While a high-stakes poker game played to determine the fate of an Old West town may seem like a Hollywood story line, this scenario may be surprisingly close to the story of how the city of Fenton came by its name. As is said in the classic western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Let’s travel back to the days when Michigan was considered the untamed West.
When Clark Dibble got lost in the Michigan wilderness in March 1834, the result was a little town called Dibbleville on the Shiawassee River. Clark Dibble, a veteran of the War of 1812 who had accidently taken the White Lake Trail while traveling to Grand Blanc, was so enamored with the location he’d discovered that when he did find his way to Grand Blanc, he convinced a few families to join him in settling the area. Dustin Cheney built the first house in April 1834, and a year later, Dibble dammed the river and built a saw mill. The population began to explode, and in 1836, Robert LeRoy and William M. Fenton, a brilliant young attorney or a land speculator (depending on which source you consult), purchased all of Dibble’s land, the mill and the water rights. No one knows why Dibble decided to leave the land he loved and move to White Lake. It is said he died on his farm while trying to save his dog in June of 1841.
Dibbleville having been purchased, the question as to the settlement’s name remained. Legend has it that William Fenton and Robert LeRoy decided to resolve the dispute like gentleman: over a game of cards.
The Name Game
Attorney Edward B. Davison, a great, great grandson of William Fenton, told MCM the story of how the City of Fenton got its name, as it came to him.
This is a story that has been passed down in my family for generations, and this story begins in New York. Mr. Daniel LeRoy, who was involved in the land patent office in New York, suggested that his son, Robert, and a friend, Mr. William Fenton, make their fortunes out west. The two friends travelled to Pontiac, Michigan where they opened a General Store. In 1836, they decided to buy, or perhaps steal, the land around Dibbleville. At that time, the state’s capital had not been decided, and Fenton and LeRoy, who hoped to make their town the new capital, agreed that “Dibbleville” would not make a good name for the capital city. So they sat down with a deck of cards and a bottle of whiskey. Fenton was the winner of the game’s first hand. There is some ambiguity about whether he won with a Royal flush or a full house, but as the winner, the town’s name became “Fentonville.” Mr. LeRoy won the second hand, and thus the main street in town is LeRoy Street. They played until the whiskey was gone and every street was named. Thus, Caroline Street was named after LeRoy’s wife and Adelaide Street was named after Fenton’s wife. As for the truth of this story, well, I can only say that whiskey was expensive back then, and Fenton was a sober man by all accounts. Who knows? Perhaps this took place during his scallywag years. He was, after all, a sailor before he married and moved to Michigan, and being involved in the “real estate” business in new territories always holds a hint of suspicion.
ILLUSTRATION BY KRISTEN KNOPF