The Origins of the Charitable Union


            The1993 dedication of the brand new building on Calhoun Street housing the Charitable Union marked the latest milestone in the history of this remarkable Battle Creek institution.

            The Charitable Union saw its origin in $232.75 raised by enterprising local ladies at a charity ball held in January 1887.  From this humble beginning came the oldest continuing operating charitable organization in Battle Creek, serving the entire community without regard for religion, race or ethnicity.

            In the last part of the 19th century there was no established set of social agencies to care for the destitute or infirm.  The fortunate among the elderly, needy or sick were cared for by their families.  But there was no recourse for unmarried people or those who worked for employers who were unwilling or unable to assist.  The county Poor Farm, from which few returned, was the only existing institution to help the indigent.

            The Battle Creek ladies -- the "ladies of social responsibility" -- saw a need and vowed to devote their money and their considerable energies to meeting this need. Their long term goals included providing food, shelter and household goods for families who had fallen on temporary hard times. They also visualized the creation of a medical facility to offer treatment to the city's poor families.

            There was a definite need for medical service in the community.  The Battle Creek Sanitarium, operated by the Seventh-day Adventist church and led by the dynamic young Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, was beginning to rise to prominence on the city's west side.  And the San did offer a few charity beds -- but not nearly enough to meet the demand.

            More than twenty of the city's doctors said they would support a new hospital and would treat patients there, whether or not they could pay.

            To organize this ambitious effort, the original group of women invited representatives of city churches to join them.  Ladies, and a few men, representing the Catholic, Baptist, Episcopal, Congregational, Methodist, Presbyterian and the Seventh-day Adventists churches gathered in the good cause.

            This enlarged group of public-spirited citizens continued to raise money and to search for a home for their charitable activities.  They soon found the Chadwick house in the triangle of land between College, Champion and Calhoun streets.  This eleven-room home had room for seven hospital patients, and here the Charitable Union began its medical service to the community.

            Soon they needed more space and rented a house across the street.  Over the next few months it became obvious that the ladies had identified a need in the community -- but they did not have the money or facilities to meet the demand.

            It took a personal tragedy in the life of one of their leaders to provide the means.  Helen Nichols Caldwell, secretary of the Union, was the daughter of the wealthy industrialist, John Nichols, and the mother of 24-year old Fannie Abel.  In March 1889 Fannie fell ill in her Detroit home and her mother rushed to her side.  In only three short weeks, the young matron died and the devastated family brought her back home to Battle Creek for burial.

            In her grief, Helen Caldwell searched for a suitable memorial for her daughter.  She approached her wealthy father about endowing a general hospital in his granddaughter’s name.  John Nichols eagerly embraced the idea and gave $10,000 to establish the Nichols Memorial Home.

            Through his generosity, the ladies of the Charitable Union would have enough room to serve the needy and the community would have its first general hospital.

            With $6,000 of the Nichols gift, the Charitable Union purchased the Stewart land  at Van Buren and Tompkins streets and contracted with architect W. K. Loughborough to design a hospital. 

            The "Nichols Memorial Home" was formally dedicated in September 1890, a little more than three years after the beginning of the organization.  This determined band of ladies had indeed changed the face of the community -- and they would continue to serve the city throughout the next century.

            While their efforts were centered on the hospital, the Charitable Union continued to collect and distribute clothing and furnishings to needy families.  They established a sewing school to teach women and girls to make and repair their clothing. Soon the Union hired a full-time manager of the clothing distribution program, paying $8 a week for this service.

            To meet operating and payroll expenses, the Charitable Union continued fund raising events.  Proceeds from charity balls, baseball games, drill exhibitions and June Festivals on the hospital lawn all contributed funds to the operation of the hospital.

            Nurses are a critical part of any hospital.  Training nurses for the Nichols Hospital was originally undertaken by the doctors, who found that teaching the student nurses turned out to be easier than housing them.  At one point the nurses lived in a curtained off portion of the men's hospital ward.  Later they were quartered in the attic, along with the wet laundry.

            The doctors soon decided that they were not able to keep up the school and turned the responsibility over to the ladies of the Charitable Union.  A 1912 bequest from Hannah Swift, a former patient at the hospital, provided funds to purchase property across the street from the hospital. 

            The Swift Lodge was soon built at 182 West Van Buren Street.  This sturdy brick structure was home to nursing students until 1948 and was later remodeled into the Community Services Building.   The last remaining section of the building was demolished earlier this year to make way for the new motel.

            Throughout the next decade the Charitable Union continued to administer the Nichols Hospital and the nursing school as well as to maintain its general charity work and clothing distribution to needy families.

            In 1926 Mrs. Leila Post Montgomery, widow of cereal magnate C. W. Post, donated $500,000 to build a second general hospital in Battle Creek.  Leila Hospital opened in 1927 and helped supplement the services offered at Nichols Hospital.

            In this flush period of seemingly unending economic expansion, a group of business leaders decided that the city needed yet another modern general hospital.  This "community hospital" would replace the Nichols Hospital and remove the administrative responsibility from the Charitable Union.  Though the ladies yielded gracefully to the new regime, it should be noted that they made public comment about their feelings.

            A site in Irving Park was chosen and construction on the new hospital began.  Then the stock market crash of 1929 intervened.  Money from pledges dried up and construction ceased.  It was not until 1934 that work resumed and the dedication of the new building was finally held in September 1938.

            Ambulances shuttled the last patients from Nichols Hospital and a decades-long chapter of community service ended.

            But the ladies of the Charitable Union had not finished their years of public service.  They continued and expanded their clothing collection and distribution program. The Union moved into a series of progressively larger quarters, hired full time staff, including an executive director and expanded their volunteer work force.  Today the Charitable Union distributes tens of thousands of garments to more than a thousand families. 

            The ladies -- and the men -- of the Charitable Union have served the community since 1887, making Battle Creek a better place to live and work, with unselfish and unsung devotion.



Note:  Information for this article is largely taken from the History of the Charitable Union, written in 1993 by Ned Boies, sponsored by the Miller Foundation.