ACROSS THE BRIDGE
By Alice Seaver, Collections Services
The history of Ferrysburg is interesting and it has its own unique place in the story of the Tri-Cities. As a staff member of the Tri-Cities Historical Museum, I am often involved in researching answers to questions submitted to the museum. As a lifelong resident of the area and a native of Ferrysburg, I was asked to research the history of Ferrysburg for a lecture that the museum is holding about the city. Putting the lecture information together brought back lots of memories of my growing up in the little village.
When a small child, my father owned the Shell gas station by the “Y” intersection that connected the bridge to Spring lake, and being a mechanic, fixed many a car in the small village. My
family lived directly behind the gas station at 107 Second St. until the new US 31 was built in the 1940s. My Grandma Lyttle lived across the street, and my Grandma Burke lived next door to
Johnston Boiler Works. I walked to Seep’s General store for candy (which was located where the Pine Street Café sits today), and walked to Ferrysburg Elementary school which was a few blocks
from our house, which was one of the homes torn down when US31 was constructed. It seemed to me that everyone knew everyone and we were a very content and fun village.
The story of how the village became a city is very interesting. William M. Ferry II, platted the village in 1857. He was the first son of William Ferry I who founded Grand Haven in 1834. The first plat map showed four roads running north and south and four roads running east and west. Johnston Boiler Works was one of the first businesses in the area and it celebrated 150 years in 2014.
One of the largest contributors to the growth of Ferrysburg is the village’s unique position geographically. It was the cross section of two major trade routes- north and south between
Holland and Muskegon, East and West between Chicago and Grand Rapids. All forms of transportation could stop and do business in Ferrysburg. Stage coach travelers often chose to stop for refreshment in Ferrysburg as they travelled north and south. Boats had an easy time docking for repair on the shores of deep Spring Lake. Goods could easily be loaded and unloaded from the tracks that originally ran along the north bank of the Grand River- and therefore right through Ferrysburg. Shipyards built passenger ships that sailed the Grand River and Spring Lake to the many summer resorts in the area. Gravel tugs came down river from the Bass Gravel Pits for sorting and the gravel was finally shipped all over to places for building roads. Railroads were built for the interurban trains and finally bridges were needed when automobiles were manufactured.
Ferrysburg didn’t just grow based on location, but also hard working people. I’ve already mentioned Johnston Boiler, but they were not the only prosperous business in town. They worked
closely with Mr. Parish who managed the Ottawa Iron Works. H.C. Pearson made his livelihood on the north side of the Johnston plant, producing renowned wooden schooners, tugs, and dump scows. He held a number of valuable patents on inventions related to his shipyard. Smaller industries profited from the workers making their lives in Ferrysburg, small grocery stores, hotels,
milliners, and eventually gas stations and mechanics like my dad.
Other memories of Ferrysburg I have are reading books and dancing to the Big Bands at the Fruitport Pavilion. Picnics on the lake shore in Fruitport, fishing on Spring Lake, and boating were all
pastimes to occupy the lives of the residents in the small town of Ferrysburg. People would congregate at school PTA meetings to catch up on the local gossip, small general stores were
scattered here and there for purchasing people’s needs, and making a living in that era seemed much simpler.
Mail was received by walking to the small post office. Folks rode bicycles for transportation because cars were pricey. Gardens were grown for food that was prepared for winters when the weather prohibited getting to the general stores. On Sunday you went home to Grandma’s where all the relations congregated for a visit with family. Today that is all gone. People don’t talk to each other, they text; they don’t look at each other while out walking, they talk on hand-held telephones instead of listening to nature and say nothing to the people they pass. Reliving memories of living in Ferrysburg was wonderful for me, and I realized how very much I miss it today.
The Tri-Cities Historical Museum is hosting a lecture, “The History of Ferrysburg,” on Tuesday, September 29 at 7:00 p.m. at the Ferrysburg City Hall. The lecture is free and is
open to the public. We hope you can attend to learn more about the story of this community by the lake.