It’s a well-known fact that history is not just the stories of the events, organizations, businesses and institutions that are a part of a community but the stories of the people behind them. There are many times I wonder what it would be like to meet these individuals and ask about their lives, their experiences and their inspirations, in addition to finding how accurate the accounts and descriptions written by them or others are. Although my list is long, here are five people in our community’s history that are at the top:
Albert M. Todd (1850–1931)
Todd was known for many things, including the company he started in 1869, the A.M. Todd Co., which grew and distilled mint, primarily for medicine. He also promoted public ownership and operation of utilities and ran for political office, serving one term in the U.S. Congress. He also is known for the materials he collected during his travels to Europe and across the country and brought back to Kalamazoo, including rare books, paintings, porcelain, sculpture, furniture and other items. Initially displayed in his company’s galleries, much of the collection went to local institutions such as the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, Kalamazoo College and Western Michigan University. There are many people, including myself, who would like to talk with him about this aspect of his life.
Caroline Bartlett Crane (1858–1935)
There is much that has been and continues to be written about this woman. In fact, the first piece I wrote for Encore, in 2018, included her. She continues to fascinate me because of what she did and what she accomplished. She was born in Wisconsin and was able to attain her dream of becoming a Unitarian minister, coming to Kalamazoo in 1889 to head the First Unitarian Church, now The People’s Church. She created a kindergarten and manual training and domestic science classes later adopted by the Kalamazoo Public Schools. She and other women became involved in the major Progressive issues of the day, including women’s suffrage, cleaning up cities and improving the lives of women. I would like to know where she got her passion.
Schuyler Baldwin (1822–1900)
Although not the first photographer in Kalamazoo, Baldwin was one of the most prolific. He came here from New York, joining his sister and brother-in-law, the latter of whom taught at Kalamazoo College. He purchased a studio and initially produced daguerreotypes and ambrotypes and portraits on copper-plated sheets, eventually turning to paper photographs. He is known for his stereographs, which can be described as two almost identical images that look three-dimensional when using a special viewer. Baldwin’s images are some of the earliest views of Kalamazoo. The buildings and streets in these images are interesting, but what draws you in are the people enjoying Bronson Park, standing on South Rose Street or traveling in a carriage near the State Hospital Gate Cottage.
Orville Gibson (1856–1918)
There is probably a long line of people who would like to talk to Gibson, whose legacy of well-made musical instruments lives on in Kalamazoo and beyond. He came to the area in the late 1870s, more than likely because his brother lived here. Along with working as a shoe salesman, Orville participated in local musical performances. By the 1880s he was making a variety of stringed instruments, predominantly guitars and mandolins, receiving his first patent in 1897. In 1902, a group of local businessmen created the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Co. Even though Gibson left Kalamazoo in 1909, he and the company that bore his name continue to be known for quality and superiority.
Dorothy Butler (1854–1932)
Butler was born a slave in Kentucky, and when she was 8, her mother, Nellie, learned there were plans to sell her daughters. Dorothy, her sister Sophie and her mother escaped, traveling on the Underground Railroad. The three eventually made it to a station run by Dr. Nathan and Pamela Thomas in Schoolcraft, and Nellie chose to stay in the area rather than continuing east to Canada. She got a job with a family outside the village, where her daughters attended school. Sophie eventually married and lived in Van Buren County with her husband and children. Dorothy worked as a housekeeper and cook at several houses in southwestern Michigan. Who knows what Dorothy would have remembered about traveling north, but it would be interesting to ask her.
Photographs courtesy of the Kalamazoo Valley Museum and the WMU Archives and Regional History Collection.