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Jo-Lo Park & Rowe’s Island

Kalamazoo’s Long Forgotten Riverside Resort


Believed to be an ancient Native American ceremonial site, the history of Rowe’s Island dates back hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. But during the 1920s and 1930s, the island and nearby riverfront served as an early airport, a swing era picnic park, and a popular nightclub, before the creation of Morrow Lake changed the landscape forever.

Joseph Lowe

Born in Illinois in 1875, Joseph Howard Lowe was the owner of the Kalamazoo Construction Company and a member of the Road Builders of Michigan. When M-17 east of Comstock was widened to become US-12 (now M-96), Joe’s company carried out the roadwork. Joe’s Erie steam shovel was used to dig the basement when Kalamazoo’s State Theatre was built.

Joe was also a farmer who maintained a large fruit farm on his property along US-12 a few miles east of Kalamazoo between Comstock and Galesburg. When automobile travel became popular during the late 1920s, Joe set up a fruit and barbecue stand in his front yard to attract passing motorists.

1894-kalamazoo-river-1600
Kalamazoo River c.1893. From Art Work of City of Kalamazoo [1894], W.H.Parrish Publishing Co., Chicago. Kalamazoo Public Library

Rowe’s Island

During the 19th century and before, the Kalamazoo River was a place of tremendous beauty. The rear of Lowe’s property bordered the river near Rowe’s* Island, a 60-acre densely wooded isle named for Joseph E. Roe (1836-1904), an early landowner. According to a 1931 survey, the nearby shoreline was once the site of an ancient Indian village, and the island was believed to have been a Native American ceremonial site and possible burial ground.

galesburg-garden-bed-400
Memorials of a Half-Century, Bela Hubbard, 1887. University of Pittsburgh

* (Also referred to as Rose Island, and later Rowe Island.)

Rowe’s Island featured what was understood to be a large Indian mound, triangular in shape, roughly 15 feet high, several hundred feet in length, and occupying three quarters of an acre. Atop the triangular form, ancient “garden-beds” were discovered, believed to have been the best preserved such beds in the Midwest. These consisted of parallel patches of raised ground, separated by sunken pathways, and were presumably used for some form of agriculture.

1931-kalamazoo-survey-map-1600
Archaeological Atlas of Michigan, Wilbert B. Hinsdale, Ann Arbor, MI, 1931. Kalamazoo Public Library

Across the river from the island, on the north shore, is a landing place, built of huge boulders, that were undoubtedly transported to the river’s edge… to make a safe and convenient place of landing for their canoes, and the entire island is rich in old Indian lore.

Kalamazoo Gazette, 20 June 1926

1890-kalamazoo-map-roe-island-1600
Comstock Township. Illustrated Atlas of Kalamazoo County, WM. C. Sauer, C.E., 1890. Kalamazoo Public Library

A large grove of white spruce and giant elms blanketed the island, along with black locust, and “hundreds of silvery sycamores” (Gazette). Lowe felt the island made an ideal picnic spot, so he encouraged others to visit and enjoy its natural beauty. In 1926, Joe built a small rope ferry so picnickers could more easily reach the island. During the late 1920s, Dr. Caroline Bartlett Crane spearheaded efforts to designate Rowe’s Island as a Michigan state park. Meanwhile, Lowe named his new picnic paradise “Jo-Lo Island Park” and began hosting events there.

Midway Airport

1929-06-02-KALAMAZOO-GAZETTE-p11-400
Kalamazoo Gazette, 2 June 1929. (KPL)

Joe Lowe was anxious to create some sort of tourist attraction on his property, no matter what shape or form that might take. In 1929, commercial aviation was in its infancy, so Lowe made a contract with Davis and Felix Airways of Battle Creek, who opened an airfield on Lowe’s property called Midway Airport, Kalamazoo’s second full scale airport after Lindberg Field, which had opened earlier that year.

The facilities at Midway were temporary, but a summer full of parachute jumps, aerial exhibitions, and “fancy flying” followed. The Midway airfield lasted just one year and a permanent airport on Lowe’s property failed to materialize. Still, the park’s popularity as a picnic and recreation site continued to grow.

Jo-Lo Island Park

Lowe’s “Proposed State Park” was the site of numerous political rallies and social gatherings during the early 1930s. An “Old Time” July 4th celebration kicked off the 1931 season, and many other such events soon followed. Civil War veterans, fraternal organizations, county commissions, and religious groups gathered for picnics and meeting on Lowe’s riverfront acreage.

At some point, whether manmade or by natural occurrence, Rowe’s Island was split in two with narrow waterway separating the eastern and western portions of the island. The wooded area containing the Indian mound became an island to itself to the west, while the “main island” to the east was developed as a resort. A bridge between the two was built in 1933 (replacing an earlier one), which allowed visitors to access the heavily wooded western island for picnics or sightseeing. Summertime dances became popular attractions after a gravel roadway was built from the mainland to the main (eastern) island.

1931-kalamazoo-map-jo-lo-park-1600-2
Map of Kalamazoo County, 1931. Glen C. Wheaton, Kalamazoo, MI. Kalamazoo Public Library

The state park designation for Rowe’s Island never came to be after inspections by state officials proved inconclusive. But with the Indian mound already a major attraction and the increase in traffic along US-12, Lowe hired Howard Blair of Galesburg to build a pavilion and dancehall on the main island in time for the 1933 summer season. The $5,000 structure, 80 feet by 66 feet, was put up along the riverbank “under the shade of tall beeches and elms” (Gazette). A lunchroom was added to the main building, along with a concrete tennis court and a baseball field. Already well established as a popular picnic spot and summertime gathering place, the dancehall proved to be a popular nightspot during the cold weather months. Through the mid-1930s, “Old Time” dances with Charlie Fischer’s Globetrotters, and “Hot and Sweet” music from the likes of Chuck Kruizenga’s Band, Jack Benton’s Orchestra, Skinner’s Dominoes, and others drew sizeable crowds.

“‘Pep up your spirits’ at Jo-Lo park Sat. night. Dance and drink beer 9 till 2.”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 26 January 1934

“Dance and Drink Beer”

1935-11-09-KALAMAZOO-GAZETTE-p12-400
Kalamazoo Gazette, 9 November 1935. (KPL)

When the sale of beer became legal in 1933, Lowe applied for and was granted a license to sell beer at his establishment. The dancehall was enlarged, and a restaurant was added. Chicken and steak dinners, beer, floor shows, and dancing until the wee morning hours to the likes of the Harlem Rascals, Marv Herbert’s College Band, the Flo Brunswick Orchestra, and Eddie Smith’s Revelers kept Jo-Lo Park filled most every night of the week.

“Dance and drink beer” became the order of the day, but after a few seasons, things began to get a little out of hand. Vandals were arrested at the park for throwing bottles at passing automobiles and damaging parked autos, thieves were caught stealing personal belongings from parked cars, fights broke out, and arrests were made for possessing weapons on the premises.

“Beerless Dancing”

In January 1937, the dancehall was redecorated, rebranded, and reopened as the “Silver Room” with Jim Bennett in charge of “Kalamazoo’s finest beerless dance hall.” Bob Drake’s Swing Band, Johnny Dexter’s Swing Band, Jim Bennett and his Orchestra, Lodi Hall’s Swing Band, and others kept the “beerless dancing” going strong until June when the summer picnic season resumed.

1937-12-12-KALAMAZOO-GAZETTE-p21-1600
Kalamazoo Gazette, 12 December 1937. Kalamazoo Public Library

Morrow Dam

In December 1937, Consumers Power Company announced the construction of Morrow Dam, which would create a 1,200-acre lake and leave much of Rowe’s Island under water. This brought an end to Jo-Lo Island Park and Joe Lowe’s old dancehall. When the bulldozers and tree cutters arrived to level the island and remove its timber in preparation for the floodwaters, hundreds of rattlesnakes and “hoards” of mosquitos reportedly swarmed the workers, perhaps a defiant last stand by spirits of the island’s ancient inhabitants.

YouTube player

Drone video captured in 2020 when the lake level was low clearly shows what was likely the remains of the Jo-Lo Park dancehall at the eastern end of the main island, while a small grove of trees marks the western portion where the Indian mound was once located. (Thanks to Geezers Bassin)

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Kalamazoo Gazette, 26 September 1941 (KPL)

Castle Hall

With news of the impending floodwaters overtaking Rowe’s Island, Lowe closed his old dancehall and put up a new 3,300 square foot “beerless” dancehall and restaurant near the highway called “Castle Hall.” He also built a new half-mile horse track and brought harness and saddle racing back to Kalamazoo for the first time in nearly a decade.

The new dancehall, restaurant, and kitchen facilities were available for rent throughout the early 1940s. Weekly dances during those years featured the likes of Ted Caldron’s Orchestra, George King’s Orchestra, Dale Allers and his Orchestra, the “Jens” Jensen Orchestra, and others. The first season of horse races at Jo-Lo Park attracted thousands, but the races ceased after 1940.

1940-06-30-KALAMAZOO_GAZETTE-p20-1600
Kalamazoo Gazette, 30 June 1940. Kalamazoo Public Library

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Aviation Country Club c.1946. US-12 is in the foreground, Morrow Lake in the distance, Castle Hall and the runways are near the center. Kalamazoo Gazette, 7 June 1946. Kalamazoo Public Library

Aviation Country Club

After Joseph Lowe’s death in 1944, the Castle Hall nightclub was closed. In 1946, Roger Parrott and Frederick Mills, both veteran Kalamazoo pilots, signed a five-year lease and turned the 80-acre parcel into a twin-runway landing field and clubhouse called the Aviation Country Club. The airfield served as an instruction center for pilots until after the war, but Mills and Parrott did not renew the lease, and dissolved their partnership in 1952. The former Castle Hall clubhouse saw use as a rental and auction hall until 1963 when fire destroyed the building.

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What remains of Rowe’s Island as it appears today. Photo by Keith Howard

Today, Rowe’s Island lies mostly submerged in Morrow Lake just beyond the Morrow Pond Boat Access. A 1979 archaeological study attempted to confirm the existence of Native American features on what remained of Rowe’s Island but failed to provide any evidence. Rosemont Street now runs south from M-96 where Jo-Lo Park Road used to be. Otherwise, little evidence of Jo-Lo Park remains and safe to say that no hint of the island’s historic past has survived.

Continuing Research

Like many of our Local History essays, this article is by no means a definitive study; rather it is a continuing work-in-progress. If you have new information, corrections, photos, or items you’d like to share, please contact the author or the Local History Room.

 

Written by Keith Howard, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, February 2023.

Sources

Books

Memorials of a half-century
Hubbard, Bela (1814-1896)
G.P. Putnam’s sons, New York, 1887
Darlington Digital Library, University of Pittsburgh


Articles

“River route for M-17 is now favored”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 14 March 1926, page 21

“Urge Rose Island in Kalamazoo River for state park”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 20 June 1926, page 12

“State finishes survey of M-17 river highway”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 17 July 1926, page 1

“The highway report”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 19 July 1926, page 4

“Joe Lowe out on M-17…”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 16 August 1926, page 4

“Fellow, upon readin’…”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 18 August 1926, page 4

“After a tourist…”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 12 September 1926, page 4

“Col. Joe Lowe…”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 3 October 1926, page 2

“Much praise…”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 6 October 1926, page 4

“Joe Lowe…”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 26 February 1927, page 4

“New designations for state roads now being placed”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 8 May 1927, page 24

“River park offers beautiful entrance to Kalamazoo and greater safety, says Stace”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 5 June 1927, pages 1,5

“C.C. authorizes U.S.-12 society”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 21 March 1928, page 15

“Bids on widening of U.S.-12 to be sought April 24”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 4 April 1928, page 1

“Inspect proposed River Isle Park”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 11 April 1928, page 4

“Five present bids on Galesburg road”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 25 April 1928, page 2

“Work on U.S.-12 East completed”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 22 September 1928, page 3

“C. Of C. standing committees for year appointed”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 4 January 1929, page 4

“State park committee organized for year”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 10 January 1929, page 8

“Second airport for Kalamazoo to open today”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 26 May 1929, page 3

Display ad
Kalamazoo Gazette, 2 June 1929, page 11

“Flier will leap from plane today”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 2 June 1929, page 24

“Air circus to be held here June 19”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 7 June 1929, page 21

Display ad
Kalamazoo Gazette, 9 June 1929, page 21

“Plan fine airport”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 14 July 1929, page 16

“George R. Fox, scientist, to explore ‘Indian mound’ on Rowe’s Island”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 7 September 1930, page 3

“Well-preserved Indian garden beds found on island in Kalamazoo River”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 25 November 1930, page 3

Display ad
Kalamazoo Gazette, 1 July 1931, page 18

Display ad
Kalamazoo Gazette, 3 July 1931, page 12

“The proposed state park…”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 20 July 1931, page 6

“Dance tonight…”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 25 July 1931, page 10

“Rally to be held at proposed park”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 25 August 1931, page 36

“State park rally to be held today”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 30 August 1931, page 1

“Jo-Lo Park will have dance hall”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 9 July 1933, page 2

Display ad
Kalamazoo Gazette, 23 July 1933, page 11

“A 24-hour beer license was issued…”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 26 November 1933, page 22

“Pleads guilty to carrying weapon”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 11 April 1934, page 2

“Jo-Lo Park casino opens third year”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 20 October 1935, page 20

“Dance at Jo-Lo Sat.”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 13 January 1937, page 16

“Beerless dancing at Jo-Lo Sat.”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 22 January 1937, page 29

“1,200 acre lake will be formed by Morrow Dam”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 12 December 1937, page 21

“Beerless night club ready soon”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 3 April 1938, page 15

“Pick site for harness races”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 23 May 1939, page 14

“Horse races to be staged here on September 17”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 10 September 1939, page 14

“Island in river soon will disappear”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 24 September 1940, page 7

“Joseph Lowe dies at home”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 2 May 1944, page 1

“Open Aviation Country Club Saturday night”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 7 June 1946, page 4

“Mills to sell Aviation CC”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 1 February 1952, page 2

“Fire levels Comstock building”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 23 December 1963, page 4

“Fire probed in Comstock”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 24 December 1963, page 11


Reports

8-an archaeological survey of the expanded Galesburg rest area,
Comstock Township, Kalamazoo County, Michigan
William M. Cremin
Western Michigan University,1982

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