Pavement Was a Passionate Topic in Early Kalamazoo

Oct 13, 2016

Exposed brick on Michigan Avenue between Church and Park Streets.

Downtown businessowner Dean Hauck wants to know: When did Michigan Avenue go from brick to blacktop? 

Few people can say they work in a store they first walked into 68 years ago, but Dean Hauck is one of them. Dean owns the downtown Kalamazoo bookstore the Michigan News Agency on the corner of Church Street and Michigan Avenue. This used to be her stepfather’s newsstand.

Full disclosure: the News has been an underwriter on WMUK.

What in Southwest Michigan makes you curious? Why's That wants to know!

Dean and I walk out front of the store and peer over the curb at the edge of Michigan Avenue.

“Look at that. Isn’t that beautiful?” Dean asks.

All up and down the block where the asphalt has worn away you can see a few tidy rows of bricks, some crushed, others looking pretty good. Dean says the state has covered it up before, but the brick always reemerges. So she wonders:

“When did it go from brick to blacktop? And that would have been before my time.”

It turns out this block was something of a pioneer back when paving was a hot topic in Kalamazoo. Before we got into those paving wars, Dean and I talked with City of Kalamazoo Historic Preservation Coordinator Sharon Ferraro. She told us about the street’s early days.

“It’s always been the main drag,” she says.

Michigan Avenue, that stream of fast-moving eastbound cars, was once part of a territorial road between Detroit and St. Joseph. That road in turn got its start as a Native American footpath. In Kalamazoo it became Main Street, later renamed Michigan Avenue.

The surface that covered this important road in the mid and even late 1800s was “dirt, just plain old dirt.”

The city had “probably plank sidewalks at that point in time,” Ferraro adds.

In 1890 the Kalamazoo Gazette reports that the city decided to improve part of the road including Dean’s block. It considered brick, but decided that would cost too much. Instead the city paved the street with wood.

Ferraro says this type of pavement consisted of “chunks of cedar about 6 to 8 inches long and 4 to 6 inches square that were put with the grain end up,” that is, the cut end up.

Exposed brick is visible up and down the north side of Michigan Avenue between Church and Park.

“Unfortunately that meant that that grain end, which is where water can be absorbed was up. So it would draw water, all the microorganisms in the horse poop would kind of do damage,” she says.

At this point the city did embrace brick – for some streets. Ferraro says a brick street has many winning properties. Done right the surface lasts decades without major repairs. You can still see brick on a few of the city’s streets, like the hilly parts of Wheaton and Academy.

“I think they started using – kept using brick for hills, because the steamrollers they had to use for asphalt didn’t really do well on hills,” Ferraro says.

In the 1890s the city laid brick on much of Michigan Avenue. It worked from the east all the way up to the edge of Dean’s block. But in 1903 some city leaders wanted to try something new. The Kalamazoo Gazette had the story.

“Report of Paving Commissioners is adopted. Will use bitulithic, trades and labor council protest unavailing. Threats of vengeance at the polls are made,” it begins.

Bitulithic pavement was a kind of proto-asphalt. As the headline suggests, the brick advocates did not go quietly. Unions called the bitulithic company unfair. Many residents doubted the pavement was any good. To make their case, bitulithic supporters turned to an engineer.

“Quick thrusts from Alderman Curtiss fell off his smile like water from a duck as he took refuge from hot questions in the statement that they were not of an engineering nature and he could not answer them. He would not listen to anything but the excellence of bitulithic,” reported the Gazette.

Commissioners tied on the vote but the mayor broke it. Down the blacktop went.

But then the city went on to pave other streets with brick. For years it went back and forth on materials, though eventually asphalt won out. By the late 1930s much of the brick on Michigan Avenue had blacktop over it.

Dean and I were able to determine when asphalt-type pavement first went down on her block. But we ended up with a stumper: what about the brick you can see through the asphalt in front of the store? Records and news stories that detail so much about the paving on the rest of Michigan Avenue don’t explain the brick on Dean’s block.

Did the bricks somehow follow the blacktop? Do the bricks even cover the whole street? I asked the city’s Sharon Ferraro if maybe Dean and I were actually looking at a brick gutter. She says it’s possible.

“Now it’s really become a neat-o mystery,” Dean says.