In the United States, each state exists as a general stereotype in most Americans' minds, at least. Wisconsin is full of dairy farmers who dedicate their lives to the production of cheese; Texas is the land of ranchers and cattle drives; Oklahomans are all Native Americans. The common perception of Michigan seems to be that it makes cars. If the automotive industry were centered elsewhere, what would the next most defining characteristic of modern-day Michigan be?

In other words, what would Michigan's defining characteristics be without automobiles?

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    $\begingroup$ This question is asking about an alternate history this is exactly the sort of question that is on topic for this site. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Dec 7 '17 at 15:57
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    $\begingroup$ Ugh, as an inhabitant of the Old World I've always associated the American motorcar industry with Detroit. While I knew that Michigan was one of the united states forming the United States, that it was somewhere in the north of the country, on the southern shore of the Great Lakes, I've never associated the names "General Motors" and "Michigan". Thank you for the information that the state surrounding Detroit is named Michigan. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Dec 7 '17 at 16:09
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    $\begingroup$ This may be too broad. The examples given are of public perception/stereotypes, which are hard to account for. As I recall Ontario overtook Michigan as an auto producer a decade ago, but nobody stereotypes Ontario that way. $\endgroup$ – rek Dec 7 '17 at 16:17
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    $\begingroup$ So if part of your quesiton "What is Michigan noteable for besides the auto industry history. " ? $\endgroup$ – P Chapman Dec 7 '17 at 17:21
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    $\begingroup$ You also should consider that Michigan (at least from my limited experience) is really two, perhaps three, very different states. The southern part of the lower peninsula is where the auto industry is. The northern part is much more rural with a good many farms &c. And the upper peninsula seemed to be mostly forest. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Dec 7 '17 at 18:45

11 Answers 11


Heavy industry

Michigan didn't get heavy industry because of cars. It got cars because heavy industry was already entrenched.

Cars didn't start in Detroit, cars were made everywhere. Every major city has at least one automobile factory still standing. Detroit won because of its underlying industrial prowess, and its access (via lakes) to natural resources in the Upper Peninsula and Ohio.

Heavy industry got entrenched because Michigan has really superb run-of-river hydro just all over the place. Seems like every town more than 150 years old has a dam or former dam, and factories along those dams. Not just grist mills either - factories were built downstream of the dams, and the waterwheels ran the mainshaft - from which lathes, mills, drills, cutters and other machines took their belt drive power. Only when factory expansion exceeded river capacity (as in, say, Ypsilanti) did they move to steam power.

It also had first rate transportation not only because of not only lake and river access (not so much on canals), but very early development of rail in the territory. Only six years after the first train moved in Baltimore, one moved in Michigan. Its rail system was isolated, like Alaska's, for 25 years until eastern railheads finally conquered the Alleghany mountains and plugged in. Michigan's lines were built standard gauge. Meanwhile it was breakbulk loading onto ships to cross Lake Erie, barges to sail the Erie Canal, etc. And that kind of work makes more sense with high value merchandise.

Today, it's the same. The mind blows at just how much stuff you can get made in Michigan. There is manufacturing capability like nowhere else in the world. Stuff you can't get done in California, five companies can do it in Michigan or northeast Ohio. Yes, the gloom-and-doom is true, industry has been decimated in the state several times over. But there was so very much in the first place that what remains is still the envy of the world. Almost every world automotive company has its design bureaus in metro Detroit, notably including companies that do not sell cars in first world nations. That's because of the ease of prototyping almost anything.

So if not cars, it would have been something else manufacturing-heavy.

Here's the bottom line. If your alien spaceship is sputtering and you need to land to make repairs, set down in Warren, Michigan, just north of the D. Everything you need to fix the ship can be fabbed within a 30 mile radius.

  • $\begingroup$ To add, the roots of the combustion engine are that someone was simply trying to figure out what to do with all that gasoline they were throwing away. $\endgroup$ – Carl Dec 9 '17 at 4:53
  • $\begingroup$ @Carl: Not entirely. Some early engine inventors tried using gunpowder. And Henry Ford did a lot of experimenting with alcohol fuel in cars like the Model T. He expected gasoline to eventually run out, so fuel would have to be grown. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Dec 9 '17 at 18:55
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf My point is that gasoline was just sitting there, waiting for someone to figure out how to use it. $\endgroup$ – Carl Dec 9 '17 at 19:07

Michigan has the longest freshwater coastline in the US and the second longest coast line in the US next to Alaska.
World Book Encyclopedia states that Michigan's shoreline, at 3,288 miles is "more than any other state except Alaska."

We also have skiing, tons of rivers for boating, lots of nearly untouched forest for hiking, a pretty good vineyard area for wine production (a visiting Californian told me it was only slightly behind Napa Valley in reputation), great climate with almost no natural disasters.

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So Michigan could be a pretty good resort area.

Detroit is also known for it's music scene.

Also, currently Detroit, Grand Rapids, and other places are ramping up to be big tech centers and are drawing people back from California.

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    $\begingroup$ @LioElbammalf Fixed. I circled it in green and labeled it. Basically it's the only one with none of the natural disaster colors on it. $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 Dec 7 '17 at 17:01
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    $\begingroup$ @AndyD273 Come to Michigan! Disaster free since the Wisconsin glaciation! Don't drink the city water though.... :) $\endgroup$ – kingledion Dec 7 '17 at 17:20
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    $\begingroup$ To be fair, just about every city claims to be "ramping up to be big tech centers". $\endgroup$ – Tin Man Dec 7 '17 at 18:34
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    $\begingroup$ Also @spacetyper, I'm not even from Michigan and I know about its wine making scene, a couple of my favorite vineyards are up there. Also beer. They make excellent beer. $\endgroup$ – thanby - reinstate Monica Dec 7 '17 at 19:42
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    $\begingroup$ Detroit is also known for it's music scene. Would that be the case without the car industry though? $\endgroup$ – Nico Dec 8 '17 at 8:06

Michigan's future has always been tied to transport.

Touching four of the great lakes (water and transport) and having a land connection with Canada (international trade) sets Michigan up to become the transport center for the entire North-Central U.S. and South-Central Canada. While not the most mineral-rich, timber-rich, or farming-rich state in the Union, it nevertheless boasts considerable access to all three. Combined with the strong building development needed to support these strengths, manufacturing is a nearly unavoidable byproduct.

It's obvious in light of these strengths why automobiles landed in Michigan and not, for example, in Nevada. I suspect that if you look more broadly at Michigan, you will discover that automobiles are simply the most visible aspect of its manufacturing base.

Which causes me to continue looking at transport. Non-oceanic water shipping, rail, and airplanes come to mind. Indeed, as a consideration for alternative history, let's assume the following (from the Encylopedia Britannica):

Boeing’s origin dates to 1916 when the American timber merchant William E. Boeing founded Aero Products Company shortly after he and U.S. Navy officer Conrad Westervelt developed a single-engine, two-seat seaplane, the B&W.

Occured in Michigan rather than Washington ... which it could easily have done. Michigan has the resouces to have made that happen. The only thing missing was the people — and when people happen where is very capricious.

EDIT: Yes, the commenters are completely correct, there are rivers separating Canada from Michigan. My sincere apologies, but I consider those land connections because all they need is a bridge. Lakes, on the other hand, are more difficult.

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    $\begingroup$ There's no land connection with Canada, it's all fairly wide river crossings. Transportwise, a peninsula is a very poor choice for transport hub. The first frontier railroad, from Toledo through Chicago, swung up 20 miles into Michigan to avoid the Great Black Swamp. But that same railroad later built an "Air Line" via Bryan and Elkhart, bypassing the state altogether. Thru traffic avoids Michigan like the plague, except traffic stringlining from Chicago to Toronto via Detroit or Port Huron. Other than that, rail and truck service in Michigan is local traffic only. $\endgroup$ – Harper - Reinstate Monica Dec 8 '17 at 7:30
  • $\begingroup$ Eh. Heavy industry (other than mining) didn't land in Nevada because a lot of it is desert and it was populated rather late. It has twice the land area of Michigan but, even today, only a third of the population. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Dec 8 '17 at 14:50
  • $\begingroup$ @David Richerby. And most of that population is thankfully concentrated in Clark County (the southern tip of the state, where Las Vegas is located), making the rest of the state pretty decent. (Like comparing the lower half of Michigan's lower peninsula with the UP.) $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Dec 8 '17 at 21:06

Are you sitting on a chair, next to a desk, which holds your computer, while you explore the Stack Exchange Network? If yes, it could be thanks to Michigan.

If there were no auto makers in Detroit, the west side would take over in terms of fame, and it would revolve around furniture.

Grand Rapids is the world headquarters for Steelcase, Holland to Haworth, and Zeeland to Herman Miller. Dozens of smaller companies like American Seating also got a start in Grand Rapids and maintain a significant presence there.

According to this article, furniture manufacturing remains the single largest job provider in the region (although the Spectrum Hosptial system is the largest single employer).

The other answers regarding fishing, boating, vineyards, and tourism are all true. But none of these represent a manufactured good. For that, I think furniture is the way to go.


Michigan is already known as the "Great Lakes State" since it borders 4 of the 5 Great Lakes. It will continue to be known for the Great Lakes regardless of any industry that may or may not exist in a particular alternative present.

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    $\begingroup$ This. Not coming from the USA I don't associate Michigan with cars at all.. the only thing I know about it is that's where the great lakes are. $\endgroup$ – adaliabooks Dec 8 '17 at 15:38
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    $\begingroup$ Oftentimes people forget that our conceptions of places are cultural not universal. People not from the US don't necessairly understand that when I say "the South" I'm not referring to the lower half of the country but a particular region mostly in the southeastern US. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Dec 8 '17 at 15:55
  • $\begingroup$ @adaliabooks I highly recommend visiting Chicago, if you do come over. Especially instead of going to Las Vegas :) $\endgroup$ – Carl Dec 9 '17 at 5:09
  • $\begingroup$ Four out of five Great Lakes recommend Michigan to their shorelines that chew gum. Well, something like that. $\endgroup$ – cobaltduck Dec 29 '17 at 12:31

We've got some excellent answers so far, I just want to throw in a few more points in case you're looking for some variety.

Michigan is heavily forested, and industry related to forests contributes significantly to their GDP and employment. It could easily have become known for lumber, hiking, hunting, or been turned into a huge national park like the Smoky Mountains.

But let's get a little more interesting. As others have stated, being surrounded by water also makes it a viable trade port for the region, so if your alternate-Canada was more of a global super-power, Michigan could easily have housed a very important port or even served as a hub for defense. The Great Lakes were the scene of some conflicts in the past, but if Canada didn't end up being so darned friendly, the Lakes could be a huge point of contention, because controlling them would give the US or Canada a major territorial and logistical advantage.

You can also toss a little seasoning into the mix by saying that vast natural resources were discovered there, so Michigan became known for mining uranium or what-have-you. That would also ramp up tensions with Canada over who controls it.

One final point that someone else made that I feel needs emphasis. Detroit has been and is still known for its contributions to the music industry. You might not hear about it all the time like you do LA, but it's definitely one of the most famous music production towns in the US. Just a quick glance here will give you an idea.

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    $\begingroup$ My mind has been slightly blown. Techno has roots in Detroit? Thanks for the answer. $\endgroup$ – Zenon Dec 7 '17 at 21:03
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    $\begingroup$ Don't forget copper mining on the UP (early 20th century). $\endgroup$ – Jon Custer Dec 7 '17 at 22:06
  • $\begingroup$ @Zenon Learn something new every day ;) $\endgroup$ – thanby - reinstate Monica Dec 8 '17 at 15:42

I believe Michigan used to be known for fishing, but it is well suited for and positioned for manufacturing and trade. In an alternate future without the automobile industry, probably some other significant manufacturing would have found it, such as appliances, rail, tech (chips and computers), steel, household furniture, etc.

It is hard to speculate what would have jumped into the "empty chair" if cars did not occupy it.

Part of what you see in Michigan is called, in statistics, the "King Effect", a kind of feedback loop that makes some relatively arbitrary location the geographic center of some industry. The classic example is Hollywood: The first studios when the film industry was brand new just happened to be located near Hollywood California; because the founders lived near there. But then, actors, writers, artists and musicians and sound guys and electricians and all the other professionals that wanted to be involved in moving pictures moved to live near the first studios. So where do NEW startup studios go? To Hollywood, that is where all the talent and workers are! Where does new talent go? To Hollywood, that is where all the studios are!

The same King Effect applies to finance and Wall Street in NYC, to oil in Houston (because it sits on the Gulf of Mexico). So almost anything could pop up in Michigan, but most likely it would be a King Effect helped along by the Great Lakes, its most notable feature.

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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling Not exactly, and "King Effect" is an actual statistical term, and requires the feedback of mutual attraction described. First mover does not require that to be successful. $\endgroup$ – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Dec 7 '17 at 23:49
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    $\begingroup$ Essanay Studios started in Chicago but moved to California for the weather after trying Colorado for a while. Charlie Chaplin and film "industry" began up in Niles, California part of what is now Fremont in the San Francisco Bay Area. It moved back and forth to LA for a while and then stayed south for better weather, even more sunlight and warmer days. $\endgroup$ – Hebekiah Dec 8 '17 at 6:25
  • $\begingroup$ @Hebekiah +1, You know the history better than I, but the King Effect remains the same, only with a bit of geographical advantage to the location (for weather). The first studio attracted the first artists, the presence of artists attracted more studios, in an increasing cycle. $\endgroup$ – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Dec 8 '17 at 10:54


Of course it wouldn't be called "Motown" if there was never an auto industry, since that name is short for "motor town," but it remains that Michigan has been home to an incredibly diverse set of very successful music artists.

Detroit was the center of an uprising of funk and soul artists, thanks to Motown and Fortune Records, that brought us mega-stars like Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, and George Clinton, just to name a very few.

Outside of that, there has also been a wide range of world-famous artists that started in Michigan like Madonna, Bob Seger, Kid Rock, Eminem, Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent, Jack White, and the Eagles (again, just to name a few).

It's hard to overstate how much Michigan, and Detroit in particular, has contributed to the modern music industry. They should be known for rock and pop that same way Nashville is known for country.


Being a resident, I would consider a different industry prominent within the state and well regarded: Alcohol Production. Breweries and–to a lesser extent–wineries/vineyards are popular and there are some which are well regarded. Even distilleries are beginning to gain some traction.

I don't know if it ever would have risen to the level of recognition the Big Three achieved, but hey, Kentucky has a very specific reputation, so it's not impossible.

I include below some information pulled from the Pure Michigan website.


The perfect pour.

The craft beer craze is sweeping Michigan and it is clear the mitten was made for handcrafting some of the best brews in the land. Michigan is fifth in the nation in the number of breweries, microbreweries and brewpubs.

Michigan is home to Beer City USA – Grand Rapids – as well as beer centric communities such as Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor, Traverse City, Detroit, Marquette, Lansing and Ypsilanti. Bolstered by the Great Lakes and nurtured by the glacier rich soil, here awaits a brewer's paradise. With countless varieties of styles and tastes, Michigan is on tap to pour your new favorite. And what better place to try seasonal beers than a place that truly experiences all four seasons.

Beer enthusiasts make pilgrimages to breweries like Bell’s Brewery and Founders Brewing Co., but breweries are waiting to be discovered in every corner of the state. Journey along one of the state’s beer trails, or visit a local beer festival to experience the IPAs, stouts, porters and more that make Michigan the Great Beer State. Are you ready to find your perfect pour in Pure Michigan?


Taste Pure Michigan in every sip.

The wine-curious and the wine aficionados alike will find themselves at home at Michigan wineries and vineyards. You will be sure to find that perfect wine with more than 125 wineries in the state to choose from.

With four certified American Viticulture Areas across the state, Michigan’s unique glacial soils impart unique boutiques and finishes to please even the most discriminating palate. Oenophiles to budding enthusiasts are sure to discover a red or white varietal that will become their new favorite. Whether on a romantic getaway or celebrating with friends, a wine weekend offers a lifetime of memories along with the award-winning wine.


The spirits of Pure Michigan.

While Michigan is well-known for its wine and craft beer, Michigan spirits have remained one of our best kept secrets. But with a reputation on the rise, Michigan spirits are gaining acclaim in their own right.

Michigan’s spirit offerings are as diverse as the distilleries that produce it, with offerings including vodka, gin, whiskey and brandy. Many of the state’s wineries and breweries have expanded into spirit offerings, such as New Holland and Black Star Farms, while other distilleries, such as Two James Spirits, Grand Traverse Distillery and Journeyman Distillery offer hand-crafted experiences all their own.


Michigan is already known as the state that is shaped like a hand, and I think this would be an even more prominent part of its identity, absent the auto industry.


Michigan would be known for the Northern Red-Neck’s, the Yoopers. Like how the bayous of the south carry a similarly attributed cultural meme, wild snowy Michigan has its own unique asset.

Yooper Museum

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    $\begingroup$ I'd considered the whole "Great White North" concept, but Michigan isn't all that far north compared to Wisconsin, Minnesota, and those other states to the west. $\endgroup$ – Zenon Dec 8 '17 at 3:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Zenon - the "Great White North" concept is more than just "North." As a Yooper, I thought I knew cold until I spent a couple winters in Bemidji, MN. Yet, my co-workers that picked on me ("Welcome to real cold!") would complain about their occasional 2" or 3" of snow in a day, thinking that was a lot of snow... meh. Average yearly snowfall in Bemidji is 40", Sault Ste. Marie is almost 130". In '95, we had over 60" of snow in a long weekend! Up in "Copper Country" (the Keweenaw Peninsula) the average is over 200", and the record is over 350"! $\endgroup$ – zmerch Dec 8 '17 at 13:55

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