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Parsons Business College

“The School of Efficiency” (est. 1869)


William F. Parsons, c.1880. Courtesy, William Parsons Reed.

Education has played a vital role in Kalamazoo’s economy since the earliest days of Bronson Village. Educating the community’s business leaders has been of primary importance through institutions like Kalamazoo College (founded in 1833), Kalamazoo Valley Community College (established in 1966) and Western Michigan University (established in 1903). All have long offered advanced programs in business education, but a small independently operated business school came into prominence soon after the Civil War that not only provided Kalamazoo’s earliest business leaders with specific technical skills but has since prepared tens of thousands of students for successful careers in business administration. The name has changed but its DNA lives on as one of Kalamazoo’s most important learning institutions.

Kalamazoo Business College

Parsons’ Business College—the second oldest school of its kind in the state—was established in 1869 by Abdiel Campbell Parsons, president of the Ann Arbor Business College, and his brother, William F. Parsons, who taught penmanship at the Ann Arbor school. Opened in December 1869 as “The Kalamazoo Business College and Telegraphic Institute,” Parsons’ school offered up to 28 timely subjects “pertaining to an accurate acquaintance with business” (Telegraph), including single and double entry book keeping, banking, railroading, steam-boating, brokerage, insurance, commission, commercial law, business arithmetic, telegraphy, and penmanship.

1876 engraving of Parsons Business College interior (House Block). Kalamazoo Telegraph, 26 September 1876. Local History Room.

William F. Parsons

The school’s co-founder and director, Professor William F. Parsons, was born in December 1836 and raised in Colebrook, New Hampshire, along the banks of the Connecticut River. After William’s father passed away in 1839, his mother met and married John Devlin, who moved the family to Horicon, Wisconsin. William attended public schools in Colebrook and Horicon, and later attended Hamden Academy in Maine and Oberlin College in Ohio. He studied at the Bryant & Stratton Business Institute in Chicago where he became a student of P.R. Spencer’s famous Spencerian script penmanship, commonly used in business writing at the time. He then attended law school at the University of Michigan before joining the military at the onset of the Civil War.

Spencerian script written by W.F. Parsons, from Parsons’ Hand Book, c.1882. Private collection.

In August 1862, W.F. Parsons enlisted in Wisconsin’s Twenty-Ninth Regiment Infantry Company “C” where he served as a Captain until June 1865. After the war Parsons returned to Ann Arbor and established a business school with his brothers, Hiram and Abdiel Parsons. The Parsons brothers soon developed a sizable enterprise with similar business schools in Jackson, Grand Rapids, Adrian, Marshall, and Kalamazoo. Along with George, Cyrus and Charles Devlin, the six brothers eventually expanded their business interests to Saginaw, Alpena and Bay City, as well as Duluth, Minnesota, and Ashland, Wisconsin.

Parsons Business College, southeast corner of East Main and Burdick (House Block), c.1874-77. Local History Room photo file P-207.

House’s Block

W.F. Parsons and his wife Mary P. Parsons moved to Kalamazoo in 1867 and established the new business college on the third floor of House’s Block, which stood at the southeast corner of South Burdick and Main Street (Michigan Avenue). Class sessions began on Wednesday, December 22, 1869, and offered accommodations for up to 30 students in rooms above the American Express Office on South Burdick Street. Thirty-one students registered for the first term, and 29 successfully graduated, several of whom publicly expressed their “entire satisfaction with the practical and thorough manner in which the College is conducted” in the Kalamazoo Telegraph a few weeks later.

Students at Parsons Business College c.1875. Local History Room photo file P-232.

As the school grew, Parsons marked the nation’s centennial by publishing his first book, a bound report called the “Business College Record,” which he submitted to the Michigan Department of the Centennial as an illustration of his students’ success. A history of the school was included, which was “prepared solely by the students, in their own handwriting” (Gazette) to demonstrate their advanced accomplishments in penmanship and calligraphy, a school specialty taught by Parsons himself. Parsons printed three thousand copies of the book, which received high accolades in the pages of the Detroit Post and Tribune.

Parsons Business College, southeast corner of East Main and Portage (Humphrey Block), 1882. Local History Room photo file P-165.

Humphrey Block

Parsons’ Hand Book, 1882.

By 1880, Parsons’ enrollment had grown to more than 80 students. After twelve years in its original location, the school needed more room to accommodate the growing attendance. In June 1882 Parsons moved his school to the 3rd floor of the Humphrey Block at the corner of East Main Street (Michigan Avenue) and Portage Street above what was then L.C. Starkey’s furniture store (currently the Olde Peninsula Brew Pub). The school soon saw its enrollment grow to more than one hundred.

Parsons’ Hand Book of Business and Social Forms

Later in the year Parsons co-authored a second book with Battle Creek publisher J.E. White called Parsons’ Hand-Book of Forms: A Compendium of Business and Social Rules and a Complete Work of Reference and Self-Instruction, with Illustrations. With helpful insight from fellow professors at Kalamazoo College, Battle Creek College, Battle Creek Business College, and elsewhere, the book offered self-guided instruction in twenty topics, such as penmanship, commercial arithmetic, proper behavior and letter writing. While some students traveled great distances to attend classes in Kalamazoo, others from as far away as New York, Wyoming, Tennessee, and Montana ordered copies of Parsons’ new self-instruction book and studied on their own. The highly successful book was published in several editions and sold more than 65,000 copies.

1883 engraving depicting the Humphrey Block interior, from Parsons’ Hand Book, c.1883. Private collection.

Students at Parsons Business College c.1885. Local History Room photo file P-253.

Chase Block, northwest corner of West Main and Rose streets, c.1893. Local History Room photo file P-742.


Chase Block

By 1890 Parsons had outgrown his space in the Humphrey Block and was again looking to expand. Still more than a decade ahead of Western Normal School, the demand for teachers throughout the area prompted Parsons to add a new normal (teacher training) department to his school, which became known as the “Parsons Business College, Short Hand and Normal Institute.” To accommodate its growth the school was moved to the 4th floor of the Chase Block at the northwest corner of West Main & Rose streets where Parsons employed five “first class” instructors, including Professor Ashley Clapp, who was engaged to conduct the newly instituted department.

1891 engraving depicting the main study hall inside the Chase Block. Kalamazoo Gazette, 24 April 1891. Local History Room.

A New College Building

After more than twenty years in business at three separate locations, W.F. Parsons grew weary of moving… and renting. With 127 students enrolled for classes in December 1891, the newer rooms in the Chase Block were still not large enough to accommodate the school’s growing needs. By January 1892 Parsons had begun to make plans to purchase property where he could erect a dedicated school building. A lot at the northwest corner of Main Street (Michigan Avenue) and Park Street was considered, but Parsons ultimately chose a lot one block west at the northwest corner of West Main and North West streets (West Michigan and North Westnedge avenues).

Parsons Business College, 117/121 (135) N. West St., c.1908. Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo County, Michigan. Sanborn Map Company, 1908. Library of Congress. Kalamazoo Public Library Local History Room.

After consulting with his step-brother General George Devlin, who managed a similar school in Jackson, Kalamazoo contractor Albert White was employed to erect a three-story 9,400 square foot building that would accommodate up to 400 students. Plans were to have the new school building completed and ready to occupy by the end of the year.

Parsons Business College, northwest corner of West Street and West Main, c.1894. Local History Room.

When the new building opened in January 1893, classes were held on the third floor, while rooms on the ground floor were designated for student activities. Administrative offices were in the front of the building on the second floor, with the Parsons family—William F. and Mary C. Parsons, their son William W., and daughter Caroline—occupying a large apartment on the second floor. This living arrangement eventually landed Parsons in court over a tax dispute with the City of Kalamazoo because the property was not being used exclusively for educational purposes. Parsons had pled for tax-exempt status, but the city ultimately prevailed.

Main hall, Parsons Business College c.1904. Greater Kalamazoo, 30 July 1904.

The college continued to grow throughout the first decades of the 20th century. With its spacious new facility, including an indoor gymnasium, the school was able for the first time to support recreational and sports activities. Students formed basketball, football, baseball, track, and bicycling teams, which joined city leagues and competed against teams from other local and regional institutions. Parsons students formed a literary society, organized activities like sleigh rides and dances, and often held picnic parties at Woods Lake, Milham Park and Gull Lake. In 1903 the school organized a highly regarded military drill team known as the Parsons Zouaves, which was captained by William W. Parsons. Along with General George Devlin’s teams from Jackson, the 25-member company traveled extensively and took part in many local parades and events, including a performance at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.

“The Kalamazoo Business College and Writing Institute is the best place for young men and women to get a business education.”

Kalamazoo Gazette, November 11, 1881

W.F. Parsons recognized the value of experience. Business law students engaged in mock trials, while future bankers gained firsthand experience in the profession at the Parsons’ Business College Bank, “a real bank, with real money” (Gazette) located inside the school building. Parsons also brought in local business leaders who talked with students about timely business issues like advertising and upcoming business opportunities. Speakers such as attorney William G. Howard, Judge A.J. Mills, Kalamazoo mayors Frank Milham, William Thompson, Charles B. Hays, and Walter Taylor, and cereal magnate W.K. Kellogg—many of whom were former Parsons students themselves—spoke on such topics as “Partnership,” “Accuracy and Order” and “Success.”

Parsons Business College interior illustrations, c.1894. Willard Library, Battle Creek.

Women in Business

Mary P. (Sibley) Parsons. Courtesy, William Parsons Reed

From its earliest days Parsons’ Business College recognized the important role of women in business and community engagement, both in practice and within the school’s administration. Mary Parsons was a principal shareholder in the company and served for many years as an officer on the local Children’s Home board of trustees, while daughter Caroline Parsons served as company treasurer and principal of the Writing and Shorthand Department at the business college for nearly a decade. Caroline advocated for equal pay and encouraged women to learn business skills like shorthand, noting that “a good stenographer can always earn an excellent salary. There is a constant demand for stenographers of ability and stenographic positions are always open” (Gazette).

Throughout the years women continued to hold strong leadership roles within the Parsons organization. Emilia Kennedy was school principal for eight years during the 1920s and 1930s, and Teresa Stewart guided the college for nearly two decades until 1964.

Caroline Parsons. Courtesy William Parsons Reed.

W.F. Parsons was sole owner of the school until the company was incorporated in 1906. Mary Parsons became the principal stockholder at that time and William F. Parsons effectively retired, placing daughter Caroline in charge of the school’s administrative duties as company treasurer and William W. Parsons as company secretary. Following an extended illness, W.F. Parsons passed away in March 1914 at the age of 78.

After Caroline Parsons’ untimely death in 1912, her brother, William W. Parsons, took over and served as principal until 1927 when he moved to Vermont to pursue other interests. Mary Parsons and her son retained ownership of the school until her death in 1923, leaving son William as the sole stockholder. Emilia Kennedy then leased the school and served as principal until William W. Parsons’ death in 1935.

McDuffee mansion, northwest corner West Main and Stuart Street, c.1895. Local History Room photo file P-291.

McDuffee Mansion

Edgar C. Stewart, a business school director from Terre Haute, Indiana, bought the firm from the Parsons estate in 1935 and managed it until his own death in 1947. Parsons’ Accounting Department head R.C. Waugh managed the school briefly until Teresa Stewart assumed her late husband’s role as president and directed the school for several years thereafter. During the Second World War the college was moved from its North Westnedge location to a stately mansion at the northwest corner of West Main and Stuart streets, formerly owned by Louis P. and Harriet McDuffee.

First Federal Building, northeast corner of West Michigan Avenue and Park Street, c.1958. Portage District Library.

Davenport College

Under Teresa Stewart’s continued direction Parsons Business College moved again in 1953 to more spacious quarters on the second floor of the First Federal Savings and Loan Building at northeast corner of West Michigan Avenue and Park Street. In 1956 the school was purchased by Davenport Schools of Grand Rapids, although it continued to operate at the same location under the Parsons name. Teresa Stewart remained director until her retirement in 1964. Gene H. Marr served as director until 1967 when C. Dexter Rohm joined the organization and became director. Rohm purchased the school from Davenport in 1977 and two years later moved it to a newly expanded campus location at 4123 West Main Street near the Westwood Neighborhood.

In July 1981 Rohm sold Parsons Business College to the Grand Rapids-based Davenport College of Business, now part of Davenport University. The Parsons name was dropped at that time and the school became known as Davenport College, with Dexter Rohm serving as its first dean.

Kalamazoo Valley Community College (KVCC) Student Success Center. Photo credit: Eckert Wordell.

Davenport University, KVCC

In 2015 Davenport University formed a partnership with Kalamazoo Valley Community College and closed its West Main Street location. Today Davenport University operates in more than a dozen locations plus an expanding online presence, with its Kalamazoo location now known as Davenport University, KVCC.

The skills required to be a business professional have changed considerably since the 19th century. Arithmetic, telegraphy, stenography, and penmanship have given way to accounting, finance, human resources management and business strategy. Over the years the name has changed, the locations have changed, and the subjects have certainly changed, but the core principles that W.F. Parsons established more than 150 years ago remain as the school continues to prepare today’s students for successful careers in business.


Continuing Research

Like many of our Local History articles, this is by no means a definitive study. If you have new information, corrections, or items to share, please contact the author or the Local History Room.

Written by Keith Howard, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, July 2019. Last updated 5 September 2019.


Acknowledgements

Special thanks to William Parsons Reed of Orange, Vermont, for sharing family photos and additional information about the Parsons family.

Sources

Books

Parsons’ Hand-Book of Forms: A Compendium of Business and Social Rules and a Complete Work of Reference and Self-Instruction, with Illustrations.

Parsons, Prof. W.F. and J.E. White. 1880. Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Reprinted in 1882, 1883, 1885, 1902 and 1910.

History of Kalamazoo county, Michigan.

Durant, Samuel W. comp.
Philadelphia.: Everts & Abbott, 1880.
University of Michigan. Kalamazoo Public Library, Local History Room

Parsons’ Business College Catalogue

Parsons, Prof. W.F. 1892. Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Willard Library, Battle Creek, Michigan.

Michigan Manual of Freedmen’s Progress

Warren, Francis H., Freedmen’s Progress Commission, Detroit, Michigan. 1915
Western Michigan University Libraries


Articles

“Kalamazoo Business College.”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 1 January 1875, p.3, col.4 (weekly edition)

“A Beautiful Book.”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 7 May 1876, p.4.

“Kalamazoo Business College at the Centennial.”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 30 June 1876, p.4, col.2 (weekly edition)

“Kalamazoo Business College at the Centennial.”

Kalamazoo Telegraph. 26 September 1876 (Supplement) p.3, col 2.

“Parsons Business College and Writing Institute”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 11 November 1881, p.7, col.3 (ad in weekly edition)

“What the Detroit Post and Tribune has to say of Our Business College.”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 25 August 1882, p.6, col.3 (weekly).

“Educating Parsons.”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 8 September 1889, p.4, col.5.

“He Has An Option.”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 15 January 1892, p.4, col.2 (weekly edition)

“New College Site.”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 18 March 1892, p.5, col.2.

“New College Building.”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 22 April 1892, p.5, col.2.

“Parsons’ Business College.”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 30 August 1892, p.7, col.3 (Trade Edition)

“Many Military Bodies Here For Missouri Week.”

The St. Louis Republic. 22 August 1904, p.12, col.3.

“Women As Breadwinners”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 14 January 1906, p.2, col.2.

“Gazette’s Hall of Fame – No. 56. William F. Parsons, Educator.”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 15 March 1906, p.4, col.3.

“Parsons Dies at Home Here; 78 Years Old.”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 4 March 1914, p.1, col.6.

“Parsons College Second Oldest Business School”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 4 September 1921, p.15, col.6.

“Parsons School Is Purchased By Terre Haute Man”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 12 June 1935, p.11, col. 1 (copy in Local History Room, Education Scrapbook #2, page 5)

“Parsons Business School Founded As Commerce, Telegraph College”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 3 August 1969, p.45, col. 1 (copy in History Room Subject File: Parsons’ Business School)

“Kalamazoo Business School Roots Traced to 1860s Law Dropout”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 15 November 1981, p.G1, col. 1 (copy in History Room Subject File: Parsons’ Business School)


Census Records

John Devlin household, 1850 United States Federal Census, Hubbard, Dodge, Wisconsin Census Place: Hubbard, Dodge, Wisconsin, page 169B, dwelling 36, family 36
Online database, Ancestry Library (in library only)


Maps

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo County, Michigan. Sanborn Map Company, 1908.
Library of Congress / Kalamazoo Public Library, Local History Room


Military Records

Roster of Wisconsin Volunteers, War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865, Volume 1.
Democrat Printing Company, State Printers (Wisconsin), 1886
University of Michigan Libraries

Special Schedules of the Eleventh Census (1890)
Enumerating Union Veterans and Widows of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
Enumeration District: 111, Michigan.
Online database, Ancestry Library (in library only)


Photographs

Southeast corner of Main and Burdick, 1877-80 [picture]
Stereograph. Wintertime photo shows several buildings on Main and Burdick.
History Room Photograph File P-163

Southeast corner of E. Main and Portage, 1882. [picture]
W.S. White, photographer.
History Room Photograph File P-165

Southeast corner of Main and Burdick, 1877-80 [picture]
Stereograph, shows first four buildings on East Main
History Room Photograph File P-191

Southeast corner of East Main and Burdick, 1874-77 [picture]
W. S. White, photographer.
History Room Photograph File P-207

Parsons’ Business College, Interior, 1873-1882 [picture]
Stereograph, taken from front of classroom. Students mainly seated at desks.
History Room Photograph File P-232

Parsons’ Business College, interior, 1887-1895 [picture]
Glass negative purchased from the estate of W. S. White.
History Room Photograph File P-253

North West Street, west side north from Main Street, 1891-92 [picture]
Glass negative purchased from the estate of W. S. White.
History Room Photograph File P-279

House at 1012 West Main Street (demolished), 1890-1895 [picture]
Glass negative purchased from the estate of W. S. White.
History Room Photograph File P-291

Chase Block, northwest corner of West Main and Rose Streets, Kalamazoo, 1893. [picture]
History Room Photograph File P-742

Parsons’ Business College, From “Art Work of City of Kalamazoo”
Published in 1894 by the W.H.Parrish Publishing Co., Chicago.
Kalamazoo Public Library (uncatalogued)

First Federal Building (2002-N-0099a)
John Todd Photographic Collection
Portage District Library, Portage, Michigan


Local History Room Files

History Room Subject File: Parsons Business College. 

History Room Subject File: Education – General.


Comments

“I was quite pleased yesterday to stumble upon your recent article on Parsons Business School. I periodically poke the Google machine for items relating to my ancestors, and this was a good result indeed. William F. Parsons was my great-grandfather. My mom was Mary Jane Parsons (Reed), born in Kalamazoo in 1913 to William Walter Parsons, son of William F. Between her recollections, and my dad’s hobby of genealogy, I have quite a good deal of info, but seeing it presented as a fluent article, with pictures no less, is much nicer than countless pages of handwritten notes. I sincerely thank you for your effort.” —Bill Reed (William Parsons Reed), Orange, VT.

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