Jesse Crowell and the Albion Company
Albion began in the 1830’s as a speculative land development scheme to take advantage of the increasing number of people moving West. Tenney Peabody was the first white settler to come to Albion and make his home there in 1831. He was followed by Jacob Devoe, Ashael Finch, and Wareham Warner. In 1835 Warner sold out his interest, including property and water-power rights to Jesse Crowell, a resident of New York State who newly arrived in Albion.
Jesse Crowell was the resident proprietor of the Albion Company, who recorded the village plat in 1836. Philo Taylor became the first merchant when he built his general store. Isaac S. Johnson bought out Taylor, before dying himself in 1840. Jesse Crowell had been a partner, and, following his death carried on the business until January 1853.
Plat of the Village of Albion, 1836
The Albion Company then erected a grist mill that began running in September 1837. Exporting of flour and wheat soon followed. The Albion Company was divided into seven parts owned by Jesse Crowell, Issachar Frost, Daniel S. Bacon, Tenney Peabody, Charles Rice, and Hon. Charles H. Carroll. The remaining seventh interest was divided evenly between Prof. McVickar of New York college jointly with W.T. Carroll of Washington who was then the clerk of the Supreme Court of the United States.
The first bridge was built in 1832 by Charles Blanchard near where Erie Street crosses the stream. A second bridge was built in 1836 near Eaton Street. Still, later, the Albion Company built bridges on Superior and Erie Streets.
Mail for Albion was delivered to a farm owned by Reuben Emergy, where there was a post office named Waterburg. Through the influence of Jesse Crowell an Albion post office was established in 1838. Crowell served as the postmaster until 1849. The original post office was located on the southwest corner of Superior and Erie Street.
The first death in Albion occurred when a millwright named Green, was constructing the grist mill. A place for his burial was selected on the south side of the Kalamazoo River. Later, Mr. Crowell dedicated a plot of land here for burial purposes, and today it is called Riverside Cemetery.
Perhaps Crowell’s greatest contribution was in attracting the Wesleyan Seminary to the fledgling settlement. Discussion of creating a Methodist Seminary in Michigan began as early as 1835 (a date that people falsely use today for the founding of Albion College), though Methodists had great difficulty finding a suitable location for their school. In 1839 Crowell offerred a generous package of 60 acres of undeveloped land on the east side of town, four blocks from downtown. Here the Methodists had ample space to lay out seminary buildings, and have additional land to sell off to generate revenue to support operation of the seminary. Classes began in 1841.To give an idea of how small the village was at the time the seminary started, the 1840 US Census lists all of the buildings in Albion:
- 2 Flouring Mills
- 2 Grist Mills
- 4 Saw mills
- 4 Brick and Stone Houses
- 13 Wooden houses (1840 US Census)
The Albion Company was formally dissolved in 1842, though Crowell would go on to be active in business affairs. In addition to his substantial real estate operations, Jesse Crowell owned and operated a grist mill, saw mill, and the largest flouring mill in the county. He purchased the Albion Mills building in 1845 and built an office several buildings to the south. He was engaged in general merchandise sales as well, and built several buildings.
Heavy repairs and losses challenged Crowell financially. James W. Sheldon is said to have “probably ruined” Crowell through an untimely foreclosure. His health also declined rapidly along with his fortunes. The physician attending to him in his final days commented: “that a post-mortem examination would show no disease sufficient to cause death, that age and trouble was the sole and only cause.” Crowell assigned over all of his effects for the benefit of his creditors. He gave his full time and attention for business affairs until physical weakness compelled him to desist. Jesse Crowell died at his home on Michigan Avenue in 1872. His estate in bankruptcy paid ninety-seven per cent of his creditors’ claims, after paying the necessary large costs of bankruptcy proceedings, showing how he was solvent at the time of his death. James C. Eslow in eulogizing Crowell after his death had these kind words to say: “He never turned a needy applicant away without help. Kind and generous, he occupied the place of universal provider in the village.”
Crowell was inauspiciously buried in an unmarked and neglected grave in Riverside Cemetery. Only much later was a suitable monument erected at his gravesite. Accolades would come much later when the original Washington Park was renamed Crowell Park in his honor, Crowell Street was opened and dedicated also in his honor, and Crowell Elementary School was built and dedicated in 1955.
As an interesting post-script, Crowell’s house had been located on Michigan Avenue. He lived there with his sister, Mrs. Sanford, and her daughter Frances, who shared responsibility to care for the property. Dr. Stephen Munroe purchased the house in 1873. He added a Mansard roof and third floor to the structure. Later, Albion State Bank president David A. Garfield lived there. His wife was a niece of Dr. Munroe. The Garfield’s were the last to live in the house before it was demolished in 1926 to make way for Susanna Wesley Hall. Originally this served as a girl’s dormitory, before being made co-educational. It is likely that very few if any students who stayed there were ever aware of the historic associations of the land that the dormitory rests upon.
The Grist Mill that was erected in 1837, was later moved several hundred feet east of Superior Street. This was tragically and unfortunately demolished in the 2000s, severing one of the most important connections that Albion still had with the early history of the community.