Key to First Capitol Here Unlocks Memories of Early Days in Lansing

Copied from The State Journal – Lansing, Michigan – Sunday, March 16, 1947

Through History’s Doorway

Key to First Capitol Here Unlocks Memories of Early Days in Lansing

By Gwen Matthew
(State Journal Special Writer)

A real find, uncovered through Capital Centennial publicity, is a heavy brass key which looks big and strong enough to have opened the gates to a medieval stronghold.

The 5 1/2-inch-long key, however, actually fitted the front door lock of the first Michigan capitol in Lansing, erection of which was begin in April 1847, nearly 100 years ago. In size, it dwarfs the key to the front door of the present state capitol, a much larger building.

On January 1, 1848, the old key opened the door of then newly completed capitol here to admit lawmakers for the first time. Figuratively speaking, the key also unlocked the door to this city’s growth and progress.

Burned in 1882

The first capitol building, which was vacated by the state government when the building now in use was ready for occupancy in 1879, burned in December 1882.

Now, almost 100 years after it was first pressed into service, the key has been returned to the state. It was accepted in behalf of the state by Governor Kim Sigler from Dr. Austin F. Burdick, formerly of Lansing, and son of a Lansing pioneer, I. H. Burdick. The key had been in the Burdick family since the first capitol was destroyed by fire.

It will be placed on permanent exhibit at the state historical museum among other relics of the first capitol, including: a pair of hinges that went through the fire, a number of chairs, and the bell. The whole will, perhaps, serve to stimulate interest of visitors of this and future generations in city and state history, many details of which can still be learned today from daughters and sons of pioneers, such as Doctor Burdick.

That the key had been retained as a souvenir came as a complete surprise to state officials. An appeal published by The State Journal for relics to be placed on display during Centennial Week reminded Doctor Burdick that he had this key in his possession. He decided to give it to the state.

It was passed on to him upon the death of his father some years ago. How the elder Burdick happened to obtain the key the son can only guess. The doctor believes his father, a cabinet-maker by trade, may have been employed by the woodworking firm that occupied the first capitol building at the time of the fire.

Recalls Fire Vividly

The fire itself, Doctor Burdick then a child of five years, recalls vividly. With some young playmates, he watched the blaze from the second floor of a neighbor’s house across the road from the capitol. He described it as a “terrible spectacle – a regular Fourth of July display.”

Through recollections of his own boyhood days here plus stories often told by his parents, Doctor Burdick has a pretty good mental picture of Lansing historical highlights.

To illustrate changes that took place between the early and later years of his father here, Doctor Burdick quoted a remark made by him following a motor trip to Eaton Rapids. He said, “When I came to Lansing from Eaton Rapids at the age of 18 years with my father in the early spring of 1847, we had to cut the way for our ox team through the underbrush of the forest. It took us a week to cover the distance.”

Woods, incidentally, in the early days held Indians, albeit friendly ones. The doctor remembers hearing his mother tell how they walked in the back door without knocking and took anything they wanted. The Indians were not conscious of doing wrong, he explained. They believed this was their right. His mother knew old Chief Okemos.

Improvements came one by one. Doctor Burdick recalls his mother’s happiness when water was first piped in their house. It seemed, he said, that she would never get through exclaiming at the wonder of the convenience that released her from the drudgery of carrying water.

Pioneering Days Hard

Pioneering days were hard, the doctor pointed out, but folks were happy. “They were thankful for what they had,” he said.

There were none of today’s methods of food preservation. Pioneers had to raise vegetables and fruit. Most of them kept a cow. On a plot which was four rods wide and ten rods deep, Doctor Burdick stated that his parents grew grapes, a number of pear, plum, apple, mulberry and walnut trees, currant and raspberry bushes and had an asparagus bed, and a vegetable garden. There was also a barn on the plot. Pits were dug in the ground to store the vegetables and fruit.

Recollections of Lansing of Doctor Burdick’s youth include wooden sidewalks, cobblestone pavement, learning to ride the high bicycle and the spills you always took on hitting the least obstruction; the introduction here of the low bicycle, called then the “safety bicycle.” First to handle the safety bicycle were John Crotty, who died some years ago, and his brother.

Then there was the Mead theater, located upstairs in a building at the corner of Ottawa street and Washington avenue. Some of the most famous speakers in the world came there. One was Artemus Ward. The doctor attended often.

He remember seeing Thomas Edison’s first talking moving picture where the Capitol theater now stands. It was principally a demonstration. To obtain the desired effect, Edison had synchronized a phonograph with the moving picture.

X-Ray Amazed Him

He recalls his astonishment when the x-ray came out in 1896. One was displayed in a downtown window. Doctor Burdick had a picture of his hand taken before he would believe the claims for this invention. That year for the banquet of the Lansing Science club, comprised of about 15 schoolmates, he prepared a paper on x-ray. In the club were Clinton Collins, Harry Burnett, Walter Foster, Herbert Hagadorn, Lowell Judson, Wilbur Judson, and others.

Another of the doctor’s schoolmates was Earle Pitt, veteran State Journal reporter.

Doctor Burdick retired from practice in Lansing in 1940. He now lives in Grand Ledge. His home which overlooks Grand river, he thinks, is situated in one of the most beautiful spots in the world. He and Mrs. Burdick call their place, “Riverledge.”


old State Capitol-MI-from 1890 book-1947-03-16-Key to first Capitol here unlocks memories of early days in Lansing-


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