Grand Rapids in Ford's Day

The Pantlind Hotel from Monroe Street, 1925. Photo courtesy of the Grand Rapids Public Library.


By the 1920s, Grand Rapids had already established itself as one of the manufacturing hubs of the nation, earning the nickname “Furniture City” for its prodigious output of interior decorating products.


The city by the Grand began almost a century earlier as land speculators Louis Campau and Lucius Lyon each purchased competing plots of real estate that would eventually comprise the downtown area. As with other towns of the Northwest Territory, growth was gradual as roads and railroads were laid further and further west. The earliest settlers were fur traders who did business with the native Ottawa tribes, but population boomed throughout the nineteenth century. From its incorporation as a village in 1838 to the beginning of the Civil War, the population of Grand Rapids had reached 8,000 residents. After the war, the town blossomed into a regional manufacturing center capable of producing furniture equal in craftsmanship to any in the country, a trait proven in the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876.


At the end of the nineteenth century, Grand Rapids had a population of almost 90,000 people with a bustling urban center. Tied together by electric trolleys and lines for the newly invented telephone, its cosmopolitan nature was accented by a wide variety of immigrant groups. The first notable wave of emigrants hailed from the Netherlands, giving the city a reputation for Protestant work ethic, thrift, and piety. This was evidenced by the 134 churches counted in a 1920s city census, as well at the city's generally conservative nature and strong backing of alcohol prohibition. By the time of Grand Rapids' centennial celebration in 1926, the total population had swelled to 169,000 residents.


Harland Bartholomew's proposal for downtown Grand Rapids, 1927. Photo courtesy of the Grand Rapids Public Library.

Its downtown was an impressive display of big-city granduer in a medium-sized midwestern city. The Beaux-Arts architecture, the movie houses, the towering Michigan National Bank Building and the luxurious Pantlind Hotel confirmed the prosperity that manufacturing had brought to the city.


On the eve of the Great Depression, Grand Rapids was hopeful in the tide of progress; the first radio broadcast in the city occurred in 1924, and by 1925, 79% of Kent County households owned automobiles. The following year, a Ford-Stout plane flew from Grand Rapids to Dearborn in what was claimed to be "the first strictly passenger airline in the United States." This was the hopeful and enterprising town that Gerald Ford grew up in.