NOTE: MeLCat services have been temporarily suspended until December 11 due to technical reasons. Thank you for your patience. Learn more...

RSS Feed

Local History and Genealogy

The Taste and Sound of Local History

History can be viewed in so many different ways - it’s not all about big events and famous people. In fact, some of my favorite history books look at the past through everyday items and activities. We’ve recently received two books that do just that. The first is Midwest Sweet Baking History: Delectable Classics Around Lake Michigan by Jenny Lewis. It begins with the Native Americans and the earliest settlers of the region and looks at how sweets evolved through availability of ingredients and the traditions of the people who chose to make our region their home. The baking industry is also explored along with all of the factors that affected it over the years – such as wars and industrialization. For example – did you know that Hostess Twinkies, which got their start in Illinois, were originally made with a banana cream filling? Due to rationing during WWII they switched to vanilla cream and never switched back. In addition to all the fascinating food facts, the book is full of wonderful recipes for sweet treats.

The second book looks at the history of music in the Midwest – Folksongs of Another America: Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937-1946. Like Midwest Sweet Baking History, this book also uses the various ethnicities and cultures of Midwest residents to explore the musical history of the area. The songs discussed in the book were captured as field recordings by the Library of Congress from 1937 to 1946 in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Many include the lyrics and, where appropriate, an English translation. And – while it’s interesting to read about the music, it’s even better to listen to it and this collection provides that option. Five CDs of recordings are included, as well as a DVD of color film footage, sound recordings and images all from Alan Lomax’s work in Michigan. So if you come to the local history room to explore this book, be sure to bring your headphones so you can enjoy the accompanying CDs and DVD. (If you enjoy authentic folk music be sure to check out the other items in KPL’s AV and non-fiction collections related to Alan Lomax.)

Mail Order Homes

Like so many other folks, I am fascinated by the kit and catalog houses that were popular in the first half of the twentieth century. I love to look through the reprint of the 1926 Sears, Roebuck House Catalog – Small Houses of the Twenties - that we have in the history room, and imagine what it was like for people to shop for their house the way they did a new pair of pants or a set of mixing bowls

I know these houses still exist in neighborhoods all over the country, and it isn’t unusual for people visiting the history room to tell us that they suspect their home was a kit house, but I doubt I could identify any with certainty. That’s why I am so excited about our upcoming program – Mail Order Homes: The Catalog and Kit Homes of Michigan on November 2. Andrew and Wendy Mutch have spent years researching and identifying kit homes all around Michigan and beyond. They will take us on a virtual tour of kit homes and even give us tips for identifying them. So join us here at the Central library at 7 pm on Monday and bring your questions. Andrew and Wendy are sure to impress you not only with their knowledge of kit homes, but also with their great passion for this distinctive form of architecture.

Genealogy and the Law

Those of us who enjoy genealogical research know that it is often a complicated business. That is very likely what we love about it. We’re always looking for a little more information to lead us back another generation or to explain something that happened in our family long before we were born, and we don’t mind digging for it. For that reason, I’m always on the lookout for books that provide a new approach, or instruction on using resources that go a little further than the usual census and vital records we deal with regularly. Genealogy and the Law: A Guide to Legal Sources for the Family Historian is just that kind of book. It is a tool for finding and understanding the laws that governed our ancestors.

After reading Genealogy and the Law, I was inspired to see if the Michigan laws in 1870 could tell me anything about the circumstances related to an ancestor’s divorce I had recently discovered. The divorce record stated that my ancestor had filed for divorce on the grounds of desertion, but gave almost no other information. Fortunately for me we have historical Michigan documents, a law library, and fantastic law library staff to help me locate what I was looking for. After consulting Michigan Compiled Laws for 1857 (and Public Acts for the years 1858-1870 to see if there were any changes to the laws during that time) I discovered that in 1870 desertion was one of only a handful of valid grounds for divorce. However, it couldn’t be claimed unless the spouse had been gone for at least two years. So what I had considered to be a marriage of about four years, in reality lasted less than two years. While this wasn’t a major discovery, it did add to my understanding of events in my ancestor’s life. Looking through the early laws of Michigan was fascinating and now that I’ve done it, I know I will tackle them again to enhance my genealogy research.

Local History Online

Someone recently asked me how I get anything done when we have so many wonderful things to read and enjoy in the history room collection. It is true that it’s easy to get absorbed in the books, photos, maps, files and scrapbooks that make up the collection; but something that is even better is sharing it all with others who love local history.

But we know not everyone can come into the history room whenever they have a hankering to indulge their inner history buff, which is why we’ve spent years making KPL’s local history collection accessible from anywhere. This began all the way back in 1997 with digitization of the cataloged photographs. Since then, we have digitized newspapers, photo albums, pamphlets, books, journals, maps, films, and catalogs. We’ve also built up an impressive collection of videos of local history programs that were presented here at KPL.

All of these items have been linked in appropriate places throughout the website, but now they are also accessible from a single page that we call Local History Online: KPL Digital Archives. This is the place to connect to all of our digital offerings and easily keep up on what’s new. So whatever your interest – be it photos taken at the Michigan Asylum for the Insane in the early 20th century, Kalamazoo newspapers from more than a century ago, or a Henderson-Ames catalog of regalia for Odd Fellow lodges – you can start your exploration at Local History Online.

How to Archive Family Photos

You know how grateful you are to that long-departed relative when you come across an old photo album that they had carefully and completely organized, dated and captioned? We all want to be that conscientious when we’re documenting our lives with photos, but it’s so much more complicated now. Digital photos are extremely functional but create a whole extra layer of complexity when it comes to organization and identification. For those of us who have struggled with this problem there is a new book, How to Archive Family Photos by Denise May Levenick. In Part 1 of the book, readers learn how to safely store, organize, name, tag, and back-up their digital photo collections. Part 2 details digitizing heirloom photograph collections and Part 3 suggests projects for sharing and enjoying your digital images. Check out How to Archive Family Photos to get the most out of all those pictures you’ve been taking with your phone (and to be the most revered member of your family).


Neighborhood Focus – Westnedge Hill

We are celebrating Historic Preservation Month, May, with a series of programs that highlight elements of the Westnedge Hill Neighborhood. We got an early start on April 30 with a fantastic program on Crane Park by Natalie Patchell. But don’t worry if you missed it – we’ll have it on the website soon.

Crane Park program

On May 4th we will be learning about a Westnedge Hill gem with a fascinating history – Everyman’s House. Our presenter, Wendy Mutch, is a former owner of the home and will treat us to a lively and fact-filled program. But wait, there’s more! We are thrilled to be partnering with the Kalamazoo Valley Museum to display their model of Everyman’s House at the program! This will be the first time it has been available for public viewing since the history gallery was re-done nearly 5 years ago.

Crane home

Finally, Lynn Houghton will present the history and architecture of the neighborhood on May 14. Lynn has done many programs for us over the years and they are always excellent, but this happens to be her neighborhood so this might be the best one yet!

Both programs will take place in the VanDeusen Room at 7 pm, so be sure to get there early to get a good seat and have a chance to chat with Westnedge Hill residents and others with an interest in Kalamazoo’s unique neighborhoods.

Do You Recognize This Photo?

Not long ago, we received a donation of a photo depicting children and a few adults, presumably taken in front of a school. The donor thought that it was Vine Street School and from the early 1950s. Unfortunately, the building in the photo did not look like any images we have of Vine Street School, or any other Kalamazoo school that we have in our photo collection. So - was this even a Kalamazoo photo? The only obvious clue was the name of the photography studio stamped on the back – Central Studio. That did suggest at least the possibility of it being a local photo, since a Central Studio was in business in Kalamazoo from the 1930s until the late 1950s.

This is where local history really gets fun. I consulted with others to see if the building looked familiar to them. No one recognized it, but in talking it out we decided it looked like it could be a church instead of a school. Then the sharp eye of a colleague picked up something carved into a block behind the heads of several women on the left side of the photo. Examination with a magnifying glass determined that it said “Bethany.” Another colleague pulled up a picture of Bethany Reformed Church in Kalamazoo and, sure enough, we had our building.

However, we still have questions. City directory searches do not show Bethany operating a school. Could this be a photo of the Sunday school classes? It seems like a very large group for that. Another possibility that we considered was that these were the students of McKinley School, which stood just a block away, but we have no idea why they would need to use the church for a photo.

Can you help us solve this mystery?

The New HeritageQuest

If you haven’t logged into HeritageQuest lately, you’re in for a big surprise! The database that KPL and other libraries have been providing for years for genealogical research has gone through a major change. Through a partnership with Ancestry, HeritageQuest is now able to provide more advanced search functionality (very similar to searching in Ancestry) and increased content.


The U.S. Federal Census 1790-1940 is now complete with an every-name index. There is a new image viewer with improved image resolution as well as simple save and share capabilities. They have also increased their book collection to include thousands of city directories. Research aids full of great information and tips are available – but don’t be surprised when they refer you to searches in Ancestry. One of the wonderful things that HeritageQuest has always had, but you may have overlooked because it was completely buried on their old site, is the Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920. I love those maps and now they are prominently linked right at the top of the home page. Of course, the best thing about HeritageQuest is something that is exactly the same as it has always been – it is accessible from home by logging in with your library card number!


If you can’t remember how to get to HeritageQuest and the other great databases that KPL provides for genealogical research, just go to the Genealogy Topic Guide and scroll down to the Databases section.



The Art of Memory

It is no secret that I am particularly fond of cemeteries. Unlike many people, I don’t find them to be sad or spooky places. I love them for their park-like beauty, art, and architecture; and of course their history. After reading The Art of Memory: Historic Cemeteries of Grand Rapids, Michigan, I have to believe that its author, Thomas R. Dilley, feels the same way. The book is filled with beautiful photos of cemeteries, tombstones and mausoleums throughout Grand Rapids.

Dilley could have stopped there – many authors of cemetery books do - but the photos are just the beginning. The book deals mainly with the garden or park cemeteries of Grand Rapids, which first began to be established in the late nineteenth century. But this development is all put into perspective with an excellent history of burial and burial places going all the way back to the beginning of civilization. It goes on to tell the histories of the specific cemeteries and then further to explain the monuments themselves. For example, popular architectural styles of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries - such as Greek Revival, Romanesque, Egyptian Revival, and Art Deco - are all represented in the tombstones and mausoleums of Grand Rapids, and Dilley explains their popularity and significance.

While the book includes a great deal of interesting Grand Rapids history, the insight provided into the evolution of cemetery design and tombstone architecture and symbolism will give you an understanding and appreciation for cemeteries anywhere in the country. You may find yourself picking up The Art of Memory for the beautiful images, but I guarantee you’ll keep reading for the fascinating details.

Your Genealogy Place

With the holidays behind us, it’s time to get serious about your genealogy research, and the local history room is full of resources to help you do just that! Whether you’re just getting started, or have been at it for years, you can certainly benefit from a trip to the history room.

You can’t find a better place to dig up information on your Kalamazoo ancestors than our local information database. It includes more than four decades of full name and subject indexing of the Kalamazoo Gazette and well over 100 years of obituary/death story citations. But that’s just the beginning – the database also includes indexing of local magazines and select Kalamazoo County newspapers, as well as citations for history room files and specific items in books in the history room collection. This includes portraits in many of the high school and college yearbooks.

You don’t need to have Kalamazoo roots to benefit from KPL’s resources, either. We have hundreds of genealogy books, from instructional to vital records to compilations of ship passenger lists. In addition to Michigan, geographically our collection includes research volumes for Indiana and Ohio, New England, and the Mid-Atlantic States. We even have printed volumes for Canadian and European research. When you also consider our genealogy databases - Ancestry Library Edition, America’s Genealogy Bank, Heritage Quest, and American Ancestors – KPL provides access to records from all over the world!

Of course, there are many, many records that will never make it to a printed book or be included in a database, but billions of them have been microfilmed by Family Search. That is why KPL is a Family Search Affiliate Library. For a small fee, reels of microfilm can be borrowed from Family Search and sent here for viewing and printing or scanning with our digital microfilm readers. So what are you waiting for? Come on down to the history room and start researching!