David S. Walbridge (1802-1868)
Pioneer Businessman and Republican Party Leader
Born in Bennington, Vermont in 1802, David Safford Walbridge’s ties to Kalamazoo began in 1842, when the industrious Walbridge arrived to continue his mercantile pursuits and political ambitions. Walbridge’s grist mill (located at Lake Street and Portage Street) and shipping company were significant contributors to the commercial growth of antebellum Kalamazoo.
“He was one of the levelheaded and self-reliant type of men, not of the shining but of the sensible sort.”
–Michigan Pioneer Collection, v. 35, p.499
Walbridge’s entrepreneurial spirit led to his involvement with farming, milling and the operation of a “shipping firm which used flat boats on the Kalamazoo River.” Upon his arrival in 1842, Walbridge leapt into grain sales after leasing an existing grist mill. That same year, Walbridge organized the David S. Walbridge and Company, a sophisticated shipping operation that utilized large, flatbed boats to move grain and produce to the mouth of the river, where then cargo would be transported by steamers to Eastern ports. It wouldn’t be for another four years before the arrival of the railroad would greatly diminish the importance of Walbridge’s shipping business. According to Samuel Durant’s History of Kalamazoo County (1880):
“…for many years he was the principal dealer here in wheat and flour. His line of boats, running from the very door of his mill to the mouth of the Kalamazoo River, and thence to Buffalo, carried all the produce, wheat, flour, etc., up to the time the Michigan Central Railroad was completed to Kalamazoo. Many of our pioneer farmers attribute their first success to Mr. Walbridge’s enterprise and liberality, in advancing them money on growing crops, and otherwise aiding them when money was most needed.”
With the closing down of his flatbed shipping business, Walbridge moved on to the managing of an all-purpose grocery store on E. Main Street and Portage St. The store stocked everything from food to shoes, and continued to be a successful enterprise even as Walbridge focused on his political duties while serving in Lansing and Washington, D.C.
Leader of a New Party
Before heading to Washington D.C. as the representative of Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District in 1855 (the 34th and 35th Congresses), Walbridge served as Village President of Kalamazoo (1848-1850), then later in both the state house and senate. Walbridge is best known as the permanent chairman of the first state Republican National Convention, held in Jackson, MI in 1854. Like many who severed their affiliation with the Whig Party, Walbridge opposed the expansion of slavery into western states, a viewpoint also shared by the new party’s first Presidential winner, Abraham Lincoln. It appears that Walbridge’s importance to the nascent party, was in his ability to fundraise and recruit. Walbridge also served as postmaster from 1849 to 1853, and then again from 1860 until his death.
In September 1976, a historical marker was dedicated and placed along the Kalamazoo Mall, the site where Walbridge once resided prior to his death on 15 June 1868. He is buried in Mountain Home Cemetery.
Article written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, August 2023