The Michigan Pages: History: Magazine

The Polar Express Comes to Michigan

While growing up in Grand Rapids, Chris Van Allsburg remembers hearing train whistles and taking train rides with his father. These childhood sights and sounds became part of the inspiration for Van Allsburg’s well-known children’s book, The Polar Express. The story is about a young boy who takes a magical journey aboard a train to the North Pole and receives a special gift-a bell-from Santa. Only those who truly believe in Santa can hear the bell.

The book’s popularity led to a movie released in November 2004. Michigan railroad buffs recognize the sound of the movie’s train whistle, which comes from one of the nation’s few working steam locomotives.

Built in 1941, the Pere Marquette 1225 is an enormous steam locomotive, measuring one hundred feet long and sixteen feet high. Replaced in 1951 by a more efficient diesel engine, the 1225 was saved from the scrap heap and decades later, ended up in Owosso as the star of the Steam Railroading Institute (SRI). Shortly thereafter, the 1225 was restored to its former glory.

As researchers prepared the movie version of Van Allsburg popular book, they were drawn to Owosso and the 1225. Technicians recorded the sound of the whistle, the clatter of the wheels and the rumble of the four-hundred-ton locomotive rolling down the tracks. The sounds were merged with the animated Polar Express.

Photos of the Pere Marquette 1225 from Glancy Train’s Photo Gallery

Visit Owosso’s Steam Railroading Institute for rides on their North Pole Express.

PHOTO CREDIT: Pere Marquette 1225, Bannister, Michigan, May 31, 2003
Photo © Adrienne Scholl, Michigan State Trust for Railway Preservation, Inc.

For more great stories on Michigan’s past, look to Michigan History magazine. For more information or a free trial issue, call (800) 366-3703 or visit

Ford’s Model T

This article was published in Michigan History Magazine in 2005 and shared by the Archives of Michigan. This Tuesday, July 30th, is the 150th birthday of Michigan’s most influential figure, Henry Ford. The photo with the article seems to have vanished, but we have replaced it with an incredible shot by Lou Peeples. Be sure to click the photo to see it bigger!

title=“I will build a motor car for the great multitude,” Henry Ford announced. “It will be so low in price,” he added, “that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one.” With these words Henry Ford introduced the world to the Model T. It was October 1908 and, when the Ford Motor Company quit making the Model T nineteen years later, it had become one of the world’s most popular cars.

The Model T (there were models A through S) carried a 4-cylinder motor, and traveled up to 45 miles per hour. It came in one color, black.

The Model T also introduced drivers to new mechanical improvements. In a Model T, the driver controlled the car with three floor pedals: a brake and a pedal for forward and one for reverse. This left the driver’s hands free to steer the car. Unlike most cars of the time, the steering wheel was on the left side of the car.

The Model T was popular because it was cheap (eventually less than $300) and easy to fix. All a driver needed were pliers and a screwdriver to keep it running. Spare parts were easily available, and the Model T never seemed to wear out.

Americans loved the Model T. A woman from Georgia wrote Henry Ford, “Your car … brought joy into our lives.” The Model T even developed international fame. As one newspaper noted, “The Ford Motor Company has beaten out both the [U.S.] flag and the Constitution in carrying civilization into the wild places of the world.”

In 1927 the Ford Motor Company stopped making Model Ts; it had produced 15,007,033 cars. In the 1970s, Germany’s Volkswagen Beetle finally surpassed the Model T in numbers made.

As the Ford Motor Company likes to say to this day, the Model T “put America on wheels.” How true.

PHOTO: Model T circa 1922 by Lou Peeples

The S.S. Badger Car Ferry and the Steamer 43 Song

S.S. Badger - Ludington Mi.
S.S. Badger – Ludington Mi. by R.J.E.

As a kid, I used to ride the Badger frequently back & forth to Wisconsin to see my dad. It might have cost $20, and on just about every trip there 6 or 8 people were taking a round trip,playing cards and generally had a great time. The Badger is a little too spendy these days for idle round-tripping, but it’s still a great way to experience the Great Lakes.

Launch, September 6, 1952 at Sturgeon Bay, WisconsinThe S.S. Badger web site says:

The 410′ S.S. Badger entered service in 1953, designed specifically to handle the rough conditions that it would likely encounter during year ’round sailing on Lake Michigan. Built primarily to transport railroad freight cars, but with superior passenger accommodations, the Badger reigned as Queen of the Lakes during the car ferries’ Golden Era in the late Fifties, with Manitowoc, Milwaukee, and Kewaunee as her Wisconsin ports of call. By the Seventies, changing railroad economics were condemning other car ferries to mothballs or the scrap yard. With little railroad freight business left, and without ever tapping into the opportunity to serve the needs of the vacation traveler, the Badger sailed from Wisconsin to Ludington and tied up for the last time in November 1990 – signaling the end of the century-old tradition of car ferry service on Lake Michigan.

The demise of the car ferries was devastating to the communities they had served and the thousands of passengers who loved them. It seemed that the magic of these wonderful ships would only live in memory, never to be experienced by future generations. However, in 1991, an entrepreneur named Charles Conrad committed his own financial resources to reinvent the S.S. Badger to carry leisure passengers and their vehicles.

Since then, this legend of the Great Lakes has delighted a whole new generation of people, allowing them to experience a bit of history that almost slipped away while cruising to fun destinations on both sides of Lake Michigan. The S.S. Badger now sails daily between Manitowoc, Wisconsin and Ludington, Michigan from mid-May through mid-October.

Here’s The Steamer 43 Song by Pete Host, featuring photos of the SS Badger. Pete writes that this is from a 45 he recorded in the early 70s about a sailors life on the C&O carferries out of Ludington, Michigan. With his spare time aboard the Badger, he learned how to play the guitar, and in just a few months, went to Milwaukee Wis. and recorded this song.

The historical photo is the Badger being launched on September 6, 1952 at Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. You can see more old photos of the Badger and other Lake Michigan Car Ferries at!

Michigan’s Rich African American Past

For years, February has been recognized as Black History Month. In nearly 250 years of living in Michigan, African Americans have made many important-and often overlooked–contributions to our state’s past. One of the earliest records of African Americans living in Michigan came in the early 1760s when the British replaced the French at Detroit. Two decades later, a British census showed than nearly 200 African American slaves were living in British Detroit. The number of slaves declined after the Americans arrived in 1796. Although a census in 1830 indicated that 30 slaves lived in the territory, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 banned human slavery and it never thrived in Michigan.

Conversely, opposition to slavery did grow. Michigan was an active participant of the Underground Railroad even before it became a state. In 1836, thirteen former slaves organized the Second Baptist Church in Detroit. Besides allowing African Americans to worship without discrimination, the church also opened Michigan’s first school for black children and it was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Michigan’s black population grew slowly but steadily during the years before the Civil War. Famed black abolitionist Sojourner Truth made Battle Creek her home in 1857. At a time when women, especially black women, did not give speeches, Truth used her remarkable speaking skills to promote equality and the need to end slavery. Truth stood six feet tall and had a deep voice. Her listeners were “melted into tears by her touching stories.”

As automobiles became Michigan’s central focus, tens of thousands of African American moved north, seeking employment in the auto factories. During the twentieth century, the list of African Americans who had an impact on Michigan – and the world – includes world champion boxer Joe Louis, political scientist Ralph Bunche (the first African American to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize), Motown Records’ founder Berry Gordy Jr., actor James Earl Jones, Congressman John Conyers Jr. and activist Rosa Parks.

For a massive listing of happenings check out: “Black History Month events: February is full of music, exhibits and cultural events celebrating African-American achievement” – via

Photo Credit: Visual Materials from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Records (Library of Congress)

Michigan History: Hollywood’s First African-American Cowboy

Harlem Rides the Range

Herbert Jeffries has acted, sung, even ridden–his way to the top of the entertaining world.

In the 1930s, when white singing cowboys like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers carved out names for themselves, Jeffries decided there should be black cowboy films* especially since there had been many African American cowboys in the American west.

Born in Detroit in 1911, Jeffries raised money for his first feature film. Playing the part of Bob Blake, a fearless singing cowboy, Jeffries became this country’s first African American film hero when Harlem on the Prairie opened in 1936. Nicknamed the “Bronze Buckaroo,” Jeffries did all his own riding and performed all his own stunts. After starring in three more cowboy movies, Jeffries left movies to start singing with Duke Ellington’s orchestra. With that band as his backup, he recorded “Flamingo,” which sold fourteen million copies and propelled him to the top of the jazz world.

After running a club in France for a decade following World War II, Jeffries returned to the United States where he continues to perform. In 1995, at the age of eighty-three, Jeffries recorded a Nashville album of songs entitled, The Bronze Buckaroo (Rides Again).

Among his many awards and recognitions, Jeffries earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and induction into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. According to one observer in 2004, "The man is a marvel. In appearance and in voice, he seems a person half his age. . . . His voice sounds stronger now than it has ever been."

Here’s Herb Jeffries singing Happy Cowboy in the 1938 movie “Two Gun Man From Harlem”:

For more about Jeffries, check out To learn more about other important African Americans in Michigan, order the book African Americans You Need to Know or subscribe to Michigan History or Michigan History for Kids by calling (800) 366-3703 or visiting

Michigan History: Rediscovering Our Covered Bridges

The Fallasburg BridgeThe July/August 2009 issue of Michigan History tells the stories of Michigan’s three remaining covered bridges. Back in the days when couples rode in a horse and carriage, covered bridges were known as “kissing bridges.” The walls provided privacy and the horse was reined to a stop while the pair took advantage of their opportunity for romance. Today, those attracted to our covered bridges are more likely to be nostalgic than amorous.

Also in the July/August issue are stories about women who served in the Second Michigan Volunteer Infantry-one of whom was disguised as a man; an adventure of “flying boat” pilots who raced around the state in 1913; and the tragedy of two ships stranded in the worst storm ever recorded on Lake Michigan. The history of the town of Calumet, Herbert Henry Dow’s creation of the Dow Gardens and the story of European immigration to the Upper Peninsula round out the issue.

For more information or to order a subscription to Michigan History call (800) 366-3703 or visit Individual copies can be purchased at Barnes & Noble, B. Dalton and Borders bookstores throughout the state.

Michigan History is published by the Michigan Historical Center, part of the Department of History, Arts and Libraries. Dedicated to enriching quality of life and strengthening the economy, the department also includes the Library of Michigan, the Mackinac Island State Park Commission and the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

Cover Photo: The Fallasburg Bridge crosses the Flat River in Kent County. Built in 1871, it is one of Michigan’s oldest covered bridges.

Michigan History: Michigan’s Head Start on Going Green

michigangreenMichigan citizens backed “green” laws and lawmakers before the term was even popular. Ours is one of ten states that require a deposit on bottles and cans. In the 1950s and 1960s, pop and beer bottles and cans were not returnable. The roadsides were littered with these bottles and cans. In 1974, State Representative Lynn Jondahl of East Lansing introduced a bill that would require stores to collect a dime deposit on carbonated beverage containers.

Certain groups opposed this bill. Companies that made bottles and cans were against it because they were afraid they would lose their jobs. Stores did not like the bill either, because they would have to set aside space in their stores for returned bottles and cans. Although most Michiganians favored it, lawmakers ignored Jondahl’s bill.

Michigan History: Beauty and the Bow

annmarston1Born in England in 1938, Ann Marston immigrated to the United States with her parents in 1949. Already an accomplished archer—and British national champion–Ann soon dominated the field of American archery. Throughout the 1950s, she won numerous competitions. After winning every junior award and consistently breaking world records in the junior classification, she was allowed to participate as an adult at age fifteen–three years earlier than normally permitted. Besides becoming a four-time Women’s Free Style champion, Ann earned a total of eleven national archery titles and garnered the respect that few female athletes enjoyed at that time.

Ann’s archery success led to her being featured in Life, Seventeen and Sports Illustrated. She also appeared on national television programs, including those hosted by Ed Sullivan and Dick Van Dyke. At about the same time, she was diagnosed with Type 1 juvenile diabetes. Diabetes was not considered to be a dire health risk, although it required a daily insulin injection.

In the early 1960s, Ann moved away from competitive archery and concentrated on a lucrative show business career that included traveling throughout the Midwest and Canada with a popular automobile show called Thrillcade–a surreal combination of an old-fashioned circus, auto stunt show, music concert and NASCAR event.

Despite these many successes, Ann began experiencing vision problems. She was suffering from the early stages of diabetic retinopathy, a condition that caused small veins behind the eye to rupture and bleed. Ann’s life changed again in the mid-1960s when she became a highly successful talent agent for Detroit-area rock and roll groups.

In the spring of 1969, Ann suddenly lost her sight in both eyes. She was fitted with binocular-style glasses that enabled her to see a bit more clearly, but her health gradually deteriorated. In early March 1971, she collapsed and fell into a coma. Four days later, Ann Marston died.

For more on this and other intersting stories on Michigan’s past, see the current issue of Michigan History magazine, which is available on most newsstands, or call 1-800-366-3703 or go to

Motoring through Michigan’s snow

Snow Plow by Seeking Michigan
Snow Plow by Seeking Michigan

As the wind howls through the state this morning, I thought it might be a good time to shovel out a few stories – you can see a photo a snowplow in Bessemer from the Archives of Michigan over on Michigan in Pictures this morning!

Last week mLive reported that the Saginaw County Road Commission became the first road agency in the state (and maybe the country) to use GPS to display where the plow trucks have gone. Road Commission Manager Brian J. Wendling acknowledged ”It’s not a foolproof means of knowing what the road conditions are, but it will at least allow (motorists) the ability to see if a plow has been through the area.” Check it out on the Saginaw County Road Commission web site. It’s a little crude, but on days like today it’s probably useful!

You might also be interested in this article about Michigan road salt and salt mining on Michigan in Pictures. For a look at what plowing was like in the days before modern plows (and when the plow operator had a taste for whiskey), check out Old Harry in the Northern Michigan Journal:

Fifty years ago in Leelanau, so the old timers tell it, the winters were much rougher than what we have today. Whether this is really so or merely the result of memories changing over the course of time is open to debate, but without the modern snow fighting equipment we have now-a-days, it’s for sure that the winters back the must have at least seemed tougher.

Anyway, back then few people had their own snow plows, snow blowers were unheard of, and the primary weapon in the war against Old Man Winter was the shovel. Harry drove plow truck for the county in those days; a great big old Osh Kosh monster that roared and belched black smoke as it pushed the snow off the roads.

Seeking Michigan posted this 16mm demo film of the Armstead Snow Motors Company concept snow vehicle. It was filmed in 1924, and the concept is applied to a Fordson tractor and a Chevrolet automobile. The original film is part of the collections of the Archives of Michigan. In case you’re interested in how this wild machine works, here’s the text of the original patent.

Armstead Snow Motors from Seeking Michigan on Vimeo.

Michigan History: Five Decades with Bob Seger (Pssst, music always makes a great gift)

If there is a single word to describe the musical career of Bob Seger it is “durable.” For almost fifty years, Seger has been writing, playing and singing rock ‘n roll tunes-everything from hard-driving rock to tender ballads.

Born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1945, Seger moved to Ann Arbor as a young boy. He began singing at the age of four. His father (who played six instruments) bought him a bass ukulele, and Seger learned how to play it by the time he was ten. At the age of fifteen, Seger started writing songs and playing guitar. His first band, called the Decibels, played high school dances, parties and small clubs. In 1968, Seger and his band signed a major record contract. The following year, “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” was Seger’s first national hit record.

Despite a big hit, Seger enjoyed only limited success. Critics suggested he was just a “one-hit wonder.” Seger was popular in the Midwest, especially Michigan, but as one observer wrote in 1976, “he just doesn’t seem to be cutting it” elsewhere in the nation. Despite these observations, Seger kept writing and singing songs–and things improved.

In a few years, Seger was back on the national scene with a series of hit records. The album Night Moves sold 6 million copies and was his first Top 10 album. Seger’s next album Against the Wind rose to number one on the Billboard 200 top album chart. Soon Seger’s songs (“Old Time Rock & Roll,” “Like a Rock” and “Shakedown”) appeared in movies and television commercials, giving him more national recognition.

In 2004, Seger, who took a decade off to raise a family, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Three years later, he released a new album and went on a national tour. Although older than most rock and rollers, Seger said it was “fun to go to work again.”

Today, Seger still lives in Michigan. He has sold more than 50 million records and the Detroit Free Press called him Michigan ‘s number one entertainer. When asked recently what he wanted to be remembered for, he said, “I held true to what I liked about music.”

To learn more about Michigan’s music history call (800) 366-3703 or visit for more information.

Couldn’t resist, just for old times sake…

Sherman, to the wayback back machine….