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