History of Berrien available thanks mainly to one man

Niles Daily Star, Published 12:17am Saturday, March 28, 2009

By By Friends Silverbrook Cemetery
The sketch today will focus on one who was instrumental in a great amount of the past which is featured in each of our Silverbrook Legacies.

Indeed if it were not for the detailed accounting of "A Twentieth Century History of Berrien County, Michigan," by author and editor, Orville W. Coolidge, the recorded history of this region would be greatly diminished.

The accounts within the volume are exact and eloquently written. This is a work done by a dedicated historian and writer who spent long hours at his craft. That alone is impressive.

However, when we consider that Coolidge, born in Edwardsburg, Oct. 9, 1839, was also a lawyer; mayor of the City of Niles from 1890-91; circuit judge in Michigan's 2nd Circuit, 1894-1911; lecturer and teacher in addition to being an author and historian: we are even more thoroughly impressed.

It must be noted when Coolidge turns his flowery prose to himself and his family, he like any autobiographer is here too choosing what to share with his readers. That inherent bias understood, he still has earned legitimate "bragging rights."
We only mention this selective inclusion moment after coming across a booklet entitled: Officers and Students of Beloit College for the Academic Year 1859-60. Beloit is still a very active educational facility today, located in southern Wisconsin, 70 miles north of Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

Today the school claims 1300 students from 46 states and over 40 countries participating in over 50 fields of study with student faculty ratio of 11:1 and an average class size of 15. It is rated among the top 20 liberal arts colleges in the U.S. in proportion of graduates obtaining doctoral degrees.

In other words this is a pretty impressive school with high standards. Its website alludes to its mission: "Beloit is distinguished by a commitment to independent thought, a concern for the common good and a passionate, critical engagement with the world." www.beloit.edu

In the 1859-60 booklet found at dspace.nitle.org, Orville W. Coolidge of Niles is listed as both a freshman at the school and as one of the "normal school" students of 1859 in Mrs. Gilbert's class. The school at that time had a total enrollment of 157 students.
What is interesting is that Coolidge himself in his listing within his own publication and in other biographical sketches written to introduce him at lectures, omits the school entirely, speaking only of his 'grammar school years" being followed by his studies at the University of Michigan, where he graduated from the literary department in 1863 and his subsequent years at the Cambridge Law School, from which he graduated in 1865 before joining his father, Henry H. Coolidge, in the practice of law. The law offices were located "over 53 Main Street," according to the City Directory for Niles of 1871.

Still for all his legal and political standing, it would seem that his one year – judging from the listing for Beloit and his subsequent graduation from the University of Michigan – attending Beloit made a lasting impression.
Normal Schools derive their name from the French phrase ecole normale. These teacher-training institutions, the first of which was established in France by the Brothers of the Christian Schools in 1685, were intended to set a pattern, establish a "norm" after which all other schools would be modeled.

The first normal school in America was established in Vermont in 1823.

It would seem then that perhaps a 20-year-old Coolidge was first interested in becoming a teacher. That he graduated from U of M with a literary degree also suggests that his love of the written word was with him throughout his life.
Even when the profession of his father became his own, it seems he never abandoned what we can assume was a passion for teaching and writing. It would seem that Beloit was key in developing the man he would become.

During his freshman year at the school, the booklet lists his studies as Lincoln's Livy, Homer's Illiad, Gould's Horace-Odes, Wheeler's Herodotus, studies in Latin prose composition, Greek prose composition and the study of Chaucer and early English throughout the year in addition to studies in Algebra and Geometry and the ancient history of Rome.

We know his love of history never faded through his volume on Berrien County and through a long and detailed speech he delivered at the dedication of the boulder marking the site of Fort St. Joseph. This was delivered at Niles ,July 4, 1913, during his years as a judge in the district. The beautiful text of his address can be found atclarke.cmich.edu/nativeamericans/mphc/documentsofbiographies/cool283.htm.

In 1867, Coolidge married his wife Katie, daughter of a prominent local marble dealer, Moses Pettengill. Their three children each reflected the work that was revered by their father.

Daughter Claudine became a teacher; son Clarence, an attorney in Chicago and Orrill was librarian at the Carnegie library in Niles, at the time her father published his work on Berrien County that we use regularly in the compilation of this series.
Beloit College achieved its objective for Coolidge. Following the description of the courses taken in the freshman year of 1859, the manner of delivery and the intent of the studies are detailed.

The text states: "The object aimed at is not, in any sense, to complete, but to make good the beginning of a liberal education by a thorough drilling in those principles of literature and science, which are the common basis of high intellectual attainments in every profession of life."

At Beloit worship was important, as it would have been to Coolidge's father who is described in his book as "an active member of the Presbyterian Church for 45 years, always attending and frequently addressing its devotional meetings when at home. He was a teacher in the Sunday-school and for many years before his death had a large Bible class of adults."

During Coolidge's time at Beloit, students met for religious service both at the beginning and the end of their day and "on Sabbath each student is required to attend public worship, in the forenoon, with such congregation in the city as, with the approval of his parents, he may select, and in the afternoon in connection with the usual services at evening prayer a lecture is given on some religious topic by the president (of the college), at which all members of the institution are required to be present."

Is there a lesson, inherent in Coolidge's life for us today with regard to education? As Coolidge himself did in many of his own writings, perhaps this small peek into the studies that made the man might encourage each of us to look back and consider the question. Of course, the total cost of that year at Beloit for Coolidge with both college and normal school tuitions, "incidental expenses," board including room, fuel, lights and furniture, laundry and text books was $190 for the year.  That too might give us reason to pause and consider what we get for our educational dollar today.

His service on the bench of nearly 16 years gave him a distinction equaled by few lawyers of the day according to his biographical introduction to the University of California, Los Angeles American Correspondence School of Law, when he lectured there on the Law of Bailment in 1908. It can be argued that Orville W. Coolidge of Niles, carried that distinctiveness through to all areas of his life.

Are you like Coolidge fascinated by history and what it can teach us today?

For more information on Friends of Silverbrook with regards to memberships and work days to help restore and catalog the monuments contact: Friends of Silverbrook Cemetery c/o 508 E. Main St. Niles MI 49120, Tim and Candace Skalla at 684-2455, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or contact Ginny Tyler at 445-0997,This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..