When Andy asked me to write a piece about how Northern Michigan survived the Great Depression, I was eager and interested from a historical perspective to reflect on the lessons of the past. Would our story reveal some truths or opportunities about our future? Soon I realized that the piece was really about wealth, or rather, the meaning of what we value in Northern Michigan. Over time, those values probably shift, but this region is abundant in natural wonders as well as resources, and that combination offers a potential that–to this day–attracts people with a pioneering spirit.
The depression era came as no great shocker to the people of our region. As news, it was certainly alarming, but in actuality, the lumber boon of the early 1900’s, which had brought Northern Michigan an abundance of wealth, had already began its decline. The entrepreneurs that settled this region began employing their ingenuity in new directions. Former lumberman, D.H. Day, began marketing the region as a mecca for tourism, primarily along the Lake Michigan shoreline. Much of the area he promoted then has been preserved by the Park Service and lies within the boundaries of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, though it certainly extended to the neighboring towns.
Traverse City had established a strong local banking system and newspaper. Still, there was not an abundance of federal money flowing into the region. One of the methods for stimulating the local economy was inventing a local currency. This project helped create jobs for some of the locally unemployed. Innovative for its time, the local currency of Traverse City during the depression added money to the regional economy and stimulated trade, allowing fluid local exchange. Though only remnants of this depression-era currency still exist, a new local currency has been circulating for several years, known as “Bay Bucks,” with the same intention of safeguarding our local scene from national economic adversity.
Traditionally, Northern Michigan has also enjoyed rich agrarian resources, graced with verdant soil–a gift bestowed upon us from the glaciers. During the depression, human activity (especially in rural regions), was not solely dependent on mass transportation for food stuffs. Combining the regions agrarian resources, abundance of water, strong financial institutions, a local currency, beautiful beaches and an aspiring tourist destination, the region survived the depression. Of course, the locals had to buckle down, they had to live without. However, swimming in a lake is inexpensive; in fact, much of what Northern Michigan offers abundantly is free to enjoy.
Today, the ability of Northern Michiganders to survive economic struggles may be attributed to a time-tested practice of successful living. Cyclical in nature, survival for many northerners is dependent on summer influx of tourism and on seasonal agricultural abundance. In meantime, we buckle down and ride the wave of recession; here, it is commonly call “winter.” This seasonal economic drought has remained one known in the equation of Northern living, so we are trained to follow the ebbs and tides of abundance. Though not immune of state struggles, Northern Michigan is again relying on the wealth of our community, on the strong foundation of its past–infused with ingenuity and hope–as we approach the future.
Photo: Sunset Swimming by PammyLZ