Grand Rapids: History
Grand River Valley Site of Land Feud
About 2,000 years ago, the Hopewell Indians planted roots at the rapids near the Grand River. Their presence is still seen in the preserved burial mounds southwest of the city. By the late 17th century, the Ottawa tribe had set up villages on the west bank of the Grand River at the site of present day Grand Rapids. Several Baptist mission buildings were completed in the vicinity in 1826. That same year Louis Campau, a French fur trader, settled in the region, establishing a trading post on the east river bank. Local Native Americans nicknamed him "The Fox" for his shrewd trading skills. Campau purchased 72 acres for $90 in 1831 in what is now the downtown area and named it the Village of Grand Rapids. A land surveyor named Lucius Lyon acquired the platted land to the north and named it the Village of Kent, causing a raging land feud with Campau. By 1838 the Michigan legislature combined both tracts of land to form the Village of Grand Rapids. The area incorporated as a city in 1850.
Inexpensive, fertile land and abundant timber and mineral resources attracted settlers to the area, and by 1860 the population numbered 8,000, more than tripling in 10 years. By then, rail and telegraph had come to Grand Rapids, connecting the community to all parts of the country with travel from the eastern seaboard taking only two days.
Logging Fuels Grand Rapids Development
Grand Rapids began a period of rapid development in the 1850s when logs from Michigan's rich pine and oak forests floated down the Grand River to the city's new mills. After the Civil War, many soldiers found jobs as lumberjacks cutting logs and guiding them down the river with pike poles, peaveys, and cant hooks. The men wore bright red flannel, felt clothes, and spiked boots to hold them onto the floating logs; these boots chewed up the wooden sidewalks and flooring of the local bars, leading one hotel owner to supply carpet slippers to all river drivers who entered his hotel. The "jacks" earned $1 to $3 per day and all the "vittles" they could eat, which was usually a considerable amount.
Upstream mill owners often stole the logs headed for Grand Rapids in a practice called "hogging." To prevent hogging, the mills hired men called river drivers, who rode the logs downstream to their rightful destination. In addition, like cattle, all logs were stamped with the brands of their owners so they could be sorted at the log booms and sent to a specific sawmill. From 1865 to the 1880s the logging industry dominated the local economy. The river also harnessed energy. One of the first hydro-electric plants in the United States was built in Grand Rapids.
River ice and log jams proved to be a continual problem for Grand Rapids. A series of floods and heavy rains that launched runaway logs caused repeated damage to the town, notably in 1838, 1852, and 1883. In 1883, so much rain fell one summer's day that an estimated 80 million board feet of logs broke free and jammed against a railroad bridge, creating what some called the biggest log jam in the nation's history. The bridge swayed, bent, groaned, and finally broke away as part of it was carried steadily down the river. Called the Great Log Jam of 1883, the event was spectacular but also marked the beginning of the end for logging on the Grand River.
Furniture Craftsmanship Gains World Attention
Because of the plentiful supply of fine wood, furniture had been manufactured in Grand Rapids as early as 1838, but it was not until the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876 that the city gained national recognition for its furniture craftsmanship. Bedroom, dining room, library, and hall furniture made of oak, ash, and maple gained mass popularity. Two years later Grand Rapids held its first furniture mart, attracting buyers worldwide who appreciated the fresh styles and quality work. One of the innovations Grand Rapids manufacturers brought to the furniture industry was catalogs of photographs and color drawings that were distributed throughout the nation.
By 1890, Grand Rapids was home to the nation's largest furniture companies; they set the tone for creative designs, new manufacturing processes and equipment, retailing networks, and inventive marketing schemes. The city ranked third, behind only New York and Chicago, in the amount of furniture its factories produced. Nearly one-third of all city laborers worked in the industry. The high paying and plentiful jobs attracted a large number of immigrants—Dutch, German, Polish, and other northern Europeans. Grand Rapids grew from slightly more than 10,000 residents at the end of the Civil War to nearly 90,000 by 1900. One-third of the city's population had been born in another country by that time.
In Europe, Grand Rapids was best known as the home of Tanglefoot rather than producer of fine furniture. Flies were a nuisance, then as now. An ordinary druggist named Otto Thum developed a sticky paper that not only caught and held flies, but even attracted them. The company is still in existence along with its century old "secret formula."
Another long lived, prosperous Grand Rapids company is Bissell, founded in 1876 and considered the pioneer in the carpet sweeper industry. With the death of company head Melville Bissell in 1889, his wife Anna assumed leadership and became America's first female corporate CEO. She was light-years ahead of her time as an aggressive and innovative manager. Under her guidance, the company developed many new products and expanded the business internationally. Still privately owned, Bissell continues to be an industry pioneer, bringing innovative home- and floor-care products to the international marketplace.
Turn of the Century Brings Changes to Grand Rapids
Depletion of Michigan's forests put an end to the logging industry, requiring furniture companies to import lumber, as they still do today. Due to a nationwide industry slump between 1905 and 1910, furniture workers received only minimal raises or none at all. This, combined with extremely long hours and poor working conditions, led to 3,000 workers striking in 1911 demanding a 9-hour day, a 10 percent wage increase, and the abolition of pay based on piecework. After four months, the strike ended, but later management granted most of the laborer's requests.
The Grand Rapids residential furniture industry never fully recovered after that strike. World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II led to lessening demand for residential furniture and the Grand Rapids furniture companies did not make the transition well during the war economies. Many companies went under or moved south to be closer to a larger lumber supply.
With the end of World War II, a two decades long construction boom began and countless new office buildings were erected throughout the nation and worldwide. Some Grand Rapids companies had begun making fine wood and metal furniture for offices in the early 1900s; they now saw tremendous demand. Steelcase grew from 34 employees in 1912 to become the largest office furniture company worldwide with more than 19,000 people. Because of the many office furniture companies in close proximity, Grand Rapids is now known as the nation's office furniture capital. Experience with wood and metal and a traditional entrepreneurial spirit led to a diversifying economy. No one industry dominates the metropolitan area manufacturers, but furniture, industrial machinery, metals, plastics, food processing, and printing are core industrial clusters.
As with other cities after World War II, many Grand Rapids-based families fled to the suburbs and the city's population began to decline along with the downtown area. In the mid 1990s, Grand Rapids began experiencing a renaissance, with more than $200 million in new cultural, recreational, and sports facilities. Downtown revitalization included the 12,000-seat Van Andel Arena for sports, concerts, and entertainment events; the Van Andel Institute, an independent medical research center; and the refurbishing of many warehouses into retail space and loft apartments. The new millennium has seen even more new projects and expansions. The $210 million De Vos Place project incorporates De Vos Hall and the old Grand Center convention space in a new one-million-square-foot facility, which was completed in 2005. Millennium Park is a 10-year restoration of 1500 acres of industrial land that includes a new beach. New parks, residences, shopping venues, restaurants, and other revitalization projects that mark a new beginning for Grand Rapids abound.
Historical Information: Grand Rapids Public Library, Michigan and Family History Collection, 111 Library St., NE, Grand Rapids, MI 49503; telephone (616)456-3640
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