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Schoolcraft: The big island in the great prairie

An old photo of the Commercial House Hotel.

By Maggie Snyder, Vicksburg Historical Society

If you don’t watch out, you might run into history just about anywhere. Even an innocent antiquing trip to Schoolcraft, and the buying of one little post card, can set a person off on the trail of something or another. This time, it was the story behind the building on my post card, Commercial House Hotel.

The history of this entire area, including the village of Schoolcraft, began with the coming of the first white explorers. They were probably LaSalle and his followers, who reported that on April 2, 1680, they spent the night about five miles east of a great round prairie located between two rivers. We know now that those two rivers were the St. Joseph and the Kalamazoo.

Much incorrect information was circulated for years about Michigan. It was described in an early U. S. survey as “…so swampy that not 100 acres in the entire Great Lakes appear capable of supporting settlers…”

It wasn’t until the 1826 survey by Robert Clark that the economic potential of the fertile band of prairies in the southern part of the Michigan Territory was discovered. Once word got out that Michigan was not just one big swamp, settlers quickly arrived. They were amazed at the exquisite beauty of the area French explorers called Prairie Ronde meaning “Round Prairie”.

Schoolcraft pioneer E. Larkin Brown remembered his first view of Schoolcraft Prairie during a pioneer gathering held in 1879. Mr. Brown was quoted as follows:

“On the 5th day of November 1831, I finished a long and tedious journey of over three weeks from Vermont by riding from Bronson, (now Kalamazoo), down a road that was the old Indian trail…to what was known as the Big Island. Nearly half of the vast and beautiful Prairie Ronde lay in what was to become Schoolcraft Township, the other half in Prairie Ronde Township…It was known as Big Island from the fact that it was the largest body of trees within the bounds of the prairie.

“Early in March the rank growth of last year’s grass, dried by the sun and wind, was set on fire and the whole prairie burned over, leaving it bare and black as midnight. Then in a few days came the beautiful flowers, covering the whole prairie with one uniform kind and color. These flowers would bloom and fade, to be replaced by flowers of another kind and color, and those by yet another kind and color, until cold weather marked the end of the growing season”.

The original plat of the village of Schoolcraft, which took its name from Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, was received for record October 5, 1831. The description of the original plat, as recorded in the registrar’s office at Kalamazoo, stated the village was located “…east of the Big Island on Prairie Ronde.”

The fertile, flower-strewn prairie was soon discovered as perfect for the cultivation of wheat.
Prairie Ronde wheat was grown in such quantities it was exported to the Lake Michigan port of St. Joseph, then on to the markets of Chicago. The wheat traveled on boats holding from 800 to 1,000 bushels traveling along the St. Joseph River. The gradual growth of this wheat economy led to development and expansion, and Schoolcraft’s first hotel, The Big Island Hotel was built in 1832. But it’s the village’s second hotel that holds our interest today.

The Schoolcraft House was located on Grand Street in a building originally used as a dwelling, then enlarged and converted into a hotel. This structure was torn down in 1870 and replaced in 1872-73 by the large brick hotel shown in my 1909 post card purchase. The new building was named the Troxel House after its builder, then later the Commercial Hotel. Much later, greatly modified and missing its third floor, this grand old building served the public for many years as Bud’s Bar. And, so we hear, after being closed for several years it will re-open in the spring.

And there we have it. An innocent browsing trip turned into a question about a building, which turned into explorers, fields of flowers, fields of wheat, the “why” behind the name Prairie Ronde, and a look into the history of yet another familiar landmark.

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