Floyd and Harriet Starr spent many hors planning the new house at Albion. As a carpenter/contractor, Marshall Starr also made his contributions for the construction began early that spring and continued apacethroughout the summer. Once the fire rubble was cleared from the site of the original farmhouse, the new home was erected on the rebuilt foundation overlooking Montcalm Lake. As Starr used to say, “things were very primitive – and they continued to be so. There was no electricity in the rural districts of Calhoun County, but we had faith and Gladsome Cottage was wired for electricity. Eventually electricity did come, and I think we were the first place in the rural district to enjoy it.” As Starr recalled further, “In 1913 our plumbing was like that ofeveryone else who lived in the country. Our water supply was an old pump at the side of the house. We took our baths in galvanized washtubs. We had an outdoor privy. Eventually, when we had our own water system, we considered we had all the luxuries of life.”
Happily for the busy entrepreneur, he had brought with him two sturdy helpers from Beulah Home. Harold Bellair and ThaddeusNewsome thus became the first two boys at the Starr Commonwealth. While work progressed on the house, they joined “Uncle Floyd” in his first agricultural project. The vegetables which they tended from planting to harvesting eventually became the staples of the daily diet at the school. In Starr’s words, “That first winter we practically lived on potatoes and beans for breakfast, beans and potatoes for dinner, and a hash of thetwo for supper.”
Life in other respects was equally simple. All that first summer Starr and his growing brood slept in the hay in the ramshackle barn. According to his memory, “We cooked what we had in the way of hot food on a littletwo-burner oil stove. Things were very primitive. We took our baths in the lake and scrubbed our dirtyclothes there too. I don’t remember that anyone complained; in fact the boys thoroughly enjoyed the experience.”
Fortunately for all, work on the house had gone ahead with only minor delays. By late fall it was ready to welcome Uncle Floyd, Aunt Harriet, baby Margaret, Starr’s parents, and thirteen boys. “It was a gladsome day when the work could begin,”said Starr on many occasions, and thus the name ‘Gladsome Cottage was given to the first house on the Commonwealth campus. Ever since that October3, 1913, the first Sunday in October has been designated Founder’s Day.
During the first year nine more boys were added to the baker’s dozen from Beulah Home. Since cash was an earlyissue,second had steel beds came from the Post Tavern in Battle Creek, boy-resistant dishes came from a localinnkeeper, and several pieces of furniture came from the family farmhouse outside nearby Marshall. According the Harld Bellair, at first the only facilityof cooking was “on a little oil stove in the basement,” but soon the kitchen was graced with “a coal-burningcook stove typical of the era.” Even a comfortable two-story house, however, was grossly inadequate for the welling population. On school days, as Starr wrote in No Such Thing, “We held classes in our dining room. Our schedules were unique. After breakfast we cleared away the dishes from our two long tables, replaced them with school books and went to work. At lunch time, we reversed the procedure. We cleared the tables of our school work,set out the dishes and ate our lunch. Then, repeating all over again, we once more cleared away the dishes and continued with our school.”Gloss matters as one will, living conditions at Gladsome Cottage those first years were indeed “primitive.”
Amid the uncertainties of meeting expenses that mounted with each boy, there was onecertainty – the inadequacy of Gladsome Cottage to function as both a home and a school for a population which by 1915 had swelled to some two dozen lively youngsters. After little more than a year of struggle in a setting where “school work, tempers,teachers and pupils suffered,” all agreed that the Starr Commonwealth urgently needed a schoolhouse.
After a fire in the Emily Jewel Clark building on January 8, 1936, Starr again set up his office in the front room of Gladsome, with his desk at one end and that of his secretary at the other. Since Newton Hall housed younger boys, most of the elementary classes were held there. In the main, however, it was the new building which rescued the academic program. Less than ideal for most classroom purposes, it was still”bettr’n nothin,” as the boys put it.
Upon completion of Candler Hall, the new home for Starr, Floyd found it difficult to leave Gladsome Cottage. After all, he said during the move in 1957, “You can’t separate yourself from a house you’ve lived in for 41 years without a little tug at the heartstrings.This was the first home for my daughter Margaret and her mother, both my parents died there, and it housed my first 22 boys. Then if you add the memories of visits by wonderful people like Helen Keller and CarlSandburg, you realize that all the early history of Starr Commonwealth is wrapped up in this house.” Nonetheless, he moved.
In 1984 Floyd Starr’s original residence was opened as a “home gallery.” As his daughter Margaret explained, “The restoration returned to Gladsome Cottage the furnishings and art pieces just as they were when Floyd Starr occupied Gladsome as his home.” Through the few furnishings that came down from the Starr family and various additions made by Starr over the years, Gladsome “now captures the warmth and grace ifthe Victorian era” to quote one brochure. Today it serves primarily as the starting point for campus tours on Founder’s Days and other special occasions.
Source: Keith Fennimore. Faith Made Visible: The History of Floyd Starr and His School. Albion, Michigan: Starr Commonwealth. 1988.