DOWAGIAC — After 100 years, a local organization made the decision to close its doors, but its legacy will live on through the bonds and memories its members have created, as well as the impact the group has had in the community.
The Captain Samuel Felt Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution celebrated its 100th and final anniversary in October 2021, announcing its disbandment in 2022. Chapter Regent Paula Anderson and Registrar Jane Wagel recently reminisced about their favorite memories with the group, while that Wagel also shared stories of her and her late husband Robert Wagel’s genealogical adventures around the country.
End of an era
The first meeting of the Captain Samuel Felt chapter of the DAR based in Dowagiac was held in 1921 at the historic Criffield-Whiteley House in Dowagiac. Sara Ethel Whiteley was a founding member of the chapter and led its efforts to honor World War II veterans with a memorial highway and park in Cass County.
Over the years, the chapter has been involved in numerous community projects that promote patriotism, historic preservation, and community service in the area, including marching in local Memorial Day and 4th of July parades. They also marked a coach stop near the intersection of Gage Street and Glenwood Road in Wayne Township.
Johnson said the group’s Good Citizens competition was one of his favorites in particular. Established in 1934, the Good Citizens Contest award is given to a high school student who demonstrates “trustworthiness, service, leadership, and patriotism in their homes, schools, and communities,” according to the DAR website.
“We are really involved as a presence, but not as a representative of a political cause,” Jane said. “The goal is to educate people, especially children. We go to schools and read stories or distribute flags, so we are actively involved in community organizations.
After 100 years of community involvement, the chapter’s leadership made the decision to disband due to declining interest in new members, as well as the increasing age and health issues of its current members.
According to Johnson, the group will continue to meet regularly until at least next June, and has business to attend to in the coming months, including marking the graves of former members and preparing future graves for current members.
“We review and compile a list of all of these women who have supported us over the years,” Johnson said. “So June is the month we will be marking the graves.”
The organization was more than just a Revolutionary War descendants group for many members, according to Johnson.
“It’s a social event as well as an organization that many of us are proud of,” she said. “Unplugging the plug and emptying the sink is really difficult. We try to do certain things, so that they always have a sense of accomplishment and not just a sudden end and falling off the cliff.
Johnson added that the bonds the women have made over the years are unbreakable.
“These ladies have been a wonderful group of women to work with and to partner with them has been a joy,” Johnson said. “I’m very proud of what this chapter has done.”
Decades ago, local residents Jane and Robert Wagel embarked on a passionate project of researching their family histories – a project that resulted in both Wagels finding multiple direct family ties to participants in the American Revolution. This search eventually led Jane to join the DAR and Robert to join the SAR.
The Wagels met while attending Morehead State University in Kentucky, and the couple eventually settled in Dowagiac in 1976. Robert, who died in 2017, also earned a master’s degree in guidance and counseling and one in educational administration. He was a guidance counselor for Dowagiac Union High School until his retirement in 2001, while Jane taught first grade at Kincheloe Elementary School, also until 2001.
In their spare time, the couple often visited the Fort Wayne, Indiana, genealogy center to research family history.
“They have a wonderful pedigree library,” Jane said. “We were going there on Sunday afternoon and staying until they closed many times.”
Jane said she tried to convince Robert to stay there for the weekends at times.
“He couldn’t sit still that long,” Jane said. “So I would have to settle for Sunday afternoon, but we had a great time doing it.”
While Jane was still teaching in elementary school, a fellow teacher and DAR member, Margaret Hunter, encouraged her to join the chapter after learning about her genealogical research.
“I didn’t start being a member of the DAR. I started researching my family,” Jane said. “But Margaret had told the Registrar about me at the time, so she kept calling and asking if she could help with the search. She wasn’t able to help, but it sparked an interest.
To become a member of the DAR or SAR, a person must be able to prove descent from the line of an ancestor who helped achieve American independence. The applicant must provide documentation for each declaration of birth, marriage and death, as well as Revolutionary War service of her Patriot ancestor.
After a while, the Wagels decided to join them, as Jane had been told that her family was descendants of George Reeves, a Revolutionary War lieutenant from Virginia. Jane said her research failed in her great-grandfather’s time because of a fire in 1921 that destroyed the 1890 census.
“I couldn’t find anything to document his birth, his death, nothing,” she said. “I knew everything, but they don’t take my word for it.”
For this reason, Robert and Jane traveled to Kentucky in search of family records.
“I knew he was from Pike County, Kentucky, and lived in the Long Fork of Shelby,” Jane said. “We went over there and just started up and down the road and every mailbox that had the word ‘Johnson’ on it – as that was my maiden name – I stopped, and I walked in and was doing my spiel. Eventually I found someone who was related to me, who knew him and who knew the cemetery where he was buried.
Jane’s new relative called someone to help her get to her great-grandfather’s grave, which was on a hill next to the remains of a house. The grave had not been damaged by weather or time, according to Jane, and contained all the information necessary to prove this connection to the DAR.
Eventually, the Wagels traveled to the burial site of George Reeves and his family, which is surrounded by a stone wall. Reeves lived on the farm at this site, and there had been a descendant of Reeves living on the property from the day he died until the day they visited.
She said that the whole family is buried inside the stone wall and outside the wall are the burial places of all the slaves who worked on the farm.
“I’m sure billions of people come there for the same reason we do,” Jane said. “But it was really hectic for me because we made a really big push from Michigan to Virginia.”
In all, Jane was able to prove ancestral ties to two others, Andrew Hood and Elizabeth Austin. She said she was aware of 11 others, but hadn’t done the work to document those connections.
Prior to his death, Robert was able to document and prove his connection to 13 people connected to the American Revolution and was multi-term President of the Sauk Trail Chapter of the SAR. He was also a member of the First Families of Kentucky, First Families of Maryland, Colonial Wars Society, Founders and Patriots of America and a founding member of the Order of Founders of North America 1492-1692. He also served in the United States Army after graduating from high school.
“It’s really worth it”
Jane has been a member of the Samuel Felt Chapter for 30 years and relishes the experiences she has had over the years. She recalled a time when the chapter traveled to Battle Creek to spend time at a veterans care facility and had memorable experiences visiting and interacting with disabled veterans.
“When you see the situation some of these people are in, it just makes you cry,” she said. “There was a young lady there, and she was in a bed in a wheelchair, and she wanted to play BINGO. So we played with her.
Jane said her experiences with veterans are among those she will remember most during her time as a member of DAR.
“You get involved in things like that and it means so much to be able to make the very small difference in their lives for what they’ve sacrificed,” she said. “Their life is there at this establishment. It’s not going to get better. It’s only going to go down. If you can make a little difference, it’s worth it.