Sunday, December 29, 2013

Completed: Michigan: A History of the Great Lakes State

Dear Jenny,

Well, I think we have exhaustively examined the issue of "Great Lakes State" (plural) vs. "Great Lake State" (singular) in this post (our comments make for a funny re-read there, by the way). This book never addresses the issue so I still feel totally unresolved about it.

For the most part, I enjoyed this read even though I have a few content problems (which you'll see in my blathering review) but I learned a lot. I have so many bookmarks/flags that a stranger on a plane remarked on the extensive marking up I had done. I'm have done my best to keep it to a few of the more interesting topics but... you know I'm not the best editor of my own writing. So grab a cup of coffee and get ready for a long one...

Michiganian or Michigander?

In addition to the Lake/Lakes issue, this book never addresses its own use of the term "Michiganian" to describe residents of Michigan, when I have always heard the term "Michigander" (note: spell check squawks at the former but accepts the latter). So I looked it up (of course). The Michigan website is totally wishy-washy on the subject:
Michiganian or Michigander?
Michiganian has a long history. It is the term used for the state's citizens in The Collections of the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society since the 1870s . But people who call Michigan their home use the word they like best. There is no "official" term.
From the wikipedia:
A 2011 poll indicated 58% of Michigan residents preferred Michigander, compared to 12% for Michiganian, with 12% having no preference, and 11% not liking either term
(I love that the high percentage of people having no preference or not liking either term. I can't explain exactly, but that is so Michigan to me!)

Cobbled together from many sources: "Michiganian" dates back to the 1870s, but "Michigander" was a term of mockery from Abraham Lincoln, who was making fun of a Michigan politician running for president in 1848 -- he wanted to say this guy (Lewis Cass, then governor of Michigan) was a silly goose and therefore called him a "Michigander." HA! So even history is not terribly clear -- what were residents of Michigan called before this put-down?

Grammatically speaking, "Michigander" doesn't have much support (other states ending in "n" are Oregon [Oregonian], Washington [Washingtonian], and Wisconsin [Wisconsinite]). But many of the people polled said they prefer "Michigander" because "it's fun to say" (which I love). On the anti-Michigander front, some people have called it "sexist" (because a gander is a male goose). (Insert eye roll here.) Growing up, I'd always heard "Michigander," so I'm sticking with that. (Plus, it's fun to say!)

I also think it's hilarious that the residents of Michigan have taken up a nickname originally intended as a put-down as the primary name for ourselves. "Go ahead and mock us, bitches -- we'll adopt that shit like it's our own!"

Toledo: We Won't Let it Go

Oh, Toledo. Michigan wants you baaaad.

Soooo... Ohio and Michigan were fighting for Toledo when they both became states, because it's situated on the mouth of the Maumee River. Although the federal government surveyed the land and stated that it should go to Michigan, Ohio became a state first and basically won the argument because states had more power than territories (there was some politics involved too, but that bores me, as I will get to in a minute). In exchange for Ohio getting Toledo, Michigan was given the western 2/3 of the Upper Peninsula (thereby ending up with all of it). (And, as a result of that, we now have your favorite term for residents -- Yoopers!)

So Ohio got Toledo but Michigan has been fighting for it on and off ever since. And when I say "ever since" I'm not kidding -- the last time that Michigan went to the government to fight for Toledo was as recently as 1966. (Seriously!) This battle is not ancient history by any means -- there's apparently some contingency here still biding their time to make that land grab! [68]

Another hilarious thing that came out of this battle is the nickname of "Wolverines" for Michiganders. I had never really thought much about it, but the animal itself is extremely rare in Michigan -- their habitat is much further north (Alaska, Yukon, etc). Sooo... how did Michigan come to be known as "The Wolverine State?" Well, I'll tell ya! During one fight for Toledo, the Ohioans dubbed Michiganders "Wolverines," likening them to "that 'vicious, smelly, ugly northwoods animal.'" [66] So again Michigan takes someone else's putdown and says, "Sure. We'll take that! And use it!"

Politics? Yawn. Cars? Bring it On!

This is really more a commentary on me as a reader than the book itself -- there were many long sections covering the political goings on in Michigan and I found myself skimming during those parts. I just don't care that much about it. But the parts about the history of the automobile? Fascinating!

For instance, I did not know that Oldsmobiles were the first commercially successful mass-produced cars [191] and were in continuous production for 103 years (GM ended production in 2000) [193]. There are a lot of other tidbits like that in the automobile chapter and I really enjoyed all of that.

Oddly, the assembly line is not really covered, except for this one line: "By perfecting Olds' assembly-line technique Ford managed to increase production while reducing costs." [195] I think this topic is really interesting and integral to the success of the automobile industry in Michigan, so I found it strange that it wasn't really addressed.

Also omitted is the fact that the first paved mile of road was in Michigan, as a result of the birth (and boom) of the automotive industry here. The road system in Michigan is fairly unusual (a huge grid of 4-6 lane roads [some are darned near freeways -- with a 55 mph speed limit!] every mile on the mile, extending far out into the burbs) and I was expecting that to be covered... but no dice.

Do You Put That on a Resume?

I marked this passage to share with you specifically because it has to do with education and it made me chuckle. In the late 19th century:
Each school district set it's own hiring standards and, in many instances, the only requirements were that the teacher be able to read, write, do arithmetic, and be able to defeat the strongest boy in school in a fistfight. [159]
It's not really "funny," per se (ugh -- what a life!) but I just didn't expect it as I was reading along.

Chronology Problems

I don't read a lot of non-fiction, so maybe this just happens a lot in history books, but it felt so many times like I would be cruising along reading about stuff happening, and then the authors would refer to something that pre-dated the story that was just going on.

For instance, in that chapter about education, they talk about violence in the classrooms during the "1870s and 1880s" but the very next paragraph says, "Despite their lack of professional competence, in 1852 Michigan teachers formed a union." [160] I feel like.... waaaait a minute. Shouldn't that have come before talking about stuff that happened in the 1870s and 1880s? So that was disconcerting.

Updates Needed

This book was originally published in 1981, then periodically re-published through 2008. But, as far as I can tell, absolutely none of the sections marked "For Further Reading" have been updated since the original publication in 1981. So, you know... want to read more about Henry Ford? Check out this book from the 1950s! I realize that history is history, so much of that is still accurate but I also know that history books are being written and published (and updated) all of the time and the bibliographies in this book could also stand to be updated.

Likewise, the last 30 years are basically crammed into the last 25 pages of the book, in haphazardly thrown together unrelated snippets. Over the course of seven pages (297-304), we cover the following topics, in the following order:

  • The opening of the Women's Hall of Fame in 1987 (one paragraph)
  • The 1990 Election (one page)
  • Michigan's horrific economic downturn (two pages)
  • Recent progress made solving the mystery of the Edmund Fitzgerald (one page)
  • Dr. Kevorkian (one page)
  • The 1994 Election (two pages)
Um... maybe lump the political stuff together? And the people stuff? And... spend waaaaaay more time on the economic situation because that's super important in Michigan these days? It's like they just started to slap some tweets on the end of this book in the order that things happened, which is a bummer.

In Conclusion... I am Concluding

I actually had a ton more interesting facts, figures, and thoughts to share, but this post has gone on too long already and I have two more to write before this year is over. The reality is that this stuff is probably only super interesting to Michiganders. All of the other midwesterners who come here to vacation really only care about the sunsets on Lake Michigan. Heh.

On to the final two!



  1. Okay, that was a hilarious and great post. I like the random information, and must say that I am fairly certain I can beat up the toughest kid in school, but only because I would fight really dirty in order to win and therefore keep my job.

    I definitely prefer Michigander. Michiganian reminds me of 2 other words for some reason, neither of which I would want associate with my whole state: ungainly and zany. Well, zany maybe. But still! Michigander is way better. I definitely like that they are willing to adopt the insults slung their way. Heh.

    As a final note, you'd really think at this point Ohio would be willing to give up Toledo. Oh, you want one of our crumbling rust-belt cities? Have it! But I guess that's just me. But the idea that the fighting over it is so recent is hilarious. Meanwhile, Michigan gets the last laugh there. They pulled a ton of money out of mines in the UP. Lots of natural resources (metals, I think) up there.

    They definitely should have updated the bibliography. Reading old non-fiction books is just weird because they often have unearthed a lot more current information in updated biographies, etc. That's too bad. Oh well. Sounds like one book was enough for now!


  2. I am so glad you directed me back to the comments on that first Michigan post. It was totally hilarious, and I had somehow missed the most ambivalent pledge to civil rights ever...Hah! Good times!

  3. "I am fairly certain I can beat up the toughest kid in school, but only because I would fight really dirty in order to win and therefore keep my job." HAHAHAHA!

    Re: the MI Pledge... it's quite a gem. You know, equality and justice... we'll aim for that and all. But if we don't make it... well, there's always next year, right? Wheeee!

  4. I'm so glad you appreciate me! Hah. This was a great year in TBR books, Kelly!