I enjoyed walking through Grand Rapids, Michigan early each morning before most people crawled out of bed. It offered opportunities to explore quiet corners at my own pace and discover sites that I bet most visitors never would have noticed. Naturally I put my own geo-oddity spin on things, observing peculiarities that fit the offbeat themes of Twelve Mile Circle.
Why Grand? Why Rapids?
Long before I arrived I wondered how Grand Rapids got its name. I couldn’t see rapids, grand or otherwise, as I scanned satellite images of the city. It took a little searching although I uncovered an explanation eventually from the Grand Rapids Historical Commission, quoting from a 1913 source.
This sharp fall or decline in the river bed at Grand Rapids is disguised because of the power canals on each side of the river which take up the water and carry it through many factories and out through numerous tail races, so that the name "Grand Rapids" is not suggested any more by the present appearance of the river.
The Grand River running through downtown Grand Rapids fell about 17 feet between current-day Sixth Street and Wealthy Street, a distance of about 1.7 miles (2.7 kilometres). Modern controls masked the drop with a series of terraced ledges. Nonetheless, the elevation truly dropped. I observed this for myself at Fish Ladder Park, a brutalist contraption that let migrating fish push upriver past one of the higher drops (map).
I didn’t realize that Grand Rapids placed so much pride in its logo until I walked around town awhile. I noticed it everywhere.
Lots of street signs included the emblem on their left sides, placed before to the name of the street. It seemed to be a geographic representation to me. I interpreted the blue line as the Grand River, perhaps with the squiggled portion noting the "rapids." Maybe the yellow circle represented a larger metropolitan area radiating from the city center in all directions?
That red blob became a Rorschach test. My geo-centric brain figured it could signify the original historic city boundaries or something. My son the animal lover thought the left knob could be a fish tail symbolizing fish swimming through the rapids. Notions like that filled my mind during those early morning walks. I daydreamed little non sequiturs, a wonderful way to get away from everything mentally and clear away the complexities of modern life.
Look, the logo even appeared on manhole covers, trash cans, and city vehicles. I tried to ignore them after awhile even though it became increasingly difficult as it appeared in even more places. Also I learned that maybe I had a thing for manhole cover designs, following on my discovery last year in Nantucket (photo). I’ll have to pay more attention in the future.
The whole mystery could have been solved if I’d simply searched on the Intertubes where the answer hid in plain site. Instead I preferred to wander around the city hoping to figure it out on my own, only to forget all about it as soon as I got near a computer. Silly me.
La Grande Vitesse by Russell Sekeet on Flickr (cc)
The city clearly said,
The City of Grand Rapids’ logo was designed by Joseph Kinnebrew, an internationally-recognized sculptor and painter. It incorporates a yellow sun, blue river, and a red representation of the "La Grande Vitesse" sculpture by Alexander Calder, which was erected in downtown Grand Rapids on Calder Plaza in 1969.
I let that be a lesson to myself. Next time I will act on my curiosity immediately instead of waiting until I returned home to research an article. I passed within maybe two blocks of the Calder sculpture (map) and never saw it. That became a big missed opportunity. I would have made an effort had I known about it.
The Original Boundary
Grand Rapids remembered its past. I didn’t find the entirety of its original 1850 boundaries during my morning strolls although I discovered a couple of them. One ran down Eastern Avenue Southeast (map). From its name and placement relative to downtown, I assumed it must have been the original eastern boundary although I couldn’t see a street with that name on an 1853 map that I found online. Wealthy Street also featured similar boundary signs and that vintage map did reference it by name as the city’s southern border.
Wealthy Street seemed oddly named. It was nice although it hardly seemed wealthy. Certainly other streets in Grand Rapids featured many more stately homes constructed during the second half of the Nineteenth Century. Grand Rapids Magazine provided the answer.
Jefferson Morrison was a merchant in the early days of Grand Rapids. He named two streets in the city: one to honor himself (Jefferson Avenue) and one to honor his wife, Wealthy (Wealthy Street). Mrs. Morrison’s unusual first name proved to be somewhat ironic, as the family went into serious debt after building an extravagant house between modern-day Ionia and Monroe avenues.
Wealthy didn’t describe a street as much as it described a woman who stayed Wealthy even if she no longer remained wealthy, and the street remained Wealthy long after people forgot about Wealthy Morrison.
Why would parents name their child Wealthy? That mystery, alas, remained unsolved.
The Inexplicable Sign
Then I found the inexplicable sign on Eureka Avenue, a short one-way street through a suburban neighborhood (map). Residents couldn’t park on the eastern side of Eureka Avenue on odd days during the winter months, except for several hours in the evening. A similar prohibition applied to the western side on even days. I figured it must have been related to snow removal. Hopefully most people living on Eureka Avenue had driveways. Moving parked cars from one side of the road to the other every day for five months of the year would get old after awhile. Also, no other street seemed to have this prohibition. I pondered that one for awhile too.
See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr
Most people seemed confused whenever I mentioned Grand Rapids, Michigan as our vacation destination this year. They could understand a holiday at the seashore or in the mountains or going traveling abroad. A mid-sized Midwestern city specializing in consumer manufacturing seemed considerably less intuitive to them. Then I revealed the true reason, its great concentration of amazing breweries. Slowly over time I’ve added cities that beverage connoisseurs considered the best beer destinations in the United States, places like Asheville, Bend, San Diego and the Puget Sound. Grand Rapids became my latest acquisition.
I realized that only a small sliver of the Twelve Mile Circle audience shared this passion. Readers should feel free to wait a couple of days until the next article if that’s the case. I also sprinkled a few interesting nuggets completely unrelated to brewing into the kettle for those who wanted to stick around anyway.
One cannot mention Grand Rapids breweries without referencing Founders (map). I could not underestimate the positive contributions Founders brought to the city since its inception barely twenty years ago. Many credited this single brewery with sparking a broad revitalization that transcended its entire social fabric.
Thirty years ago, most people in the area of Grand Rapids, Michigan, steered clear of its desolate downtown. Back then, residents lived in the outlying residential neighborhoods, a suburban sprawl supported by endless strip malls and IHOPs… And at the center of what’s now known to many as "Beer City, USA" is Founders Brewing Company… it has almost singlehandedly established its culture.
I couldn’t vouch for what Grand Rapids used to be like, although I certainly saw that the current scene had a lot to offer beyond the large number of breweries that came to follow. We rented a house for the week in a quiet residential neighborhood constructed at the turn of the last century, east of downtown. We walked nearly everywhere, or grabbed an Uber when we felt lazy, visiting many popular sites within Grand Rapids including a number of its breweries.
Great Lakes Brewing
We stopped overnight in Cleveland, Ohio on the drive up to Michigan. That let us visit another titan of craft brewing, Great Lakes (map). It dated to 1988, practically ancient for that wave of breweries that rose to challenge the Budweisers, Millers and Coors of this world. One of my friends in the industry told me to look for the bullet hole. Bullet hole? Right. The vintage 1860’s Tiger Mahogany bar at Great Lakes supposedly had a bullet hole in it. I noticed someone marked it with an appropriate flag once I arrived in person. BANG. Funny.
Great Lakes brewed a well-regarded Vienna Lager called Eliot Ness, named for the prohibition agent who battled Chicago’s mobsters in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. He led the Untouchables, a nickname earned because they supposedly could not be bribed by gangster Al Capone. However the labeling of the beer wasn’t intended as an ironic statement about a crusader battling bootleggers.
Ness came to Cleveland after prohibition ended in 1933 and later became the city’s Safety Director where he rooted-out public corruption for several years. He often sat at the same bar that became part of Great Lake’s brewpub decades later. That’s why the brewery named a beer for him. Great Lakes claimed that the bullet hole may have come from Ness himself. Meanwhile the Cleveland Police Museum said that "Ness was known to rarely carry a weapon" It might not even be a bullet hole for all I knew. Still, it made for a good legend.
The story of Ness took a sad turn. He succeeded too young and couldn’t maintain it. He lived only 54 years, becoming a hard drinker with a string of failed jobs and marriages.
Less than an hour south of Grand Rapids, in Kalamazoo, stood an even earlier icon of craft brewing. Bell’s Brewery (map) opened all the way back in 1985. Bell’s named its flagship American IPA, Two Hearted Ale. Aficionados considered Two Hearted Ale "world class" and the second best beer in the nation according to Zymurgy, the publication of the American Homebrewers Association.
I never pondered the unusual name before. Two Hearted Ale derived from "the Two Hearted River in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula." This was a short river draining into Lake Superior and known for its exceptional recreational fishing. A young Ernest Hemingway borrowed the name for a two-part short story he wrote in 1925, "Big Two-Hearted River." At least one source claimed that the name of the beer drew inspiration from Hemingway’s story.
Bell's Two Hearted Ale by William Clifford on Flickr (cc)
It’s a tale about change and acceptance, about dealing with ones own experiences and making the best of them. The fish on the bottle references a part of the story where our hero is struggling with a big fish only to have it get away. Later on he catches two medium size fish and learns to be content with just that.
I managed to structure a search query that sidestepped Bell’s and Hemingway to uncover the river’s etymology. The United States Geological Survey published "The origin of certain place names in the United States." In Volume 8, Issue 197 (1902) the USGS said, "Two Hearted river in Michigan. An erroneous translation of the Indian name Nizhodesibi ‘twin river’." Now we know.
New Holland Brewing
We also visited New Holland Brewing (map) in Holland, Michigan about a half-hour southwest of Grand Rapids. I’ll have more to say about this town in a future installment so I’ll keep it brief here. My wife considered its Dragon’s Milk bourbon barrel aged Imperial Stout as one of her favorites for the last several years. Obviously she also greatly enjoyed the Reserve version aged with raspberries and lemon zest on draught at the brewpub the day we visited.
I Got the T-Shirt
Grand Rapids understood the economic value of beer tourism and offered a passport program. Anyone who visited 8 of the 23 area breweries that existed during the summer of 2016 earned a free Beer City Brewsader T-shirt. I got my passport stamped at the 8 closest breweries and earned a shirt. I did something similar during my visit to Bend, Oregon, too. These challenges meshed well with my compulsive need to count things.
Overall we visited 14 breweries during our journey:
- B.O.B’s Brewery (Grand Rapids, MI)
- Bell’s Brewery (Kalamazoo, MI)
- Brewery Vivant (Grand Rapids, MI)
- Draught Horse Brewery (Lyon Twp., MI)
- ELK Brewing (Grand Rapids, MI)
- Fat Head’s Brewery (Cleveland, OH)
- Founders Brewing (Grand Rapids, MI)
- Grand Rapids Brewing (Grand Rapids, MI)
- Great Lakes Brewing (Cleveland, OH)
- Harmony Brewing (Grand Rapids, MI)
- HopCat (Grand Rapids, MI)
- Mitten Brewing (Grand Rapids, MI)
- New Holland Brewing (Holland, MI)
- Smokehouse Brewing (Columbus, OH)
I think I should emphasize — as I have in the past — that responsible behavior underpinned this quest. While we tried a lot of breweries, we spread it over a ten-day period and stuck to samplers, those small taste-sized glasses. In total we had the equivalent of maybe one or two beers at each location, often combined with a meal. It was about the quality not the quantity.
What beer city should we visit next?
See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr
I decided to wrap-up the series of "Last Places" with the United States, after previously exploring England, Asia and various members of the Commonwealth of Nations. The premise remained the same, to find the last places in the nation where something once happened or where anachronisms still remained.
The Last Arabbers
Donald 'Manboy' Savoy – a patriarch of the Arabbers by Cultural Documentation on Flickr (cc)
Men known as arabbers once commonly walked beside horse-drawn carts through city streets of the northeastern United States selling fresh fruits and vegetables. They shouted distinctive chants to identify themselves and their wares. Residents came outdoors when they heard items they wanted to buy. Many African American men pursued this entrepreneurial opportunity, a means of steady self-employment free from discrimination in the years after the Civil War. The practice gradually faded after the advent of motorized vehicles. Cities became increasingly hostile to horses and people switched their shopping allegiance to grocery stores. Arabbing disappeared everywhere except for tiny pockets of Baltimore, Maryland.
The term Arabbing seemed unusual. It derived from A-rab (pronounced Ay-Rab), which earned a special explanation from the Baltimore Sun when it described the practice in 2007. The etymology extended back to London in the mid-Nineteenth Century, referring to "a homeless little wanderer, a child of the street." In turn, that "likely reflects the sense of the nomadic life historically led by the peoples on the Arabian Peninsula." In other words it derived from a stereotype.
The profession could disappear soon even in Baltimore. Only a few arabber continued to exist. Animal rights activities derided the practice, lobbying Government officials to end the tradition in other cities such as Philadelphia and New York. Baltimore officials raided one of the last stables, the old South Carlton Street stables near Hollins Market (map) in 2015. All charges were dropped in March 2016 in a case described as "laughably weak." However by that time officials found replacement homes for all of the horses. The city effectively put the rightful owners out of business. Now arabbing in Baltimore hangs by the weakest of threads.
Last Place to Fly the Bourbon flag of France
Fort de Chartres Wall by henskechristine on Flickr (cc)
I struggled with this one. Did Fort de Chartres fly the Bourbon flag of France longer than anywhere else in territory later part of United States, as claimed? Maybe.
France controlled inland North America for much of the Eighteenth Century. This including a preponderance of the Mississippi River and its watershed. It established a series of forts along these waterways to enforce its domain. Fort de Chartres (map) on the east bank of the Mississippi in modern-day Illinois, played a central role. The initial fort dated to 1720. It washed away as did its replacement, a predictable fate for wooden structures built in a floodplain. The French decided on something more permanent after that. They rebuilt Fort de Chartres in thick limestone in 1753. This served as their main military outpost and government center for all of Upper Louisiana until 1765.
France and Britain battled in the Seven Years’ War during this period, a conflict called the French and Indian War in North America. Britain eventually won. The resulting 1763 Treaty of Paris forced France to cede all land east of the Mississippi to Britain and all land west of the Mississippi to Spain. It took another two years before British forces occupied Fort de Chartres.
Then the white banner of old France, with its royal fleur de lis, was drawn down from its staff, and in its place was displayed the red cross of St, George. Thus was ended the splendid dream of French conquest and dominion in North America. After the performance of this sad act, St. Ange took his departure by boat, with his little company of 30 officers and men, and proceeded up and across the Mississippi river to the new French trading post of St. Louis, which was then in Spanish territory.
Napoleon Bonaparte briefly claimed Louisiana from Spain before selling it to the fledgling United States in 1803. However Bonaparte did not fly the Bourbon flag so the assertion might be true.
The Last Indentured Servants
Haleakala Cane Fields by bradmcs on Fickr (cc)
Indentured servitude seemed like something out of the colonial era of American history. People received passage to the New World and in turn they agreed to work for someone for a number of years. The practice disappeared soon after the American Revolution. However, the United States annexed Hawaii in 1898. Hawaii had been an independent nation that allowed indentured servitude so the US had to abolish the practice again.
The Organic Act, bringing US law to bear in the newly-annexed Territory of Hawaii took effect 111 years ago–June 14, 1900. As a result, US laws prohibiting contracts of indentured servitude replaced the 1850 Masters and Servants Act which had been in effect under the Hawaiian Kingdom and Hawaii Republic. Tens of thousands of plantation laborers were freed from contract slavery by the Organic Act.
Sugar drove both freedom for indentured servants and a loss of sovereignty for the Hawaiian nation. Immigrants from the United States built large estates like the 1864 Grove Farm Sugar Plantation on Kauai, now a museum (map). These super-wealthy capitalists demanded more influence in Hawaiian politics. Their power came from the other side of the Pacific and they seized control. Ironically they also lost their cheap supply of Chinese and Japanese indentured servants once the United States took over.
Last Place Where Oysters are Harvested with Tongs from Small Boats
oyster shells in tong heads by Southern Foodways Alliance on Flickr (cc)
Machinery changed many practices of people who made their living from the land or the sea. Oystermen generally abandoned traditional labor-intensive techniques in favor of motorized dredges once they became available. Only in Florida’s Apalachicola Bay did harvesters continue to scrape oysters from their beds using hand-powered tongs (map). The water was so shallow and the oysters so abundant that the traditional method actually allowed watermen to make a decent living. This reminded me of another anachronism, the skipjack sailors of Chesapeake Bay. They used small sailboats to harvest oysters. A quirk in Maryland law allowed them to harvest during times of the year that those using motorized boats could not, a means to prevent over-harvesting.