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Stateside With Rosalea Barker: Michigan

Stateside With Rosalea Barker (At Annapolis)

Michigan

Is there any word that more trippingly trips off the lips than “Kalamazoo”? I think not. This city in SW Michigan began life as Bronson, named after the settler who first claimed the land and built a hut there in 1829, Titus Bronson. He wasn’t very personable, especially not in his dealings with politicians, and when he was convicted of stealing a cherry tree from someone else in the town that grew up around him, the settlement’s name was changed to that of the river that runs through it.

Kalamazoo is an aberration of a Potawatomi word meaning, perhaps, boiling pot—a reference to the story of Fleet Foot, who had to run from the village of his intended bride to a bend in the river and back before a pot of water boiled away, in order to win her hand. Or perhaps it refers to the way the river water appears to be boiling in some places where there are natural “pots” in the riverbed.

Either way, by the time Michigan gained statehood in 1837, the Indian population was in the process of being shipped off west of the Mississippi under the terms of a treaty signed in September 1836. Under this treaty, the Potawatomi ceded the ten reservations they’d been moved to by a treaty in 1832. It was all part of President Andrew Jackson’s plan to move the first inhabitants off the land that was being sought by settlers as movement around the territories states became easier with the advent of railroads.

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Michigan, the 26th state, has close on 65,000 small lakes, and has shorelines on four of the five Great Lakes. The Department of Natural Resources website states that in Michigan, you are never more than six miles from an inland lake or more than 85 miles from a Great Lake. The bulk of Michigan’s land area is a peninsula that juts up into Lake Michigan, with the rest being on a peninsula that separates Lakes Michigan and Superior. The larger peninsula is known to locals as “the mitten” because of its shape.

If you assume the mitten is on your left hand and you’re looking at the back of your hand, then Detroit is on the thumb side, down near your wrist. Kalamazoo is nearer to the left-hand edge of your hand, a little bit further down.

It might seem more obvious for me to write about Detroit, considering its place as the epicenter of the automobile industry and the economic ruin that industry’s ascendancy eventually wrought. But for many people of a certain age in the rest of the world, Kalamazoo is a fondly remembered name for reasons that can be summed up in one word: Payday!

Before the advent of computerized payroll systems—and still today for many smaller businesses—the Kalamazoo system provided a way of completing three records at once: the individual pay record, the company pay record, and the payslip that went into that cherished little brown envelope with your wages. I confess, I always thought the system was called that because it came from Kalamazoo, but in fact, the name was adopted by an English company which, in 1904, heard of a loose-leaf binder that had just been invented in Kalamazoo. The English company acquired world rights, excluding North and South America.

It’s not surprising that a way to deal with paper was invented in Kalamazoo. One of its chief industries was papermaking. Western Michigan University, whose largest campus is in that city, has a Department of Paper Engineering. Chemical Engineering, and Imaging. “New developments in the ways trees are grown, harvested and processed and emerging projects like biofuels and biopolymers are creating opportunities in virtually every area of engineering and manufacturing. The paper industry is a key component in many businesses and touches many aspects of our lives.” So says the blurb on the Paper Engineering website.

An essay on the local history website of the Kalamazoo Public Library states that the availability of immigrant labor, closeness to huge markets like Chicago, and the river’s “ability to provide water for the process of papermaking and to wash away the byproducts of the mills was of crucial importance to the budding industry.” Not to mention the forests, which by the early twentieth century were being decimated to provide the raw material for paper pulp. By 1954, it’s estimated that approximately 32 percent of combined sales in the manufacturing, distributive, and service industries were related to the paper industry either directly or indirectly; ditto for 24 percent of total personal incomes in Kalamazoo County.

But by the 1970s, the environmental movement had managed to get the politicians in DC to pass legislation “that could punish polluters, force industries to clean up their factories, and control how much waste they could release into the air and water.” (Again, from the KPL essay.) Of course, papermaking is notorious for the damage it does to the environment—from removing trees to emptying stinking chemicals into waterways.

The level of PCBs in the Kalamazoo as a result of discharges of wastewater from the papermaking industry is so high that sections of the river are a Superfund site. That is, the federal government has been given regulatory authority to ensure the pollution gets cleaned up. However, even a quick reading of the Environmental Protection Agency’s website about the Kalamazoo River shows that not much progress has been made since the early 1990s.

And in January of this year, one of the Potentially Responsible Parties, Millennium Holdings, was listed as a debtor of a company that filed for bankruptcy. As the EPA website says: “Bankruptcy reorganization is typically a lengthy process that could take a couple years to complete. Millennium Holdings is continuing to work on OU #1 (Allied Site) but has ceased work on other areas of the project. … EPA is currently evaluating options under bankruptcy and environmental law to ensure that the cleanup of the Kalamazoo River site continues.”

*************

--PEACE—

rosalea.barker@gmail.com

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