'THE BIG HOUSE'
Some of our areas most
interesting stories center around the lost
village of Singapore at the mouth of the Kalamazoo River. Founded in 1836, Singapore was platted out with streets
with names like Cherry and Detroit, and it had a bank that
issued its own money, and had, over time, three or four sawmills.
In addition to the mills, much
of the history of Singapore centers on two buildingsone was its well-known
wild-cat bank (now on Saugatucks Butler Street), and the other a large
boarding house called The Big House which was built in 1837 or 1838 as housing
for mill workers and their families. At the time some called it the Astor
House a bit of a local joke that played on the New York city luxury hotel by that name.
Nevertheless, some later historians took this seriously and wrote of the house as one of
the finest hotels in the statedescribing it as having a grand ball room where the
guest enjoyed high old times. In reality Singapores boarding house was
nothing more than a big (75 by 40 feet) two and a half story house of rough lumber. It was
gray and unpainted but it would most likely have had a bit of Greek Revival
charm to it if it was at all like the big boarding houses of nearby Saugatuck and Douglas
at the time. It appears that the house had a good supply of whiskey, but also someone
ready to make the newcomer a cup of teaand a nice brick fireplace in
many of the rooms.
With the help of local artist
Margaret McDermott, I have reconstructed the Big House (or Astor
House) the best I can by following the narrative given by Laura Hudson Hutchins who
lived there in 1848, and by following what we know of early building design in the area at
that time. The Big House faced south to the Kalamazoo River and was very near the
upper mill. It had a long two story wing that held a large dining room,
kitchen, and sleeping rooms. It had a bar room, parlor, and large side porch. Most of the
sleeping rooms were large enough for a family of 4 to 5 persons. The lower floor was a
fully used basement with sleeping rooms as wellmaking for a total of at least a
dozen sleeping rooms.
Up to fifty people in one
house? Indeed. Mrs. Hutchins described it as a human beehive. Some of the old
settlers wrote about how the house functioned as an immigrant village of sorts: Catholics
and Protestants; blacksmiths as well as Hollander men who could knit their own hosiery.
Frenchmen from Canada, Irish, Dutch, Norwegians, a
German family from Maine, and so on, all in the same
house and most tied to the fortunes of the nearby mill and wild-cat bank. A good number of
immigrants on their way to nearby Holland first came ashore and lived for
a while in this house.
Today Singapore is well known in Saugatuck for
the fact that some of its single family houses were moved to Saugatuck. The fact appears to be that in the years just prior
to and after the Civil War (1861-1865), life at Singapore centered on this sort of
cooperative or collective housing, not single family housing. In short, most of the
family living which we associate with the modern family home was
somewhat of a rarityand certainly unattainable by most early settlers.
Astor House it was not, but it had plenty of fireplaces, plenty of talking,
and its dining room was large enough for a Saturday night dance. By Jim
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