From Hymns to Horseshoes: Kalamazoo's First Church Building

In 1836 the thriving village of Bronson, which would become Kalamazoo, had nearly 1,000 inhabitants. The Michigan Statesman listed it as containing sixty frame buildings, six stores, three "public houses," nearly 40 people in the building trades (masons, carpenters, cabinetmakers), five mills (grist and saw), and 11 professional men (doctors, lawyers, clergymen). Residents, speculators and travelers alike found blacksmiths, tailors and harness makers to serve their needs. It was only natural that a church would rise to meet the spiritual needs of those living here.

Kalamazoo's first church

Our Church: It's History, It's Structure, It's Service.  Kalamazoo: First Congregational Church, 1928.

Our First Church Building

The first church building was erected in 1836 by Martin Heydenburk on South Street, just east of the present library building. It stood approximately where Advantage Academy's loading dock is now located. The church was a simple white frame building twenty-four by forty feet, with a vestibule for storing wood and two doors, which opened into a seating area that faced a platform. Growing membership in the church eventually necessitated a 15-foot addition.

Worshiping Together

The first worshippers to occupy the building were 14 pioneers who organized themselves under the Presbyterian form of church government. They worshipped together with others who had chosen the Congregational form of church government. They shared a common heritage in Calvinism, and it was not unusual on the frontier for both denominations to worship together.

Separation

Locally, the decision to separate and form distinct churches was precipitated by a heated disagreement over the building of a second church and, more specifically, what its name and form of government should be. In 1849 the minister and 45 members withdrew to form and build the First Presbyterian Church. The original church continued with the Congregational name and practice.

New Congregation in the Building

Enter the First Reformed Church of Kalamazoo, which was organized in 1850 and was the first Holland church in the city. For two years the services were held on the second floor of various stores and business places. Finally in 1852, because their membership grew so rapidly, the First Reformed Church approached the Congregationalists about purchasing their building, which they were abandoning to build a new structure. The First Reformed Church purchased the South Street building for $700.  They, too, soon outgrew it and sometime in the mid-1860s moved to a building on Academy Street that had been previously occupied by the First Methodist Church.

First Church Bell in Kalamazoo

The bell from the first church was installed in the North Presbyterian Church, a mission of the First Presbyterian on the corner of Ransom and Burdick. Several structures later, it remains there today and holds the distinction of owning the oldest church bell in the city. The bell was cast in 1836 in Troy, New York, by Oscar Hanks and was brought to Kalamazoo by ox cart.

Building at North Rose Street

Building at North Rose Street, Kalamazoo, formerly Congregational Church, Kalamazoo, c1898.

Later Use of Building

The building itself, known for years as "the Old Sessions Building," was purchased by Henry Hodgman and moved to the west side of North Rose Street between Water and Eleanor Streets.  It appears to have stood there for at least thirty  years,  and became, among other things,  the Hinga & Morris' blacksmith shop, which provided essential services such as shoeing horses and repairing wagons and other wheeled vehicles.

Sources

The First Presbyterian Church of Kalamazoo, A Centennial History

Ninetieth Anniversary Record of Progress and Directory, the First Reformed Church

  • Kalamazoo, Michigan, 1850-1940
  • Copy in History Room Subject File: Reformed Church

"Oldest church bell to ring again"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 3 April 1960
  • Copy in History Room Subject File: Presbyterian Church, gray mat #1

"One Hoss Shay among the structures of Kalamazoo..."

  • Unsourced newspaper article (roughly 1900)
  • Historic Sites Scrapbook #1, page 4

Our Church: It's History, It's Structure, It's Service

  • Kalamazoo: The First Congregational Church, 1928
  • H 285.8 F52

"To dedicate new chapel of North Presbyterian Church this afternoon"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 19 September 1920
  • Churches Scrapbook, #2, page 18