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History Lives Here Text

The Big House at Singapore
by James Schmiechen

The recentHistorical Society book and exhibit "Lost and Found: Ghost Towns of theSaugatuck Area, " has generated a renewed interest in the "lost"village of Singapore which was located near what isnow the mouth of the Saugatuck harbor. From the time the first sawmill wasestablished in 1838 until the last mill was closed in 1875, Singapore was aboom-and-bust settlement, subject to capital shortages, fires, changingownership, and, finally, a dwindling supply of local white pine trees.


People cameand went. Indeed, it appears that Singaporewas a stopping off point for immigrants from eastern United States and Europe-often coming by way of Chicago. Looking for work and shelter (andland), these were people who did not have the means to purchase land when theyarrived. Local historian May Heath suggested that 200 people lived atSingapore, but more recently James Sheridan claims that there were probablyonly about 50 people at any one time in the little settlement.


May Heath'sbook, Early Memories of Saugatuck, is full of references to local heroes (menand women) who started out at Singaporeand then moved to Saugatuck. Henry Hudson Hutchins' account of his family(printed in Western Allegan CountyPioneer Days) includes some interesting references to everyday life in Singapore. Forthe most part, however, much of everyday life over a century ago in Singapore isreally "lost." The most visible Singaporeartifacts for us today are a number of interesting old houses which were movedup-river from old Singaporeto Saugatuck.


One way to geta new angle on Singaporelife is to look at its most celebrated (and controversial) building: the bigboarding house-hotel, sometimes called "The Astor House," which wasbuilt in 183? or 1838, as housing for mill employees(and at one time even the mill owner, Mr. Carter).


It appearsthat although the name "Astor House" was used at the time as a bitof a local joke--a play on the New York hotel by that name which was the epitome ofluxury--it was later picked up by historians as being actual fact. Writing inthe 1920s, May Heath called it one of the finest hotels in the state-areference she probably got from an Allegan newspaper of the 1870s whichreferred to the "high old times" the early settlers had dancing inthe hotel's "commodious ball room."


My guess isthat by the time this story of a grand hotel at Singapore was passed around, thestructure was long gone--probably destroyed by the same fire which destroyedthe main mill in 1866. In reality the Singapore "Astor House" hotelwas, as Henry Hutchins' mother Laura tells us, nothing more than a big (60 by40 feet) three-story boarding house made of rough lumber--although it mighthave had a bit of charm to it if it was at all like the big boarding houses inSaugatuck and Douglas at the time (see the photos of the Douglas House and theJudson-Heath House on pages 7-8 of Raising the Roof).


The lowerfloor was a fully exposed basement constructed of brick. It faced south to the Kalamazoo River not too far from where the harborentrance sea wall begins and had a long two story wing (or "L") witha porch, at the rear, facing east. A bar room and parlor occupied the mainfloor front, with adjacent "sitting rooms," a large dining room, andkitchen hall in the back wing. It appears to have had at least a dozen sleepingrooms, most large enough to house an entire family.


Up to fifty people in one house? Indeed, what is of additional historic interest about this "BigHouse" at Singapore is how it functioned as an immigrant village:Frenchmen from Canada, Irish, Dutch, Norwegians, a German family from Maine,and so on, all in the same house, all eating in the same dining room, and alltied to the same fortunes of the nearby mill and wild-cat bank.


Ourreconstruction of the "Big House" also reminds us that, as in nearbySaugatuck and Douglas at the same time and probably up to the time of the CivilWar, most families and individuals did not live as single-family units insingle family dwellings. Instead, most people lived in this sort of boardinghouse where religion, occupation, and ethnic origins mixed, and where privacyand space for individual and family-centered activity was limited. Evidencesuggests that most of the single-family houses a1 Singapore were built later,in the years just prior to and after the Civil War (1861-1865), and eves afterthis time Singapore still had a boarding house for its mill workers.


In short, the sort of "familyliving" and "family life" which we associate with the modern"family home" was somewhat of a rarity and certainly unattainable bymost early settlers. What I have done below is reconstruct the "BigHouse" as best I can by following the narrative given by Laura HudsonHutchins who lived there in 1848, and who described it to her son, Henry HudsonHutchins, and by following what we know of early building design in the area atthat time. The "Astor House" it was not, but its dining room waslarge enough for a Saturday night dance-and it certainly had great views fromall rooms.

The Big House at Singapore(Ca. 1838-1866)


Function:company boarding house for mill workers

Size:75' x 50' according to 1856 survey. [Hutchins says 70' x 60']

Construction:unknown. Probably post and beam. Rough wood plank and brick lower level. Site:front facing south to Kalamazoo River about 125' from the"big mill" (east mill). Probably burned in 1 869mill fire. Rooms: basement: 4 "sleeping rooms" Mainfloor: bar room, parlor, 2 "sitting-sleeping rooms," diningroom-kitchen, center halls, two stairways, large side porch. Upper floor: 7bedrooms Residents ("borders") in 1848; Elinoreand John Weed (Maine?), John and Hendrika Lukes, Mr. and Mrs. Fish and children from the Netherlands;blacksmith Olav Peter Johnson, wife, and four children from Norway; WashingtonSlayton, wife, children; Harrison and Laura Hutchins, manager and cook; Mr.Carter, the mill owner; caulkers Joseph and BaptisteSt. Germaine from Canada; John Rossiter from PrinceEdward Island; Patrick and John Shawnessy.