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Jackson, Michigan, USA

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Jackson is a city in the southern part of Michigan's lower peninsula, between Detroit and Chicago along the highway and Amtrak rail lines.

Horace Blackman began the settlement at a place where several Indian trails crossed. There was some strategy involved in his choice. It was a spot where the Grand River could be forded easily and Blackman planned to build a mill along the river. In honour of President Andrew Jackson, settlers established the town as 'Jacksonburg' in 1830. Postal officials tried changing the name to 'Jacksonopolis' to avoid confusion with other towns of the same name, but residents finally agreed to the simpler name Jackson.

In spite of the Black Hawk War to the south, Jackson's settlers maintained an uneasy peace with local Native Americans. In 1839 and 1840, the United States cavalry 'escorted' about 1,500 Indians from the area to Detroit, where they were shipped to Fort Howard, Wisconsin. That made it easier to maintain peace, except that the settlers couldn't forcibly resettle troublemakers hundreds of miles away when they couldn't get along.

'Gone to the Tamaracks'

To deal with the problem of people who broke the peace, but who couldn't be isolated by race and banished, they built a prison in 1838, which became the most persistent industry in the city's history. People sentenced to prison in Jackson were said to have 'gone to the tamaracks', after the tamarack poles used for the stockade. The expression persisted even after stone walls were built around the prison in 1841.

For about 50 years, cheap prison labour was contracted to local manufacturers of furniture, cigars, shoes and other products, possibly contributing to the early prosperity of businesses in Jackson. The state legislature abolished contract prison labour in 1909, after complaints that the practice was corrupt and provided too much competition for free labour.

Not to be blocked by a little thing like legislation, the prison authorities started a prison farm, a canning factory, and were soon producing the same kinds of things prisoners had made under the old system - now manufactured on prison grounds or inside state-owned factories. Apparently the corruption was not in making inmates work for 33 cents per day, just that they took too many jobs in privately-owned companies.

The stone walls of the original Michigan State Prison still stand on Cooper Street, now home to a National Guard Armoury. The prison was closed in 1928 and newer prisons were built north of town over the years, including one that was billed as the 'largest walled prison in the world' at one time, covering over 57 acres. Some of today's Jackson inmates work in a print shop, textile factory, or an optical lab which makes 9,500 pairs of glasses per year.

If you plan to do any actual hitchhiking through Jackson, try to get a ride before you get to town, and make sure it carries you through town and all the way out. Otherwise you may find yourself walking through stretches of Jackson. Signs on some of the major roads read 'Prison Area - Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers'.

Churches and Saloons

The early history of churches in Jackson mingles with the early history of drinking establishments. The first ordained minister to perform church services in the settlement turned Blackman's Tavern into a temporary house of worship. Later, when Baptists found themselves short on manpower to build a church, one of them solicited help from other members of the community, letting it be known that there would be 'plenty of good whiskey' available at the construction site for workers.

In the early part of the 20th Century leading up to the time of Prohibition, churches and women's groups crusaded for temperance. One Methodist congregation tried to close down a tavern at Greenwood Avenue and Fourth Street by buying the building and using it as a church. Somehow the saloon keeper managed to keep his lease, resulting in a place where you could attend church services on the ground floor or drink your worries away in the basement.

Later, churches in Jackson appeared in Jackson - An Illustrated History by Brian Deming. Today, Jackson is home to at least 90 churches.

Industries That Came and Went

Chances are, if you can find a superlative to apply to a Jackson industry, it no longer applies. Site of the first corset factory west of New York, Jackson was the corset capital of the West at the beginning of the 20th Century. Only one of those companies survived into the 21st Century, turning to production of surgical supports, prosthetics and orthotic devices in the 1940s. Once a major rail centre, Jackson had more passenger traffic than anywhere else in Michigan in the 1870s, and only Detroit surpassed the amount of freight shipped through Jackson. More than two dozen car companies sprouted and faded in Jackson, some of them surviving as makers of car parts.

Now Jackson's claim to fame is that it has more golf courses per capita than any city in the USA except Sarasota, Florida1. Golf Digest recognised Jackson as one of the top 15 places to play golf out of 309 cities rated, and number four in the best places for golfers to live.

Today, the largest employers in Jackson County are Consumers Power, WA Foote Hospital and the Southern Michigan Correctional Facility. It's difficult to judge whether local businesses have been prospering or declining, but the population has dropped in recent years. The 2010 census showed a population of 33,534 in the city of Jackson, down by 8% from the 2000 census.

First Republican Convention

Prominently noted under every 'Jackson City Limits' sign is the designation 'Birthplace of the Republican Party'. Although an informal meeting took place earlier in Ripon, Wisconsin, the first official meeting of the party was held in Jackson on 6 July, 1854, drawing between 3,000 and 5,000 people. Former members of the Whig Party, Free Soil Party and others drafted a platform for the new Republican Party and nominated candidates for state office. Only six years later, Abraham Lincoln became the first Republican President of the United States.

If you hear someone in Jackson talk about 'Under the Oaks', they're probably referring to the exact location of that first Republican Convention. Because the originally planned meeting place (Bronson Hall) could not seat everyone, they moved the convention to an oak grove on the outskirts of town. President Taft dedicated a boulder to mark the location in 1910, which became a favourite stop for Republicans on their campaign trails. A plaque on the boulder reads:

Here under the oaks, 6 July, 1854, was born the Republican party. Destined in the throes of civil strife to abolish slavery, vindicate democracy and perpetuate the Union.

Passing Celebrities

In 1902, Hughie Cannon wrote the ragtime song Won't You Come Home Bill Bailey? about his friend Willard G Bailey, both of them Jackson residents. Bailey's wife did not appreciate the song.

In its first hundred years, Jackson was a common stop for touring lecturers and entertainers, from Samuel Clemens to a young Fred Astaire, Jack Benny, Will Rogers, even the Marx Brothers back when they were still known as Julius, Leonard, Arthur and Milton. Jack Paar worked for Jackson television station WIBM in the mid-1930s.

Recent celebrity patrons of the city include actor/writer/director Jeff Daniels, who shot a feature film titled Super Sucker in Jackson, and guitar demi-god turned hunting activist Ted Nugent. Terrible Ted the Motor City Madman keeps his Tedquarters in Jackson, where he designs and distributes hunting gear, produces an outdoors magazine, and even offers booking and outfitting for safaris.

Current Attractions

The Civil War Muster at Cascades Park hosts Michigan's largest battle re-enactment each year. Crowds of 30,000 spectators gather to watch as many as 2,000 volunteers in period costume blasting blank muzzle-loaders and cannons across fields set up to resemble actual battle sites. The re-enactors stay in camps open to visitors, where you can see authentic tents, costumes, tools and utensils. Vendors also set up tents in the style of 'sutlers', civilians who followed army camps selling supplies at inflated prices. Like their historical counterparts, these modern suppliers take advantage of spectators who might want to take part in the re-enactment next time, selling authentic uniforms, swords, toys, books about the war and books about how soldiers dressed and lived. Bluegrass and acoustic musical groups play throughout the muster, including songs from the period and military marching bands in full regalia.

The summer of 2003 marks the 150th annual Jackson County Fair, with ferris wheels and amusement park rides, exhibitions of livestock, monster truck shows and popular Country singers. Circuses, harness racing and classic car shows are held at the fairgrounds in the off-season.

Other noteworthy events and destinations in Jackson include The Parlour Old Fashioned Ice Cream Shoppe, Hurst Planetarium, Michigan Space and Science Center, the Rose Festival, Hot Air Jubilee (as in balloons), Michigan Shakespeare Festival, and several museums.

Other 'Firsts' in Jackson

  • The first college commencement in a prison occurred on 20 January, 1975, in the State Prison of Southern Michigan at Jackson.

  • The first trimline telephone was used in Jackson in 1963.

  • The 'Ritz' cracker may have originated in the Jaxon Cracker Factory, which was later sold to Nabisco.

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