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Behind the Signs:
The Stories of Our Familiar Names

By Curt Wozniak

The philanthropy of the DeVos and Van Andel families is transforming the Grand Rapids cityscape the way person-to-person marketing transformed the business landscape for Amway when Rich and Jay founded the company in 1959. Check out the construction booming around downtown over the last decade: DeVos Place. The Van Andel Institute. The Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences. Van Andel Arena. Their legacies as community leaders — and the buildings that bear their names — have secured a place in city history for Rich DeVos and Jay Van Andel.

That got us thinking …

Grand Rapids, like any city working to build an identity, has honored the names of its prominent citizens from its earliest days. We did some digging and unearthed the nomenclature of a handful of well-known Grand Rapids and metro area locales. The results paint a picture of a frontier town full of memorable characters eager to make a mark on the history of their city.

Memorable characters … eager to make a mark … It sounds like we’ve retained more than just a few place names from those pioneer days.

Streets

In his book, “Old Grand Rapids: A Picture Story of Old Traditions,” author George E. Fitch writes that a large number of Grand Rapids street names honor the owner of the land through which the streets originally stretched. There are hundreds of examples of this practice, from Bostwick Avenue (named for Edmund B. Bostwick, an early promoter of migration to West Michigan from the East Coast) to Lyon Street (for Lucius Lyon, who established the village of Kent on the north half of Louis Campau’s original plat) to Stocking Avenue (Billius Stocking, treasurer and two-term justice of the peace for the township of Walker). Other streets took on the name of prominent geographical features. For example, Fountain Street was named for the large spring that once bubbled up at its eastern extent (where Ransom Street is today). Cherry Street was known as such because of the thick grove of black cherry trees that lined it.

Other interesting street names include:

** Bridge Street — Originally, Michigan Street was called Bridge Street on both sides of the Grand River. It’s easy to assume that Bridge Street was named such because a bridge extended Michigan Street to the West side. Actually, it was named after H.P. Bridge, who helped finance the first sawmill on the old canal.

** Burton Street — Barney Burton was a busy guy in 1834, the year the township of Kent (which later became Grand Rapids) was established. He arrived here from Ypsilanti with a stock of shoes to sell. By the time the year was out, he was elected to two public offices in the township’s first elections and he married Harriet Guild in Grand Rapids’ first wedding. Today the road that led to the Burtons’ Kentwood (then called Paris Township) farmhouse is still known as Burton Street.

** Wealthy Street — 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.

Parks and Recreational Areas

** Houseman Field — Julius Houseman became Grand Rapids’ first permanent Jewish settler in 1852 when he moved here to become a clothier. His Houseman & May Clothing Store rented its second floor to Crane’s Museum of Freaks, Snakes, and Whiskered Ladies (which later became known as the Reptile House — just kidding). Houseman became a charter member of the Peninsular Club, was elected mayor in 1872 and again in 1874, and represented the 5th district in the U.S. Congress from 1883-1885.

** Reeds Lake — East Grand Rapids’ favorite recreational spot may be a little reedy, but not so reedy that someone named the lake after its plentiful plant life. C.C. Chapman reports in his “History of Kent County” that three brothers — Porter, Lewis and Ezra Reed — settled near Reeds Lake in 1834. Chapman neglects to explain why the lake was named after the Reeds and not Ezekeil Davis, who settled there earlier that year.

Municipalities

** Comstock Park — In 1838, Daniel North built a sawmill in the area known today as Comstock Park. The settlement that popped up around North’s mill came to be known as North Park. In 1848, it was renamed Mill Creek, and in 1906, the current name was adopted. The namesake, Charles C. Comstock, owned a mill and built the Grand Rapids area’s first multiple apartment dwelling. It housed the African-Americans who worked for him. He went on to serve as Grand Rapids mayor (1863-1865) and U.S. congressman (1885-1886).

** Kent County — Settlers in West Michigan showed their East Coast roots when they named Kent County, organized in 1831, after Chancellor James Kent, chief justice of the Court of Appeals of the state of New York. Kent was also the first professor of law at Columbia College (1794-1798), but his “Commentaries on American Law,” published in 1830, became his greatest contribution.

** Walker — According to editor Warren Versluis’ 1986 book, “Echoes of the Past: A Bicentennial History of the City of Walker,” Kent County organized the land north and west of the Grand River as the township of Walker on Dec. 30, 1837. “Echoes” cites the Walker Inn & Tavern, reputedly owned by a Mr. Joseph Walker, as the city’s namesake. Here’s the problem: State records indicate that the Walker Inn & Tavern wasn’t established until the late 1840s. Look back two sentences. See? It doesn’t add up.

A fire consumed the original Walker Township Hall and most of the township’s early records in the 1860s, so today there is no definitive story tracing the source of the name. Others have been explored, including one centered on an Ottawa chief called Cobmoosa, whose name translates into English as “The Walker.” The theory that the area was named after Cobmoosa has also been ruled out, however, since there is no evidence of the chief, whose tribe lived in what is now Lowell, ever crossing the Grand River.

Gary Carey, chair of the Walker Historical Commission, thinks the most plausible derivation of the name honors Charles I. Walker, an early trustee for the Kent school district, newspaperman and land agent for property on both sides of the river.

“I can tell you, I’ve beaten my head on this,” lamented Carey. “Charles I. Walker is the best thing I can come up with. He was a very respectable person at the time because of his community involvement. It makes sense that they’d name the township after him.”

GR

Curt Wozniak is the Grand Rapids Magazine staff writer. Grand Rapids Magazine would like to thank Marcie Beck and Christine Byron from the Local History Department of the Grand Rapids Public Library for their help in researching this story.

   
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