Local History and Genealogy

News, comments, resources, and more.

“All About Kalamazoo History”

If you’ve visited the “All About Kalamazoo History” section of the KPL website lately, you’ve probably noticed a few changes here and there—most notably the addition of a State History Award “gold medal” banner! “All About Kalamazoo History” (KPL’s online collection of local history essays) has been awarded a 2011 State History Award by the Historical Society of Michigan (HSM)! State History Awards are presented to those individuals and organizations that “have made outstanding contributions to the appreciation and understanding of Michigan history.” The State History Awards are the highest recognition presented by the state’s official historical society.

When asked what prompted the judges to select KPL for this prestigious award, Dr. Sharon Carlson, HSM board secretary and director of the WMU Archives & Regional History Collections, responded without hesitation by saying, “it was the breadth and depth of the collection. I regularly refer people to these information rich pages. They are an appropriate resource for researchers ranging from a middle school student competing in History Day to genealogists to more serious researchers looking for core publications about a topic.” HSM education and awards coordinator, Emily Asbenson, added, “the judges were extremely impressed with the way KPL presents and teaches local history.”


“All About Kalamazoo History” has grown considerably since its inception, and now consists of more than 600 pages in twenty one different categories, which collect and preserve the stories of those who helped shape Kalamazoo and its environs. Some are brief vignettes while others offer richly detailed cultural histories; all are painstakingly written and researched by members of the Kalamazoo Public Library staff. These pages attempt to provide interesting reading and valuable research tools for local and regional genealogists, historians, educators, and library patrons.

According to retired KPL Local History librarian Catherine Larson, “we have tried to answer the most frequently asked questions about each topic, (both) for the convenience of our patrons, and to make efficient use of staff time. We have tried to design a structure that is sufficiently flexible that it can grow in any direction that seems appropriate, even if we can’t foresee it right now. As I recall, we established the web site in 1998 or 1999. The initial Local History offering was three essays each in four categories. We have grown quite a bit since then, and the structure has served us well. It feels good to be part of a team that puts out such a useful product.”


“One of the great things about the website,” says current Local History specialist Beth Timmerman, “is that it has allowed us to collaborate with other institutions in Kalamazoo. Many of the house and building histories are from the 1973 Initial Inventory of Historic Sites and Buildings in Kalamazoo which was made available to us by Sharon Ferraro, the city’s historic preservation coordinator. Another great collaboration has given us one of our most popular sections—the Kalamazoo: Then and Now photo gallery. This is an ongoing project with Professor William Davis at WMU and his photography students who re-create historic photos from our collection.” In addition, staff at Kalamazoo Valley Museum and WMU Archives & Regional History Collections have been extremely helpful with providing photographs and information, as have our patrons. Comments and valuable additions to these essays have been received from across the United States, Canada and abroad.

Congratulations to Beth, the Local History staff, and everyone else who contributes to KPL’s virtual branch! Your award-winning library now has an award-winning website!

Read the official Kalamazoo Public Library press release. PDF

Read the official Historical Society of Michigan press release. PDF


2011 State History Award

Genealogy: Summer Style

While genealogy is a great pursuit any time of year, many people take a break from serious research in the summer. But that doesn’t mean you have to miss out on all the thrills of a genealogical search. Whether you’re soaking up sun at the beach, on your way to a fantastic vacation destination, or just hiding inside your air conditioned house, there are many engaging books related to genealogy to enjoy. Buzzy Jackson’s Shaking the Family Tree: Blue Bloods, Black Sheep, and Other Obsessions of an Accidental Genealogist is a fun account of a historian-turned-genealogist and her quest to track down her Jackson (20th most common American surname) ancestors. With chapters entitled “Information Wants to be Free; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love DNA Testing” and “Beaches and Burke’s Peerage; or, The Genealogy Cruise” you know you’re in for an entertaining read that is definitely NOT a typical genealogy how-to.

If you prefer your leisure reading in the form of a mystery, there are many books and series to choose from. The Torie O’Shea Mysteries by Rett MacPherson and the Family Tree Mysteries by Patricia Sprinkle are both series that feature a main character who is a genealogist. A keyword search in the library catalog for ‘genealogy and mystery’ or ‘genealogy and fiction’ will turn up many other genealogy-themed summer reads like; Legacy by Danielle Steel and Out of the Shadows by Joanne Rendell.

So while you’re enjoying your break, keep sharp by reading about someone else’s family search – whether it be fact or fiction.


Shaking the Family Tree
Beth T

An Unexpected Encounter with the Triangle Lunch

One of the most interesting and fun aspects of working in the local history room is receiving new (old) materials for the collection. These come to us from a variety of sources and are often a complete surprise. Last week we received one of these unexpected gifts all the way from North Carolina. The donor had apparently never lived here. His father had lived in Michigan but moved away over 80 years ago – however, for some reason he saved a postcard of the Triangle Lunch on old US 131 between Kalamazoo and Plainwell. The family held onto that postcard all these years and then very thoughtfully passed it on to us. I am always amazed and grateful when people take the time to do things like that.

We are having a wonderful time trying to unlock the clues in this photo. Our donor believes that it would have been purchased in the late 1920s or early 1930s, and we know from phonebooks that a Triangle Lunchroom was operating in Cooper Township at that time. We have not yet determined where on old 131 (Douglas Avenue) the diner sat, or the owners, but we have many resources still to check. If you have any information for us regarding the photo, please let us know. Local residents are often our best resources!


One interesting note – we had hoped to get vital information from a sign in the window of the building, but no amount of magnification seemed to help. Finally, Mandana Nordbrock, with her sharp (young) eyes solved this important mystery – it read “Juicy Ham Burgers.”


Historic photos
Beth T

An Ailment by Any Other Name….

Perhaps the last time you attended a sporting event or concert, you awoke the next day to find you had come down with Clergyman’s Throat (“An impairment of the voice due to excessive or improper use of the voice. Can also be caused by excessive use of tobacco or liquor.” p.29). Then again, there are those who suffer, during the long dry, winter months, from Furfur (Furfaire) (“Any scaling of the skin, such as dandruff” p.53). Or, maybe you were frustrated during your lunch break when trying to quickly place your order to find the individual behind the counter to be quite Starblind (“A condition in which an individual stares with eyes half closed, appears to be slow to understand, and blinks frequently” p.135). There is a wealth of obscure medical ailments and their cures held within this rather slight, economical (just 178 pages including reference citations) and yet fascinating and informative publication, A Medical Miscellany for Genealogists. Dr. Jerger has written, or perhaps it is better to say compiled, her book expressly for the use of understanding antiquated medical terms. It functions like a dictionary. It was created by one who was herself frustrated, despite more than thirty years of experience in the medical field, by inscrutable language when investigating her ancestor’s life histories and the ailments from which they suffered and perhaps succumbed to. Dr. Jerger has also supplemented this list with terms from Native American, European, Asian and African folk beliefs and healing traditions.

Whether your understanding is impeded by neglected medical nomenclature while in the midst of genealogy research, studying old medical records, while attempting to enjoy literature of the time or even if you just have an interest in obscure words and phrases, this book is an excellent resource for being specific to the medical field and terminology that has fallen out of favor, various pseudonyms for the same practice or perhaps practices or medicines that are no longer in use (“Inhalation of Gas- A form of pneumotherapy. Inhalations of carbonic acid and sulfurous acid were used to treat tuberculosis of the lungs, asthma and emphysema.” p. 71). From the completely unheard of (“Spruce Beer- A remedy made by boiling the tops of spruce boughs in beer. Used to treat scurvy in the 18th century.” P.134) to the familiar disguised in strange nomenclature (“Polish Disease- Also syphilis.” P.111, “Scourge of Nations- Also Cholera” p 125 or “St. Hubert’s Disease- Also Rabies” p.122) you can use this book as a research tool or as a source for a few moments interesting and educational diversion.


A Medical Miscellany for Genealogists

Michigan's Historic Schoolhouses

When it comes to historic buildings, few generate the level of interest that one-room schoolhouses do. It’s hard to pass one by without taking a second look and wondering what life was like for students who were educated there. It’s also fascinating to see how they have been remodeled and repurposed into homes, shops, and other useful structures. On February 24, the Library will host a program for all of us who love these old buildings - Michigan’s Historic One Room Schoolhouses. Presenter Dianna Stampfler will take us on a photographic tour of schoolhouses throughout Michigan and reveal their history and how many are being used today. Dianna always presents a lively, informative program; and as a resident of southwest Michigan her presentation will include many familiar landmarks. Join us at 7:00 pm on the 24th for a great program, and don’t forget that you can always find useful information about Kalamazoo County rural schools under Education in the All About Kalamazoo History section of our website.


Michigan’s Historic Schoolhouses
Beth T

Researching Our Neighbors to the North

Having Irish ancestors who originally settled in Canada before immigrating to the U.S., I am always eager to find new sources for Canadian research. I’m happy to report that several new resources have recently become available in the history room for those of us searching for clues to our Canadian roots. We now have four volumes of the series Erin’s Sons: Irish Arrivals in Atlantic Canadaby Terrence Punch. The title suggests it contains passenger lists, but that's just the beginning. The series currently spans from 1761 to 1863 and also includes newspaper articles, census, regimental, church, prison, and marriage records, burials, tombstone inscriptions, and more. Another recent acquisition with a different focus on Canadian genealogy is Margaret Ann Wilkinson’s Genealogy and the Law in Canada. This book tackles Canada’s laws pertaining to personal data protection and access to information, and how they affect genealogical research. These complicated issues are thoroughly explained in Wilkinson’s book, and readers come away with a clear understanding of what records they can and can’t expect to obtain in Canada. Finally, many of Ancestry Library Edition’s newest additions are databases of Canadian records. Dozens of databases that run the gamut from British Columbia Medical Register, 1890 to Quebec Land Grants, 1763-1890 were added in October alone. With all these new resources, there couldn’t be a better time to work on your Canadian research in the Local History Room.


Erin's Sons: Irish Arrivals in Atlantic Canada
Beth T

Cemeteries of Kalamazoo

While I attest to having a fascination with the art and park-like beauty of many cemeteries, working in the local history room has given me an even greater appreciation for them as a tool in genealogical and local history research. Many times, a tombstone provides just the clue needed to fill in a blank or push the research in a different direction. But with around 70 cemeteries and burial grounds in Kalamazoo County, tracking down a gravesite can sometimes be a challenge.

Over the years, individuals and groups like the DAR and the Kalamazoo Valley Genealogical Society have published books of cemetery records and tombstone inscriptions for various cemeteries and we have those in the local history collection. In more recent years there have also been some very ambitious projects launched on the Internet that provide burial/tombstone information - and many times even photos of individual stones. The problem is that no one set of books or single website has everything for all the cemeteries in the area.

In response to this issue, the Library has launched Cemeteries of Kalamazoo. This collection of web pages locates all the known cemeteries and burial grounds in Kalamazoo County and identifies all the sources – both print and online – for burial and tombstone data for each individual cemetery. You can search for the information by township or with the Cemeteries A-Z index.

As with many of our projects, this is a work in progress and we intend to update and expand as more information comes our way. So be sure to let us know if we’ve missed anything or you know of a new source and we’ll promise to keep this a tool that will be useful for years to come.


Cemeteries of Kalamazoo
Beth T

Take a Walk on the Historic Side

Kalamazoo is brimming with great history and there are many ways to enjoy it. One of my favorites is through the Gazelle Sports Historic Walks led by Lynn Houghton. The walks are fun, informative and a great way to slow down and truly appreciate all the wonderful historic architecture Kalamazoo has to offer. As a local historian, regional history curator at the WMU Archives and Regional History Collections, and co-author of Kalamazoo Lost and Found, Lynn’s credentials can’t be beat. She deftly identifies the characteristics of architectural styles like Greek Revival, Italianate, Art Deco and many more that can be found throughout Kalamazoo. But that‘s not all you’ll learn. Every building has a story related to the people involved with it – from designers, to builders, to occupants – and you will have the opportunity to hear many of those stories, and through them, learn a great deal about Kalamazoo history.

The walks are free and take place on selected Thursday evenings and Friday mornings through summer and into the fall. Dates, times and locations of this season’s Historic Walks can be found on our Local History Community Events Calendar. So put on your walking shoes and get out there and enjoy the history that surrounds you!


Lynn Houghton 
Beth T

Meet the Author - and His Civil War Ancestor

The Civil War is a topic of great interest to many people - and when you add in a Michigan connection with a portrayal of an actual Civil War soldier you have the makings of a great program. In collaboration with the General Benjamin Pritchard Camp 20 Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, the library will be presenting just such a program.

Richard Hamilton, author of “Oh! Hast Thou Forgotten," Michigan Cavalry in the Civil War: The Gettysburg Campaign, will entertain and educate his audience when he portrays his ancestor, George Thomas Patten, at the Central Library on June 8. Patten, who served in the 6th Michigan Cavalry Regiment which rode under the command of Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer in the Battle of Gettysburg -- lost his life at the Battle of Falling Waters. Dressed in a Civil War uniform, Hamilton will interact with the audience as he assumes the character of his courageous ancestor.

The program begins at 7:00 - but come early for the book signing at 6:30. The 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War is less than a year away, and this is a great opportunity to commemorate our history.


Oh Hast Thou Forgotten, Michigan Cavalry in the Civil War
Beth T

Glimpse Kalamazoo’s Past

Wouldn’t you love to peruse historic photos of places you see every day, or that you remember but no longer exist? In the history room we get to work with these photos every day and we know how much interest they engender. For that reason we’ve made our photo collection (as well as portions of the WMU Archives and Kalamazoo Valley Museum photo collections) available for viewing in our local information database. But if you don’t feel like searching for photos, take a look at our photo galleries. We’ve pulled out some of the best photos from our collection and grouped them together under various topics. You can see Washington Square evolve from the turn of the twentieth century into the 1990s, enjoy the beauty of Kalamazoo parks, and stroll down Burdick Street in the 1800s. Or maybe you prefer photos of people like the portraits of the Kalamazoo High School Class of 1872, or people at work at Gibson Guitar or the Michigan Asylum. Our photo galleries provide a wonderful glimpse of Kalamazoo’s past and are available for you to enjoy whenever you feel like looking back.


Businesses - Photo Galleries
Beth T