1920s Scandal Has Namesake in Van Buren County

Jul 7, 2016

John Mairs owns an electrical business that takes him all over southwest Michigan. A few years ago, something caught his eye in Van Buren County – a road sign for “Tea Pot Dome.”

The sign lies just west of County Road 671 and the Red Arrow Highway, a few miles west of Paw Paw. Mairs says he couldn’t figure out what it referred to.

“My very first thought was it was geographic, but there’s nothing here to support that - pretty flat,” Mairs says.

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The answer took WMUK’s “Why’s That?” into 1920s politics – and the history of a business that opened along this road when it was old M-17, then part of a major route between Chicago and Detroit.

The business began as a service station for motorists. It was founded by Chris Henderson, a Chicagoan who left the city on the advice of his doctor. He and his wife Florence settled on Lake Cora.

An early ad called the business simply the “Chris Henderson Service Station.” But by late summer 1924, the business would gain a more distinctive name. Henderson’s granddaughter, Mary Burger, says she’s always heard the idea came from a conversation with a friend.

“He and my grandfather Chris got talking and they were discussing the Teapot Dome scandal, which was taking place around that time. And so that’s how they came up with the name,” she says.

The Teapot Dome scandal was big news at the time that Chris Henderson opened his shop. By then the public knew that Albert Fall, who had been President Warren Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, had secretly leased government oil fields to private companies. One of those fields was known as Teapot Dome.

Fall had made it look like the deals were on the level. But eventually investigators found proof that he had leased the oil fields in exchange for bribes.

Teapot Dome ranks as a major scandal in American political history. But Burger says she doesn’t think her grandfather was trying to make a statement when he named his business Teapot Dome.

“As far as I know the name kind of just stuck. I don’t think it was politically related or anything else,” she says.

Henderson he wasn’t the only one who found the name Teapot Dome catchy. An unrelated Teapot Dome gas station went up near Pentwater. A Pierce, Nebraska service stop had a Teapot-Dome-themed lunch room. The most famous Teapot Dome establishment is in Washington State and it is shaped like a teapot.

But Mary Burger says Teapot Dome near Paw Paw offered more than just gas.

“They had cabins and a big farmer’s market and grandmother loved to bake. She would sell cookies and pies and cakes and all of that,” she says.

Burger’s grandmother Florence would bring cake to the crowd after baseball games that took place next to Teapot Dome.

“And then I think they went to the food from there, making it a little restaurant,” Burger says.

Soon the crossing where Teapot Dome stood went by that name as well. It shows up on some maps as Teapot Dome (usually two words despite the road sign) and, as John Mairs found, it gets its own road sign – though it's not a municipality or even a platted suburb.

As for Teapot Dome the business? You can’t buy gas there anymore, or rent a cabin. But more than 90 years after it opened, Teapot Dome is still serving food.

April Sheeran bought the restaurant a few years ago. She says the old building has its challenges. But the restaurant still draws a crowd for lunch and especially breakfast.

Sheeran says some of her customers remember when Teapot Dome served as a pit stop for farmers who went to work on foot.

“If they were going from Lawrence or Hartford, they were walking to their fields or wherever they were going to go and work. And so I have stories like that that people tell me. ‘Oh I used to stop and there was a little pop machine and a bench and we would stop and have something to drink,’” she says.

Joan and Roy Miller have been eating at Teapot Dome for 31 years. They’re sitting by a wall decorated with teapots. No memorabilia from the Teapot Dome scandal, though Joan says she’s heard of it.

“Because the elementary school I went to in Northwest Indiana was after the worst most corrupt president in history and it was named Harding elementary,” she says.

“And they talked about the scandal all the time there, didn’t they?” Roy asks.

John Mairs, who wanted to know the reason for the Teapot Dome sign, says he’s not surprised the answer came from a descendant of the founder.

“I figured somebody local would know,” he says.

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