Battle Creek

Battle Creek history in the palm of your hand

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

Battle Creek history? Yeah, there’s an app for that called “Tours of Battle Creek"
Officially launched on May 19, the app currently features three tours – Oak Hill Cemetery, Battle Creek Historical Markers, and Old Maple Street – with more in the pipeline, says Mac McCullough, Local Digital Collections and Community Engagement Librarian with Willard Library. He says Battle Creek is a town with a long and rich history that is not widely known and this was the driving force behind the creation of the app.
To prove his point, McCullough offered up a quote from Mary Butler, former Director of the Research Center of Heritage Battle Creek and the Sojourner Truth Institute of Battle Creek who passed away in 2020. She said, “We have more history per square mile than any other city in the (United States).”
The app will give residents and visitors to Battle Creek opportunities to take a deeper dive into that history through self-guided walking tours.
“It’s basically like having a docent in your pocket,” McCullough says. “You can walk up to an exhibit and listen to or read about it or look at information about it on your phone.”
“This is an organized approach to learning about Battle Creek,” says Annie Kelley, Communications Director with the Calhoun County Visitors Bureau. “That might sound boring but never underestimate an easy-to-read list. At the Visitors Bureau, we find that itineraries and walking tour guides are popular. The information is out there but scattered all over, and the library app puts it together and makes it interactive.”
Mac McCullough at a historical marker in Battle Creek checking out the new Battle Creek history app.The idea for the app originated with Matt Willis, Director of Willard Library, who brought the idea to McCullough. His work to create content for the app began during the pandemic and took some time because “other things got in the way.”
Pulling photos and information together was time-consuming but also a labor of love for McCullough who admits to being a history buff, especially as it relates to the individuals, organizations, and businesses that made Battle Creek the city it is today.
“I thought I knew the history here when I was at the paper,” says McCullough, former Editor of the Battle Creek Enquirer. “The more I dig into this, the more I discover what I didn’t know.”
As an example, he cites Sojourner Truth who is arguably among the city’s most important and well-known historical figures.
“I knew Sojourner was an extraordinary person but I was just blown away by what I learned about her,” McCullough says. “She was a Civil Rights leader, a feminist, and a pioneer, but she was also a scared girl, a slave, and a survivor of assault. She was an incredibly courageous woman who put all of her faith in God and began preaching before she was legally freed and she marketed herself. She learned intuitively that her image was powerful. She was an illiterate slave and a freedwoman who ended up owning a house in Massachusetts  and here, and she did it in a way that was unique.”
Kelley says she always recommends Truth’s biography to visitors.
“Sojourner Truth was so strong and smart,” Kelley says. “It makes me proud to live in a city that she chose. I think Battle Creek was really built by people who were willing to accept the people who had been pushed to the fringes of society, and I hope that is still in our DNA.”
Truth is but one of many men and women with legacies that tie back directly to Battle Creek. Some of them already are or will be featured prominently in Tours of Battle Creek, including Erastus Hussey, a Quaker who ran a dry goods store in Battle Creek and became a stationmaster for the Underground Railroad in 1840. He estimated that he helped more than 1,000 fugitives make their way to freedom. As a senator, he drafted the Personal Liberty Law in 1854, which made it illegal to capture escaped slaves in Michigan. 
Mac McCullough created a new app about Battle Creek history called "Tours of Battle Creek."A historical marker dedicated to Hussey stands in front of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. It is one of about 35 historical markers featured on the app.
McCullough says people will learn about Hussey and his role in Underground Railroad, in addition to the people he helped who ended up making Battle Creek their home, including Perry Sanford who escaped from a Kentucky plantation with a group of 75 slaves who came to the city in 1847. Users of the app also will learn about the Henderson family who operated a Safe House in Battle Creek.
The historical markers are an entry point into a slew of information on the app about the significance of the people and places each one features. 

“For the cemetery tour we created an audio slideshow and that’s a pretty cool idea,” McCullough says. “The other ones are media galleries. The photo galleries of images tell the story behind the marker. So, when you go to  Mt. Zion AME Church, you will learn not just about the church itself, but you’ll also see photos of where the congregation worshipped before the church we have now. There are photos of the church’s founding members who came here through the Underground Railroad.”
Kelley says individuals on tours she’s given have expressed surprise at the role Battle Creek played in the Underground Railroad.
“I’m a step-on guide for bus tours, and it’s been interesting to see what people from out of town know about Battle Creek. Sometimes there will be someone who has seen a TV show about cereal history, and they always remember the part of the story about the Kellogg brothers and C.W. Post being rivals. But I think Battle Creek’s Black history always surprises visitors,” Kelley says. “I had a group from Chicago last year, and one of the tourists said she had no idea Battle Creek played such a big part in the Underground Railroad or that Sojourner Truth is buried here – she wanted to return with friends.”
Given its strong ties with the Underground Railroad and the crucial role it played in helping slaves to escape to freedom, it does not surprise McCullough that Battle Creek attracted people from New England and upstate New York, many of whom had liberal educations or were well-read. He says their view of the city was one of opportunity and acceptance of new ideas and ways of thinking.
Mac McCullough created a new app about Battle Creek history called "Tours of Battle Creek."Different branches of the Quakers were among the more progressive organizations and groups that settled in Battle Creek, he says.
“This place attracted incredibly interesting and progressive individuals and they built a  town out of nothing starting with Sands McCamly and his canal,” McCullough says. McCamly came from Orleans County, New York, in June 1831. Impelled by a desire to make a successful venture in the new country to which he had come, he made extra exertions to secure the present site of the city of Battle Creek and was one of the city’s earliest settlers.
The notable and the lesser known
While more is known about cereal magnates C.W. Post and W.K. Kellogg, there are likely aspects of their lives and their major impact on Battle Creek that are not known.
McCullough says Post created a middle-class town. While not a fan of unions because he thought they were a threat to individualism, he is known to have taken extraordinary care of his employees which included building homes for them to live in with a focus on getting them into home ownership.
“He insisted his employees be paid for like work better than anywhere else in the state. In 10 years they would own a home and he funded contests to reward people for having the best-looking front yard. He had aspirations to make Battle Creek a town of 50,000. Its population was 13,000 when he came here. 

"Post more than anybody else created this sense of Battle Creek being a player on the national stage. He built the Post Tavern which at that time was considered one of the finest hotels between Detroit and Chicago.”
In addition to the men who made Battle Creek the Cereal City, there were people like the restauranteur Clinton “Bill” Knapp who opened the first Bill Knapp’s restaurant, known for its iconic chocolate cake, in 1948 in the city. He grew his restaurant venture into a chain that sold comfort food at 69 restaurants in five states.
Alongside these entrepreneurs are music legends including Junior Walker and Del Shannon who also may be found on the app.
“We have this rich Black music legacy in Battle Creek that almost no one is aware of. Now we can really raise that up,” McCullough says. “Unpacking this has been the fun part. I think people are going to love it. The hardest about part putting these tours together is putting in some context so people can see where we came from.”
The app also contains information about Ellen White who founded the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Battle Creek, the fifth-largest Christian communion in the world.
McCullough says a “handful of people” are aware of this history. Part of his broader goal with the app is to make it easier for people to discover what’s around them.
“The development of this app is a way to do that,” he says. “We’re losing stuff all the time. Who knows what’s in people’s attics or a basement in a box? We’re losing people who knew those stories.”
Kelley says visitors to Battle Creek are always looking for itineraries and walking guides.

“One element I’m excited about is that the app doesn’t just have to be about history. We can mark where the Color the Creek murals are or suggest downtown businesses to visit. We have paper fliers that do it, but the app has a GPS element and that’s a lot easier to navigate,” she says. “I think perspective makes a difference. We can say, ‘visit Café Rica, then look at murals by the building, then stop at Bread & Basket, then check out the Mill Race Park water feature.’ Or you can look at the app and see how close they are and how easy it is to find interesting things to do in Battle Creek. Especially if you’re starting from the Welcome Center or Kellogg Arena.”
McCullough has five or six additional tours that he will eventually add to the app, including one focused on the city’s public art installations.
“We have beautiful murals in town. They will be able to see the murals and hear a little bit about the artist behind the mural,” he says.
But, for now, it’s the city’s history that he’s concentrating on.
Kelley says she wants people to know about Battle Creek's history because it’s “so interesting! It has drama, it has comedy, it has intrigue – there are so many good stories.”
“I think our story is important and most people get that at a very personal level. If we lose our story, we lose sight of the ideals and hard work, and sacrifice that went into creating this place. People want to be proud of where they came from,” McCullough says. “Young people want to be proud of where they come from. I’m weary of people judging us because of false assumptions about what it’s like to live in Battle Creek. I think our story is inspiring and really grounds people. It’s important to have a strong sense of place.”

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Read more articles by Jane Parikh.

Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.