What Exactly are We Celebrating?
While hundreds have come together to help celebrate Lansing’s sesquicentennial, others are wondering just who is doing the math!
Linda Peckham is a former president of the Historical Society of Greater Lansing. She says records show a town known simply as Michigan in 1847 became Lansing, Michigan, the state’s new capital. By her calculations, Peckham says, that means Lansing’s 150th birthday was in the late 1990s—not in 2009! “I have to grit my teeth because there’s not much I can do, but as a historian I worry the history of this great city is being distorted,” she says. Organizers of this year’s event, though, say a celebration was held more than a decade ago to honor the 150th anniversary of the relocation of the state’s capital to the town of Lansing. This year’s event, they explain, is to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the actual incorporation of Lansing as a city.
The city of Lansing, with a current population of some 115,000, was little more than miles of undeveloped land when selected as the new capital. Once the state Capitol building went up, the 267-foot-facility became the centerpiece of a growing metropolis. Two hotels—The Seymour House and the Michigan Exchange House—were the first to be erected in the shadow of the legislative building. A general store was the next to rise, built not far away at Center and Franklin streets. Franklin was later renamed Grand River Avenue. Construction soon began on a bookstore, a church and a furniture store. “The town just jumped up in seven, eight, nine months’ time,” says Steve Burlingame, a member of the Lansing Rotary Club, which has taken the lead in organizing the 150th anniversary celebration. “People just flocked here to be part of building a town.”
Detroit is credited as being home to the auto industry but some dispute that, saying Lansing is where the industry was actually born. In 1887, it was R. E. Olds who tested the first steam-powered “automobile” in the capital city. “He was the first to develop the production line that made manufacturing of vehicles more affordable. Ford Motor Company capitalized on the knowledge,” recalls Burlingame. The Olds Motor Vehicle Company went into business in 1897. The company moved briefly to Detroit before returning to Lansing in 1901, where it produced thousands of Curved Dash Runabouts. The Auto Body Company and Prudden Wheel Company, which merged with others to form Motor Wheel Corporation in 1920, also opened to supply parts for the auto industry.
Lansing’s first mayor was elected in 1859. Republican Hiram H. Smith served just one year but is credited with significantly developing the downtown area. He, himself, opened several stores on Washington Avenue in what has become the downtown business district.
While many of the original businesses have come and gone, some have withstood the test of time, among them, Kositchek’s Men’s Store. The store was founded back in 1865 by Henry Kositchek. It was passed down to his son, Louis, followed by his grandson, Richard. And the business is still family run. Henry’s great-grandson, David Kositchek, is now at the helm. “I love what I do and I love where we are,” says David. “I learned from the best. We’re busy even in these tough economic times. We’re one of the few specialty stores left.” David is hopeful for a fifth generation even though he and his siblings are childless. “I think we still have some time so I’m not terribly worried,” he jokingly adds. Richard Kositchek passed away in 1997, but his wife, Ruth, is enjoying the sunshine in Florida these days. Her memories of the early days in business will be part of the sesquicentennial’s time capsule event in an oral history. Those histories are being compiled by a film class at Michigan State University. Other companies that have grown right along with Lansing are the Michigan Supply Company, Bohnet Electric, Millers Mutual Insurance, Friedland Industries, O’Leary Paint and Young Bros. & Daley.
Lansing’s first long-serving mayor was John Robson, who served from 1871 to 1881. The wealthy merchant is credited with building the first iron bridge spanning the Grand River. He also brought a gas company to the city in 1871.
Benjamin A. Keyes won the 1920 mayoral election, the first in which women were allowed to vote. His election demonstrated a need for change; Keyes was not a professional politician, but a retired building contractor.
Silas F. Main was one of the most controversial mayors to be elected. During his term in office, from 1922 to 1923, he launched an investigation of accounting irregularities into the Board of Water & Light. The probe led to the ouster of the company’s president.
Lansing’s longest-serving mayor ever was Ralph W. Crego. The former city council member served from 1943-61. During his time in office, Crego directed the building of the civic center along with a new city hall and police building.
One of the most popular to take the helm in Lansing was Max E. Murningham, the three-time Central Michigan Heavyweight Golden Gloves champion who served from 1965 to 1969.
Another of the city’s distinguished residents taking part in the time capsule oral history is one known not only for her political prowess but also her fashion sense! Lucile Belen, or the “hat lady” due to her various chapeaux, was first elected to Lansing City Council in the late 1950s and was instrumental in annexing property to meet the needs of the city. Her projects include the Maple Grove area on the south side and land in the Frandor area. “I knew soon after I got into office that there wasn’t enough space for all the community wanted to offer,” she says. The Frandor Shopping Center, built on some 40 acres east of U.S. 127, was one of the first shopping centers in the country and was named Frandor by the owners Francis and Dorothy Coor, who combined the first syllables of their first names. Belen was soon identified by the city’s leadership as being both creative and resourceful and named to the city’s centennial celebration committee.
Unlike this year’s sesquicentennial, with hundreds of volunteers, Belen was one of only five charged with planning events for Lansing’s 100th birthday. “What started out as a part-time job turned into full time pretty quickly,” Belen remembers. While short in numbers, Belen says they did have some advantages back then that today’s organizers don’t have. “One of our members was editor and publisher of the Lansing State Journal so we got a lot of publicity for free.” Belen says the city kicked in a thousand dollars for the event. The rest of the money needed had to be raised by the five volunteers. While not actively involved in this birthday celebration, Belen says she is called on from time to time for advice. “I tell them it’s no pushover. You have to work hard!” She admits the economy is likely making fundraising more difficult for this year’s celebration, but says when it comes to reveling in all Lansing has accomplished over the years, people find a way to give. “They do what they have to, to give money. They just want to be part of the celebration.”
A time capsule will be placed in the base of a sculpture to stand at the corner of Michigan and Washington avenues. Other events include a parade in May, featuring the winners of a school essay contest about where Lansing will be in another 150 years.
Even Linda Peckham, who questions the timing of the celebration, says the sense of community has left her amazed. “It’s so nice to see so many people come together to volunteer their time to show just how great Lansing was and continues to be. That really is worth celebrating!”
Public events to commemorate Lansing’s sesquicentennial will continue throughout the year. More information on the schedule is available online at www.lansing150.com.