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Thomas Jefferson Ramsdell (1833 - 1917) was an entrepreneur who lived in Manistee, Michiganmarker. He was a Michigan State Representative in 1861 and served one term.

Early life

Ramsdell was born near Plymouthmarker in Wayne County, Michiganmarker, on July 29, 1833, of Scottish descent. His parents came from Massachusettsmarker after immigrating to the United States from Scotland twenty years earlier. Ramsdell had three other brothers; two farmers by the names of D. E. Ramsdell and W. A. Ramsdell, as well as a well known judge in Traverse City, Michiganmarker.

Ramsdell divided his time between working on his father's farm in the summers and attending school in the winter as a boy. In 1851, when he was eighteen years old, Ramsdell attended Plymouth Seminary. He graduated from there in 1856 and taught school in between terms.

His true interest was always in the legal profession. One year he was introduced to J. W. Longyear and spent this time learning law from him. He then went on to the National Law School of Poughkeepsiemarker in New York State and graduated from it in 1858. When he became legally a lawyer in Michigan's state capitolmarker his first job in 1859 was as a clerk for the Michigan Supreme Courtmarker. It was here that he met Chief Justice Martin of the supreme bench who suggested the lumbering town of Manistee as a place to start a law profession.

Adult life

Manistee was in desperate need of a new lawyer about this time. With a legal library of books (suggested by Martin) Ramsdell set out with a horse and a small one seated sleigh in the winter of 1860 for Manistee. Manistee was then a very remote town and it took Ramsdell a week to make the journey to Manistee from Muskegon, Michiganmarker. There were no roads going there north from Whitehallmarker - only a blaze trail, which made it a tedious journey. At times his horse would give out and they would have to stop and rest. One time he traveled the complete night and progressed only five miles toward Manistee.
Manistee was a wild, lawless frontier. History records that lumbermen wrote their own contracts, resulting in numerous legal problems. There were accounts of men walking all the way to Traverse City (over 50 miles) just to get a document that would get them out of the Manistee County jail.

Ramsdell was welcomed by the entire whiskey-drinking community, which treated him with great respect. Because of the reverence they had for him, he was never asked to drink with them. He rode the law circuit with Judge Littlejohn and was known as the father of the circuit. In the Fall of 1860 he was elected to the Michigan state Legislature.

Ramsdell married a Manistee school teacher named Nettie Stanton on September 7, 1861. They had nine children, five boys and four girls. Many of these children grew up to became famous in their own right.

Ramsdell pursued many projects in the 1860s in addition to his law practice in Manistee. In 1861 he was elected to the Michigan State House of Representatives. Ramsdell was also a member of the Manistee school board for eighteen years. In addition to these ventures he served as the Manistee County Treasurer and as well for several terms being a local Prosecuting Attorney.


First Manistee bridge

Until 1866 there was no bridge across the river in downtown Manistee. That made it necessary for anyone who wanted to cross to hire a boat and boatman. Ramsdell, along with several of the local lumbermen of the Manistee area, formed a private corporation which built a wooden turn bridge at the Maple Street crossing. Tolls were charged allowing the investors a return on their money. The wooden bridge was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1871.

Community involvement

In 1867, Ramsdell joined in partnership with E. E. Benedict. This partnership continued until the retirement of both parties from active law practice in 1897.

Ramsdell opened the first Manistee hardware store and helped produce the first local newspaper. He also founded the First National Bank in Manistee along with others. Ramsdell developed and established the Manistee Water Works. Ramsdell was also the contractor for the original school house on the corner of Oak and First Street.
Ramsdell building at River & Maple

Commercial property

Around 1879 Ramsdell began investing in commercial real estate. He reportedly made his first investment in real estate by trading his horse and cutter to a local Manistee person by the name of Delos L. Filer. He traded these objects for in the southwest part of Manistee.

Ramsdell invested in many commercial blocks of downtown Manistee, and his own residence was located there. His first major commercial construction project was a large building on the southeast corner of River and Maple Street. He also built the commercial block at River Street and Oak Street, as well as the adjacent block.

Ramsdell Theater

Over the years many public places in Manistee were used for entertainment of the local people. In 1883 the Scandinavian Society built a building on the corner of First and Greenbush streets that met the theatre needs of the people of Manistee. On December 17, 1900, it burned down. The Manistee Daily News for November 22 of the following year spoke of the need of Manistee for a new theatre. The article spoke of the lack of entertainment because of what had happened the previous year. It suggested some temporary arrangements until a permanent structure could be built. Eleven days later, Ramsdell stepped up to the calling and announced that he would build a new opera house on the corner of First and Maple streets. It took two years but the Ramsdell Theatremarker was finally finished in 1902. It still serves western northern Michigan today as a monument to one of Manistee's pioneers. In this theater James Earl Jones began his theatrical career.

Personal residence

Ramsdell residence, ca. 1900
Ramsdell's residence was at the corner of Second Street and Cedar Street and fronted east. It was on a wide street. The main structure was by and had a wing by . It had a cellar the size of the main building and wing divided off into five rooms. The entrance was from the east and you came in through a vestibule which was laid with tile stone of different colors. On the north side of the vestibule was a veranda. From the vestibule you entered a by hall. There was a winding staircase at the end leading to the second story. On the side of the hall was parlor with a bay window on the north side. South of the hall was a library. Adjoining the library was the master bedroom. From the master bedroom bathroom was connected a conservatory. The second story contained a large sitting room and five additional bedrooms. From the second story was a winding staircase to the third story which had a ball room, a sitting room, and the Centennial room. The ball room was square with on each side. From the third story was a staircase to a tower twelve feet on each side and two stories high. From here was a commanding view of the entire city of Manistee. The house was built of pressed Milwaukee brick and had a mansard roof. Ramsdell's residence was lite with gas. The house was burned down in the 1930s by one of his sons for the insurance money.


Ramsdell retired for almost twenty years. He died in Manistee on April 22, 1917. There were several articles written the following day in the local Manistee newspaper. The editor of the News Advocate commented on Ramsdell's life in an article:


  • Cyclopedia of Michigan, pp. 218–219; Historical and Biographical, comprising a synopsis of General History of the State and Biographical Sketches of Men, New York: Western Publishing and Engraving Company, 1890. Original in Kalamazoo Public Librarymarker.


  1. Manistee Advocate newspaper Number 33 dated July 29, 1876 - front page, third column

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