Kalamazoo Marketing: A History

Kalamazoo Marketing

For this inaugural post I wanted to incorporate a couple topics that currently form a base for this company – Marketing and Kalamazoo (of course with many more themes branching from this base). I thought what a better way to show my appreciation for, and learn more about, both an art and a city that have been a part of my life for a substantial time.

The term ‘marketing’ (or conscious knowledge of the practice as we know it) hasn’t been around nearly as long as the birth of Kalamazoo. To get an idea on what marketing was, and how it has grown in the city, we have to look at several different factors throughout the history of Kalamazoo. You more or less have to read between the lines of history to find what people were doing in the past that could be considered early marketing tactics. Marketing evolved from earlier orientations such as production, product and selling  – so I dug into the history of industry and products in Kalamazoo to grasp how marketing developed and grew.

Yes, There Really is a Kalamazoo

Like any good product or service one of the first marketing efforts for Kalamazoo comes from the many names of the city itself. As it happens many times throughout history there can be several accounts or versions of the truth. Even the origins of the name Kalamazoo are still debated. We know the Potawatomi Native Americans called the river that flows through present-day Kalamazoo either  “Kikalamazoo, Kikanamaso, or Kikamasung”. Not only is the exact name or spelling clouded by history but also what the meaning was. One theory says it means boiling or bubbling water. This referring to either: 1) a footrace held each fall by the local Native Americans who had to run to the river and back before a pot boiled on a fire, or 2) the bubbling springs of the river, or 3) possibly the fog on the river seen from the hills. Others say it means “the mirage or reflecting river”.

Whatever the origins there is no denying it sounds quite unusual to English-speaking ears and over time it has actually become a metonym for exotic places, as in the phrase, “from Timbuktu to Kalamazoo”. Intrigued by the name, many poets, authors and songwriters have penned Kalamazoo into their works, the most notable of which may be Glenn Miller’s I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo. Once the name made its way into the national media people didn’t believe it actually existed. This, at some point, prompted a t-shirt campaign with the phrase “Yes, There Really is a Kalamazoo“, which you can still find for sale here today. Heck, it even says it on the City of Kalamazoo website.

So strange was this name, used while the area was still just a trading post in 1795, when white residents began calling this home the name was actually changed to Bronson, after Titus Bronson, an early settler. Later Bronson was accused, tried and convicted of stealing a cherry tree and in the winter of 1835, a movement began to officially change the name of the town from Bronson back to its native name in the shortened form Kalamazoo. This town was fast on the move – in 1836 the land office sold 1.6 million acres and collected $2 million in receipts – more than any other land office in the nation. The town was incorporated as a village in 1843 and then as a city in 1883. After that it began a rapid modernization, installing a horse-car line that year and following two years later with an electric light and power plant

Kalamazoo was the largest village in the United States with 16,500 citizens before it became the City of Kalamazoo.

From the start it seems Kalamazoo was destined to be a city of many names. This trend continued throughout the history of the city, though the ‘official’ name has remained the same. From here it truly was the industries supporting Kalamazoo that continue the history of marketing.

The Kalamazoo Building, Kalamazoo's first skyscraper

The Kalamazoo Building. When originally erected in 1907 it was Kalamazoo’s first ‘skyscraper’.

The Celery City

Like most of early America, Kalamazoo’s first major industry was agriculture. During the early 1840s, there was a barge system that transported Kalamazoo county’s produce to the mouth of the Kalamazoo River. There it was transferred to larger vessels and sent east. The arrival of the railroad in Kalamazoo in 1846 enhanced the county’s agricultural potential and experienced a boom in industry because of it, though it made the barge system obsolete. Throughout the 1850s and 1860s, Kalamazoo was a leader in celery cultivation and marketing due to an influx of immigrants from Holland.

Celery had been introduced to the area in the 1850s because of its rich mucklands, but it was only after the Civil War that it became part of the American diet. By the end of the nineteenth century, 4,000 acres of celery, on 400 farms employing 3,500 persons, made Kalamazoo County the world’s largest grower of celery. Before long, the celery fields of “Celery City” were flourishing and it was not uncommon to see peddlers selling it right on the streets.

Celery was everywhere. And what happens when you have an influx of a product seeing a large spike in popularity? You get it while the getting is good and you market the added or sometimes unusual benefits and hopefully create some popular spin-off products. This is just what Kalamazoo did. Vendors sold stalks at the train depot, while entrepreneurs manufactured a celery-soaked breakfast cereal, there was also Kalamazoo Celery and Pepsin Chewing Gum, Celery Tar Soap, celery pickles and an aphrodisiac called Celerytone. Celery was also a central ingredient in medicines for “nervous disorders.” Kalamazoo Celery and Sarsaparilla Compound was said to cure “fever and ague, all forms of nervousness, headache, and neuralgia … and female complaints.” The celery’s medicinal value was aided, no doubt, by the compound’s 30% alcohol content.

The United Kennel Club, the nation’s second oldest and second largest all-breed dog registry, was founded in Kalamazoo in 1898.

The Paper City

In 1874 Kalamazoo Paper was established, just the first of many companies that would make Kalamazoo a paper mill center. By the early twentieth century, Kalamazoo County was the state’s dominant paper producer. According to 1904 state census figures, its five paper and wood pulp mills (one-sixth of the state’s total) represented 25% of the industry’s capital value. By World War I, Kalamazoo was the center of the largest paper-producing area in the United States. The industry employed one-half of the city’s labor force.

The Windmill City

As the paper and agriculture industries benefited from the area’s hardwoods and rail network (five railroads and one hundred daily passenger trains in the 1880s) so did the city’s carriage and windmill industries. In 1887 the City of Kalamazoo had 18 carriage firms, which produced 87,000 buggies. During the same decade, boasting worldwide distribution and an annual production of 4,000, the city became the self-proclaimed windmill center of the world.


In 1885 in the Upjohn Pill and Granule Company and began marketing a pill that was easily crushed into powder and digested. (Most other medical pills were composed of a dough like substance that often was undissolvable.) Sales of the Upjohns’ “friable” pill flourished, undoubtedly aided by demonstrations that included collecting competitors’ pills that had passed through a patient and driving them into pine boards like nails.


During the 1890s, A. M. Todd moved his refining and distilling mint oil operations to Kalamazoo from St. Joseph County. By the turn of the century, 90% of the world’s supply of peppermint grew within 75 miles of Kalamazoo, and the A. M. Todd Company refined most of it.

75% of the bedding plants planted in the country are produced in Kalamazoo County.

Psychiatric Innovation

Kalamazoo was the site of the Michigan Asylum for the Insane, which opened in 1859 and was the first of its kind in the State of Michigan and still remains the largest. By 1959 the State Hospital had a patient load of 3,500 and 900 staff that included doctors, nurses, attendants and service personnel. It became almost a city in its own right with a power plant, water system, bakery, laundry, library, canteen, garage, cannery, general kitchen and greenhouse. For many years the hospital was one of the largest employers in Kalamazoo.

Michigan Means Automotive

Like many Michigan communities, Kalamazoo was struck by the automobile manufacturing boom of the early twentieth century. Two of the city’s more impressive early automobiles were the Michigan, with a 22-coat finish of “Michigan, golden, auto brown” and the Roamer, an imitation of the British Rolls Royce. Movie stars Mary Pickford and Buster Keaton were two of the Roamer’s most celebrated owners. Though Kalamazoo’s automobile manufacturing industry never flourished, the city became the home of the Checker Cab Manufacturing Corporation in 1923. Boasting that its cabs never wore out, Checker combined innovation and quality to become one of the nation’s leading cab manufacturers in the late 1920s.

A number of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Usonian” homes were constructed during the 1940s and many of his designs are found in and around Kalamazoo.

Kalamazoo Corsets

The Kalamazoo Corset Company, which offered 20 styles of corsets, employed 800 women and became the largest corset factory in the world. The Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Company was founded by Orville Gibson after he revolutionized the production of fretted musical instruments by perfecting a mandolin with a flat back. While the corset industry died as women’s fashions changed, Gibson remained a world-renowned manufacturer of guitars.

The Greatest Guitars in the World

Gibson Guitars Marketed in Kalamazoo

Gibson experienced remarkable growth in the 1950s, aided in part by the introduction of the famous Les Paul guitar in 1952. Named after the famous guitarist, it was designed to his specifications. The company’s success continued during the 1960s, when it manufactured over 1,000 guitars a day and employed nearly 1,000 workers, but a sharp nationwide decline in guitar sales contributed to Gibson’s difficulties during the 1970s and 1980s. The company moved its headquarters to Nashville, Tennessee, in 1981, and three years later it closed the Kalamazoo plant.

Kalamazoo opened the country’s first permanent outdoor pedestrian shopping mall in 1959.

The 20th Century

Kalamazoo Radisson Plaza Hotel

Up to the turn of the 20th century, Kalamazoo was known world-wide for the production of wind engines, carriages, pharmaceuticals, corsets, musical instruments, fishing reels, stoves, mint oils, cigars, playing cards, regalia, paper products, celery, beer and coffins. Kalamazoo was once the manufacturing domain for Checker cabs, Gibson Guitars, Kalamazoo Stoves, Kalamazoo Corset, Kalamazoo Sled, and Shakespeare fishing rods and reels. Kalamazoo boomed at the turn of the century with population growing an impressive 62% from 1900 to 1910. By 1937, Kalamazoo boasted 151 industrial establishments manufacturing goods valued at more than $70 million.  By 1963 both interstate highways I-94 and US-131 were completed, connecting Kalamazoo to Detroit, Chicago and Grand Rapids with four-lane divided expressways. Post war economic growth lead to expansion or increased production at Checker Cab Co., Upjohn, Kalamazoo Vegetable Paper Company and the Sutherland Paper Company among others. In 1966, General Motors opened its 2,000,000 square foot Fisher body plant along I-94.

Kalamazoo Civic Auditorium was built in 1929, Michigan’s oldest Civic Auditorium.

On May 13, 1980 a tornado swept through downtown Kalamazoo damaging much in its path. Economic decline had already begun to ravage the community. Like many midwestern cities so dependent on the post-war manufacturing boom, Kalamazoo struggled with the effects of increased unemployment combined with decreased revenue for both businesses and governments. As plant after plant boarded up or relocated, the City of Kalamazoo struggled to cope. In particular, the paper industry once prevalent along Portage Creek and the Kalamazoo River, all but disappeared from the area. A lowering of the water table by the paper industry has dried up Kalamazoo’s mucklands, this, plus disease, led to the demise of celery and mint. Nevertheless, the A.M. Todd Company remains the world’s leading refiner of mint oil.

Kalamazoo is famous as the home of the United States Tennis Association Boys 18 & 16 Championships for the past 60 years.

Globalization forced “downsizing” and job losses at Upjohn, which had become the area’s largest employer. The company started in Kalamazoo would eventually merge with Pfizer, then the world’s largest pharmaceutical company, but still retained the Kalamazoo laboratories. Global competition also caused great losses in the automotive industry, a bedrock of Michigan’s economy. Like many others across the Midwest, the General Motors Fisher body Plant closed in 1992.

Kalamazoo is rated one of the best places to live in the U.S. for people who are blind or visually impaired by the American Foundation for the Blind.

Medical Technology: Stryker

An orthopaedic surgeon from Kalamazoo, Dr. Homer Stryker, suddenly found that certain medical products were not meeting his patients’ needs, so he started invented new ones. As interest in these products grew, Dr. Stryker started a company in 1941 to produce them. The company’s goal was to help patients lead healthier, more active lives through products and services that make surgery and recovery simpler, faster and more effective. Today, Stryker is a global leader in the medical technology industry with over 20,000 employees worldwide and 4,768 patents owned globally in 2012. Styker has had many accolades throughout the years –  recent recognition include: #305 Fortune 500 Company, Fortune World Most Admired Companies 2013, Gallup Great Workplace Award 2013, and Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For 2013.

Beer City USA (Almost)

One thing the City of Kalamazoo has been fairly successful at as of late is marketing Beer, but it hasn’t always been that way. Two commercial breweries began brewing craft beer in Kalamazoo in the late 1830s and continued to until 1915 when commercial brewing in the area seemed to dry up. It wasn’t until 1985 when Bell’s Brewery Inc. sold it’s first beer, later making Kalamazoo home to the largest and oldest craft brewery in the state of Michigan and east of Colorado.  Now, Bell’s is considered the No. 7 top craft brewer in the nation, selling 216,000 barrels of beer across the country in 2012.  The brewery has expanded from its original Kalamazoo location, which still houses a restaurant and beer garden, to another brewery in nearby Comstock.

The success and popularity of Bell’s, as well as a thriving beer community and other local micro-breweries, prompted local organizers to submit Kalamazoo into the Beer City USA contest. Kalamazoo should be a well deserved Beer City USA given the fact the well-known Arcadia Brewing Co. (started in Kalamazoo then moved to nearby Battle Creek) is opening a $6.2 million production facility and barbecue brewpub in Kalamazoo this year, restaurants Bilbo’s Pizza and Old Peninsula Brewpub both brew beer, three new breweries will open in downtown Kalamazoo (Gonzo’s BiggDogg Brewing, Rupert’s Brew House, and Boatyard Brewing Co.) and one in Kalamazoo suburb Portage (Latitude 42 Brewing Company). Plus it also has an entire week dedicated to beer in January.

For it’s first time in the contest Kalamazoo gained 2nd place – losing the #1 Beer City USA vote to it’s larger, northern neighbor city Grand Rapids, MI. The 2012 winner Ashville, NC came in 3rd for 2013.

Kalamazoo Downtown

A view of a portion of current day Downtown Kalamazoo near the Arcadia Festival Site and Park.

The Kalamazoo Promise

In 2005, Kalamazoo was once again thrust into the national spotlight when Kalamazoo Public Schools announced the “Kalamazoo Promise.” This philanthropically funded program promises college tuition, up to 100%, to graduates of the district’s high schools with appropriate grades. Students that attend for four years can receive up to 65% tuition paid and if they attend K-12 it’s a free ride – at participating college’s in Michigan of course (nearly all of them). The Kalamazoo Promise is a one-of-a-kind program that featured Kalamazoo and it’s school districts on major news outlets and led to President Barack Obama’s commencement address for the Kalamazoo Central High School 2010 graduation. Since then, several other American cities have adopted similar programs.

This may yet be the ultimate ‘marketing’ tactic for a city as a whole – enticing residents and potential residents to stay in Kalamazoo and the public school system for 13 full years with the promise of 100% college tuition paid. That’s like getting a contract on taxes and local economic spending for an entire family for 13 years and the cost is paid for by wealthy, anonymous donors. Not to mention helping ensure generations are educated – producing a healthy workforce to innovate the future. Brilliant!

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Kalamazoo Public Library – Kalamazoo Valley Museum – Kalamazoo City – KalamazooMi.com – SW Michigan Directory – Wikipedia

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