by Olivia Pahl
The city of Grand Ledge is located approximately 10 miles west of Lansing. Grand Ledge often falls under the capital city’s shadow, but this small town has a unique history of its own. What started off as a small village grew on to become a major tourist spot for the state of Michigan. After the peak tourist years, Grand Ledge’s economy continued to thrive. With a current population of 7786, Grand Ledge has become known as an influential and historically significant city to the state of Michigan.
Early Beginnings of Grand Ledge
The first historically recognized inhabitants of Grand Ledge, Michigan were Potawatomi Indians. The Native Americans hunted and fished in this area that they referred to as “Big Rocks.” In the Treaty of Saginaw in 1819, the United States gained most of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, including what is now Grand Ledge.
Once the land was surveyed, this particular area of Eaton County, Section 2, was sold to 7 men, two of which bought the vast majority of this section. Stephen Cole bought what is now the southern part of Grand Ledge in 1833 and William Thompson bought what is now the northern half of Grand Ledge in 1836, which included the ledges and islands. Several settlers made their way into Eaton County in the 1840s, and the first to build a permanent settlement in Grand Ledge was Edmund L. Lamson in 1848. Lamson and his wife were quite active in the small community building around them, including helping to choose a name. In fact, Mrs. Lamson is credited with coming up with the name “Grand Ledge” in 1850 after the Grand River and the great ledge rocks.
The new village of Grand Ledge quickly grew in population, which prompted the establishment of a post office, a school and two churches. In 1853, a wooden bridge was built, allowing for smooth travel over the river. In 1859, a man by the name of George Loveless opened up a pottery business in Grand Ledge. This is believed to be the first pottery business in the state of Michigan . Ten years later, a railroad is built going into the northern parts of Grand Ledge. This introduction of the railroad flings Grand Ledge into becoming a resort town.
The Resort Years
The river running through Grand Ledge is home to seven islands. John Burtch may have been the first to see the natural beauty and potential in the scenery of Grand Ledge. Burtch launched his river boat “Dolly Varden” and built a one-story plank hotel on the second island called “Seven Islands Resort. In 1877, S.M. Hewings purchased the resort and immediately made upgrades. The islands were turned into a first class resort with the building of the Island House Hotel. This Hotel was 144 feet long and included a ballroom on the 2nd floor. Hewings put Grand Ledge on the map regarding vacation and tourist destinations.
Another man that influenced Grand Ledge’s economy was Julian Scott Mudge. J.S. Mudge bought the Seven Islands Resort in 1886 and, like Hewings, he made major renovations. First off, Mudge built a new dam to create a deep body of water for pleasure boating or swimming. J.S. Mudge is most known for the building of the Round House. This was a circular tower built on Second Island that was supposed to have rotating levels, but they never worked. This building is sometimes referred to as “Mudge’s Folly.” A Folly is described as a costly ornamental building with no practical purpose and as lacking good sense, which completely describes the Round House. Moving forward, Mudge built a causeway connecting Second and Third Islands together. With the causeway in place, Mudge built the Island Casino, which is not like the casinos that exist in the present day. Casinos of this time were used for social gatherings that involved dancing or watching musicals or vaudeville shows, which is exactly what the Island Casino was used for. Mudge’s last major accomplishment was the building of his roller coaster in 1891. This roller coaster was a one way ride over the water from Second Island to the Casino. Mudge’s roller coaster was the first one in the state of Michigan.
During its peak, Grand Ledge hosted between 60,000 and 70,000 visitors each year. The Seven Islands Resort became the most popular resort in all of Lower Michigan. An article in the Grand Ledge Independent from April of 1889 described Grand Ledge as “thrifty and progressive.” In fact, Grand Ledge was just the 2nd city in the state of Michigan to get electric lights, just after Lansing in 1888. Grand Ledge was not actually declared a city until 1893, but its economy was booming. Just after the turn of the century, Grand Ledge’s popularity dropped. As more Americans purchased cars, they were able to travel farther and go places they have not been to before, leaving Grand Ledge’s resort years to come to an end. In the 1930s, the resort property was sold to the city and the hotel was eventually demolished. By 1976, a gazebo was built on the Second Island for public and festival use, and that is what it is used for today.
Grand Ledge Industries
The clay manufacturing business was a longstanding tradition in Grand Ledge. The Grand Ledge area is rich in clay and shale deposits. Early settlers of the area noted that Indians went there to collect clay. In 1886, Grand Ledge Sewer Pipe Company was founded. Ownership of the company traded hands several times before its eventually closing in 1966.
Grand Ledge Clay Products was formed in 1906. The company manufactured conduits for underground telephone wires for Chicago, and much of it is still there today. In 1937, Clay Products switched to making agricultural drain tiles, chimney tops and sewer pipe fittings until it closed in 1986. Baker Clay Company was founded in 1914 to produce glazed silo tile, but quickly switched to making bricks. The company’s name changed to Face Brick Co and was quite successful until they closed in 1947. Eaton County bought the property and created a park out of it called Lincoln Brick Park.
Furniture manufacturing in Grand Ledge can be traced all the way back to its first settler, Edmund Lamson. Lamson was a trained chair maker and he operated a saw mill that could also make furniture. There were over a dozen small furniture companies in Grand Ledge total, but Grand Ledge Chair Company was the most successful and the longest lasting. Grand Ledge Chair Company was in business from 1883 to 1981. Since the chair factory’s closing, the building has been renovated into apartments. The construction of the railroad trestle in 1888 was beneficial to both the furniture companies and the clay companies.
Frank D. Fitzgerald
Frank D. Fitzgerald was born in 1885. Fitzgerald’s father John Wesley Fitzgerald established the chair factory in Grand Ledge. His father is credited for turning it into a prosperous institution. Governor Fitzgerald grew up in Grand Ledge and attended Grand Ledge High School. Fitzgerald was involved in politics for over 20 years before being elected Governor of Michigan in 1934 and 1939. The legacy that Fitzgerald will leave behind is being the first Governor of Michigan to die in office.
Grand Ledge Today
The city of Grand Ledge remains a center for festivals and summertime activities. Rock climbers near and far visit the Ledges for a one-of-a-kind experience. Festival goers come to town to celebrate Victorian Days and Yankee Doodle Days. The Island Art fair is hosted on the Second Island and attracts artists of all kinds. The Color Cruise displays Michigan’s early beginnings as well as showcasing the beauty of the Second Island and Grand River. Over 15,000 visitors are brought to Grand Ledge annually from the Island Art Fair and the Color Cruise alone. A local charity show called “Mudge’s Follies” raises money for the food bank while referencing one of Grand Ledge’s most prominent entrepreneurs. Grand Ledge continues to be a place for unique entertainment.
While Grand Ledge is just a small city with less than 8,000 residents, its impact on historical and present day Michigan is clear. Grand Ledge has not provided Michigan with great war heroes, movie stars, or riches, but it has created experiences unlike any other. While just a small village, the residents worked together to build up a city within decades. The city became the host of thousands of tourists each year by showcasing the natural wonders of the location. Grand Ledge also developed its own industries based on the natural resources available. Today, Grand Ledge continues to provide its visitors with one-of-a-kind adventures. Grand Ledge may not have made the most significant impact on Michigan’s history, but it has made Michigan’s history quite memorable.