With its picturesque winter landscape, it should come as no surprise that Grand Rapids played a role in one of the best-loved picture book classics of the holidays. Chris Van Allsburg, author of "The Polar Express" is a Grand Rapids native, and when the animated film came out, Grand Rapids was used as inspiration for the setting of the main character’s hometown. Even the movie premiere was screened in Grand Rapids—a testament to how influential the location was to the creation of the story. All aboard!
There’s something very presidential about Grand Rapids—literally. President Gerald Ford grew up in Grand Rapids, even though he wasn’t born there. But then, he wasn’t born Gerald Ford, either. President Ford’s birth name was Leslie Lynch King Jr. When his parents divorced, he moved with his mother to Grand Rapids. She met and eventually married a man named Gerald Ford. The rest, as they say, is history.
Grand Rapids is one town that really does its part to support art. Not only is it home to the first work of public art funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, but Grand Rapids native Rick DeVos also established ArtPrize, the world’s biggest prize for art chosen by public voters. At the first ArtPrize in 2009, the public response was so overwhelming that downtown restaurants ran out of food on the first Sunday of the event.
In the mid-to-late 19th century, logging was an important industry in Grand Rapids, and the Grand River was used as a way to transport logs to the mills. Though the river was a convenient method of transport, things didn’t always go smoothly. According to some accounts, the great log jam of 1883 was the largest log jam in history, with between 80 and 150 million feet of logs piled up behind a single iron railroad bridge. Logs away!
Want something to smile about? Grand Rapids led the nation in a practice that some say has drastically improved dental health throughout the nation. In 1945, Grand Rapids became the first city to add fluoride to its drinking water, after studies in the 1930s predicted it could help prevent tooth decay. Today, about 72 percent of U.S. citizens who use community water systems reap the benefits of fluoridated water. So go ahead: Say cheese.
Wanna hear a secret? The Grand River isn’t the only channel in the Grand Rapids city limits. There’s also a hidden, subterranean river that flows beneath a part of land in the city. Today the river is a cool city secret, but in the early 1900s it caused a regular ruckus. In 1903, Campeau Street began to settle and fall into the underground river. Talk about a sinking feeling!
The Grand Rapids Public Museum has a history of good credentials. In fact, it was the first museum in the nation to be accredited by the American Association of Museums. The accreditation happened in 1971, but the museum’s history stretches back much further than that. A group of civic leaders founded the museum more than 150 years ago in 1854, and though its name has changed a few times, its dedication to fostering learning in the Grand Rapids community hasn’t. Today the museum owns multiple educational properties, including the Chaffee Planetarium, the historic Voigt House and the Norton Mound National Historic Landmark.
The prominence of the Polish heritage in Grand Rapids is evidenced by the annual Pulaski Days celebration. Each October, the city honors General Casimir Pulaski with a festival. General Pulaski was a Pole who fought in the Revolutionary War and has become a symbol for Polish heritage in the United States. The Grand Rapids festival includes Polish food, music and a Pulaski Days Queen pageant.
Grand Rapids is a city with an inventive heritage. Back in the 19th century, the Bissells (Anna and Melville) came up with the first carpet sweeper that sold with wide appeal. Those sweepers turned into vacuums and perhaps were just the beginning of GR's creative spurt. The Grand Rapids Inventors Network helps local residents develop ideas for new products. Successful inventions by area residents include Sun-Stick, sun-sensitive stickers for gardeners to measure available sunlight, and the Easy Crutch, a cross between a traditional crutch and a knee scooter. Eureka!
Sometimes when you move, things get lost. Since 1871, five different buildings have housed Grand Rapid's police headquarters, and when one headquarters building was being demolished in the 1960s, a number of old police records were trashed, too. Luckily, a concerned citizen rescued one arrest book from the dumpsters, and it now resides in the city archives. How else would we learn about dastardly deviants like female bandit Catherine Tate or the always-fine-feathered Tuxedo Kid? Book ‘em, Danno!
Did you already know about this history of Grand Rapids? Check out our Port Huron round up.