An Institutional Plan
Bronson Park’s history begins in 1831 with the man for whom it was named, Kalamazoo's founder Titus Bronson. As did many of Michigan's early settlers, Bronson hailed from New England, bringing his traditions with him. In an attempt to gain the county seat for his new village, Bronson and his partner, Stephen H. Richardson, donated a piece of land in the center of town to the county. The property was divided into four blocks designated for a courthouse, a church, a jail, and an academy. Bronson Park’s 3.6 acres were originally Jail and Academy Squares, divided by Church Street. Each block served its intended purpose for a time. The county’s first jail, constructed on Jail Square in 1836, was demolished in 1845 and replaced by a new structure located on Courthouse Square. A branch of the University of Michigan began classes in a building on Academy Square in 1838. It later became a Baptist academy and finally the first site of Kalamazoo College, before being removed in 1857.
A Park Emerges
Long before that occurred, however, Kalamazoo residents had begun using this space for a park. In 1847 Church Street was discontinued between Jail and Academy Squares. The park began to take shape in the early 1850’s when the village encircled it with a fence, graveled the walkways, and landscaped the grounds with trees, roses and shrubs. Officials protected their new park with an ordinance prohibiting horses and cattle. Kalamazoo could truly boast possession of a park in its center when the village officially leased the land from the county in 1854, but it was not until February 1899 that the city passed Ordinance No. 172, officially naming it Bronson Park.
From its creation, Bronson Park has been the site of celebrations and public meetings. In 1856, Abraham Lincoln, then an attorney, spoke at a political rally in the park. In later years, Stephen A. Douglas, William Jennings Bryan, Theodore Roosevelt, and both John and Robert Kennedy spoke to assembled crowds, as the Potawatomi Indians had, from the mound near the southwest corner of the park.
The mound itself has been a site of great interest for many Kalamazoo residents. It is believed to be a remnant of the mound-building Hopewell Indians, who lived in this area centuries ago. The mound was first excavated in 1832 by E. Lakin Brown and Cyrus Lovell, whose investigation revealed nothing. In the early 1850’s, local businessman Alexander J. Sheldon took on the responsibility of restoring the mound, which had been damaged over the years. During the process, he buried a time capsule containing coins, information about his time, and issues of the Kalamazoo Telegraph, which he published. A century later, Alexis Praus, director of the Kalamazoo Public Museum and Nicholas Kik, superintendent of parks, re-excavated the mound. They recovered the time capsule and discovered the outlines of a grave presumably left by the Hopewells. A new time capsule took the place of the original with the intention that it remain until at least 2054.
Fountains, Sculptures, and Memorials
The mound has the distinction of being the oldest man-made object in Bronson Park, but many fine additions have joined it over the years. Fountains have decorated the park since 1879. "The Fountain of the Pioneers," which replaced an earlier one, stood at the center of the eastern half of Bronson Park from 1940 until 2018. Alfonso Iannelli designed and supervised construction of the fountain, which was built using WPA funds. The reflecting pool, part of the original Ianelli design, was adorned with bronze sculptures of Kalamazoo children to commemorate the United States bicentennial in 1976. Local artist, Kirk Newman used the biblical verse "When justice and mercy prevail, children may safely play" as his inspiration for the sculptures.
In addition to fountains, many memorials grace the park. A cannon honors Civil War veterans. A bronze statue by Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson entitled The Hiker represents foot soldiers of the Spanish American War. Park visitors are reminded of Vietnam veterans and those lost on the U. S. S. Maine by boulders set with plaques.
The largest addition to the park was the band shell, constructed in 1999. This however, was not the first such structure erected there. Exactly 100 years earlier a pavilion was built in the park at the request of residents of the village, only to be removed nine years later.
A Commons in the Center of the City
Bronson Park, once surrounded on three sides by the homes of some of Kalamazoo’s most prominent citizens, now sits between churches, public buildings, and businesses. With the county courthouse to the north and city hall to the south, the park remains a "commons" in the center of the city. It is the place downtown where workers retreat for a picnic lunch, where summer festivals and art shows are held, and where thousands congregate to usher in each New Year. Bronson Park's important role in Kalamazoo’s history is honored by its listing on the National Register of Historic Places.