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Five Faves – Paper Artifacts

Telling treasures from the Regional History Collection

The Regional History Collection at Western Michigan University’s Zhang Legacy Collections Center, along with the University Archives and Rare Books and Special Collections, has a wide range of paper-based materials from southwestern Michigan, including business and institutional records, photographs, diaries and letters, just to name a few examples. Some were created to be long-lasting; others are examples of ephemera, meaning things meant to last only a short time. I was previously given an opportunity to highlight some of my favorites in Encore and here are a few more:

Coffee shops today provide not only a hot beverage, but also an opportunity to gather with others. The Temperance Coffee House in Kalamazoo, which opened in 1875, had a much larger purpose — to convince people to turn to caffeine rather than alcohol — and those who ran it handed out these cards in that effort. Temperance organizations were prevalent during the 19th century, with the first one in Kalamazoo created in 1836, not long after the village was established. The Temperance Coffee House, which was located on the east side of North Burdick just to the south of Eleanor Street, provided not just coffee but food, including oyster stew, and held temperance meetings on weekends. There is no mention in the Kalamazoo Gazette of the coffeehouse after May 1876, although demand for alcohol continued.

The Farmers Mutual Insurance Co. of Michigan, which was formed in 1863, provided all types of affordable insurance for farmers. The records at the Zhang Center are from Kalamazoo County, and their dates range from 1864–1880 and 1919–1954. The records encompass many policies taken out by farmers, and those policies include information about their land and any buildings on it, sometimes with construction dates. For those who are searching for information about property that may have once been agricultural, this is a good place to start, in the hope there is a policy that may have been issued. Also included in the records is a bound, hand-drawn collection of township maps dated 1869, with property owners named. Even though the acreage is not included, the detail is incredible.

The respiratory disease tuberculosis, known as the “white death,” has been around for thousands of years and last year claimed more than 1.3 million people worldwide. The death toll from TB in the U.S. has dropped sharply over the years, but in 1908 more than 78,000 people died from the disease in the U.S. In that year Kalamazoo’s Anti-Tuberculosis Society began raising funds, and by the fall of 1911, it had enough money to start the Tuberculosis Sanitorium on Gull Road, across from where Borgess Ascension Hospital is now located. Sanitorium patients stayed in tents outside for an undetermined amount of time, no matter the weather, since fresh air was found to be helpful in curing people. By the next year, the city of Kalamazoo constructed Fairmount Hospital in the West Douglas neighborhood for those suffering from not only tuberculosis, but also diphtheria.

For many years, Kalamazoo’s main post office could be found on the southwest corner of Burdick and South streets. It moved in 1939 to what was then the new Federal Building on West Michigan Avenue, and its historical records were transferred to Grand Rapids and later Chicago. In the mid-1970s, the material was returned to Kalamazoo. It includes ledgers filled with information on pay, hours and routes for postal carriers; sales of stamps and money orders; railroad schedules; and even lists of newspapers and magazines arriving for delivery. It also includes copies of letters sent and received, including this one in which the Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Postal Service refused to reimburse the office for an unusual expense.

During the 19th century, Michigan counties supported those who were poor and destitute by operating poorhouses or poor farms. In 1849, Kalamazoo County purch-ased land in Comstock Township (the site of today’s River Oaks Park) for its poorhouse and poor farm. The Regional History Collection holds several ledgers related to this poorhouse, including one that is a record of residents. Spanning from 1885–1912, the ledger includes names, races, ethnicities, ages, residency dates and reasons for people being there, including alcoholism, disease, pregnancy, desertion and old age. During the 20th century the federal government created programs to deal with many of these issues, and the Kalamazoo County Poorhouse became a senior citizens residence until it closed in 1971.

Lynn Houghton

Lynn Houghton is the regional history curator of the Western Michigan University Archives and Regional History Collection. She leads the Gazelle Sports Historic Walks, a series of free architectural and historic walks at various locations in Kalamazoo County that happen during summer and fall, and she is the co-author of Kalamazoo Lost and Found, a book on Kalamazoo history and architecture. She also participated in the PBS documentary series 10 That Changed America, about the history of architecture and urban planning. She has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from WMU and a master’s in library and information science from Wayne State University.

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Artifacts from the WMU’s Zhang Legacy Collections Center
Historian notes neat names of local townships

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