Why's That: Who lived in the Kalamazoo Children's Home?
The "orphanage" in Kalamazoo's Vine Neighborhood has been gone for decades, but our question-asker remembers it — and may have a family connection.
Retired teacher Gayle Corrigan Esman of Kalamazoo grew up in the Vine Neighborhood. She remembers strolling with her family past the corner of Westnedge Avenue and Ranney Streets in the 1950s. At the same corner last February, she recalled the brick "orphanage" that used to stand there.
"I remembered watching the children play," she said. "And in my mind, what I remember is seeing ladies in black habits," such as nuns would wear.
But Gayle said she’s hazy on the details.
“Sometimes you tug at your memory. And you try so hard to remember things that you saw, or you did, or you experienced. And it's just not there.”
Gayle told her husband of 15 years about the building.
“I told John, I said, 'I am so curious about that orphanage.' And just off the top of his head he said, ‘well, my mother lived there.'”
John’s mother, Minnie Baker, was born in 1915. We’ll find out if she lived in the Kalamazoo Children’s Home. First, we learn more about its history.
Lynn Houghton is with the Zhang Legacy Collections Center at Western Michigan University.
“The institution began in the 1870s, when two women, one of them being Jane Tuttle Dewing, decided to start what they call an industrial school. They said for children, but it seems like they went more towards girls.”
Jane Tuttle Dewing was the wife of a successful Kalamazoo businessman.
Built in 1885, the industrial school was called the Children’s Home. It was a three-story brick building with a mansard roof. Houghton said it housed around 30 girls, age five to teenagers. Some were orphans, others had parents who had fallen on hard times.
"Along with going to school, they said that they were taught sewing and knitting and other skills to — here we go, again, keep in mind this is the 19th and even into the 20th centuries — to make them good homemakers."
Though our question-asker, Gayle, remembers seeing nuns outside the building, the Children’s Home was not a Catholic institution.
In 1960, its directors renamed it Dewing Hall, presumably after Jane Tuttle Dewing and her husband. But then, just a few years later it merged with another institution, the Lake Farm for Boys, and moved to the farm.
“And the Lake Farm for Boys, ironically, had been started by William G. and Jane Tuttle’s son, William S. Dewing. And it was located off Oakland Drive near Angling Road, and later became Lakeside,” said Houghton.
Lakeside Academy is where a student died a little over three years ago after staff restrained him. The state suspended Lakeside’s license and the academy was closed.
Our question-asker, Gayle, wanted to know if her mother-in-law, Minnie Baker, lived in the Children’s Home on Westnedge. Searching old records, Houghton confirmed she lived there between 1928 and 1931. The 1930 U.S. Census also shows Minnie lived there.
I made copies of the records and took them to Gayle and John’s house last week.
“And this is the 1930 Census and your mother is living now at the Children's Home in Kalamazoo, just like you said. On the Census they call the girls who live at the Children’s Home, they call them ‘inmates,’" I told John and Gayle.
"Oh!" exclaimed John.
"Sounds like jail,” Gayle said.
The children’s home was probably using the broader definition of the word “inmate;" which means a person who lives at a particular institution.
Records from the Children’s Home show Minnie was 13 when her father, a laborer, dropped her off there in 1928. Her mother had died in childbirth a year and a half before. When he brought her to the home, her father paid two dollars toward her weekly care, or the equivalent of $35.48 today.
When Minnie was 16, she left the Children's Home to live with her older brother and his wife in Kalamazoo. In 1936, she married John's father, Jacob Esman. Together, they had five children. Minnie died in Kalamazoo in 2004 at the age of 89.
The 1930 Census, which took place early in the Great Depression, also revealed that Minnie had four younger siblings that were scattered around the area. One was a resident at Lake Farm. Two others under 10 years old were simply listed as boarders at an Oshtemo address. The youngest child, a girl, was adopted by another family and eventually moved to Florida.
The Census shows that during this time Minnie's dad lived in a boarding house on Gibson Street. Five years later, he married the landlady.
Gayle said she’s learned so much about her husband’s family.
“And I learned about the orphanage.”
The Children’s Home building Gayle remembers from her childhood in the 1950s closed in 1964. Houghton said newspaper reports indicate that it may have been used as a veterans' home for a few years before it was torn down in 1971.
“The only thing I wish is that it were still there or I wish I would have gone past it in the 1970s,” she said.
Now there’s a laundromat and a yoga studio on the site at Westnedge Avenue and Ranney Street.