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Remember the Adams family

Sidney Adams, 1831-1906. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

MARQUETTE — Adams Street, which runs north from West Hampton Street and terminates in a dead end just past Blemhuber Avenue, is named for Sidney Adams (1831-1906), an early Marquette pioneer.

Born in Herkimer County, New York, Adams’ parents brought him to Rochester, Michigan, when he was a young child.

In 1851, at the age of 19, Sidney Adams came to Marquette aboard the steamer Manhattan. He had one dollar to his name. His first purchase was an ax, which he bought for 50 cents from a young shopkeeper named Peter White.

When he arrived in the Upper Peninsula, Adams was a frail, sunken-chested youth. His mother had died of tuberculosis when he was a small boy, and his father was starting to show signs of illness. Out in the woods working with a timber crew, Sidney Adams encountered Ojibwa elder Mah-je-ge-zhik, an experienced healer who took pity on the weak adolescent laborer. Mah-je-ge-zhik showed young Sidney Adams how to sleep with his back straight, and chew balsam gum for vitamins. In time, the sickly teenager grew into a broad-shouldered man.

Adams operated a small wood cutting business in south Marquette for several years. Soon, he was able to purchase a team of oxen and hire employees to help him expand his business. In 1854, Adams started a small store, and was soon joined in this enterprise by Philo Everett, founding partner in the Negaunee-based Jackson Mining Company.

By 1857, Sidney Adams had amassed enough capital to expand into land speculation. He bought up real estate, cleared land, and sold parcels to incoming settlers to farm. Adams supplied lumber cut while clearing land to the railroad companies operating in Marquette County. He married in 1859, and his wife Harriet bore a daughter, Bertha, in 1864.

In 1873, Sidney Adams’s company was commissioned to build the original breakwater in Marquette harbor. Before the breakwater, strong winds often buffeted ships in the bay, sometimes making it too dangerous to land. The improvement that Adams helped facilitate was an important step in the development of a commercial harbor at Marquette.

Sidney Adams grew quite prosperous by the 1880s. He served as Marquette alderman, pound-master overseeing the city cow pound, assessor, and mayor. In September of 1883, Sidney Adams bought the stately Hiram Burt home at the corner of Blaker Street and Ridge Street, and terraced the hill facing Lake Superior. The sandstone home at 200 East Ridge Street is still known as the Adams house.

Today, the Adams family is perhaps best remembered for Sidney Adams’ adopted son, Will Adams (1878-1909). Will Adams was born in Detroit; his parents died when he was an infant. Sidney Adams and his wife Harriet adopted Will when they were well into middle age. The orphaned boy thrived in Marquette. He soon gained a reputation as a particularly bright and witty child.

An unknown malady caused Will Adams to succumb to progressive paralysis in his teen years. His lower limbs stopped working first, and by the end of adolescence he could only move his face. Will Adams was an accomplished author, creating memorable literature despite his unusual affliction. He developed a magazine called Chips that covered social events, local history, and humorous stories.

Will Adams also wrote an opera called Miss D.Q. Pons, with help from a dear friend named Norma Ross, a music teacher. The opera was performed at the Marquette Opera House in July 1905 to positive reviews. The show then went to Ishpeming, Hancock, Calumet, and Sault Ste. Marie, with Will and his compatriots riding along in a DSS&A railway baggage car.

Will was a popular figure in the Upper Peninsula entertainment scene. His wide circle of friends included nationally celebrated opera singer Lillian Russell, who met him while she was performing in Marquette, and remembered him for his “humor and wonderful brain.”

Sidney Adams died in 1906, at the age of 75. His adopted son Will Adams died in 1909, aged 31. In different ways, both men helped to make Marquette what it is today. Remember them fondly when you’re on Adams Street.

Among his many accomplishments, Sidney Adams helped develop Marquette Harbor. To learn more about Marquette’s fascinating maritime past, come to Kaufman Auditorium Thursday Jan. 24, 7 p.m. Jim Koski and Jack Deo will tell stories of Marquette Harbor and show photos and newly digitized film footage of our beloved Iron Bay. Tickets are $15 and may run out.

Call 906-226-3571 or come to the Marquette Regional History Center at 145 W. Spring St. to see if tickets remain for this unforgettable local history evening.