Local History and Genealogy

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Public Sculpture in Kalamazoo

Over the course of the last year, my position as local history intern has afforded me numerous opportunities to engage in a variety of projects, most of which have allowed me to pursue my own personal local history interests while contributing to the body of material available to the public for use in their own historical inquiries. When the weather has been appropriate, these projects have often taken me outdoors, camera in hand, and onto the streets of Kalamazoo. Last summer, I had the distinct pleasure of visiting and photographing the various historic districts of Kalamazoo County in order to compile information from the National Register of Historic Places and the State Historic Preservation Office in a series of web pages. When appropriate, I would always opt to walk to these destinations. In my pedestrian travels throughout Kalamazoo, I was frequently impressed by the quality and quantity of public memorials, monuments, sculptures, murals, and other works of art. When discussion regarding updates to the library’s online photo gallery of local public sculpture occurred last winter, I immediately became interested in contributing to this effort.

As soon as the last of the significant quantities of snow had melted, and the weather had begun to turn more hospitable, I was ready to take new photographs of the works previously included, and quickly decided to expand the collection. From nine, the gallery has grown to thirty-nine with plans to include approximately two dozen additional sculptures. The sheer number of works of public sculpture found in Kalamazoo renders even this list incomplete, and it is my hope that if you are aware of a work that has been currently overlooked, you will inform me in order to help create the most comprehensive list possible.

These sculptures are, and have been, sources of civic pride for the residents of Kalamazoo, and we are lucky to conduct our lives amidst an atmosphere that encourages and appreciates the creation of works of artistic expression. While I am continuing to expand the gallery devoted to public sculpture in Kalamazoo, I am also currently engaged in creating a similar gallery focusing on public murals. It is my hope to have a version available by the end of spring.


Kalamazoo Ruby Light Chandelier

Save the Stack

Some things just get better with age; a vintage wine, a hand crafted musical instrument, or perhaps a lifelong relationship with a significant other. On the other hand, some things need a little help if they are expected to survive.

During the 1970s, the water tower at the Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital nearly met its demise before a public effort succeeded in raising the necessary funds to save it. Countless other structures around the city—the GR&I Depot, the Michigan Central Railroad Station, Henderson Castle, and more recently, the historic Michigan Avenue business district—can all lay claim to similar stories. Others—the original Kalamazoo Public Library building comes immediately to mind—weren’t so fortunate.

There’s a new movement afoot to save the aging smokestack next to the old Gibson guitar factory (now home to Heritage Guitar Inc., and others) at 225 Parsons Street in Kalamazoo. The factory was built in 1917 and its smokestack, emblazoned with the vertical letters G-I-B-S-O-N, has since stood as a proud monument to the iconic company that once occupied the property. Sadly, time has begun to take its toll on this historic landmark. The aging structure is in desperate need of repair or it will eventually have to face the inevitable.

Local supporters have started a “Save the Stack” campaign to raise awareness and hopefully save the Gibson smokestack. Visit the group’s new Facebook page, share photos and stories, “Like” what they are doing, and join the effort!



The Historic Gibson Smokestack

Albert Einstein: Word Gets Around

Back in October I wrote about Charles Fischer meeting Albert Einstein on a 1930 world cruise, and an item now in the library collection that appears to be written in Einstein’s own hand. The call went out to try to identify the writing and perhaps determine if indeed it was written by Einstein himself.

Not long after, we received a call from Belgium. Author Alain Findling is working on a book about Albert Einstein—not Einstein the physicist or Einstein the philosophical genius, but Einstein the musician. Fascinating! Music it seems played an important role in Einstein’s life, as evidenced in the brief video from the Institute of Physics at the end of this post. Mr. Findling was intrigued by the photo of Einstein and Fischer, and wanted to know more about the story behind it. We’ll certainly be curious to learn more about Mr. Findling’s research.

And just this week, we received a communication from Osik Moses, Assistant Editor for the Einstein Papers Project at The California Institute of Technology. The Einstein Papers Project, “one of the most ambitious publishing ventures ever undertaken in the documentation of the history of science,” plays a leading role in the effort to document, preserve, and publish the written work of Albert Einstein.

Ms. Moses forwarded the following explanation from her colleague, Dr. Jeroen van Dongen from the University of Utrecht, The Netherlands. Van Dongen explains, “The calculations refer to Einstein’s attempts to develop a unified field theory of gravitation and matter. First he defines the Einstein tensor (G), next he studies the Euler-Lagrange variations.” (Heavy stuff indeed for a vacation cruise.) Van Dongen then adds, “...in light of this explanation it is impossible that Einstein “collaborated” with Fischer. Maybe Fischer saw Einstein working on the unified theory and asked him for a page that Einstein was going to drop in the waste bin.” Again... fascinating!

So just as we might have surmised, the unidentified napkin appears to be a unique souvenir of world travel that Charlie Fischer brought home to Kalamazoo. A truly international effort now provides evidence to suggest that the writings are most likely the authentic scribblings of Albert Einstein. The world gets a little smaller every day.


Possible Einstein Writings

Railroads of Michigan: Small Pictures, Big Stories

On Monday evening, March 28, the Southwest Michigan Postcard Club will present the first in a two part series of programs at the Oshtemo Branch Library entitled “Railroads of Michigan: Small Pictures, Big Stories.”

Regional railroad history expert and author Mark Worrall will share rare and unusual photos of railroads from Michigan’s past and discuss the intriguing and sometimes unbelievable stories behind them. “From oat powered trains to air powered railroads; oil trains on the Annie to Hunter Specials roaring across the Upper Peninsula; Grand Rapids reefers to the Duluth South Shore & Atlantic’s spending binge in 1888.” Mark is a compelling presenter and his programs always receive enthusiastic reviews. Monday’s program begins at 6:30 pm.


“A Duluth South Shore & Atlantic crew looks on impatiently while the photographer records the Lake Gogebic station stop for Train No. 5 while a couple of fisherman proudly show off their catch.” ~Mark Worrall


Mark has coauthored books about Michigan’s railroad history, including Michigan Rail Disasters 1900-1940 with Benjamin Bernhart and Detroit, Toledo & Milwaukee Railroad with Charlie Conn. In 2009, Mark was a featured speaker at the Michigan Railroad History Conference.

Mark will present the second part of his program at the Oshtemo Branch Library on May 23rd.

Don’t miss this unique opportunity to learn more about Michigan’s historic rail lines!


Railroads of Michigan: Small Pictures, Big Stories

An Ailment by Any Other Name….

Perhaps the last time you attended a sporting event or concert, you awoke the next day to find you had come down with Clergyman’s Throat (“An impairment of the voice due to excessive or improper use of the voice. Can also be caused by excessive use of tobacco or liquor.” p.29). Then again, there are those who suffer, during the long dry, winter months, from Furfur (Furfaire) (“Any scaling of the skin, such as dandruff” p.53). Or, maybe you were frustrated during your lunch break when trying to quickly place your order to find the individual behind the counter to be quite Starblind (“A condition in which an individual stares with eyes half closed, appears to be slow to understand, and blinks frequently” p.135). There is a wealth of obscure medical ailments and their cures held within this rather slight, economical (just 178 pages including reference citations) and yet fascinating and informative publication, A Medical Miscellany for Genealogists. Dr. Jerger has written, or perhaps it is better to say compiled, her book expressly for the use of understanding antiquated medical terms. It functions like a dictionary. It was created by one who was herself frustrated, despite more than thirty years of experience in the medical field, by inscrutable language when investigating her ancestor’s life histories and the ailments from which they suffered and perhaps succumbed to. Dr. Jerger has also supplemented this list with terms from Native American, European, Asian and African folk beliefs and healing traditions.

Whether your understanding is impeded by neglected medical nomenclature while in the midst of genealogy research, studying old medical records, while attempting to enjoy literature of the time or even if you just have an interest in obscure words and phrases, this book is an excellent resource for being specific to the medical field and terminology that has fallen out of favor, various pseudonyms for the same practice or perhaps practices or medicines that are no longer in use (“Inhalation of Gas- A form of pneumotherapy. Inhalations of carbonic acid and sulfurous acid were used to treat tuberculosis of the lungs, asthma and emphysema.” p. 71). From the completely unheard of (“Spruce Beer- A remedy made by boiling the tops of spruce boughs in beer. Used to treat scurvy in the 18th century.” P.134) to the familiar disguised in strange nomenclature (“Polish Disease- Also syphilis.” P.111, “Scourge of Nations- Also Cholera” p 125 or “St. Hubert’s Disease- Also Rabies” p.122) you can use this book as a research tool or as a source for a few moments interesting and educational diversion.


A Medical Miscellany for Genealogists

Michigan's Historic Schoolhouses

When it comes to historic buildings, few generate the level of interest that one-room schoolhouses do. It’s hard to pass one by without taking a second look and wondering what life was like for students who were educated there. It’s also fascinating to see how they have been remodeled and repurposed into homes, shops, and other useful structures. On February 24, the Library will host a program for all of us who love these old buildings - Michigan’s Historic One Room Schoolhouses. Presenter Dianna Stampfler will take us on a photographic tour of schoolhouses throughout Michigan and reveal their history and how many are being used today. Dianna always presents a lively, informative program; and as a resident of southwest Michigan her presentation will include many familiar landmarks. Join us at 7:00 pm on the 24th for a great program, and don’t forget that you can always find useful information about Kalamazoo County rural schools under Education in the All About Kalamazoo History section of our website.


Michigan’s Historic Schoolhouses
Beth T

Lost… and Found!

While sorting through some of our internal networks in search of files for a recent project, I ran across a terrific find. Last May, local shipwreck hunter and author Valerie van Heest gave an excellent program at Central Library called “Lost and Found: Shipwrecks of West Michigan.” During her 55 minute presentation, van Heest talked about the many vessels that have been lost in the waters off Michigan’s west coast, and provided an overview of the work her team has done over the past fifteen years to locate and document these wrecks. Valerie showed compelling images (both still and video) of what they’ve found, and provided fascinating insight into the discovery process itself.

KPL staff videotaped the program in May, but for whatever reason, the files were stored away and seemingly forgotten. With this new “discovery,” the program is now available in its entirety on KPL’s YouTube Channel, and linked along with the other Local History Video Presentations on the KPL website.

It was truly exciting to view Valerie’s program; itself once “lost and (now) found!”


Lost and Found: Shipwrecks of West Michigan

Was it a Vase?

One thing nearly always leads to another, when you’re doing library research. Last week a patron asked us to find the text of an old poem about the Kalamazoo River; while hunting it down, Local History librarian David DeVries discovered this gem in the history room Poetry file. Undated, the accompanying note said that it had been reprinted by request in the Kalamazoo Telegraph, though “doubtless many in Kalamazoo have read it.”

The V-A-S-E

From the madding crowd they stand apart,
The maidens four and the Work of Art;

And none might tell from sight alone
In which had Culture ripest grown--

The Gotham Million fair to see,
The Philadelphia Pedigree,

The Boston Mind of Azure hue,
Or the soulful Soul from Kalamazoo--

For all loved art in a seemly way,
With an earnest soul and a capital A.

Long they worshipped; but no one broke
The sacred stillness, until up spoke

The Western one from the nameless place,
Who, blushing, said: "What a lovely vase!"

Over three faces a sad smile flew,
And they edged away from Kalamazoo.

But Gotham's haughty soul was stirred
To crush the stranger with one small word.

Deftly hiding reproof in praise,
She cries: "'Tis, indeed, a lovely vaze!"

But brief her unlovely triumph when
The lofty one from the house of Penn,

With the consciousness of two grandpapas,
Exclaims: "It is quite a lovely vahs!"

And glances around with an anxious thrill,
Awaiting the word of Beacon Hill.

But the Boston maid smiles courteouslee
And gently murmurs: "Oh pardon me!

I did not catch your remark, because
I was so entranced with that lovely vaws!"

James Jeffry Roche


History Room Poetry File

Researching Our Neighbors to the North

Having Irish ancestors who originally settled in Canada before immigrating to the U.S., I am always eager to find new sources for Canadian research. I’m happy to report that several new resources have recently become available in the history room for those of us searching for clues to our Canadian roots. We now have four volumes of the series Erin’s Sons: Irish Arrivals in Atlantic Canadaby Terrence Punch. The title suggests it contains passenger lists, but that's just the beginning. The series currently spans from 1761 to 1863 and also includes newspaper articles, census, regimental, church, prison, and marriage records, burials, tombstone inscriptions, and more. Another recent acquisition with a different focus on Canadian genealogy is Margaret Ann Wilkinson’s Genealogy and the Law in Canada. This book tackles Canada’s laws pertaining to personal data protection and access to information, and how they affect genealogical research. These complicated issues are thoroughly explained in Wilkinson’s book, and readers come away with a clear understanding of what records they can and can’t expect to obtain in Canada. Finally, many of Ancestry Library Edition’s newest additions are databases of Canadian records. Dozens of databases that run the gamut from British Columbia Medical Register, 1890 to Quebec Land Grants, 1763-1890 were added in October alone. With all these new resources, there couldn’t be a better time to work on your Canadian research in the Local History Room.


Erin's Sons: Irish Arrivals in Atlantic Canada
Beth T

Albert Einstein and Charles Fischer: “Solving the world’s problems on the back of a cocktail napkin”

In December 1930, Albert Einstein and his second wife, Elsa, set sail for the US aboard the cruise ship SS Belgenland. This would be Einstein’s second trip to the United States, and the first of three trips he would make during the early 1930s. Einstein was again aboard the Belgenland in 1933 when they received word that Adolph Hitler had become chancellor of Germany and that Einstein himself had become a target of assassination by the Nazis. Einstein left the ship that year in Belgium, vowing never to return to Germany. After emigrating to the United States, Albert Einstein became a US citizen in October 1940, seventy years ago this month.

“I never think of the future. It comes soon enough.” 
—Albert Einstein, in an interview on the SS Belgenland, December 1930.

During the 1930-31 cruise aboard the SS Belgenland, Einstein became friends with the shipboard bandleader, Kalamazoo’s own Charles Fischer. The two, it seems, shared at least one common interest, the violin. On occasion, Einstein would borrow Fischer’s violin and join the orchestra for a few numbers.


Albert Einstein, probably aboard SS Belgenland, January 1931.

The Kalamazoo Public Library has in its collection an interesting souvenir of the occasion – a single page from what was apparently a souvenir scrapbook, given to the library by Charles Fischer’s widow after his death in 1948. On one side of the cardboard page is a photograph of Charles Fischer, sharing a conversation with Albert Einstein about his violin. The same photo was later featured in a Kalamazoo Gazette article about Fischer and his famous orchestras.

What is this?

On the other side of the page is an undated, nondescript paper napkin with what appears to be handwritten scribblings, perhaps notes written by Einstein himself. Were Einstein and Fischer (forgive the obvious nod to Lawrence Weinstein and John A. Adam) “solving the world’s problems on the back of a cocktail napkin?” Was this something new that Einstein was working on? Or was he simply sharing ideas to his newfound friend??


Local History Room photo, uncataloged. (View the full size image in Kalamazoo Public Library’s Flickr photostream.)

And so, the appeal goes out to the scientific community… What might these scribbles mean? Are they indeed the writings of Albert Einstein as they appear to be?? We’d love to hear your comments. Add a comment below or contact the Local History Room.


Albert Einstein and Charles Fischer