Early Recollections of Kalamazoo County

“Early Recollections of Kalamazoo County” was originally drafted in the early-to-mid 1930s by Lucien Harding Stoddard, an early resident of Kalamazoo. In 1993, it was discovered and retyped by William Sanford Stoddard III. What follows is a copy of William's transcription which was brought to the attention of the Kalamazoo Public Library’s local history staff by Donna Flegal, a relation of Lucien and William, and a resident of Gobles, Michigan.

Looking back on his early days in Kalamazoo County, Lucien writes,

quotation-marks-left-15.jpg My first view of Kalamazoo, then known as the “Big Village,” was in March, 1863. Then our family arrived here from our Western New York via, the single track Michigan Central, then the only rail road in this part of Michigan.

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Michigan Central Railroad Depot, 1863

From the old frame depot, we took an old style horse-drawn omnibus to the Kalamazoo House which then stood at the junction of Main and Portage (the present Michigan Avenue). A farmer friend of my father, who had previously emigrated from our old neighborhood, sent his team with his farm wagon to help us to our new home. After jouncing over cobble stone pavement to the corner of Park Street, the wagon dropped into the March mud.

When passing up Main Street, we found the street built up most of the way, but not all the way to Rose Street, with three story business blocks including the Old Burdick House, long since burned down and rebuilt. After crossing Rose Street, we had on our left, close in the corner a small one story Register’s office and the two story frame court house near the center of the block. The old jail occupied the south east corner. That was demolished a few years later and replaced with a more modern structure which in turn was demolished to make way for the County Building of 1936-37.

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Kalamazoo County Court House

Across Church Street, Church Square was occupied by a church on each corner. The remodeled Baptist is the only one of the original group now standing.

The old three story frame Sheridan house stood on the northwest corner of Rose and Main, with several two story frame store buildings to the west. The Burrell planing mill and wagon shop stood at the corner of Park Street. This practically ended the business section to the west.

After driving from Park Street to West (now Westnedge Avenue) in the mud, our driver turned to the right and we were on the Grand Rapids Plank Road, which we followed to North Street. Here we were pretty well out of the built up section.

Turning to the left we followed North Street to the present Douglas Avenue. The Wadsworth farm buildings blocked our farther progress to the west. Douglas Avenue to the left simply wasn’t. To the right it was just the plank road, which our driver must stop and pay toll at the rate of a penny a mile for each horse or other draft animal that he was using for the distance he was supposed to be driving. By this time we were fairly out in the farming country. There was some clearing all along the road, and some very good sets of farm buildings until we crossed the Cooper line.

Soon after crossing the Cooper line (as I afterward learned it to be) we entered a forest of heavy virgin timber, with a strip cut through just wide enough for the road. At the end of about a mile we came out into civilization. Most, but not all of the land had been taken up by actual settlers. Some had good sized clearings on the front and very good buildings, while others were more nearly in the woods and were living in pioneer style log houses. Much of the so-called cleared land was well occupied with stumps. Stumps in the door yards were common, and in some cases, even in the public roads. The beaten track wound through among the stumps. Some had curbed wells from which they drew water with windlass and bucket. Others procured it from the nearest spring or stream which in some cases was around a mile away.

Such were the conditions of the neighborhood in which my parents had decided to locate, in which I spent fifty of the best years of my life, during which I hope I did my part in improving and developing the country.

While each settler was interested in improving his own possessions, the extent of the improvement depended on his particular disposition and ability. Road improvement under the old ‘pathmaster’ system, with little for anyone to work with, was slow until a more practical plan was devised.

Clearing off the timber in the winter and taking the better part to market, then cleaning up the muss and putting the group into a crop, working among the stumps with green roots the next summer with only the crude implements of those early days was no light task for those who had energy to try to get ahead.

Living and working as our early settlers must, neighbors were certainly more neighborly as a rule than they are in these later days with the advantage of all the inventions of modern times for the forehanded farmer.

When there was a death in the neighborhood, the first move was usually to send a messenger to some obliging neighbor, preferably one who had acted in the same capacity before, with a request to come and “lay out the corpse”.  Another neighbor probably drove his team with his farm wagon to the village and procured a plain coffin, into which the corpse was placed by neighbors.

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Lucien Stoddard, 1855-1939

When the proper time came for the funeral services, if it was in the growing season, friends and neighbors would contribute from the best flowers in their gardens, if the deceased was a young person or a child. If it was an old person a carefully arranged sheaf of ripened grain was considered an appropriate and sufficient emblem.

After a sermon accompanied by singing, the coffin was loaded into the best appearing farm wagon conveniently in reach and driven at a solemn walk to the graveyard, followed by relatives, neighbors and friends in a variety of vehicles including buggies, carriages, spring wagons and wagons without springs, if they were the best their owners could turn out, as was a very common occurrence, all driven on a walk, which in many cases was fast enough for comfort, except when there was good sleighing, when cutters and bob sleighs were brought into service and driven at a somewhat faster gait.

On arriving at the grave a good sized pile of earth would be found lying without cover by the grave. The coffin would be lowered by two strong straps in the hands of the bearers. At the closing ceremony the minister was expected to scatter a few handfuls of earth over the coffin as he slowly repeated, “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.”

This might seem a rough way for the dead to be handled, but it may be truthfully said that our settlers did as well by the dead as they were well prepared to do in those early times, and quite as well as they did by themselves, and I never knew of any of our old pioneers coming back to complain. The cash expense of an early funeral was said to be about twenty five dollars.

It was the custom of those days to have only two terms of school in a year, which for a time was paid for by rate bill, that is, the total expense of a year was figured out and divided among the patrons according to the number of days schooling their family had had the benefit of, except that in case of a patron who was too poor to pay his, or her rate bill, it was divided among those better able to pay.

The winter terms began after the farmer’s fall work was done unless he was way behind his neighbors, and was intended especially for the older scholars who could not well be spared from home during the warmer part of the year.

If the father needed the help of his boys, with the cultivation of his cleared land along with the work of clearing more, the care of the garden, the chickens, calves, pigs, and perhaps the cows,  was likely to fall on the mother, in addition to the care of the household department with little to work with, it was nothing strange if she felt that she must have the help of her older girls during the summer season.

The summer terms were intended especially for the younger ones who could not well walk to school in winter on unbroken, or at least, poorly broken roads as roads were likely to be in those early days.

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Depiction of a Plank Road, 1954
Subject File: Plank Roads

Turning again to conditions in the farming districts, I will say that they improved right along with improvements in the village, and later, the city. The plank road that had once been quite an acquisition for both farmers and villagers along its line came to be rather a detriment soon after our arrival in Cooper, because of the fact that the company saw the prospect of railroad to the north and very well knew that when that came, it would be the end of their days as a plank road company, hence they allowed it to run down. After it was abandoned and the county road system came in vogue, that as well as other roads, were gradually improved, as all must know who travel our roads.

The school system was changed to correspond more with the town schools whether for better or worse.

Gradually, the farms were cleared of stumps as well as timber, and new buildings were taking the place of the old, one by one.

As the ground was put in condition for their use new and better farm implements were invented and put on the market which made farming in later years a very different business from what it was when I first began to help about the work. Manufacturers were struggling against each other, each trying to make better implements than their competitors.

It was not until after I was grown up that I saw the cobble stone pavements in town taken out with a heavy plow and several teams ahead of it on the few streets that were paved. The Nicholson block pavement was put in its place and extended to other streets. But this did not prove durable and was substituted by the present cement pavement, and gradually extended nearly all over the city.

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Laying Nicholson Pavement Blocks on North Edwards Street, 1884-1888
Source: Kalamazoo Public Library Photograph P-208 

In about 1884, the first street car lines were put in with horses for motive power, but as time passed, these came to be considered too slow, and electric cars were substituted, which in time made way for the present bus lines.

As population increased, building operations kept fairly well ahead of the demand and at times clear ahead, while the city spread out into the country in various directions. I well remember when the school buildings of the village were a small matter compared with the present outlay. Kalamazoo College too was a small affair and the Western Normal probably had not been thought of. The Michigan Asylum for the Insane was composed of one building a little larger than one of our larger churches.

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Kalamazoo Paper Company, 1887-1895
Source: Kalamazoo Public Library Photograph P-323 

In about 1866 it was my pleasure to go with Father over on Allcott Street and go through the only paper mill in this part of the state. quotation-marks-right-15.jpg