Plymouth's oddest character? Probably Charley
A PEEK INTO HISTORY
By IDA CHIPMAN
This is a photograph of Charley Reeve, one of the most colorful citizens in Plymouth history.
What about Charley?
Anecdotes of the life of Charles H. Reeve have been compiled from newspaper stories from the Gary Post-Tribune, the Plymouth Republican, the Plymouth Democrat, the Bremen Enquirer, the Michigan City News Dispatch and the Culver Citizen.
Also used were letters from his family doctor and notes made by the late Arthur O'Keefe, a friend and historian. Many thanks to Judy McCollough of the Marshall County Historical Society.
The first of two parts
PLYMOUTH -- One newspaper reporter called Charles H. Reeve "the Most Brilliant Screwball in Plymouth's History." And he probably was, so far.
Charley was an outstanding lawyer, writer and orator. He was a state senator from 1876 to 1880, a violinist, composer and prosecuting attorney.
A professed agnostic, he was known to be eccentric, a raging hypochondriac, domestic tyrant and mayor of Plymouth, elected in 1885. He was tall, 6-foot-4, and very thin with a small head, scraggy sideburns and a wild and woolly mustache.
Bushy eyebrows hooded his dark, penetrating eyes. He always wore a long, black split-tailed coat.
By the age of 40, he had a fine home and a farm or two --one of which is now the Oakhill Cemetery.
He also had $50,000 in the bank, a colossal ego and a hair-trigger temper. His vocabulary was vitriolic and colorful, and his hypochondria led to a peculiar propensity for dying, on the average, of once or twice a week.
Charley had a passel of imagined fatal ailments. Periodically, he'd pay all of his bills, draw up a new will, take to his bed and moan, "I'm a goner."
One time, Dr. George Reynolds, the family doctor, made an emergency house call to Charley, who lived on the northeast corner of Michigan and Jefferson streets, where the Subway Sandwiches shop is now.
When he got there, Charley was gasping for breath. He had hot bricks at his feet and a blanket wrapped around his body.
"Doc, I'm a goner this time," he wheezed.
The doctor, weary of Charley's deathbed dramatics, drew a chair near his pillow and said, "Well, if I've got to watch anyone die, I'd rather it be you than anyone else I know. I'll sit here awhile. You go ahead and die."
The senator reared up out of bed, roaring and cussin' like a mule skinner. He ran the doctor right out of the house, forgetting entirely about being sick, much less ready to kick the bucket.
He was back at his law office desk the next morning.
Truly, Charley Reeve was a piece of work.
He was born Jan. 15, 1822, in Oneida County, N.Y. His family moved to LaPorte when he was 16 years old. He studied law and was admitted to the bar before he was 21 years old.
He worked for a short time as a law clerk in Chicago and New York. He never did like the practice of law. He did it under protest but with a great deal of success.
Charley came to Plymouth in 1846, 24 years old and a very eligible bachelor. Skilled in social graces, he loved music and was a wonderful dancer.
He went to all the dances and in later years, until his arthritis got too bad, he called the square dances.
In 1850, Charley married Abbie (Abby) Jane Howe, the daughter of the Marshall County clerk.
He and the feisty Abby carried on a lifelong love affair and shootin'match. She loved him, but she would put up with just so much and some pretty fair contests resulted.
They were evenly matched. Both had fiery tempers and iron-clad wills. One rumor that made the rounds was of the time Charley brought a prestigious LaPorte attorney home for supper.
They mounted the porch and found Abby, down on her hands and knees with her skirts and petticoats pinned up disclosing bare legs --and who knows what else -- scrubbing the porch.
It was said around town that Charley gave Abby a licking later with a rope for being so "unladylike."
Sometime later, Abby asked Charley sweetly why didn't he invite his stag club over to dinner. Perhaps surprised by her hospitality, he did. When dinner was served, Abby brought in a big meat pie, but Charley, as hard as he tried, couldn't cut it. The knife just wouldn't dent the thing.
Getting madder by the second, he broke through the crust and pulled out -- inch by inch -- an 8-foot rope.
"Woman," he blustered, "what does this mean?"
"Why, you know, Charley," Abby said, "that's the rope you used to beat me with!"
Another time, Abby exposed his stinginess during a highfaluting social gathering at their home with some state senators and other dignitaries as guests.
"She came in dressed in rags, although she owned fine, fashionable clothing," historian Arthur O'Keefe wrote.
"She was dirty, her hair was witchy looking, down around her face and she had a hatchet in her hand."
Abby shuffled to an antique bookcase, pulled out some volumes and began to chop them into pieces.
Charley jumped up, startled, "Woman what are you doing?"
Abby cooed, "If a man won't furnish his wife with kindling, she just has to get it herself."
After that, Charley loosened the purse strings.
Abby, two: Charley, zero.
Charley was a self-ordained expert on everything and curious about anything.
There was the time when some men were moving a house.
A large drum, wound with rope, was rolled under the house. Two poles stuck out from the drum and a horse was hitched by a strap to one end of the pole and his halter to the other end.
A young boy was in charge of the horse. He'd say "whoa" and "giddap" when necessary.
The senator came out to watch.
When the horse stopped, Charley climbed over the pole to see how the outfit worked.
The boy gave the horse the "go" signal and the senator, who was straddling the pole, tried to get off, but it was too high off the ground and too late to jump.
He clutched the pole with both hands and rode with his long legs dangling and his coattails flopping. Trying to keep his balance with that pole rolling between his legs was said to be quite a sight. He was obviously in danger of losing more than his dignity.
The boy was scared speechless, unable to give the "stop" command. One of the men running alongside yelled "whoa," and the horse stopped. The senator got off the pole gingerly, straightened his clothing and stalked off as best one could stalk being, no doubt, embarrassed and in pain.
Without a word, he went back into his house.
Charley Reeve, interesting to the very end
By IDA CHIPMAN
Second of two parts
PLMOUTH -- Charley Reeve, in addition to everything else, was a voluminous and talented author.
He penned a book on prison reform, "The Prison Question," that was so well received by the Czar of Russia that he had a gold medal struck for the Reeve family.
That's the honest truth.
Charley wrote for many leading magazines and newspapers, and he carried on a lengthy debate on a variety of subjects with Clarence Darrow through the columns of the Chicago Times.
One time Charley did a piece for the local newspaper. He said emphatically that since Plymouth was in the Yellow River valley, people need not worry about wind storms.
"Any wind will blow over high enough to miss us," he wrote. Before the next weekly edition came out, a wind storm came along and -- as Charley had written -- did absolutely no damage in Marshall County -- with one exception.
The little yellow barn on Charley's farm was moved off its foundation and turned half-way around.
To an avowed agnostic, that had to be a little scary.
A friend of Charley's, a man named Ebell, died.
Ebell greatly admired Charley and he had stipulated in his will that he wanted:
1. A brass band to play at his funeral.
2. Charley Reeve to preach the sermon at the funeral which
3. was to be held in the Opera House (now a parking lot, on LaPorte Street, across from the Java Trail).
The Opera House was on the second floor.
The pall bearers had a little trouble getting the coffin up those narrow steep steps.
Actually, they had a whole lot of trouble.
It was a real tight squeeze and the men had to do more pushin' and pullin' than bearing the casket in the usual way.
It was two steps up and one step back with old Ebell slipping and sliding and bumping around inside.
The brass band, having a limited repertoire, played tunes that brass bands play ad nauseam, like "A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight" and "Hail, Hail the Gang's All Here."
Which they were.
Everybody in town knew Charley's religion -- or rather, his lack of it -- and they came to see what in the world kind of a send-off he was going to give old Ebell.
When they finally got the corpse upstairs, Charley fooled them all. He preached, they said, as fine a sermon as anyone every heard in Plymouth -- then, and maybe even now -- using as his text, "Let he among you without sin cast the first stone."
Reeve slept with a large revolver under his pillow.
Emma Meegans, a strapping Irish housemaid, refused every morning to make the bed until the gun was removed.
Charley told Emma repeatedly that she was silly.
"This gun won't go off. See!" He picked it up, pulled the trigger and blew a huge hole in the bedroom wall.
Emma said in an interview, "Neither one of us said a word. Mr. Reeve went downtown and I cleaned up the mess."
Abby and Charley got along well enough -- long enough -- to have four children: Anna Louise (Brown) in 1850: Ella Amelia, a daughter born in 1852, who died in 1854: Charles Albert (nicknamed Bert) in 1855; and Mabel Clare (Dolly) in 1866.
Bert was the most abused. He could do nothing right in his father's eyes. One time after being criticized unmercifully while haying, Bert slammed the pitch fork down, neatly pinning his father's foot to the ground.
The boy wisely ran away. For a week Abby hid and fed him in a haymow until his pop's terrible temper and injured foot had cooled off. Charley was not in favor of the Civil War. Never reluctant to give his opinion, he made strong speeches against "killing our Southern brethren."
His life was made so miserable by Union supporters that he was forced to go to Canada for an extended visit.
He was called, in some circles, a traitor. It is ironic that 13 years after his death, his 24-year-old namesake grandson, Lt. Charles B. Reeve, gave his life on Flanders Field in France on October 7, 1918. The young man was awarded posthumously, the Distinguished Service Cross. The Plymouth American Legion Post No. 27 is named in his honor.
Charley was an independent thinker. In politics, he voted for the man, but leaned to the more liberal way of thinking.
In 1864, he was a keynote speaker at the Democratic Convention. As he got older, instead of mellowing, the senator became even more eccentric. One local writer said Charley was "a horse's behind." He had a heart ailment. Dr. Charles Holkendorff prescribed nitroglycerin. Charley marched into the parlor of his home where Abby was entertaining some of Plymouth's grandest ladies for tea.
"Damn it," he said. "The damned doctor gave me nitroglycerin and I'm afraid to sit down or lean up against anything for fear of blowing up!" Both he and Abby were heavy smokers.
Abby made headlines in the March 1900 South Bend Times when, after she was taken ill, it was declared that she was a victim of nicotine poisoning.
The sensational report --some said leaked by Charley himself -- made the rounds of the press. It was even hinted that her cigarette's tobacco had been tampered with.
The senator vigorously denied the poisoning story (Bremen Enquirer, March 30, 1900).
He claimed that Abby'd had a stroke a year before and "enfeebled by old age, had fallen off her chair."
Abby died five months later. She was 74.
They had enjoyed a stormy and exciting marriage for over 50 years. Charley fell from grace as an agnostic when Abby passed.
He "unconverted" from his non-believer stance -- as best he could -- being the kind of man he was.
It must have been hard for him to admit he was fallible.
He said to his friend, Leopold M. Lauer (patriarch of the Lauer clothing store, now the Marshall County Historical Museum), "I wonder, could I, in all of these years, be mistaken and oh, what I would give if I could only believe."
He wiped the tears that ran down his streaming cheeks and blew his nose in a large silk handkerchief.
"It was Charley's hope," Lauer wrote, "that he and his Abby would meet again on the distant shore."
A shore that Charley believed never existed until then.
A few days after the funeral, the former housemaid, Emma, called on the senator and not really knowing what to say, said, "Mr. Reeve, no doubt you miss Mrs. Reeve very much."
Charley, once again his cantankerous old self, replied, "Hell, yes. You'd miss even an old cat if you'd had her around that long."
During his last years, Charley lived the life of a recluse, reading from his extensive library and writing manuscript after manuscript.
His mind was sharp and vigorous up to the end.
The man who was sure he was going to die at least once a week for over 50 years finally did reach his deathbed in 1905, 19 days before his 83rd birthday.
His son, Bert, who owned the telephone company in Plymouth, hovered by his bedside, wondering, "Will Pops die without saying I did one single thing right in my whole life?"
"I'm thirsty," Charley croaked.
Bert helped the nurse raise his father up to sip some water.
Something slipped and Charley's head banged against the headboard of the bed.
"Blast it!" he snapped at Bert. "Can't a man even die without you fumbling his head?"
Those were the last words Charley Reeve ever spoke.
So who was the Honorable Charles H. Reeve?
He was an incredible character who will forever be a part of Plymouth history.
His portrait is hanging in the City Council Chambers. He is buried and his monument -- the tallest one around (what did you expect?) -- is in the Stringer Cemetery next to Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center on State Road 17.
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