History & Libraries

Seeking Michigan: The Magic of Lionel Trains

Seeking MichiganBy Steve Ostrander, Michigan Historical Museum and courtesy Seeking Michigan and the Archives of Michigan. The goal of Seeking Michigan is simple: to connect you to the stories of this great state. Visit them regularly for a dynamic & evolving look at Michigan’s cultural heritage and see more stories from Seeking Michigan at Absolute Michigan.

“King of the Toy Train World”

For more than one hundred years, Lionel trains have been a favorite toy. Originally founded in New York City in 1900 by inventor Joshua Lionel Cowen, the company now resides in Michigan.

This photo dates from about the early 1930s. The train is identified as a Lionel - based on comparisons of the switches, signal, trucks, track gauges, etc. with contemporary Lionel catalogs.

Cowen designed his first train, the Electric Express, not as a toy but as a display for selling toys. Demand soon turned the train into a toy.

It was at this time that Cowen’s superior marketing abilities made their impact. Cowen is responsible for linking toy trains to the Christmas season. It was Cowen’s idea to include toy trains as part of crèche displays. Later, incredible showroom and department store displays would leave every young boy wanting toy trains for Christmas, and toy trains remain popular Christmas gifts today. Colorful annual catalogs also enticed buyers.

By the 1920s, Lionel was the king of the toy train world. It was during this period that Lionel produced some of their most beautiful trains. The locomotives and rolling stock were highly detailed.

Lionel ceased toy production during World War II and manufactured items for national defense.

“A Real Estate Developer Who Loved Toy Trains”

In 1971, Lionel moved to Mt. Clemens, Michigan, but the company experienced hard times. In 1986, Richard P. Kughn, a real estate developer in Detroit who loved toy trains from the time he was seven years old, bought Lionel Trains. The sales and quality of the trains improved dramatically.

Kughn once talked about his passion for toy trains. “I was walking home from school on trash day. There was a trash barrel out in front of a house with a train sticking out on top. I didn’t know much about trains or toy trains at the time, but it intrigued me so I pulled all the pieces out, including the tracks and the transformer. I took it home, and my dad helped me clean it up. We worked on it and put it on the ping-pong table in the basement, and it ran.”

Kughn said “If you’re happy in what you’re doing, in creating, putting things together, watching things happen in front of your eyes because of your efforts, it makes you smile. . .and time goes by rapidly when you play with toy trains—that’s happiness.”

In 1995, Kughn sold the company. Today, it is located in Chesterfield, Michigan.

Seeking Michigan would like to thank the following for consultation on the photo above:

Peter Magoun, Trains and Things Hobbies, Traverse City, Michigan
Mark Cowles, Lansing Area N-Trak Model Railroad Club
Various members of the National Model Railroad Association

You can click to visit Lionel Trains, and here’s a blast from the past – The Wonderful World of Trains from Lionel Trains.

Mt. Mancelona: A Man and his Mountain

A Man and His Mountain from Justin Vander Velde on Vimeo.

Mt Mancelona Postcard, Cardcow.com

Last winter Jason Dodge of miskireport.com and his crew spent time at Mount Mancelona and, with intern Justin Vander Velde and the  assistance of the documentary class at Grand Valley State, produced this very cool video about long-shuttered Mt. Mancelona.  Jason writes:

This project is the pinnacle of things that I have been involved with up until this point. A Man and His Mountain not only tells the story of Mt. Mancelona, but it uncovers the true passion that owner Joe has been hanging onto for the past 22 years.

After having the privilege of meeting Joe, listening to the stories, and working alongside the crew to capture the history, I ask myself why would I not want to come to Mt. Mancelona? Why would I not want my family to experience this place? After all, isn’t this true ski culture? Perhaps I’m a touch traditional and don’t get that knocked out about the fancy high-speed lifts, gondolas and magic carpets. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy riding in a Cadillac as much as the next guy, but there is a lot to appreciate about rusty t-bars, the smell of raw fuel in a 1960’s Tucker, and an old weathered lodge. This is the natural patina of skiing and snowboarding, captured at Mt. Mancelona.

Looking down Mt Mancelona, miskireport.com

Read on for more about the project and some production stills. A cool site we found is Michigan Lost Ski Areas Project (MILSAP). Their entry for Mt. Mancelonanotes that:

In 1958, Sports Illustrated reported a 1200′ t-bar with a 300′ rise, and 5 ropes. New for 1958 were 3 rope tows, the lodge with locker room and bar, a new trail, lights for Friday night skiing and hi-fi skiing music.


The coal mines of the Saginaw Valley

driver boy by j3net
driver boy by j3net

What lies beneath: A look at Saginaw’s coal mining past from yesterday’s Saginaw News says that the new “Mining for Prosperity: Coal in the Saginaw Valley” exhibit at the Castle Museum identifies 29 coal mines in Saginaw County and notes that In the early part of the 20th century, more than 1,000 people made their living working in Saginaw’s coal mines.

An excellent article on The Coal Fields of Bay County explains that:

The first discovery of coal in the valley was made simultaneously with the discovery of salt. Through the influence of the late Dr. George A. Lathrop, the East Saginaw Salt Manufacturing Company was organized in 1859, and the first well was completed in May 1860. While the work was in progress Dr. Lathrop, who was a geologist, made a drawing giving an analysis of the mineral deposits through which the drill passed. This map shows that coal was struck in two places at a depth of over two hundred feet. The doctor then made the remark that the time was coming when coal would be drilled for all over the valley…

(Saginaw Mine director) Mr. Chappell said recently: “I have drilled a great deal and can safely say that Saginaw Valley coal is far superior to any coal in Michigan. It is a free coal that burns up to a light ash without leaving clinkers, and is a coal of almost complete combustion, throwing out but very little soot, making it a first-class domestic soft coal. For steam purposes it compares very favorably with the Ohio product, more especially that from the Hocking Valley. There is a large area of the Saginaw Valley under laid with this coal; just how much will not be determined until the territory is drilled up, but enough has been shown already to make it a splendid inducement for manufacturers to locate here on account of this advantage.”

Read on for information about many of the mines in the region. The Saginaw News notes that the Federal Government is pretty concerned about many of the old mine shafts.

About the photo: Janet writes: This young miner is carrying the braided whip he uses to drive his mule. I bought this card on ebay where it was described as coming from a collection of cards from St. Louis, Michigan. Real photo card, divided back, unused. AZO stamp box dates it to between 1904 and 1918.

Seeking Michigan: Remembering Pearl Harbor

Seeking MichiganBy Bob Garrett and courtesy Seeking Michigan and the Archives of Michigan. The goal of Seeking Michigan is simple: to connect you to the stories of this great state. Visit them regularly for a dynamic & evolving look at Michigan’s cultural heritage and see more stories from Seeking Michigan at Absolute Michigan.

U.S. government poster, 1942. Click on images to view them in a larger size (Image from the United States National Archives. Wikimedia Commons).

It has been seventy years since the “Day of Infamy” – December 7, 1941. On that day, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, propelling the United States fully into World War II. For an entire generation of Americans, the world changed forever.

Today, later generations may wonder how it felt to experience firsthand such a pivotal moment of history. Twenty years ago, Michigan History Magazine provided some insight. The Magazine’s November/December 1991 issue contains reminisces on that fateful day.

Up Close

The reminiscences include eye witness accounts of the attack. Frank Peter Stock of Hamtramck recalls several Japanese planes passing him overhead. “The rear machine gun of each plane sprayed us with bullets,” he writes. “They were so close that you could almost count the stitches in the pilots’ helmets… My first thoughts were that this was a drill, and we should act accordingly. But I had never seen planes come in from this direction before.”

Ted Blahnik of Coloma also experienced the attack firsthand. He had been aboard the ship Helena. “We thought we were hearing bees,” he remembered. “Later on, when we cleaned up our gunmount area, we discovered it was actually bullets that we heard.” He also recalled post-attack conditions: “One of the most heartrending things that I witnessed was after the water was out of the Helena. The fellows went into the dry dock area, up to the gaping hole that the torpedo made, and took the bodies out from the area in which the torpedo hit.”

Back Home

Americans on the home front also held vivid memories of December 7, 1941. Many recalled hearing radio news casts. Forest B. Meek of Clare remembered The Shadow radio program being interrupted. “What kid in the eighth grade knew where Pearl Harbor was?,” he asked. “I sure didn’t, and this interruption was an invasion into my private world of good versus evil.” Mary Anderson of West Branch recalled hearing the news on a car radio. Christine Stevinson of Royal Oak remembered being at a party. “The radio was on,” she said, “but there was so much laughing and talking no one heard the news for awhile. But suddenly, someone caught a bit of the broadcast and complete silence reigned.” Others stated that they heard the news from someone else and then quickly turned on the radio. As December 7, 1941 was a Sunday, a few people reported hearing the news in church.

U.S. Navy sailors in a motor launch rescue a survivor of the U.S.S. West Virginia, December 7, 1941 (U.S. Navy photo from the National Archives. Wikimedia Commons).


Elizabeth Anesi of Portland stated that “My roommate and I had the same reaction: we didn’t really believe it. My roommate said, ‘The only thing I remember hearing about the last war was the shortage of sugar,’ so she went into the kitchen and made a batch of fudge.”

Disbelief is, in fact, a common theme in the recollections. Other reactions are noted as well. Margaret Greene of Marshall stated that, “Our first reaction was disbelief, then outrage.” Virginia Weaver of Lansing remembered some fear. “Everyone in the house feared the future,” she said. “None of us slept well that night.”

One thing is certain: The Pearl Harbor attack changed America and the world. As Duane T. Brigstock of Battle Creek wrote, “For many of us, our lives changed forever, creating such a division in our life that we still speak of ‘before the war’ and ‘after the war.’”



Weird Wednesday: Delos Marvin of Dimondale

lost-lansing-bannerThe last Wednesday of every month is a Weird Wednesday on Absolute Michigan. Today we journey to Lansing with Dave Votta of the Capital Area District Library. Dave is a librarian who researches regular Lost Lansing features. Click the banner to read many more great stories about the history of the Capital City!

by Dave Votta, CADL Local History Librarian

The Grand River has played a pivotal role in the history and development of the village of Dimondale since Isaac M. Dimond built the first dam and mills in the 1850s. The dam and his mills were mostly washed away by freshets. However, Mr. Dimond persevered and in 1856, the year of his second ill fated mill, he platted a village and named it Dimondale. He then summarily returned to New York where, according to Durant’s History of Ingham and Eaton Counties “his death soon after occurred.”

Despite onerous origins milling became a viable business in the village. By 1880 there were saw, steam, planning and grist mills. Mechanic and millinery shops thrived. There was a post office, hotel and several stores. In October of 1897 the Dimondale News began.

Amid this description of a bustling, picturesque village a shadowy figure emerges steeped in American Gothic. One Delos Marvin, a resident of Dimondale, is described in the State Republican newspaper of 1908 as living alone in a “strange little house close beside the Grand River.” He occupied his time not only is constant verbal communication with an unseen or heard good spirit companion, but fighting and eradicating evil spirits. The interior walls of his one room domicile were covered in punctured scrap metal. The pieces included tin, iron, stove pipes, washboards and more, all perforated with nail holes. Each hole stated Marvin “destroys an evil spirit.” He wore a necklace of small, round, tin pieces with holes to ward off all disease and regularly struck up a resounding cacophony, banging a horseshoe on a tin pan to call the good spirits to him.

His self-esteem does not appear to have suffered from being a bit of an outsider. He is quoted saying “he is the most wonderful person living, having single-handedly and alone destroyed nearly every spirit of darkness.”

From Federal Census records Delos Marvin was born about 1846. In 1860 he is listed living in DeWitt with his family. His father S.P. Marvin was a Probate Judge. The 1908 story recounts him living off a federal pension. Records indicate he may have served in the 3rd Regiment of the New York Light Artillery during the Civil War. His father was from New York.

The neighbors apparently were not too unnerved by Marvin’s antics. He was declared a “unique citizen” and that he “furnishes its [Dimondale] people with a great deal of harmless amusement with his quaint vagaries and wonderful flights of fancy.” The paper describes community support and his receiving “generous baskets of food from public suppers” and “many a glass of jelly and other dainties from the good housewives of the town.”

It is unclear when, but Marvin is reported to have at one time been a “well paid” newspaper reporter. His fate is equally murky. To date, the last known documentation places him in the Kent County Detention Hospital. In the 1920 Federal Census we find him there listed as a patient.

-Dave V., CADL Local History Librarian

Sources Consulted

State Republican (December 15, 1908)
History of Ingham and Eaton Counties by Samuel Durant
Past and Present of Eaton County by the Rev. Wolcott B. Williams
1860 U.S. Federal Census

1820 U.S. Federal Census
Civil War records M551 roll 8
Photograph from the Caterino Collection at the Capital Area District Libraries’ Special Collections

Remembering Fred Meijer

Frederik Meijer, a pioneer of supercenter retailing and visionary philanthropist, died Friday, November 25 in Grand Rapid at the age of 91. Meijer was a pioneer of the supercenter, one-stop shopping and hypermarket concepts, and the chain of 197 Meijer stores has over 60,000 employees in Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. The Frederick G.H. Meijer memorial site says that Fred was a native of Greenville, MI, where his father, Hendrik, a Dutch immigrant barber, opened a grocery store in 1934. In 1946, he married Lena Rader, a cashier in that original store.

Born December 7, 1919, Fred worked in the store from the start, helping his father build the tiny grocery into a chain of supermarkets. In 1962, under Fred’s leadership, the chain opened its first “Thrifty Acres” store in Grand Rapids, a huge one-stop shopping discount emporium. As the company grew he was always an advocate of promoting people from within, an outspoken champion of civil rights, and a zealot for low prices. Fred – and he was, to his employees, simply “Fred” – was known for his competitive spirit and a keen sense of his own humble origins. In industry affairs, he was one of the longest serving directors of the Food Marketing Institute (formerly the Super Market Institute), and winner of its Sidney Raab award for outstanding service.

In his adopted hometown of Grand Rapids he played a vital role in the early years of the local Urban League and Goodwill Industries, and helped lead downtown urban renewal efforts. In 1984 he worked with a group of civic leaders and friends of President Ford to build the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum on the west bank of the Grand River. In those years he also served on the Cleveland District Board of the Federal Reserve. More recently, he was an active member of the Improvement Association.

In the video below, a rough cut of interviews and photos, Meijer tells a wonderful story about as customer coming in to the family store to return an off brand of cereal for Kellogg’s. Fred was about to tell the customer it had been purchased  at a competitor’s store when his father said “Shut up Fred, we can eat the cereal.” The message he learned: Don’t send a customer to a competitor for a dime.

The Ford Rotunda and the Christmas Fantasy

A couple of years ago, Michigan in Pictures featured the Ford Rotunda, and a lot of people search for it every year in the holiday season. The Ford Rotunda page at Automotive Mileposts explains that the Rotunda was commissioned by Ford and designed by legendary Detroit architect Albert Kahn for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. After the fair closed, Ford had the Rotunda disassembled and moved to Dearborn, Michigan (read more about the relocation from @ Ford). The Rotunda was closed and remodeled in 1952:

…at which time the center courtyard section was enclosed by the addition of a geodesic dome roof section weighing 18,000 pounds. The Rotunda reopened to the public on June 16, 1953, as part of Ford’s 50th Anniversary Celebration. A highlight of this celebration included 50 huge Birthday candles, mounted and lit along the rim of the Rotunda.

The ultra-modern Rotunda was a huge attraction, becoming the fifth most popular United States tourist destination during the 1950s. In fact, only Niagara Falls, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, The Smithsonian Institution, and the Lincoln Memorial were more popular. Yellowstone, Mount Vernon, the Washington Monument, and the Statue of Liberty all received less visitors.

The annual Christmas Fantasy held during the Holiday season was partially responsible for the Rotunda’s popularity, with nearly a half million people visiting during 1953, the very first year it was held. A giant Christmas tree was always a spectacular thing to see, and the Christmas Fantasy became more spectacular each year. Highlights from various years included animated characters from children’s stories, a 1/2″ per foot scale 15,000-piece miniature circus with 800 animals, 30 tents, and 435 toy figurines of circus performers and customers. In all, nearly 6 million people visited the Christmas Fantasy during the nine years it was held at the Rotunda.

When flames consumed a Christmas fantasy from the Detroit News Rearview Mirror relates that over 6 million people visited the Christmas Fantasy over the 9 years it was held and tells the sad tale of how it burned to the ground on November 9, 1962. You can see some more photos from Ford and see a Ford Rotunda slideshow from Karen Breen-Bondie.  Many of the photos below also appear on Television History – The First 75 Years. They also have a nice aerial of how the Ford Rotunda was located in relation to the Rouge Plant.



Seeking Michigan: The Wreck of the Carl D. Bradley

Seeking MichiganBy Valerie van Heest and courtesy Seeking Michigan and the Archives of Michigan. The goal of Seeking Michigan is simple: to connect you to the stories of this great state. Visit them regularly for a dynamic & evolving look at Michigan’s cultural heritage and read more from Seeking Michigan on Absolute Michigan! We have added the trailer from November Requiem, a documentary on the Bradley, at the end this feature.

The Carl D. Bradley, circa 1950 (Photo From the Edwin T. Brown Collection, Archives of Michigan)

Editor’s note: This article was first published in the January/February 2009 issue of Michigan History magazine.

“A Deafening Thud”

Abandon ship! Abandon ship! The whistle squawked seven short blasts, then one long blast. It was a signal twenty-six year old deck watchman Frank Mays knew well, but never expected to hear. Just minutes earlier, he had been having a smoke with Gary Price in the dunnage room, deep in the bow, when they heard a deafening thud. “We hightailed it out of there to find out what had happened,” Mays recalls. “When I reached the upper deck, I looked aft and saw the stern flapping up and down like a dog’s tail.” The Carl D. Bradley‘s back had broken, and it would be only a matter of minutes before water filled the tunnels and cargo holds of the 639-foot vessel. It was 5:30 p.m. on November 18, 1958.

Final Voyage

The Bradley had departed Gary, Indiana the day prior, running in ballast in building southwest seas along Lake Michigan’s western shore. On the season’s final voyage, the veteran boat was scheduled to head to Manitowoc, Wisconsin for repairs during its winter lay-up. The rusting cargo had been due for an $800,000 replacement for over a year, but its owner, Bradley Transportation Company, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel, pushed the work back until the end of the season. A radio call from headquarters ordering an additional stone delivery before lay-up proved to be the demise of the Bradley. Despite reports of gale-force winds and thirty-foot seas that compelled other freighter captains to take shelter along Wisconsin’s shore, Captain Roland Bryan, known as a “heavy weather man,” headed northeast across the lake from the Door County peninsula toward the Straits of Mackinac and back to Rogers City. At 5:35 p.m., the Bradley sank twelve miles southwest of Gull Island.

“The Worst Night of His Life”

Even today, survivor Mays recalls that horrific night with clarity. Hunkered down on the life raft just aft of the pilothouse, he trembled realizing the sinking beneath him. His eyes were drawn aft toward the flying sparks as the huge steel deck plates began to tear apart. In the growing darkness and mayhem, he could make out second mate John Fogelsonger running toward the stern and leaping over the break. Before his eyes, his friend disappeared as the Bradley ripped apart. The next thing Mays recalls was being pitched into the air, landing in the icy, angry water and then struggling onto the raft where he fought to hold on through the worst night of his life.

“A Painful Memory”

By morning, only Mays and first mate Elmer Fleming were alive. After fifteen bone-numbing hours in the icy waters, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Sundew rescued them. All thirty-three of their mates, including Gary Strelecki and Dennis Meredith, who shared the raft for most of the night, as well as two of Frank’s own cousins, perished. These men left behind twenty-five widows and fifty-four fatherless children. Considering twenty-three of the crew hailed from Rogers City, the home port of the Bradley, the loss personally affected nearly everyone in the small community. Fifty years later, the sinking is still a painful memory.

As promised, here is the trailer for November Requiem. You can get the Emmy Award Winning DVD right here from the Presque Isle County Historical Museum.

Today is Veterans Day

This nation will remain the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave.
~Elmer Davis

Today’s photo and quotation is provided by luna.nik and I think that it pretty much sums up what is asked, what is given and what we are called to remember and honor on Veterans Day and all the year long.

If you don’t get a chance to get out to Veteran’s Day parades or ceremonies to hear some veterans speak, you can see some interviews with veterans from the Southfield Veterans Commission that were produced as part of the Library of Congress Veterans History Project. This one features Herbert Howard of Southfield and there are many more right here.

Much more Michigan Veterans Day information.

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald edited by Joseph Fulton

Today is the 36th anniversary of the sinking of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, and if you’re in Michigan, you’ll probably hear The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Gordon Lightfoot today. I’m pretty sure, however, that you won’t enjoy it more than when you’re watching this video.

Joseph Fulton put together this amazing tribute to the 29 men who went down with the Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior on November 10, 1975. This video is one of the best I’ve ever seen on YouTube and I hope you can watch it. More shipping & shipwrecks on Absolute Michigan and also see much more about the Edmund Fitzgerald on Michigan in Pictures including the launch of the Fitz.