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Local History and Genealogy

Kalamazoo County Plat Books

Plat books are a wonderful way to learn about the history of a piece of property. They are published for each county, and in them you can see townships divided into parcels and labeled with the property owner’s name. In the history room we have the most recent plat books for most of the counties in Michigan, and all of them for Kalamazoo County. Not surprisingly, it can be a number of years between new plat books for a county. Consequently we get unusually excited when we receive a new one for Kalamazoo, as we have recently. While a single plat book for a county is a useful thing to have, a collection of them that spans 150 years is a real treasure.

If you are interested in gathering information about a rural property in Kalamazoo County, stop in and take a look at our plat book collection - and for even more tips on house and property research come to Researching Your House History in the history room at 7 pm on May 12.

New Collection of School Photos

Local History has recently posted a collection of 1960s to early 1970s class photographs from two extinct Kalamazoo elementary schools; Roosevelt School, built in 1909 and razed in 1988, and Hillcrest Elementary, built in 1926 by the Kalamazoo public schools system and closed in the early 1970s for lack of enrollment, then purchased by the private Kazoo School in 1985, which flourishes today. The albums chronicle staff and teachers as well as students. View the collection »

Roosevelt School, circ. 1920

Roosevelt School, circ. 1920

photo: Kalamazoo Public Library

At the risk of permanently dating myself, I include my school photo from the same era, upon which my co-workers have remarked, “Gee some people never change…” Notice the bangs, the glasses, the smile that suggests trepidation in front of the camera and discomfort in my own skin. In all fairness, it may be the hairstyles that primarily do us a disservice, chopped with an attempt to make a straight line across the forehead in bangs that either stick out or are plastered down mercilessly and unsuccessfully with VO5.

Hillcrest Elementary School, circ. 1940

Hillcrest Elementary School, circ. 1940

photo: Kalamazoo Public Library

It seems that us kids of the fifties were burdened by a whole catalog of our parents’ expectations to be (or become) as quickly as possible little adults, and these photographs capture us with clothing and hairstyles that seem to come in direct conflict with our burgeoning personalities. Note particularly the cat-eyed glasses on the girls and the goofy bow ties on the boys, neither of which sit level by the time of the photo.

school photo

There are the exceptions: the kids who look like little successes right from the start; girls completely at ease with peter-pan collars, headbands, and brick-a-brack, and boys who sport the nifty argyle cardigan and the button down shirt without a hitch. Still, we’re all smiling through it in a way that is at once charming and heartbreaking. The photos freeze us in a moment of vulnerability we’ll never possess in the same way again--each kid a sweet compilation of innocent personality facing the constraints and demands of growing up. Some, whose expressions reveal early experience with life’s larger challenges, one wants to just scoop up and take home. 

At the very least, these images demand that we embrace our inner dweebiness with self-forgiveness, precisely because they capture us when all our good intentions and promise for the future are still intact. As Larry Paulsen, alumni of Roosevelt remembers, “I played coronet and got as high as 2nd chair in 8th grade. When Henry Cummings graduated, first chair could have been mine. However, Jim Shoemaker transferred in from another school, and he claimed first chair. He later made a career playing his horn. Mr. Tuller, our band director told me what I lacked in tone quality I made up for in decibels.” How could we not love that kid, or more importantly, the adult he has become? We hope you recognize yourself, or others that you know in these photos and join in the Flickr conversation about them.

If you have a Kalamazoo Elementary School photo album from the past that you would be willing to share, please consider loaning it to KPL Local History to scan for our website. Please contact the Local History Room or phone 269-553-7842

Roosevelt Elementary School, Grade 1, 1966-1967

Roosevelt Elementary School, Grade 1, 1966-1967

photo: Kalamazoo Public Library

Sing a Song of Long Ago

“Sing a song of long ago
When things were green and movin’ slow
And people’d stop to say hello
Or they'd say hi to you
Would you like to come over for tea
with the missus and me?
It’s a real nice way
to spend the day
in Dayton, Ohio
On a lazy Sunday afternoon in 1903”

~ “Dayton Ohio, 1903”
by Randy Newman

Beth Timmerman’s introduction of KPL’s new place on the Internet Archive reminded me of the way this Randy Newman song kept popping into my head as I scanned these historic pamphlets and short books for the Archive. His simple chords and lazy, deliberate beat were the perfect soundscape for not only the architecture, industries, entertainments, and transportation that these tracts describe, but the spirit of the times.

Pamphlets in the collection promote the city and its amenities as well as Kalamazoo’s important products. Orvill Gibson’s Mandolins and Guitars are introduced via the Prayer of the Non-conformist: “Hold thou the ‘non-conformist’ to his love of tonal diminutiveness lest the fire and passion of his musical soul be aroused to cover the full-grown tone of the ‘Gibson,’ for, behold, the world is surcharged with its praises.” Sleds and carriages are illustrated with charming descriptions, and wildly colorful and exotic Lodge Fellow’s costumes and paraphernalia are presented in terrific color drawings.

Aeolian Mandolin Guitar Orchestra, 1914

Aeolian Mandolin Guitar Orchestra, c.1914

Gibson Mandolin Guitar Company Catalog I, 1914

These volumes invite one to enter into an era where everything from fashions to silos are manufactured by artisans with the use of simple machinery. They describe a world where businesses are largely owned and operated by families, local politicians reside in splendor both at home and in the workplace, transportation between cities relied on horses or steam driven trains, where the churches formed the hub of social and spiritual unity, and race tracks and the use of tobacco and alcohol drew the bottom line of Iniquity. Photographs of schools and descriptions of their functions are presented in the context of a city of “fine buildings, home-like residences” and “pretty parks and gardens” and the day to day expenditures of local farming are recorded by hand in a farmer’s notebook. Biographies of important persons and their accomplishments and a complete directory of Kalamazoo African American citizens document a thriving black community.

The Archive offers us access to a lively historic Kalamazoo metropolis filled with venues for entertainment and amusement including Bronson Park, theaters, restaurants and hotels, and popular saloons, as well as glimpses into the interior workings of all kinds of storefronts and manufacturing establishments. Just as these tracts lull one into the notion that life was altogether more pleasant and sweet in the past, a place where “things were green and movin' slow and people stopped to say hello,” the site also provides photos of the Michigan State Asylum reminding us that mental illness is not new, and tracts on disease and mortality which graphically depict the health perils and abbreviated life expectancy of the times that must temper our romantic view of these bygone days.

Main Street Kalamazoo 1894

Main Street (Michigan Avenue), Kalamazoo, MI “Residence Portion Looking West” c.1890

Picturesque Kalamazoo, 1890

Still, while my hands were on these materials, many of which were crumbling and falling apart, it was sad and lovely to read of a Kalamazoo with “Paved streets lighted by electricity, with the best system of sewage, coursing underneath, while the coolest and clearest of spring water pours from a thousand hydrants and breaks into the spray of fountains; electric cars and telephones; stores and markets, shops and bazaars….[and with] beauty her own citizens daily enjoy…the wide and beautiful streets, bordered by green lawns and elegant homes, under the noble native oaks and the blue summer skies….It is in the deep, rich green of June, or the Golden of October, when the leaves are taking on their brilliant hues….that this wonderful city is seen in her glory and when she justifies all the seeming extravagance of her eulogists” (Artwork of Kalamazoo, 1894).

One cannot leave the collection of Internet Archive books and pamphlets packed as they are with facts, details, wonderful photographs, and illustrations without a sigh and the melancholy of Randy Newman’s song almost lingering in the air, having indulged for a little while “a real nice way to spend the day on a lazy Sunday afternoon in nineteen hundred and three” in Kalamazoo.

KPL on

Last summer we introduced the Local History Online page to provide a link to all of the wonderful digital content the library has made available. Since then we’ve continued to digitize material, and at our site alone, we now have 58 separate books, booklets and pamphlets. They cover a multitude of topics, from an 80 page 1918 promotional tract on Gull Lake to an 1894 publication on Kalamazoo churches.

So many aspects of Kalamazoo society are represented by this online collection. Local businesses in the early 20th century like Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Company, Kalamazoo Tank and Silo, Garland Buggy Company are characterized by catalogs, and the business community as a whole is detailed in Commercial Kalamazoo and Kalamazoo: A City of Industries. Much can be learned about Kalamazoo’s ability to care for its sick and injured people by looking at the Bronson Hospital Annual Report for 1917 and the report on the 1884 diphtheria outbreak. Educational opportunities are outlined in Kalamazoo and Education from 1914 and the 1876 Parsons’ Business College catalog. However, the thing that stands out to me from this collection is pride that the people of Kalamazoo had for their beautiful city. It is conveyed through a variety of sources: The Lure of Kalamazoo, Miniatures of Kalamazoo, Art Work of Kalamazoo, and Picturesque Kalamazoo.

This is just a sampling of the wonderful items you can find at our site, and since we continue to add new things all the time, you’ll want to check back regularly!

Orphan Train Riders in Michigan

This year’s Reading Together programming series sheds light on a rather little known phenomenon that occurred during the late 19th and early 20th centuries — the Orphan Trains. Beginning in 1854, orphan children from East Coast cities like New York and Boston were sent by rail into the Midwest for adoption, many of which ended up in Michigan. The lucky ones found welcoming and nurturing new families at the end of the journey. But without child labor laws in place, many others were subjected to hard labor on farms and in factories.

Al and Dave Eicher of Program Source International will present The Orphan Train in Michigan at Central Library on Thursday, March 10, at 7 pm. The Eichers produced a video documentary about the Orphan Trains in Michigan, and lecture regularly on the topic.


Research shows that more than 250,000 children were shipped out between 1854 and 1927. In all, it’s estimated that approximately 12,500 children between the ages 3 and 16 were relocated to some 44 Michigan towns. The “Baby Trains” rolled westward along the MCRR with stops in Ypsilanti, Dexter, Chelsea, Grass Lake, Jackson, Adrian, Marshall, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, and Dowagiac; or northward to towns like Fenton, Linden, Holly and Oxford.

According to The Herald Palladium (St. Joseph - Benton Harbor, MI), “Al Eicher’s grandmother, her sister and 3-year-old brother were among those children sent to new homes in the Midwest. Two families took his grandmother and her sister, and a family in Ohio chose the brother. Less than 30 percent of the children were adopted... Boys usually ended up as farmhands, and girls were used as domestic servants.”

Were some of your ancestors Orphan Train Riders?


Women in Kalamazoo

Madame Jannasch-Shortt

Many dozens of Kalamazoo women have left their own indelible marks on our community’s history and culture over the years. Much has been written about the likes of civic leader and scholar Caroline Bartlett Crane, and educator and early feminist Lucinda Hinsdale Stone. But what about all the others who we perhaps don’t hear so much about? 

What about Flora Roberts, Kalamazoo’s first formally trained librarian? You won’t find her name in the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame, but her vision provided information and services through three decades, two world wars, and one Great Depression “to meet needs [the community] may not even have known they had.” Or how about Anna Jannasch-Shortt, the somewhat eccentric and highly driven music instructor whose Musical Institute trained many of Kalamazoo’s leading 19th- and early 20th- century musicians? Or how about Cynthia Wendover Van Deusen? Her efforts not only helped give Kalamazoo its first public library building, but she contributed significantly to the building of Bronson Methodist Hospital and provided constant and sustainable help for Kalamazoo’s less fortunate. And the list goes on. 

On Thursday, February 25, WMU’s regional history curator Lynn Houghton will present “Women in Kalamazoo: Another Perspective,” where she plans to discuss those women who have made significant contributions to the Kalamazoo community, but are perhaps not so well known. Lynn will tell the stories of Madam Jannasch-Shortt, of Cynthia Wendover Van Deusen and Flora Roberts, of landscape architect Maxson McCrea, and community activist and politician Cornelia Robinson, among others. Join us for what will undoubtedly be an interesting and informative presentation.


The Archaeology of American Cemeteries and Gravemarkers

At the risk of being accused overly morbid, I’m going to highlight a book about cemeteries for the second time in a year. The last one was The Art of Memory: Historic Cemeteries of Grand Rapids, Michigan and I loved it for its amazing photos that captured the beauty and artistry that I enjoy in cemeteries. This time I’m looking at The Archaeology of American Cemeteries and Gravemarkers by Sherene Baugher and Richard F. Veit – a book that takes a very different approach to the examination of cemeteries, but no less fascinating!

As the title suggests, Baugher and Veit look at cemeteries from an archaeologist’s perspective. They include information and examples from excavations, but also strive to explain the evolution of American cemeteries and the many factors that influenced it. Of particular interest is the analysis of burial practices of various ethnic groups. An example of this was a study they cited of some 19th century Chinese cemeteries in California. When compared to European American sections of the same cemeteries, which were arranged carefully in rows, the Chinese graves appeared to be very haphazardly placed. Researchers determined that in reality the graves were very precisely placed using feng shui principles, following the contours of the land and the water flow.

The Archaeology of American Cemeteries and Gravemarkers is not light reading, but if you’re looking for a well-researched, scholarly look at American burial practices, you won’t want to miss this book. There is also a local connection – WMU Professor of Anthropology, Michael Nassaney, wrote the foreword.


Midwest Foraging

It may surprise you to learn that some of the most interesting items in the local history collection aren’t about history at all. We have many things that would be useful if you were researching different aspects of our local history, but when taken on their own would never be considered a “history book.” A recent addition, Midwest Foraging by Lisa M. Rose, is just such a book. It is an A-Z guide to 115 wild edibles that can be found in our area. Included in the list are things you would expect like chestnuts, black walnuts, and various wild berries - but did you know you can eat burdocks, nettles and spruce needles? Rose takes the mystery out of foraging by including an excellent color photo as well as everything you need to know to identify, gather and eat each plant. I don’t know if my desire to forage will ever go much beyond morel mushrooms, but if it should Midwest Foraging will be the first thing I consult.

The Taste and Sound of Local History

History can be viewed in so many different ways - it’s not all about big events and famous people. In fact, some of my favorite history books look at the past through everyday items and activities. We’ve recently received two books that do just that. The first is Midwest Sweet Baking History: Delectable Classics Around Lake Michigan by Jenny Lewis. It begins with the Native Americans and the earliest settlers of the region and looks at how sweets evolved through availability of ingredients and the traditions of the people who chose to make our region their home. The baking industry is also explored along with all of the factors that affected it over the years – such as wars and industrialization. For example – did you know that Hostess Twinkies, which got their start in Illinois, were originally made with a banana cream filling? Due to rationing during WWII they switched to vanilla cream and never switched back. In addition to all the fascinating food facts, the book is full of wonderful recipes for sweet treats.

The second book looks at the history of music in the Midwest – Folksongs of Another America: Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937-1946. Like Midwest Sweet Baking History, this book also uses the various ethnicities and cultures of Midwest residents to explore the musical history of the area. The songs discussed in the book were captured as field recordings by the Library of Congress from 1937 to 1946 in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Many include the lyrics and, where appropriate, an English translation. And – while it’s interesting to read about the music, it’s even better to listen to it and this collection provides that option. Five CDs of recordings are included, as well as a DVD of color film footage, sound recordings and images all from Alan Lomax’s work in Michigan. So if you come to the local history room to explore this book, be sure to bring your headphones so you can enjoy the accompanying CDs and DVD. (If you enjoy authentic folk music be sure to check out the other items in KPL’s AV and non-fiction collections related to Alan Lomax.)

Mail Order Homes

Like so many other folks, I am fascinated by the kit and catalog houses that were popular in the first half of the twentieth century. I love to look through the reprint of the 1926 Sears, Roebuck House Catalog – Small Houses of the Twenties - that we have in the history room, and imagine what it was like for people to shop for their house the way they did a new pair of pants or a set of mixing bowls

I know these houses still exist in neighborhoods all over the country, and it isn’t unusual for people visiting the history room to tell us that they suspect their home was a kit house, but I doubt I could identify any with certainty. That’s why I am so excited about our upcoming program – Mail Order Homes: The Catalog and Kit Homes of Michigan on November 2. Andrew and Wendy Mutch have spent years researching and identifying kit homes all around Michigan and beyond. They will take us on a virtual tour of kit homes and even give us tips for identifying them. So join us here at the Central library at 7 pm on Monday and bring your questions. Andrew and Wendy are sure to impress you not only with their knowledge of kit homes, but also with their great passion for this distinctive form of architecture.