"What's That Thing in the Curb Lawn?"

Aug 9, 2018

Maria Scott was on Wheaton Avenue near Merrill Street in Kalamazoo’s Vine neighborhood when she noticed a strange object in a curb lawn. It’s about two and a half feet high, four-sided and rounded on top. One person described it as a mini-Washington Monument without the point.

At the top, Maria finds a hole with what looks like the base of a rod.

“I bet there was a sign in there. That feels like a piece of metal,” she says.

A few blocks away on Oak Street, a similar object stands in the curb lawn across from El Sol Elementary. It also has a hole in the top with a metal stub inside. Maria notes that it’s less weather-beaten than the one on Wheaton Avenue.

“I love this thing,” she says. “It just makes you wonder what it’s seen.”

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Maria’s also wondering what it is. For help, we turned to City of Kalamazoo Historic Preservation Coordinator Sharon Ferraro. Ferraro examines the surface of the four-sided block on Wheaton Avenue. She says if the object is concrete, that narrows its age range. Ferraro says concrete wasn’t available locally until the later 1800s.

“It was the new cutting-edge material in 1878. So the floor of the Ladies’ Library porch is concrete. The floor of the receiving vault of Mountain Home cemetery was concrete,” she says.

But looking closely, Ferraro suspects this piece is not concrete but stone. She says that means it could go back as far as the 1840s. Regardless of the age, Ferraro says there’s some things we can probably rule out.

Credit Sehvilla Mann / WMUK

“Neither one of them lines up anywhere with a boundary marker for a plat. So it’s probably not a boundary marker. Plus the fact that those tend to be a lot smaller. When you do find those they tend to be a lot shorter,” she says.

Ferraro also thinks it’s unlikely that either of these pieces of what looks like stone held a sign.

“If it was right on the corner I’d say maybe something like a sign post, something like that but it’s not.”

If it’s not a street sign, what about a street light? Ferraro says probably not, again because it’s not on the corner. Plus, it lacks the hardware.

While it might have had a metal rod at the top, “It’s not a pipe. So I would doubt that it was something like gas for a light fixture because it’s not hollow.”

But even if it’s not a street light, Ferraro thinks it still might have been used for illumination. She says the rod that’s apparently missing from the top of the base might have held a lamp lit by the homeowner of the stately house at 747 Wheaton.

“If he was, say, expecting guests it would be like a kerosene lamp, or maybe even just a hook for a lamp. He would bring it out from inside the house, hang it up and then he’d tell his friends, ‘I’m going to be home after eight o’clock, I’ve lit the lamp for you.’”

There’s another possibility for this block of stone or concrete by the side of the road. If the hole in the top held a ring, it might have been a hitching post.

The Oak Street post up close
Credit Sehvilla Mann / WMUK

Back when many people got around by horse, hitching posts abounded in America’s curb lawns. Old news stories about the posts underscore how much Kalamazoo’s streets have changed. In 1872, the Kalamazoo Gazette reported that horses were ripping poorly secured hitching posts out of the wooden sidewalks and dragging them around town.

As with parking spaces, people didn’t always share the posts nicely. Mark Tomlonson reads from a Kalamazoo Gazette article from 1899.

A lady drove to town Sunday morning and hitched her horse in Arcadia court and went to church. When she returned she found a board sign fastened to the post on which were these words: “This is not a public hitching post.” Can a private hitching post be located in a street?

When automobiles came along, hitching posts began to disappear, with the Gazette describing them as relics as early as 1915. A few of the posts remain in Kalamazoo, and they might include these two stone or concrete blocks with a hole in the top in the Vine neighborhood. The city’s Sharon Ferraro thinks hitching posts is a likely explanation.

“Maybe also so you could hang a lantern on it,” she says.

But with some kind of metal fixture apparently missing on each block, it’s tough to confirm that they’re hitching posts. I tell Maria Scott, who noticed the post on Wheaton, that I haven’t been able to find a picture that shows it intact. The same goes for the one on Oak Street. Maria’s not surprised.

“It was just a thing, that wasn’t anything interesting or important to them as opposed to pictures of their family or their fine home,” she says.