Skip to content →

Spatializing GR

I am currently coming down the home stretch for my MA thesis and it has been keeping me quite busy. My thesis work actually made me miss a blog post last week (I am sure people were heartbroken). This week as a sort of compromise with myself I am posting an excerpt. Granted, this is a very rough section of the second draft of my first chapter. In my digital project I added a spatial element to my research, something I have continued in my work. The excerpt below is the base layer of an introduction to the city’s elite. I started with creating a Google Map (only pay attention to the blue pins) and have then added some information (see below), which hopefully will be turned into pretty prose by then end of the process.

The Elite of Grand Rapids
A few blocks from Grand Rapids’ downtown lay the true center of power in the city, the second and third wards. Residents could not walk around the block without passing the house of a business partner or political rival. In fact, finding the city’s elite was as simple as walking a few blocks down Fulton Street, the boundary between the two wealthy wards.

Beginning at 229 Fulton was Joseph Houseman. Born in Barvaria, Houseman emigrated to the US in the 1850s and joined his cousin Julius in Grand Rapids in order to being a clothing store. Though Joseph Houseman had many business ventures, he continued in the clothing business, building the successful Houseman & Jones company after taking on new partners.

Walking east, away from downtown, lived Ransom Luce’s house. Luce moved to Grand Rapids from upstate New York with his family as a teen. He began in business with a small grocery store and eventually became a towering figure in the financial world of Grand Rapids, serving as president of National City Bank, Luce Furniture Company and Hamilton-Kenwood Wheel Company. He also took an active interest in politics, serving nearly a dozen years as an alderman.

Edwin Sweet lived at the corner of Fulton and Lafayette. Though a lawyer by trade, like other leading citizens of the city, he engaged in several business ventures. Most notably, Edwin Sweet was involved with a plan to build a YMCA for the city. However, the YMCA plan failed. Instead of a YMCA he and other business partners turned the land into the Livingston hotel, one of the city’s five main hotels. He was active in politics, serving on the board of education and later becoming mayor in 1904.

On the next block, lived Martin L. Sweet, who had no documented familial link to Edwin. In 1846, Martin Sweet moved from upstate New York to Grand Rapids and entered the grain milling business. After becoming one of the area’s foremost figures in grain, he switched business interests opening Sweet’s hotel in 1868. However, Martin Sweet was never locked into one industry. He organized First National Bank, the predecessor to Old National Bank, with which he was also closely involved. He also invested in lumber, buying up land and opening a sawmill north of Grand Rapids in Ludington, MI. One of the city’s early leaders, he even served as mayor in 1860. Sweet’s neighbor, Delos Blodgett, was another upstate New York transplant. His son and heir to his Muskegon lumber business and many Grand Rapids real estate holdings also lived nearby, a few blocks south on Cherry Street.

Next to the lumber baron was one of the city’s furniture giants. George Gay bought into a furniture company founded by Julius and William Berkey, which was renamed Berkey & Gay. George Gay became treasurer of this company, which was one of the furniture city’s powerful companies. Gay also joined many other business ventures including Oriel Cabinet Co, and Grand Rapids Plaster Co, both of which he was president and Fourth National bank, where he was vice-president.6 Anton G. Hodenpyl, who also served on Fourth National’s board of directors lived just across Prospect Avenue.

Just down the block lived Harvey Hollister and his son Clay. Harvey was a native Michigander, who became intimately involved with the banking world of Grand Rapids. After some years clerking for retailers and other banks, he joined Martin Sweet at First National Bank and later Old National Bank as cashier. It is at Old National when he began grooming his son, Clay, to take over as cashier. Named for both his mother Martha Clay and father, Clay Harvey Hollister was born in 1863. Clay began working at Old National Bank in 1888 as a clerk after graduating from Amherst in 1886. From there he began his stead rise through the ranks of the city’s elite under his father’s tutelage.7 Clay became assistant cashier and in 1901, one of the Old National Bank’s directors.

At the corner of Fulton and College was Dudley Waters another second generation Grand Rapidian. One of the city’s wealthiest citizens, the Waters’ wealth came from Dudley’s father Daniel Waters, who, along with Dudley’s uncle, operated a meat packing plant and manufactured “bent-work wooden ware.” Dudely also followed his father as a director of GR National Bank. Dudley expanded his father’s fortune, earning positions on the boards of People’s Savings Bank, Michigan Trust Co, and Gunn Furniture.8 Dudley Waters was so wealthy, when approached by Lant Salsbury to join the bribery scheme, Waters replied that he had enough money and did not need any more.

In addition to Fulton Street’s impressive parade of homes, the surrounding area was full of the city’s elite. The editors of both of the city’s Republican newspapers, Eugene Conger of the Grand Rapids Herald and C. S. Burch of the Grand Rapids Press lived no more than a block off of Fulton Street. McGeorge Bundy, a prominent lawyer and in-law to the Hollisters, and William Widdicomb, president of the family owned, and successful Widdicomb Furniture Co. also lived a short walk north of Fulton. The candidates for the 1900 mayoral election, William J. Stuart, who previously served as mayor in 1892, and George Perry who was up for reelection, lived a block apart south of Fulton Street. One time law partners Edwin Uhl and Wesley Hyde were also neighbors in this area. Edwin Uhl was a leading figure in the city’s Democratic party, serving as mayor in 1890 and ambassador to Germany. Wesley Hyde was president and the driving force behind the city’s Civic Club, which played a role in prosecuting the water scandal and investigating other instances of muicipal corruption. Other prominent citizens included the president of the successful Musselman Grocer Co. Amos Musselman, secretary and treasurer of the Grand Rapids Chair Co, Elijah Foote, and Martin Sweet’s partner in both milling and banking, James Barnett.

The city’s power was so concentrated in this area that virtually every financial institution in the city had at least one board member within two blocks of Fulton Street. Old National Bank’s president, James Barnett, vice-president Willard Barnhart, and board members E. Crofton Fox and Clay and Harvey Hollister were neighbors. Grand Rapids National Bank had its president, Edwin Uhl, vice-president Joseph Houseman, and several members of the board of directors including Dudley Waters, Amos Musselman, William Widdicomb, and Samuel Sears living in this area. Ransom Luce was president of National City Bank. Orson Ball was a board member of Grand Rapids Savings Bank. Both Edwin Uhl and his son David were on the board of Fifth National Bank. William Anderson, the president of Fourth National was a neighbor to his vice-president, John Blodgett and board member Anton Hodenpyl. Michigan Trust Co’s board members Willard Barnhart, James Barnett, Harvey Hollister, Samuel Sears, and Dudley Waters all lived in this area as did the State Bank of Michigan board of directors members Elijah Foote and William Stuart. The People’s Savings Banks boasted several residents on its board including, Anderson, John Blodgett, Hodenpyl, Waters and Conger.

While many of the city’s elite lived in this area just East of downtown, it was certainly possible for members of the city’s elite to elsewhere and still hold influence. For example, Charles Garfield was the president of Grand Rapids Savings Bank and partnered with William Anderson and Joseph Houseman on two street construction companies despite a ways South of the city’s elite neighborhood. One important tool of men who chose not to live near the other members of the city’s elite class was the social clubs. Grand Rapids had many social clubs, though none was more exclusive or home to more powerful residents than the Peninsular Club…..

Published in Research Urban

3 Comments

  1. Peg Finkelstein

    Brian,

    Came across you MA thesis, posting. I run the archives at Temple Emanuel in Grand Rapids, and have a vast amount of materials in our archives on the Houseman and Amberg Families including family albums that were donated. A great deal of newspaper clips and invitations having to do with both families. Is interested contact me at my e-mail.

    We are doing a program on Nov. 10th 2011 at Temple Emanuel, put on by the Grand Rapids Historical Society.

    Great work!!

    Peg Finkelstein

    Peg & Mort Finkelstein Archive Center
    Temple Emanuel
    1715 East Fulton
    Grand Rapids, MI

  2. Pete Walsh

    Very neat. Others that lived on Fulton where the Hugharts who ran the Grand Rapids & Indiana RR and Amasa or A.B. Watson who’s home was where Jacobson’s used to be at Fulton and Sheldon. I think the Godfrey home was across the street. Boyd Pantlind of hotel fame lived down College from the Waters. Benjamin Hanchett lived across the street, he ran the GR Street Railway and the Interurban to Holland. After Delos died his second wife Daisy, with Delos II and 2 daughters lived on Fulton but I think they later headed to D.C. and son by first wife John lived there until he built Brookby on Fisk Lake. Now Brookby and Holmdene, his sister Susan Lowes estate are both part of Aquinas College.

Comments are closed.