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Take an A-Z walk through local history at the museum

• Apr 26, 2019 at 3:00 PM

With the arrival of spring also comes a sense of renewal. At the museum, that means a new temporary exhibit and a new chance to discover and share local history with the members of this community.

The upcoming “Tri-Cities: A to Z” exhibit explores untapped themes and artifacts from the collection as you walk through the alphabet.

One example from the exhibit will be “C is for Challenge,” representing a category of artifacts and history in manufacturing. The Tri-Cities has produced so many different appliances, tools and more that have been sold and used across the country.

The Challenge Corn Planter and Refrigerator Co. is one such company that produced an array of products, employed a lot of people in the community and involved dedicated businessmen with a passion for public service. Some of the original officers included Dwight Cutler, who was the mayor of Grand Haven, and William Savidge, who served as a state senator.

The company consisted of 10 buildings near the northeast corner of Beacon and Jackson streets. The mainstay of the business was corn planters, a farm implement that they continued to improve and perfect over the years. But they also produced popular iceboxes made from kiln-dried lumber that used pure wood charcoal for the insulation. The iceboxes, also commonly called refrigerators, were efficient, popular and sold throughout the country.

When the company stopped producing corn planters, it focused on refrigerators and changed the name to the Challenge Refrigerator Co. The museum has a few of these surprisingly beautiful iceboxes in the collection that will be on display during the exhibit.

“P is for Pianos” is a wonderful theme to explore as the former piano factory is still a vital and bustling part of downtown. The Story & Clark Piano Co. was originally founded in Vermont in the 1850s by Hampton Story, and in the 1860s the company moved to Chicago. The Grand Haven Board of Trade was looking for an infusion of industry and jobs and pitched the Story & Clark Piano Co. to move their operations to Grand Haven. There were many wood workers and skilled laborers left looking for work after the lumber boom ended, and the ability to easily ship goods by train or ship made for the perfect opportunity and an easy decision for the piano company.

Construction of the factory began in 1900 and, by 1901, pianos were in production at the facility. Story & Clark employed hundreds in the community and produced almost 400 pianos a month in 1909.

Over the years, the company built a reputation for excellent craftsmanship and innovation, but sales would eventually decline due to a smaller market and tough competitors. In 1982, Story & Clark shut down the Grand Haven facility. That was not the end of the factory, however, as businesses and shops moved in and brought new life and activity to a building that we enjoy to this day.

Story & Clark was not the only piano game in town, though. Gordon Laughead was originally from Ohio, where his father was in the piano business. Gordon spent years working alongside his father and learned how to sell, tune and repair pianos. In the 1930s, Gordon moved to Grand Haven and worked for Story & Clark for seven years as the head of sales before venturing out on his own. The Gordon Laughead Piano Co. opened just down the street in the 100 block of Washington Avenue in 1942.

Not to compete with Story & Clark, Laughead specialized in small upright pianos that came in several different woods and finishes. The business outgrew the small first shop and continued on for another 20 years at the northwest corner of Elliott and Seventh streets.

Both Story & Clark and Laughead pianos will be on display for you to see during the exhibit.

A final example is “S is for Signs.” This category may find you instantly transported to the past.

Everyone knows how iconic signs can be, when you see a large golden “M” above a highway overpass you know exactly what fast-food chain is coming up. The same can be said for the signs of local businesses. How many people upon seeing the Braak’s Bakery sign have their mouth water for their famous Town Talk cookies? Braak’s Bakery was a family business started by Jacob and Jennie Braak, and, in 1903, they opened their bakery on Savidge Street in a vacant blacksmith shop. The neon sign that hung above the door in Spring Lake has been restored and will be on display in the exhibit in all of its neon glory!

As we enjoy the new season and sense of renewal, why not stop by the museum for a fresh take on local history. What better way to see where we’re going than to see where we’ve been?

“Tri-Cities: A to Z” opens May 16. For more information, visit www.tri-citiesmuseum.org.

About the writer: Meredith Slover is the curator of collections for the Tri-Cities Historical Museum, 200 Washington Ave., Grand Haven.

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