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History Lives Here Text

TheCourt Case of the Decade
Allegan County Road
Commission vs. MillionaireDavid A. Bennett

by Karen Tews

(Prepared for a Tuesdays atNoon presentation, summer 2001)

Boats on the river headed from Saugatuck tothe open waters of Lake Michigan pass a large white-pillared house high on awooded sand dune on the north bank of the Kalamazoo River.The mansion, built about 1919 by David Cook, noted publisher of Sunday Schoolmaterials, along with hundreds of acres on both sides of the river, includingthe old Singapore site, were sold in 1945 to David A. Bennett, a wealthyChicago businessman. Bennett tore down most of the decaying buildings on theestate, added separate guesthouses and renovated the big pillared house on topof the hill. According to Bennett, these improvements cost some $72,000 -- astaggering sum at the time. On January 7, 1947, 402 acres of the estate weredesignated a state wildlife sanctuary for a period of five years. In the firstyear alone, the Conservation Department planted 18,000 red pine seedlings.

One day in 1947, fishermen heading for thenorth pier were surprised to find a new wire fence and gates blocking the olddug road along the river just east of the mansion where the road eventuallyturned into a foot path leading to Lake Michigan. This old dug road wasprobably the first road ever built in AlleganCounty since it connected Singapore andSaugatuck in the early 1830's. The Cook family, former owners, who recognizedthe historical significance of their harbor location, quite freely allowed thepassage of foot travelers over the site of old Singapore to the harbor piers.Bennett's actions outraged many of the local citizens. Led by Edwin House, afruit farmer, who had spent his entire life in the vicinity, the Allegan County RoadCommission was persuaded to take action. The Road Commission served Bennettwith an order to remove the fence and gates on January 1 Bennett hired Orien Cross of the Holland firm of Diekema,Cross & Ten Cate, and on February 1 filed suitagainst the Board of the Allegan County Road Commission. On the same day anInjunction was served on the Road Commission restraining them from removing thefences and gates erected on the property or risk a penalty of $500. On thereturn of service filed by the sheriff who served, the papers, the fee forserving the summons and complaint was $2.70 and the fee for serving theinjunction was $1.00. Chester Ray, Allegan County Prosecuting Attorney, enteredhis appearance on behalf of the Road Commission. On March 25, 1948, AttorneyJohn Schaberg of Kalamazoofiled a petition to Intervene in the lawsuit on behalfof Saugatuck Township. And so began a legal wranglingthat would continue for more than three years.

 

Summarizedhere are the allegations of the parties:

 

David A. Bennettclaimed in his complaint that according to the Allegan County Atlas, publishedin 1913, any public road ended where the fence and gates were erected. That heowned all of the land lying north of the KalamazooRiver and west all the way to Lake Michigan. That beyond the end of the public road wasunderbrush and small trees, and this condition made a convenient and secretplace for persons who had no regard for the law or private rights of others, tocongregate and hold petting and beer parties. That people parked their cars onhis property and left refuse, including broken glass, for heand his employees to clean up. That at one time a number of people came andspread a table cloth upon his lawn and were about to hold a picnic, when theywere discovered and requested to leave. That he and his employees frequentlyhad to drive people off the premises at night so that guests in his house couldget some sleep. That the gates and fence cost him $500.00 and if the RoadCommission removed same, he would be damaged to the extent of $500.00 andupwards, and would be compelled to erect a new fence and gates in order toprotect his property.

 

In its petition to intervene, Saugatuck Townshipclaimed an interest in the lawsuit for reason that the land in question waslocated in the township of Saugatuck. That thepublic road in question was and always had been the only road or highwayleading to the town site of the historic landmark Singaporeand to the piers and mouth of the Kalamazoo River. That the road hadbeen used for more than a century by the public, and that even though the townof Singapore was gradually buried by the drifting sands, the public roadcontinued to be used without interference until such time as the fence andgates were erected by David A. Bennett. That the road was still openly visibleand had been improved by Saugatuck Township from time totime until certified to the Allegan County Road Commission as a public road. SaugatuckTownship's petition further stated that Saugatuck had for many years been atourist resort and that the village drew heavily on tourist trade; that personscoming to visit Saugatuck used the road in question in order to gain access toswim and fish, and that if access were denied, many persons would refrain fromvisiting again. And further, that the residents living within Saugatuck Townshipwould themselves have no means of access to the north pier and the shores of Lake Michigan.

 

In his motion to deny SaugatuckTownship the right to intervene, DavidBennett denied that his fence and gates barred the public from access to thepiers and the shores of Lake Michigan,alleging that they could get there by boat. Bennett agreed that there was oncea town site known as Singaporebut it was abandoned and had ceased to exist. He denied that there was ever anypublic highway laid out leading all the way to Singapore, but rather in thosedays the public traveled to Singapore across property now owned by him in anyway that suited their convenience at the time. That back then the land socrossed was of little value, was not used for any beneficial purpose, was moreor less covered with underbrush, and the then owner permitted such use of theland. He further stated that when Saugatuck Township certified the public roadof its township to the Allegan County Road Commission, said township board onlycertified the public road leading west up to where the present gates and fenceare located. That the township had no right to intervenebecause the township no longer had any control over the road. That sincehe owned all the property west of the fence and gates, the public had no rightto use the beach on Lake Michigan for bathingor picnicking. Lastly, Bennett pointed out that the villageof Saugatuck owned a park on Lake Michigan and had a good public road to said park andthat same was ample to accommodate all of the public who desired to use it.

 

According to later Commercial Recordaccounts, it appeared the case was heard in Justice Court about September 1948.Justice of the Peace Leslie Junkerman rendered adecision in favor of Mr. Bennett on the grounds that there was insufficientevidence to indicate an infringement of public rights. Then a year after the Justice Courtdecision, the Road Commission counter sued and took the matter to the Allegan County Circuit Court.

 

On a Saturday afternoon in early September1949, a Commercial Record reporter interviewed Bennett, who wasrecuperating from pneumonia at his estate. Bennett related that after he boughtthe old Cook estate and made his improvements, he began discouraging the publicfrom crossing his property. This was where the whole thing started, he said.Same individuals in the community felt that to bar public passage across thedunes to the pier was illegal on the grounds that it had once been a road.

 

"I bought the property in mid summer1945," Mr. Bennett recalled, "and it was during the fall or earlywinter I first made an offer to the township of Saugatuck throughtheir board members in an effort to compensate for barring the public from mypremises, which I felt I had a moral and legal right to do. This was before Ihad actually erected the fence. In best faith I offered them an easement overmy property along lake Michigan and south of theharbor entrance where a road could be constructed on connecting townshipproperty to the south making it possible for the public to reach the governmentpiers in this manner. I even said I'd pay for half of the cost of building sucha road. More recently, I offered to deed all of that property (a mile of LakeMichigan frontage), to the state of Michigan,providing Saugatuck Township do likewise withtheir adjoining property, for state park purposes. It was proposed that thestate take over this property, he continued, which would have included thepresent oval, and make a beautiful state park. I mademy offers repeatedly and was turned down. I understand now due to statefinancial conditions, the state is no longer in a position to be interested.Remember... I didn't have to do this, I wanted to for the interest of thecommunity."

 

At the time, Bennett said he knew of noeffort to move the case to trial. He went on, I do notbelieve the Road Commission will have much incentive to continue the case,especially in view of the county's finances, since I understand their counselcharged them $400.00 to take this case through Justice Court."

 

When asked who the individuals were who hadbeen openly antagonistic he said, "A few of the community who I am sure donot understand the facts of the case, a very few sentimentalists, and Mr. EdwinHouse. Mr. House, presumably public spirited, in fact, owns the propertyadjoining mine. He wants to sell lots on his acreage there, and be able tooffer prospective buyers free access to Lake Michiganthrough my property."

 

Looking over the spacious and wooded grounds of the estate, which wasdedicated a wild life sanctuary in 1947, Bennett pointed out the signs attachedto the government piers which the public used to fish from which read THIS PIERNOT TO BE USED FOR RECREATIONAL PURPOSES. ..U.S. ENGINEERS. "So you see, Bennett said, since I ownriparian rights to Lake Michigan with no `mythical roads' and the only publicobject in sight the government piers which are posted by the U.S. Engineers,what recreational facilities am I depriving anyone from? Or would they have meshare my privacy with the holiday making public, to run rampant over myproperty and picnic on my front lawn, to destroy and make filthy my yard,simply because in the past an unoccupied dwelling made it possible fortrespassers to roam?"

While the road controversy simmered inSaugatuck, David Bennett gained some unwanted national publicity when certainof his business activities during World War II surfaced amid a Senateinvestigation of "Five Percenters",men-about-Washington who for a five percent commission secured contracts orfavored treatment from the government. The August 22, 1949 issue of Time magazinereported that a nasty little scandal was swirling around the White House. Itcentered on the hulking figure of Major General Harry Vaughan, military aide toHarry Truman and the President's poker-playing pal. Grossly overweight, Vaughan was described ashaving an appearance like a cartoonist's portrait of corruption. His uniform,with all its brass and ribbons, looked about as military as pajamas. GeneralVaughan, it was revealed by several witnesses, had used his high position, hisgeneral's stars, his White House telephone and his place in Harry Truman'saffections for the most pathetic of rewards--flattery, good fellowship and afool's sense of power. One of the so-called "men-about-Washington"was Vaughan'soldest friend, John Maragon, a former bootblack,butcher, G-man and collector of bad debts. Maragonwas seen so often in the West Wing during the first weeks of Harry Truman'spresidency that he was thought to be one of the staff.

 

The mostsensational revelations were that David Bennett made gifts of home freezerunits during June and July 1945 to the First Lady for the little White House inIndependence, Missouri; to Chief Justice Vinson; to Treasury Secretary Snyder;to the President's secretary, Matthew Connelly; to a governor of the FederalReserve Board; and to Vaughan, who got two. The cost of these freezers was$2,625, all paid for by the Albert Verley Company,David Bennett's Chicago company that dealt in essential oils for perfume. Whywas the Verley Company so generous? Senate probers demanded information on what favors, if any, theperfume company received in return. Bennett's friends claimed he didn't expector get any. They testified that Bennett had always been a very wealthy man, avery prosperous man. He always had big cars and chauffeurs and big apartments.He was one of those fellows to whom gifts like that just did not mean anything.Money was spent very freely.

 

The freezerinvestigation grabbed front-page headlines in the Chicago Tribune almost every dayduring August 1949. Investigators disclosed that Major General Vaughan hadinterceded officially for Bennett before the freezer gifts were made, in fact,seven days before the war ended in Europe. OnMay 1 on White House stationery, Vaughanwrote a "to whom it may concern" letter to arrange for a militarytravel permit for Bennett "whose travel is authorized by the President"and who is entitled to the courtesies of American officials abroad. Bennett hadnot held any official position in the government entitling him to suchconsideration. Yet, he and an associate left on May 11,1945,three days after V-E Day, aboard a plane of the Air Transport Command. Whenthey returned, they brought with them 41 kilos of perfume essence, valued at$53,405. Bennett was granted at least two other trips to Europe, which gave hima jump-start on business after the war. It was also uncovered that John Maragon, as an agent of the VerleyCompany, flew to Parison July 1 aboard ATC. When he returned, he declared only perfume worth $47 anda camera worth $8.40. He carried two other packages -- one addressed to MissMargaret Truman and the other to George Drescher,then White House secret service chief. Maragonclaimed they were gifts from "the embassy."

 

Upon opening the packages, customs officersfound designer dresses and perfume essence in champagne bottles marked"champagne for Mrs. Truman from the American Embassy." During thesearch, Maragon waved a White House pass under thenoses of the customs agents. Maragon was neverprosecuted far smuggling, a criminal violation, and the perfume essence wasturned over to the Verley Company. Committee membersnoted caustically that military planes were carting Vaughan'sfriends and their perfume oil while GI's, including hospital cases, werestranded in Europe for lack of transport.

 

The entire freezer investigation wouldprobably never have come to light had it not been for a flight sergeant aboardthe plane during one of Bennett's trips to Europe.The soldier, Walter E. Rhodes, Jr., after reading accounts about the fivepercent investigation, wrote to his father, a Baltimore attorney, expressing amazement thatcivilians, showing White House letters, were traveling while his buddies wereleft abroad. His father, in turn, contacted Senator Mundt,one of the Senate investigators.

 

"Five percenters" and "deepfreezers" became odious new catchwords, to the extreme pleasure of theRepublicans. At one point, General Vaughan issued a statement that it was all his fault, but he was innocent. ..therewas nothing improper regarding the gifts of said freezers-that there was no lawagainst public officials accepting gifts from grateful admirers andconstituents. Why, the President himself was constantly receiving and acceptinggifts of all kinds - paintings, prize turkeys, country hams, Havana cigars, liquor, even a Fordautomobile. But there was one big difference here-rather than being openpresents, publicly given and publicly received, thefreezers had been clandestine gifts. Vaughanseemed to have no realization of the harm he had caused the administration.Truman, far too kind and loyal to certain old friends who took advantage ofhim, interpreted the heat on Vaughanas a personal attack on himself. Beneath everything, Truman not only liked Vaughan, but also liked how Vaughan conducted himself, particularly withrespect to the press. When, in the midst of the hearings, Vaughan was confronted by reporters, hewarned them to go easy on him. "After all," Vaughan was quoted as saying, "I am thePresident's military aide, and you guys will all want favors at the White Housesome day." Asked about his connection to the five percenters,he said, "That's nobody's goddamn business and you can quote me," aresponse that so warmed Truman's heart when he read, it that he pinned a mockdecoration on his old friend.

By August 1949, David Bennett was underdoctor's care and too ill to go to Washingtonto testify. The investigations closed in the early autumn 1949. No legal actionwas ever taken. However, David Bennett was never able to shake off the stigma.

 

Bennett's offers tosatisfy Saugatuck Township and the Road Commission, in return for droppingtheir case against him and abandoning any claim of a public highway across hisland on the north side of the river, were rejected for the following reasons.The village of Saugatuckheld title to the Oval Beach NOT Saugatuck Township.Saugatuck Township did not own any land on thesouth side of the harbor to convey in order to link up with Bennett's land.Further, while very interested in the dunes lying to the south of the harbor,the state of Michigan was in no position at the time to accept Bennett's landas there were not sufficient funds to even develop the sites the state alreadyhad. The Saugatuck Township board suggested that the land between theold and new channel be deeded to Saugatuck Township until such timeas the state could accept it. This was unacceptable to Bennett, as by this timehe wanted local officials to have no say over the land in question.

 

Attempts atsettlement having failed, the case went to trial in mid-December, 1949. TheRoad Commission brought 26 witnesses; Bennett offered nine. The trial lastedfor two weeks. Here is some of the testimony as reported in the CommercialRecord:

 

The first witness called for the RoadCommission was Edwin House, who testified that the only way of hauling wood andlumber was down the lakeshore and over the dunes through Singapore andthe dug way. This practice continued through a period before the Cooks ownedthe property and up to 1945 when Bennett bought the property.

 

Clayton Van Leeuwentestified the same use of the land saying it was definitely laid out andtraveled, and that at no time was there any question that the road belonged tothe public. Mr. Van Leeuwen further testified that hehad traveled the road hundreds of times, not only hauling wood out but alsopeddling supplies to the cottage people in this area from 1910 to 1940.

 

Charles Headley stated that he had many times traveled that right ofway, hauling supplies to cottages and wood and lumber out, as well as equipmentfor the raising of a shipwreck.

 

Henry Randall testified that he was born inSingapore and lived there until he was 16 years old, and that the dug way fromthe Ward School connected with River Street, the front street of the Singaporeplat, and had been in constant use up to the present time except since Mr.Bennett had obstructed the road. His sister, Mrs. Carpenter, also testifiedthat before Mr. Bennett closed the road, there was no question about the rightof way to the pier.

 

Charles Gilman appeared withtownship records showing that since 1930 the board had made inspection tripsover Singaporeroad. Louis Schultz, highway commissioner, testified that he at one time hauled30 loads of gravel to the roadway.

James Sheridan, whose father had been light keeper, testified that hehad spent much time in the area since 1915. He and his family had known theCook family well and they never claimed exclusive right to the road. He furtherstated that the Cooks built their own road north of the dug way in order not tointerfere with the public's use of the right of way to the pier.

 

Colonel Christophal of Milwaukee, a United Statesengineer, when questioned on the matter of the pier's being exclusivelygovernment property, stated that the "No Trespass" sign did not meanthat the public could not use the pier for fishing and so forth, but that theydid so at their own risk.

 

John Scarlett, who was township supervisor from 1924 to 1933,stated that in 1918 he drove his car all the way to the east end of the pier.Homer Ward, county highway superintendent, presented a map showing whichtownship roads had been turned over to the Road Commission in 1932. This mapshowed the Singapore roadall the way to the government pier and Lake Michigan.Ward testified that work on this road had been done with county funds.

 

Victor Egelkraut, highway commissioner from 1915 to 1925,testified that he had done work on the dug road all the way to the cementcrossing and had many times inspected the road. Ralph Clapp, as supervisor,stated that when he made out and delivered the last order to the County RoadCommission, he had personally written on the order that they were to take overthe "Singapore"and "Cook" roads to keep them passable.

 

Witnesses forDavid Bennett testified that they were well acquainted with the Singapore property, that at many different timesthey had wandered through to the Lake Michiganshore, but had never found any definite roads.

 

A surveyornamed Smith from Paw Paw, employed by Mr. Bennett,said that he had carefully surveyed the property and had found traces of whatmight have been old wagon roads, but that they amounted to little. He said hedid not see much evidenceof gravel ever having been put on the so-called right of way in question. Whencross examined, he did admit that the dug way connected with the front streeton the Singaporeplat, called River Street.

 

The Registerof Deeds of Allegan County testified that the Singapore plat had been recordedin 1832 and although it had been carefully preserved all these years it had disappearedwithin the last 30 days from the Register of Deeds office. The staff reportedthat a thorough search had failed to discover the plat.

 

James Schoeneich, caretaker for Bennett, said that it had becomenecessary to deny access to the public and put up "private property"signs because the public coming through to fish and picnic were noisy, untidyand littered the grounds with trash.

 

The County'sonly hope of winning the suit hinged on proving the dug road had been inexistence for over a hundred years, that it had beenconstantly improved and maintained and that closure was in violation of therights of the public. Bennett's case mainly rested on the assertion that theroad that once existed beyond his fence had long since been abandoned and that thedug road, which led to the fence and gates, was valueless without adestination. The trial provoked the greatest interest of any ever held in thispart of the county. Judge Smith refused to decide the case immediately,announcing that he would take the case under advisement, review the writtenarguments when he had the time, and that a decision would be handed downprobably in time for fishing season.

 

Months passed.In a May 19,1950 editorial in the Commercial Record,Bob Crawford wrote; "Why is Bennett's fracas with the County RoadCommission shrouded in mystery? Has litigation been buried in the sands of Singapore?Fishing season is here. Why the delay? Taxpayers of SaugatuckTownship especially, but all people ofAllegan County already have an investment inthese suits. Yet nobody seems to know much about it. Is this kind of a `hotpotato'?"

More time passed. In BobCrawford's July 14, 1950editorial he again asked: "Is this kind of a 'hot potato'? There has beenno activity and no court decision handed down. There are no comments fromofficials, yet both sides seem anxious for a decision. Taxpayers are footingthe bill in the meantime and the public is left in a quandary. Judge Smithcould not be reached for comment, reportedly gene on a fishing trip untilAugust 2nd. If there are hopes for settlement, they'd better get into highgear. ..or they might bog down in the political rutsof the 'disputed passage'."

Finally, onFebruary 9, 1951, more than a year after the trial, to the surprise and chagrinof most of the public, Judge Smith found in favor of David Bennett. Not onlywas Bennett's right to maintain the gates and fence upheld, but also inaddition, Judge Smith awarded Bennett all rights to the dug road as far as itpassed through his property.

The Court'sopinion revealed that while convincing evidence was shown that there must havebeen a road leading from the end of the dug out road where Bennett's propertybegan to Singapore and Fishtown, there was noevidence that any work was done on it by public authorities or that the use wasaccompanied by any act on the part of the public authorities, open, notoriousor hostile to the private ownership which would give to the owner notice thathis title was denied. This resulted in termination of the public's legal accessto the government piers and the river mouth -- a condition that still existstoday.

 

David A. Bennett died suddenly in 1953 and was buried in RiversideCemetery, Saugatuck. Theestate was sold to Frank Denison who kept the property very much as it stoodexcept that he developed a boat yard for the building of aluminum yachts on theSingaporesite. Denisondemolished a portion of the dug road so that it never again could be used inits entirety by any sort of vehicle.

******

Historical Society member Gene Schoeneich waspersonally acquainted with David A. Bennett. These are some of his memories ofthat time:

 

The DavidBennett that Gene Schoeneich remembers was awonderful man. Gene's father had worked for Lincoln Decorators in Chicago andwas foreman of the crew that worked on Bennett's Gold Coast apartment, a lavishplace with black marble bathrooms and gold fixtures. Impressed with the eider Schoeneich, Bennett hired him as caretaker for hisSaugatuck property in the summer of 1945. The Schoeneichfamily lived in a cottage on the estate for more than eight years.

 

Since the Schoeneich family had previously resided in a Chicago working classneighborhood, it was quite something to move to the estate. It was also a big dealfor Gene's high school friends to get an invitation to drive up that longwinding road to visit. Gene recalls that after the war, Bennett bought threearmy surplus Willys Jeeps, one of which was for hisfamily's use. These vehicles were quite a novelty around town. He alsoremembers that Bennett owned a maroon Chrysler Townand Country convertible with real wood side panels.

 

SometimesDavid Bennett arrived in Saugatuck by car, other times in a twin-engineseaplane that landed in a wide part of LakeKalamazoo in front of the current Butler restaurant.Bennett also had an impressive motor sailer theValerie V named after his eldest grandchild, Valerie Valentine, which wasmoored in front of a guesthouse at water's edge.

Gene recallsthat Bennett had two wives, the first of whom was very wealthy. He thinks bothmarriages ended in divorce. He doesn't recall ever seeing either wife aroundthe property. Bennett's only child, Muriel Williams, her husband and theirthree children spent a good deal of time at the estate. Prominently displayedin the mansion was a large autographed photograph of Harry Truman. Frequentvisitors included international and national dignitaries, including MajorGeneral Harry Vaughan, his wife and young son. Visitors played lots of backgammon.Steak and

Blueberries,Mr. Bennett's favorite foods, were served often.