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The History of Kalamazoo MI


“Kalamazoo” was originally a Native American name although its exact origin hasn’t been pinpointed. Some say it means “the mirage of reflecting river,” while others say it means bubbling or boiling water. Intrigued by the name, many poets, authors and songwriters have penned Kalamazoo into their works, the most notable of which may be Glenn Miller’s I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo. In the early 1900s, three ships were also christened Kalamazoo. Historically, the city has been referred to by many names. It’s been called “The Paper City,” for its many paper and cardboard mills; “The Celery City,” after the crop once grown in the muck fields north, south, and east of town; and “The Mall City,” after construction of the first outdoor pedestrian shopping mall in the United States in 1959. The fertile soil on which Kalamazoo is built has led the area to most recently be called the “Bedding Plant Capital of the World,” as the county is home to the largest bedding plant cooperative in the U.S. Hundreds of thousands of plants, many varieties of which are displayed throughout the county’s parks and boulevards, are sold each year to home gardeners and landscapers nationwide. Kalamazoo was once the manufacturing domain for Checker cabs, Gibson guitars, Kalamazoo stoves, Shakespeare fishing rods and reels, and the Roamer automobile. Parchment paper, made from vegetable byproducts, gave the city of Parchment in Kalamazoo County its name.

The earliest residents of the area were the “Moundbuilders,” an early race of Native Americans that subsisted on farming. A number of earthen mounds attributed to these people still exist in the area; the most prominent one can be found in downtown Kalamazoo’s Bronson Park. The park’s notable features include an Indian mound on its south side; a fountain designed by Alfonso Iannelli. “The Children May Safely Play” by Kirk Newman, in the west reflecting pool. The park lost many tall, old trees when it was ravaged by a 1980 killer tornado that swept through downtown Kalamazoo.(Video)

Experts feel that other Native Americans who later traveled down from the north probably exterminated the Moundbuilders. The earliest written records tell of the Sioux frequently occupying the region followed by the Mascoutin and the Miami. But by the time the white settlers arrived in the area that was to become Kalamazoo County, the land was occupied by the Potawatomi Tribe, a branch of the greaterAlgonquin people.

In 1680, the first white men journeyed through southern Michigan passing through Prairie Ronde and Climax. Traders occasionally did business in the county more than a century later in 1795. The Treaty of 1795 opened the Northwest Territory for settlement also setting aside a large portion of what was to be Kalamazoo County for a Reservation known as “Match-e-be-nash-e-wish.” This may have been the chief gathering place of the Pottawatomi Indians. The Treaty of 1821, known as the “Chicago Treaty” opened this plot of land to white settlers and became the basis for many of the county’s land titles. In 1827 the Indian reservation was consolidated in the southern end of Kalamazoo County and the northern part of St. Joseph County. Another treaty with the Native Americans in 1833 arranged the exchange of five million acres of their land for $40,000 in trinkets and trappings. The enforcement of the treaty in 1840 required the relocation of Kalamazoo’s Native Americans across the Mississippi River.

According to Dr. Willis Dunbar’s “Kalamazoo and How it Grew”, the first white resident of the area was probably a British fur trader named Burrell who in 1795 spent the winter at his trading post near what is now Riverside Cemetery. A Frenchman named Numaiville erected the first permanent trading post in 1823. Rix Robinson took over the post and operated it until 1837. The first white settler of the county was a man named Bazel Harrison, cousin of U.S. President William Henry Harrison. Harrison traveled to Kalamazoo County in late 1828 and built his home on the shores of a small lake 3 miles northwest of what is now Schoolcraft. (Harrison is said to be the person James Fennimore Cooper had in mind when he created the character Ben Boden in his famous novel, “The Oak Opening”). Other settlers followed quickly and by 1830 over 100 families had settled in the Prairie Ronde area. Within a year, all of the county’s eight prairies had been settled.

In 1829 Titus Bronson built the first cabin within the modern city limits on Arcadia Creek, west of the present Westnedge Avenue. A year later he replaced it with a permanent cabin on the present site of Bronson Park. The county itself was organized by an act of the territorial legislature and approved by the governor on July 3, 1830. The town of Bronson was officially designated the county seat on May 1, 1831. Five years later an influential group of men in town, dismayed by the apparent eccentricities of Titus Bronson, (he was accused, tried, and convicted of stealing a cherry tree) had the name of the town changed to “Kalamazoo.”

Lucius Lyon, a land speculator, who later became one of Michigan’s first U.S. Senators at statehood, founded the village of Schoolcraft. In 1830, John Vickers built the county’s first gristmill in the Prairie Ronde area. Within the same year he sold it and built another 20 miles away. The village that grew around the newest mill came to be called Vicksburg.


In 1800 the waterways and the Indian trails were the only routes a traveler in the county could follow. Settlers constructed the first primitive roads after 1830, the main one being the Territorial Road. This ran from Detroit to St. Joseph and bisected the county. The first plank roads were built around 1845 with the most important one stretching from Kalamazoo to Grand Rapids. Although these roads aided transportation, travel on them could be slow and sometimes treacherous. The railroads soon became a faster and safer means of transportation. The Michigan Central line first spanned the territory between Detroit and Kalamazoo in 1846 and its link to Chicago was completed in 1852. By 1905 at least six railroads connected Kalamazoo with the rest of the continent. By that time, however, the importance of the railways began to fade. The short-lived interurban systems were attracting short distance passengers and freight shippers.

In the first quarter of the twentieth century, the development of gasoline powered vehicles and hard-surfaced roads offered the residents of the county improved transportation possibilities. Presently two major roads in the county are Interstate 94 and U.S. 131, both of them limited access expressways. The county also has four airlines serving its needs.


Since the early days of white settlement, Kalamazoo County has always supported a strong farming economy. Industry has also been a strong force in the county’s economic development. As early as 1850 an iron furnace to smelt bog ore was founded in the county. After the Civil War, paper manufacturers began setting up shop in the Kalamazoo River Valley and in 1885, a physician from Hastings, Michigan, invented a pill making machine and developed the first readily dissolvable pill. William Erastus Upjohn moved to Kalamazoo to seek his business future and started the Upjohn Pill and Granule Company (later Pharmacia & Upjohn and now Pfizer), one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical firms, was founded. The many other new and diversified industries attracted more workers and families to Kalamazoo County.

For further information on the history of Kalamazoo County and its communities, the book “Kalamazoo and How it Grew” by Willis F. Dunbar, Western Michigan University, 1959, is very helpful.

Most of the county’s early white settlers were fur traders from England or New York. The remainder came from Pennsylvania and Maryland. After 1845 the number of foreign immigrants increased rapidly especially with the coming of the Hollanders in 1850. The growth rate of the county’s population reached its height between 1845 and 1860 when almost 8,000 newcomers settled here. That growth rate was not exceeded for 50 years when between 1904 and 1920 the population grew to 214,000, quite an increase over the 1860 figure. Increased immigration, better transportation, and the appearance of diversified industries all played a role in Kalamazoo County’s growth.


As the size of Kalamazoo County grew, so did the variety of social and cultural activities. The Kalamazoo Gazette, the county’s earliest newspaper, is one of the state’s oldest. Many other papers were published here in the early years, including the Kalamazoo Telegraph (1844-1916).

The county’s educational facilities have always been a source of pride for residents. The first public high school was built in 1859 and in April 1833, the territorial governor signed legislation authorizing a charter for the Michigan and Huron Institute. Its first building was erected in 1836 on Cedar Street between Park and Westnedge and over the years, the Institute evolved into the well-respected Kalamazoo College. At present the county boasts four institutions of higher learning – Kalamazoo College, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo Valley Community College and Davenport University. Branches of other colleges are now also present in the Kalamazoo area.

The area’s cities, Kalamazoo and Marshall in particular have many areas designated as historic districts. Notable examples of Gothic, Italianate, Greek Revival, Sullivanesque, Queen Anne, Art Deco and other architectural styles accent their stately old avenues, providing a glimpse of restored grandeur from the previous century. Frank Lloyd Wright also found Kalamazoo quite right for his “Usonian”style of homes, built here during the late 1940s. Many of his designs are found in and around Kalamazoo.

Historic and Interesting places in or near Kalamazoo

  • Kalamazoo Mall — the first outdoor pedestrian shopping mall in the United States was begun with the closing of Burdick Street to auto traffic in 1959. The four block long mall, stretching from Lovell Street on the South to Eleanor Street on the north, has been restyled to match the attributes of the Arcadia Commons development, where the new Kalamazoo Public Museum anchors the north end of the mall. In 1999, however, two blocks of the mall were modified to accommodate auto traffic after a period of political debates on the issue.

  • Bronson Park — Kalamazoo’s traditional downtown centerpiece is Bronson Park, named for the community’s founder, Titus Bronson. The park’s notable features include
    • an Indian mound on its south side believed to be a remnant of the mound-building Hopewell Indians, who lived in this area centuries ago,
    • a fountain built with WPA funds designed and supervised by Alfonso Iannelli,
    • and a sculpture “The Children May Safely Play” by Kirk Newman, in the west reflecting pool.

    The park lost many tall, old trees when it was ravaged by a 1980 killer tornado that swept through downtown Kalamazoo. Abraham Lincoln made his only public speech in Michigan here; a historic marker honors the event.

  • Kalamazoo Regional Psychiatric Hospital Water Tower — Off Oakland Drive north of Howard Street is the 175-foot tall landmark on the hilltop campus of the Kalamazoo Regional Psychiatric Hospital. The water tanks in the 1895 Queen Anne style tower are no longer in use.

  • Stuart Avenue, South Street and Vine Historic Districts — Stately old houses line the grand streets of these neighborhoods, giving passerby a glimpse of restored grandeur from the previous century. The South Street district is west of South Westnedge Avenue; the Stuart Avenue district is in the area of the West Kalamazoo Avenue and Stuart Avenue intersection.

  • Frank Lloyd Wright homes — Parkwyn Village, at Taliesin Drive and Parkwyn drive in southwest Kalamazoo, and the 11000 block of Hawthorne south of Galesburg. Designed as a cooperative neighborhood by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright in the late 1940s, Parkwyn Village contains examples of Wright;s Usonian style of home. More Wright homes are found in a rural setting south of the city of Galesburg.

  • Kalamazoo City Hall — An acclaimed 1931 example of Art Deco style, City Hall at 241 W. South Street has a three story, skylit atrium. Visitors are welcome.

  • Underground Railway Home — On Cass Street east of U.S. 131 in Schoolcraft. Built in 1835 by the county’s first doctor, Nathan Thomas, this house once was a link in the network of safe houses that hid former slaves. It’s open for tours by appointment only. Call the Schoolcraft Historical Society at (269) 679-4689 for more information.


Did you know?
Kalamazoo County was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Dr. Nathan Thomas’ Underground Railroad House in Schoolcraft was in operation for twenty years. 1,000 to 1,500 escaping slaves were given food, shelter and medical aid.

10 Stereotypes About Kalamazoo That Are Completely Accurate

Yes, there really is a Kalamazoo and yes, these stereotypes are actually true.
  • Kristiena Sartorelli
 1. Oberon Day Is A Bigger Deal Than St. Patrick’s Day In Downtown Chicago

Seriously–it is. The day Bell’s Brewery releases Oberon is the biggest “party” day in Kalamazoo. How everyone celebrates ranges from people heading to Bell’s as soon as they open all the way to people grabbing a six pack and hanging out on their porch. To many, the annual release of Oberon means something more than just a new ale to drink–it means summer is almost here.

2. Kalamazooans Like To Get Weird

The Do-Dah Parade is an annual celebration and decades-old tradition full of wacky satire and spoofs. People here kick off summer in the best way possible–dressed in silly costumes parading through town. Have you ever gotten candy thrown at you by a zombie? I have.

Kalamazoo also likes to get eccentric once a year at Bell’s annual eccentric night, a celebration of your alter ego and an excuse to dress as ridiculously as you possibly can.

3. There Are A Bunch Of Liberal Hippy Farmers In Kalamazoo

Kalamazoo Stereotypes

Source: Vine Neighborhood Community Garden

From community gardens (they’ve got about 25) to the large focus on local, Kalamazoo is pretty liberal. The farmer’s market is the place to be on a Saturday and the food co-op was so well supported they were able to expand. While they may not be rocking tie-dye and flowers in their hair, the hippie spirit is alive and well.

4. All The Hipsters Are Members Of The Moped Army

Being a university town comes with what some may call a price–hipsters. While in Kalamazoo the hipster focus is a bit more centered on the local culture, hipster is as hipster does. And in Kalamazoo, some of those hipsters join the Moped Army. I mean, Kalamazoo is the birthplace of the Moped Army, which has grown to include branches throughout the U.S. Talk about being hip.

5. Kalamazooans Only Use Four Roads To Give Directions

Kalamazoo Stereotypes

Source: Flickr user Michigan Municipal League

Do you want directions? If you’re in Kalamazoo then you better know where Stadium Drive, Main Street, Westnedge, and Kalamazoo Avenue are. These are the four main roads that everyone and anyone there bases directions off of, that is, when they’re not using landmarks.

6. And They’re Serious About Late Night Donut Runs

Kalamazoo Stereotypes

Source: Sweetwater’s Donut Mill Facebook

To be a youth in Kalamazoo means you have participated in at least one late night donut run to Sweetwater’s Donuts on Stadium. A 24-hour donut shop, especially one as good as Sweetwater’s, is not something to take lightly. Rather, it’s something to take advantage of. One thing is for sure—a late night run is not necessary to appreciate Sweetwater’s.

7. Everyone Knows Someone In The Healthcare Industry

Kalamazoo Stereotypes

Source: Borgess Medical Center Facebook

From Bronson to Borgess to Pfizer to contract agencies to Kalamazoo Community Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, it’s harder tonot know someone in the healthcare field in Kalamazoo.

8. Running Is A Profession Here

Kalamazoo Stereotypes

Source: Bronson Methodist Hospital Facebook

From the Kalamazoo Area Runners to the surplus of marathons and running events, it’s safe to say that Kalamazoo is full of dedicated runners. New running events are consistently added to the already packed roster, so there’s a bit of running fun for everyone.

Seriously–with events like the Run or Dye to the Kalamazoo Mud Run to the Borgess Marathon, you don’t have to be a champion to have fun on the run.

9. Artists Are Swarming Around Kalamazoo Like It’s A Hive Made Out Of Coffee Houses

Kalamazoo Stereotypes

Source: Park Trades Center Facebook

From the much attended ArtHop on the first Friday of every month to the community theaters to concerts in the parks, Kalamazoo is full of all types of artists. In fact, almost everyone dabbles in art one way or another here. They may not be walking around in paint-stained clothing fulfilling the stereotype in a stereotypical way, but they will be at art-related events supporting their fellow artists and keeping the arts community strong.

10. Beer Is King In Kalamazoo

Kalamazoo Stereotypes

Source: Flickr user sgt fun

From Bell’s Brewery to the new Arcadia Ales, Kalamazoo is full of open and soon-to-open microbreweries. If there is one thing almost everyone in Kalamazoo can agree on, it’s having a good time. What helps fuel a good time? Good beer and good food.

BEATNIK HIWAY- KALAMAZOO MICHIGAN And 10 Stereotypes About Kalamazoo That Are Completely Accurate