History
8:59 am
Thu November 7, 2013

Outlaws, immigrants, a hymn and a big flood - Albion's history

Historian Frank Passic in Albion
Credit Nancy Camden

Like a lot of small towns in Michigan, Albion has seen better economic times. But their local historian Frank Passic champions Albion’s history as well as today’s downtown.

Albion Historian, Frank Passic is the author of nine books about Albion. The books are available at Books and More on Albion’s main street, which is called Superior Street. It’s one of the longest brick streets in the state of Michigan.

Albion was founded because of water power at the forks of the east and south branch of the Kalamazoo River. Before that, Native Americans used the river for travel. In 1908, there was a big flood that wiped out several of the buildings built over the river, according to Passic.

“The month of March 1908 was filled with heavy precipitation and the Homer Dam broke, eight miles upstream," he says. "It sent a huge torrent of water and ice down the river. And, it jammed up at what we call Victory Park now. In fact, they dynamited the ice to try to get it to flow. And, a wave of water came down, collapsed all of the buildings over the river on Superior Street.”

There are building built over the river today. In one of them is a business where Derek Hadfield restores, services and repairs vintage and antique watches.

“He keeps a watch on things here,” Passic jokes.

Derek Hadfield says that in the building he’s in, there was an outhouse that dumped directly into the river. In the 1930’s, The Purple Gang did bank robberies and other illicit acts all across southern Michigan. They did some of their business in Albion and hid a car in a stall by the river.

“This car was the first conversion van,” says Passic. “The center post came out so you could put the safe in. It had a revolving license place, bullet-proof glass and they used that to perform their robberies.”

The Purple Gang also used the balcony of Albion’s Bohm Theatre to do business. A lookout named Flapper Suzy kept an eye out. The story culminated in the unsolved murder of Senator Warren Hooper in 1945. Hooper was going to ‘squeal’ on corruption in the Michigan state legislature.

Albion had many historic industries. The Gale Manufacturing Company in existence from 1862 to 1968 moved to Albion during the civil war. They produced farm implements and brought many immigrants, particularly German immigrants to be laborers. During WWI, workers were off to war, so the Albion Malleable Iron Company recruited workers from the south. This accounts for the migration of African American families to Albion.

Albion College dates back to the beginning of the community. The Observatory is a state historic site with an antique telescope located inside. Another marker commemorates the writing of the song "The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi." Byron Stokes and Dudleigh Vernor wrote the words and music and within a few years, the song was known around the world. Another song written in Albion is "The Old Rugged Cross." People looking for old sheet music as well as instruments come to Dickerson’s Music Company in downtown Albion.