A Short History of Grand Rapids, Michigan
By Gordon Olson
Since the days of the Mound Builders over 2,000 years ago, people have found the area around the rapids of the Grand River to be a pleasant place to live. Each summer the Mound Builders gathered on the rich flood plain along the west bank of the rapids to plant crops, fish, hunt, and construct large earthen burial complexes for their honored dead.
In more recent times, native people known collectively as the Three Fires--the Ottawa, Ojibwa (Chippewa) and Potawatomi--made West Michigan their home. Two hundred years ago, Ottawa villages stood on the river's west bank, at each end of the rapids. Depending for their subsistence on hunting and fishing, supplemented by a small amount of farming, the Ottawa too, found the rapids of Grand River, which they called Owashtanong, an ideal place to live.
Life for the Ottawa changed in 1821 when, by the Treaty of Chicago, the United States acquired the land in Michigan south of the Grand River and opened it for settlement. Four years later Baptist missionary Isaac McCoy and fur trader Louis Campau established the first non-native settlement at the rapids of the Grand. McCoy arrived in the fall of 1825 and began building a mission complex on the west bank of the river where the Gerald R. Ford Museum now stands, consisting of a house and schoolhouse, each about 20x24 feet, a stable and a blacksmith shop. Campau followed the next spring with a trading post and fur warehouse directly across the river near the present location of the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.
Federal surveyors completed laying out township and section lines on the land around the rapids in 1831, opening it for purchase. Among the first to take advantage of the surveyor's work was Louis Campau who paid $90 a 72-acre tract of land that would become the heart of downtown Grand Rapids. Soon after, land-lookers from New England and New York began making their way to the Grand River Valley. The next summer Lucius Lyon, who had helped survey the area, bought a tract immediately north of Campau's.
With their property divided along a line midway between today's Pearl and Lyon Streets from the river to
, the two men laid out lots and competed for buyers. So intense was their competition that for several years the irascible Campau refused to permit construction of a street connecting the two tracts, effectively forcing people to go to Division Avenue
each time they wanted to go from one development to the other.
Settlers from New England and New York followed close on the heels of McCoy and Campau. Seeing the same opportunities as those noted by Native Americans centuries earlier, the first easterners to settle along the rapids of the Grand River were members of the 60-person Dexter Colony, which came from Herkimer County, New York in 1833. Samuel Dexter had visited a year earlier, selecting 320 acres lying directly east of
, between Wealthy and Leonard streets.
Dexter party members Joel and Abbie Guild built the area's first frame house, choosing a site near what is now
Rosa Parks Circle
. Several other homes quickly followed, and by late fall, the new settlers were taking steps to establish a town government and a school. Nine men met in the Guild home on April 4, 1834 and elected Grand Rapids Township's first government. A year later, on May 9, 1835, they established the townships first school district, with the Guild's 17-year-old daughter Emily as its teacher.
Others followed the trail blazed by the Dexter party. By 1840 about 750 opportunity seekers had settled at the rapids of the Grand. Territorial leaders authorized the creation of Kent County in March1836, and a year later, as Michigan gained statehood, George Pattison published Grand Rapids first newspaper, the Grand River Times. A year after that, on April 5, 1838, the Village of Grand Rapids was incorporated by act of the new state legislature.
Newcomers continued to pour into the community, and by 1850 Grand Rapids' population topped 2,500 causing the state legislature to change its status from village to city. Among the newcomers were William Powers and Ebenezer Ball who set up a furniture factory with an assembly line which, Ball boasted, permitted his workers to "throw whole trees into the hopper and grind out chairs ready for use." To prove his point, Ball announced that they had an order to produce 10,000 chairs to be sold in Chicago as well as shipping goods "back east."
In addition to furniture, the city produced cloth and carpets in its woolen mills, finished lumber and woodenware from over 40 different sawmills and small wood finishing shops, harnesses and leather goods from its tanneries and leather shops, agricultural implements from William Harrison's large west side factory, flour and grain from surrounding farms, other agricultural goods and even hoop skirts from one enterprising manufacturer.
Aiding Grand Rapids' growth as a Midwest manufacturing center was the arrival of the Detroit, Grand Rapids and Milwaukee railroad in 1858. A second line, the Michigan Southern pulled into town in 1869, followed by the Grand Rapids and Indiana a year later.
The importance of railroads, and the telegraph lines that accompanied them (stationmasters needed to carefully schedule arriving and departing trains that used the same track.) was emphasized with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. Railroads quickly moved regiments organized in West Michigan to the eastern theatre of war, and the telegraph brought news of battles to anxious friends and families in Grand Rapids shortly after they occurred. Kent County area sent over 4,000 of its sons to the war and 1in 10 died in battle or from illness. A monument in the center of the city reminds succeeding generations of their sacrifice.
The river played a key role in Grand Rapids' development during the remainder of the 19th century. Even after the arrival of railroads, steamboats continued to ply its waters, and each spring lumber companies sent millions of board feet of logs down stream to sawmills and furniture factories in Grand Rapids. On more than one occasion, spring log drives broke loose and roared away until they jammed against downriver bridges. In 1883 a log jam of gigantic proportions roared through the city. For over two hours, a solid river of logs over five miles long roared through the city, tearing out bridges and destroying everything in its path. So great was the log jam that national newspapers covered the event, calling it the greatest log jam in the nation's history.
Logs were not alone in causing trouble to those who lived along the river. In spring, melting snow, early rains and ice jams often combined to flood homes and factories on the city's west side. The worst of these spring floods occurred in 1904, when thousands of people were forced from their homes. Damage estimates ranged above $500,000 (more than $10 million today), and city leaders voted to build flood walls to hold back future floods.
With its population reaching 90,000 by 1900, growth continued to be the city's watchword for the remainder of the 19th century. It was however, growth with a difference. Instead of moving from the eastern United States, the new residents came speaking Dutch, German, Irish, Swedish, Polish,
Italian, and all the other languages of Europe. Expelled from their native countries by wars, famine, and a desire for democracy rather than monarchies, the new residents brought a willingness to work in order to make a better life for their children and grandchildren. They found work in large factories that sprang up to provide the American nation with the goods its growing nation demanded. In Grand Rapids, following the lead established by Powers and Ball, beds, chairs, tables and similar goods for the home were the dominant product. Furniture companies with names like Widdicomb, Nelson Matter, Berkey and Gay, Phoenix, and Sligh became household names and Grand Rapids was known as the "Furniture City"--its products recognized world-wide for their elaborate designs and quality workmanship.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the city boasted more than 50 furniture factories, and as many as half of its labor force involved in furniture manufacturing and related industries such as sawmills, foundries making metal hardware, paint and varnish companies, and manufacturers of woodworking machinery. Increasingly, these workers objected to the wages they were paid and the circumstances under which they worked. Tensions came to a head in 1911, when furniture workers throughout the city walked off their jobs for four months in a bitter strike that idled much of the city for the entire summer. Although the strike ended with little resolved, and both sides still unhappy, strikers did ultimately get the wage increases, improved working conditions and shorter workdays they sought.
In addition to its effect on the furniture industry, the strike had another impact on the city. Combined with the 1904 flood and a series of turn-of-the-century political scandals, the strike caused many community leaders to conclude that a more efficient form of government was needed. The result was the adoption of a new charter in 1916, providing for a commission-manager form of government in which the commissioners adopted policies that were then carried out by an appointed city manager. According to the new charter, the city was divided into three wards with two commissioners for each ward, and one other commissioner. At first, all commissioners were elected from the city at large, and the commissioners then elected one of their number mayor. A few years later the charter was changed to its current form in which commissioners are elected by the voters of the ward, and only the mayor is elected at large. Later, in the early 1920s, a city-planning department was created, and the city's first zoning ordinance was adopted with the view of inaugurating a comprehensive plan for beautifying the city and improving regulating residential, retail and manufacturing areas.
Grand Rapids' furniture industry dominated its economy until the late 1920s when the stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression caused one of every two furniture factories to close their doors putting over 25% of the city's workers out of their jobs. Grand Rapids' suffering was especially severe because many Americans deferred furniture purchases as they struggled to meet basic needs. To alleviate the hardships its residents faced, Grand Rapids city manager George Welsh devised a plan that called for the city to provide jobs for its most needy residents, paying them with paper scrip money that they could redeem at city-run stores for food, clothing, and other necessities. Welshs plan preceded the New Deal of President Franklin Roosevelt and lasted until replaced by the Federal program.
For most of the 1930s, many workers depended on government programs for the work they needed to support their families. It was only with the outbreak of World War II and the resulting war industries jobs that the Grand Rapids, like other cities, found its lines of unemployed workers disappear, instead, there were new linesof soldiers heading off to war.
Like the Civil War and World War I before it, World War II involved the entire community. In Kent County, over 30,000 men and women volunteered or were drafted to military service and over 1,000 made the ultimate sacrifice. At home, once empty furniture factories found new uses. Workers now produced gunstocks, gliders, parachutes and bullet molds where once they had made beds, dressers, dining tables and chairs. With many workers in the armed services, local women stepped in to work in factories, drive trucks and organize civil defense efforts.
The new status for women had important post-war implications. They wanted to retain the access to job market and leadership roles in business and government they had achieved during wartime, and although there was always resistance, pioneering women established themselves as professionals, took jobs in manufacturing and skilled trades and started their own businesses. They also made their voices and concerns heard in government. In 1961, Evangeline Lamberts became the first woman to serve on the Grand Rapids city commission and in the years since, others have followed.
As Michigan's second city, Grand Rapids became West Michigan's center for health care and education. Calvin College which became, in 1921, the first local institution to offer a four-year degree, opened its doors in 1876 as a preparatory school and training program for ministers. It was followed by Aquinas College, which began life as a junior college in 1931, and offered its first four-year degrees in 1940. Grand Valley State University did not enter the scene until 1961, but is now by far the largest, with over 22,000 students and numerous undergraduate and graduate programs.
Three other schools round out the four-year programs in the area. Kendall College of Art and Design was founded in 1928 by Helen Kendall to honor her furniture-designer husband, David Walcott Kendall. Davenport University began life as Grand Rapids Business College in 1866, and now offers two-year and four-year degrees, along with numerous specialized training programs,. The Baptist Bible Institute, which opened in 1941 and merged with the Grand Rapids School of Bible and Music to become Cornerstone University in 1993, offers traditional undergraduate programs and a growing number of graduate programs.
Grand Rapids' position as a health care center began in the second half of the 19th century with the creation of Blodgett (1873) and Butterworth (1876) hospitals. Both institutions began as homes for the aged and indigent, and greatly expanded their services in the early 20th century thanks to the support of generous donors. St. Mary's Hospital was established in 1893 by the Sisters of Mercy. Like its predecessors, it began in a house and moved to a new hospital building as demand for its services increased. The three early hospitals were joined by Metropolitan Hospital (originally known as Grand Rapids Osteopathic Hospital) in 1942. Since their founding, all four hospitals have expanded many times, adding specialty treatment and research centers. They have also been joined by other specialty hospitals including Mary Free Bed (orthopedic) and Kent Community Hospital (public health). In recent years, Blodgett, Butterworth and Kent Community were merged into the Spectrum Health organization.
The postwar years also brought dramatic changes to the physical look of the city. Seeking to establish homes and families, returning veterans seeking to establish homes and families, drove a suburban building boom that has continued to the present with little interruption. Once surrounded by open farmland, Grand Rapids today is ringed by suburbs and rapidly growing townships that now exceed the central city's population. Wyoming, Kentwood, Walker, Ada, Cascade and Grand Rapids Townships, Grandville and Jenison have all established their own identities in the past 50 years.
One reason for the suburban growth is the development of a highway network that permits rapid movement throughout the region. Begun with combined federal, state and local funding for U.S. 131 in the 1950s, the system now features interstate highways I-96 which swings around the north side of the city, I-196 through its center, and newly completed M-6 which forms a connector south of the city. Commercial, residential, retail and manufacturing developments have followed the course of all three highways.
While Grand Rapids remains the central and dominant feature of the much larger metropolitan area, its demographic makeup has also changed in the past 50 years. Along with other changes, the post war years also brought increased diversity to the city's population. African Americans, who had been a part of Grand Rapids since its earliest days, increased their numbers in the 20th century as families left the American south seeking job opportunities in northern cities. By mid century, Grand Rapids black population stood at 7,000, grew to 12,000 a decade later, and had reached approximately 40,000 by the beginning of the 21st century.
Similarly, in recent years, Grand Rapids' Hispanic population has been the fastest growing segment of its population as they too, seek the opportunities the area offers. Initially established when several young men came to work at railroad jobs in the 1920s, the areas Hispanic community, primarily Mexican in origin, stood at more than 5,000 in 1980 and has now grown to nearly 20,000.
Further adding to the city's rich diversity have been the refugees from many lands who have sought new homes in Grand Rapids in the last half of the 20th century. Immediately after World War II, the city welcomed Jews who survived German World War II death camps and eastern European refugees left homeless by the ravages of the war. From the 1950s through the 1980s, others came fleeing Communist oppression in Hungary, Cuba, and Vietnam. Most recently refugees from Bosnia, Albania and Croatia in Central Europe, and Liberia and the Sudan in Africa have sought to make new lives in West Michigan.
Supporting this new and larger population is as economy based on diversification, rather than dependence on a single industry--the furniture industry--that characterized the pre-war years. Today's community leaders understand the need for an economic balance between manufacturing, retail and service sectors, as well as the need for both heavy and light industry in the manufacturing sector. They realize that now, and in the future, a stabile economy will continue to be the largest factor used to measure the community's success.