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The Story of Charity in Muskegon

By A. Hadden, Jan. 4, 1926


The story of the transformation of Muskegon, from a frontier village to a modern industrial city, from a crude town of saw-dust streets to the conveniences of fine highways, from old domestic fashions to the comforts and ease of today, is less significant than the change from the individualism and indifference of 75 years ago to the new social life in which we are living.  Years ago Walter H. Page made a strong plea for “The Forgotten Man,” meaning the neighbor of ours who is uneducated, underfed, sick and suffering and poor.  Perhaps he is a small boy or a slip of a girl.  It is no small thing for a town to lose sight of the forgotten man; and the town that finds the forgotten man finds itself and discovers its own soul.  This is what has happened to Muskegon; and the proof of it is fond, not in a spasmodic Red Ribbon movement, such as occurred in the seventies, but in the history of the ????? and altruistic history of the institutions that minister by the charities that have grown up in the 75 years of its life.

The story may be told in three chapters:

The individualism and unorganized national charities of te first 50 years from 1850 – 1900

The rise and growth, of charitable organizations in the 40 years from 1380 - 1920. 

Ill The new Social and Gowmnity Consciousness in the past five years from 1920-25.


Chapter I.

Muskegon began as a village, organized in 1859, a frontier settlement in the Michigan woods, the population made up of traders and lumbermen and their families. The Civil War soon followed, and the community passed through the hardships and troubles of a raw and unsanitary small town. There were kind hearts and willing hands, but they were very busy with the first work of a new town, and they were kind “when they thought about it." The scourges of malaria (chills and fever), diphtheria and typhoid were more or less constant; and the vices of gambling, hard drinking and the brothel were open and rampant. The churches were weak and such relief work as was done was sporadic and fitful.  If you have ever lived in a frontier and busy town such as a mining, or railroad or lumbering center, you may have seen how indifferent and seemingly insensible the people become, to the suffering and distress of others.  


But after the War, with the growth of population and the rapid increase of wealth, the rudiments of charitable organizations were becoming manifest. The cemeteries were looked after. Evergreen Cemetery was platted in 1864, and a group of ladies, some of the salt of the earth that savored the society of that time, of whom a number still remain, as Mrs. Thomas Munroe, Mrs. Montgomery, Mrs. John Moon, Mrs. D.D. Irwin, formed a society to care for and beautify the graves. Oakwood cemetery was not platted till 1880 and Lakeside in 1895.


From the humanitarian point of view, the booming times of the lumber industry are not very agreeable to think about. The forty odd mills roared and buzzed; the river brought down its annual burden of logs to feed them.  The drives meant the incoming of the lumberjacks, starved for a spree, after the winter's isolation, and the town would be painted red. The hours of labor were long, which the strike of 1881-2 did something to mitigate.  Accidents were frequent, and there was little asepsis and no hospitals. Meanwhile fortunes were being made; and lavish spending was the order of the day. On the other hand schools were organized and the churches were growing and the better souls were feeling out for some remedies.


The outstanding organization of this period was the Children's Home.  This was started October 13, 1887, in the old Occidental Hotel, by a group of ladies, some thirty of them who were active in social and church circles.  The property, which is still the "Home," was bought or given from the Cheeseman estate, located at the corner or Terrace St. and McLaughlin Ave. For nearly 40 years this valuable work has gone on, conducted with great efficiency and economy by a board of ladies.  Its real estate and buildings have increased, and by the gift of Mrs. C. H. Hackley it has an endowment of $125,000.  Its field of operation is large and in this day of family disintegration it is crowded and fills a big place in the city and county.  It should have a new site and larger  building.


There is little record of the charitable deeds and kindly help of those days. It was the stage of individualism, but this was passing and already the old order was changing giving place to new. With the decadence of the lumber industry, and the panic of 1893, the World's Fair year marks the end of this period.


Chapter II.

In the year 1893 under the lead of Mr. F. A. Nims, a meeting was called of all who were interested in the formation of the Associated Charities Society of Muskegon. The meeting was held in the basement of the First Congregational Church, and as I remember it, was composed almost entirely of ladies. Mr. Nimms was elected President. The reason for its existence was apparent. Poverty was a stark fact, as was also the failure of undirected individual effort to relieve it. Churches, fraternal societies, city relief -and private charities were in the field and tumbling over each other, to the duplication of some cases and the neglect of others. The cities of the country were awakening to this condition as were the state organizations. Social settlements had caught the public eye, under the inspiration of such pioneers in the movement as Jane Addams of Hull House, Chicago, new ways of helping the unfortunate were being discovered, especially by helping people to help themselves.  The enemy to be overcome was not so much poverty as pauperism.  The various charities of the city, the city poor department, fraternal societies, schools and churches, soon fell into line. The directors would meet in the  office in the Lyman block and compare "cases."  The first work was crude but it was a beginning. Later the organization was changed somewhat and renamed, "The Bureau of Social Services” and employed a paid secretary who gave her full time to the work.   At the death of Mrs. Hackley in 1905, in her will the sum of $300.000 was bequeathed to the city for the benefit of the worthy poor, and from the income the city fathers gave enough to pay the salary of the Secretary of the Bureau and. the rent of the office. This income of about $14,000 has "been used each year since for ordinary poor relief, which means just that much relief for the taxpayers. This organization was kept alive until the change of government in 1920.


The outstanding event in the years 1888-1905 was the series of gifts of Charles H. Hackley to the city where he made his fortune and which he made his chief beneficiary. His patriotic memorials and educational projects did not absorb all his attention. Charity came in for a large share and especially in the wills of the Hackleys, Muskegon’s poor benefited. The building of the Hackley Hospital began in 1902 and was opened in 1904, and by the two wills the total sum given for building and grounds and endowment was about $850,000. This was one of the finest and most needed of all Mr. Hackley's gifts.  It came just as the country at large was awakening to the needs of small cities and towns for hospital service.  The charity work of the hospital is by no means confined to the "free bed” service; 'but is almost as widespread as the entire patient body.  For not only are many patients unable to pay their bills, and so a large amount of so-called "enforced charity” is being given; but only a very small proportion of the patients pay the highest price for rooms, and the great majority are therefore beneficiaries. No hospital that opens its doors to all cases of need can do a profitable business from the financial point of view. For over twenty years Hackley Hospital has been meeting the needs of the sick and suffering in the city and neighboring regions.  In coming years it must depend more and. more on the help of the community. About the same time that the Hackley Hospital was given, Mercy hospital was started by the Roman Catholic church at first in the building formerly used as a dwelling by L. G Mason, corner of Jefferson St. and Grand avenue, In 1920 the fine new hospital building was opened.  This institution is carried on by the sisters working without pay, and therefore the overhead is small; but ; the other hand it is loaded with a debt of $250,000 with an annual interest bill of $15000. Both hospitals are doing most valuable work for the community, and in the community chest each will have $5000 to use for charity.


In this connection we note the newly opened Tuberculosis Sanitorium built by the county at an expense of $125,000 and opened, and filled, with patients last year, and. which will cost the county from $40,000 to $45,000 per year for maintenance. The county also supports a visiting T.B. nurse and. regular clinics are being held under the direction of Dr. Reineking. A goal is not merely to heal a few victims of the White Plague, but to stamp it out entirely.


Both city and county are carrying on a diversity of lines of help for the needy. The probate Judge is also Judge of the Juvenile court and in addition has the custody of the Mothers pension fund.. Last year there were 164 such mothers on the list and the annual cost to the county is about $60,000.


The schools of the city and county are the centers of much beside teaching.  Every school in the city and, county has a Parent Teacher organization which keeps the parents in close touch with the work of the school and looks after needy children especially the undernourished.  The city schools through the eye, ear, nose and. throat and. dental work and the school nurse are safeguarding the health of the pupils in such a way as would have been impossible fifty years ago.


We can only mention the kindly deeds of the fraternal orders and the service clubs. The latter have combined in the Blue Lake home for the undernourished children, and each club sponsors some worthy charity.  In the industrial city there is always a floating element, more or less vagrant and in need of guidance and help. To meet such people, both men and women, the Salvation Army with its motto "A man may be down but he is never out," has for years been at work in the city.  It owns its own home on the corner of Terrace and  Muskegon Avenue, which it will soon exchange for a better one in the same block. The Rescue Mission, working on the same problems and along similar lines, also owns its building on lower Western Avenue. Both are ministering to the needy in body as well as soul.


The Old Peoples' Home, erected by Thomas Hume, is a beautiful and finely located and well conducted charity along strictly limited lines. The Holland Home, for the Aged, built by Henry Langeland and supported by the Holland churches of the vicinity, does a like service for the Holland people.


Mention should be made of the attention being given to the boys and girls, and young men and women by the Y. W. C. A., the Y.M.C.A. and  Boy Scouts organizations which come close to being charitable in character. In supplementing the care of the sick by the hospitals, the Visiting Nurse Society does a house to house service by visiting the needy in their homes which is a humble but most acceptable help. The Muskegon Society for the Prevention of Cruelty which looks after stray cats and lame dogs and starving horses and an occasional abused child has its own constituency and appeal.


In this hurried catalogue of the agencies now busied with welfare work in Muskegon, we may realize how far we have come from the primitive condition which prevailed even 50 years ago In the older towns of Michigan, let alone a frontier lumbering town; and it leads to the concluding chapter of this story.


Chapter III.

In 1920 the city changed its government from the Mayor and aldermen to the commission manager plan.  In this connection I wonder how much the average public spirited citizen realized; the radical difference there is between the new regiment and the old in the handling of public welfare matters. The old government with its divided responsibility and authority, with the mayor and each alderman having behind him a special political  constituency, with the necessary lack of cooperation and control, was in poor shape to give the city an efficient and thorough welfare service. The new Commission Manager Government is centralized in the one responsible officer, who is held responsible to the commission. The result is, he can use every department of the city to carry out any specific work that needs doing. Is there a. case of poverty or neglect or illness or cruelty, not only the poor director, but the police department, including the police matron, the city physician, the fire department, in case there is a hazard, the clinic for T. B. of venereal disease, the baby clinics for neglected childhood, in a word all the machinery of the city hall can be turned on the case, and each department must work in cooperation with the others.  Without criticizing the work of the old order, there was bound to be weaknesses and overlooking of needs.  It would be enlightening to the public to see such thorough and, good work is going on daily through the welfare department and under the welfare board without publicity or friction.


About the same time, and growing out of the experiences of the World War in raising funds for the loans, the community became conscious of the necessity for some method, for obviating the continuous procession of campaigns for funds for the charities of the city.   In 1923 the Community Chest was organized.  Its object as stated in the first article of its constitution is;

“Article one


Section 1. The name of this Association shall be the MUSKEGON COMMUNITY CHEST.


Sec. 2. The object of, this Association shall be to concentrate the collection and distribution of funds for civic, philanthropic, welfare and charitable purposes (not for pecuniary profit) in greater Muskegon; to aid and encourage welfare enterprise in any legitimate manner; the research into causes, treatment and prevention of dependency, and the bringing about of co-operation and co-ordination by and between the various civic, philanthropic, welfare and charitable agencies within Greater Muskegon, to the end that duplication of effort and expense may be minimized and the field of welfare enterprise more thoroughly covered. "


For three years this plan has functioned with increasing success and as you know it has just succeeded in financing fourteen of the major institutions for charibable objects for the coming year.  The high powered method used is a sign of the times in which we are living.  The necessity of bunching the campaigns into one needs is no argument.  In the largest cities such as Detroit and Cleveland as well as in the smaller towns, the plan is becoming general, as modern complex conditions confront them.  It is significant as showing not only a means of relieving the public of annoyance, but as revealing the awakening of a deeper and broader community consciousness, throughout the country.  And we are thankful that our city has shown that it has a soul as well as a purse.  It has become a body social and spiritual as well as a body politic and financial.  The community chest is the best answer to the cynicism that our civilization is commercial and materialistic.


Following the Chest organization the agencies benefited have organized the union of agencies which meets monthly for mutual conference and cooperation.  This is the logical and very useful step in the socializing of the city in its charities.


It only remains to keep the 8000 or more givers to the Chest, in all ranks of society, the factory workers, the office people, the merchants, and the people who live on their accumulated capital, in touch with the special organizations to which they have contributed.  Lacking this the Community Chest becomes a mere financial machine, losing the heart and human touch that are necessary to keep up interest in the actual flesh and blood people who make up the many sick and suffering, the poor and needy, the wretched and lonely, the weak and discouraged, who find life in the modern world so hard and tragic.  The Community Chest is a great step in advance, but it is not the end of the road.  The goal to be attained is to make an end of human misery, if that is possible.  As to this a trained and wise observer, Professor Arthur E. Holt has lately written his conclusion:  “Now, what are we going to do about Misery?  There is a Double Attack upon Misery.


The Fortifying of the Human Soul to bear it.  Religion carries a secret of Contentment.  We must learn the art of ministry to the lonely, those who are struggling with poverty, the handicapped, the victims of war, and the enslaved.


But fully as important is the War upon the Sources of Misery.  There was a time when the Western Farmer thought that a frost was a visitation from on High, but now we take our bonfire and go out and fight off the frost.  There was a time when we looked upon the drought as punishment from God; now we build an irrigation system, and the desert is made to blossom as the rose.  There was a time we were content to teach people just to bear misery; now we are making war on unemployment, on disease, we are even making war upon war, because it is beyond all else the great source of human misery.


Sumitted by Bill Moore


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