The History of Caledonia
By Barbara Gall
The story of Caledonia begins with the arrival of the first white settlers in township number five in Kent County. Asahel Kent, his wife, and his young daughter traveled to Michigan from Ohio in a covered wagon, finally settling in 1838 on a parcel of land at the intersection of Whitneyville Avenue and 100th Street. Because Whitneyville Avenue was the main route from Battle Creek and Kalamazoo to Grand Rapids, Kent decided to make his home an inn, which was known as Kent House, and also known as the Oak Grove Inn.
Unfortunately, Asahel Kent died in 1840, but in 1842, his widow married Peter McNaughton, and the two continued to operate the tavern, which became known throughout the area as McNaughton’s.
In 1843, the first township post office was established at McNaughton’s Tavern with McNaughton himself the postmaster. When the McNaughton’s sold their tavern and land to Warren Streeter in 1860, Oscar B. Barber, whose farm was 1/2 mile north of the tavern, became postmaster and ran the post office at his home until the office was closed in 1877.
Across from Barber’s farm, on Whitneyville sat the one-room school house called the Barber School which had been built in the 1850s and is thought to be the first school in Caledonia Township. The well-known tavern on Whitneyville was not to enjoy the long life of the Barber School, which still stands today. In 1867, John B. Proctor moved to Caledonia Township and bought 150 acres, including the tavern, from Warren Streeter. Proctor, however, was not an innkeeper, but a nursery man who imported and sold evergreens. In 1869, he tore down the tavern and built farm buildings on the site. The last of those buildings, a barn, was only recently taken down.
Descendents of John Proctor still live in a white farm house at the corner of Whitneyville & 100th Street.
The year after the tavern on Whitneyville was torn down, a railroad line was completed, connecting Jackson and Grand Rapids. The Grand Valley Railroad, later to become part of the Michigan Central Railroad, did not come through “Caledonia:, but instead ran several miles west of that original post office and through a farm owned by a township resident David Kinsey. David Kinsey, a Canadian, had come to the area with his brother Isaac in 1855. Isaac’s property was located on what is now the farm of Elton Smith, 5337 100th St.
In August 1870, seven months after the first train had come through his property, David Kinsey laid out and platted the northern part of his farm for a Village which was known as Caledonia Station because it was a stop on the Michigan Central line. The Village grew up around the station, and was incorporated on January 21, 1888. Gradually, “Station” disappeared from the Village’s name. Although the Village did not develop where the Kent’s, Barbers, and other early settlers established their homes, that area of the township was referred to as East Caledonia for many years.
While McNaughton’s tavern flourished on Whitneyville in the 1840’s and 1850’s, two other settlements, Alaska and Lebarge, grew up around mills built along the Thornapple River. Both flourished, then slowly disappeared.
Caledonia did not escape setbacks in its development. The most disastrous of these was a fire in 1913, which devastated an area between the railroad tracks (now rail-trail) and Lake Street. It destroyed the elevator, a carriage shop, a blacksmith shop, and endangered other businesses. The bucket brigade was the only means of fighting the blaze. Another fire in 1917, the year the United States entered World War I, destroyed three buildings housing 4 businesses. The Village still owned no modern fire-fighting equipment, and damage from the fire was estimated at $20,000. But the buildings were replaced and the Village of Caledonia continued to flourish. Caledonia sons went off to wars, schools were built, and like many rural communities, the Village has faced the changes caused by the country’s moving from an agricultural to an industrial base.
The settlers who pushed into the Michigan wilderness in the 1830’s to settle in Caledonia Township began a history that today must include the coming of large industry to the township and the decline of agriculture as the main occupation of its residents. Many reminders of “the old days” fortunately remain to mark this history: several centennial farms in the area; the Wilson home on Kinsey; the Kinsey residence on 100th, which was just designated a historic landmark; the Barber school and many pictures and stories now being collected and preserved.