Successful companies in similar industries like to group together.
It’s why Silicon Valley has taken technology to the next level. It’s why Detroit boomed into an auto giant. It’s what we are witnessing in Grand Rapids right now with beer.
Most residents know it’s not the first time Grand Rapids has seen an industry sprout like wild flowers.
But why did the furniture industry settle in Grand Rapids?
My latest Olli life long learning class at Aquinas College has addressed this issue. Basically it was a perfect storm of lumber industry, woodworking industry, hydroelectric power and innovative thinkers with close proximity to a big city (Chicago). But there were a lot of interesting factoids that the professor, Matt Daley, threw into the lecture.
One that was comical was that most U.S. cities say they’re the city by the river. “Might as well say water is wet,” Daley said.
Detroit is 140 sq. miles, meanwhile Grand Rapids comes in at a measly 45 sq. miles. That’s an insane difference between the top two cities in a state.
In 1850, there were nine furniture makers registered in the census. These were small local guys who weren’t too focused on making huge fortunes with their furniture. (Many of them made coffins. Fancy coffins for all the people to rest in; better than normal wood boxes.)
Soon plenty of ambitious men came from New York (via Ohio) to Grand Rapids. For whatever reason, that’s the route they all chose.
Some of these men came on during the Panic of 1857, to which Daley talked about economic crisis.
“It’s like the one we’re in now is the first one ever, and there was that depression way back when,” he said, noting that there have been many throughout the years, including right after Michigan became a state. “‘Yes! We’re a state;’ financial collapse.
One of the main events that seemed to boost Grand Rapids to furniture supremacy was Nelson, Matters & Co.’s entrance into the hotel market. The company made bedroom sets, and those sets found their way into hotels across the country from New York to San Francisco.
We now live in a disposable society, and the shift to that from from the previous producer society where people kept their goods for life. That shift also contributed to Grand Rapids rise to furniture stardom.
In 1911, Grand Rapids had 59 furniture factories, and most of them had separate niches. And each of those factories provided jobs for the various ethnic neighborhoods around Grand Rapids. That also is why the factories — still seen across town — are so awesome architecturally.
The best part of the class though, was of course a limerick that ran in the Grand Rapids Herald as trains started to have speed contests on the west side, where at one point, 15 different train lines ran through at 35-40 miles per hour.
Lucy saw the train, the train saw Lucy.
The tracks were juicy.
The juice was Lucy.