GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A local historian has found an extra outlet for the number of hours spent in the Grand Rapids archives. A new book called “Hidden History of Grand Rapids” will hit store shelves on Jan. 2, 2023.

Matthew Ellis, the assistant archivist for the city of Grand Rapids, has been working on the book for nearly two years — one that looks beyond the everyday facts that Grand Rapidians grew up learning about.

He sat down with WOOD TV8 to talk about the book and how he fell in love with local history.

NOTE: Questions are in bold. Ellis’ answers are in italics.

WOOD TV8: “So, let’s start with you: Matthew Ellis. Are you a Grand Rapids native?”

Ellis: Yep! A Grand Rapids native. I did public school here in Grand Rapids until eighth grade, then I transferred to St. Andrews and went to Catholic Central for high school, then went to Aquinas College for my undergraduate work. So, I’ve stayed pretty close to the area.”

WOOD TV8: “You are the assistant archivist for the city. What does that job entail?”

Ellis: “There’s never a normal day. We could be doing anything. They’re doing the river restoration stuff, so we went through and found as much information as we could about the history of the dams. We do records management for the entire city. Then sometimes, you know, citizens give us a call and say, ‘Hey, I found this cool thing in my attic. Can you come take a look at it and see if you’d like it for your archives.’ We do requests for citizens and departments, too. We get anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 requests per year — anything from a photograph of a property to in-depth research.”

WOOD TV8: “What drew you to your line of work? What drew you to history?”

Ellis: “I’ve always been really interested in history. Growing up, my children’s books were all pretty much history related. We had a kid’s version of ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey.’ You know, always kind of in that vein. And I started with the city archives as an intern while I was at Aquinas and just fell in love with it. And luckily as I was graduating, a position opened up and I jumped on it.”

WOOD TV8: “Let’s talk about the book, ‘Hidden History of Grand Rapids.’ When did you first come up with this?”

Ellis: “Arcadia Publishing actually reached out to me. They had seen some of the programming I had done for a local event called ‘History Detectives’ last year. And they asked if I had any interest in writing a book about Grand Rapids history. And I said, yes, definitely. I’m very, very fortunate that they reached out.”

WOOD TV8: “Walk me through the process. What does the timeline look like?”

Ellis: “They reached out early last year — January 2021 — and I had done a lot of research over the years. I have been with the city since 2015, and so I just kind of save all of these tidbits that I run across. So, it was just a matter of finding an overarching theme. And Arcadia was really helpful with that and narrowing down topics and stuff like that.”

WOOD TV8: “What should readers look forward to? What are they going to see?”

Ellis: “Well, they’re not going to see the typical history. I stayed away from anything to do with furniture. I wanted to do something new, something that hasn’t been done before. So, I have a chapter on the history of animals in the city. So, anything to do from early attitudes toward dogs in the city to the kind of wild animals that early citizens would come across to the early pound and the rise of the Humane Society, the first police dog in the city. A lot of topics that people wouldn’t necessarily say, ‘Oh, that must have an interesting history.’”

Matthew Ellis (Courtesy)

WOOD TV8: “Is there one specific chapter or story or focus that really stands out to you?”

Ellis: “I have a chapter called ‘For Humanity’s Sake,’ and it focuses on the demographic makeup of the city. But I wanted to frame it in such a way to highlight that all history in the city is people driven. You know, there’s no city without the people, and everything from river restoration to food history to animal history, there’s always a human element. So, the chapter actually starts off with an intensive dive into the history of Sheldon Street and shows how citizens were instrumental in every aspect of the city. And then it goes into more serious topics such as the experience of early Chinese immigrants to the city. Grand Rapids actually had the first Chinese immigrant in the country that became a U.S. citizen. He was traveling throughout the country giving lectures in the 1870s. And in Grand Rapids, somebody suggested that he apply for citizenship while he was here, and he did. So, the whole chapter is just reiterating the point that the human element of Grand Rapids is so important.”

WOOD TV8: “Was there any kind of special nugget that you found in your research that took you by surprise?

Ellis: “Yes! In the chapter on food, I delve into a big craze in the early 1900s that dealt with ‘pure food.’ Prior to that, there was no food regulation. The federal level hadn’t looked at regulating anything to do with food. There was no (Food and Drug Administration) or anything. So, companies and retailers could pretty much do whatever they wanted. So, people in the city specifically said we need to take a look at whether or not people are actually buying the things they think they’re buying. So, they had a food inspector who went around and arrested people who were diluting their food products. We have a big file of the different cases he looked into. One was a coffee roaster who was replacing 25% of his coffee beans with roasted peas to cut costs. People were diluting milk with water to sell. They were diluting flour. The city stepped in, and they standardized a lot of scales. You had to get the stamp of approval from the Weights and Measurements Department to say that your scales were correct. They had to have standardized coffee jugs and stuff like that.”

WOOD TV8: “I’m just trying to imagine a food inspector that had police authority. Like did he literally handcuff guys, or did he call the police?”

Ellis: “It sounds like he had the authority. It wasn’t that uncommon back then. The Humane Society employed agents that had the power to arrest people if they saw animal abuse. There are stories of the Humane Society agent arresting people for improperly treating horses and stuff like that.”

WOOD TV8: “So, January 2nd is the big day. Where can people find the book?”

Ellis: “It’s going to be in the big box retailers. It’s going to be online. It’s already available for pre-order on some sites. We’re working with local retailers like Books and Mortar, so it’s definitely going to be around. The public library, they were a great, great resource, so it’ll be available at the public library, too.”

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.