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Gull Prairie Village

The modern village of Richland is located nine miles northeast of the city of Kalamazoo at the intersection of M-89 and 32nd Street, near the center of the area known as Gull Prairie. In the early nineteenth century Gull Prairie was a large 4,400 acre open area, surrounded by southern Michigan’s fabled “oak openings,” that boasted some of the best farmland in the area. It was this fertile soil that led early settlers Willard and Sylvester Mills to name the plat that they established in 1833 Richland (this is not the current Richland, but was located slightly to the south and east).

Isaac Barnes and the Kalamazoo Emigration Society

Isaac Barnes House, Richland
Isaac Barnes House, Richland, c1971 Kalamazoo Valley Museum Photograph 78.666

As is often the case with the founding of a new community, early Richland was influenced by the strong personality of one of its earliest pioneers. Colonel Isaac Barnes was the leader of an Ohio based organization called the Kalamazoo Emigration Society. Unlike many of the pioneer settlement societies of this period, Barnes’s group of volunteers was not linked by familial or religious ties. In the case of Richland and Gull Prairie, the desire to settle on and own such obviously profitable land surpassed the more common occurrence of a single large family or church sponsored settlement.

The Society’s group of eighteen teams set out for Gull Prairie in the spring of 1830. Led by Barnes, these first settlers quickly set to work plowing the rich soil and building log homes from the plentiful oak trees that surrounded the open land. Their enthusiasm to own this land was demonstrated a year later when, on  18 June 1831, the first day that land in Gull Prairie went up for sale, all the available land was sold for $1.25 an acre. Barnes himself went on to become the first supervisor of Richland Township in 1833, the acting Justice of the Peace. He was also the first Postmaster, a position in which he served until 1841.

Establishing a Community

Although the initial group of settlers on Gull Prairie hailed from Ohio, many of them were New Englanders by birth, and subsequent settlers soon began to arrive, also from the Northeast. As a result, the traditional ‘Yankee’ social institutions of education, religion, and family and were given a prominent role in this new place. Once the basic needs of survival were met, pioneers quickly began to form the schools, churches and social associations that would characterize early Richland.

Richland Presbyterian Church
Richland Presbyterian Church Meader Collection, vol. 27

In the Protestant New England tradition, education was closely tied to religion, so it was not surprising that the first school pupils were instructed in 1832 by Rev. William Jones in a small room of his home. The following year a small log house was built for this purpose, and Isaac Briggs was hired to teach. By 1848 a grand total of $118.40 was appropriated by the school inspectors to educate 296 students.

Religious Community

The Kalamazoo Emigration Society’s charter provided for the establishment of a Congregational Church, but in fact the Presbyterian Church of Gull Prairie was the first religious institution in Richland. Writings in a small lined minute book recorded a meeting in the log cabin of Cornelius and Mary Northrop on 14 October 1831 to form the Presbyterian Church.

The next religious group to organize was the Congregationalists, and the two bodies were often at odds over various aspects of frontier life. However, over time these disputes were resolved, and the religious community of Richland expanded to include Methodist, Baptist, and Catholic congregations.

Social Groups

Early social activities included barn raising, quilting parties, corn husking, apple-paring bees, and Temperance meetings. The Temperance movement was strong in the Richland area. The Richland Red Ribbon Club was formed in 1878 to “promote temperance and make it so attractive as to draw in our fathers and mothers… and save our sons and our daughters from the evils of the intoxicating cup.” The Ladies Library Association was organized by a group of women in 1880 to make good books available within the community. In 1923 the Gull Prairie Garden Club, still active today, was started to encourage civic involvement. The Masons and Odd-Fellows organized as early fraternal organizations for pioneer men.

Agricultural Center

Upjohn Richland Farms
Upjohn Richland Farms, c1934 Kalamazoo Public Library Photograph P-1157

The second half of the nineteenth century saw Richland realize its potential as the agricultural center of the county. By 1870 Richland Township led all others in numbers of crops and livestock. Partly as a response to this success, the residents of the small area called Gull Corners decided to incorporate into the village of Richland, and the bill was approved on 18 March 1871. Soon afterwards Richland slowly began to accumulate some of the trappings and conveniences of its larger neighbors.

In the early 1920s, a new consolidated school was built in the village. A fire truck was purchased in 1924. Once Gull Road was paved, a bus line was able to stop there starting in 1925. As a response to the widespread unemployment brought about by the Great Depression, Dr. W. E. Upjohn, established a project called the Upjohn Richland Farms in 1931.

Shifting and Expanding

The post war years in Richland saw a shift from an almost completely agricultural population to a more balanced mix of farmers, industrial, and service workers. Many of these new residents were employed in the larger neighboring communities but chose to live in Richland. This expansion caused some growing pains during the 1950s. In 1953 the village received its first stoplight at the four corners to try to slow down some of the greatly increased automotive traffic. During the late 60s, the Gull Lake Community Consolidated School District was formed by the merger of the Richland, Kellogg, and Yorkville school systems. A new high school was opened in 1970.

According to the 2000 census, the village of Richland had 593 residents, and the township had a population of 6,491. Open land still predominates in Richland, with almost 73% of the 22,400 acre township consisting of wheat fields and agricultural areas. The center of town, the village park, is still used for social and recreational purposes much as it has been since it was given to the township in 1873 for $300. Residents of Richland are proud of their prairie heritage which is still a part of the community today.

Written by Alex Forist, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, October 2005. Based on research by Martha Lohrstorfer.


History of Kalamazoo County, Michigan…

  • Durant, Samuel W.
  • Originally published in Philadelphia by Everts & Abbott, 1880.  Reprinted by Unigraphic, 1976.
  • H 977.417 H67u, Oversize

The Yankee West: Community Life on the Michigan Frontier

  • Gray, Susan E.
  • University of North Carolina Press, 1996
  • H 977.417 G782

History Room Subject File: Richland

Richland: From its Prairie Beginnings

  • McKean, Eugene C., et al
  • Richland Community Library, 1981
  • H 977.417 M154

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