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(wintercow: This is part 2 of a series from guest blogger Michael Marotta).

Detroit was unimportant when the Federal Reserve Board was created in 1912.  Federal Reserve Banks were established in Cleveland and Chicago, also both St. Louis and Kansas City; but, like the entire West between Dallas and San Francisco, Michigan was still an economic frontier.

In the 1850s, copper mines in the Upper Peninsula fed the U.S. Mint, one reason for James Longacre to put an Ojibway (Chippewa) bonnet on Miss Liberty for the new cent coin of 1859.  The mines were prosperous for nearly half a century.  Some of them even issued their own currencies.  Then, they gave out.  Lumber, too, had been big, giving many towns streets of huge Queen Anne and Victorian Eclectic houses. Paul Bunyan was said to have logged here.  But the fact is that Michigan was settled a generation later than Ohio (1803), Indiana (1816), and Illinois (1818), becoming a state in 1837, ahead of Wisconsin (1838).  It is off the main east-west corridor. Surrounded by four of the five Great Lakes, it enjoyed cheap water transport – but water is slow and railroads are fast and time is money.  Michigan was left behind.

Consequently, it is a very large state with very many small towns, mostly 20 miles – a day’s walk – apart.  Some became cities: Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, Saginaw.  They validate the theory of urbanist Jane Jacobs that the city, not the nation, is the true geographic unit of culture and commerce.  Generally, each had one (sometimes two) dominant industries, but in no case did the larger sector overpower the mix of the others.  Midland, home of Dow Chemical, is the exception.  Many towns remained heterogeneous centers for surrounding farms and villages.  That mix includes the people.

Broadly, Michigan was settled from New York, giving the state its own Livingston County, and towns of New Buffalo, Utica and Rochester.  But in addition, immigrants came from Europe.  Cass County in the southwest corner north of Indiana was settled by manumitted slaves in 1849.  Today, Asians are the largest ethnic minority in Ann Arbor (25%).  Dearborn is home to America’s largest Middle Eastern enclave; we even have Arabic TV and radio.

The five county (originally tri-county) Metro Detroit corner stands alone, calling the rest of Michigan “out-state.”  The lower peninsula is arbitrarily divided by an east-west line from Bay City to Grand Rapids.  Everyone “downstate” goes “up North” for weekends, holidays, and vacations.

You never ask anyone to do anything from Labor Day to Christmas until you are sure that it will not interfere with hunting.  From youths to disabled veterans, from bow and arrow to rifles to muzzle-loaders, from does (“antlerless deer”) to bucks, from turkeys to bears, Michiganders hunt by special permit.  In 2004, 28,000 mourning doves – the bird of peace – were “harvested” but the hunt was discontinued.  The traditional regular deer season., November 15 to 30, is good time to stay indoors, unless you want to spend two weeks being drunk and growing a beard.

And yet, in the summers, about 25 miles southwest of Grand Rapids, almost to Lake Michigan, where once stood the hopeful town of Singapore, the village of Saugatuck is a gay-friendly tourist trap.

Michganders love tourists… as long as the visitors remember that they will never be locals.  Families from downstate have vacationed to the same towns and villages up north for three generations, retired there, and never became locals.  Best you can do is to be “cabin people.”  Worst you can be is a “fudgy” for the tons of Mackinaw Island fudge tourists consume.

Michigan is a state of contrasts and contradictions.  Perhaps the significant symbol is the wolverine.  Mascot of the U of M sports teams, a soubriquet of George A. Custer’s Civil War troopers, a wolverine sighting in 2004 was the first in 200 years.  But the wolverine is one of the few animals that will attack a human unprovoked, which may be why the Native Americans here gave that name to the settlers who drove them from their lands.

2 Responses to “Guest Post: Michigan Before and Beyond Detroit”

  1. Harry says:

    Great work, Michael. Thank you for such so carefully-written and clearly informative essays. I learned much.

  2. Harry says:

    Marotta for Governor.

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