Albion Interactive History / Library / A Short History of Albion (1966)

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Mary Reed Bobbitt, A Short History of Albion, c.1966

Did you ever wonder what the town of Albion looked like over a hundred years ago? In the year 1830 all the countryside, including the town itself, was a woodsy wild place with Pottawatomie Indians living at times at “The Forks” of the Kalamazoo River, where Victory Park joinsRieger Park. They were also to be found near the Riverside Cemetery, and where the Gale Manufacturing Company once stood on N. Albion St. They never had any permanent villages in the territory of this county, remaining here only during the summer months, going to the heavily timbered regions for protection during the winter. These Indians were peaceable and quiet unless they had the white man’s fire water – squiby, as they called it – when they became noisy and troublesome.

It was in the 1830s that people began to come slowly across the uninhabited region of Michigan from New England and New York State to settle in various parts of the Midwest. The first man to make Albion his home was Tenney Peabody, from Niagara County, New York, who came here in 1832, bought many acres of land from Darius Pierce, a speculator, and then returned to get his family, consisting of his wife and seven children. He left New York in December with two wagons drawn by three yoke of oxen, crossed Canada and stopped five miles east of Albion where he left his family with an earlier settler. Peabody and his nephew, Charles Blanchard, and another young man came on and put up a shanty, split some rails for rafters, covered the shanty with marsh grass for a roof, and in mid-March, 1833, moved his family. The hardships they must have suffered can be imagined, for March and April are usually still cold winter months in Albion.

If you want to see where this cabin was located, there is an historical plaque marked “The First Home” now placed in the 300 block of East Erie St. to show you the spot. Mr. Peabody, however, soon built a block house on the east bank of the Kalamazoo River not far from the first cabin, to which he moved his family.

Fortunately the year 1833 was a good one to produce food. After cutting down trees and underbrush, Charles Blanchard had planted wheat and potatoes in a four-acre field on land now occupied by Kresge Gymnasium, which was enough to supply the few people living nearby. There were many deer and wild turkeys about, and the pioneers found much honey stored by bees in the trees. Once, Charles Blanchard got enough honey to fill two big wash-tubs from one white-oak tree. They found many huckleberries and cranberries growing in the marshes. Also, the Kalamazoo River was full of fish. Once a school of sturgeon coming up the stream caused the settlers to attack with pitchforks, the largest fish weighing 120 pounds!

Probably because of the good things they heard about “the Forks,” more people began coming from the East to settle here. After the Peabodys came Jacob DeVoe, in 1834, then the Finches, Jesse Crowell, Wareham Warner, James Sheldon, Sr., and many more. It is said that in October, 1834, Thomas Holmes’ family took ten days to come here from Detroit. The hardest section to cross was what is now the main street of Jackson which was then a black ash swamp, and very difficult to pass over with the teams of horses. Gradually more and more settlers came, built their log homes, then block houses, and started to “convert the wilderness into a fruitful garden,” for they found the land to be fertile.

One of the most outstanding of those who came to settle here was Jesse Crowell, after whom Crowell Park, Crowell Street and Crowell School were named. He was a bachelor who came at the age of 37, lived on the spot where Susanna Wesley Hall now stands, and played an important part in the public affairs of Albion for 37 years. He gave of his time, money and energy to building Albion and its institutions; surely without him Albion would never have advanced as rapidly nor as well as it did.

With Tenney Peabody and several other men, Mr. Crowell organized the Albion Company, and laid the plat for the village, the record bearing the date, June, 1836. He gave Mrs. Peabody, the first white woman in Albion, the distinction of naming what was still called “the Forks.” She thought at first that “Peabodyville” would make a nice name, but then chose Albion, after Albion Township, Oswego County, New York, the place from which Mr. Crowell and some later settlers came.

The Albion Company, through Mr. Crowell as agent, deeded several acres of land for a burial place, which was expanded into what is now Riverside Cemetery. The Company also gave a lot upon which to build the first store, which was occupied by Philo Taylor, pioneer merchant, at Superior and Erie Streets.

In 1837, the Albion Hotel, at the northwest corner of Superior and Erie Streets, was used as the township meeting place. James Sheldon, Sr. was the first Albion Township supervisor. His son, James W. Sheldon was a prominent banker, and married Mary, one of the Peabody children. Sheldon Memorial Hospital was later named for James W. Sheldon.

The Albion Company erected a grist mill to grind wheat, which began operations in September, 1837. The millwright was Harlow Green, who was the first person to be buried in Riverside Cemetery. In 1838, also through the influence of Mr. Crowell, a post office was established in Albion, there being about forty homes built here by that time. The nearest post offices had been at Waterburg, located four miles west of Albion, and at Smithfield, about four miles east of Albion. The U.S. government granted Jesse Crowell permission to open an office in Albion if he would assume the expense of so doing, and he was made the first postmaster, a position he held until 1849.

In 1838, the Albion Company, through Mr. Crowell, gave the Wesleyan Female Seminary sixty acres for educational purposes, and from this beginning, Albion College has grown to its present dimensions. If this land had not been donated, the college would probably have located elsewhere, and Albion would have been a much poorer community, not only financially, but culturally and in relation to things of the mind and spirit The town has been much enriched through the years because of the College library, theatre, musical activities, art exhibits, the nature center, as well as the religious leadership the college has given to Albion residents.

Albion’s first church was the Methodist Episcopal, as the United Methodist was then called, begun in 1834. The Albion Company donated the sites for this and several other churches as soon as the societies were organized. The Presbyterian and Baptist congregations were formed in 1837. St. James’ Episcopal Church was organized in 1840. Later came St. John’s Catholic Church in 1873, the Holy Ascension Russian Orthodox Church in 1916, and others.

In 1836, the first school in Albion was conducted in Jacob DeVoe’s stable which stood behind present-day 113 and 117 E. Michigan Avenue. The first public school building was erected in 1837, at present-day 609 S. Superior St., and stood until 1913, known for years as the “Little Red Schoolhouse.”

Imagine what Albion would be like with no bridges! Most of us cross several every day and never give them a thought. The early settlers must have crossed by small rafts or boats. The first bridge across the Kalamazoo River was on E. Erie St., with the bridges at Clinton, Eaton, and Superior Streets coming later.

Water power was an asset which drew early settlers to “the Forks.” Jesse Crowell built a large stone mill in 1845 for grinding grain. It was a great undertaking for those days and became known throughout the country; for over thirty years it ran day and night. The mill stood where the City Bank and Trust Company now stands; in fact, its walls were used for the present bank building. The mill cornerstone is now in Crowell Park.

In 1844, the Michigan Central Railroad tracks were laid around the college hill into Albion and later, west to Kalamazoo and eventually Chicago. Previous to this the main street of the town was Erie Street. How proud Albionites were to be on the main railway! The hard days of travel by stage coach were passing away. People built houses in Albion facing the tracks so that they might watch the noisy engine and cars go steaming through the town.

About this time, also, a telegraph line was put through Albion. Mr. Martin Wood was superintendent of the construction line between Detroit and Chicago. His wife, Pheobe, was a sister of Ezra Cornell, founder of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Many of the Cornell family are buried in Riverside Cemetery. Mrs. Wood is said to have been the first woman telegraph operator in the United States.

In the field of industry, James Monroe started a foundry in 1846 to make stoves, thrashers, and other farm implements. He was said to have fifteen or twenty men working for him then. He was also the first fire chief of the Alert Company, organized in 1856. At that time the department’s meager equipment was hand-drawn. Later, a fine team of horses was used, but not until 1878 did they secure a steam engine to be drawn to fires by a second team of horses.

The Gale Manufacturing Company, a manufacturer of farm implements and later automobile parts, came to Albion in the early 1860s. It was the oldest industry in Albion before it closed in 1968. The Albion Malleable Iron Company was organized in 1889, and is no known as Harvard Industries. There were also shops for making windmills, buggies, harnesses, and woolens. These and other businesses attracted numerous settlers to our community in the 19th century.

It is interesting to learn that there was a department in Albion College in the 1840s and 1850s for the teaching of Indians. And in 1855 Albion became an incorporated village, and was no longer a pioneer town. Albion was incorporated as a city in 1885.

At the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, a fife and drum corps appeared in town many Saturday nights and shot off cannon to recruit men. A company was formed here which joined the 12th Michigan Infantry at Niles, and performed bravely in the Battle of Shiloh soon after they arrived for duty, and in other battles.

The people of Albion are made up of many nationalities, and began coming here in the early years from many countries. The Prussian War with Austria in 1867 and the desire to escape Prussian suppression, no doubt brought German families, who continued to come through the 1880s. They were soon joined by the Irish and Italians.

The next influx of immigrants was from central and eastern Europe, who came during the earliest Russian Revolution against the Czars in 1907, and later during World War I. Albion has been a haven for Austrians, Hungarians, Lithuanians, Poles, Russians, Yugoslavians and others, making our community a splendid example of why America is called the melting-pot of the world. Albion’s Festival of the Forks is held in the fall of each year, in recognition of our ethnic heritage.

The first large group of Blacks came in 1917 because of the shortage of labor during World War I, to work at the Malleable and Gale. By 1940, the Black population in Albion had increased to 907 persons. Another influx of people, this time from Kentucky and Tennessee, came during World War II and was also increased by the establishment of the Corning Glass Works in 1950. Then came the Mexicans, originally as migratory farm workers, but they stayed on to increase our international heritage again.

From 1870 until World War I, Albion grew to be a gracious Victorian town, as did so many other communities across the nation. Large and beautiful homes were built along Erie Street, Michigan and Irwin avenues. There were several good-sized stores here, especially “Bullen’s Big Busy Store,” a reputable department store, to which people came to shop from miles around. How convenient if we had the Interurban trolley car as they had from 1903-1929 running to Battle Creek and Jackson almost every hour!

There was a definite growth in cultural activity with a large opera house seating several hundred people, built in 1868 at present-day 225 S. Superior St. Many worthwhile clubs and societies were organized by both men and women, some for purely social reasons, others to help the members grow intellectually. The Ladies Library Association was organized in 1869. A room was provided for the Library in the present Mary Sheldon-Ismon building on S. Clinton St. A Carnegie Library was built at 501 S. Superior St. in 1919.

Trouble came to the community in March, 1908, when Albion had the worst flood in its history. Some 24 inches of snow had fallen and then came a night of rain, and a day of sunshine. Within twelve hours the river had risen eight feet, or an inch every fifteen minutes! One night the Homer dam gave way, and when the flood waters from the broken dam reached Albion, every bridge in Albion was either swept away or damaged, with the exception of the stone bridge on E. Cass St. In addition, the buildings located over the river on N. Superior St. collapsed, causing thousands of dollars worth of damage.

Victory Park came into being because of the thinking of some far-sighted citizens. Someone believed that several acres of land should be laid aside for a recreation place, but others thought this to be a terrible waste of property. The idea finally became a reality and the land was bought by raising a public subscription as a memorial to the veterans of World War I. The park was originally part of the farm of William H. Brockway. It had never been cultivated and contained many beautiful trees. Today, Victory Park is one of numerous parks in Albion, which provide a place for enjoyment and recreation for all our citizens.

Another name that must be mentioned of those who helped developed Albion and one which was well-known throughout the state and country was Washington Gardner (1845-1928), after whom Albion High School (now Albion Junior High was named. He was an outstanding soldier in the Civil War, enlisting at age 16; he then studied law, changed to theology, and became a Methodist minister who rose to prominence at once. He filled leading pulpits in the state, including at Albion. He taught at Albion College beginning in 1889. In 1894 he was elected Secretary of State of Michigan, and in 1898 to the U.S. Congress, where he served will and was twice re-elected. He retired to Albion were he renewed his teaching at the college, and was always ready to uphold the good by his stirring oratory. His speeches drew crowds from afar; indeed it is said that the old Methodist Church on E. Erie St., now torn down, was built in the shape it was so that Gardner could orate from its pulpit and have a good crowd to hear him.

There were many more lading citizens, now gone, who worked hard for the growth of Albion. A few were: Charles Austin, Charles Dalrymple, George Dean,Samuel Dickie, James Eslow, Robert Frost, O.H. Gale, A.P. Gardner, Walter Kennedy, Miriam E. Krenerick, I.S. MacDougall, William J. McKone, Harry Parker, George Snyder, Jennie Worthington, and Archie Young. There were many others and if you want to know more, there are books in the archives at the Gardner House Museum, the Albion Public Library, and the college library, which will give you facts about them.

In 1966, with funds subscribed by citizens and industry, the Albion Historical Society purchased and began restoration of the Augustus Porter Gardner house at 509 S. Superior St. Today the Gardner House Museum attracts visitors from far and near. Its Victorian living rooms and fascinating collection of old-time items are displayed and happily preserved for future generations. A visit to the Museum will carry you back to a more leisurely age and remind you of many of your ancestors’ living patterns and possessions – all authentic and primarily assembled from the Albion area.

The archives of the Museum serve as a repository for historical items and documents of the Albion area. We welcome inquiries, and are happy to correspond with descendants of Albion area citizens concerning their ancestors. We welcome donations of family histories, genealogies, photographs of individuals, family portraits, photograph albums, school yearbooks, diaries, directories, ledgers, scrapbooks, obituaries, Calhoun and Jackson County history books or maps, and other documents relating to our area.

You are cordially invited to join the Albion Historical Society and be a part in promoting Albion’s rich heritage. Membership blanks may be obtained at the Museum, or by writing: Albion Historical Society, 509 S. Superior St., Albion, Michigan 49224.

The above facts were compiled for the most part from the following books and articles:
History of Calhoun County, Michigan, 1830-1877. Philadelphia, Everts, 1877.
Biographical Review of Calhoun County, Michigan. Chicago, Hobart and Mather, 1904.
Rust, E.G., Calhoun County Business Directory, 1869-70… Containing a history of Albion by the Rev. Alvan Billings.
Krenerick, Miriam E., Albion Milestones and Memories, 1932.
Michigan Central Railroad, Headlight. Chicago, 1895.

Manuscripts:
James, Aurelia D., Albion – A Thumbnail History, 1959.
Lloyd, Thomas T., Talk given before the Albion Historical Society, November 26, 1956.

Note: The date of Tenney Peabody’s buying land in Albion and moving here has been found in the County records in Marshall to disagree with all the above books. Therefore, 1832-33, the date recorded in Marshall, is the one used.