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Local History and Genealogy

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

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

Local History Detective Work

The Southwest Michigan Postcard Club held its fall show and sale this past weekend, an event which usually leads to some interesting historical finds. This time around, I went with one specific purpose in mind—to locate images of Kalamazoo’s early musicians. Photo postcards of this nature are often difficult to locate, and this hunt proved to be no exception… until one card caught my eye—a nondescript photo of an orchestra, taken by a known local photographer (Austin) and postmarked 9 March 1908 in Kalamazoo. Information on the back of the card stated “they” would be performing in Ionia on the 17th of March, and was signed F. O. Pinkham. (Pinkham was also identified as “lower row, 2nd from right” in the photo.) But the exact identity of the orchestra remained a mystery.


After doing some speedy detective work, we were able to determine that the photo was of the Kalamazoo College Mandolin Orchestra taken about 1908. Formed in 1907, the orchestra was the first to debut R. F. Holden’s newly penned composition, Kazoo, which was to become the ‘K’ Alma Mater. In March 1908, the orchestra made a successful concert tour of Southern Lower Michigan, with stops in several towns, including Grand Rapids, and on the 17th of March, Ionia. A featured performer with the orchestra was a tenor singer named Fred Oliver Pinkham, further confirming the identity of the orchestra pictured on the card.

Learn more about Kalamazoo’s early musicians in KPL’s collection of Local History essays. And be your own detective. Contact the Local History Room for help in identifying some of your own photographs. You might be surprised at what you’ll find!


Gibson mandolin

Keepin’ it Safe for Bicyclists

As a bicycle commuter, who used to cross several lanes of Kalamazoo Avenue traffic in fear every time I rode to work, I’ve dreamed of visiting Davis, CA. Davis is one of three communities given top honors by the League of American Bicyclists, as a Bicycle Friendly Community. It also is featured, among other cities, in Jeff Mapes’ Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists are Changing American Cities. Mapes traces the grassroots movement of cycling activists to create room and safety for cyclists in many communities. It’s an inspiring topic.

Locally, Kalamazoo is making progress for non-motorized travelers. The development of sections of the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail provides Kalamazoo area cyclists and hikers with additional paved trails free of motor vehicle traffic. Now you can hook up to the Kal-Haven Trail from an access point downtown. By later this fall, you should be able to ride the trail from the Kalamazoo riverfront out to the Kalamazoo Nature Center, and ultimately, plans call for the trail to extend as far as Battle Creek.

The 2010 Kalamazoo Master Plan--drawn up to project city land use plans for the next 20 years--states that “expanding non-motorized connections is a high priority for residents and city leaders.” The plan includes a map on p. 49 (well, p. 55 in the Adobe read-only format) which details the current and planned non-motorized connections for the city. If you prefer to read the plan in print, our Local History room holds a copy of the final version.


Pedaling revolution : how cyclists are changing American cities

Fort St. Joseph: Train Ride to the 18th Century

On Saturday, August 14, a group of a dozen or so gathered at Amtrak’s Kalamazoo station for a “train ride to the 18th century” to visit the 2010 Fort St. Joseph Archaeology Open House in Niles. The trip, organized by retired Western Michigan University librarian Kay Chase, gave Kalamazoo residents a chance to visit the site of historic Fort St. Joseph, only recently discovered and being gradually unearthed as part of a WMU field school project.

The theme of this year’s open house was “Women of New France,” with demonstrations on cooking, basket weaving, musket firing, and other activities from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Student archaeologists operated an “Outdoor Museum” with details of their work and examples of what has been found.


The fort, active from 1671-1781, was established by the French as a trading post, but ultimately stood under English, Spanish and finally United States rule before being abandoned in 1781—hence the region’s designation as the “Four Flags Area.” The fort played a significant role in the colonial fur trade, and though its existence was known, its exact location remained a mystery until a short time ago.


Fort St. Joseph originally shared a great deal with its northern counterpart, Fort Michilimackinac, but don’t expect a similar reconstruction of the fort in Niles any time soon. The Fort St. Joseph project is still very much in its infancy, and unfortunately, due to the damming of the St. Joe River over the years, much of the site now lies beneath the current water table. Archaeologists must continuously pump water away from the site while they work, then allow the river to reclaim its territory at the end of each season.


What we found most impressive, however, was the enthusiasm displayed by each of the student archaeologists. They are to be commended for cheerfully and knowledgably—if not emphatically—describing their work and bringing their methods and their findings to light for us onlookers. And what they are finding is truly amazing… the remains of a blacksmith’s fire pit, apparent building footings, and a host of artifacts – animal bones, gun parts, tools, buttons, jewelry, and the like. It was a truly inspiring and rewarding experience.


Learn more about the history of Fort St. Joseph in Fort St. Joseph, 1691-1781: The Story of Berrien County’s Colonial Past by Joseph L. Peyser and Robert C. Myers, and be sure to visit the WMU Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project website.


Fort St. Joseph, 1691-1781 : the story of Berrien County's colonial past 
H 977.411 P517 977.411 P517

Cemeteries of Kalamazoo

While I attest to having a fascination with the art and park-like beauty of many cemeteries, working in the local history room has given me an even greater appreciation for them as a tool in genealogical and local history research. Many times, a tombstone provides just the clue needed to fill in a blank or push the research in a different direction. But with around 70 cemeteries and burial grounds in Kalamazoo County, tracking down a gravesite can sometimes be a challenge.

Over the years, individuals and groups like the DAR and the Kalamazoo Valley Genealogical Society have published books of cemetery records and tombstone inscriptions for various cemeteries and we have those in the local history collection. In more recent years there have also been some very ambitious projects launched on the Internet that provide burial/tombstone information - and many times even photos of individual stones. The problem is that no one set of books or single website has everything for all the cemeteries in the area.

In response to this issue, the Library has launched Cemeteries of Kalamazoo. This collection of web pages locates all the known cemeteries and burial grounds in Kalamazoo County and identifies all the sources – both print and online – for burial and tombstone data for each individual cemetery. You can search for the information by township or with the Cemeteries A-Z index.

As with many of our projects, this is a work in progress and we intend to update and expand as more information comes our way. So be sure to let us know if we’ve missed anything or you know of a new source and we’ll promise to keep this a tool that will be useful for years to come.


Cemeteries of Kalamazoo

Take a Walk on the Historic Side

Kalamazoo is brimming with great history and there are many ways to enjoy it. One of my favorites is through the Gazelle Sports Historic Walks led by Lynn Houghton. The walks are fun, informative and a great way to slow down and truly appreciate all the wonderful historic architecture Kalamazoo has to offer. As a local historian, regional history curator at the WMU Archives and Regional History Collections, and co-author of Kalamazoo Lost and Found, Lynn’s credentials can’t be beat. She deftly identifies the characteristics of architectural styles like Greek Revival, Italianate, Art Deco and many more that can be found throughout Kalamazoo. But that‘s not all you’ll learn. Every building has a story related to the people involved with it – from designers, to builders, to occupants – and you will have the opportunity to hear many of those stories, and through them, learn a great deal about Kalamazoo history.

The walks are free and take place on selected Thursday evenings and Friday mornings through summer and into the fall. Dates, times and locations of this season’s Historic Walks can be found on our Local History Community Events Calendar. So put on your walking shoes and get out there and enjoy the history that surrounds you!


Lynn Houghton 

Meet the Author - and His Civil War Ancestor

The Civil War is a topic of great interest to many people - and when you add in a Michigan connection with a portrayal of an actual Civil War soldier you have the makings of a great program. In collaboration with the General Benjamin Pritchard Camp 20 Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, the library will be presenting just such a program.

Richard Hamilton, author of “Oh! Hast Thou Forgotten," Michigan Cavalry in the Civil War: The Gettysburg Campaign, will entertain and educate his audience when he portrays his ancestor, George Thomas Patten, at the Central Library on June 8. Patten, who served in the 6th Michigan Cavalry Regiment which rode under the command of Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer in the Battle of Gettysburg -- lost his life at the Battle of Falling Waters. Dressed in a Civil War uniform, Hamilton will interact with the audience as he assumes the character of his courageous ancestor.

The program begins at 7:00 - but come early for the book signing at 6:30. The 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War is less than a year away, and this is a great opportunity to commemorate our history.


Oh Hast Thou Forgotten, Michigan Cavalry in the Civil War

Our Great Lakes Connection

In the strictest interpretation of the term “local history,” you might not consider topics related to Lake Superior or even Lake Michigan close enough to qualify here in Kalamazoo. However, as residents of Michigan--whether living on the lakeshore or in the dead center of the state--we all feel a special connection to each of the Great Lakes and consider them our own. For that reason, we are hosting two wonderful programs in May related to the Lakes. On May 5, Valerie van Heest--author, shipwreck hunter and member of the Women Divers Hall of Fame--will be here presenting her program Lost and Found: Shipwrecks of West Michigan. Ms. van Heest will treat her audience to a history of Great Lakes shipping through the dozens of almost timelessly preserved shipwrecks that lie hidden off the shores of West Michigan. Then, on May 13, we will have the rare opportunity to discover what Great Lakes lighthouse keeping was really like from someone who lived it. The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter, Frances Platske, will share her childhood experiences of life in lighthouses on Lake Superior and her passion for preserving this important part of our state’s heritage. So get ready to expand your horizons and get in touch with history that is uniquely Michigan.


Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter

Glimpse Kalamazoo’s Past

Wouldn’t you love to peruse historic photos of places you see every day, or that you remember but no longer exist? In the history room we get to work with these photos every day and we know how much interest they engender. For that reason we’ve made our photo collection (as well as portions of the WMU Archives and Kalamazoo Valley Museum photo collections) available for viewing in our local information database. But if you don’t feel like searching for photos, take a look at our photo galleries. We’ve pulled out some of the best photos from our collection and grouped them together under various topics. You can see Washington Square evolve from the turn of the twentieth century into the 1990s, enjoy the beauty of Kalamazoo parks, and stroll down Burdick Street in the 1800s. Or maybe you prefer photos of people like the portraits of the Kalamazoo High School Class of 1872, or people at work at Gibson Guitar or the Michigan Asylum. Our photo galleries provide a wonderful glimpse of Kalamazoo’s past and are available for you to enjoy whenever you feel like looking back.


Businesses - Photo Galleries

Heyday for Genealogy

For decades, local history room staff have witnessed the amazing thrill people get when they locate that lost ancestor, solve a family mystery, or simply find a grandparent recorded in the U.S. Census. Genealogical research enthralls millions worldwide. To those of us involved in this community, it might seem that genealogy could not get any bigger--but that is clearly not the case. Public radio’s Marketplace recently aired a segment “How Big is Genealogy” which discussed the huge popularity of the hobby. This was demonstrated, in part, by two primetime television shows airing this season. Henry Louis Gates, creator of African American Lives, returns to the topic of genealogy with the four part PBS series Faces of America in which he reveals the family history of 12 American celebrities. Part two premiers February 17. NBC has also discovered the allure of genealogy. Partnering with, they will air a similar show called Who Do You Think You Are? next month. With the influx of retiring baby boomers, this trend will likely continue to grow-- and we’ll be ready for it in the local history room.



Pique Your Interest with ‘All About Kalamazoo’ Essays

The local history room has been bringing Kalamazoo’s past to life for more than a decade through All About Kalamazoo essays on the KPL website. Back in 1998, the website launched with twelve essays written by local history staff, divided into four categories: Houses, Businesses, Biography, and General Topics. Over the years, this feature of our website has grown dramatically through the interests and efforts of dozens of people. Today we offer nearly 150 essays in 17 different categories.

I will never forget when local history specialist Catherine Larson, who pioneered our local history web pages, invited me to start writing essays for the website. She said to write on any topic that interested me, because if it interested me, it would interest other people. That attitude has paid off and resulted in a great collection of essays on a very diverse set of topics - everything from parks to parking and Lassies to Ladies. But please don’t think that we've run out of things to say. New essays are being added to the website all the time - four in just the last month! So keep checking back, because if it interests us…


All About Kalamazoo