Michigan Transportation History

Willis F. Dunbar

PersonPublic HistorianAcademicMichiganKalamazooKalamazoo College

Willis F. Dunbar was born in Hartford, Michigan, in 1902. He did his undergraduate work at Kalamazoo College, completing the B.A. in 1924. He entered the graduate school at the University of Michigan sometime in the 1930s, completing the Ph.D. in 1939. He seems to have been on the history faculty of Kalamazoo College? during the time that he was in graduate school because he was promoted to Dean of the College in 1938. While at Kalamazoo, he found an extra-curricular occupation as the band director. He also wrote the college's Alma Mater song.

In 1943, Dunbar left Kalamazoo and went into broadcasting finding work as the Director of Education and Public Affairs of the Fetzer Broadcasting Company. He was a news analyst and presenter on the culture and history of Michigan.

In 1951, he joined the history faculty of Western Michigan University?Western Michigan University. In 1960, he was selected as department chair. In 1953, he worked with the Michigan Historical Commission documenting Michigan's historical sites in an effort to persuade the state legislature to revive a historical marking program approved in 1941 but abandoned during World War II. Through his research, the Commission was successful and Michigan's historical marker program began in 1955.1

He was somewhat active in local affairs, serving on the city commission and chairing the community chest and the Symphony Society. He was a president of the Historical Society of Michigan and the Michigan Historical Commission.Historical Society of MichiganMichigan Historical Commission

He was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws at Kalamazoo College in 1965.2

Dunbar died in 1970.

Dunbar is important to the history of Michigan for various reasons. For decades, his History of the Wolverine State had been the best single-volume history of the state. With revisions by George May, the work has remained important for half a century. What makes Wolverine State significant is the detail to which Dunbar goes, because of his specialty research, into the topics of religion and education (chapters 7-10 and 13-14). No other general text goes into the social and culture history of the early 19th century Michigan to this level.

Dunbar is also to be recognized for his All Aboard! which, until Graydon M. Meints's Railroads for Michigan, was the best general history of railroads for the state. It is still a great starting point for learning the history of railroading in Michigan.Railroad


1. Bob Garrett, "Marking the Past," Seeking Michigan, October 19, 2010.

2. Kalamazoo College, Honorary Degrees Granted, "Willis F. Dunbar Citation", 1965.


Dunbar, Willis F. Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State. Watercolors and drawings by Reynold Weidenaar. Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1965.

800 p. — Hathi Trust (limited) — • — Hathi Trust - 2d ed. (1970) (limited) — • — Hathi Trust - Rev. ed. (1980) (limited)
Hathi Trust - 3rd Revised ed. - (limited), with George S. May (1995).
Google.Books — • — The Free Library by Farlex

This work, which after more than fifty years is still in publication as the 3rd revised edition, clearly shows all of Dunbar's research interests. The text can get exceptionally detailed when describing the religious history of the state and its various educational developments. George S. May made important contributions regarding Michigan's industrial history (especially the automotive history). No other single volume work on the history of Michigan goes to the depth that this text does in these matters. Even though it has been revised, twice, by May since 1970, the text remains largely unchanged from the 1965 edition. Therefore, it is exceptionally quiet on the state's changes since then (and there have been many). Topics such as race relations and deindustrialization, which have been very important in the state's late twentieth century history, just are not dealt with to the same degree that its earlier history was. Nonetheless, every library of Michigan history must have this book.

Dunbar, Willis F. Lewis Cass. Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1970.

Hathi Trust (limited)

Dunbar, Willis F. All Aboard! A History of Railroads in Michigan. Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1969.

308 pp. Hathi Trust (limited)

Dunbar, Willis F. How it was in Hartford: An Affectionate Account of a Michigan Small Town in the Early Years of the Twentieth Century. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968.

223 p. — Hathi Trust (limited)

Dunbar, Willis F. Michigan: A Guide to Study. Lansing: Michigan Department of Education, Bureau of Educational Services, Library Division, 1967.

Hathi Trust (full); 17pp.

Dunbar, Willis F., ed. Michigan Historical Markers. Rev. ed. Lansing: Michigan Historical Commission, 1967.

Originally published in Western Michigan University faculty contributions, 1966. 218 pp. —Hathi Trust (limited)

Michigan Civil War Centennial Observance Commission. Michigan Institutions of Higher Education in the Civil War. Edited by Willis F. Dunbar. Lansing: by the commission, 1964.

123 p. Hathi Trust (limited)

Dunbar, Willis F. The Michigan Record in Higher Education. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1963.

463 p. — Hathi Trust (full)

Dunbar, Willis F. Higher education in Michigan's Constitution. Prepared for Constitutional Convention Preparatory Commission, State of Michigan, September 1961.

24 p. — Hathi Trust (full)

Dunbar, Willis F. Kalamazoo and How It Grew. Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University, 1959.

Hathi Trust (full)
Hathi Trust - revised ed. (1969) - (limited)

Dunbar, Willis F. Michigan Through the Centuries. 4 volumes. New York: Lewis Historical Pub. Co., 1955.

Hathi Trust (full)

Dunbar, Willis F. Michigan Through the Centuries: Michigan in the Making and at Mid-Century. Prospectus for a book. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Co., 1952.

17 p., and 180 p. of plates — Hathi Trust (full)

Dunbar, Willis F. "Early Denominational Academies and Colleges in Michigan." Michigan History Magazine (Autumn, 1940), 451-456.

Dunbar, Willis F. "The Influence of the Protestant Denominations on Higher Education in Michigan, 1817-1900." Michigan Alumnus Quarterly Review 46, no. 19 (April 1940) and no. 24 (July 1940), unknown pagination.

Dunbar, Willis F. The Influence of the Protestant Denominations on Higher Education in Michigan, 1817-1900, Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 1939.

Goodsell, Charles True and Willis F. Dunbar. Centennial History of Kalamazoo College. Kalamazoo, MI: Kalamazoo College, 1933.

214 p. Hathi Trust (full)

Dunbar, Willis F. Kalamazoo College Song Book. Kalamazoo, MI: Kalamazoo College, 1933.

Hathi Trust (limited)

Citation: When referencing this page please use the following citation:

R. D. Jones, "Willis F. Dunbar," Michigan Transportation History (Ypsilanti, MI: 2020), www.michtranshist.info/.

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Page last modified on October 08, 2023, at 04:54 PM EST

Page last modified on October 08, 2023, at 04:54 PM EST