Kalamazoo: History

Early Days as "Celery City"

Sometime before the early seventeenth century, the Potawatomi Indians moved from the east coast of the United States and established settlements in southern Michigan, where they fished and hunted for wild game. They called the river that flows through present-day Kalamazoo "Kikalamazoo," which means "boiling water" because of the hundreds of bubbling springs in it. In 1823, a trading post called Kikalamazoo was established on the banks of the river.

In 1827 the Potawatomi ceded their Michigan lands to the United States, and permanent settlers began to arrive in 1829. They were led by Titus Bronson, who called the town Bronson. But Titus Bronson was an outspoken man who voiced strong political opinions, and some critics say he was overly fond of alcohol. Historians say his crankiness and restless, erratic behavior, symptomatic of what is today called Tourette's syndrome, did not endear him to settlers who came after.

In 1833, with a population of about 100 people, Kalamazoo demonstrated its commitment to higher education by establishing Kalamazoo College. During the winter of 1835, a movement began to officially change the name of the town from Bronson back to its Indian name in the shortened form Kalamazoo. This was finalized before the state of Michigan was entered into the Union in January 1837.

The years 1834 to 1837 were a time of prosperity in the United States and the greatest land sales in American history took place. In 1835, the land office at Kalamazoo sold more acres than any other land office in the history of the country. More than 1.6 million acres were sold, accounting for more than $2 million in receipts. According to the Detroit Democratic Free Press newspaper: "We are informed that the village of Kalamazoo is literally thronged with purchasers. The public and private houses are full and . . . in some instances, they are compelled to retire to the barns for . . . lodging."

In 1847, a group of religious refugees from The Netherlands settled in Kalamazoo at the same time a Scotsman named James Taylor was experimenting with celery seeds imported from England. Taylor could not convince the townsfolk of the joys of eating celery (they thought it was poisonous). His experiment languished for 10 years until a Dutchman named Cornelius De Bruin began to cultivate celery in the rich black muck along the Kalamazoo River. The De Bruin children sold the celery door to door. Before long, the celery fields of "Celery City" were flourishing and it was not uncommon to see Kalamazoo peddlers selling celery on the streets of the little town.

Transition to "Paper and Rice City"

With their marshes proving so profitable, civic leaders turned their attention to advertising the city's water resources to potential investors in a paper mill. In 1874, Kalamazoo Paper was established, just the first of many companies that would make Kalamazoo a paper mill center. Soon other industries were attracted to the town, which was strategically located between Detroit and Chicago.

One early entrepreneur was William Erastus Upjohn, who graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1875 and opened up a private practice and a pharmaceutical laboratory in Kalamazoo. He developed a process for making pills and granules that resulted in 1885 in the Upjohn Pill and Granule Company. Upjohn's experiment became Pharmacia & Upjohn Company then Pharmacia Corp. More industries followed at the end of the nineteenth century, and Kalamazoo was turning out stoves, essential oils, and iron and allied products.

Growth as Educational Center

Kalamazoo was incorporated as a city in 1883 and began a rapid modernization, installing a horse-car line that year and following two years later with an electric light and power plant. The city's educational system also experienced steady growth with the opening of the all-women's Nazareth College in 1871 then Western Michigan University's founding in 1903.

In 1918, Kalamazoo was one of the first cities in Michigan to adopt the commission-manager form of government, led by Dr. Upjohn as the inaugural mayor. Many fine buildings were constructed, including city hall in 1931, the five-story county building in 1937, and fine homes representing several architectural styles, including a number of Frank Lloyd Wright's "Usonian" homes constructed during the 1940s.

By 1937, Kalamazoo boasted 151 industrial establishments manufacturing goods valued at more than $70 million. Thirteen paper mills dominated the industrial scene; other industries included cultivated peppermint and the manufacture of taxicabs, furnaces, auto bodies, transmissions, caskets, clothing, fishing rods and reels, playing cards, and musical instruments. Kalamazoo has nurtured cultural activities as well as industry. The Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra was established in 1921; the city also boasts the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, founded in 1924, and numerous performing arts groups.

Kalamazoo opened the country's first permanent outdoor pedestrian shopping mall in 1959. Despite economic turbulence in the early 2000s, the city remains a prosperous center of diverse industries and agricultural products. City planners have worked actively to overcome the loss of major area businesses. One such example is the flourishing of the Business Technology and Research Park at Western Michigan University to compensate for job losses tied to Pfizer's acquisition of Kalamazoo's largest employer, Pharmacia & Upjohn Company. In July 2002 the multimillion-dollar producer of pharmaceuticals and agricultural seeds was bought out for $60 billion in stock by New York City-based Pfizer, but retains the Kalamazoo laboratories. The area appeals to workers for its small-town charm coupled with a wide variety of cultural activities. A variety of tax incentives make it enticing to high-growth businesses as well.

Historical Information: Western Michigan University Archives & Regional History Collection, Rm. 111, East Hall, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI 49008; telephone (269)387-8490; fax (269)387-8484; email arch–collect@wmich.edu