There is a book waiting to be written about Kalamazoo’s Northside neighborhood, however no sketch of this length can do justice to its rich, complex and fascinating history. The current boundaries of the neighborhood run from Douglas Avenue on the west to the Kalamazoo River on the east, and from the railroad tracks and Willard Street on the south to the northern city limits.
A Slow Start
The Northside has been heavily influenced by two factors, its wet soil and the presence of the railroad. The original surveyor’s notes show that the neighborhood was dominated by floodplain forest on the east and by wet prairie and tamarack swamp on the western half. It is no surprise, then, that the area did not develop as quickly as other neighborhoods around downtown. An 1853 map of Kalamazoo shows a grain mill and a freight depot just north of the railroad tracks on Willard Street, a distillery several blocks further north on Burdick Street, and a few scattered houses. Although some of the remaining land had been subdivided into lots, most of it was apparently owned by people who lived in town and held the land as an investment against later development. The names of the landowners clearly bespeak the New England and New York origins of most of Kalamazoo’s early settlers: the Balches, the Cobbs, Frederick Woodward, Austin Munsell, Albert Arms, were all New Englanders. The largest single piece was owned by Arnold & Co., a group of bankers. The Arnold in question was Hiram, a New York native, who was active in business here for many years and built the house that was better known later as the home of U. S. Senator Charles Stuart.
The Michigan Central Railroad came to town in 1846 and defined the present southern boundary of the neighborhood. Houses were gradually built north of the tracks, but it was not until after the Civil War that the Kalamazoo and South Haven line cut through the western part of the neighborhood, and the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern, and the Grand Rapids and Indiana lines through the eastern end. Thus firmly connected to the markets in the east, in Chicago, and in other parts of the state, the neighborhood began to change.
The celery industry took hold here in the 1880’s, developed by Dutch immigrants who knew how to work the mucky soil. Northside soil lent itself to the requirements of celery growing, so many Dutch farmers established themselves on small parcels on the north edge of the neighborhood and beyond. The early settlers encouraged their families and friends to follow them to the new world, so what in 1870 had been a Yankee neighborhood, became solidly Dutch and remained so until the middle of the next century. Packing and shipping businesses developed alongside the celery fields.
Manufacturing and Distribution
Celery, however, was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to industry on the Northside. The easy shipping that the railroads offered led to the development of dozens of distributors’ warehouses and factories that produced everything from buggies to vinegar. Among the better-known and long-lived businesses were the Michigan Buggy Company, Clarage Fan, Humphrey Manufacturing, Sutherland Paper Company, Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Company, Kalamazoo Label Company, Johnson-Howard Lumber Company, Kalamazoo Tank and Silo, Fuller & Sons Manufacturing Company, and Kalamazoo Stove Company. Just north of the city limits were Allen Electric, Atlas Press, and Checker Motors. Further to the west were Hammond Machinery Builders, Be-Mo Potato Chips and Master-Craft Corporation. Other companies produced or distributed ice cream, wheels, paper products, boilers, rugs, fuel oil, embalming fluid, skirts, wagons, beer, bedding, cigars, ice, engines, and windows and doors, among other things. The Henderson-Ames Company, whose main factory was downtown, also manufactured lodge furniture in a plant on the Northside.
A Neighborhood Grows
So much manufacturing required workers. Housing to accommodate them rapidly filled in most of the rest of the neighborhood. With the increased population came schools, churches, groceries, meat markets, and other small service businesses. The Northside has always had black residents, although at first the community was small. The first school on the Northside, built sometime before 1866 on North Street just east of Walbridge, served the area’s black children. It would later shelter the first Northside church for a time. It was followed in 1870 by Frank Street School. With two additions to its building, it served the area until it was replaced by Lincoln School in 1922. Frank Street School was joined in 1906 by North West Street School (later known as North Westnedge Avenue School), by Northglade Elementary School in 1965, and by a series of Christian schools, notably William Street Christian School, in use from 1905 until it was replaced in 1950 by North Christian School on Cobb Avenue.