From Fur Traders to Furniture Traders: Grand Rapids, Michigan, City of Contrasts

By Dorothea S. Michelman

Visitors to Grand Rapids, Michigan’s second-largest city, may find it a challenge to envision today’s vibrant tourist destination as it first appeared in 1826, a riverside trading post established by French trader Louis Campeau. Trade between the French, British, and local Ottawa Indians must have been brisk, for in 1831 Campeau paid $90 to the federal government for what now comprises the city’s entire downtown business district.

From there, expansion was swift: trading post to village, village to city, trade in furs to trade in furniture. Geography – Grand Rapids’ proximity to the rapids of the Grand River and the dense pine trees blanketing the surrounding area, coupled with economic and demographic factors – including often lower wages for immigrant artisans – fostered the growth of what would one day be America’s “Furniture Capital.” By 1850, the year Grand Rapids was incorporated, the Grand River was generating power for the new city’s first furniture factory as well as providing transportation for the logs traveling from forests further upstream.

As for the makers of the fine pieces of furniture produced at the new factory and elsewhere, their numbers included recent German immigrants who had brought old-world cabinet-making traditions over to the new, where the high quality of their cabinetry soon found an appreciative market.

At the Van Andel Museum Center, a stroll through “Furniture City” not only brings to life the craft of those who created it, but invites the visitor to catch a glimpse of some of their leisure-time activities, including a photograph of an 1892 get-together of German artisans at their beloved Turnverein, an institution brought over from the old country which in North America served not only as an athletics club with physical education classes in a familiar cultural setting and a haven from the trials of life in a foreign country. The Turnverein also formed an essential bridge between old and new by offering English classes, encouraging naturalization, and providing various means for the emigrant to further his or her education as well as a place to simply socialize.

German “pioneers” to the area included Anthony and Elizabeth Cordes and their eight children, who arrived from Westphalia in 1836 and settled in Grand Rapids four years later. Others would follow. As Wilhelm Seeger, professor of German at Grand Valley State University and authority on the history of local German culture points out, these newcomers – many of them arriving in the aftermath of the political upheaval of 1848, as well as a tremendous wave of immigrants at the end of the Civil War – played a vital role in the development of the Germans’ social, political, religious, and cultural image.

Ultimately Germans would comprise the second-largest group of immigrants in Grand Rapids after the Dutch.

German immigrants, in common with other recent arrivals, soon discovered opportunities beyond the expanding furniture industry, and set forth to meet them – from small business owner to large-scale entrepreneur. One of the most successful was fourteen-year-old Carl G. A. Voigt, who left Prussia in 1847 for American shores, where he worked his way up from selling dry goods to prosperous flour mill owner. Today, the opulent home he built in the historic Heritage Hill District is now the Voigt House Victorian Museum, welcoming visitors to step into an intimate portrait of a prominent 19th-century family’s life at home.

Organizations meeting various needs and interests soon sprang up within the German community. In the absence of social security, unemployment compensation, and other programs so familiar today, the Germans provided their own, establishing an association to assist unemployed members of their community as well as founding unions, including one for brewers (1884) and another for cabinetmakers (1886). But, as we so clearly saw during our historical journey through “Furniture City,” other community organizations were formed with a more light-hearted purpose.

The Schwabenverein, for instance, owned Teutonia Park on Reeds Lake, which served as the backdrop for numerous well-attended events such as a huge choral festival held in 1881 attracting singers from every corner of the state.

The German-language newspapers Germania and Der Sonntagsbote had their own roles to play on the stage of the city’s German community cultural life, as can be seen from Germania’s 1913 Vereinskalendar, or schedule of club events, listing no fewer than 22 organizations and the functions planned for that year.

Regrettably, Grand Rapids’ thriving German community – as was the case throughout the country – was brought to a halt by World War I, with anti-German sentiment directed at neighbors as well as overseas. German-language instruction in schools was forbidden, the majority of German organizations closed their doors, and German newspapers shut down their presses.

Then, in the 1920’s, immigrants streamed in once more, revitalizing the city’s German community – an upturn which bore fruit in the ’50s with the founding of the Edelweiss Club.

The Edelweiss Club’s annual highlight – as might be expected – is its Germanfest, scheduled this year for July 30 and 31, two exciting days filled with pageantry, special events, music, dance, and of course the requisite culinary specialties and beer to wash it all down.

But, as club president Bernhard Kleinselbeck explains, in addition to the recreational and family-oriented activities aimed at both preserving and promoting a richer understanding and appreciation of Germany’s customs and cultural heritage, the Edelweiss Club also seeks to interact with the larger community. The Edelweiss Choir, the first such effort in this direction, performs each year at local events, retirement homes, and churches, while more recently, a few of the men in the choir formed the “Northern Sailors” singing group, transporting to Michigan the seafarers of northern Germany and their songs in Plattdeutsch, the Low German dialects of that region.

A particularly important – and pleasurable – club activity is to host German-speaking youth groups visiting Michigan under the auspices of the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp. Last summer the club welcomed a group of 40 young singers aged 8 to 18 from Lackenbach, Austria during their two-week tour of the United States, a treasured opportunity for the guests to share music with their hosts, and for their hosts to share a bit of Michigan with their visitors.

The world, including that small piece of it which is Grand Rapids, is a vastly different place from that experienced by those 19th-century immigrants, and today’s German-American community organizations have grown along with those changes. No longer focusing their energies on institutions designed to benefit the German community alone, today’s organizations look beyond the immediate horizon, reaching out to the city and across the sea to bring all of us just a bit closer together. And judging by their success, it’s an idea well worth emulating.


Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention and Visitors Bureau
140 Monroe Center NW
Suite 300
Grand Rapids, MI 49503-2893
Tel. toll-free: 1-800-678-9859 or direct: 1-616-459-8287

Amway Grand Plaza Hotel
187 Monroe Ave.
Grand Rapids, MI 49503
Toll-free: 1-800-253-3590 (reservations)
616-774-2000 (direct)

Crowne Plaza
5700 28th St. S.E.
5701 Grand Rapids, MI 49546
Tel.toll-free: 1-888-497-9575 (reservations)
616-957-1770 (direct)

Courtyard by Marriott Downtown
11 Monroe Ave. N.W.
Grand Rapids, MI 49503
Toll-free: a-800-321-2211 (reservations)
616-242-6000 (direct)

The B.O.B.
20 Monroe Avenue, N.W.
Grand Rapids, MI 49503
Tel. 616-356-2000

Cheri Inn
969 Cherry Street ..
Grand Rapids, MI 49503
San Chez, A Tapaz Bistro
38 Fulton Street
Grand Rapids, MI 49503

* Frederick Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park
* Grand Rapids Art Museum
* Van Andel Museum Center
* Voigt House Victorian Museum
* Frank Lloyd Wright’s Meyer May House
* Gerald R. Ford Museum
* Calder Plaza with majestic Alexander Calder stabile “La Grande Vitesse”
* Rosa Parks Circle, the first urban park designed by Maya Lin, creator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Bernhard Kleinselbeck
6500 Redington Drive, Ada, MI 49301

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