed Masonic Lodge #70 on January 3, 1854.

It also seems the good doctor, besides medicine, became quite active in local politics and also managed to find time to be a merchant. He was a very energetic and dynamic individual. It seems he accurately fits the prototype of the Horatio Alger type so common to the Ninetieth Century American.

It is his merchant activities that made him interesting to me. In 1856, Doctor Phelps opened a drug and hardware store with partner Peter Lowe called “Phelps & Co.” They subscribed to have their business drawn and placed on 1859 Ingham-Livingston counties map, and it thrived.

In 1863, he — like many other businesses — used cent-sized tokens to provide small change to his customers. His cards are rated from scare to rare. The F-615A-1A rates an R-9 in U.S. Civil War Store Cards by George and Melvin Fuld.  The rating is an equivalent of 2-4 known. There are six known varieties, three minted in copper, one each in bronze, copper nickel and zinc. All are R-9, except 615 A-2-a which is a rarity 5 — only 75 to 200 are known to have existed. I don’t run across them that often, and the estimate seems to be more accurate at around 75.  It is Mason Michigan’s only known store card.

The store card reads “J.W. Phelps & Co. / Hardware / Tin & Copper Ware / Drugs & Medicines/ Mason, Mich.”  The obverse has three varieties of Miss Liberty in a headdress familiar to all who collect Indian head cents. 

I have also included the 1863 directory listing the occupations for Mason. It is interesting to see the trades and to note the druggists, the attorney, cabinet maker and the rest.

This appealing community remains prosperous today. Phelps’s store, alas, is no more. The current druggist is Ware’s Pharmacy, which dates back to the depression area of the 1930’s.  I visited Ware’s Pharmacy and asked about the store card and Phelps. The owner was very helpful in pointing me to the right people. I included some items from their operations in the 1930’s for you to look at from that bygone era as well.

The picture of the Phelps’ business takes us back to long ago area in our history and helps us preserve a connection to it. The other photographs of Mason dates from this time period and a bit later.

I was greatly aided in this research by Randy Gladstone of Gladstone’s Photo, who supplied the pictures and the original articles. It is interesting reading, and it turns out that politics, like today, were quite rabid and very partisan. It refers to the Whigs — a long since defunct political party — and the Democrats who are still with us today. The Republican Party under Abraham Lincoln picked up many of the remaining Whig adherents. A sketch by Caption J. P. Cowles, read at the second annual meeting of the Ingham County Pioneer Association in May of 1873 recalled some of this political strife.  He wrote: 

“In 1844, politics ran high and were mingled in all kinds of business.  To show the extent to which this was carried, I will mention one circumstance.  The school district of the village of Mason elected Dr. J.W. Phelps, director. [Phelps]…was the officer to hire the teacher, and he being a Democrat, hired my brother, F.M. Cowles, to teach the school five months at $17 per month.  [Peter Linderman, collector] being a staunch Whig, together with all the Whigs in the district, opposed Phelps; but the latter, knowing it to be on account of party feeling, held his ground and, being director, had by law the control of the school house. He (Phelps) told F.M. to go in at the appointed time and commence his school and board at Steele’s and the district would pay his bill.  The Whig members of the district got together and hired J.W. Longyear, so they had two schools — one in the school house and the other in the court house.  The first day F.M. had three pupils and Longyear five; the second day F.M. had one and Longyear three.  The people were afraid to send, fearing that the whole school bill would fall on those who sent pupils.  On the fourth day F.M. had none and Longyear one.  The second week F.M. kept the school house and Longyear the court house.  Finally they saw that F.M. had the law on his side, and a meeting was called to effect a compromise. At this meeting there was great excitement.  Some were for fight, while others left in disgust.  Finally a compromise was made by paying F.M. for full month and paying his board.  Two men from White Oak stood ready to take F.M. with them to teach at $18 per month.  The excitement soon died out and my brother was $15 richer by the operation.”

 

For a number of years I lived in central Michigan and traveled to Mason many times on business and to visit friends. It was these reasons that I wrote this article. I hope you enjoyed it. My plans are to write more articles about Michigan Store Cards.

If you know more of Civil War Mason and its history, please share your information with me and our fellow enthusiasts. I would like to hear from you.