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It's in Her Threats: Martha Baldwin

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What Birmingham would be like today without Martha Baldwin is hard to picture. She has an outsized legacy that would be far too much to cover in one episode, so over however long this podcast runs we are going to be breaking up her life and legacy into thematic chunks. And since I write the scripts, the first chunk that I’m choosing is how Martha, in an age before women could yield political power, used instead the power of threats to do two things that would change the Birmingham landscape forever: getting a new home for the library and the construction of Baldwin School.

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Its in Her Threats: Martha Baldwin

                What Birmingham would be like today without Martha Baldwin is hard to picture. She has an outsized legacy that would be far too much to cover in one episode, so over however long this podcast runs we are going to be breaking up her life and legacy into thematic chunks. And since I write the scripts, the first chunk that I’m choosing is how Martha, in an age before women could yield political power, used instead the power of threats to do two things that would change the Birmingham landscape forever: getting a new home for the library and the construction of Baldwin School.

                This is Birmingham Uncovered, a podcast by the Birmingham Museum, where we are exploring the diverse and compelling lives that built Birmingham Michigan into the community that it is today. First, some background on Birmingham: we are a city of approx. 20,000 people over 4.73 square miles, approximately halfway between Detroit and Pontiac in Oakland County. This area was occupied by members of the Three Fires Confederacy of Indigenous People before white settlement in the area started in the late 1810s. Birmingham became a city in 1933 and today is known as a prosperous and multi-faceted community with a thriving cultural scene.

                First: let’s set the scene by briefly going over Martha’s life. She was born in 1840, on a farm outside Birmingham and was the only child of Edwin and Aurilla Patrick Baldwin. Their neighbors described the Baldwin home as a place where neighbors were always welcome and that had a piano and magazines laying around. Edwin holds the distinction of being the first Birminghamster to have a lawsuit filed against him in the Oakland County Court System, though records of what it was about have thus far alluded us. Perhaps Martha got her fighting spirit from her dad.

                As a teen, Martha attended Birmingham’s Academy, a tuition-funded high school taught by the Reverend Samuel Hill. There Martha tackled subjects like English, public speaking and Greek and Latin. Until 1869, with the construction of Union School (later renamed Hill School after the reverend), there were no public high schools for area students. And there were no laws yet compelling students to attend school, both factors that made a high school education a privilege.

                But Martha wanted more. She hustled to earn money to go to college by teaching around the area. She went one year but came home disillusioned and went back to teaching. In 1870, she got a job teaching in Detroit and was rapidly promoted to vice principal and later principle over schools that had more students than Birmingham had residents.

                While women were making strides in the field of teaching in the mid to late 1800s, school administration was still largely a sausage fest- Martha found herself defending her controversial at the time teaching methods (these included-gasp!- encouraging students to actually engage with the material instead of insisting on rote memorizations) and was forever being shuffled around to low-performing schools only to be moved on to the next one once she raised the school’s performance.

                During her career, she formed a quasi-union, that fought for pensions and sick days for teachers. At this time period, getting the flu could very well lead to you being fired as well because there were no sick days or other protections for workers.

                She retired from teaching either because Detroit passed a policy requiring teachers to be residents of the city or she was forced out of the district, we have two versions of the story. There was a policy and Martha, who only boarded in the city during the school year and returned to Birmingham during school vacations, could have refused but we also have statements about how students and their parents sent in letters of support of her to the school district. So either is possible.

                But during her career and after, until her death in 1913, she was heavily involved in Birmingham business. Sidwalks? Martha. The early water system? Martha? The parks department? Martha. Installing garbage cans to keep litter off her newly installed sidewalks? Martha. The preservation of Greenwood Cemetery? Martha. Beautifying the community? Martha. Local suffrage societies? Martha. Creating a child army to do her bidding? Martha.

                …Ok, my boss insists that I explain the child army thing. Martha used her experience as an educator to recruit local children into picking up litter, planting flowers and trees and to harass their parents into supporting her other endeavors. My boss doesn’t appreciate me using the term “child army” but I think it’s hilarious so I do it often.

                Martha also once had a minister arrested for damaging a shade tree by tying his horse to it. Additionally she was quoted as saying “The more I see of men the more I appreciate dogs.” Truly an icon.


                Let’s talk about the Library Association, which was a big deal in Birmingham. In 1861 Martha Baldwin convinced 19 other members of a recently disbanded secret fraternal organization to pool their funds and buy books.

A secret fraternal group? In our Birmingham? It’s more likely than you think. The org was the The International Order of the Good Templars. They were an order dedicated to that most popular of social movements of the latter 1800s, temperance. They still exist, by the way, and describe themselves as "the premier global interlocutor for evidence-based policy measures and community-based interventions to prevent and reduce harm caused by alcohol and other drugs".  Their constitution states that this will lead to the liberation of peoples of the world, this leading to a richer, freer and more rewarding life. The name comes from tales about how members of the Knights Templar in the middle ages avoided the vice of alcohol and instead drank sour milk. Delicious.

This order was based upon Freemasonry, with rituals and secret handshakes and all that fun stuff. What made it different though, was that they admitted women as equal members, as well as folks of all ethnic and racial backgrounds. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, if you know that temperance was widely supported by women.

Temperance was an incredibly popular social movement in the 1800s- it sought the complete banning of the “social evil” of alcohol. It was seen as a “women’s issue” even though a) many men were supporters and b)women weren’t the primary users of alcohol.  But, women and children were often the ones who bore the brunt of alcohol abuse. In a previous episode, I explained the legal concept of “coverture” which held that a married woman wasn’t a legal entity of her own and any assets or property she brought into a marriage or acquired during it were legally her husband’s to do whatever he felt like with it.

So if your husband got drunk and say, spent his paycheck at the bar or gambled away the home, his wife and children were left with no recourse. Temperance newspapers and pamphlets of the time period also spotlight the problem of domestic violence-with stories and illustrations of women and children being battered by drunken husbands and fathers. Even in the case of physical violence, women were often trapped and not able to legally or financially separate from their abusers. 

Assets and money weren’t the only things that a husband owned-children were considered the legal property of the father. So, even if a woman could get away from a husband who was financial irresponsible or violent while under the influence of alcohol it often meant that she had to leave her children behind.

Supporters of temperance were almost always in support of suffrage, seeing the vote of women as the vote for moral uprightness. Many who were against temperance feared that prohibition would be the law of the land if women got the right to vote…and they weren’t exactly wrong about that.

In 1868, Birmingham’s chapter of the Good Templars disbanded. We don’t know why, but seeing as how we have very few documents even talking about them might indicate that they weren’t super popular. And when order closed in Birmingham they distributed the assets to all the former members and everyone got $2.50. In the 1860s, you could buy a good pair of rubber boots for about that amount, so it wasn’t a life-changing amount of money but it wasn’t chump change either.

And it should be no surprise that folks who were interested in the betterment of society via women’s suffrage and temperance were also in favor of greater widespread education. After all, a better educated populace will, in theory, make better choices. This ethos goes back to the United States’ very founding (with the caveat that the nation’s founders really had in mind a better educated populace composed of white landowning men).

The social and economic landscape post-Civil War had a lot to do with it as well. 1 out of every 4 men who went off to fight didn’t come home and of those who did, 1 out of 11 had an amputation that may have kept him out of the workforce as the economy at the time was based largely on agricultural labor (check out our episode on John Allen Bigelow for more on this). Many of those men sought education to make the career pivot into jobs like teaching or clerking that didn’t demand as much physicality. But women were seeking greater education too. Many who had husbands or fathers who died now were left holding the reins of family farms or businesses or were simply left as the main breadwinner in a world that didn’t offer many legal career opportunities for married women. Many single women were also now facing a world where they might not ever marry due to a shrunken dating pool and who had to figure out how to support themselves.

Both men and women were adrift in a brand new world where greater education and greater rights and responsibilities for women seemed like the only way forward. While women’s suffrage had proponents and support from the earliest days of European settlement on the shores of what would become the United States, the period after the Civil War is where it really catches fire. Women, as heads of households and of farms and family businesses were paying taxes with no say in how that tax money was being spent (taxation without representation being a historically big deal in the US) and they had few financial, legal or social privileges and protections to provide for themselves and families.

It also shouldn’t be a surprise that this period also sees a rise in compulsory public education. The 1871 compulsory education law in Michigan required that children between age eight and 14 were required to attend school for at least 12 weeks a year, six of them consecutive. Schools swelled and the demand for teachers rose, and that’s how Martha found her way into a job in the Detroit school system.

But back to the library association. At the first meeting the Library society had 19 members and $68.47, $48.75 of which was immediately spent on 48 volumes for the new library. The staff at the library wants to know what those volumes were, I want to know and I’m sure you want to know but a list of the titles doesn’t seem to exist sadly. If you or a loved one knows and or has documentation concerning those titles please donate it to the museum and we’ll be sure to share with our good friends at the library. What titles might they have bought? Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a bestseller at that time and Charles Dickens was also very popular. Both would have been fits for the members’ reformist sensibilities.

Martha was appointed secretary and librarian at that first meeting and she did express frustration at the lack of books. Her mom told her to chill though, and she did. That first library first lived in the home of Martha’s mom (Martha’s parents now lived in the village in a home that still stands next to the museum’s Hunter House) and then later in the home of Mrs John Baldwin (no relation and a great illustration on how a small village can have several families with the same name).

1871 marks the first year that we have a building space dedicated to the library  as that’s the year the small, frame Methodist church was moved from Merrill and Bates to Henrietta and Maple and the library occupied one room of that structure. By 1879 (11 years after it’s founding), the Association owned 724 books, a testament to a growing membership. This is, as you might expect, a few too many books for one room and the collection spread into the hallway outside, earning the building the nickname “Library Hall”.

But it wasn’t just membership dues of $1 per year bringing in the funds for the ever growing collection of books, the association was constantly putting on events and fundraisers. Parties, socials, fairs, baby shows, soap shows and shoe sales were all well and good but nothing brought in the money quite like the masquerades. The association began throwing them in 1875. Martha wrote that she was initially hesitant to throw them, but she couldn’t deny that masked revelry really brought in the moola.

These parties would get so raucous that in 1882, residents petitioned the village to do something about it and the council implored that the noise levels be kept down.

In the late 1800s, we see the society called “The Ladies Library Association”, as it seems, by this point, to have more female than male members. But they did have friends in high places. Local merchant Hugh Irving funded an addition to the Methodist Church to make more room for the library and George Mitchell, a former student of Martha’s during her Birmingham teaching days (child army rise up) published articles in the Birmingham Eccentric, the newspaper he founded with his bff Almeron Whitehead, in support of the library. One of the strategies Mitchell and Whitehead employed was writing letters to the editor seemingly against the library association and their plans riddled with bad grammar and misspellings, making the library’s detractors look like ignoramuses who could really use it’s services.

By the 1890s the library’s collection had grown so large that it needed to expand again.

Martha, as always, had a plan. A plan not just for the library, but a plan to make the village of Birmingham better. The Association bought a plot of land on the corner of Maple and what is today Old Woodward (then it was just Woodward) but they didn’t have enough to erect a building on the site. But what if they got the municipal offices to also share the building? Then, they could get more from the public from a fundraiser and erect and even bigger, grander building. Sounds like a win-win, right? The men on the village council didn’t see it that way and they didn’t want to share a building and pay rent to a bunch of women.

“Oh well,” Martha said. “I guess us women will just have to build a cheap sheet metal building then. Sure, it’ll be an eyesore and located right in the center of the village…” And just like some cheese into an enchilada recipe, the council folded. In 1893 a new, two story brick library and municipal building was built on the corner. Even in the 1890s, one could not mess with the aesthetics of downtown Birmingham and its high valued real estate.

By 1905, the library had over 2,000 volumes that could be checked out by library members. In 1907, the voters of Birmingham (and it should be remembered that the women of the community still couldn’t vote) voted to create a true public library and absorb the Library Association. Unfortunately, Martha would not live long enough to see the library building that bears her name on the corner of Martin and Chester Streets but Jennie Keyes, an original member of the society, was present in 1927 when the Baldwin Public Library opened for the very first time.


Another thing Martha didn’t live long enough to see? Title IX. Passed in 1972, title IX protects people from discrimination based on sex in educational programs or activities that received federal funds. Martha had seen with her own eyes girls and women were prevented from taking certain classes or educational paths and  kept out of sporting activities. A common excuse, particularly when it came to athletics, was the lack of washrooms for girls and women in schools.

But if Martha was stubborn in life, she was even moreso in death. In her will she left most of the money to the village for a new school and it had the following conditions: It had to contain equal washroom facilities for both boys and girls , with a large auditorium and it had to be named Baldwin School. And knowing how slowly governments can move and having no time, even in death, for that sort of tomfoolery, she stipulated that the money had to be used within two years or it would go to the Cemetery Association. The cornerstone for Baldwin School was laid in 1916 and it welcomed its first classes in 1918.

It recently took the city years just to get a new logo, so going from nothing to construction in three years is absolutely huge. Baldwin School served generations of Birmingham students until it was demolished in 1973. You can still see the cornerstone built into the Chester Street Parking deck, that currently stands where the school was located at the corner of Southfield and Maple. However, the school is on Google Maps and apparently is only temporarily closed. I’m not saying that Martha’s ghost is tampering with the Google maps’ servers, but I am strongly implying it.

And while Martha is Birmingham’s patron saint, she wasn’t alone. There were Martha’s all over the country; founding libraries, fighting for the rights of women and children and ensuring that educational opportunities continued even after their deaths. In lieu of political power, other strategies had to be employed. Some worked with and through husbands or male friends and relatives, some used the power of words to convince the voting public, some sought strength in numbers and formed women’s societies and associations and others, like Martha, used a little of everything above as well as some very well-placed threats and financial leverage.

In 1920, seven years after her death, American women legally gained the right to vote (with exceptions: for example black voter’s rights weren’t fully protected until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Native Americans weren’t even granted citizenship until 1924). How the political landscape changed after that is too big a topic to cover now, but we will in future episodes. Martha’s influence was felt long after her death in the women and men that she inspired to pursue civic engagement and leadership, as well as the institutions and organizations she left behind.

Somebody get Nick and Vanessa Lachey on the phone, I have a new idea for the next season of “the Ultimatum”, contestants will see who can get a public school or library built the fastest by threatening local governments. It’ll be ratings gold!

Join us next time as we partner with the Birmingham Shopping district for a limited series on the evolution and development of Birmingham’s commercial downtown. Exploring the lives of 6 individuals, we’ll see how Birmingham went from a market village to an upscale  retail destination. In our first episode we’ll talk about E.A O’Neal, a skilled leather worker who began his business by creating horse harnesses in the village and adapted his business to the times, first by selling and fixing bicycles and then by selling automotive accessories. It’s a story of not just only of shifting business trends, but also how everyday people found agency and personal liberation in new methods of transportation.

I’m Caitlin Donnelly and thank you so much for listening. For a full transcript of this episode, as well as pictures and documents relating to Martha Baldwin and her threats, check out our website, the link is in the shownotes. For questions, comments or episode suggestions, feel free to email us at museum@bhamgov.org. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please leave us a rating and review so others can find us. I’m Caitlin Donnelly and thank you so much for listening.

Important Martha Baldwin Photos
Martha Baldwin Felt Cute
1885 Norvell Class Photo-Martha 3rd leftClass photo from Norvell School in Detroit in 1885. Martha is in the top row, 3rd from the left.
Baldwin House c1930The Birmingham Baldwin home c 1930
Martha Baldwin classic portrait
Birmingham Library through the years
The earliest non-residence home of the library, the Methodist Church. Photo from a 1926 issue of "The Afterglow".
Methodist church library hall
The second home of the Library, combination library and municipal offices. Photo c. 1920
Baldwin Library Hall c1920
Photo of Baldwin Public Library c 1930
Baldwin Library c1930
Baldwin School
Baldwin High School 1920sBaldwin School c. 1920s