Another season of historical walking tours wraps in REO Town


If you’ve never been a tourist in your own city, you’re missing out on interesting architecture, transportation history and … Fruit Wars?

“The headline was, ‘Fruit Merchant Guns Down Rival in Street,’” said Jenn Carpenter, owner of Deadtime Stories in REO Town and host of the historical crime podcast “Violent Ends.” “My first thought was, ‘Fruit merchants had rivals?’”

A postcard from 1911 depicts the former Grand Trunk Railroad station in REO Town.
A postcard from 1911 depicts the former Grand Trunk Railroad station in REO Town.

Carpenter was researching something for her podcast and, as often happens to those who scour the archives, she got sidetracked. She ended up uncovering a series of stories about rival fruit merchants on South Washington Avenue and coined the term “Fruit Wars” on an episode of her podcast.

“The State Journal never reported on it as one big thing that was happening. They were all individual instances, but they involved the same people,” she said.

Some of the stories of the Fruit Wars include blown-up buildings, hired hitmen and residents being gunned down in the streets. Carpenter thinks that because organized crime was involved, reporters couldn’t investigate or mention the larger picture, which she said included the late gangster Al Capone.

“They had no idea that someday we’d be able to go back and connect the dots to see the bigger picture,” she said.

The story of Lansing’s Fruit Wars was just one of many shared at the Historical Society of Greater Lansing’s last walking tour of the season Saturday (Sept. 30), which took attendees along a few blocks of South Washington Avenue in REO Town.

Bill Castanier has been the president of the Historical Society for five years and a member for 10. He said the tours are successful because they incorporate both architectural history and the history of Lansing residents.

“Most tours focus on either one or the other, but we’ve found success talking about both the buildings and the people who lived in them,” he said. “One of the things that happens at the tours is that people come who know more than we do. They’ve got the history, either because of family or they’ve lived here their whole lives.”

The walking tours have been happening each summer for nearly a decade, guiding attendees through neighborhoods like Old Town, downtown, the east side, the west side and more. Tours are free, no registration is required, and most are less than half a mile. Now that summer has ended, the Historical Society will transition to lecture events throughout the fall and winter.

Castanier, who is City Pulse’s book columnist and a longtime contributor, said REO Town is one of the most historic parts of Lansing, thanks to the now-defunct REO Motor Car Co. During the early 20th century, it was a boomtown, with thousands of workers living there in the 1920s. But it suffered a dramatic downturn in the 1970s when the plant closed.

“It was an unpleasant place to be. Where Blue Owl Coffee is now used to be a topless shoeshine parlor,” Castanier said.

The brick building next to the  Lansing Board of Water and Light headquarters was once a station for the Grand Trunk Railroad, which operated passenger train trips around the country.

“You could leave from there and go to New York or Philadelphia,” Castanier said.

Archival newspaper clippings provided by the Historical Society show round-trip fares for less than $30 to Quebec City; Boston; Montreal; Portland, Maine; and Atlantic City, New Jersey. One newspaper advertisement from 1917 details how passengers could leave Lansing at 5:57 p.m. daily and have dinner in the dining car. After sleeping overnight while passing through Canada, they would arrive at Niagara Falls the next morning and spend the day passing through the Finger Lakes region of New York, which the ad calls “The Switzerland of America.” The train would arrive in New York City that afternoon, followed by Philadelphia.

One especially memorable moment at the busy Lansing train station was when the late President Franklin D. Roosevelt stopped there during a whistle-stop tour on Oct. 15, 1936. The paper of the day reported, “President’s Cheerfulness Impresses Local Throng,” and noted that he stopped for long enough to chat with youngsters in the crowd of 20,000 people. Other front-page stories that day included a man who was sent to prison for wounding his wife, Detroit voting registration being at an all-time high, 100,000 hunters taking to the areas surrounding Lansing in search of pheasants and two stories about hunting accidents.

In 1971, the passenger rail service closed, and the building became a series of restaurants and blues-music establishments.

“It was a rough neighborhood back then, and now it’s totally turned around,” Castanier said. “All the buildings are being used for different purposes. Ellison Brewery is the only building left that has anything to do with REO. It used to be a dealership.”

Castanier remembers hosting a walking tour just 10 years ago. He said REO Town was dramatically different.

“It was just starting to come back, about the time that Dylan (Rogers) was opening the Robin Theatre. It’s really changed dramatically in 10 years,” he said.

He also mentioned that the funding recently approved to restore the Moores Park Pool will put even more people on the streets of REO Town in years to come.

“It will have a dramatic impact on the area,” he said.

Castanier finished our conversation by stating that many people don’t really know the full history of Lansing. He feels lucky that the Historical Society has discovered some unique and interesting people who were lost to history.

“We found one guy in Lansing who was a polar explorer. At one point, his name was on the front of every newspaper in the world, and no one here knows him,” he said.


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