The Blodgetts and Brookby
by Jeffrey Sytsma, History Teacher, Forest Hills Eastern High School
published: August 27th, 2007
When John Wood Blodgett built his beloved Brookby estate in East Grand Rapids the Blodgett family had been established in the West Michigan area for quite awhile. The son of Delos (D.A.) and Jane Wood Blodgett, John eventually took over his father’s lumber empire, while also nurturing his love and knowledge of banking. This led to his vast accumulation of wealth, which enabled his contributions to Grand Rapids and the West Michigan area at the turn of the twentieth century. These contributions are arguably unparalleled until the eve of the twenty-first century. Thus it is surprising that so few residents of Grand Rapids are able to identify this family, or what they did for West Michigan, apart from thinking that someone was associated with a hospital. (Find more information to your right in Related Items)
In the early 1890's when D.A. Blodgett retired from the lumber industry he kept a third of his immense fortune for himself; gave a third to his daughter Susan Blodgett Lowe who used it to build her estate of Holmdene, now on the campus of Aquinas College; and gave a third to his son John, who used it to advance his fathers business, the Blodgett Company Ltd. Eventually Blodgett would own hundreds of thousands of acres of forest in places like Mississippi, Louisiana, California, Oregon, Washington, and Canada.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Brookby still stands today as a testament to a Gatsby-like era that existed in Grand Rapids. Built from 1926-1927, John Sr. and Minnie Cumnock Blodgett moved in the following year. The estate was designed by Walker-Gillette Architects of New York City. The local construction firm of Owens-Ames-Kimball built the estate which included the 11,000 sq. ft. main residence, a gatekeeper's house, gardener's house, chauffeur's house, and an eight-stall garage for Blodgett’s Packards.
Indoors, between the impressive dining room, library, and expansive living room was an elevator, used for transporting guest's trunks up and down, but more often used to assist Mrs. Blodgett in getting from floor to floor in her home. She named the estate for the brook that runs by the back of the property. An arched stone bridge spans the brook where it empties into Fisk Lake. Minnie Blodgett gave public tours through the gardens to raise funds for Camp Blodgett.
Blodgett moved seven full grown elms from Grandville to Brookby so the estate would have an aged look. The grounds were designed by the Olmstead brothers whose other projects included New York's Central Park and the Capitol Grounds in Washington D.C. It took the Olmsteads eight years to complete the grounds of Brookby which included both formal gardens and vegetable gardens.
John Sr. could often be spotted working in his garden until his death at the age of 91. In 1943 his Victory Garden was given top honors by the Michigan Horticultural Society although John Sr. gave all credit to his gardener. He attributed his longevity to working outdoors, and a woodpile and bucksaw also kept him fit. A large greenhouse that stood on the property was dismantled and given to Windmill Island in Holland by Edith Blodgett, wife of John Jr.
Minnie Blodgett lived at her beloved Brookby for only three years before she died of a sudden heart attack at the St. Regis Hotel in New York in 1931 while visiting her daughter, Katherine Hadley. Brookby served as the site of her funeral, and John Sr.'s two decades later in 1951. They were interred in the Blodgett mausoleum at Oak Hill Cemetery in Grand Rapids.
Brookby estate remained in the Blodgett family for approximately seventy years except for one year after John Sr. willed it to Blodgett Hospital. When John Jr. returned from Oregon after the death of his father he purchased it from the hospital and lived there until his death in 1986. Edith Blodgett sold the estate in the early 1990s and it has had two owners since then.
Books Available at GR History and Special Collections, Grand Rapids Public Library
- American Lumbermen: The Personal History and Public Business Achievements of Eminent Lumbermen of the United States. Chicago: American Lumberman, 1905-1906.
- Baxter, Albert. History of the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan (With an appendix--History of Lowell, Michigan). New York, Grand Rapids: Munsell & company, 1891.
- Hole, Jacqueline Anderson. Blodgett Memorial Medical Center School of Nursing History: A Century of Caring, 1886-1987. Grand Rapids, MI: Blodgett Memorial Medical Center, 1990.