I have lived my entire life in and around the City of Detroit. In fact, I was born during its automotive golden years when the “Big 3” car companies (General Motors, Ford Motor and Chrysler) literally drove the economic market here in Detroit. There were no foreign car manufacturers stealing sales and manpower. Even imported foreign cars on the road were rare, and those were owned and driven by only the very rich. Family lines were even drawn down what kind of car you drove – it was not unusual to hear one’s father saying, “We’re a Ford family” or “We’re a GM family”. This meant that the family only drove cars manufactured by that car company no matter how well or badly its cars were in terms of style, cost and performance (overall safety and fuel efficiency were not issues back then). Ours was a GM family; I wondered what my father would think about my current passion for Ford Motor cars and my sister’s Toyota (my other sibling has not strayed from the path, however).
But back in 1890, Detroit was yet to be known as the Automotive Capital of the World, although that would quickly change over the next 30 years. By 1920, at least one member of my father’s Dutch extended family (de familie), like many other Dutch immigrant families in Detroit, was or had been employed in one of the many automobile factories throughout Detroit.
However, Detroit was emerging as a major manufacturing center in the United States by 1890 (the year that both sets of my great-grandparents would arrive in the United States). By the time of the Civil War, Detroit was becoming less rural and more urban. The population would explode from approximately 45,000 in 1860 to almost 1,000,000 inhabitants (that’s a 2000% increase) by 1920, taking Detroit from the 19th largest city in the USA to the 4th largest city in the country, out-ranked only by New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago. In 1890 there were already 206,000 people crammed within the city limits when my great-grandparents arrived, and that number would more than double in just the next 20 years. The city was definitely having its growing pains. This mass of people in just one city was probably very over-whelming for my father’s paternal and maternal grandparents, despite the overpopulation issues that existed in their homeland when they emigrated from the Netherlands.
Almost half (40%) of Detroit’s population in 1890 consisted of foreign-born people, who emigrated from Canada (primarily the province of Ontario), Germany, Poland, Ireland and the Netherlands. The east-side of Detroit where my great-grandfathers, Johannes Reijst and Arie Smouter, would settle their families was predominately first and second generation German immigrants. There was also migration from within the United States to Michigan from the East (Pennsylvania particularly), and to a greater extent from the South (where Blacks and poor Whites were hoping to find better paying job opportunities). In order to accommodate this growing influx of people the city limits of Detroit continued to expand to the southwest, northwest and northeast, annexing many smaller communities in order to grow. The city limits of Detroit covered approximately 13 square miles in 1860; by 1890 the city area more than doubled to 28 square miles, and by 1910 it was almost 40 square miles in size. This rapid growth of Detroit would prove challenging for the city management as it tried to keep pace with the rising needs of adequate housing and public services, such as roads, public transportation, utilities, water and sewerage, safety (police and fire departments), medical facilities and public assistance.
So what opportunities attracted all of these people to move to Detroit in the late 1800s? Although the automobile industry did not yet exist, there were many other industries in which Detroit was already taking the lead nationally. Detroit was one of the largest producers of pharmaceuticals, home to Parke-Davis. It had taken over the lead in the manufacture of stoves and furnaces from New York. Situated on top of a salt mine, Detroit would lead in the production of alkalis and other salts. Its prime location on the Detroit River and access to the Great Lakes would create opportunities in ship-building, manufacturer of various hardwoods into end products, and the production of steel used to manufacture rails for the expanding railroads, freight cars (Detroit was the original home to the Pullman sleeper) and streetcars. The city also led in the production of plant, flower and fruit seeds and was among the leaders in the paint and varnish industry. There was a need in the city for craftsmen of all trades (especially masons and carpenters) and vendors of all types of products. So word of these opportunities were spreading not only nationally but also internationally, as many European countries were struggling with difficult economic times.
So when my great-grandparents, the Reysts and the Smouters, set foot on Detroit soil, I am sure they envisioned hope, a better means for supporting a family, and also hope for their small children to have more opportunities to succeed in the future.