Historic Michigan Historic Michigan

You probably didn’t learn about these Michiganders in school. 

MICHIGAN—Michigan’s history contains numerous noteworthy figures. From Henry Ford to Rosa Parks to Thomas Edison, there are certain Michiganders who need no introduction. Others, however, have gotten shuffled under the sands of time, and some went entirely unnoticed even during their lifetimes. Local legends and heroes

We’ve compiled a list of eight Michiganders who set new records and left their mark on the state’s history that deserve to have their names told.

Annie Edson Taylor

Bay City has its very own daredevil in the form of the “Queen of the Mists.” Annie Edson Taylor, formerly an etiquette teacher, became infamous for becoming the first person to survive tumbling over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

Annie Edson Taylor was born in 1838 in New York and had a difficult start to her adult life. After losing her father at the age of 12, Taylor earned an honors degree. She married David Taylor and had a child with him, but her son died in infancy. Her husband later died fighting in the Civil War. Taylor drifted from teaching job to teaching job until around the age of 60, when she settled in Bay City and opened a dance school. She also briefly taught music in Sault Ste. Marie, but eventually returned to Bay City.

After relying on financial support from her sister-in-law, Taylor was determined to find a way to make money. She turned her attention to the Pan-American Exposition in New York in 1901. She decided to take advantage of the speculated increase in tourism to Niagara Falls. At the time, Niagara Falls was a popular site for daredevils, and riding the rapids in a barrel was the latest trend. She recruited Frank M. Russell, fellow Bay City resident and carnival promoter, to be her manager.

As an astute academic, Taylor designed a pickle barrel specifically for the feat. An anvil of over 100 pounds was attached to the bottom to allow the barrel to remain upright. She drilled emergency air holes for the ride and pumped the barrel with fresh air using a bicycle pump. The barrel, fashioned by beer keg producer West Bay City Cooperage, was just over 4 feet tall and 3 feet wide. Two days before the big day, Taylor and Russell tested the barrel using a domestic cat, and most reports indicate the cat survived the tumble relatively unharmed.

On her 63rd birthday of Oct. 24, 1901, at about four in the afternoon, Annie Edson Taylor took the plunge in her barrel in front of an audience of several thousand spectators. The barrel plummeted down the falls from a height of 158 feet, or about 14 stories. After spending a total of an hour and 20 minutes in the barrel, Taylor was released with little more than a few bumps and bruises. Of the feat, though, Taylor said “I would rather face a cannon… then go over the falls again.”

Although Taylor received a wave of publicity and got paid for a few speeches, it was short-lived. Taylor did not make much money from her feat. Russell ran away with her barrel, and her attempts to locate it depleted her savings. She cycled through souvenir shops to sell postcards and pose for photo ops. Despite her best efforts, she died penniless in 1921 at the age of 82.

Elijah McCoy

You may or may not have heard the phrase “the real McCoy.” This idiom which generally means “the real thing” has several possible and proposed origin stories. The theory with arguably the most substance comes from Ypsilanti inventor Elijah McCoy. Railroad workers would inquire if a locomotive had a “real McCoy system” to avoid lower-grade copies, which is a likely origin of the phrase.

Elijah McCoy was born in 1844 to two fugitive slaves from Kentucky who had escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad. He was a middle child with 11 siblings. The McCoy family moved back to the United States to Detroit, then later moved to Ypsilanti. McCoy became certified as a mechanical engineer in his teen years. However, due to the prevalent racial discrimination at the time, as a Black man, he was unable to find work in his field. Instead, he took a job working for the Michigan Central Railroad and did engineering work in his home-based machine shop.

At the time, trains had to stop for lubrication to prevent possible overheating. McCoy identified this problem and developed a lubricator using steam pressure that didn’t require the engine to stop. He received a patent for this automatic lubricator cup invention in 1872, but it was hardly the last for the innovative engineer. With Elijah McCoy’s invention, transportation was vastly improved since trains did not need to pause for maintenance and re-oiling.

McCoy moved to Detroit in 1882, where he worked as a consultant and continued to invent. Eventually, the automatic lubricator migrated to other industries, including oil drilling, mining, construction, and factory tools. Over his lifetime, McCoy received over 50 patents. One of his most successful inventions was an air brake lubrication system. He also made designs for a lawn sprinkler, folding ironing board, buggy top support, tire tread, durable rubber heels for shoes, and portable scaffolding. These patents, however, were mostly sold to investors. He established his own company, the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company, in 1920.

McCoy was twice a widower. He married Elizabeth Stewart in 1868, but she died just four years later. Soon after, he married Mary Eleanora Delancey in 1873. In 1922, McCoy and his wife were in a car accident that Mary did not survive. Elijah McCoy had critical injuries but survived; yet, he never fully recovered physically or psychologically. After his health began to fail, he entered Eloise Infirmary in Detroit. He died there in 1929 at the age of 85. His legacy lived on, though, and when the first satellite US Patent and Trademark office was established in Detroit in 2012, it was named in his honor.

Harriet Quimby

Most people have heard of Amelia Earhart, but significantly fewer have heard of her Michigan-born contemporary, Harriet Quimby. If not for the sinking of the Titanic, Quimby, the first woman to obtain a pilot’s license in America, might have been more well-known.

Harriet Quimby was born in Michigan in 1875. Some sources claim she lived in the northwestern Michigan town of Arcadia, while other sources claim southern Michigan town Coldwater. Her birth certificate is nonexistent, but her historical marker is outside Arcadia. Little of her childhood in Michigan is documented. Her parents, William and Ursula, were wealthy and ensured she was well-educated. Quimby’s family moved to California when she was a teenager. In 1902, Quimby chased her dream of becoming a journalist and took a position as a writer for the journal “Dramatic Review.” She moved to New York City in 1903, where she wrote for Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly for nine years, with over 250 published articles.

In 1910, Quimby attended the Belmont Park International Aviation Tournament on Long Island, where she first became interested in flying. Soon after, she attended a flying school in Hempstead, New York, and became the first U.S. woman to obtain a pilot’s license. At the time, aviation was seen as an expensive and dangerous activity that didn’t suit women. Quimby, though, endeavored to be a fashionable woman while also being a competent aviator.

On April 16, 1912, Harriet Quimby became the first woman to fly across the English Channel. She made the 22 mile journey in one hour, nine minutes. Unfortunately, as the RMS Titanic sank just one day earlier, Quimby’s flight milestone simply flew under the radar.

During her career, Quimby continued to write, including seven screenplays made into silent films. She wrote many articles explaining aviation safety and promoting the sport to women. Yet ironically, three months after her English Channel trip, in July 2012, Harriet Quimby was the victim of a tragic accident. At the Harvard-Boston Aviation Meet, Quimby offered a ride to event organizer William Willard. Their 20-minute flight met disaster when the plane crashed and fatally ejected both Quimby and Willard. Quimby was only 37 years old. It is unknown what happened to make Quimby lose control, but eschewing seat belts was not in character for Quimby. After her death, she was entered into the National Aviation Hall of Fame. Though her career was short, she paved the way for other female aviators such as Amelia Earhart.

Titus Bronson

The famous Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo has branded the southwest Michigan town as “eccentric.” But K-zoo has been eccentric far longer than Larry Bell has been brewing unusual beer. The eccentricity goes back to Kalamazoo’s very founder, Titus Bronson.

Titus Bronson was born in Connecticut in 1788. He became a farmer that grew potatoes from seed, and spent many years traveling between Connecticut, Ohio, and Ann Arbor. With intent to build a settlement, Bronson arrived in the Kalamazoo area on June 21, 1829. He found the ideal spot for a town at the fork of the present-day Kalamazoo river. After spending a couple of seasons in a crude hut made with tamarack poles, he decided to return home so he could bring his family to the site. He first built a log cabin for himself and his family. He bought the land of present-day downtown Kalamazoo in 1830, with money he acquired growing potatoes in Ann Arbor. By 1831, he platted the village of Bronson, and intended his land to be used for a courthouse, academy, jail, and churches.

Though he was the founder of Kalamazoo, he was not popular among other settlers. His behavior was perhaps a bit too political and outspoken, openly discouraging dancing, card-playing, and consumption of tobacco or alcohol. He also had an abnormal, spasmic walk, and his dress and appearance were described as careless. The community grew tired of Bronson because he got caught whittling wood at a courtroom windowsill, and stealing a cherry tree. By 1836, the community removed Bronson’s namesake and renamed the village Kalamazoo after a Pottawatomie word whose meaning is debated to this day.

Bronson left Kalamazoo, and his life did not improve. He moved to Davenport, Iowa, where in 1842, he lost all his wealth in a land swindle. His wife died the same year, and Bronson returned to Connecticut. He passed away in 1853.

The legacy of Titus Bronson still lives on. The streets of downtown Kalamazoo are still named Academy Street and Church Street after Bronson’s original intentions for them. The original Jail Street is now Park Street, and Bronson Park still carries his namesake.

Anna Sutherland Bissell

If you’ve ever bought a BISSELL vacuum cleaner, you can thank this Grand Rapids trailblazer that became America’s first female CEO. 

Anna Sutherland was born in Nova Scotia in 1846, but moved with her parents to Wisconsin at an early age. Anna became a teacher at the age of 16, then married Melville R. Bissell in 1865 at 19. The Bissells settled in Kalamazoo initially, where Melville and his father Alpheus had opened a grocery store in 1862. The Bissells moved to Grand Rapids in 1871 for better business opportunities and to continue operating their successful crockery and glassware store.

Since packing peanuts and bubble wrap didn’t exist yet, the crockery and glassware stock arrived packed in sawdust or straw. This meant that unpacking boxes resulted in a huge mess, and necessity is the mother of invention. They owned a mechanical carpet sweeper, but it just didn’t do the job. Melville innovated a better carpet sweeper, which he patented and began in 1876. Because their invention’s biggest market was American housewives, Anna became the brains behind sales and marketing. Soon, many homes throughout Grand Rapids had carpet sweepers thanks to Anna’s networking.

The Bissell company was incorporated in 1883. Carpets, and carpet sweepers, grew in popularity in the 1880s. The Bissell family, though, endured hard times. First, a factory fire required the Bissells to mortgage the family home to reconstruct. Then, in 1889, Melville died of pneumonia, leaving Anna to care for both the business and their young children. Yet Anna persevered, and took the company over as the first female CEO in America.

Bissell served as president and CEO of Bissell Carpet from 1889 to 1919. During her time as CEO, she became known for her progressive labor policies and personal concern for her employees. By 1899, Bissell was the largest corporation of its kind in the world. She also became a philanthropist, starting Bissell House which provided training and other services to immigrant women and youth in Grand Rapids. She served as chair of the board until her death in 1934.

Today, the Bissell family still runs what is now known as BISSELL Inc. A bronze statue in her likeness was also erected in Grand Rapids to honor her legacy.

Taffy Abel

Even before the advent of the Detroit Red Wings, Michigan has always loved hockey, and in fact, was able to claim the first American hockey hero. Clarence “Taffy” Abel, a native of Sault Ste. Marie, is known as the first United States-born player to become a regular in the National Hockey League, where he played for 8 seasons.

Taffy Abel was one of the largest skaters of his day, standing at 6’1” and weighing over 225 pounds. Abel was born in Sault Ste. Marie in 1900, but did not play his first hockey game until age 18. He learned the game through the Michigan Soo Nationals and joined the amateur league in Minnesota. His career started at the 1924 Winter Olympics, where he was captain of the silver-medal winning team.

After the Olympics, Abel joined the Minnesota Millers for the 1925 season. Once the New York Rangers team was formed in 1926, Abel joined and helped the team win the 1928 Stanley Cup. In this game, he successfully defended the team’s coach when the inexperienced coach had to step in for an injured goalie.

Abel was sold to the Chicago Black Hawks in 1929, where he played for five seasons. He eventually helped the team secure their first Stanley Cup in 1934. Following the victory, Taffy Abel retired at the age of 34 due to the toll the sport had taken on his body. He returned to Sault Ste. Marie, where he opened and operated a hotel. In retirement, he also coached for the Sault Sainte Marie Indians.

Abel died in 1964, but he became one of the charter members of the United States Hockey Hall of Fame when it opened nine years later in 1973. In 1976, Lake Superior State University built their home rink and named it after Taffy Abel.

Alden B. Dow

One of Michigan’s most well-known companies is Dow Chemical Company in Midland, the second largest chemical producer in the world. Yet, even though you know the Dow name, you probably won’t know about Alden B. Dow, son of the Dow Chemical founder and protege of Frank Lloyd Wright. Yet he built so many buildings in Michigan that he revolutionized the architectural style of Michigan Modern.

As one of seven children of Herbert Henry Dow and philanthropist Grace Dow, Alden Dow had some big shoes to fill. He initially attended the University of Michigan to study chemical engineering, intending to follow in his father’s footsteps. Three years in, though, Alden had a change of heart. He had stayed at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Japan, which inspired him to follow his passion for buildings. Dow transferred to Columbia University, where he studied architecture. After graduating in 1931, he married Vada Bennett, whose father worked at Dow. In the summer of 1933, he and his wife studied with architect Frank Lloyd Wright at his studio in Wisconsin. Though he created his own style, Dow emulated Wright by incorporating the building’s natural environment into his designs.

Alden Dow opened his studio in Midland in 1934. He designed over 60 residences in Midland, as well as a handful commercial and public buildings. Over the course of his 50-year career, he designed over 560 projects, with over 350 of those in Michigan. A great number of these were at Michigan colleges, including Alma College, Delta College, Hillsdale College, the Interlochen Academy of the Arts, Wayne State University, the University of Michigan, and community colleges in Kalamazoo and Muskegon. He died in 1983, shortly after being named the architect laureate of Michigan.

Walter P. Reuther

Most Michiganders are familiar with Detroit’s status as the Motor City, hub for the auto industry of the “Big Three” companies: Ford, General Motors, and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. But they might be less familiar with the labor struggles of these factories, and how the United Automobile Workers union (UAW) created social change. Walter P. Reuther, president of UAW from 1946 to 1970, was the driving force behind not just reform for auto workers, but for civil rights as well.

Born in West Virginia in 1907, Reuther learned about social issues and the working class through facilitated debates in his German immigrant household. He began doing odd jobs at age nine and dropped out of high school to support his family. When he moved to Detroit in 1927, at the age of 19, he received a job as an expert tool and die maker. He also finished high school and enrolled in college. After Henry Ford sold the production mechanisms for the Model T to Russia, Reuther was one of multiple American workers who knew how to operate the equipment and relocated. He toured the world during this time as well, including Nazi Germany. He returned in 1935, the middle of the Great Depression.

Reuther attended the UAW’s second annual convention and became president of the brand new Local 174 on Detroit’s west side. Here, Reuther organized striking auto workers and represented 30,000 workers and 76 shops. The UAW finally gained recognition at the General Motors sit-down strike in Flint, which lasted just under three months from 1936 to 1937. The strike was so difficult, police action against the picketers turned violent, and 2,000 members of the National Guard were called to keep the peace. Eventually, General Motors recognized the workers’ right to unionize. Reuther and the UAW also managed strikes and negotiations with Chrysler in 1937. Reuther received national attention for photos taken of him being beaten by Ford’s security team for passing out leaflets outside a Ford plant. He also survived an assassination attempt before Henry Ford finally recognized the UAW in 1941.

Reuther’s leadership and organization negotiated job security, safety provisions, health insurance, vacation time, pensions, profit-sharing, and unemployment benefits for auto workers over the next two decades. He also fought tirelessly for civil rights, marching with Martin Luther King Jr. in Alabama. Famously, he stood beside Martin Luther King Jr. for his famous 1963 “I have a dream” speech.

Reuther and his wife unfortunately passed away in a plane crash in 1970. Considering his earlier assassination attempts, the death was suspicious, but murder was never proven. Posthumously, Reuther has been honored many times in Michigan. I-696, the highway running east-west through metro Detroit, is named after him. Wayne State University has a humanitarian award in his name. His home in Rochester was also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.