25 Transportable Facts About Michigan

Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron / Chloe Effron

It's hard to ignore the hugely influential part Michigan has played in 20th century engineering, music, and natural resources. Take a look at 25 facts that prove the Wolverine State—which is celebrating its 180th birthday today—is more than the sum of its auto parts.

1. Recognized as the 26th state in the union in 1837, Michigan is taken from the Indian word Michigama: it means a "large lake."


2. They almost went to war with Ohio. Prior to becoming a state, the Michigan territory took issue with Ohio claiming the mouth of the Maumee River in Toledo as its own property. Things came to a head in 1836, when militia forces from both sides marched into the wilderness to oppose one another. They never came in contact; blood was drawn only when the son of one Ohio military officer tried to rescue his father from a Michigan jail by stabbing a sheriff in the thigh. Congress insisted Michigan accept the boundary line and cede Toledo in order to gain statehood—they reluctantly agreed.

3. When Michigan was a new state in 1837, they immediately set about constructing railroads, river transportation, and other infrastructure to make shipping goods easier. Part of this was facilitated by President Andrew Jackson’s sour attitude toward bankers and lack of formal regulation. The state let virtually anyone open their own bank; land speculation ran rampant, leading to institutional failures and nearly bankrupting the state before it had even gotten started.


4. Michigan was the first state to ban the death penalty. After Detroit bar owner Stephen Simmons was hanged for murdering his wife in 1830, newspapers and religious leaders began to criticize the brutal practice and petitioned for its abolishment. When another hanged man was later found to be innocent, the public movement became so influential that state legislature banned the practice in 1847. (You could still, however, be executed for treason through 1963.)

5. Michigan was an early and outspoken opponent of slavery and welcomed refugees from the Underground Railroad. When former slave Adam Crosswhite fled Kentucky in 1843, he settled in Marshall. When Kentuckians came to the state in 1847 searching for Crosswhite, citizens intervened and had the mob jailed while Crosswhite headed for Canada.


6. Battle Creek was once the unofficial capital of breakfast cereal. When physician John Harvey Kellogg assumed duties at the Battle Creek Sanitarium in the late 1800s, he advised a strict diet and exercise regimen, including a flaked cereal he developed called Granose. When businessman C.W. Post visited the center in 1891 and tried to convince Kellogg to market his cereal, Kellogg wasn’t interested—so Post came up with some of his own, including Grape Nuts. The Kellogg family later started the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company in 1906, ushering in the modern age of soggy carb-and-milk bowls.

7. Michigan’s thriving lumber industry meant the state's economy became inextricably tied to the manufacture of carriages and wagons, which soon would give way to the automobile. Henry Ford’s Model T became the standard for carmakers to follow, with reasonable production prices and satisfied consumers. (At under $300, the vehicle was half the price of the competition.) Introduced in 1908, it led the way for Ford Motors to claim over half of all auto sales by the 1920s.


8. Ford’s assembly-line ingenuity and production cleverness came at a price: workers in his Detroit-area factories experienced a high turnover due to the repetitive nature of their tasks. Eager to keep employees happy, Ford paid them $5 a day, double what a typical auto plant worker made in 1913. They now earned enough to actually buy a Model T of their own.

9. The auto workers wouldn’t stay placated forever. As labor unions began to gain momentum in the industry, workers at General Motors engaged in a sit-down strike in 1936. They wanted to be represented in negotiations by the United Auto Workers, which GM resisted. For 44 days, employees occupied the Flint plant; GM tried turning off the heat and enlisted help of local police, to little avail. The workers had succeeded in turning off the spigot of production, with the company going from 50,000 cars in December to 125 in February. President Franklin Roosevelt advised the sides to make peace: GM eventually relented, with the UAW insisting on salary increases and better working conditions.

10. All of those auto plants—Michigan held more than 75 percent of the world’s car factories—became crucial during World War II. Many automakers converted their resources into providing jeeps, tanks, and other combat tools to Allied forces. Over 350,000 people came into the state to fill labor openings; President Roosevelt declared Detroit the “Arsenal of Democracy.”  

11. One Michigan radio station emitted what’s believed to be the first news broadcast on radio. On August 31, 1920, the Detroit News aired a news segment reporting election results on company-owned station WWJ. The paper had bought the station (then known as 8MK) to offset concerns that the instant communication of a broadcast might eventually replace printed news.  

12. The state had a real problem with quicksand. In 1926, the Barnes-Hecker Mine in Ishpeming suffered a catastrophic collapse when an explosion opened up a tunnel to a nearby bit of swampland. Muddy, sandy soil poured in, killing all but one of the 52 miners working. It’s considered the worst industrial accident in the state’s history.


13. Berry Gordy founded Motown (“Motor Town”) Records in Detroit in 1959 using $800 he borrowed from his family. Gordy was influenced by his time as an assembly-line worker at Lincoln-Mercury, using the raw steel he saw transformed into sleek vehicles as a metaphor for the young talent he nurtured into massive successes. The label would go on to introduce some of the most influential artists of the century, including Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder.

14. Christmas, Michigan (pop. 400, not counting the numerous roadside Santa cutouts), was founded in 1938 after a man from nearby Munising opened up a roadside stand to sell holiday gifts.

15. Holiday spirit can also be found year-round in Frankenmuth, home of Bronner's Christmas Wonderland, the world's largest Christmas store. The retailer and its landscaped grounds cover a total of 27 acres.

16. Have a thing for beards and buffalo plaid? Mackinaw City hosts the Jack Pine Lumberjack Show, in which two woodsmen compete in events like log rolling, axe throwing, pole climbing, and, of course, wood and springboard chopping. 


17. It's home to a giant fist. To honor Detroit resident and heavyweight champion Joe Louis, the city displays a 24-foot long bronze arm and fist downtown. The sculpture was a gift from Sports Illustrated in 1987 to the Detroit Institute of Arts.

18. Tombstones in Forest Hill Cemetery and Schoolcraft's Harrison Cemetery have been known to emit eerie glows at night, with reports of the phenomenon dating back to the 19th century. The weirdest part: get too close, and the glow seems to fade. One 1988 investigation by a local journalist turned up nothing, after he ruled out, with help from experts, reflections from car headlights and surrounding buildings and "phosphorescent headstone materials." 

19. An ancient fungus known as Armillaria gallica was discovered in 1992 in Crystal Falls. The 37 acres of living organism could be up to 10,000 years old. An annual festival is held each year in the spore’s honor.


20. It hosted the body slam heard around the world. In 1987, Vince McMahon’s burgeoning WWF franchise hosted WrestleMania III in Detroit’s massive Pontiac Silverdome. In front of one of the largest indoor crowds ever assembled for a sporting (or sport-like) event, Hulk Hogan defeated Andre the Giant by heaving him nearly over his head and slamming him to the mat. Suffering from the neglect brought on by the city’s decaying economy, the Silverdome is scheduled to be demolished in 2016.

21. Lawmakers in Flint won’t tolerate saggy pants. The town passed an ordinance in 2008 barring residents from wearing anything that drops below the buttocks based on what then-police chief David Dicks dubbed “indecent exposure.” Violators could be arrested.

22. Residents like to call each other names: those living in the Upper Peninsula (U.P.) are known as “Yoopers,” while those living under the Mackinac Bridge are affectionately (we think) called “trolls.”


23. It has a monorail. The Detroit “People Mover” was unveiled in the mid-1980s and runs across 2.9 miles, carrying passengers for free.  Because it was originally intended to be part of a larger public transport system that never materialized, the Mover has been criticized for its inadequate reach and general pointlessness. 

24. Colon, Michigan, is known as the magic capital of the world. The small town (pop. 1200) began to credit itself as a home base for illusionists after performers like Harry Blackstone and Percy Abbott took up residence there. Numerous magic supply stores sprung up, with many remaining to this day.


25. Mackinac Island has become an unlikely tourist destination. In 1979, parts of the island and the Grand Hotel were used to film Somewhere in Time, a fantasy-romance film starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour: Reeve portrays a playwright who finds a way to travel back in time to meet an actress (Seymour) he saw in a portrait. Based on a story by Richard Matheson, the film was not an immediate commercial success but eventually developed a cult following. Fans gather on the island every year for a convention, with Seymour sometimes making appearances.

This article originally ran in 2015.