Free banking and the Michigan State Public School at Coldwater


I still haven’t found any evidence that any of the stories about “free banking” in Michigan in the 1830s are myths, but I’ve still been concentrating only on the story about the Coldwater bank, which may also be the only one I know about.   The information as reported in the Branch County histories seem to have been provided by a Calvin D. Randall, president of a national bank that came later and which still is headquartered in Coldwater.    I’ve been trying to learn more about him.   So far he gives me the impression of having been a Hamiltonian kinda guy in comparison to the Jeffersonian/Jacksonian types who set up shop in the 1830s.   I don’t know if he ever thought of himself that way, though, or whether the investors and directors of the earlier bank thought of themselves as Jeffersonians or Jacksonians.

Randall was not just a banker.   His entry in the 1882 city directory reads as follows:

Randall Hon. Caleb D., President Southern Michigan National Bank, also Secretary and Treasurer Michigan State Public School for Dependent Children, res n s East Chicago, 2 d w of Daugherty.

On Sunday afternoon I did a bike ride to Coldwater.   I had learned that there is a historical marker for that State Public School.  Randall had been instrumental in founding it.   It was located on land that is now part of the state prison system.   I’ve known about that prison, and have even known people who worked there, but this was the first time I worked it into a bike ride.

The marker is not close to the street, but it can be seen from the street if you know it is there.    I hadn’t seen it on my ride up Marshall Street (also known as Old US 127).   So I found some shade on the other side of the street where I could look it up again on a web site about historical markers.    The photo shows it in front a building.  I looked around for a brick building to match the one in the photo, and then was able to make out the shape of a Michigan historical marker far back from the street, in front of one that matched.  I was almost at the right place.

In the long driveway there were signs warning against the use of cameras, but this brick building looked like it wasn’t in use.   (Myra had already told me that the closing of some facility in the state prison complex here had been in the news.   More information about that is here:  “Florence Crane Correctional Facility in Coldwater Scheduled To Close.”)

It looked like the facilities that are still in use are even further back from the street, out of sight.  I presume that’s where the concertina wire and light towers are located.   I had once got a view of that part from the east.   I didn’t plan to get photos of that, though.  I just wanted a photo of the historic marker.   Then I came to a sign that said, “No Media Beyond this Point.”   That’s rather unsporting, I thought, to put a state historic marker beyond a sign like that.   I figured that sign might be intended to warn off people like Ken Steinhoff, although I suspected that if he were here he would play the “I’m a RETIRED newspaper photographer” card.  But I’ve never worked for a news media organization, so I figured it didn’t apply to me.

The marker doesn’t mention Randall.

I don’t know if I should consider it ironic that a facility that was meant to keep children out of prison was later turned into a prison complex.   The marker itself doesn’t say in so many words that that’s why the school was built, but other literature of the time refers to it.

The parking lot looked like it was already beginning its return to a state of nature.

After taking these and a few other photos, I headed back out, but looked back over my shoulder at the No Cameras sign I had seen on the way in.   I was surprised to see that one of the signs was a lot more explicit than that.   I hadn’t noticed that one on the way in.   It said no photography without the permission of the warden, and that people observed taking photos could have their film confiscated.    Well, I have memory cards, not film, but I decided to keep moving just in case the warden was having a bad day.     When I got back out on the street I heard sirens.    They can’t be that serious about their no-photography rule, I thought.   But it turned out to be a fire truck.

Some of the information I got about C.D. Randall and the State Public School was in the September 1997 issue of Social Service Review, in an article titled, “Homer Folks and the Minimization of the Michigan County Agents,” by Lorna F. Hurl and David J. Tucker.   The abstract is as follows:

We explore why the Michigan county agents, an extensive nineteenth-century system of paid male social workers, were unknown in social welfare history. We trace the problem to a misrepresentation of the Michigan system in Homer Folks’s centrally important book, The Care of Destitute, Neglected and Delinquent Children. We argue that Folks’s reporting of history is flawed by the biases of “personal projects” and the limitations of “big picture” history. We conclude with a discussion of the implications of Folks’s mistake for welfare history and for contemporary policy makers.

The authors were trying to find out why nobody in their line of work had known about the state-wide system of county social workers, which seems to have worked well and was quite an innovation for its time.   It turns out that it was Calvin D. Randall’s fault.    The author of an influential book on the subject, written in 1902, had got his information about Michigan’s system from Calvin D. Randall.   Randall, as a state legislator,  had been influential in establishing the system of county agents at the same time as he got the school started.   But he was  so involved in his state public school here in Coldwater (as a state legislator he made sure it got built in his district) that in writing about it he practically ignored the state-wide system of county agents except as it related to his school.   And that led historians of social welfare systems to be unaware that Michigan had ever had such a thing.

You could say it was a matter of unbalanced emphasis on Randall’s part.   Whether he was similarly guilty of unbalanced emphasis in his discussion of Michigan’s early banking days, I don’t know.    My next stop on this ride was to see what had become of his bank.

Mileage for that ride:   Approximately 50.   That’s what my new bicycle computer said, and that’s about right for a ride to Coldwater, but I need to check the calibration on the thing.


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  • It always amused me (polite word for P’O’ed) me to have the “media” singled out for special attention.

    One of my photographers complained about being hassled at the scene of some spot news event one night. When I went to complain to the chief, he said my guy was being kept back because “this was a crime scene.”

    I produced a stack of photos and asked, “Will these gals from the strip club across the street who were talking to your officers show up on a witness list one of these days? THEY were 100 feet closer than my guy was.”

    Glad to see you ignored the signs.