GRPL's History Detectives program digs into Grand Rapids' past, from beer to cars & more

Ever wonder what Grand Rapids was like decades and decades ago? What the streets were like when Herpolsheimer’s, Steketee’s and Wurzburg’s — iconic 20th century department stores — lined them? What about the history of our city’s Latino community? Or what the brewing scene was like long before we were deemed “Beer City?”
Ever wonder what Grand Rapids was like decades and decades ago? What the streets were like when Herpolsheimer’s, Steketee’s and Wurzburg’s — iconic 20th century department stores — lined them? What about the history of our city’s Latino community? Or what the brewing scene was like long before we were deemed “Beer City?”

The Grand Rapids Public Library’s ninth annual “History Detectives” program, which will take place from 9:30am to 4pm on Saturday, January 23 at the Main Library (111 Library St. NE), will delve into all of this — and a whole lot  more. The program is free and open to the public, but you are encouraged to get there early; seating will go fast.

The library is partnering with six local historical agencies to present the day-long program — which in 2013 landed a State History Award from the Historical Society of Michigan — that will include a series of 45-minute presentations on a variety of topics, including:
  • Kindergarten and “radical” women in 1890s Grand Rapids
  • When “everyone knew everyone”: Forming a Latino community in mid-century West Michigan
  • Retail icons: shopping downtown in 1950s Grand Rapids
  • New-car smell: Nostalgia and the story of Grand Rapids car dealerships
  • Modern design leader: The story behind Herman Miller
  • The intoxicating history of River City brewing
“We try to pick a broad range of topics so there’s something for everyone,” says Julie Tabberer, a librarian and local history expert with the Grand Rapids Public Library. “If you’re someone who hasn’t gone to a local history presentation before, these are good ones to go to. They’re relatively short, so you’re not committing to a long time if you just come to one, and the speakers are great and entertaining.”

Alongside the library, the program is being sponsored by the Grand Rapids Historical Society, the Grand Rapids Historical Commission, the Western Michigan Genealogical Society, the Grand Rapids Public Museum, the Kutsche Office of Local History at GVSU and the Greater Grand Rapids Women's History Council.

While the program is, of course, focused on the history of Grand Rapids, the day also focuses on how the city’s history inevitably has paved the way for the Grand Rapids we now know.

“Connecting the past to the present is a big part of what we do at the library,” Tabberer says. “When you look at what’s happening today, you want to understand what happened in the past so you can make better decisions and have pride in our city.”

While we don’t want to give away everything that will be happening during this day of history, here’s a glimpse of what to expect from the program:

Kindgerten and “Radical” Women in 1890s Grand Rapids (9:30 - 10:15 am)

The Froebel Foundation’s Scott Bultman is currently making a documentary about the history of Kindergarten and how “revolutionary German methods” for teaching young children were adopted in Grand Rapids, where members of the Ladies Literary Club founded a Kindergarten training school in 1894. Bultman will discuss this history, including presenting his collection of photographs and documents, to talk about our city’s “radical” women, who hailed from a range of socioeconomic and racial backgrounds and devoted themselves to the creation of Kindergarten — which that helped to spawn the temperance and suffrage movements.

“When Everyone Knew Everyone”: Forming a Latino Community in Mid-Century West Michigan (10:30 - 11:15am)

Delia Fernández, a history professor at Michigan State University, will discuss the long and vibrant history of the Latino/a community in West Michigan. A longtime scholar of Latino/a history, Fernández is currently working on a book that focuses on “Latino migration, panethnic identity, community formation, and activism among Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in Grand Rapids from the 1920s to the 1970s.” During the professor’s talk, you’ll be able to get a glimpse of how church festivals, baseball leagues, dances, and more helped form strong relationships among Latino/as in the Grand Rapids of the 1940s and 50s.

Retail Icons: Shopping Downtown in 1950s Grand Rapids (11:30am - 12:15 pm)

In the mid-1950s, downtown Grand Rapids was Michigan’s second-largest shopping destination, boasting more than one million square feet of retail space, including three homegrown department stores, several chain department stores, five-and-dime shops, and more. Author Michael Hauser, who, along with Marianne Weldon, penned “20th-Century Retailing in Downtown Grand Rapids,” will take a look at these former retail icons, including Herpolsheimer’s, Steketee’s, and Wurzburg’s, in addition to other city businesses beloved by residents. During the presentation, Hauser will share vintage ads, catalogs, and signage from these retail empires, which, as the website for his book states “weathered mother nature, wars, the Great Depression” and more, but could not overcome the regional shopping mall.

New-Car Smell: Nostalgia and the Story of the Grand Rapids Car Dealerships (1 - 1:45 pm)

While we now know car dealerships as expansive spaces on 28th Street, automobiles were, once upon a time, sold in small lots downtown. Thomas R. Wilson, who’s on the library’s committee that organizes the History Detectives event, will take a look at these old dealerships that once dotted the downtown area and other city neighborhoods. Attendees will get a chance to hear how the businesses expanded, stretching from downtown into areas like Eastown and Cheshire Village. He’ll also delve into what they sold — everything from Plymouths and Chryslers to Maxwells and Studebakers — and will take us through the whirlwind history of automobiles in our area, tracing its beginnings rooted in the Model T through the “explosion of the Big Three” and the arrival of imported vehicles.

Modern Design Leader: The Story Behind Herman Miller (2 - 2:45 pm)

Founded in Zeeland as the Star Furniture Co. in 1905, the company now known as Herman Miller has been one of the most prolific manufacturers of furniture in the world, beginning with traditional wood furniture until 1930 and then moving onto the industrial design creations for which it is now renowned. During this presentation, Amy Auscherman, a corporate archivist for Herman Miller, will share the history of design at the company, which has worked with such legendary designers and George Nelson and Ray Eames, as well as names like Isamu Noguchi, Alexander Girard, Yves Behar, and many others.

The Intoxicating History of River City Brewing (3 - 3:45 pm)

Picture this: dozens of local breweries line the streets of our city, selling brews to a quickly changing city. Sure, you say, I know that picture — that’s now. And, yes, it is, but it was also 19th century Grand Rapids, where Grand Rapids Brewing Company and other businesses established the beer culture that paved the way for the Beer City of today. Local journalist Pat Evans, author of “Grand Rapids Beer: An Intoxicating History of River City Brewing,” will bring you on an exploration of the history of beer in West Michigan and, the library notes, “how the current world-beer industry developed, from an eclectic mix of world-beer styles to the homogenous beers that dominated the United States for half a century.”

The History Detectives Program will take place from 9:30am to 4pm on Saturday, January 23 at the GRPL’s Main Library, located at 111 Library St. NE. It is free and open to the public. Boxed lunches will be available for $10 each from Cherry Deli, but they must be reserved in advance by calling 616-988-5492 or emailing [email protected]. Cash payment for the lunches will be due at the event. Following the conclusion of the event, all are welcome to gather at the Mitten Brewing Company from 4-6pm to talk about all you’ve learned over a brew or two. For more information about the History Detectives program, you can go here.

Photos courtesy the Grand Rapids Public Library
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.