kalamazoo history map of Michigan
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Kalamazoo History Puts Michigan On The Map

Kalamazoo, the popular small town in the southwestern portion of the Awesome Mitten, is rich in culture, civil rights heritage and innovation. I spoke to several residents to gain a deeper appreciation, and Kalamazoo history is incredibly fascinating. Here 10 reasons why this small town should gain your intrigue as well.

Titus Bronson and Kalamazoo History

Kalamazoo Bronson Park fountain - The Awesome Mitten
This water fountain is centrally located in Kalamazoo’s Bronson Park. Photo Courtesy of Margaret Clegg

1. Want to know one of the most interesting tidbits of Kalamazoo history? That wasn’t the city’s original name! It was originally called Bronson. One of the first white settlers of the area, Titus Bronson, named the town in 1831 after himself. He literally was the person who first put this city on the map. Or more so his bad behavior, which got him chased out of town. It was then that residents later renamed the town Kalamazoo in 1836 to reflect the Native American heritage of the city.

The name Bronson can still be seen around town. Bronson Park, for example, is situated in the heart of downtown. It remains as a landmark of where Titus built his cabin. The city’s Level 1 trauma hospital, Bronson Hospital, bears his name as well.

Anti-slavery Movement

kalamazoo history underground railroad Nathan Thomas house
The Nathan Thomas home, a stop on the Underground Railroad, is located in Schoolcraft just outside of Kalamazoo. Photo Courtesy of Margaret Clegg

2. The abolitionist movement is an important part of Kalamazoo history. In nearby Schoolcraft, the home of Nathan Thomas was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Nathan Thomas was Kalamazoo’s first physician, and a founder of the Michigan Republican party. Between 1840 and 1860, Thomas and his wife helped 1,000-1,500 slaves escape the cruel bonds of slavery.

3. Abraham Lincoln only graced the soil of Michigan once in his life. He did so on August 27,1856, right in Bronson Park. While he was campaigning (not for himself), the thrust of his speech was about restricting the expansion of slavery into the new territories. Applause erupted at the end of his oration. Later, as Lincoln himself became president, he would take this passion of his a step further and move to abolish slavery all together.


kalamazoo history checker cab
Visit this Checker Cab and other parts of Kalamazoo history at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum. Photo Courtesy of Margaret Clegg

4. Manufacturing has long been part of Kalamazoo history. Did you know that Checker Cab company called Kalamazoo home until their last car rolled off the line in 1982? Checker Cabs were visible more than just on the street. The fleet of cars used in the sitcom “Taxi” were from the Checker Cab company. Kalamazoo Valley Museum displays one of these cars on their second floor.

5. Gibson guitars are an icon in the music industry. The Les Paul, the Flying V and B.B. King’s “Lucille” were all crafted in Kalamazoo, Michigan. While Gibson moved to Tennessee in 1984, some of the workers stayed behind and opened Heritage Guitars in the old factory at 225 Parsons Street. The iconic Gibson smokestack stands until this day. New investors plan to renovate the space of this iconic part of Kalamazoo history. Mlive reports that while guitar manufacturing will continue, additions will include a bar and performance space.

Craft Beer

kalamazoo history kalamazo brewing Bell's Brewing
Old Kalamazoo Brewing Company mural inside Bell’s Eccentric Cafe. Photo Courtesy of Margaret Clegg

6. Michigan is home to some of the greatest craft brewers in the country. Pioneer Larry Bell may be the one to thank for that. When Bell started selling craft beers in the 1980s under the name Kalamazoo Brewing Company, he was the first to do so east of Colorado. Bell served his first brew out of a 15-gallon soup pot. The brewing company moniker later changed to Bell’s Brewery, renamed after the founder.


kalamazoo history mall city pedestrian mall
Sections of Burdick Street are closed to traffic to create the country’s first outdoor mall. Photo courtesy of Margaret Clegg

7. The national designation as “Mall City” is an important part of Kalamazoo history. Kalamazoo was home to the first outdoor pedestrian mall. Motor vehicles were prohibited from certain sections of Burdick Street to encourage an urban atmosphere. The opening of the mall in 1959 drew over 50,000 spectators.

8. While the exact meaning of the word Kalamazoo is unknown, it does have a verbal appeal.  Dr. Seuss and Carl Sandburg both utilized the name in their literature. Credence Clearwater Revival mentions Kalamazoo guitars in the song, “Down on the Corner.” Perhaps most notable is the song “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo” by Glenn Miller. It was the best selling record in 1942, spending multiple weeks at number one on the charts. It also received an Academy Award nomination for best original song in the movie Orchestra Wives.

Medical Innovation

kalamazoo history Stryker school of medicine
Western Michigan University is home to Stryker School of Medicine. Photo Courtesy of Margaret Clegg

9. While Homer Stryker gained his medical degree from University of Michigan, he returned to his hometown of Kalamazoo to practice medicine. During that time, he invented the oscillating electric saw. It had the ability to make short cut to remove casts, without damaging the skin. The patent still exists on the “Stryker Saw” and is the standard in cast removal. He also developed the concept of a movable hospital bed frame. Stryker Corporation is still located in Kalamazoo, and Western Michigan University named their school of medicine after him.

10. Another medical pioneer in Kalamazoo history is William Erastus Upjohn, who invented pills that were easily digested. This huge success led to the development of a pharmaceutical industry bearing his name. Upjohn’s further medicinal advancements included the development of Prednisone and Motrin. Later Upjohn was purchased by New York based Pfizer, which still employs thousands of people in the local Kalamazoo area.

What interesting historical facts about Kalamazoo did we miss? Tell us more in the comments!

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