The Odawa people called the river ‘Quabahquasha’ which is said to mean ‘flat like wampum’ or ‘winding stream.’ It begins from the outflow of First Lake, the last in a chain of lakes known as ‘Six Lakes’ in Montcalm County. It flows approximately 70 miles through Montcalm, Ionia and finally Kent County, where it joins the Grand River. It is one of only 16 rivers in Michigan given the ‘Natural River’ designation. It even has a song named after it: ‘Flat River Girl’ also known as ‘The Sad Ballad of Jack Haggerty’ is the story of a heart broken lumberjack.
The Odawa used the river for travel, fishing and built villages along its shores. When the fur trade began, the Flat River was a major trade route. Some of the best examples of ermine could be found along its banks. Ermine furs were rare and therefore very valuable. They were used by royalty in Europe. Fur traders established posts at or near the river. Early settlers depended on the river. They harnessed the water to power their mills. Lumbermen used the river to float logs down to a saw mill built in the middle of the river just north of Main Street. Later, dams were built up and down the river to harness electricity.
The islands south of the dam were given to the Village of Lowell in the 1880’s by builder and businessman J. C. Train, and beautiful island park started an era of fun and celebration on the Flat River.
In the 1930s, local businessmen built the first Showboat in an effort to create an event that would bring people to Lowell and lift the town’s spirits during the heart of the Great Depression. The Showboat became an annual show on the Flat River.
In 1933, a concentrated effort was made to beautify the river area. The Lowell Ledger urged people, “put Lowell on the map! Make the Village of Lowell a mecca for tourists and seekers of scenic beauty. We have the location, the rivers, the hills, trees, everything if we just furnish the necessary aid to nature to tidy up and improve upon that which has been already given to us.”
Later that year, Frank T. King, president of the King Milling Company, presented to the Village of Lowell the islands in the Flat River north of the Main Street bridge. Some envisioned foot bridges and parks, but it never came to be.
Today the river is used for recreation and enjoyed by many. The Riverwalk, kayak boat launch, and pontoon boats testify to this. Thursday night summer concerts still bring back the magic of the river, the showboat, crowds and fun. Residents and visitors listen from bleachers, chairs and pontoons.
There are two remaining covered bridges over the Flat, the historic Fallasburg Bridge in Vergennes Township, and the rebuilt White’s Bridge in Keene Township. Both draw many tourists, picnickers, kayakers and river floats.