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Local History and Genealogy

The Kid from Kalamazoo

Whether you like baseball or not (ok… there might be one or two), you must admit that it was exciting when Kalamazoo native Derek Jeter belted the 3,000th hit of his career in grand style on Saturday with a solo home run, a feat that only a handful of others have achieved—and the first New York Yankee to do so. Gazette writer Joyce Pines called for city-wide recognition for the “Kid from Kalamazoo. ” He deserves it.

But believe it or not, Jeter was not the first Kalamazoo kid to make significant “firsts” for the same New York team. Just over a century ago, “Big John” Ganzel, nicknamed for his imposing six foot, 195 pound stature (a truly BIG man by 19th century standards), signed a three year contract with the New York Highlanders (later Yankees) in 1903 and proceeded to make his mark with the team during its inaugural season. On May 5th of that year, John was responsible for the Highlander’s first ever triple play, and a week later, John belted the Highlander’s first ever home run against the Detroit team in his home state on May 11th.

John Ganzel was one of five brothers who made names for themselves in “America’s game” during the late 1800s and the early decades of the twentieth century. All five played local, regional and state league ball. John had a very successful career as player and later as a manager, and his brother Charlie, “one of the greatest catchers the world has ever produced” (Gazette), became one of the most famous ball players of his day with four National League Championships and one World Series championship to his credit. Charlie’s son, Foster Pirie “Babe” Ganzel, later carried on the tradition through the 1920s. Read the full story of the Ganzel Brothers, Michigan’s “First Family” of baseball in the “All About Kalamazoo History” section of the KPL website.

Once again, congratulations Derek! You continue to make Kalamazoo (and the rest of the country) very proud!


John Ganzel

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, “ 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

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

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 
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