June 25 2014 12:00 AM

Book chronicles the history of Lansing’s historic Turner-Dodge house


It’s unlikely that most of the brides posing and toasting in the rose garden next to the Turner-Dodge House have any idea who Frances Willard was. If they did, they might find irony in the fact that the fountain that bookends the garden is a testament to Willard, a founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and her noted anti-alcohol efforts. Elizabeth A. Homer, author of “Pioneers, Reformers, & Millionaires,” a new book on the Turner family, details how the family was active in the temperance movement as well as many of the most important social movements of the 19th and 20th century.

Homer was curator of the Michigan Women’s Historical Center from 1987 to 1997 before taking over as curator of the Turner-Dodge House from ’97 to 2008.

(The Turner-Dodge House is closed for renovations after a frozen pipe broke. Water damage has been stabilized and bids for final work are expected to be taken soon.)

Homer set herself on a course to learn more about the family who lived there and how the home came to be built on Lansing’s north side. Her book gives life to James Turner, his spouse, Marian, and their notable descendants. It also delves into their impact on Lansing and the state.

Homer’s interest initially was spurred by scrapbooks of Marian Turner, which provided an overview of the family’s interests and those of their tight circle of friends. These individuals would become leaders in business, religion, education and social movement activists.

“The Turners’ industrious and pioneering spirits would come to leave an indelible mark on the city of Lansing,” Homer said. Marian Turner lived most of her adult life in the home on the banks of the Grand River, dying there in 1912. She had sold the home to her daughter, Abigail, and her sonin-law, Frank Dodge.

“Pioneers, Reformers, & Millionaires” focuses on James Turner and his son James (Jim) M. Turner, who were both active in local and state government; the elder Turner was deputy state treasurer and a state senator, while the younger Turner served as Lansing mayor and represented the area in the House of Representatives. He also ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1889. Both men were also entrepreneurs, and paved the way for Lansing to become a transportation hub by establishing the city’s first oak plank roads.

James Turner helped set Lansing on its course in the Industrial Age as part of a group of men who built the city’s first foundry on the banks of the Grand River. His son founded the Michigan Condensed Milk Co., which shipped internationally.

“The Turners worked doggedly to get the railroad to Lansing,” Homer said. In addition to detailing their political and business interests, the book shines when Homer writes of the family’s involvement, fueled by strong Methodist ideals, in the abolitionist, Prohibition, public education and suffrage movements.

“They had strong democratic ideals and ideas about equality,” she said.

Homer also dedicated herself to telling the story of the Turner and Dodge women’s involvement in the social movements. Using primary sources from the University of Michigan Bentley Library and the State of Michigan Archives and Library, Homer relentlessly details a crucial era in Michigan — and American — history.

One of the more intrigu ing arenas that Homer researches and writes about is Lansing’s and Michigan’s anti-saloon effort, which proceeded Prohibition and the prodigious spending and lobbying that surrounded the banning of alcohol. The likes of Carrie Nation, Susan B. Anthony and Frances Willard would visit Lansing to state their cause, and the Turners and Dodges would be at the forefront in the movement.

Members of the Turner family also were proponents of universal education. Through Homer’s book, you can see their fingers on the establishment of the School for the Deaf and Blind, the state reform school and the establishment of Michigan Agricultural College and the Michigan Female College. Homer also weaves seamlessly into her work the post- Civil War era and some of the major calamities that would strike the state, such as the 1871 conflagration.

Homer said she thinks it’s important that we study history so that “it is not so easily distorted by modern politicians.” She said she plans to spend the next several years promoting certain aspects of the book to help underline the role both men and women played in the history of Lansing.

And for Willard, she would be shaking a pointed finger at any bride or bridegroom who would raise a glass of wine to their lips, especially in front of a public drinking fountain dedicated to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1902.