A Chemical Empire Thriving from an Ancient Ocean

Dow Evans Mill

The Evans Flour Mill, ca. 1891

The early settlers of Midland, Michigan, reaped immediate benefits from the area’s rich timberlands. But the region also held a secret. Deep below the surface lies an ancient ocean, rich in magnesium, chlorine, calcium, bromine, and various other elements. Herbert H. Dow, founder of the Dow Chemical Company, saw the potential in extracting these raw materials, and his foresight spawned a chemical empire.

As a student at the Case School of Applied Science in Cleveland, Ohio, Dow worked out a process for the electrolytic extraction of bromine from brine. He established a short-lived company in Canton, Ohio, to test the process, but soon abandoned it.

Full of ideas but short on cash, Dow arrived in Midland in 1890 and saw a community with an unsustainable future. Numerous brine wells operated in the area, but the extraction process depended on timberlands for cheap fuel and the forests of the area were quickly disappearing. Dow set up shop in a rented barn at the Evans Flour Mill on Main Street and began his electrolytic operations as the Midland Chemical Company. When the company outgrew the flour mill, land was purchased across town on the present site of Dow Chemical. In 1897, after several years of trial and error, Dow developed the technologies and secured the funding to establish the Dow Chemical Company. During the early years the primary activity of this company was manufacturing bleach from raw materials supplied by the Midland Chemical Company.

Discovering new products and innovative ways to use them was a passion for Herbert Dow, and his company grew year after year. His knowledge of chemical synthesis became a vital military asset during World War I when key German imports were cut off. Dow Chemical began producing synthetic indigo dyes, synthetic phenols for explosives, and aspirin, as well as huge quantities of calcium chloride, Epsom Salts, magnesium products, and insecticides.

Today Dow Chemical is one of the largest diversified chemical companies in the world with annual sales in excess of $50 billion. The secret, it seems, is out.

Patrick Shea is the senior archivist at CHF. The Dow Historical Collection was donated to CHF in 2008 by the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation.