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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

Grand Rapids in 1929

by John R. Cassleman III

A growing sense of unease developed in the Grand Rapids business community about this and another threatening factor that had persistently challenged the city’s title as Furniture Capital for most of the 1920’s. That factor was the furniture manufacturers that had located mainly in High Point, North Carolina and the region around it known as the Piedmont Triad. They had gained a disturbingly large share of the market for low to medium end product. Berkey & Gay, for example, the largest furniture manufacturer in Grand Rapids with over 2000 employees had bet heavily on their role in that market by expanding rapidly to 5 plants and 1.5 million square feet of production space between 1925 and 1929. However, late in 1929 the owners had to default on payment of the debt they incurred, and within two years closed their doors and declared bankruptcy.

Yet the Furniture Capital was far from being a city dominated by furniture manufacturing in 1929. Its industrial and commercial base was very diverse then. Also, the Grand Rapids of 1929 was a self-sufficient city compared to the Grand Rapids of 2009. Just about everything its citizens needed to sustain and enjoy themselves was manufactured here: the famous Dutch Masters and Van Dam cigars; tires (Corduroy) and auto bodies (Hayes); refrigerators and ice-boxes (Leonard); paints and varnishes (Guardsman); Hekman windmill cookies; Bissell carpet sweepers and Oliver bread slicers. 

The list goes on and on of products made here in the city by companies that were founded, owned, and run by families who lived here. Many of their products were innovative, of sophisticated design and high quality, and of not only local but broad appeal to the national and international marketplace. There were no factories or headquarters or divisions or subsidiaries of large public owned industrial corporations here in 1929. Our industries then were homegrown and thriving. Association records show that significant growth and a lot of positive industrial activity occurred throughout 1929. To cite just a few examples from their records: Hayes Body Corp. built a $250,000 addition to its metal working plant, increasing annual capacity to 150,000 pieces. Its sales had increased by $1.5 million over 1928. The Grand Rapids Store Equipment Company made $1.25 million in capital improvements to plant and equipment, and Automatic Musical Instruments Company increased its production 100 percent and employment 50 percent. 

Besides being a robust manufacturing community in 1929, Grand Rapids was also a transportation center, a banking and investment center, a center of warehousing and distribution, and a center of faith and worship. Many of its citizens in 1929 would tell you that the city was built on the foundations of faith and family and hard, honest labor. Most of those citizens were very much enjoying the fruits of their labor in the year 1929.

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