The Rapidian

Review: "The Yesterdays of Grand Rapids" by Charles Belknap

Review of the Book "The Yesterdays of Grand Rapids" by Charles E. Belknap
Charles E. Belknap (October 17, 1846 – January 16, 1929) writing at his desk. He was a United States congressman in the House of

Charles E. Belknap (October 17, 1846 – January 16, 1929) writing at his desk. He was a United States congressman in the House of /Grand Rapids Public Museum / Public Domain

Book cover of The Yesterdays of Grand Rapids by Charles Belknap

Book cover of The Yesterdays of Grand Rapids by Charles Belknap /Schuler Books

Charles E. Belknap was a man for all seasons in the history of Grand Rapids. He was a Civil War hero, successful business man, firefighter, US Congressman,  and mayor of Grand Rapids.

He moved with his family to Grand Rapids at eight years of age in 1853. In those days Grand Rapids was a rip-roaring frontier town of fur traders, Indigenous people, lumberjacks and early white settlers.  Charles Belknap grew up with the young settlement. He personally knew the pioneers like Louis Campau, and Rix Robinson. He knew the native people and their ways. He watched the area’s slow change from small settlement to a growing and prosperous city until his death in 1929.

Charles didn’t have much formal education, but he could tell a story with flair and humor. His recollections of the early days, characters and locations were told in an entertaining style not unlike Mark Twain. In his mature years, he wrote a series of articles for the Grand Rapids Press on the early days of Grand Rapids called “The Yesterdays of Grand Rapids.” In 1922 these were compiled and published as a book.

One of my favorite stories told of the native plum orchard that existed on the West Side near what is now the Wealthy Street Bridge. The plum trees were planted well before the white settlers came to the area. They were planted in concentric circles of red, yellow and blue plums over a 200 foot area around a mossy basin. Well-worn trails from several directions led to the orchard. There was evidence that this may have been a ceremonial area. The settlers harvested plums from the orchard until it was destroyed in the 1870’s to created farmland.

Another interesting story concerns the brickyard that was operated by Samuel Baldwin in the triangular area at the “Forks of the Road” where Lake Drive and Fulton Sts. now meet at Union Ave. One day in 1854 Baldwin was working in one of the pits on the property and felt the sun being blocked out. He looked up to see a huge black bear standing on its  hind legs over him. A very nervous Baldwin ran for his cabin to get his rifle,  followed closely by the bear. The story does not end well for the bear.

“The Yesterdays of Grand Rapids”  has dozens of stories like these. Charles Belknap knew the early characters of Grand Rapids. He was familiar with the woods, streams, native trails, and early buildings of the young village. He gives vivid and often humorous insights into pioneer life in the Grand Valley.

The book is available as a reprint from Schuler Books on 28th St. and on the Internet Archive.

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