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Historic City Parks

Spring Valley Park today. © 2021 Encore Publications/Brian Powers
City parks with fascinating histories worth a closer look

With their green space and accessibility, parks add much to a community, no matter its size. They help people get close to nature and provide places to relax, gather and play. Parks have been a part of Kalamazoo since its beginnings in the early 19th century. Currently there are more than 30 parks and public spaces of varying sizes and purposes scattered throughout the city. Many have changed over the years but remain spaces where people can enjoy nature and enjoy being with others. Here are five of my favorite parks in Kalamazoo.

Bronson Park

200 S. Rose St.

The oldest park in Kalamazoo has seen a number of changes in the last three years, among them the removal of a controversial fountain sculpture, the addition of two electronic signs, and the filling-in of a reflecting pool. But there were also many earlier changes on these 3.6 acres of land, which became a park in the 1850s. Nearly 20 years before that, two squares of land were given to Kalamazoo County by Titus Bronson for the community’s first academy and first jail. Once those buildings were gone, the land became what it is now: a haven for people to rest and enjoy greenspace and a gathering site for rallies, protests, performances, fairs and fireworks. Although the park’s flowers and holiday decorations may come and go, what will not change is the role this park plays in being a community space in the heart of downtown Kalamazoo.

Milham Park

607 E. Kilgore Road

The desire for a large public park led Kalamazoo to acquire 66 acres of the John Milham farm in 1910. The park tripled in size by 1929 and attracted those wanting to picnic or even camp overnight or play on its croquet, volleyball, shuffleboard and tennis courts. A golf course, boat lagoon, bathhouse and pool were added in 1927, along with a zoo that during its 50 years of existence hosted a menagerie of animals, including deer, buffalo, guinea pigs, monkeys, bears, skunks and an alligator. Many of these amenities are now gone, but the park remains, giving us, as Western Michigan University’s then-president Dwight Waldo said at its dedication, “the better, the fuller and larger life.”

Spring Valley Park

2600 Mt. Olivet Road

For more than 35 years, runners and walkers, including myself, have come to this park on New Year’s Day to participate in the John Daly Memorial One One Run, sponsored by Gazelle Sports. Kalamazoo opened this 186-acre park on the northeast side of the city in 1956, with plans for picnic sites, recreational areas, a golf course, and even a lake for fishing and boating. It took three years to complete everything, with the exception of the golf course. That plan was dropped when Eastern Hills Golf Course opened three miles away. The park’s name comes from the springs that feed the lake and the valley where the city’s largest park is situated. At its dedication, it was said that the park would make Kalamazoo a “better place to work, to play and to prosper.”

South Westnedge Park

1101 S. Westnedge Ave.

What is now a small park in the Vine neighborhood was Kalamazoo’s first cemetery. It has been estimated that between 1833 and 1862 nearly 500 people were buried there. Once Riverside Cemetery on Riverview Drive opened in 1862, many of the bodies interred in this first cemetery were moved, but there is no accurate account of exactly how many. The consensus is that a number remain buried on this land. In the 1880s, Kalamazoo made the site a park, adding walkways, trees, lighting and a fountain. R. Carlisle Burdick, son of the couple who donated the land for the cemetery, unsuccessfully sued the city, claiming a violation of the original use. The area remained parkland and received improvements more than 30 years ago that were funded by the Vine Neighborhood Association.

Crane Park

2001 S. Westnedge Ave.

For some people this is a park they pass as they drive up and down South Westnedge Avenue. For others, like me, it’s a neighborhood park. And for many, it is a place of beauty, with its well-tended flower gardens. In 1911, Edgar Crane left 10 acres near his home to the city. The park blossomed by 1941, when Works Progess Administration (WPA) funds during the Depression fostered the planting of more than 250 varieties of flowers, shrubs and trees, along with the building of rock walls, brick roads and walkways. The gardens were designed to show residents how they could landscape their properties. Today the gardens are maintained by master gardeners and volunteers who care for the perennial beds, which are filled with a wide variety of native plants.

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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