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Hillcrest Neighborhood

Despite a paucity of official map references to a neighborhood called ‘Hillcrest’, one could cite a number of reasons for its inclusion as a distinct, geographic zone with a rich, colorful history of its own. The region, known for its hilly topography, is bounded to the north by Howard Street, south by the marshy Kleinstuck Preserve, east by Crosstown Parkway, and west by Oakland Drive. When city maps are drawn, the area has been historically enveloped within the Oakland/Winchell neighborhood.

Early Origins

It has been suggested that prior to the presence of white missionaries, soldiers, explorers, and settlers, that a trail connecting what are now Westnedge Avenue to Oakland Drive, was utilized by the Potawatomie and indigenous peoples before them. Some have speculated, though little evidence exists, that British soldiers and their Indian allies built a forge in close proximity, utilizing the bog iron from the swamp in order to repair and sharpen weaponry during the War of 1812.

As more settlers migrated into the county during the middle portion of the 19th century, several land speculators owned deeds to the land around the area, including Cyren Burdick, Hosea B. Huston, Leonard Babcock, John M. Edwards and Edgar M. Potter. Babcock and his family were the first to erect a house in the area. Edwards, a prominent lawyer, resided on South Street at the time, but was known to use the cabin near the corner of Howard Street and Oakland Drive as a kind of rustic getaway. By the late 1860’s the area was known as Potter’s “Asylum Hill Nurseries”, a reference to the recently built Michigan Asylum for the Insane. Despite the hilly and sandy nature of the land, Potter managed to forge a successful farm and nursery business, including the planting of fruit trees, shrubs and ornamental trees. In 1887, Potter sold the land to the Kleinstuck family.


Carl and Caroline Kleinstuck

The area’s most prominent, late 19th century family was that of Carl G. Kleinstuck (1853-1916) and his wife Caroline (1855-1932). Caroline was the daughter of one of Kalamazoo’s early settlers and promoters, Silas Hubbard. Caroline’s father, a teacher and farmer, was one of the primary founders of both the Kalamazoo Paper Company and the People’s Church. Caroline became one of the first women to receive a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the University of Michigan after they opened up the university to women students. She later went to Europe to study at the University of Geneva and the University of Paris. While traveling throughout Europe, she met her German husband Carl, a Saxon military officer who was studying engraving.

Photo courtesy the WMU Archives and Regional History Collection

After marrying in 1883, the couple lived in Chicago, but because of Carl’s health problems, the couple moved back to Kalamazoo in 1885. Once in Kalamazoo, Carl set out to develop the property into a dairy farm (proudly dubbed Saxonia Farm). One of the Kleinstuck’s biggest customers was the asylum. As an affluent family with strong ties to the city’s most influential citizens, Carl possessed the financial stability to pursue other business ventures, and in the early part of the twentieth century, delved into the peat industry. Carl’s knowledge of peat bricks used in the creation of fuel began during his time in Germany, but with the possibility of using the nearby bog as a mine, he set out to develop an alternative to wood and coal. Not one to resist using his own product, Kleinstuck heated his family’s two-story Italianate mansion (1933 Oakland Drive) for an entire year with the peat he had mined. Kleinstuck built rail tracks down toward the middle of the bog in order to transport the peat back to his home. But because wood and coal were in abundance in the early part of the twentieth century, Kleinstuck’s peat fuel business failed to impact the market, eventually fizzling out by 1912. Throughout their lives, both Kleinstuck’s were active throughout the community, engaged with a variety of social causes, service clubs and associations.

Kleinstuck Preserve

For a historical timeline regarding the Kleinstuck Preserve, the wetlands and woods popular with joggers, dog walkers, birders, and nature enthusiasts, go here. It was Caroline, who before she passed away, donated the large tract of land that was once part of the family farm in 1922, in honor of her nature-loving husband.

Photo by Ryan Gage, 2021
Housing

The emergence of the reliable electric streetcar line along Asylum Drive, made the Hillcrest area primed for development, and with Kalamazoo’s population boom, developers sought new tracts of land to purchase. In 1912, the Hillcrest Land Company bought the land between Howard Street and Cherry Street, registering 107 lots. The two members of the company most responsible for developing the new plat were Walter M. Blinks and Don Snooks. Orley Haas was one of the most active commercial builders in the neighborhood, while others chose to build on their purchased parcels without his services.

The new homes were to be “at least 30 feet from the road, must cost at least $2,000, could not have outhouses, and relied on septic.”

In 1913, the first home built in the neighborhood was at 1334 Hillcrest, a two-story stucco Foursquare. Over the next 15 years or so, most of the lots were filled with homes reflecting the architectural styles of the day–Bungalow, Foursquare, Cape Cod, Colonial Revival, English Tudor. The first world war’s impact slowed the building and growth of the neighborhood, but from 1918 to 1930, construction once again accelerated, with even larger, more ostentatious houses taking rise. Illinois Street was one of the original roads running north and south through the plat, but its name was later changed to Brentwood. The first residents to occupy homes in the neighborhood came from a variety of backgrounds including, “a barber, a real estate agent, a molder, a store manager, an elementary school principal, a company president and a male nurse at the State Hospital.” As was common practice at the time, through the use of restrictive covenants, black residents were excluded from buying homes in the neighborhood.

“As houses were completed, the city directory listings show that the first residents were factory workers at The Kalamazoo Stove Company or Kalamazoo Loose Leaf Bindery–usually not the type of people who could afford brand-new homes. Most of them moved out after one or two years.”–Sharon Ferraro


Caroline Bartlett Crane

As the neighborhood’s popularity grew throughout the 1920’s, an increasing number of influential residents were drawn to the area. Best known for her part in the development of the design for the award-winning Everyman’s House, Crane and her husband Augustus spent her later years in a home at 1429 Hillcrest Avenue. Crane and Caroline Kleinstuck were close friends, both actively engaged in local associations, clubs and social welfare activities.


Hillcrest Elementary School/The Kazoo School (1401 Cherry Street)

For the history of Hillcrest Elementary School, see historian Lynn Houghton’s article. The Kazoo School, Kalamazoo County’s oldest non-religious private school, moved into the old elementary school in 1985. Formed by a few parents in October of 1972, the school was born as an alternative to the public school system. In an article from the Kalamazoo Gazette in 1983, the elementary/middle school’s approach to teaching was summarized by staff member Bonnie Bowen as one ‘that integrates language arts, math, social studies, and creative arts through a thematic curriculum.

With a clear sense of purpose, The Kazoo School opened its doors in January 1973; there were eleven children and two teachers in that first class. For over 45 years, our goal has been to educate students to become independent thinkers and lifelong learners. We encourage students’ academic excellence in an environment that values social responsibility and respect for others. We believe that small class size, a warm and supportive environment, and a commitment to the arts are all essential elements of a well-educated person.—The Kazoo School Website

Today, the neighborhood appears as it likely did a century ago, including the charming red brick portion of Maple Street. Over the past half century, South Junior High School (Maple Street Magnet School for the Arts) was built along Maple Street in 1950 by Miller-Davis Company and designed by Kingscott & Associates. Across the street from the middle school are the YMCA of Greater Kalamazoo facilities, a commercial hub that houses several small businesses, and the Kalamazoo Free Methodist Church. The Kalamazoo Klassic, an annual 10k race, has used the top of Maple Street hill as it’s starting and finishing line since 1979.

South Junior High School, 1950

Article written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, January 2022. Last updated 14 April 2022.

Sources
Articles

“Mrs. Kleinstueck, Pioneer Family Member, Expires”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 29 February 1932

“Kazoo School Has New Leader and New Location”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 8 August 1985, page D4, column 2

“Winds of Change at Kazoo School”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 20 June 2007, page A3, column 2

“Hillcrest Family History”

Your Home Southwest Michigan, September 2009, p.8

Books

History Through the Eyes of a Neighborhood, Brendan Henehan (H 977.418 H498)

Local History Room Files

Name File: Kleinstuck, Carl G.

Name File: Kleinstuck, Caroline I.

Subject File: Kazoo School

Online

The Kazoo School

Kalamazoo Klassic

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