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North Avenue – Battle Creek’s Publisher’s Row

 

A century ago conversations among neighbors along North Avenue on Battle Creek’s northside must have been lively indeed – vigorous political debate, peppered with allusions to classical literature or the virtues of the latest patent medicine. Within just a few blocks along this upper middle class thoroughfare lived the publishers and editors of the city’s major newspapers, along with some of Battle Creek’s most fascinating literary characters.

 

Extending the street

The street was not always so prominent in Battle Creek’s literary history. North Avenue was not on the original map of the village drawn by Sands McCamly in 1836. In fact, it was so far from the center of the infant settlement that the Quakers located their first cemetery on North Avenue (near the end of McCamly Street), convinced that it would be out in the country for the foreseeable future.

 

It was not until Charles Merritt surveyed a Supplementary Village Plat eight years later that the street was first laid out, running north along the eastern edge of the original village. On Merritt’s map he described “St. Mary’s Lake 4 miles” out on North Town Line Road. Later a South Town Line Road was established running along the same line south of the Kalamazoo River.

 

When the corporation lines were established in 1859 the “Town Line” portion of the street name was dropped, leaving North Road running from Van Buren Street to the city line north of Emmett Street. By the late 1850s houses had been built along North Avenue from Van Buren to Groveland. There development stopped for several years. As late as 1873, 195 North Avenue (at Groveland) was the northernmost house on the street and was used to establish the grade level for developing adjoining areas.

 

Three Characters

In the last half of the 19th century North Avenue became one of the most substantial residential streets in Battle Creek, boasting the elegant homes of many of the city’s mercantile and industrial leaders. But the unique feature of the street was the presence of the homes of the local literary and journalistic opinion makers. The literary figures of North Avenue’s Publisher’s Row were a varied lot, representing the city’s most influential newspapers as well as peddlers of mail order nostrums.

 

Dog lovers from around the country knew Battle Creek as the home of Dogdom magazine. Eugene R. Cole of 110 North Avenue (near the corner of Calhoun Street) published the monthly journal from 1899 until his death in 1913. Before he ventured into canine journalism, Cole, a veteran of the Spanish-American War, had purchased the Sunday Record newspaper. At the height of the cereal boom in 1902 Cole formed the Record Printing and Box Company to produce “cartons and boxes for the various cereal companies” springing up all over town. He built a factory at Carlyle and West Jackson streets. Before he went bankrupt in 1905 with the collapse of the cereal boom, Cole was the only independent producer of cereal cartons in the city.

 

Winfield Ensign of 121 North Avenue was another publisher, but of an entirely different type. He produced patent medicines, including Ensign Remedies, “Biochemic Preparations and Tissue Foods” sold by mail order for $1.00 a vial. The mustard seed sized tablets were guaranteed to cure over twenty ailments, including grey hair, bow legs, cancer and stage fright. When the State Dairy and Food Commissioner analyzed the tablets in 1913 he found they contained 100% sugar. Undaunted, Ensign expanded his printing business and began publishing the Truth Teller periodical, advocating internal medicine.

 

The most colorful resident of North Avenue was undoubtedly James M. Peebles. The good doctor had two different incarnations in Battle Creek. The first was form 1856 to 1867 as the minister of the Spiritualist First Free Church. After acquiring a slightly suspect medical degree and circumnavigating the globe several times, Peebles reappeared on the local scene in 1896 as proprietor of the “Dr. Peebles Institute of Health.” He published the monthly Temple of Health and dispensed mail order cures from 23 East Michigan Avenue, where he employed “four doctors and 22 stenographers” to open the mail. During this period Peebles lived at 70 North Avenue and doubtless added a certain leavening to the literary and political discussion of this neighbors, until he moved to California in 1915. Peebles died in 1922, only a few days before his 100th birthday. Ever the self-promoting spiritualist, he gave an interview from “beyond the grave” to Los Angeles newspaper, which was reprinted in the local press.

 

George Willard and Martin Brown

In contrast to Dr. Peebles, his neighbor at 84 North Avenue was a model of moral and political rectitude. An ordained Episcopal minister, George Willard taught school in Battle Creek, Marshall and Coldwater, and was elected to the state and United States Congress. In 1867 he purchased the Battle Creek Journal and published the newspaper until his death in 1901.

 

Willard was a real intellectual who was not shy about advertising his academic achievements. He was frequently seen reading from Latin or Greek texts as he walked from home to office. This somewhat pretentious behavior made Willard vulnerable to the satirical pens of the other newspaper men. Martin Brown, publisher of the Daily Moon, took great delight in mocking his rival in the pages of his newspaper. In May 1881 Brown published “The Circus” relating the “imperiled condition” of ex-senator Willard, which threw North Avenue “into frightful excitement.”

 

According to Brown, Willard was in the habit of exercising his coach horse Buckeye in his yard, showing off his “circus horse tricks” to the delight of the neighborhood children. On one fateful night the normally placid beast was, according to Brown, so “disgusted” by his owner’s political musings that he “vaulted in mid air, made a somersault and raced away” from his astonished owner. Willard “forgot his dignity” as he leapt his fence and, “wild with excitement,” raced down the street in hot pursuit of his runaway steed. Finally recaptured, the horse returned to his stable after the chastened Willard promised to moderate his political opinions.

 

That type of satirical article was just the sort of local news that appeared in Martin Brown’s Daily Moon, in contrast to Willard’s staid Journal. Although he was Willard’s North Avenue neighbor, Brown’s attitudes and journalistic style were quite different from the those of the professor.

 

Martin Brown, born in Battle Creek in 1857, discovered his love of journalism at the age of 15 when he began working with Walter Woolnough on the Michigan Tribune. After a year at the University of Michigan Brown returned home to start his own newspaper, the Nightly Moon, when he was 20 years old. He also built his North Avenue home for $675 in this same period.

 

Brown newspaper prospered by featuring something new in area journalism – heavy doses of local news laced with tidbits of gossip. The original morning Nightly Moon soon became the evening Daily Moon. The Moon eventually merged with rival Willard’s Journal in 1915. The resulting Moon Journal was published daily in Battle Creek until 1940.

 

Brown prospered along with his publication. In 1888 he purchased a “most pretentious 14-room residence” with large grounds at 45 North Avenue, across the street from his original home. In an ironic twist, which Brown would have appreciated, in 1925 the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) purchased Brown’s home with funds from the estate of Maria Arnold, widow of the notorious saloonkeeper, Adam “Pump” Arnold. Six years later the WCTU home was demolished to make room for the W. K. Kellogg Auditorium and junior high school.

 

Walter Woolnough

Walter Waters Woolnough, the dean of Battle Creek journalism, also lived on North Avenue, well away from the rivalries of Willard and Brown. In 1854 Woolnough purchased a lot at 163 North Avenue. Two years later he completed building the house he lived in until his death in 1904 at the age of 83.

 

A native of Suffolk County, England, Woolnough came to the United States as a teenager. He served as an apprentice printer in Rochester, New York, and olater worked for the Ashtabula (Ohio) Sentinel. By the time he arrived in Battle Creek at the age of 24 he was already a confirmed Whig, anti-slavery journalist.

 

Like George Willard, Woolnough was politically active. He was instrumental in transforming the abolitionist wing of the Whig party into the new Republican party, born at the “under the oaks” convention in Jackson, Michigan. A member of the state legislature, Woolnough also served in several city offices, including alderman, justice of the peace and as a nine-year member of the Board of Education.

 

Woolnough published the first newspapers in the village of Battle Creek, producing first the Western Citizen, then the Michigan Tribune between 1845 and 1849. After spending five years with the Kalamazoo Gazette, Woolnough returned to Battle Creek and purchased the Journal, which he published for ten years. In the 1870s he briefly revived the Tribune. For the last twenty years of his distinguished career, Woolnough was the political editor of Martin Brown’s Moon.

 

As the founder of the first newspaper in the village, owner of the Journal and finally editor of the Moon, Walter Woolnough personally spanned the first half century of journalism in Battle Creek. His heritage lives on today in the Enquirer which merged with the Moon Journal in 1940 and therefore represents the unbroken succession of local journalism.

 

Publisher’s Row

Despite their varied journalistic backgrounds and points of view – from hawking patent medicines and extolling the virtues of canine breeds to fighting elevated battles of moral righteousness – Battle Creek’s publishers, editors and opinion leaders in the last half of the 19th century found a congenial home on North Avenue. Although not all the homes of these early leaders still stand, with some application of imagination it is still possible to visualize these shapers of opinion vigorously advocating their views to their equally impassioned neighbors along Battle Creek’s ‘Publisher’s Row.’