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Before the Dutch came to Western Michigan, there were French traders. And before the French traders, there were Catholic missionaries. And before the
Catholic missionaries, there were Ottawa Indians. It is said that Pontiac, the great chief of the Ottawa who conspired against the English in the French and
Indian War, held council on the high land overlooking the rapids of a river that wound through Western Michigan toward its mouth at Lake Michigan. Major Indian trails crisscrossed near the rapids. The Ottawa called the place Owashtanong, 'the Faraway Waters.' But the white people who came later gave it the name Grand Rapids.
The Reverend Isaac McCoy was among the first white settlers who came to the area of the rapids --- in about 1820. Overlooking the rapids of the Grand
River one day in 1825, he wrote that it was 'a place of great importance.' Why he called it such is uncertain --- except that it was beautiful, fertile, inviting,
and full of promise. The first permanent settlement began when Louis
Campau established a trading post there in 1826. Grand Rapids was incorporated as a village in 1838 and as a city twelve years after that. And by that time the Dutch had arrived.
Immigrants from the Netherlands made their first landing on the Lake
Michigan shore in 1847. The group, led by Dr. Albertus Van Raalte, called the place Holland. From Holland it was only a short distance to Grand Rapids,
and some of the Dutch settlers soon ventured the journey and made their home there. Later came Poles, Scandinavians, Latvians, Lithuanians, blacks,
Greeks, and Syrians, among others. But it was the Dutch who exerted the most lasting influence on Grand Rapids' culture, lifestyle, and reputation.
The city's location, well off the main commercial routes and rail lines running between Detroit and Chicago, might have undermined the Reverend
Mr. McCoy's prediction, but it did not. Grand Rapids' population eventually grew to 200,000 and became the biggest and most important commercial city in all of Western Michigan. It came to enjoy a varied industry --- farming,
metal-working, printing and graphic arts, and the manufacture of automobile parts. It was once 'the gypsum capital of the world' because of the mining operations that still continue on a small scale. And it is forever nicknamed the Furniture City, even though, as historians point out, 'that fame came to rest more on quality than on quantity.'
Grand Rapids can also rightfully be called 'the religious-book capital of the United States.' Five of evangelical Christianity's most respected book publishers are located here, listing as many as four hundred new titles a year. They all have their roots in the Dutch heritage that set the tone for many communities in Western Michigan --- Calvinistic, pious, and conservative. Grand Rapids became a city of churches --- more than five hundred of them at last count. It became the headquarters of the Christian
Reformed Church and the home of its two leading educational institutions, Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary. And it nurtured three other Protestant colleges, two Protestant seminaries, and a Catholic college.
The Dutch immigrants brought with them traditions of strict observance of the Lord's Day and opposition to such 'worldly' practices as dancing, playing cards, and attending movies. More important, they brought an earnest love for the Scriptures and a fondness for theological debate and Bible study. The ministers preached their catechism from the pulpit on Sunday, and the communicants discussed them in the fields or over a pipe of tobacco and a cup of coffee during the week. Thus there was a demand for theological commentaries and reference works. Early on, books were imported from the
Netherlands and translated into English --- or left in Dutch for the many who preferred to use their native tongue. It seems inevitable that a vigorous religious publishing industry would arise in Grand Rapids.
Louis Kregel began it all when he started selling used books from his home on West Leonard Street in 1909. Under the leadership of his son Robert, the business grew into one of the country's largest dealerships in secondhand religious books. Eventually it began publishing older theological works under the name Kregel Publications. And in time it spawned a competitor: Louis
Kregel's nephew, Herman Baker, decided to quit working for his uncle in 1939
and founded the Baker Book House. But that gets ahead of the story. Two other firms were to appear before Baker.
William B. Eerdmans had emigrated from the Netherlands in 1902, intent on entering the ministry. He graduated from Calvin College and completed one year of study at the seminary before going into business selling books with B. Sevensma. The company was called Eerdmans-Sevensma. Sevensma died shortly thereafter, and Eerdmans went into business for himself in 1911; he moved his firm to 208 Pearl Street and named it the William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Unlike Kregel, Eerdmans soon built his list as much on new titles as on reprints. Later on, as he expanded his printing facilities, he moved his business to its present location at 255 Jefferson Avenue SE. Both Kregel and Eerdmans prospered as World War I came and went, the Roaring Twenties had their fling, and the country sank into the Great Depression in 1929.
Like every other American city, Grand Rapids faced severe unemployment and economic problems as the Depression deepened. The city had maintained a reputation for clean government and clean streets, despite some noteworthy scandals, but seeking solutions to the Depression's ills brought its share of controversy.
The city manager appointed for Grand Rapids just before the Depression hit was George W. Welsh, a future mayor whose stormy political career would span more than a half-century. His major contribution to the city while he was mayor was probably bringing water from Lake Michigan to Grand Rapids through a costly but successful program in the late thirties. It was a somewhat similar plan put forth by City Attorney Lant K. Salsbury in the early 1900s that had precipitated the biggest scandal in Grand Rapids' history. Salsbury's scheme was to issue far more bonds than were needed for financing the water project and to use the excess to fill some pockets. Before the scandal ran its course, it touched the mayor; fourteen aldermen; the city clerk; a state senator;
a former prosecutor; leaders in society, church, and business; the three city newspapers; and a few people in New York, Chicago, Milwaukee, Indianapolis,
But that was all in the past and forgotten with the onset of the Depression. Manager Welsh's job in 1929 and the years following was to see that people had something to eat, put business back on its feet, and restore order out of fiscal chaos. Refusing a $12,000 salary and accepting only a dollar a year for the job, Welsh effected economies that turned a city deficit into a surplus of
$174,000 in less than a year. A national magazine, The American City, praised
Grand Rapids a short time later as 'a city where everyone has a job.' Welsh was invited to various cities, including New York, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh,
to tell the Grand Rapids story.
Nevertheless, not everyone back home was pleased with what was happening. It seems that, amid considerable opposition, Welsh got many people fed by multiplying public works projects --- a policy encouraged by President Herbert Hoover. Welsh had as many as sixty projects going at the same time. In addition, there was continual haggling in city hall over the 'always poor' and the 'Depression poor' and who was getting what. Some of the city's policies offended the sensitivities of the Dutch with their Puritan work ethic.