Book Review

“Hidden History of Detroit”

By - Feb 3rd, 2012 04:00 am
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Mention the city of Detroit and, at best, people might think of the auto industry or classic Motown songs. Yet, there is a history to Detroit that dates long before Henry Ford and the Supremes. And this history comes alive in Amy Elliott Bragg’s Hidden History of Detroit.

Inspired by her blog Night Train to Detroit, Michigan native (and former ThirdCoast Digest Senior Editor), Bragg writes of Detroit’s beginnings, from its founding by the expedition leader Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac to its namesake the Grand Monarque of Ville de Troit to the advent of the automobile at the turn of the last century.

What’s striking about the Hidden History of Detroit is how some of the issues facing the city’s early years are familiar to large American cities in 2012. Detroit’s history has had its share of political rivalries, labor upheaval, ethnic strife and crumbling infrastructure. Not happy with the roads you drive on? Detroit’s earliest “paved” streets were made of wood, which took on rather odd smells when they got wet.

Yet, Detroit grew due to an entrepreneurial spirit long before Henry Ford invented the Model T. Industries like lumber, tobacco, liquor, media and pharmaceuticals were quite successful and inspired many people to find their fortunes in Detroit.

Detroit’s early years were also rich with larger than life characters like the “boy governor” Stevens Thomson Mason, who was acting governor at the tender age of twenty-five. Then there is James Scott, a millionaire gambler and raconteur who left the city a considerable sum of $600,000 when he died but with one caveat — a statue had to be erected in his honor,

The ladies also had an impact on Detroit’s history. Heiress Clara Ward, the Kim Kardashian of her day, scandalized people with her multiple marriages, wild partying and performances at the Folies-Bergere. Sadly, she allegedly died a pauper and in her obituary the Detroit News just had to mention how Clare Ward had been spurned and shunned by her family and companions.

One compelling chapter focuses on early Detroit’s penchant for parties and drinking and is simply called “Liquor.” While many American towns were founded by religious folks who eschewed alcohol, Detroit was founded by traders, and as Bragg puts it, “…where you had trade, you had booze.” These parties were quite rowdy and made frat parties look like prayer circles. I laughed out loud when she described one party as being “liver crushing.”

Author and former TCD editor Amy Elliott.

I have to admit I was overwhelmed at times by all of the information Bragg provides in this slim tome (less than 200 pages). At times I thought I would need to organize the names, dates, facts and figures on an Excel spreadsheet. She certainly did her homework, and I can only imagine her glee over finding out another interesting tidbit about Detroit’s history while doing her research. The book’s illustrations and photographs also aid in telling Detroit’s history.

Thanks to Bragg’s exhaustive research, the early days of Detroit come alive with interesting facts and figures who are fleshed-out human beings. This is no dusty and musty history text book. Hidden History of Detroit is fun read for any history buff, and you don’t have be a citizen of Detroit to enjoy it. It may even make you wonder, “Hmm, what’s the hidden history of my city?”

For Amy Elliott Bragg’s TCD story on her book, click here.

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