Why Aren't Portage and Kalamazoo One City?

Aug 10, 2017

The Upjohn manufacturing plant as it appeared in 1958 in what was then Portage Township. The plant's move to Portage played a major role in the city's eventual incorporation.
Credit John Todd / John Todd Collection, Portage District Library

Rosamond Robbert lived in Dublin and London, then moved to the US in the 1970s. When she got to Southwest Michigan, she wondered: why are Kalamazoo and Portage separate cities?

“Both with own taxes as far as I knew, both with their own rules, both with a board of governors and everything. And why’s that? They’re so teeny-weeny,” she says.


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Rosamond’s heard some theories, but first, for background we’re meeting with Lynn Houghton. She’s with Western Michigan University’s Zhang Legacy Collections. Houghton says Kalamazoo County’s development was typical for the Midwest.

“The majority of the county was agriculture but you had your one central village-slash-city and for us that was Kalamazoo, which became the county seat and the seat for all kinds of businesses,” she says.

And around the city you had townships, including Portage. Houghton says that what Kalamazoo saw after World War II, “just like in so many other communities throughout the United States,” was “people wanting to move to the suburbs because of what they perceived as being a cleaner environment, or more space, a different style of home.”

In 1948 came a decisive event for what’s now the City of Portage. The Upjohn pharmaceutical company, which is now part of Pfizer, moved its manufacturing plant to the township. That brought more people to Portage, and Houghton says Upjohn became a huge 38 to 40 percent of the township’s tax base.

Kalamazoo worried about losing all those people and taxes.

“So throughout the 1950s they successfully used annexation to bring some of those pieces back to the city,” Houghton says.

“Kalamazoo did so much annexing that in thirteen years its total area almost tripled. Meanwhile, by the end of the 50s Portage was seriously considering becoming a city itself. That’s when the drama began.

“It’s a very interesting story and I would love if they ever made a movie out of this,” Houghton says.

Houghton says the City of Kalamazoo stood to lose if it couldn’t get some of that industry back – especially Upjohn.

“And Upjohn had just ballooned in production after World War II,” she adds.

Thus, while Portage gathered petitions to put incorporation to a vote, Kalamazoo started a petition to annex the land under the Upjohn plant. Houghton says each side scrambled for signatures.

“Finally it resulted in a race that is “part of Kalamazoo County legend” to file the paperwork at the clerk’s office. Portage prevailed, but as the story has it, just barely.

“They got their petition down to the county clerk’s office 45 minutes before the City of Kalamazoo,” Houghton says.

Then, in February 1963 Portage voted to become a city.

Former Portage mayor Betty Lee Ongley, 91, remembers the battle of the petitions.

“It was a big hurrah,” she recalls. In the faculty room at a school – Ongley had a long career as a junior high guidance director – “we were just elated,” she says.

Former Portage mayor Betty Lee Ongley at the Portage District Library with with some of her collection on the city.
Credit Sehvilla Mann / WMUK

Portage looked different then. It still had plenty of farmland, and Ongley says it also had open sewers. When she was mayor in the 1970s, Ongley says the new city government had lots to figure out.

“We used to go till 11 or 12 o’clock because were trying to develop sewers around the city,” she says.

Rosamond Robbert, who wanted to know why Portage and Kalamazoo are separate cities, has heard that race – specifically, white flight from Kalamazoo - played a role in Portage’s development. Ongley says it’s no secret that some people left Kalamazoo as the district integrated its schools in the 70s.

“That was very well known at the time,” she says.

At the Zhang collections, Houghton says that white flight from Kalamazoo does not appear to have played a role in Portage’s initial growth. She notes that Kalamazoo did experience racial tension in the 1960s and 70s.

“There I think you really did begin to see the shift in population. But the reasons for why people did that is hard to measure. No one is going to say ‘I’m moving because of racial reasons,’” she says.

Michigan has a well-known soft spot for local units of government. Talk of consolidation rarely leads to it. And Rosamond says she can see why.

“I live in Oshtemo Township and know the officials there and if I have a question I just go there and chat to somebody that I know and I kind of like that,” she says.

On the other hand, “Then they do something that really annoys me and I say, ‘I don’t think we should have this little government here, it’s ridiculous.’”

When something in Southwest Michigan makes you curious, ask us about it!

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