The History of Kalamazoo: The Complete Guide for New Residents

history of kalamazoo michigan

Do you want to live in the USA’s coolest city with the lowest cost of living index? Well then, you should consider moving to Kalamazoo. Set between Chicago and Detroit, Kalamazoo is within driving distance from Michigan’s lakes. Kalamazoo blends small-town character with big city vibrancy—and has a thriving culture to match.

But what is the history of Kalamazoo? How did it get its name? And what is it like living in Kalamazoo? You need to know these things before moving to Kalamazoo, and this guide will help you get up to speed! Read on to learn the history of Kalamazoo and what the city is like today.

The Origins of Kalamazoo

The history of Kalamazoo is quite a story. It dates back thousands of years.

Native American History of Kalamazoo

Before any settlers arrived, the Potawatomi nation lived in Kalamazoo. The fertile lands of Kalamazoo county meant they had all the food they needed, and the climate was warmer than the icy northern plains.

The Potawatomi grew beans, maize, corn, and squash. The proximity of Kalamazoo to its river meant they could travel and fish at will.

They lived similarly to other Great Lake nations, the Chippewa and Ottawa, but were less nomadic. They stayed in Kalamazoo because they had access to abundant food and resources. Families worked together.

Origins of Kalamazoo’s Name

There are several theories about the origin of Kalamazoo’s name. But the most prevalent derives from the Potawatomi Algonquian language. Kalamazoo means boiling water or the land where water boils in this language.

This could refer to sharp turns in the river, to its frothing water. Another theory derives from the word negikanamazo, or otter tail. Yet another relates to mirages in the water.

Most ideas point to the Kalamazoo River as a source.

The First Settlers Arrive

European settlers arrived at the start of the 19th century. They pushed the Potawatomi nation west, and the Potawatomi settled further inland.

Settlement History of Kalamazoo

The earliest settlers in Kalamazoo lived off its fertile lands. They harvested crops and fished from the Kalamazoo River, using natural resources to build their homes.

Bazel Harrison Settles in Kalamazoo

Many historians see Bazel Harrison as the first settler in Kalamazoo. Bazel Harrison’s uncle, Benjamin Harrison, signed the Declaration of Independence, and his family is entwined with American history.

In 1828, he moved to Prairie Ronde, Kalamazoo County, leading other settlers. They moved their families, livestock, and all their belongings. Their goal was to build new lives on this grassy plain.

Titus Bronson Founds Bronson City

Another figure staking claim to the title of the first settler is Titus Bronson. In 1930, Bronson built his home near the head of Kalamazoo River. This feat attracted more settlers, who named the area Bronson after its founder.

In 1832, Justus Burdick bought 50% of Bronson’s community and land. Burdick built a huge hotel called Kalamazoo House. He served food and took in guests when a housing shortage struck Bronson.

In 1834, Bronson bought land from St. Joseph County to ease the shortage, but the quality of life for many residents remained poor.

Kalamazoo Is Born

In 1836, after falling foul of his citizens, Titus Bronson left for Illinois. It is doubtful he received leaving gifts. His name ceased to adorn the title of his land, and his citizens renamed the area Kalamazoo.

Early Economy of Kalamazoo

Agriculture helped Kalamazoo develop; it was the city’s first trade industry. But it was hard labor, and workers suffered to bring in crops in all weathers.

The Invention of a Farming Icon

Pioneer Hiram Moore saved them this hardship in 1836. He patented the combine harvester. Reverend Patrick Bell’s 1826 reaper, designed in Scotland, may have influenced Moore, but the combine transformed farming.

Pulled by horses or mules, combine harvesters helped put food on Kalamazoo’s tables. Citizens also harvested more than they needed from the fertile plains. They sold their crops to other townships for profit.

The Paper City

In the late 19th century, Kalamazoo turned to paper and cardboard manufacturing. Paper became their number one domestic product. It held this economic crown for the next 100 years.

What’s It Like Living in Kalamazoo Today?

Flash forward to today; Kalamazoo is a thriving city with a unique identity. Its agricultural economy shifted to manufacturing, and its population enjoys some of America’s highest quality of life.


The 2020 census reported 261,670 people were living in Kalamazoo county, with 75,351 people living in Kalamazoo city limits. This gives Kalamazoo its small-town personality with its big-city energy.

Kalamazoo offers studio apartments, spacious houses, and historic heritage homes. Its housing market is diverse, so there is something for everyone.


From the 1870s, Kalamazoo’s primary industry was paper manufacturing, and its main agricultural crop was celery. But now, Kalamazoo makes medical equipment, pharmaceutical products, plastic, and metal for engineering.

Kalamazoo boasts numerous modern office buildings, and its downtown area is ideal for business meetings and networking. If you’re looking to move your office to a new town in Michigan, Kalamazoo should be at the top of your list.


Kalamazoo has three main centers of higher education: Kalamazoo College (1833), Western Michigan University (1903), and Kalamazoo Community College (1966). All of these colleges have seen big names pass through their gates.

The Kalamazoo Promise ensures public high school graduates can access higher education. Students get up to 100% of their university or community college fees paid for them if they study in Kalamazoo.

Current Mayor and Municipal Government

Since 2019, Mayor David Anderson has been the mayor of Kalamazoo. Anderson studied accountancy at Western Michigan University. He has lived in Kalamazoo for over 40 years, and he serves on the 54th City Commission.

Mayor Anderson is president of the LIFT Foundation. LIFT helps support Kalamazoo’s low-income families and those with disabilities. Since 1992 he has worked for Kalamazoo Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

Transport in Kalamazoo

Kalamazoo is easy to get around. Its public transport network serves the city’s residents well. The Metro Transit bus will quickly get you around the city, and the downtown transport center links you to Chicago and Detroit.

You can use the Greyhound and Indian Trails buses for longer trips across the USA. And Kalamazoo’s Battle Creek International Airport (AZO) is conveniently located for overseas trips.

Bars and Restaurants

Kalamazoo, Michigan, is a heaven for food lovers. You can treat yourself at over 450 restaurants. Savor food from all over the world or tuck into home-grown Kalamazoo dishes.

Fancy a drink? Kalamazoo has twelve breweries, a craft beer trail, and countless wine bars. It has a thriving craft beer scene—pioneered by Bells Brewery.

A night out in downtown Kalamazoo always delivers.

Kalamazoo Fun Facts

Rich in culture and steeped in history, Kalamazoo has a diverse story. It is one of those cities where you constantly discover new places, activities, and people.

And the Wind Cries Mary

Kalamazoo is the birthplace of Gibson Guitars, makers of Jimi Hendrix’s Gibson SG. Orville Gibson founded Gibson Guitars in 1902. Some of the greatest guitarists in the world still buy their instruments from these makers today.

A First for Female Rights

In 1879, Kalamazoo opened the Ladies Library Association. This may not seem significant, but in 1879 women could not vote or own land. This was a small step forward in the history of equality.

Savor Craft Heritage in Kalamazoo

Fancy a beer? Kalamazoo’s Bells Brewery is the oldest craft brewery in Michigan.

As one of the top Kalamazoo historic sites, this brewery is independent to its core. They make some of America’s finest craft beers.

Sign up for a tour and trust what your tastebuds tell you.

First Outdoor Mall in the USA

In 1959, Kalamazoo was home to the USA’s first outdoor pedestrian mall. After redirecting traffic from Burdick Street, Kalamazoo put up this four-block shopping haven. And all outdoor malls owe it a debt of gratitude.

Kalamazoo’s Many Nicknames

Kalamazoo earned the name “Paper City” for its paper industry. It earned its title of “Mall City” for its mall.

But back in its farming prime, Kalamazoo had one more nickname.

In a nod to Kalamazoo’s agricultural past, Kalamazoo held the moniker of “Celery City.” It produced vast quantities of celery, shipped all over the USA.

The Press Is Still in Print

The Kalamazoo Gazette was founded in 1837 and is the 2nd oldest newspaper in Michigan. It is still in print today, publishing seven days a week—perhaps helped along by Kalamazoo’s massive paper manufacturing industry!

Paper Engineering in Western Michigan

In 1948, Western Michigan Univerisity began a paper engineering program. The department specialized in researching the chemical production of paper. It aimed to revolutionize the county’s and the world’s forestry industries.

Barrack Obama Visited Kalamazoo

Former President Barrack Obama addressed Western Michigan University in 2010. Kalamazoo Central had won the Top Commencement Challenge, and Obama spoke at their commencement ceremony.

Abraham Lincoln Gave a Speech in Kalamazoo

Lincoln visited Kalamazoo in 1856, four years before his election victory. It was the only time the 16th president addressed a Michigan city.

He spoke at Bronson Park, and the Abraham Lincoln Institute honors his visit to this day.

Popular Kalamazoo Attractions

Kalamazoo is home to countless historical sites and has many popular attractions for you to enjoy. It is a family-friendly city where everybody is welcome.

Kalamazoo Air Zoo

Air Zoo was voted “best place to take your family” in Kalamazoo. This interactive aviation museum displays over 100 air and space technology units. It has flight simulators, indoor amusement rides, and science camps for kids.

Western Michigan University Miller Auditorium

Miller Auditorium hosts live Broadway-style theatre productions. It takes its name from the third president of Western Michigan University, James W. Miller. It opened in 1968 and is one of ten live theaters in Kalamazoo.

Kalamazoo Institute of Art

Promoting art since 1924, the Kalamazoo Institute of Art is an inspiring day out. It collates art from around the world, offers art classes, and holds special events. Check out the calendar.

Kalamazoo Nature Center

This non-profit nature center has over 1,000 acres of woodland. It hosts special events every month for kids and grown-ups.

Hike over 14 miles of spectacular natural environments and immerse yourself in Michigan’s natural world.

Kalamazoo River

At 123 miles long, kayaking down the Kalamazoo River is a day out to remember. It is ideal for paddling, fishing, and wildlife spotting.

Want to keep dry? You can follow the river on some of the finest hiking trails in Michigan.

Gilmore Car Museum

If you like vintage and collector’s cars, Gilmore Car Museum is for you. It has over 400 vehicles in its 190,000 square feet of space. Learn about classic cars like the 1927 Ford Model T, the 1913 Rolls Royce, and the 1920 Pierce-Arrow.

Downtown ‘Central City’ Kalamazoo

Downtown Kalamazoo buzzes day and night.

Kalamazoo’s cultural center has local crafts and boutique stores. It has fine dining and trendy bars. Hop between its specialty coffee shops or watch the sunset from a rooftop lounge.

Festivals in Kalamazoo

You can find most Kalamazoo festivals at Arcadia Creek Festival Place.

Catch Kalamazoo Art Fair, the second oldest in the USA, every June. Get into the groove at Hippie Fest. Check out the local fare at the Fall Craft Show.

Want to Go Further Afield?

You can drive to Lake Michigan’s beaches in 40 minutes. Chicago city is a day-trip away if you crave more buzz and bright city lights.

Do you fancy some winter sports? Head to Michigan’s ski country, three to four hours away.

Do you want to stay local and hit the slopes? Drive 21 miles to Bittersweet ski resort in Kalamazoo.

Are You Moving to Kalamazoo?

Now you know the history of Kalamazoo, we bet you’re eager to get settled in here. And Big Lake Movers can help you do it.

We all know how challenging it can be to move home. But you can avoid the struggles of Kalamazoo’s early settlers. In modern times, our team at Big Lake Movers can take the strain from your shoulders.

We offer residential and commercial moving services in Kalamazoo, Michigan. We are a fully-licensed, highly-experienced moving service. And we insure all your possessions for your peace of mind.

Request a quote from us today.

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