Maybe it’s true of other cities as well, but one thing is an absolute in Detroit: We are all historians of a sort.
It could be your auntie who remembers the spot where her favorite restaurant was every time you drive by it. It might be the neighbor who recalls when his family lived in the city and regales you with tales of visits to Belle Isle or Hudson’s department store.
More likely, it is the friend, co-worker or stranger on the street who is fascinated with a certain part of the city and has become an expert in that area. It could be Detroit’s amazing statues. It likely is a building, place or business that has had an impact on their life, and they have gone out of their way to find out everything there is on the subject.
For me, it’s potato chips. Who in the world would want to be an expert on fried spuds? Who would want to read even a pamphlet on chipping let alone write a whole book on the topic? Someone just crazy enough to believe that even the smallest scraps of Detroit’s history are important to what makes this city different than all the others, that’s who.
The reason I bring this up in this Detroit-centric blog is that the book I wrote about Detroit’s “chipreneurs” came out this week. “Better Made in Michigan: The Salty Story of Detroit’s Best Chip” is the result of a year of research and writing into the city’s potato-chip manufacturing past, the people who ran the companies and the folks who worked there, shopped there and remained loyal to these companies then and now.
It all started in a simple way. It was one of those conversations that stick in your head long after you’ve had them. One such moment happened in 2013 when I interviewed Nick Nicolay, president of Kar’s Nuts in Madison Heights. Mr. Nicolay told me about his grandfather and his potato-chip company called New Era. He casually mentioned there once were dozens of chippers in Detroit, and I was astounded. My curiosity and subsequent research about these companies led to a book proposal, which The History Press was kind enough to let me pursue.
What I enjoyed the most about putting this book together was getting the little bits of detail out there so that they wouldn’t be forgotten. For example, New Era likely was the first and the largest potato-chip manufacturer in Detroit. It grew so large that it ended up being purchased in 1958 by Frito, which soon joined another chipper to become Frito-Lay. (New Era’s owners went on to work for Frito-Lay, and their sizable fortunes continue to benefit Metro Detroit through projects and scholarships, like the one Betty Dancey Godard funded at Adrian College for first-generation college students.)
Better Made, the chipper founded in 1930 and continues through this day, purchased the New Era brand when it became available. And it occasionally uses the brand on chip bags, which it then distributes through Detroit. But, much like many things that fade in our collective memories, few people purchase those chips because they don’t know about New Era, its history or its impact on Detroit. That alone compelled me to share New Era’s history with the larger public in hopes that its contributions – and those of all these early and innovative Detroit entrepreneurs – would be remembered.
It’s not that I particularly want you to buy my book. It’s a fine read if you like chips or business stories. It’s more about how much I find people love history in this town, whether it’s through places like the Detroit Public Library (all hail the Burton Historical Collection) or Detroit Historical Museum, groups like the Detroit Drunken Historical Society, websites like HistoricDetroit.org or social-media groups such as Historical Detroit Area Architecture. There are dozens of great books as well that educate all of us as to what Detroit was, how it affected our present time and what it could mean to our future. It’s marvelous, to be honest.
So why should you care about Detroit history? Because, as one of my favorite quotes puts it, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Detroit has one of the most fascinating and complex pasts of any city. It has high highs and lower than normal low lows. If we want Detroit to continue to prosper, we need to do all we can collectively to make that happen, including using the lessons of the past to shape our future.