Alumni Plaza the center of the Dowagiac campus


Circus poster

Circus poster

Round Oak memorabilia

Round Oak memorabilia

Polk walking stick

Polk walking stick from the 1844 presidential campaign

Old coins

Old coins

Circus magazine

Circus magazine

Round Oak suit

A Round Oak stove

SMC Museum Artifacts Auctioned July 29

Published on July 12, 2023 - 4 p.m.

Some 1,500 artifacts collected by Southwestern Michigan College when it operated an on-campus museum, including hundreds of circus posters and a hand-carved walking stick from James Polk’s 1844 presidential campaign, will be auctioned July 29.

Stanton’s Auctioneers of Vermontville, Mich., will conduct the sale beginning at 9:30 a.m. at the Fred L. Mathews Library on SMC’s Dowagiac campus.

Working in partnership with the City of Dowagiac and the Dowagiac Area History Museum, SMC transferred ownership of its 20,000-object collection of history artifacts to the Michigan Gateway Community Foundation in May. The items being auctioned are either duplicates in the collection or do not meet the local history mission of the Dowagiac Area History Museum.

All proceeds from the auction will go toward the construction of a Collections Storage Addition to the Dowagiac Area History Museum.

When SMC decided to repurpose its museum space in 2012, the City of Dowagiac and SMC partnered up to relocate the museum to its current location in the city. The City and SMC shared costs to renovate the former Behnke Paint building and SMC assisted with operating costs until 2017. Additionally, the college maintained ownership, insured and stored the collection it began acquiring in 1968.

In 2022, SMC determined that the facility committed for museum storage on campus was needed for other purposes and the City of Dowagiac and the Dowagiac Area History Museum began planning for a collections storage addition at the current museum location.

"For several years I had quietly worried about the eventual ownership and protection of the collection and decided to meet with Mayor Don Lyons to formulate a plan that would protect the collection in perpetuity,” SMC Board of Trustees Chairman Tom Jerdon said. “It is wonderful to have the city, the college and Gateway Community Foundation come together for the community and the area's history.”

Because the Michigan Gateway Community Foundation is overseeing a long-term endowment established to support the museum financially 10 years from now, all three organizations agreed to transfer the collection to Gateway during the transition.

Michael Rowland, the president of Michigan Gateway Community Foundation noted, “Our foundation has a mission of fostering a community of philanthropy for good, forever. Projects like this allow our organization to partner directly with the community of Dowagiac to ensure the wonderful work of the Dowagiac Area History Museum and Heddon Museum can last in perpetuity. It truly encompasses our mission and values and aligns them with the non-profit community. We are so excited to expand on our current work in the community of Dowagiac.”

“The Dowagiac Area History Museum plays an important role in the preservation of Dowagiac area history,” says Dowagiac Mayor Don Lyons. “The museum saves and shares the important stories and artifacts of our community’s past. Looking to the future, the recent funding partnership with Michigan Gateway Foundation will assure our historical legacy remains intact and available for generations to come.”

As Museum Director Steve Arseneau began planning the move, he found that the collection has many items do not meet the museum’s local history mission. These take up space and resources, such as boxes and shelving, which could be better used for objects that meet the mission.

The three organizations decided an auction of those artifacts would be the best solution—as long as the proceeds went toward the benefit of the museum’s collection. According to the American Alliance of Museums ethical standards, museums may sell items from the collection provided the proceeds are used to care for the collection or for purchasing items for the collection that meet the mission. The proceeds from this auction will go toward the storage facility, which meets that standard.

Arseneau points to one collection as an example of artifacts that do not meet the museum mission. In the mid-1980s, the SMC Museum organized a Circus exhibit, which resulted in a collector from Georgia donating a collection of 800+ circus posters and other ephemera to the college. That entire collection will be in the auction.

Other collections in the auction include carpenter tools, Civil War documents from a soldier in the Indiana 75th Infantry, 1800s furniture and souvenirs of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. While the museum is retaining all its artifacts related to the local Potawatomi, there are artifacts from other tribes that will be in the auction—most created in the early 1900s for the tourist trade.

The auction will also include one fine piece of Americana—a hand-carved walking stick from the successful 1844 Presidential campaign of James Polk. The walking stick has ‘Polk & Dallas’ clearly painted on it and was likely used at a campaign rally. Polk would go on to lead the country’s early expansion west with his slogan ‘Manifest Destiny.’

For local collectors, the auction will include duplicate items from the Round Oak Stove Company, Heddon fishing tackle and other local businesses. The Round Oak items will include a B-18 stove, a Baseburner model stove, catalogs, trade cards, calendars and other advertising pieces.

“It is good practice for museums to go through the deaccession process to fine-tune their collections,” Arseneau said. “The move of the collection presented the perfect opportunity for us to go through the collection and find the items that do not meet our mission and are good candidates for finding new homes. For the community, this is a chance to acquire some good artifacts that have been well maintained for decades.”

Steve Stanton will lead the live auction at the Mathews Library at SMC and some of the national collections, such as the Circus Collection and the Polk-Dallas walking stick, will have an online auction component as well. For more information and images of items available in the auction, visit the auction website: