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  • Writer's pictureS.K. Keogh

Burr Oak, Michigan: "And though she be but little, she is fierce."

You might recognize the quote in this article's title as a quote from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. I thought it a fitting quote to help describe the hometown of my main characters in my new novel The Edge of Hell: the village of Burr Oak, Michigan, in St. Joseph County. A rural town like so many thousands of other small towns that contributed untold numbers of soldiers for the Union army during the American Civil War.

Famous regiments like the 69th New York came from large cities and served in the Army of the Potomac, a storied army led by General Ulysses S. Grant. It was Grant who accepted Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox. However, the story I wanted to tell was one from a lesser-known state and a lesser-known army, the Army of the Cumberland, which fought in the western theater of war. Just as vital to the war effort, I feel the western armies often are overlooked by authors writing about the American Civil War.

So how did I come to select Burr Oak as my characters' hometown? Though I have lived in Michigan my entire life, I had never heard of Burr Oak until I read When Gallantry was Commonplace: The History of the Michigan Eleventh Volunteer Infantry, 1861-1864, by Leland W. Thornton. There was just something about the name, something quaint and unique, that piqued my curiosity. To me, it was a perfect name for a small town in a novel.

While researching Edge, I visited Burr Oak. When I did, the village's streets had been taken down to dirt roads during a repaving project. I thought it fitting that I should see the village with dirt roads, as they would have been back in the 19th century.

The village gets its name from the burr oaks that grow there. The burr (bur) oak grows to 80 feet or more and has the largest acorns of the oak family. I like to think of all the history those trees have seen in their lifetime.

Burr Oak

But there was another famous tree in Burr Oak, this one a "buckeye" or American Horse Chestnut. The buckeye tree was brought to Burr Oak in 1852 by Charles Bett, from Detroit, and planted in the center of town near the village pump. The townspeople would read their mail beneath the tree as it grew, and young men no doubt presented its blossoms to sweethearts. My main characters, Nate Calhoun and James Keenan, fondly remember the young tree while off fighting in the war. Its memory serves as an anchor to their past and their hometown. The tree lived for fifty years before a fire in a nearby building destroyed it.

American Horse Chestnut

The population of Burr Oak in 1860 was 666, according to census data. In 2010, the census was 806. So the size of the town has not changed all that much over the decades. In my novel, James's family owns a mercantile in town, near the aforementioned buckeye tree, while Nate's family has a farm outside of town. The story also has real life citizens of Burr Oak, like Jared Taylor and Benjamin Bennet, who raised Company D for the Eleventh Michigan, the company to which James and Nate belong.

I hope my novel does justice to the village of Burr Oak and its citizens, past and present. May we never forget how such small communities sacrificed their sons, brothers, and husbands to the cause of preserving the Union and our great country.


Visit Burr Oak's Facebook page here.

Visit St. Joseph County Historical Society's Facebook page here.

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