You can tell a museum will be good when you hear children's voices: "Oh, cool!" "Look at This!" "This is way cool!" The End of the School Year Field Trip brought a half-dozen bus loads of elementary school students to the Public Museum of Grand Rapids, where they dispersed among a large variety of fascinating exhibits -- as fascinating to adults as to the littler ones. Museum atrium
This is a history and science museum, opened in 1999 and built on the site of one of the first furniture companies in the city, and it has captured the city's history with sensitivity and flair. From the first touches -- the decorative tiles on the parking garage walls as well as some of the floor tiles come from the old City Hall -- throughout the exhibits, visitors find traces of a couple of hundred years of local history.
Grand Rapids, lying on the banks of the Grand River, became Furniture City in the mid-1800s thanks to an abundance of local lumber and an influx of European immigrants, among whom were a number of skilled carpenters and woodworkers. It didn't take long for the industry to thrive, and the canny merchants aided business by establishing the popular Furniture Markets starting about 1900. These annual events sound as though they could be models for any modern-day convention, with Will Rogers as convention speaker, special tours of the furniture factories for buyers (special chefs were called in to prepare special luncheons), and dances and parties with plenty of beautiful girls. The festivities were combined with instruction on furniture styles and Old car construction, so that the salesman could return to his small-town shop newly knowledgeable about the bedroom suites and dining room sets he had enthusiastically ordered.
All good things must come to an end, however, and the Depression knocked the industry into a shambles, until World War II came, with demands for wooden glider parts, propellers and gunstocks instead of chairs and tables, and new materials were introduced. Today, the Grand Rapids furniture industsry makes Steelcase file cabinets and office furniture and many other kinds of industrial furnishings -- bus and theater seats are two examples.
At the end of this exhibit, men were busy building a castle. Gratia Dei, A Journey Through the Middle Ages, will be on display from May 22 to August 15, and will be a sheer delight for any family, especially one with middle school children. We wished we could enter through the "city gate", to watch the daily life of five hundred years ago. Elegant furniture
A contrast to the Furniture City exhibit was a comprehensive exhibit of area Native Americans, their religion, history and customs. As the European presence increased, the local Native Americans adapted traditional crafts to produce trade goods. Boxes decorated with porcupine quills and coiled paper trim illustrate the painstaking work which went into their construction. The most impressive display was the large tapestry of the Last Supper woven of millions of tiny beads.
We also enjoyed the clockworks from the old City Hall tower clock. It has been restored and is working, all its intricate gears ticking away.
Wandering back toward Ann Arbor by a not very direct route, we found ourselves in asparagus country. Although there weren't any fields to be seen (partly because it was raining), there was an abundance of roadside asparagus stands: just asparagus, nothing more. We do regret that the rain discouraged us from sampling the product.
Deep in central lower Michigan, where small towns pop up between fields and small forests and wetlands, we found a sign for a casino. No billboards announced it -- how could it survive out here in the country? Amazingly, the Soaring Eagle Casino sports a large hotel on larger manicured grounds. On this Monday afternoon just about every seat was filled, including all of the poker and blackjack tables. This is not a place for small-timers -- even the slot machines started at twenty-five cents and most cost a dollar or more. The gamblers looked like Regular Michigan Folks -- we wondered where they came Works for the city clock from, and how long they would be staying, but couldn't figure out a way to ask. Like some other Indian casinos, this seemed very sedate: no alcohol was available, which probably cut the noise level considerably. We invested ten dollars, which sank without a trace in just a few moments, and hastened on our way.
We've learned during our month here that Michigan is a marvelously varied state, with much of its surprising variety hidden along the smaller roads to the small towns. Of course, this is a value we have only learned fairly recently. In 1970, given the choice of Alma College in rural Michigan or Whittier College near Los Angeles, we opted for the big city. Alma College, like Hillsdale, is a small, tidy place, at least as viewed from the car window, and the town looks small and tidy, too. It's tempting to speculate on what would have happened had we chosen the other road, but as Satchel Paige used to say, Never Look Back!