Bissell House Made History And Set a Pattern for G. R.

One woman didn’t want her little Rosie to go to the Bissell House on Ottawa Ave., N. W., any more because the workers there had shown her how pretty she looked with her hair combed and brushed. Little Rosie wanted to keep looking pretty all the time and, furthermore, she wanted Mama to comb and brush her own hair and look pretty, too. That’s where Mama’s chief objections came in. Such outlandish ideas to put into a child’s mind!

On the other hand, another fond parent couldn’t praise the institution too warmly. Her little Mary was a cripple. Some of the other children didn’t want to play with her. She was not a happy child. Then, along came the Bissell House and she was encouraged to get right into the swim of things with the other children. They taught her songs, too, and her mother reported the child now was happy and singing all the time. She’d even wake up in the night singing.

The ‘teen-age boys and girls in the neighborhood who had been getting into a lot of trouble became much better behaved after they were allowed to blow off excessive steam in the sports and games provided at the Bissell House.

The success of the Bissell House influenced those behind the movement to establish a Neighborhood House right down in the railroad yards on old Ninth Ave., (now Albany St.) and a lot of good was done there, too. A couple of round of boxing with gloves provided for them caused the boys in that neighborhood to forget stealing from box cars and indulging in beer parties.

Our older generation will well recall the Bissell House and the gracious and able lady after whom it was named -- Mrs. M. R. Bissell, Sr.

It occupied a three-story brick building at 425 Ottawa Ave., in a neighborhood that was known as the "Bloody Fifth Ward." It was probably Grand Rapids’ worst slum district at the time -- an area of the great unwashed. Worse, it was the locale of many of the city’s "house of ill-repute."

Living in the area were several thousand underprivileged youngsters, mostly children of foreign born. To them, the streets and sidewalks were playgrounds. Their home surroundings were very unfavorable. Most of them were destined to receive but little education, being forced to leave school in the early grades to help support their families.

It was an ideal breeding grounds for gangs and crime. It presented a challenge to the good people of the city to do something about it.

The first step in this direction was taken at a meeting held June 11, 1888, at the ladies Literary club on Sheldon Ave., S.E., when an organization of some 400 women and girls was formed known as the "King’s Daughters." Mrs. S. L. Fuller and Mrs. H. . Joy had called the first meeting, at which the idea of establishing a free kindergarten for children of the Ottawa Ave. neighborhood was discussed. At a subsequent meeting held at the home of Mrs. Joy on Fulton St., E., the following officers were appointed: Mrs. Joy, president; Mrs. J.H. Campbell, secretary and Mrs. A.J. Daniels, treasurer. Mrs. O.A. Ball, Mrs. M.S. Crosby and Mrs. H.M. Wheeler were appointed on the room committee and the Mesdames Thomas Peck, J.C. Fitzgerald, D.H. Waters, M.R. Bissell and S. B. Jenks, on the solicitation committee. On the executive committee were Miss Emma Chamberlain, Mrs. Charles Read, Mrs. Ball and Mrs. Fitzgerald.

All the members pledged themselves to contribute stipulated monthly fees and thus the first free kindergarten in the city started in earnest. The "three .G.’s -- grace, grit and gumption" -- formed the keynote to the success of the undertaking.

In addition to the kindergarten, the group decided to set up a day nursery for working women in the Ottawa Ave. area. The opening was set for the first Monday in October, 1888. The location decided upon was 397 Ottawa. The building was leased at $300. a year. The group in charge was designated. "The Free Kindergarten Circle of the King’s Daughters."

Miss Chamberlain, an experienced kindergarten teacher with a zealous interest in the welfare of the young, donated her services to teach and superintend the school for a year. Mrs. Mary H. Williams of Flint was engaged as matron of the nursery and assistant to Miss Chamberlain. The school opened with 15 dirty faced, wide eyed little children, all wondering what these nice ladies were going to do to them. They couldn’t understand why strange ladies should be so nice and motherly to them.

Next followed inauguration of a Sunday school in the kindergarten room. The Christmas celebration, with a giant, gaily-lighted tree, caused much amazement among the children, who now had increased to 34. Christmas dinners were sent to some of the neediest families in the neighborhood.

By the following June -- in 1889 -- there were 61 children enrolled in the kindergarten and 120 were attending Sunday school -- all interested and well behaved, their faces lean and shining with joy.

Gospel meetings were held for the older people of the area and they, too, were well attended.

But the school was outgrowing its original quarters and in September, 1890, it was moved to a building at the corner of Ottawa and Newberry St. The teacher, Mrs. Williams, and her family occupied rooms in the building; one room was set aside for the nursery. A neatly designed sign bearing the Maltese cross -- the badge of the King’s Daughters -- and the words "Free Kindergarten and Day Nursery" was placed above the door.

But this building soon was outgrown and an even larger house on Ottawa Ave. was taken over. By this time it was necessary that Mrs. Williams should have volunteer help in her work. Rooms were opened every evening for reading and games for the older children. Within a year the evening work had developed into an organized club.

With Mrs. Williams continuing to take a motherly interest in all of her little charges and they, in turn, responding to her many kindnesses, the institution continued to grow until in the Spring of 1897 it became imperative that larger quarters again be obtained.

At this point, Mrs. Bissell, who had taken an active interest in the school and nursery from the start, volunteered to provide suitable and permanent quarters so the work might be carried on unhampered indefinitely. She financed the construction of a brick building, situated in one of the most congested portions of the city. The building, which still stands, is three stories in height, with a basement which was given over to a gymnasium and baths for boys, as well as the heating plant.

The south side of the ground floor was made into the kindergarten room, while on the north side of a large hall the reception room and library, a club-room and kitchen were installed. On the second floor were the apartments of the resident managers and the nursery.

Mrs. Bissell always served as the backbone of the organization. Her interest was in the work and her sole desire was to lend assistance to all who might need her help without any recompense save for the personal satisfaction she derived. Never, it is said, did she hold herself aloof from the people, but she always met them on an equal basis. The enterprise was a dramatic exhibition of democracy in action. The new building was opened with fitting ceremonies October 12, 1897.

Persons who were interested in the work report that it was not Mrs. Bissell’s intention to name the place after herself, but while she was in Europe the building was completed and on her return here she found the name "Bissell House" already inscribed in the structure. Her friends had sought to honor her in this way and would not listen to her request that the name be changed.

Thus the Bissell House of Ottawa Ave. became to Grand Rapids what the Hull House of Chicago, was to that city, a settlement, a social center, a place where the little ones of the neighborhood in the kindergarten learned the first principles of unselfishness and respect for the rights of others. The men and women who actively made use of the house also learned these things.

Bissell House worked through its people to bring a little more happiness, a little more thoughtfulness for the rights of others and a more brotherly feeling for all. It was not the purpose of the settlement to dispense charity, but its doors always were open to the wants or distresses of its neighbors without restriction as to race, color or religion.

The settlement sought to share the life of the neighborhood, its pleasures and responsibilities; to offer a place that could become a social center; a neighborhood house where people young and old, rich or poor, could meet on a common ground; in short, where the people could come together with the feeling that all were equal; where the principles of brotherhood were lived.

Bissell House workers knew that poverty could not ever be wholly eradicated, but they believed that much of its bitterness and evils could be lessened to a large degree and its wretchedness replaced with joy. This, they felt, could be accomplished by helping the children and adults lead good and useful lives.

Leading business men and industrialists of the city took an active interest in the project. The list of Bissell House supporters read like a "Whose Who in Grand Rapids." Eventually the board of directors was composed entirely of prominent business men and under their guidance rapid progress was made along all lines.

The property was kept in the best of repair at all times; redecorating was frequent. Apparatus was added to the gymnasium and classes and teams of all kinds organized. Girls were encouraged to go in for basketball.

Miss Clara Kummer, widely known as the Executive Secretary of the Charity Organization Society, which was the predecessor to the Kent County Community Chest and Council of Social Agencies, was a resident of Bissell House and had a section of basketball for boys. She also gave fencing, dancing and boxing instructions to 15 boys. Osmond Field, who was physical instructor at the Y.M.C.A,, gave a weekly drill to 17 boys; a class of 22 boys and girls was taught dancing.

Other instructors taught classes of young men and girls in English and civics; many clubs were formed and an orchestra organized. Bissell House executives worked closely with Juvenile court and the settlement was given warm support and co-operation from the Charity Organization Society.

A unique feature of Bissell House in the summertime was the water barrel which was kept full of iced drinking water for all passersby. A drinking trough was maintained for dogs in the hot months, also.

By 1909 Bissell House had 26 clubs actively functioning, covering a wide range, from athletics to education. The membership was more than 400 and it still was growing. The settlement had become a sort of big club house for the district. Girls’ club were devoted mainly to cooking and sewing, but they also went in for athletics.

Classes were conducted in arts and crafts and in basket weaving. Many lads went in for manual training, carpentry and carving; others for the course in electricity.

On Sunday afternoon a meeting was held in the lecture hall with entertainment, such as moving pictures, lectures on travel, music and other features offered. A branch of the Public Library, for a time, occupies two rooms in Bissell House, but later was transferred to Coldbrook school.

Bissell House had no endowment but was supported by the voluntary contributions of its friends, who were many. The basis of its work was, in the minds of its founders, supporters and workers, a recognition of the relative difference of opportunity and a desire on the part of the leaders of the community to extend the privilege that meant so much to themselves beyond a sphere reached by the regular municipal channels or the public institutions.

While the feeling of inequality here was not so acute as in the large cities, it nevertheless was recognized as the real genesis of Bissell House and the spirit of responsibility for privilege was recognized with gratitude and accepted by those who profited by it without the loss of dignity or independence.

Bissell House functioned for many years, fulfilling its democratic mission to the neighborhood and to the community at large. Residents of the house became members of the community and wished the best for it. They used all possible ways and means of making the neighborhood a better place in which to live. They invited cooperation from the neighbors to help in this; they provided a common meeting place and furnished an incentive to more social life.

Bissell House functioned also as a center for social services to the community at large, in having among its residents people who were interested in the larger social movement of the city -- people who gave practically all their time to the Charity Organization Society, to the Juvenile Court and in probation work; to the local child labor and factory inspection situation, to the study of housing conditions and to the promotion of playgrounds movement which then was in its infancy (Penclub Mag for March, 1954).

These residents were interested in promotion of temperance and elimination of the social evils, which they studied first hand not only to obtain knowledge for themselves, but to stimulate and offer opportunity to others to see the need and worth of seeking first-hand information for the purpose of making Grand Rapids a cleaner and better city.

Bissell House did its job so well that in time, the conditions which made necessary such institutions as the Free Kindergarten, the nursery and the settlement no longer exited.

And, happy in this record of accomplishment, Bissell House eventually disbanded. The building was sold to private owners. It stands today as a monument to a highly successful pioneering work in the settlement field.

Transcriber: Barb Jones
Created: 10 Jan 2010