Grand River Valley Region

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Rivers played an important role in the development of the Grand River valley. The Grand and the Kalamazoo rivers and their tributaries provided the early means of access and transportation into the region from the Lake Michigan shore. Grand Haven, Singapore, Saugatuck, and Douglas, at the mouths of these two rivers, became ports of entry for commercial goods and ports of exit for timber products. The region was organized into counties in the late 1830s.

Stands of hardwood dominated this region. Since hardwood was denser and sank at a faster rate than softwood, water transportation of cut logs ended in the Grand River valley long before it did in the Softwood Pine Belt to the north. Consequently, manufacturing was added to logging, lumber milling, and flour milling. The ready access to waterpower at the fall of the river at Grand Rapids aided early industrial growth.

During the 1840s and the 1850s, the region experienced a significant influx of Dutch immigrants. Under the leadership of Albertus C. Van Raalte, these immigrants and others, primarily German, came to the area seeking religious freedom and an opportunity for economic improvement. They settled in Ottawa County near the Black River. But the economic vicissitudes of pioneer life caused many of the immigrants, particularly those single and of working age, to leave the Holland area for Grand Rapids. Consequently, immigration spread throughout Ottawa, Kent, and even Allegan counties. These immigrants provided the skilled labor necessary to the various industries of the region, particularly furniture making.

In the region's western portion, Dutch influence is evident in the architecture, as well as in the building material. In 1848, Jan Hendrick Veneklasen (1800–1877), a recent immigrant from the Netherlands, opened a brickyard in Zeeland, later adding yards in Hamilton, Cloverdale, Kalamazoo, and Grand Rapids. The firm used locally available clay and produced red and pale yellow bricks, depending on the iron or lime content of the clay. These bricks were used for houses, schools, and government buildings during the last half of the nineteenth century and were employed in patterns of contrasting colors similar to designs in the Netherlands. The Veneklasen brickyard also provided designs as part of the sale of the bricks.

Veneklasen's was not the only brickyard in the region. Other Grand Rapids brick makers produced similar bricks. Because of the mineral composition of most of the locally available clay, predominantly pale yellowish brick—known as Cream City or Milwaukee brick—was produced during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Churches, commercial buildings, and many factories, particularly on the north side of Grand Rapids, used this brick. Another local building material was a light yellowish-brown sandstone from the Marshall formation, known locally as Waverly sandstone. This sandstone from the Holland area, and from the banks of the Grand River itself, was used throughout the city of Holland, as well as elsewhere in the region. Wood, of course, was the most abundant building material, and wood-frame, clapboard-sheathed structures with decorative carved, turned, and sawn trim abound.

The limited stands of pine in the region, however, resulted in the early shift of the economic base to other industries. Hardwoods such as maple and walnut were used for furniture in Grand Rapids, as well as in Holland. The rapids of the Grand River (with a fall of from fifteen to twenty feet) were the power force for a series of flouring mills and for furniture factories. To service these mills as well as the lumber mills, a machine tool and metalworking industry developed. Belding, on the Flat River in Ionia County, was the site of a large silk mill ( IA9).

As the region grew in population and wealth, Grand Rapids became home for a number of architects who designed for local, as well as distant, clients. Among these were father and son Sidney J. and Eugene Osgood, who designed many Masonic temples and county courthouses throughout the state; William G. and Frederick S. Robinson, another father and son, who worked with commercial buildings, houses, and churches; David S. Hopkins, who specialized in house plans, which he sold through publications; and the firms of J. H. Daverman and Son and later J. and G. Daverman (both founded by Dutch immigrants), who designed pattern-book churches and houses. Churches were their specialty, and dozens of churches designed by Daverman are found throughout the region. Solon S. Beman, Henry Ives Cobb, George Maher, and Frank Lloyd Wright worked in the region in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; Maya Lin of New York City, Workshop Hakomori Yantrasast (wHY) of Los Angeles, and William McDonough of Virginia in the twentieth and twentieth-first centuries. The innovative work in the twentieth century of Herman Miller and other western Michigan furniture designers, including Charles and Ray Eames and George Nelson, brought modernism to the region.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Kathryn Bishop Eckert

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