Mar 23, 2005

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The 'Big House' at Singapore


Some of our area’s 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 buildings—one was its well-known ‘wild-cat’ bank (now on Saugatuck’s 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 state—describing it as having a grand ball room where the guest enjoyed ‘high old times.” In reality Singapore’s 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 tea—and 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 well—making 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 rarity—and certainly unattainable by most early settlers.

The ‘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 Schmiechen

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