Despite its patchwork of farm and field, Michigan remains a highly industrialized state. Heavy manufacturing leads its list of income-producing industries, followed by tourism and agriculture.
For almost two centuries, Michigan has been a mirror of the country’s great industrial transition. As the state’s economy has evolved from agriculture and fur trading to metals, logging, and, finally, automobile manufacturing, the state has ridden a roller coaster that shows no signs of stopping.
Ironically, the ups and downs that sometimes curse the state’s economic fortunes are nothing new. Just as today’s auto industry has experienced both wild success and dismal failure, so it was with the mining era in the Upper Peninsula, which left a legacy of fantastic wealth juxtaposed with depressed towns huddled around played-out mines. In the 1880s, just before the birth of the automobile, many Detroit residents thought that the city had already seen its greatest growth. Little did they know that in the city’s workshops and laboratories, inventors were talking about a revolution.
Most Americans today need only look in their garages or on their kitchen tables to find evidence of Michigan’s diversified economy. While a variety of businesses call Michigan home, the state will always be associated with the automobile industry. Nicknamed “Motor City,” the state’s largest town and most of its economy are driven by the most enduring of American inventions.
With $5-a-day wages and innovative automated assembly lines, Henry Ford revolutionized the industrial world with his “horseless carriage.” To this day, the “Big Three”—Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors—maintain world headquarters in metropolitan Detroit. Those corporations in turn spawned hundreds of auto-related businesses and legions of millionaires.
Outside of Detroit, industries are a bit more varied. To the west, Battle Creek is the cereal capital of the country, a place where the Kellogg brothers pioneered their new breakfast food at the Battle Creek Sanitarium. Grand Rapids has long been associated with the furniture industry. Midland is the home of Dow Chemical Company. Tiny Fremont claims Gerber, one of the world’s best-known baby-food companies. Other Michigan exports include nonelectric machinery, appliances, pharmaceuticals, and lumber.
Beyond the larger cities, however, agriculture dominates. Farming remains an important presence in the state, with approximately 52,800 farms occupying a total of 10,000,000 acres. Crops vary from corn to cherries. The state ranks first in the nation in the production of red tart cherries, dry beans, blueberries, picking cucumbers, and potted geraniums.
Other principal field crops include hay, oats, corn, rye, potatoes, soybeans, wheat, and sugar beets. The western side of the state, which enjoys warmer temperatures modified by Lake Michigan, is known as the “Fruit Belt” and has made the state a leading producer of apples, plums, peaches, and sweet cherries. It also has proved surprisingly tolerant for growing wine grapes, and Michigan’s winemaking industry continues to surprise people with its award-winning and ever-improving vintages. Rounding out the state’s wide-ranging agricultural products are fresh market and processing vegetables, mushrooms, potted Eastern lilies, spearmint, milk, eggs, and poultry.
Logging and Mining
Farther north, the Upper Peninsula’s economy was long based on logging and mining. Great fortunes were made in logging in the late 1800s, as Michigan’s vast stands of virgin timber produced enough wood to lay an inch-thick plank across the state—with enough left over to cover Rhode Island, too. Few can even grasp the riches of Michigan’s copper and iron mining industries, which each dwarfed the gold rush taking place in California. Michigan produced more than $9.6 billion in copper and a staggering $48 billion in iron, compared with $955 million from the gold rush. The riches and the miners disappeared as the most accessible deposits were exhausted and global economics began to play a role. Nearly all the U.P.’s mines shut down by the mid-1900s.
Since the U.P.’s former industries folded, it’s relied largely on tourism to maintain its sputtering economy, luring many visitors with its unsurpassed rugged beauty. Today, tourism is one of Michigan’s largest income producers, accounting for over $18 billion in annual revenues and nearly 200,000 jobs statewide. At one time, tourism was focused on the summer months, when beaches, festivals, and resort towns in the Lower Peninsula were most popular. Nowadays, however, the state is a four-season destination, attracting anglers in spring, hunters in fall, and all manner of skiers, snowmobilers, and skaters in winter.
Shipping and Fishing
Just as semis rumble down the interstate, commercial ships transport commodities across the Great Lakes. Officially designated as the nation’s “Fourth Seacoast” by Congress in 1970, the Great Lakes serve as a vital, economical transportation artery for the nation’s commerce. Via the U.S.-Flag fleet, about 125 million tons of cargo travel across the lakes each year. Without them, many of the country’s largest industries, including Michigan’s auto manufacturing, couldn’t survive.
With its hundreds of miles of Great Lakes shoreline and dozens of deepwater ports, Michigan is a key player in the Great Lakes transportation network. What’s more, the Soo Locks that link Lakes Superior and Huron at Sault Ste. Marie rank as the largest and busiest lock system in the world.
Iron ore forms the foundation of the Great Lakes trade. In Upper Peninsula ports like Escanaba and Marquette, huge lake carriers as long as 1,000 feet load iron ore from nearby mines, then transport it to steelmaking centers in the southern Great Lakes, where the steel is, in turn, used by heavy manufacturers like Detroit’s auto industry.
Heavy manufacturing also drives much of the demand for the second-largest cargo, limestone, which is used as a purifying agent in steelmaking. The construction, chemical, and paper industries rely on limestone, too. Michigan has a good corner on the market: The limestone quarry in Rogers City, northwest of Alpena, ranks as the largest in the world.
Great Lakes shipping does face its share of competition, especially from overseas, in the form of imported finished products ranging from refrigerators to automobiles. That translates to a decrease in steel production here, which in turn reduces the need for iron ore shipments. Secondly, other transportation networks like trains and trucks compete with shipping for certain commodities. But overall, shipping has proved to be a steady industry, and total cargo shipments have remained fairly even over the last decade.
by Laura Martone from Moon Michigan, 3rd Edition, © Avalon Travel