By Sue Moore
Brief ceremonies were held on Memorial Day by the Vicksburg Historical Society in its drive to commemorate the many historic buildings in downtown Vicksburg.
This unveiling featured two of the most prominent locations, the Community Center at the main four corners of the village, and the Smalley Building at the corner of Main and Washington Streets.
Kristina Powers Aubry, Margaret Kerchief, Bonnie Holmes, and Mike Hardy researched and wrote the information on the plaques.
The Society thinks there are over 20 buildings worthy of a historical designation and the group will work toward that end, once the proper research is done and the money raised to pay for the plaques which are solid bronze. The first two plaques were financed by a gift from two anonymous donors.
Ken Schippers, interim Village Manager, said he will need special tools to place the plaques on the sides of the buildings, since the bricks are rather soft.
Julie Merrill, owner of Rawlinson Appliances and former board member of the Historical Society, was especially pleased that her building was selected in this first round of sign placements.
She has spent seven years renovating what was originally known as the Smalley building, and now she believes her work will be a catalyst for future renovations and saving of some of the most distinctive buildings in the downtown area.
The idea for the plaques came from Ted Vliek, a Historical Society board member, a few years ago. Since he has spent many years as a Portage resident, he was interested in identifying buildings that stood out as he traveled through the village.
Smalley Building/Corporation Hall/Rawlinson’s Appliances
Likely not the first buildings to occupy this corner, the two current buildings were in existence by 1890 when records reveal that George Smalley operated a grocery store on this site.
In October, 1890, the Village of Vicksburg leased the northernmost building from Reuben Smalley, using the first floor as a fire department and jail, and the upstairs as offices and council rooms. It was named Corporation Hall. In 1916 Village offices and jail were moved to a new site, but the fire department remained.
In 1925 the Village purchased the northern building. Following school district consolidation in 1947, the southern building was used by the School District for various educational purposes into the 1950’s.
The southern building was purchased by the Village in 1953. They used it for offices and council rooms until 1997, when it became home to The Vicksburg Commercial Express which occupied it for three years. Vacant for a few years, the building was purchased by the Merrill family in 2003 where they operated an appliance store.
In addition to the uses cited for the two buildings, various other retail, entertainment, and service establishments have had a presence here. Remnants of the old jail cells remain in the building.
Union Hotel/McElvain House/Vicksburg Hotel/Vicksburg Community Center
By 1845, a frame building stood on this corner, owned and operated by Hugh Finley as the Union Hotel. Purchased by Joseph McElvain in 1864, it was razed in 1872, rebuilt as a brick structure and named the McElvain House.
In addition to serving as a lodging/tavern, over the years the building accommodated a bank, barber shop, restaurant, newspaper, and bowling alley, as well as rental space to doctors and other professionals, a millinery, and fraternal orders.
Traveling salesmen, known as drummers, were regular guests at the hotel. It had one of Vicksburg’s first telephones in 1885.
Of the several hotels in early Vicksburg, only this building, then known as the Vicksburg Hotel, was operating in 1930.
Purchased by the Village in 1975 with funds from the Vicksburg and Kalamazoo Foundations, HUD, and other private donations, it was restored as a Bicentennial Project and reopened February 19, 1977, as the Vicksburg Community Center.