Remembering Agnew, Grand Haven's 'shadow town'

Alexander Sinn • Jun 7, 2019 at 12:00 PM

GRAND HAVEN TWP. — The last remaining markers of a former Ottawa County village will soon be removed from the landscape.

Signs for the town of Agnew on U.S. 31 through Grand Haven Township will be removed, as no such place exists. Last Tuesday, the Township Board voted unanimously to allow the Michigan Department of Transportation to remove the signs.

Agnew is known as a “shadow town” – an unincorporated community that formed around a railroad station, but disappeared with the advent of the modern transportation system. Agnew is still on the map, but if anything remains of the town, it was paved over by the highway in the 1950s.

Descendants of the town’s founder still remain in the area, including Howard Behm, who serves on the Grand Haven Township Board. Behm voted to remove the signs last week in the 6-0 decision. His great-great uncle, John Behm, founded the town, which was originally named Johnsville.

It became the Village of Agnew in 1889 when Edward E. Stites platted the land, named for an executive of the Chicago & West Michigan Railroad. According to Dr. Wallace Ewing’s “Northwest Ottawa County Encyclopedia of History,” the town was home to a railroad depot, sawmill, box factory, post office, hotel and general store. The W.D. Hoffman Co. pickle factory also did business in Agnew.

Residents reported in the Grand Haven Tribune during the late 19th century that the Johnsville Saloon was “notorious” for paranormal activity. Numerous haunting events, from strange noises to demonic possessions, were reported in the newspaper during the 1870s and 1880s. They were based on eyewitness accounts and attempts by local mediums to make contact with the dead.

Dawn Behm, a distant cousin of Howard Behm, compiled photographs and documents to chronicle the family history. According to a newspaper clipping in the collection from 1938, John Behm died after his clothes caught fire from a lit tobacco pipe. His wife dragged him from the house, which was lost in the fire, but the 88-year-old man later died from his injuries.

The growing popularity of cars at the turn of the century spelled doom for Agnew and many small towns like it in Michigan. The Pere Marquette Railroad eventually closed the train station and, in 1952, MDOT relocated 12 buildings in order to construct U.S. 31.

Howard Behm’s grandparents owned a small store that still stands in the area along M-45. Behm’s parents owned a blueberry field on the south side of 144th Avenue, which Behm sold in 2016.

The township trustee said he doesn’t often consider the signs he passes on a regular basis. He recalls growing up in the area of the former town, but jokes about the egotism of naming a town after oneself. Residents insisted it be called “Behmtown” even after its named was changed to Agnew, he said.

Behm has contacted MDOT officials to acquire the signs when they are removed.

“There’s a lot of history in that area,” he said, flipping through laminated sleeves in the thick binder of family history. “My family’s always been there.”

Township Community Development Director Stacey Fedewa said the green MDOT signs might cause confusion for drivers heading both north and south on the highway. Township Manager Bill Cargo said MDOT supports their removal, but requested the township’s approval before doing the work.

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