GRAND HAVEN — The idea was to show off companies whose names were synonymous with the communities that make up the Tri-Cities.
Yet in assembling the Tri-Cities Historical Museum’s latest exhibit, Dennis Swartout realized something important was missing: artifacts and histories of manufacturing and industrial firms that have been the economic backbone of the community for generations.
“These (companies) are where jobs were created and, historically, are the lifeblood of the community,” said Swartout, the museum’s director.
That lifeblood is now on display through January at the Tri-Cities Historical Museum, telling the stories of the small and large businesses that have been part of the community’s evolution. Some of those firms have long faded into history — Bastian-Blessing, Story & Clark Piano Co. and Gardner-Denver Co., for instance.
Quite often historical exhibits focus on the people and important events in a town’s history. When business histories are recorded, they’re usually of the corner market, drug store or local bank.
In this instance, the museum wanted to recognize the manufacturers whose histories are just as important, Swartout said.
The exhibit, called “Namely … Tri-Cities,” offers visitors a glimpse of the area’s economic history, telling a “historically significant story, but one not a lot of people know,” Swartout said.
“It’s a part of local history that probably goes unnoticed. We know a little about things they manufacture, but not a lot as far as the products of that company and how they got started,” Swartout said. “There’s not the base of knowledge and understanding of what all has gone into making these companies what they are today.
“It’s really a marvelous history lesson.”
Those lessons aren’t always about history, though.
Chronicling corporate histories can provide business leaders of today insight into the successes that made some businesses flourish, as well as the mistakes and problems that led to the demise of others, museum Curator Nathan Barnett said.
“We say it over and over — those who do not understand their history are destined to repeat it. Businesses are the same way,” Barnett said.
Included in the stories that are on display are community icons of such as Eagle Ottawa Leather Co., Harbor Industries and Dake Corp.
Among the keepsakes is a one-of-a-kind cultivator tractor that Grand Haven Stamped Products — now known as GHSP and a division of JSJ Corp. — developed in the mid-1940s, as well as the certificate and gold medal that Dake Corp., also a JSJ division, received at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago for its square-piston engine.
The exhibit also tells of the Harvey Harvester, a harvesting machine designed and built to pick ripe blueberries from blueberry bushes, and how companies evolved with the times. The Canfield Co., for instance, laminated airplane aerials and ship propellers for the military during World War II. In the post-war years, the company put the same technique to use laminating products such as golf clubs and serving trays.
“They took their innovations from a war-time necessity and then through to a post-war market,” Barnett said.
While corporations and the American workplace have evolved and changed dramatically over the decades, reliving the history of local businesses illustrates a common thread between the past and today, Swartout said — that success and longevity in business still comes down to developing a good product and finding the right market for it.
“Fundamentally it still is about people coming up with a product that their market will accept and their customers need,” he said.