Friday, October 20, 2017

Newcomer Legacy: A Vietnamese-American Story in West Michigan

by Frank Boles

On October 5 Alan Headbloom presented the documentary he produced and directed, “Newcomer Legacy: A Vietnamese-American Story in West Michigan.” The documentary interviewed nine refugees who fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon and resettled in the Grand Rapids area. It asked about their leave taking from Vietnam, how they first experienced and grew to understand the United States, and, finally, where today they would call “home.”

The leave taking was often harrowing and sometime heartbreaking. One interviewee spoke of how her husband got her out of the country, but stayed himself because of the obligation he felt to others. After reaching America, she received a few letters from her husband, before she eventually learned he had been executed. Others spoke of dangerous trips in unseaworthy, overcrowded boats and period of interment in countries such as Malaysia.

The interviewees also spoke of their arrival, and the challenges they faced in a new land. One spoke of how she and her family were greeted at the airport by representatives of a local church who had “adopted” the family. They were taken from the airport to a furnished house that they were allowed to live in, with supper waiting for them on the table. Many of the interviewees told similar stories regarding the kindness they experienced in their first days in America.

But however welcoming the local population was, the refugees had been uprooted from there former lives and placed in a completely new environment. There were, therefore, challenges. Things residents of Grand Rapids might easily take for granted could prove an obstacle for these newly arrived refugees. Everyone who arrived in the winter commented on the cold. One comical yet revealing story was about how early on one of the refugees needed to travel in town. He was shown where the bus stop was, told where he needed to get off, and warned that several different bus would come by and that he should wait for the number 4. This was good advice, but the morning he left his house it had snowed and the exterior numbers on the bus that drove past were unreadable. Without any English language skills he couldn’t ask the bus driver if this was the number 4 bus. After three bus passed he decided he would just have to take a chance, and got on the next bus. Inside, he saw it was indeed the number 4 bus, and thanked God.

To a person each of the refugees worked very hard and succeeded in their new home. As Alan Headbloom pointed out, this is typical of refugees. Unlike other immigrants, who can always go home if things don’t work out, going home for these people could mean imprisonment or even death. They had no “plan B.” Making life work in America was the only option.

In the last few minutes of the documentary the refugees were asked where, for them, is now “home.” Each answered the question in various ways, but each ended by saying “home” was now Michigan.

In an era when immigration plays an important role in our national political discussion, Alan Headbloom’s documentary offers invaluable insights into the immigrant experience. For more information about the documentary visit Mr. Headbloom’s Facebook page,

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Congratulations to Le Roy Barnett

by Frank Boles

At its 2017 annual meeting the Historical Society of Michigan honored Le Roy Barnett with its Lifetime Achievement Award. Lee Barnett has regularly enhanced the documentary record of our state. Today Lee is retired after serving for 23 years as a reference archivist at the Archives of the State of Michigan. But during his career and archivist and continuing into the present, Lee has published hundreds of books and articles documenting literally all aspects of Michigan history.

The Clarke Library’s connection with Lee is a deep one. Lee has donated over thirty feet of his documents and background files to the Clarke. As Clarke archivist Marian Matyn notes in her Collection Scope and Content Note, topics found in the papers include: “Michigan ash; railroads; highways; the Mackinac Bridge; music and people who sang or wrote songs about Michigan and/or cars; the longstanding oleo versus margarine debates, issues, advertisements, laws, and illegal sales; Agricultural Demonstration Trains of Michigan State University, 1906-1937; buying Michigan, 1795-1796; counties, name changes/considered creation of new counties; the history of county names; dandelions [as an emergency source of post-World War II rubber]; highway lighthouses [precursors to traffic lights]; lynchings; prisoners building Michigan roads during the 1920s; reflectors (roadside); roadside parks [Michigan had the first]; and stagecoaches. An addition in 2006 included the topics of: Broadcasting, Homestead Lands, Michiganders who went to Hollywood, Port Huron and Milwaukee Railroad, Sabbath Blue Laws, particularly in Ludington, and Swamp Lands, among others. Later additions include the topics of centroids, Iron Range and Huron Bay Railroad, Michigan ferries, Michigan’s population centers since statehood, and Oldsmar, Florida, harvesting deadheads (logs in rivers), LaChoy, and Michigan as a Commonwealth, David Ward, Deward (Mich.), and the Detroit and Charlevoix Railroad Company.” The complete finding aid describing his collection can be found at;cginame=findaid-idx;focusrgn=summaryinfo;id=navbarbrowselink;subview=standard;view=reslist.

The Michigan Historical Review has published ten works written by Lee. The most recent contribution to the MHR by Lee was “Publications of the Saint Mary’s Falls Ship Canal Company and Its Immediate Offspring.” Lee’s sly sense of humor sometimes shines forth in unexpected titles, such as, “Michigan's War with Mammals: Bounties, Hunters, and Trappers against Unwanted Species,” which can only be topped by “Soil Surveys: A Down-to-Earth Source of Cultural Information.”

When not publishing new works or shuttling donations from his home to the Clarke Library, Lee also regularly looks at dealer catalogs and other sources of historically related material and regularly sends along helpful notes about what he has found. A number of acquisitions found their way into the Clarke stacks because of a helpful note from Lee, making me aware of their availability.

Lee Barnett has been a friend of the Clarke, and more importantly an outstanding contributor to the body of knowledge about our state. I am delighted that the Historical Society of Michigan has recognized his work.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Ralph Connable

by Frank Boles

Recently at the Michigan Hemingway Society’s annual meeting, a participant from Canada asked me an interesting question. “What can you find out about Ralph Connable, the man who invited Hemingway to Toronto in 1920?”

To be honest, I had never heard of Ralph Connable, but based on a promise to “find out what I could and get back to you” I began to do my homework. It was worth the effort. Connable was a fascinating, Michigan-based, character.

Connable’s Hemingway connection was clear, and relatively brief. In December 1919 Harriet Connable, Ralph’s spouse, happened to hear Ernest Hemingway talk at the Petoskey Public Library. She took a liking to the young man, deciding he would be just the thing to introduce the Connable’s somewhat sickly son to the joys of physical activity. Hemingway was hired to spend the winter of 1920-21 in Toronto with the Connable’s son, while the rest of the family enjoyed an extended Florida vacation. The job was not particularly demanding and the Connables had also introduced Hemingway to the editors at the Toronto Star, for whom he started to write – eventually publishing 172 pieces in the Star over a four year period, many of them while in Paris.

That story is well told in the literature printed about Ernest Hemingway. But who was Ralph Connable? I spent an afternoon looking into the question and found one of those stories that had to be real, since no one would believe it were it put into a work of fiction.

Born in 1873 in Petoskey, Ralph Connable could politely be referred to as a gentleman who engaged in many careers, primarily because he failed in the one preceding his move to the next. His father was postmaster in Petoskey and relatively prosperous – a blessing that seems to have save Connable several times.

Connable attended Albion College’s Preparatory School where, by his own admission, his major interest was in stud poker. His scholarly career at Albion was short-lived. At 15, Connable’s father gave his son his first job -- charge of the stationary counter in the post office, a private concern for which the boy was to receive 10 percent of sales as his salary.

Connable himself, in an amusing autobiography from which most of this account is taken, admitted that had he been less interested in dime novels and more willing to serve his customers this arrangement would have worked out well. The counter, after all, was the only place to buy stationary in town. Unfortunately, Connable was much more interested in reading dime novels than the business, and saw no reason why a customer shouldn’t wait to be helped until he finished reading a sentence, or a paragraph, or maybe a page, or a bit more of the book. Business did not go well. This was a pattern that was repeated many times.

Next, he and his brothers got involved in fishing. Commercial fishing was a profitable business. With three steam tugs and almost 500 miles of gill nets, it seemed the firm’s future was bright. However the business did not go well.

With little prospect of making a go of fishing on the Great Lakes, Connable hit upon a new scheme – going to northern Minnesota to make caviar from sturgeon eggs. After spending a fall fortune to learn how to make caviar and a year in Minnesota he came to the sad realization that there were too few sturgeon in the area he had selected to make money in caviar.

Again out of a job, Connable found work with the Booth Packing Company of Chicago, acting as their agent in scouting potential fishing sites in Minnesota. This too did not amount to much, but it did introduce him to people in Chicago, which would play an important role in his future.

Leaving Minnesota and the Booth Packing Company, and returning to Chicago, Connable found work at an “Edison Phonograph Co.” on State St. in the Loop. The emporium had 30 or so phonographs where ”drunks with ‘sporting ladies’” would pay to hear songs played. Told he needed to go west for health reasons, he raised the money to buy two “Kinetoscope Fight Machines,” and shipped them to Colorado. He was assured by the company his would be the first “moving images” west of Chicago, an assurance he decided was not worth much when he arrived in Denver to discover someone had preceded him by about a month, with the same machines. Nevertheless by taking his machines to various mining towns he managed to make some profit.

But in the end he shipped the machines back to Chicago and in 1895 returned to that city. Looking for a line of work that would not be seasonal, he learned to run a laundry business by volunteering to work for free. After three weeks of “training”, he discovered that the owner of Petoskey’s White Swan Laundry was dead – and the business for sale. With a $500 loan from his father and several notes to various creditors the White Swan Laundry became his.

He learned two things running the laundry. Business was steady during the tourist season, but come October it slumped badly. The second thing he learned was that, when the business burned one night, the insurance money he planned to use to rebuild it went instead to the various creditors whose notes he had signed.

With the help of his father he ended up managing a bookstore in Traverse City. Having read little since those dime novels many years earlier Connable nevertheless was undeterred, writing that “Being completely uncultured adds a degree of assurance that spells success in any line.” While running the bookstore he first encountered the 5 & 10 business. Travelling to Chicago he bought a small stock of items from Siebert, Good & Company, which ran several large 5 & 10 stores. The five and dime business sold discounted general merchandise, generally as the name implied for either a nickel or a dime. Connable’s 5 & 10 business did well and soon proved much more profitable than the book store, so profitable the store was sold, and the new owner installed his son as the new manager.

As a substitute, Connable was offered the opportunity to manage another store in Kalamazoo, but with the sum of $2.85 in his pocket he turned down the offer to return to Petoskey.

In 1900 he decided to follow up on a casual remark made by Daniel Good, from whom he had bought that small stock of merchandise, that he would hire him should the opportunity arise. Good was indeed good to his word – and employed Connable at the company’s State St. store in Chicago at a salary of $12 a week. After about seven weeks Connable went back to Mr. Good and announced he was ready to become a store manager. The manager of the branch store in Bloomington, Illinois had just been fired – and Mr. Good gave Connable that job.

Given Connable’s past history, unsurprisingly things went poorly. The store burned. But something magical happened. Connable managed to persuade the more than peculiar owner of the property to allow him to rebuild on the site, something Mr. Good had been unable to accomplish. Good was so impressed Connable was recalled to Chicago to serve as Good’s assistant and general buyer for the chain’s nine stores – at the generous pay of $1,800 a year. Within six months Connable had proved so adept at the business his pay was raised to $3,600 a year.

Siebert Good & Company was first bought out by a company headquartered in Buffalo, New York, which in 1911 subsequently merged with several other 5 & 10 chains to form the 900 store strong Woolworth Company. The Woolworth Company wasn’t quite sure what to do with Connable, so they sent him to run their eleven stores in Canada. 

The stores were poorly managed, something Connable addressed quickly. They were also buying most of their stock in the United States, and as a result paying a 40 percent tariff to import the goods into Canada. Connable turned to domestic Canadian suppliers for most of his needs and avoided the 40 percent tariff – a change that made the stores profit soar.

Connable was opening eight to ten new stores a year, but was convinced that the biggest profits were to be made in Canada’s far west. Investors however balked at the high overhead Western stores would require. Eventually Connable was given permission to open three as an experiment, with the first in Calgary. After the store’s first month, Connable was given authority to open stores wherever he wanted. In 1915 he was made president of Woolworth - Canada. In 1926 he retired from Woolworth, a wealthy man despite the many business failures during his younger years.

Somewhere in this long career Connable developed a love for golf. He thought of it both as the perfect recreation for he and his staff, and a very, very good way to seal deals with suppliers. Connable’s love of the game, was such that he was responsible for the construction of Toronto’s earliest public golf course, sharing his passion with those unable to join a country club, which previously was the only way one gained access to the links.

Connable was also an inveterate practical joker.'His favorite escapade was to dress like a woman and walk into the men's locker room of the staid Lambton Golf Club. While men shouted and tried to hide behind doors, Connable would whisper, "I'm looking for my gentleman friend." 

Connable’s connection to Hemingway was brief. His connection to Michigan much stronger. And his story truly one of persistence in the face of repeated failure, eventually leading to finding his way to great success. It is amazing what kind of story can be found answering a simply question.

Newspaper Digitization Proposals Due November 3

by Frank Boles

With the help of the Robert and Susan Clarke endowment the Clarke Historical Library will again this year sponsor a mini-grant competition that will make it possible to bring all or part of a Michigan community’s historic newspaper online. 

The DigMichNews grant will allow the Clarke Library to scan and place online up to 9,000 pages of a previously microfilmed newspaper, or microfilm, scan, and place online up to 4,500 pages of hard copy newspaper.

Applications for the program can be found on the Clarke Library website,

Got your community’s application in today.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The First Homecoming Tradition and the Creation of a Mascot

by Bryan Whitledge

In 1924, the Central Michigan Normal School held our first homecoming football game. And even from the first game, it was important to establish traditions. Some of the traditions that Central students and alumni have known through the years include Homecoming Mums (1930s-80s), the Homecoming Queen (1946-96), the Homecoming King (1982-96), the Homecoming 5K(1987-present) and the Homecoming Medallion Hunt (2003-present). In 1924, the first tradition started by Centralites (we weren’t the Chippewas until 1941 and we weren’t even the Bearcats until 1927), aside from the game, was the menacing dragon that trotted out at halftime to intimidate the opposing Alma team and inspired our gridiron boys to victory. According to the 1925 yearbook, the dragon “symbolized that the visiting eleven was helpless against the dragon-like power of the Maroon and Gold fighters.”

The following year, the second homecoming was planned. Among the highlights of the Friday-night pep rally, was “the traditional Central Normal dragon,” which “wound its way among the crowd encircling the bonfire while the red lights shooting out from its gaping mouth were portents of the ordeal that Albion must undergo on the morrow.” The dragon also made an appearance at halftime the following day when the Central team held the strong Albion squad to a draw. Clearly the fire-breathing dragon had become a homecoming tradition.

Through all this time, Central still did not have a nickname for the athletics teams. It should come as no surprise then, in June of 1926, when a Central Normal Life sportswriter was lamenting the lack of a snappy name for the team, that “Dragons” would be suggested as a nickname for Central’s teams. The writer noted that the fire-breathing dragon was Central’s “outstanding pep innovation of recent years.”

Through that fall and spring, the Central Normal Life was full of headlines like, “Dragons Smash Thru for Four Touchdowns,” and “MIAA Champs Vanquished, 13-2, Bv Terrific Drive of the Dragons.” But alas, the Dragons would last only one year. By August 1927, students were calling for a new mascot to compete in the world of Bulldogs, Bears, and Tigers. An early suggestion was Wildcats, but by October, Bearcats was the name that was chosen. As the Central State Life noted at the time, “the expression [Bearcats] is one that is used much in this section of the state to signify that a team or an individual is a topnotcher, a fighter, and a winner.”

It’s not often that a school’s Homecoming tradition gives rise to a team mascot, but such is the case for Central’s short-lived fire-breathing dragon that rallied students and intimidated opponents.