Pioneer Industrialist Associated with Kalamazoo’s Finest Homes
In the early 1830’s Kalamazoo was a developing village, then known as Bronson. In those early days the village changed from what had recently been wilderness to an expanding community with a courthouse, a jail, and churches. The community would not have grown into what it is today without the contribution of hardy settlers who traveled here to build a new life and seek new opportunities for themselves. Moses Austin and his son Benjamin were two of these early pioneers.
“The boy who came here at fourteen 'to grow up with the country' is now a hale old gentleman, well past his three score years and ten, renewing his youth with great-grandchildren to whom he will tell the wonderful stories of his pioneer boyhood in the then new west.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 7 May 1893
Moses was a shoemaker in Colbrook, Connecticut who later moved to Genesee County in New York. In 1833 Moses and Benjamin made the rough journey to Michigan via wagon and water. They arrived in Detroit and then made their way to the Kalamazoo area by wagon over the rough early trails of the era. They reached Bronson on young Benjamin’s fourteenth birthday, 7 May 1833. A few days later they traveled to the north shore of a lake in Portage where Moses had purchased land. Moses built a residence on the lake that would eventually be named after his family, Austin Lake. For many years he ran Austin House, a tavern on the lake, that later added a dance hall and became a popular meeting place. Moses also worked a farm for about 25 years.
When he was sixteen, Benjamin came north to Kalamazoo to learn watchmaking and the coppersmith and tin trades. He married Angeline B. Fitch in 1838, and they had 3 children. He became involved in the dry goods business, partnering with W. L. Tomlinson. Benjamin Austin developed property interests in Kalamazoo and other parts of the country, owning farms in Kalamazoo and stone quarries in Joliet, Illinois. In 1852 he developed a firm that manufactured spring wagons. For many years the company held a contract to produce wagons for Jackson Prison. He also purchased a farm of 150 acres. By 1860 Austin was one of Kalamazoo’s wealthiest residents.
Austin – Sill House
Thanks to his success in business, Austin developed the wealth and resources to build or buy some of the finest homes in the early history of Kalamazoo. In 1846 he bought a lot at the corner of Rose and Lovell Street and built a home in the classic Greek Revival style. That home still stands and is known as the Austin – Sill House. Benjamin Austin and his family lived in this home until the 1850’s, when he had another home constructed on Territorial Road (now West Michigan Avenue) and moved there. Austin sold the first home to Joseph Sill, a physician. The home was moved around the corner in the early 1870’s, possibly by Joseph Sill, although the documentation to support this isn’t concrete. Sill may have moved the home to facilitate the construction of the Sill Terrace Building, now known as the Prange Building, which was one of the earliest apartment buildings in Kalamazoo.
Wilbur Home and School for the Feeble - Minded
Austin patterned his new Italian Villa home after English castles. Built on a hill on 42 acres of land in 1868, it had oak floors and high ceilings. Later Dr. Joseph Wilbur acquired the home to care for the mentally ill. The Wilbur Home and School for the Feeble – Minded served in this capacity from May 1884 until 1950. In the mid 1950’s, it was used as a fraternity house. It was torn down to make way for the construction of the Western Michigan University Student Center, now the Bernhard Center, and dormitories in 1955.
Benjamin Austin acquired the Babcock House in 1873. Located across the street from the Wilbur Home, the Babcock House is now known as The Oaklands. The Italian Villa style home was built in 1869. In 1876 a fire destroyed everything but the brick walls. He had the home rebuilt, and his family occupied the home in the 1880’s and early 1890’s. In 1893 Austin turned the estate over to his son-in-law Daniel Streeter, who turned the estate into a breeding and training farm for racehorses. The racehorse Peter the Great was born there in 1895. The property was converted into a golf course in the 1920’s. In 1944 Western Michigan University purchased the home and had the barn and servant’s house removed. The Oaklands served as the home of the WMU president until 1974. WMU presidents Paul Sangren and James Miller lived there. After World War II the mansion’s exterior walls were painted white. In the 1980’s the interior and exterior of the Oaklands were restored. Today it is used as a bed and breakfast, and is available for special events.
Benjamin Austin died on 20 January 1896. This early Kalamazoo resident’s legacy is his business success and his association with elegant homes in Kalamazoo. His success as a wagon manufacturer and investor allowed him the resources to build or refurbish some of Kalamazoo’s finest early homes. The Austin – Sill House and the Oaklands remain as valuable reminders of the history of Kalamazoo and the pioneer families that contributed to the community.