Michigan Ladder: An Ypsilanti Success Story

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:

Author: James Mann

The Michigan Ladder company on East Forest Avenue, is a local success story. In business at the same location for over one hundred years, the building has long been a local landmark. This story begins in September of 1901, when the voters of Ypsilanti approved a $12,000 bond issue. The city opened negotiations with the Newton & Haggerty Ladder Company of Detroit, in the hope of convincing the company to move their operation to Ypsilanti. The deal fell through, but three men saw opportunity and moved to take advantage of it. On December 4, 1901, Melvin Lewis, A. G. Huston and Edgar S. Geer, formed the Michigan Ladder Company. None of the men had any experience in the ladder business.

The three reached an agreement with the city, under the terms of which, each had to invest $3,000 of their own money into the business, and employ ten men for three years. In return, the city provided a site for the company. As the workers were digging a basement for the building, a spring was uncovered, and the mill floor had to be raised a few feet, as they could dig no further. The spring still flows today.

In time a train locomotive boiler was installed in the basement to power the machines by flat belts. Every day at noon a steam whistle would sound. Later the boiler would be replaced by electricity.

“It will be remembered that the city furnished the building for the company on the condition that at least ten men should be employed for three years, the building to become the property of the company at the expiration of this term in case the condition is fulfilled,” noted The Ypsilantian of April 30, 1903. “Remember that when operations began,” noted the account, “the business was entirely new to the parties and the field untried, the above showing is unusually gratifying, and we are safe in saying that the city never invested a thousand dollars to greater profit.”

A few years after the company began, A. G. Huston and Edgar S. Geer sold their shares of the business. Melvin Lewis stayed with Michigan Ladder for the next 45 years. He retired in 1945, at the age of 79. Arthur Nissly than ran the company until his death of a heart attack during a Christmas staff party in 1967.

The Michigan Ladder factory is now 25 connected buildings, with a total area of 75,000 square feet. All of this space is protected by a sprinkler system. Wood scrap is burned to heat the manufacturing area, and dry shavings are sold for horse bedding.

When operations began, lumber was delivered from a sawmill east of River Street. Ladders were made by hand and sold from a horse drawn wagon. A railroad siding was laid down from the Michigan Central tracks and into the plant in 1917, so lumber could be received and finished ladders shipped. The tracks fell into disuse and were removed in the 1980's, as rail service declined. Shipping is now done by trucks

“Ladders comprise the chief product of the factory as is signified by the name,” noted The Daily Ypsilanti Press of July 25, 1913. “Ladders of every description from the smallest ladder for household use to the long extension and sectional ladders, which can be built to any practical height, trestle, taper straight and step ladders all find a big sale from this factory.”

“A wide variety of extension ladders is manufactured,” the account noted. “A leader is the New Improved Automatic Extension. This ladder is built of the best selected Norway or southern pine side rails with hickory rungs. The special automatic catch is used in perfecting this ladder and it is recommended as the most perfect and most easily operated ladder of its kind on the market.”

The company also made step ladders, and tapered ladders for use in orchards with pointed ends to be lodged between tree limbs. “Painters are expressing a preference for the supplies in their line which are furnished at the Ypsilanti factory,” noted the account, “the strongest painter's ladder on the market being the Painters' Favorite. This model is built of best material and strongly braced throughout at every point. The legs fold outside the sides and steel straps are placed on the front and back of each step.” The well being of the customer has always been a concern of the company.

“The line manufactured comprises extension, straight and step ladders, and painters' specialties,” noted The Daily Ypsilanti Press of January 1, 1931. “The extension and straight ladders are made from spruce and Norway pine and fir for side rails with hickory rungs. Some of the spruce used in long ladders comes from Alaska. The fir is from Oregon and Washington. Norway pine from Minnesota and Canada. The hickory used in the rungs is shipped from Tennessee and Kentucky, and the southern pine from which step ladders are manufactured, is from Arkansas.”

“The ladder business was originally a seasonal market,” wrote Marcia Phillips in the Winter 2006 issue of The Gleanings, “with production lasting only ten months a year, so Michigan Ladder (who prided itself in never having to lay off workers, not even during the Great Depression of the 1930s) made other products as well. Soon the lumber from the surrounding area was being fashioned into ironing boards and “Kiddie” toys and boats and even a “portable diving board.”

The company made a ping pong table called “The Detroiter,” which is perhaps the most famous product of the company other than ladders. These ping pong tables were carried on the ships of the United States Navy during the Second World War, for the use of crewmen during time off watch. “The Harlem Globetrotters likewise carried them around the nation,” wrote Phillips, “in four pieces each to be set up for halftime competitions. It even made the movies, “The Detroiter” that Tom Hanks' character played on in Forrest Gump was made here on Forest Avenue.”

Government contracts filled all the business of Michigan Ladder during the years of the Second World War. The demand from the war effort was so great, secondary lines of products, including Kiddie Klimb play sets and blocks for children, were dropped from production. “Following the war,” wrote Marcia Phillips, in a history of the company, “distribution was changed to the wholesale market using manufacturers sales representatives.”

In 2001 the Company celebrated 100 years in business. At the time Bob Nissly was the President of the Company. Bob had joined his father in the business in 1961 after he earned a degree in engineering from the University of Michigan. Bob became President in 1967 following his father’s death.

Tom Harrison, current owner and President, was born and raised in Ypsilanti and is the grandson of Ypsilanti’s first City Manager, Naseeb G. Damoose. He is the fourth President in the company’s history. He and his family came back to the area after living in the Netherlands for three years. During his tenure, Michigan Ladder Company expanded its manufacturing to include fiberglass as well as wood ladders. The majority of everything the company sells is manufactured in Ypsilanti.

The company prides itself and attributes its success to an amazing group of dedicated and diverse employees. It’s their dedication that has made the company successful.

Michigan Ladder Company is the oldest ladder manufacturer in the United States. The company continues its expansion and plans to manufacture more products locally. Everyone will probably agree that the city fathers would be proud of the investment they made back in 1901.

(James Mann is a local author and historian, a volunteer in the YHS Archives, and a regular contributor to the Gleanings.)

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: The Michigan Ladder in 1916.

Photo 2: Early designs of ladders produced by the Michigan Ladder Company.

Photo 3: Bob Nissly and others in 2001 at the Michigan Ladder Company. (L to R) Bob Hoernschemeyer, Gail Smith, Bob Nissly, Rick Wheeler Jr., and Dave Korzuck.

Photo 4: Tom Harrison, current owner and President of the Michigan Ladder Company.

Photo 5: Other products that were made by Michigan Ladder Company.

The King and Meyer Saloon Controversy

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:

Author: James Mann

As part of the regular business of the Ypsilanti City Council at their meeting on Monday, April 19, 1915, petitioners for liquor licenses were considered. Two petitions caused the most discussion. The concern was that the two saloons, the King and Meyer, were within three hundred feet of Woodruff school on East Michigan Avenue. Under state law, no saloon or bar could be within three hundred feet of a school or church, unless all property owners within three hundred feet of the proposed saloon gave their consent.

“When the request for a license was presented it was accompanied by a document which furnished something of a surprise. It was a paper saying that all the people whose names were affixed were in agreement that a saloon should be conducted in the former Meyer place. The first signature was William Dusbiber and a little way down the list was the signature of H. E. Lutjen, formerly pastor of the Lutheran church,” reported The Daily Ypsilanti Press of Tuesday, April 20, 1915. Among those who had signed the consent, was Katharine Meyer, the widow of Joseph Meyer.

“Ald. Lathers held that this was of no account,” continued the account, “unless it were accompanied by an affidavit to the effect that these were all of the property owners within 300 feet of the saloon. Ald. Bursha promptly met the demand by presenting from his pocket the affidavit. It was sworn to in due form and there was little left to do but to grant the petition. On the same ground the license for the King place was renewed under the name of William Bursha, alderman in the fifth ward, and Erwin Clark.”

These were not new establishments, as the two saloons had been in operation for some years. Now the two were under new ownership. The King Saloon, previously under the management of a John King, had been at 304 East Michigan Avenue, in the Schade Block, for at least thirty years. John King had ended the business by May of 1913. After that, the site was vacant.

The saloon of Joseph Meyer, at 309 East Michigan, was in a building constructed in about 1888 by George Thumm. Here, for a time, he operated a saloon. “It had a fancy walnut bar and mirror as was the custom in the past century,” wrote Eileen Harrison for The Ypsilanti Press of Tuesday, July 24, 1962. “There had been card tables at which the loser was expected to treat every third hand.” By 1892 Thumm had sold the building to Meyer, who continued the business of running a saloon.

Joseph Meyer would continue in the saloon business, until his death at age 66, on February 22, 1915. “He was kind hearted and well liked and a host of friends have a good word to say for 'Joe,' as he was familiarly called,” recalled his obituary. After the death of Joseph Meyer, the family had continued to run the saloon, as it closed the estate. Petitioners for the Meyer Saloon were Matthew Sinkule, son in law of Joseph Meyer, and Lewis Moore, who had been employed as a bartender at the Meyer Saloon.

All seemed well, until it was learned, that the law under which the licenses were granted, had been reversed by the Michigan State Supreme Court. In the case of People vs. Schnelder, found in Volume 170 of Michigan Reports, page 153, and handed down in 1912, read: “The consent of all property owners within 300 feet of a proposed new saloon or bar will not excuse the establishment of such a saloon or bar within 300 feet of the front door of a church or school.”

“According to this decision,” explained The Daily Ypsilanti Press of Thursday, April 22, 1915, “it will be illegal to open a saloon in the former King place and the man who makes the venture, even though he may have been granted a license, will do so in violation of the law and will be subject to arrest. Whether the saloon will be opened anyway and whether an arrest would follow is of course an entirely different question.”

When Ypsilanti Chief of Police Charles Cain was asked if he would close a saloon opened illegally, he said, “I would if I felt like it.” He added that if anyone wanted it closed, “let them get a warrant.”

The question was placed before Washtenaw County Prosecuting Attorney Lehman for an opinion. He met with attorneys for Ald. Bursha and Irwin Clark, to whom the license for the King place was granted. From them he received assurance that as the opening would be illegal, no attempt to open it would be made.

“Rumor is current today,” noted The Daily Ypsilanti Press of Saturday, April 24, 1915, “that an injunction was served on the owner of the building, Mrs. Smith, forbidding her renting the building for saloon purposes, but Prosecuting Attorney Lehman says the story is unfounded since such procedure would be entirely unnecessary.”

The question of whether the Meyer place could continue to do business, under new management, was still to be settled. “The question as to whether the death of the man to whom the license was issued ends the life of a saloon within 300 feet of a school of church is still open in the minds of many, but evidence seems to be against the possibility of the saloon continuing,” reported the account. For this reason, Lehman referred the question to the State Attorney General.

Lehman received his answer on Friday, April 30, 1915, in a letter from Michigan Attorney General Grant Fellows. The letter was published in The Daily Ypsilanti Press that same day. “The inquiry contained in your communication would seem to be answered in the opinion rendered in the case of Rohde vs. Wayne Circuit judge 163 Michigan 690 in which case it was contended that in as much as the realtors sought to operate a saloon in a residence district without gaining the consent of the people therein as provided in section 37 of the Warner-Crampton law, that this fact alone was sufficient ground upon which to reject his application for a license, not withstanding the location had been used for saloon purposes for several years prior to the application of the relator. The court held that if in fact, for several years prior to the date at which relator could have been licensed to operate a saloon, a saloon had been conducted in this particular building that the restrictions contained in section 37 of act 291 of the public acts of 1909 did not apply. This would seem to be true in the case you refer to, providing that the saloon was being operated in this building at the time the Warner-Crampton law took effect and continuously since that date.”

“If however,” concluded Attorney General Fellows, “during any period of this time since the Warner-Crampton law went into effect and after the death of the party formerly operating the saloon the building was not used for saloon purposes then it would be deemed to be a new bar or saloon and would come under the provisions of said section 37.”

In other words, the Meyer saloon could reopen under new management. The Lewis B. Moore saloon did operate at 309 East Michigan from 1916 to 1920, when it was the John F. Maegle variety store. In the 1930's, the building became the Thorne Tire Store, which continued in operation on the site until 1962. In July of that year, the building was demolished to make way for a Burger Chef drive-in restaurant. “Holes in the floor through which pipes reached to barrels in the basement were still there when the building was torn down,” wrote Eileen Harrison. Today, the site of 309 East Michigan is occupied by Luca's Cony Island.

(James Mann is a local author and historian, a volunteer in the YHS Archives, and a regular contributor to the Gleanings.)

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: The King Saloon in the Schade Block at 304 East Michigan Avenue was closed in May of 1913.

Photo 2: The Lewis B. Moore saloon operated at 309 East Michigan from 1916 to 1920, when it was the John F. Maegle variety store. In the 1930's, the building became the Thorne Tire Store, which continued in operation on the site until 1962.

Photo 3: In July of 1962 the Thorne Tire Store building was demolished to make way for a Burger Chef drive-in restaurant.

Dealership/Salesman Quiz Answers

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:

Author: Jack Miller

Answers for the Dealership/Salesman Quiz

  • Ray Augustus - C/D
  • Joe Blauvelt - X/V
  • Harold Beadle - H
  • Floyd Brady - H
  • Sam Bass - B
  • Eugene Butman - D
  • Ken Butman - D
  • Paul Chapman, Jr. - H
  • Ralph Chapman - H
  • Virgil Christman - U/R
  • Jim Chumbley - I/Y
  • Joe Coats - E
  • Carmen Coleman - L/I
  • Spencer Davis - N/U/R
  • *David E. Davis, Jr. - M
  • C. James Davis - Q
  • Clifford Dickey - D
  • Edwin Doran - L
  • Paul Dorsten - E
  • Dave Finley - O
  • Hubert 'Red' Foley - T
  • Lee Haviland - P
  • Dave Hazelwood - I/Y/O
  • Michael Ichesco - E
  • Sam Lambdin - J/X/K

QUESTIONS about dealerships email: hudsondealer@gmail.com

  • Pete Lincoln - I
  • Ed Lyke - B/S
  • Wayne Hackett - P
  • Rene Michaud - A
  • Lois Michaud - A
  • Carl Miller - G
  • Ron Norris - J/X/K
  • Tom Payne - M
  • Albert Peck - C/D
  • Joe Rocha - B
  • Carl Schultz - W/B
  • Myron Serbay - E
  • Ray Serbay - E
  • Joseph M. Sesi, Sr. - W/B
  • Joe Sesi, Jr. - B
  • Cal Smith - I/Y/O
  • Bob Silva - A
  • Herbert Teachout - U/R
  • Cecil Thomas - F
  • David Walls - H
  • Melvin Walls - B
  • Allen Wiedman - C/D
  • Jack Webb - D/O
  • Bernie Vercruysse - T
  • *David E. Davis, Jr. sold and raced Porsche sports cars at European Cars Ypsilanti for owner Tom Payne before entering the automotive magazine editing and publishing business both "Car & Driver" and "Automobile" magazines at Ann Arbor. He was known as the "Dean" of the automotive writers.

Match the Ypsilanti Owner/Salesman with the Dealership

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:

Author: Jack Miller

Some sales people later became dealership owners and some dealerships moved to other existing or new locations.

  • ___ John Aldridge
  • ___ Ray Augustus
  • ___ Joe Blauvelt
  • ___ Harold Beadle
  • ___ Floyd Brady
  • ___ Sam Bass
  • ___ Eugene Butman
  • ___ Ken Butman
  • ___ Paul Chapman, Jr.
  • ___ Ralph Chapman
  • ___ Virgil Christman
  • ___ Jim Chumbley
  • ___ Joe Coats
  • ___ Carmen Coleman
  • ___ Spencer Davis
  • ___ *David E. Davis, Jr.
  • ___ C. James Davis
  • ___ Clifford Dickey
  • ___ Edwin Doran
  • ___ Paul Dorsten
  • ___ Dave Finley
  • ___ Hubert 'Red' Foley
  • ___ Lee Haviland
  • ___ David Hazelwood
  • ___ Michael Ichesco
  • ___ Sam Lambdin
  • ___ Pete Lincoln
  • ___ Ed Lyke
  • ___ Wayne Hackett
  • ___ Lois Michaud
  • ___ Rene Michaud
  • ___ Carl Miller
  • ___ Ron Norris
  • ___ Tom Payne
  • ___ Albert Peck
  • ___ Joe Rocha
  • ___ Carl Schultz
  • ___ Myron Serbay
  • ___ Ray Serbay
  • ___ Joseph M. Sesi, Sr.
  • ___ Joe Sesi, Jr.
  • ___ Joseph Sinkule
  • ___ Cal Smith
  • ___ Robert Silva
  • ___ Herbert Teachout
  • ___ Cecil Thomas
  • ___ David Walls
  • ___ Melvin Walls
  • ___ Allen Wiedman
  • ___ Jack Webb
  • ___ Bernie Vercruysse
  • Ypsilanti Dealerships

  • A - Campus AMC
  • B - Sesi Lincoln Mercury
  • C - E.G. Wiedman Ford
  • D - Gene Butman Ford
  • E - Serbay Chrysler Plymouth
  • F - Cecil's Auto Sales
  • G - Hudson Sales & Service
  • H - Paul C. Chapman & Son
  • I - Vincent Chevrolet
  • J - Norris Motors K-F
  • K - Ron & Sam Buick
  • L - Doran Chevrolet
  • M - European Cars Ypsilanti
  • N - Davis Desoto Plymouth
  • O - Finley Webb Chevrolet
  • P - City Motors Nash
  • Q - Davis Sports Cars
  • R - Teachout Motor Sales
  • S - Lyke Auto Exchange
  • T - V & F Auto Sales
  • U - Ypsi Body Shop
  • V - Deluxe Motors
  • W - Alan Chapel Inc.
  • X - Obermeyer Oldsmobile
  • Y - Jim Chumbley Chevrolet

  • Answers on page 34

Ypsilanti in the 1940s

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:

Author: Jack D. Minzey

In February, 2014, the Ypsilanti City Council was meeting to discuss the further development of their Water Street Project. When a member of the audience made some references to Ann Arbor, one of the council members responded that “Ypsilanti is no Ann Arbor.” This comment bothered me since I can remember a time when Ypsilanti was greater in reputation than Ann Arbor. I immediately set about writing an article on the Ypsilanti that I remembered and grew up in during the 1940s. At that time, it was my recollection that Ypsilanti was the gem of Washtenaw County, with a unique teacher’s college, an outstanding school system and a reputation as a quaint village that most people envied.

As a result of that article, I received a communication from Barbara Hamilton Cornish in which she commented about the Ypsilanti of that day, and she sent me the following statement. “Wow! You sure captured the slippery slope that Ypsi has experienced. I remember the beautiful tree-lined streets, Washtenaw Avenue. (much narrower than it is now), being proud when I boasted about being from Ypsi, feeling excited to go shopping downtown - Mellencamps, Haywards, Nissleys sewing shop, Terry Bakery (free cookies for kids), creaky old floors in the two “dime stores” (Kresge’s and Woolworth’s), Cunningham’s Drug Store on the corner of Washington and Michigan Avenue with their soda fountain, Seyfried’s Jewelry store where Bill bought my engagement ring, The Dixie Shop, Willoughby’ Shoe Store, Buster Brown Shoe Store (the x-ray machine for your feet), Marsh Office Supply and gift shop, the Martha Washington Theater where Disney movies created lines of patrons that wound around the corner from Washington Street to Pearl Street, The Coffee Cabana behind the theater (greatest hamburger ever), The Wuerth Theater on Michigan Avenue, old Cleary College where my grandfather, sister and brother used to sit on the lawn and eat ice cream cones, two banks, The Casanova Restaurant (across from Haab’s, the post office on Michigan Avenue and the library on Huron Street. Lots of memories as my sister and I rode our bikes from our house east of Prospect Park to the downtown area and then flying down the four hills behind the classic City Hall building hoping that we would be able to stop before we braked by the river’s edge.

On the corner of Huron Street and Cross there was a small Gordon’s food store (building is no longer there). Walking to the older Ypsi High from our house on East Cross Street we would pass the pond and the cannon in Prospect Park where we used to be on the iced tennis courts every evening and weekends playing crack-the-whip during the winter, then visiting Weber’s Drug Store before we would be leaning over the Cross Street Bridge at our beautiful Huron River.”

These nostalgic comments got me to thinking about the downtown that I knew in the 1940’s, and I decided to try to verbally recreate the Michigan Avenue of those days. To help me, I turned to Harold and Marlene Moffett Britton who were raised in Ypsilanti and were a significant part of the Ypsilanti business community. We met for several hours and compiled a list of the places we could remember. I also shared my list with several other people in order to fill in some of the names which we had been unable to recall. I received a great deal of help from Doreen Binder who had a wonderful recollection of the area called Dutch Town of which she had written in “The Gleanings” in the summer of 2004. It is very likely that the list is not complete. I still receive calls from my sources who remember something else about Main Street. However, it is probably complete enough to get some of you “old timers” to thinking about those wonderful days when Ypsilanti was the “Gem of Washtenaw County.

There were many areas of commerce in Ypsilanti in the 1940’s. There was the area on Cross Street around Michigan State Normal College. There was the historic area called Depot Town. There was another area along Ecorse. There were also many individual businesses in neighborhoods throughout the City. This list deals only with the area along Michigan Avenue from Ballard Street to Grove Street. The businesses listed are in the blocks described but not necessarily in the order they existed. There was an area we called “the point” at the intersection of Ballard and Michigan Avenue. On that site was a Standard Gas Station owned by Badaluccos.

-North side: McClure’s Mobil Gas Station, Brook’s Grocery.
-South side: Jones’ Blue Sunoco Gas Station (where the current Police Station is now), Krogers, Dr. Williamson’s office (a house).

-North side: Meyers Restaurant, Greyhound Bus Station, Cleary College.
-South side: Shell Tire, Chamber of Commerce.

-North side: Ernies (soda shop), Wolverine Restaurant, Greystone Hotel, Wuerth Theater, Jack Sprat’s Restaurant, Moffett’s Shoes (Buster Brown), Michos’ (soda shop), Grinnell’s Music Store, Carty’s Music Store, Richardson’s Drugs, Spiegel’s Catalogue Store, Miller Jones Clothing Store, Augustus Furniture, Western Union, Kresge’s Dime Store.
-South side: Post Office, Gas Company, Dawson’s (hardware and lumber), Mack and Mack Furniture, Cigar Store, Avon Restaurant, Tap Room.

-North side: Cunningham’s Drugs, Family Radio, Hartman’s (women’s clothing), Sally Shear Clothing, Freed & ? (tailor?), Wild and Company Men’s Wear, Allison’s Clothes, Mellencamps‘s Clothes, Shaffer Hardware, Weimann and Mathews Drug Store, Sports Store, Webb and Mars Sewing Needs, Seifried’s Jewelers, Shoe Market, Brian-Steven’s Shoe Store, A.J. Green Jewelers, Landy’s Furniture.
-South side: National Bank of Ypsilanti, Dixie Shop (men’s and women’s clothes), Campus Shoes, Giddes Hat Shop, Willoughby’s Shoe Store, M and S Hardware, Snappy Joes Restaurant, The Apparel Shop, Campbell’s Jewelers, Terry’s Bakery, Restaurant.

- North side: Haab’sRestaurant, Furniture Recovered, Moose Lodge, Bowling Alley, Schriner’s Barber Shop, White Palace Restaurant, Chapman’s Auto, Packer’s Outlet (grocery), Miller’s Ice Cream.
-South side: Ypsilanti Savings Bank, Markham’s Restaurant, Moorman’s Lumber Yard, SerbayMotors, Silkworth’s Gas Station and Auto Repair, Sesi Lincoln Mercury.

-North side: Lounsberry’s Standard Gas Station, Woodruff Elementary School, Ken Brokaw’s Gas Station, Dolph Thorne’s Tire and Appliance Store, A & P Grocery Store, A & W Root Beer Stand.
-South Side: Thompson’s Dodge and Chrysler Dealer, Michigan State Police Post, Carrie Chadwick’s Piano Store, Clarence Tyrell’s Plumbing Shop, Bomber Restaurant, Emil Batcheler’sMeat Market, Max Bitker’s Dry Goods, Al Holzhauer’s Print Shop, Parkview Pharmacy (McLlhargie and Binder), C.F. Smith Grocery, Russell’s Bakery, Steffe’s Gas Station, Herzbergs Processing (junk dealer), Otis Tooze’s Barber Shop.

There were also many businesses on the cross streets and parallel streets to Michigan Avenue. For example, on Pearl Street there were the following businesses: Condon’s Hardware, Bill’s gas station, Huron Hotel, Freeman-Bunting Insurance, Manakis’Shoe Repair, Weidman’s Ford Dealership, a Restaurant, and Hunt’s Gulf Station. Perhaps someone with a vivid memory and a historical interest will wish to compile a list of these businesses and organizations.

These were Golden Days for Ypsilanti, a thriving community, and a wonderful place in which to live. It was a place where residents of Ann Arbor wished that their community could be like Ypsilanti. This is hard for rookie residents of Ypsilanti to believe, but “old timers” know this as a fact. Oh how wonderful it would be if we could recapture life in Ypsilanti as it was then.

(Jack Minzey is an active member of the Ypsilanti Historical Society and a regular contributor to the Gleanings.)

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: The North side of Michigan Avenue in 1941 looking West from Huron Street.

Photo 2: The White Palace Restaurant at 7 East Michigan Avenue in c1939. The restaurant continued operation until the early 1960s.

Photo 3: The White Palace menu featured an “Extra Large T-Bone Steak” including potatoes and a side of Bread and Butter for 75 cents.

Photo 4: McClure’s Service advertising featured pictures of employees and the statement “Where Friendly Service is a Habit not an Accident.”

Photo 5: The Thorne Tire building on East Michigan Avenue was built in the mid 1930s and was demolished in July of 1962. Mr. Thorne was a driver for Henry Ford I.

Photo 6: Tom Willoughby took over the Willoughby Shoe’s store on West Michigan Avenue from his father and eventually expanded the business to five stores.

Norval Hawkins: The Greatest Salesman in the World

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:

Author: James Mann

Norval Hawkins is said to have been the greatest salesman in the history of the Ford Motor Company. A native of Ypsilanti, Norval Hawkins was born July 10, 1867, the son of Walter H. Hawkins and Satatira Welch Hawkins. His grandfather was Abiel Hawkins who was the founder of the Hawkins House Hotel. Norval Hawkins attended Ypsilanti High School and Cleary Business College, and moved to Detroit in about 1885. Although he would live most of the rest of his life in Detroit, he always considered Ypsilanti his home and visited often.

He married Mabel Roberts on September 27, 1893. The couple had no children. Hawkins was convicted of embezzling $3,000, and sent to prison. The Ypsilanti Commercial of October 9, 1896 reported his father-in-law, Col. T. R Roberts, had pleaded for his release before the State Pardon Board. He was pardoned in December of 1896 and went to work for Buffington & Company of New York who made shirts.

Hawkins joined the Ford Motor Company in 1907 where he set up a time-cost study. “But the toilsome record-keeping of the cost-accounting systems he installed initially was a bureaucrat’s heaven and production man’s hell, and the later is where much of it went,” wrote Charles Sorensen in his autobiography, My Forty Years With Ford.

“Under Hawkins’s cost-time study,” wrote Sorensen, “a part such as a piston entered production bearing a ticket which covered every operation. If ten operations were involved, an entry was made on the ticket after each stage before proceeding to the next one. If one piston was lost in the move, all progress stopped until the missing piece could be found and accounted for. The time consumed in each operation was computed in lots of 100 or more, and results were tabulated on a card file which ultimately found its way back to the foreman so that he might check timing at each stage. Not only did the process mean delay from one operation to another, but when a motor assembler couldn’t get pistons, all car production was held up.”

On a Sunday morning Henry Ford and Sorenson entered the record room Hawkins had set up, where file drawer after file drawer was filled with cards and tickets. The two pulled each drawer out and turned it over so the contents spilled out onto the floor. They left the office in a shambles. That was the end of Hawkins cost-accounting system.

In December of 1907 Hawkins was named General Sales Manager, a post he would hold for the next eleven years. “The year before Hawkins became the company’s sales manager,” noted The Detroit News of Wednesday, August 19, 1936, “6,181 cars were marketed, while there were only eight small sales branches with a few hundred dealers. Under his administration, the sales and assembly plants increased to 86, and the dealers organization to nearly 11,000…during the 11 years that Mr. Hawkins was sales manager of the company, despite the repeated multiplication of factory space and enormously augmented manufacturing equipment, it was said the company had never built a car that was not already sold far in advance of its production.”

When sales agents expressed concerns their territory could not sell a dozen cars a year, Hawkins would have the agent drive him about the territory and, in a single afternoon, sell a dozen cars to farmers and townspeople. He then turned the sales over to the agent. During the year 1915, the Ford Motor Company sold 300,000 cars, and, it is said, Henry Ford called Hawkins his, “Million Dollar a Year Man.” Two things Hawkins did not like were glass partition between dealer show rooms and the repair shop, which reminded buyers of repair bills, and advertising for anti-skid chains, which made buyers think of accidents.

Hawkins went into the hospital in September of 1913 because of appendicitis. “In the hospital,” noted The Detroit News, “he found some things that were annoying to a sick man. For instance, the chair in his room when moved, made a harsh sound on the bare floor, and he thought it ought to be rubber-tipped. Why, he wanted to know, weren’t these and other needed improvements made?” The reason, he was told, was because there was no money. The day Hawkins left the hospital he raised $55,000 for the improvements he felt the hospital should have.

Hawkins left the Ford Motor Company in 1919 and joined General Motors in 1921, with a reported salary of $150,000 a year. He left General Motors in 1923 to return to the accounting business. He also wrote books on how to achieve success in business. Two of his books, “The Selling Process” and “Certain Success,” sold over 80,000 copies.

Hawkins filed for bankruptcy in November of 1935, with liabilities at $350.377.46 and assets of $293.45. He had made a fortune which he had lost during the bank crash of 1933. “Every one of the obligations I owed the Detroit banks,” he explained, “was secured by collateral consisting of shares of stock in Detroit banks and trust companies. Practically everything I possessed was tied up in those stocks. When the crash came,” he said “it wiped me out.”

Norval Hawkins died at his home in Detroit on August 18, 1936, at the age of 69. His wife had left to visit family in Kingsville, Ontario, but he was not feeling well and decided to stay home. He was listening to the broadcast of a baseball game on the radio when he had a heart attack.

(James Mann is a local author and historian, a volunteer in the Ypsilanti Historical Society archives, and a regular contributor to the Gleanings.)

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: Henry Ford called Hawkins his “MILLION DOLLAR A YEAR MAN.”

Early Soapmaking

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:

Author: Laura Bien

In the spring of the year the Washtenaw pioneer farmwife prepared for arguably the smelliest, most dangerous, and most tiring chore of the year. Along the way, she could suffer chemical burns, ruin her clothes, or accidentally start a grease fire. The process was hours long, involved seemingly endless stirring, and often failed.

Her first step was to gather scraps of skin and fat left over from last fall’s butchering and the grease and bones saved from months of cooking. Often rancid and mixed with dirt and animal hair, the fats were combined with water in a big iron kettle outdoors and boiled over a fire. Upon cooling, the congealed floating layer of somewhat cleaner fat was skimmed off and saved.

Along with fats, wood ashes had been conserved for some months. Ashes went into the outdoor wooden ash hopper. The hopper was a large V-shaped trough, a barrel with a hole in the bottom, or even a hollow log set upright. A pad of straw at the bottom of any style of hopper helped retain the ashes. Water poured over the gray powdery mass seeped through to become caustic alkaline lye that trickled out into a collection bucket.

Lye was the wild card in this endeavor; upon its strength depended the success of seat-of-the-skirt pioneer chemistry. Lacking pH test strips or a digital scale, the pioneer woman tested the lye by dropping in an egg or potato - if it floated, the lye was thought to be sufficiently caustic. Another test involved dipping in a feather; if the lye dissolved the feathery bits from the quill, it was dangerous enough to be useful. In an era before rubber gloves or cheap safety goggles, even a small spill or splash could cause severe skin or eye damage, with hospitals, if any, perhaps miles distant.

The fat and lye was put in the kettle and heated and stirred for some hours until the combination thickened into a soft brownish soap, a process called saponification. The process sometimes failed. “Much difficulty is often experienced by those who manufacture their own soap,” noted the November 21, 1835 issue of the Rochester, New York-published Genesee Farmer. “Often when every precaution has been apparently taken, complete failure has been the consequence; and the time is not long past when some have even declared that they believed their soap was bewitched.”

Cooled and packed in stoneware crocks or barrels, the soft soap would serve as the family supply for the coming year. Bar soap could be made by adding salt to the cooking soap, pouring it into wooden trays, allowing it to set, and cutting the hardened slabs into bars. Given the added expense of salt and time, most pioneers opted for soft soap. Its slipperiness led to the figurative use of the term to mean “flattery” as early as 1830, per the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms.

Considering soap-making’s difficulty, it’s small wonder that larger-scale soap manufactories were among the county’s first industries. As early as 1843, just two decades after a handful of settlers drifted into Woodruff’s Grove, Ypsilanti merchant Charles Stuck was placing ads in the Ypsilanti Sentinel requesting ashes and offering soft soap by the gallon or barrel. In 1844, Ypsilanti storekeepers Norris and Follett accepted ashes, barrel staves, firewood, “and other country produce” as the equivalent of cash for items in their store.

In 1855 Andreas Birk, an immigrant from the onetime German Empire’s southwestern state of Wuerttemberg, established a soap and candle factory on the corner of Madison and Main streets, piping in water from a nearby spring. By 1881, according to Chapman’s History of Washtenaw County, the building was two stories tall and measured 30 by 93 feet. In 1880, he had $1,500 invested in the business, employed four people, and produced $4,000 worth of product (about $94,000 in today’s dollars).

For decades he was one of two Ann Arbor soapmakers, the other being Daniel Millen at the northern end of State Street. In 1880, Millen’s soap and candle works represented a $1,800 investment, employed three men, and produced $2,480 worth of soap and candles ($58,000). Birk’s factory was eventually named the Peninsular Soap Co., and Millen’s the Ann Arbor Soap Works. In the mid-1880s Ypsilanti would-be water baron Tubal Cain Owen also began manufacturing soap, using his much-touted mineral water. He adorned his hefty bars of Salicura Soap with ornate wrappers.

By the late 1880s, new advertisements portended change. The first ads for Cincinnati-made Ivory and Chicago-made Santa Claus soaps appeared in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti papers. In contrast to plainer local ads whose graphic design consisted largely of varied fonts, the new soap ads looked slick and professional, with elaborate images and in Ivory’s case, bubbly doggerel.

One Ivory ad in a September 1889 issue of the Ypsilanti Commercial depicted washerwomen near a clothesline and contained an endorsement by onetime U-M chemistry professor James Langley. He had resigned from the university some months prior. “A direct practical experiment in a laundry has proved to me that the ‘IVORY,’ tested against a certain well-known brand of laundry soap, has the same amount of cleansing power and one and two-thirds the lasting capacity,” wrote the Harvard graduate. “I therefore consider the IVORY a very good laundry soap.”

Others apparently did as well. By 1897, the Glen V. Mills city directory for Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti listed no local soap manufacturers. A state gazetteer of the same year listed eight soapmakers in Detroit, four in Grand Rapids, and one each in Albion, Bay City, Houghton, Jackson, Portland, and Saginaw.

Michigan continued to contribute to the soap industry, though in an unusual way, as the wreckage left behind by rapacious lumbering became a salable product. The September 1, 1892 issue of the American Soap Journal and Perfume Gazette noted, “[T]he manufacture of [wood ashes] is still carried on . . . [in] the forests of Northern Michigan, and in portions of the Provinces of Canada, this substance is still systematically manufactured the year through. The hardwood stump lands from which the timber trees have been cleared are thus made to contribute a second time to the benefit of the settlers.”

Soap was one of the first mass-produced, nationally-advertised products, along with cigarettes, baking powders, and canned foods. Its success allowed such manufacturers as Colgate-Palmolive, the British Lever Brothers (later Unilever) and Ivory manufacturer Procter and Gamble to be early and prominent sponsors of the 1930s radio dramas called “washboard weepers” or “soap operas.”

Modern-day craft soapmaking can be a dramatic production as well. Even given such conveniences as mail-order food-grade lye of a known concentration, cheap-ish Costco canola and olive oil, and library books with time-tested recipes, the aspiring soapmaker must assemble quite a suite of ladles, scrapers, bowls, molds, oils, safety equipment, measuring cups, colorants, essential oils for fragrance, Solo cups for color-mixing, old towels, candy thermometers, a digital scale, a non-aluminum stock pot, a stick blender, a giant tub to keep it all in, and a tolerant spouse. Many items can be gleaned from dollar or thrift stores - bravery concerning the lye must be summoned from within.

The end result in the author’s fumbling foray was a barely-solid slab with a hue less leafy freshness than a moldy pallor. The scented slab, due to a slight measuring error, reeks with a lilac gut-punch that almost makes the eyes water. The eyes of pioneer foremothers, were they to see this saggy soap, would likely water as well, with laughter. No fancified folderol was needed for the resourceful local ladies whose determination transformed moldy bacon and a handful of ashes into a squeaky-clean home, wardrobe, and family.

Note: This story originally appeared in the Ann Arbor Chronicle.

(Laura Bien is a local author and historian and a volunteer in the YHS Archives.)

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: From U of M’s elite ivory tower, an ardent Ivory Soap Booster.

Photo 2: Ypsilanti merchant Mark Norris, unlike today’s Meijer of Target, accepted wood ashes as cash payment.

Photo 3: Ypsilanti merchant Charles Stuck solicited newspaper readers for ashes.

Photo 4: Ypsilanti mineral water entrepreneur Tubal Cain Owen emphasized that his Salicura soap contained beneficial substances from his miraculous murky water.

Saturdays at Vic and Mac's

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:

Author: Fred Thomas

The Wuerth Theatre and two soda fountains, Ernie’s and Michos Confectionary, were located in the 200 block of Michigan Avenue. Every Saturday these businesses hosted a procession of kids. First there was popcorn at Ernie’s. Then came cartoons, a serial, and the feature movie at the Wuerth .
Next up was a stop at Michos for ice cream. This routine provided entertainment for youngsters of all ages, and childcare relief for parents whose jobs required them to work many hours per week.

These weekly, uptown events occupied my junior high buddies and me one whole summer. A car ride to and from town was a treat, but not the norm. Most families had only one automobile. Walking was an accepted mode of transportation for children. Heading west from our East Cross Street home, Ypsilanti was easily reached via two parallel routes. Cross Street led directly into and through town. However, it runs a few blocks north of Michigan Avenue, the city‘s main street. A.K.A. US 12, the Sauk Trail, and the Chicago Road, this multi-laned highway travels almost three hundred miles from Detroit to Chicago. From my father’s car lot at 1189 East Michigan the weekend treks into town were straight shots. The distance from our business to the center of town was two miles. However, it seemed longer on those dog days of summer.

My pals and I preferred the Michigan Avenue choice. Short stops so I could beg movie-and-refreshment money from dad usually preceded our treks. The most direct way was alongside the heavily traveled four-lane roadway. There were no sidewalks until we reached the city limits. Even though traffic speeding by at fifty plus miles per hour threatened physical harm, no adults protested our favored route. Besides, parents didn’t seem to worry so much about their kids back then. You were expected to look after yourself.

Halfway to town, a bridge carries traffic over a single railroad track. Miles Street signals the overpass on the east side. On the north side of Michigan, just west of the viaduct, where Michigan Avenue and Ecorse Road intersect, stood Vic and Mac’s Mobil Service. By 1950’s standards this was an average double service-bay building with a triple-pump island located in front of the office. A Flying Red Horse sign beckoned customers. I cannot think of the place without recalling the excitement we felt about it during the 1950s. While growing up around a car lot was a major influence on my interest in automobiles, my experiences around Vic and Mac’s left me with an interest in hot rods.

The filling station became our oasis. We calculated it as the midpoint of our journey. Clean restrooms relieved our natural callings. A red Vendo 39 Coca-Cola machine took our nickels and dispensed ice-cold beverages. Six-ounce glass bottles of Coke and small cellophane bags of peanuts provided energy for the up- and downhill walking to and from matinees. We enjoyed looking at cars of different descriptions while eating refreshments.

The strange looking vehicles parked in and near Vic and Mac’s drew our attention. Those self-styled automotive creations piqued our interests. Although we were years away from driving legally, we would stand nearby and listen as the older guys discussed car features. The more we learned about them, the more questions we asked. We learned to recognize dual carburetors and high compression heads, even though their functions were yet to be understood. After a while we could talk the talk, a little. The modified machines quickly became a frequent topic of our adolescent conversations. Visits increased. Vic & Mac’s became a destination, not simply a chance stopover. Before long our familiarity with this novel automotive genre enabled us to recognize other similarly altered cars when we saw them. Something was happening at this Mobil station, and we wanted to know all about it.

What we were witnessing at Vic and Mac’s was the local pioneering spirit of hot rodding, a sport with its origins in California. It was about taking old cars and making them go faster. In addition, they lowered the vehicles by chopping the tops or channeling the bodies down over the frames. Both alterations apparently decreased wind resistance and made the cars go faster.. In the 1950s fast-action drag racing became popular nationally and interest in it spread like wildfire.. Young men in Ypsilanti wanted this kind of excitement. As visits at Vic and Mac’s racked up, my chums and I impatiently looked forward to the days when we, too, could be a part of this hot rod hysteria.

(Fred Thomas grew up in the Ypsilanti area, 1948 to 1998, and regularly contributes articles to the Gleanings.)

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: The Flying Red Horse symbol at Vic and Mac’s Mobil Service Station.

Photo 2: Guys discussing an early rail dragster.

Photo 3: Youths admiring a channeled 1931 Ford.

Photo 4: A chopped 1936 Ford with a Cadillac motor.

An exciting FIND of Ypsilanti railroad history

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:

Author: Gerry Petty

Every so often something is found in the YHS Museum/Archive that absolutely flabbergasts me as to its very existence from so many years ago. We now have such a long-forgotten artifact in our possession from Michigan’s railroading past, as well as other business documents. They all concern Ypsilanti and its surrounding small towns in 1846 during the rebuilding of the Michigan Central Railroad and other items of interest.

Although Ypsilanti had a railroad as early as September, 1838, it was a privately-owned line named the Detroit and St. Joseph Railroad. It was badly under-constructed and under-funded becoming insolvent early on and was eventually was taken over by the State of Michigan in 1840. After running through more than $5 million in funds and doing an equally sub-standard construction job, the State decided to sell its stake in the Central Railroad of Michigan in 1846. By this time it went as far as Kalamazoo, a distance of about 143 miles from Detroit

Investors in 1846 were able to raise $2 million to purchase the CRM with the hope of making it profitable and running the line to Michigan City, Indiana and then to Chicago, Illinois. Beyond Chicago the railroad was to eventually serve several other states. The now successful MCRR exceeded its own expectations and, by 1925, the MCRR had 1,871 miles or roadway and 4,139 miles of track. Finally, in the 1940s, the New York Central line bought out the last of the bonds and began to control the railway.

This last October, while looking around the archival storage area, Al Rudisill came across a very old accordion file. I had never seen this file, even during our Archives move back in 2007. This ancient file had been given to the YHS sometime in 1954, gratefully accepted and evidently forgotten for 58 years! Just on its own that is something too, but what was truly amazing was that it was a treasure trove of 19th century business documents: checks, promissory notes, deeds, doctors bills, a 1924 divorce document, demands for payment and best of all, the payrolls for about eight weeks of the newly formed, Michigan Central Railroad! Additionally, it also contained all of the information as to the workers, the amounts of pay and about 30% of the additional bills submitted to the railroad for services along the roadway/track laying operations from Dearborn to Denton, Ypsilanti, Pittsfield Station, and out to Grass Lake Michigan!

Contained on these MCRR payrolls were their pay rates, for the typical 10-hour workdays, the names of the workers, and their actual signatures. As an example: a rail-layer made 87¢ a day, skilled workers made one dollar a day and a team of horses were contracted for a dollar a day as we have the actual draying bill moving rails and ties to the work area (the owner of the team was a local worker putting down rails too). We also have a bill from one of our local restaurants for $5.25, which was never eaten as the labor crew was called away from their dinner by a wood fire they had to put out. Probably it was railroad ties and wood braces needed to redo the badly built roadbeds that had caught fire. We also have a record of a Denton farmer submitting a bill for several hundred dollars from a fire caused by one of the passing Michigan Central Railroad steam engines. It did quite a bit of damage, according to the bill.

In 1846, these workers were not paid weekly but ‘about’ monthly. They were paid not by check, voucher, bank deposits, but CASH-in-hand. Paying in cash requires a physical payroll, lots of small change––which included half cent pieces––and lots of silver and gold coins as there was no United States paper currency. Almost all of the local banks were put out of business during the panic of 1837, and people were very reluctant to accept ANY paper money from private banks. All of this required a personal sign-off checklist to receive the workers pay. It was not unusual for a railroad to have an express car that carried cash payrolls and other valuable items to certified recipients and this probably was the way these men were paid. The headquarters of the MCRR was Detroit, about 39 miles away and the existence of this payroll document should have been destroyed when the last workers had all been paid and the payroll audited. It is all very quizzical as to why this payroll never made it back to Detroit!

All of these wonderful MCRR documents will be placed in a separate file, as the documents are physically large and the attendant tertiary bills constitute a separate heading for the MCRR business file. (MCRR: 1846 Bus. documents/payrolls.) For people who study business history, these are just full of information for the early development of Michigan railroads, and 19th century business documentation and forms of this era.

Samuel Post: Ypsilanti's "Squeaky Clean" Politician

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, Fall 2012,
Fall 2012
Original Images:

Author: Janice Anschuetz

Samuel Post: Ypsilanti’s “Squeaky Clean” Politician
By Janice Anschuetz

In this election year it would be an honor for any politician to be labeled “squeaky clean.” In the mid-1800s, Ypsilanti laid claim to a politician who was “squeaky clean” not only in the usual moral sense, but, in time, in a quite literal sense as well. This luminary was Samuel Post. In July of 1854, he was present at the founding convention of the modern Republican Party in Jackson, Michigan. Years later, he founded the highly prosperous Detroit Soap Company.

In his day, Post was such an accomplished, imaginative, gregarious and unusual man that his very appearance attracted attention both in Ypsilanti and Detroit. He was known for his stovepipe hat and frock coat, and for carrying a gold-tipped cane. Whether he was seen on Congress Street (now Michigan Avenue), in Ypsilanti, or on Woodward Avenue in Detroit, heads would turn and people would wonder whether Samuel was an escaped wedding guest or an actor in costume. Yet, it is said that all those who actually met this friendly and vibrant man believed they had made a true friend. To one and all, he was known as “Sam,” and no one who met him ever forgot him.

The Family Background: Samuel Post was born on November 9, 1834, in a brick home surrounded by gardens, in the middle of what is now the south side of Michigan Avenue, between Huron and Washington Streets. Livingstone’s History of the Republican Party, written by William Livingston in 1900, gives us more information about this family: “{Post’s} …parents were William Rollo Post, a hatter, and Mary Ann Pardee. Both parents were born in New York State, came to Michigan in 1830, and located in Ypsilanti, where they continued to reside until death, both dying in the same year at the advanced ages of 86 and 87. When they came westward the methods of travel were very primitive, the Erie Canal furnishing the best means of crossing New York State, and an ox team being used for the journey from Detroit to Ypsilanti. Mrs. Post’s father, Israel Platt Pardee, was a Captain in a New York regiment during the Revolutionary War and the more remote ancestors were French Huguenots who fled to this country to escape religious persecution by the Catholics during the reign of Louis XVI.”

William Rollo and Mary Ann Post eventually had four children, Lucy Ann Post (1827-1922) and Eliza Pardee Post (1832-1862), Samuel (1834-1921), and Helen Mary Post (1838-1917).

Samuel’s father William Rollo is best known in Ypsilanti history for building what was sometimes called the Ypsilanti Follies. According to Harvey C. Colburn in The History of Ypsilanti (1923), this large four-story building, proposed for a hat factory, was adjacent to the Michigan Avenue Bridge and called “The Nunnery,” based on its venerable appearance. Before it burned down in the great fire of 1851, the building was used as a school that began as The Presbyterian Session House. There are accounts of William’s bravery in trying to save the doors of the building, while flames fanned around town. William was also a land speculator, and, with his partner Judge Lazelere, extended the town plat south to Catherine Street in 1857.

Samuel’s Start in Business: William’s propensity for business seems to have been inherited by his only son Samuel. As a young lad, Samuel made a name for himself as a street merchant selling apples and chestnuts. Livingstone tells us that “At ten years of age, while attending school, he was employed by Charles Stuck, in his general store, to work, when not engaged in the school room, at $2.00 a month….” In an article in The Ypsilanti Daily Press of October 30, 1954, more is written about Samuel’s early ambitions. “His salary finally was advanced to $6.00 a month, and at the age of 16, he left school in order to give all his time to business. At the age of 21 he was earning $50.00 a month and decided it was time to strike out for himself.”

As often happened in Samuel’s life, just the right person came along at the right moment to help. On this occasion it was an interesting man by the name of Rev. John A. Wilson, who served at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. Rev. Wilson lived in Ann Arbor and had no horse, so he walked to Ypsilanti to conduct services and the business of the church. The elder Posts and their children were active members of St. Luke’s, and Samuel’s sister Lucy sang in the choir.

Samuel is said to have explained his ambitions to open his own store to Rev. Wilson and to have asked his advice on how to raise $500 to add to the $500 he had saved from his own small salary. He was so convincing in his eagerness that the kind Rev. Wilson lent the young man $500 from his own savings to be paid back, without interest, over the next five years.

The Ypsilanti Daily Press article states: “Post entered into partnership with Robert Lambie, a man who had learned tailoring in Scotland and together they launched into the dry goods business. It was successful and later Post sold [his share] to his partner and built the Post Block which housed the largest general store in town.” The Post Block is situated on the north side of what is now Michigan Avenue (then Congress Street), between Washington and Adams. In its day, it was surely one of the most elegant blocks in the county, housing both the famed Opera House and the glorious Hawkins’s House Hotel.

Family Life and Civic Stature: Samuel’s personal life also prospered during this time. In 1857, he married a beautiful young woman, Amanda “Mandy” S. Flower, who was born in New York. The couple soon had three children: William Rollo Post, born in 1858; Helen E. Post, born around 1860; and Samuel Post, born in 1867.

In 1865, the young family moved into a large brick home on West Forest near College Place, at the edge of the campus of the Normal School. Samuel’s parents and his sister Helen, who taught at the college, lived with them. Samuel had bought the home from a local merchant, Adonijah S. Welch, for $9,550. With its large lawn and gardens, it was the perfect place to raise a family and also to entertain and impress others. By this time, Post was considered a man of substance and character, and one of the most important people in Ypsilanti. He was a warden at St. Luke’s Church and a prominent and prosperous citizen of Washtenaw County.

A Career in Politics: Several sources, such as the Ypsilanti Daily Press article cited above and an obituary at the end of Sam’s life, add substance to a Post family legend. It reports that Samuel was present when the modern Republican Party was formed at its first party convention, in July, 1854 at Jackson, Michigan, under the spreading limbs of an old oak tree. Samuel was just a young man at the time, only 20 years old, but keenly interested in politics. At the convention he met the Republican politician Zachariah Chandler, a Detroit dry goods merchant, who soon became a helpful friend.

To pursue his ambitions for a political career, Samuel first sold off his share of the dry goods partnership in 1870, earning a good profit. In the same year, he was elected to the state legislature, and two years later became head of the Republican Party in Washtenaw County.

We learn more about Sam’s burgeoning political career in Livingstone’s book on the Republican Party. While in the state legislature, Livingstone tells us, Post “…was Chairman of the Insurance Committee and of the Committee on Federal Relations. As Chairman of the former Committee he framed or reported some very important legislation, including the general law under which the first Insurance Commissioner, Samuel H. Row, was appointed and virtually created the Insurance Department.” Post was also a member of the State Central Committee and attended many state and national conventions.

With growing national exposure, and the help of his friend Zachariah Chandler, who knew President Grant personally, Post was appointed by the President in 1873 to serve four years as the United States Pension Agent at Detroit. He was subsequently re-appointed by President Arthur, and served a total of twelve years and ten months in this office.

In a Detroit newspaper article, found in the archives of the Ypsilanti Historical Museum and dated January 11, 1947, W.K. Kelsey provides interesting additional information about these honored appointments: “This was considered a fat job; so lucrative, indeed, that the former pension agents had departed with the funds. Therefore Uncle Sam demanded that the holder of the job post bond in the amount of $600,000.”

That was a high hurdle even for Sam Post. “He knew he was honest,” Kelsey writes, “but the temptations of the pension office had been proved great. He consulted his old friend Daniel Lace Quirk, president of the First National Bank of Ypsilanti – knowing that Quirk was a strong Democrat and unlikely to help a Grant appointee. But Dan Quirk signed the bond for $50,000.00 which was a lot of faith in those days. When Sam Post showed Dan Quirk’s signature to other responsible men in Ypsilanti and Detroit, he had no difficulty raising the rest.”

In his History of Ypsilanti, Harvey C. Colburn sheds even more light on the special credentials required for the Pension Agent’s job. He quotes Post as saying, “Had Quirk not signed, I doubt if I could have filed the bond. There were no guarantee companies in those days and the pension office was in ill repute. Three preceding agents had absconded and bondsmen had suffered. I was a Black Republican and Quirk a strong Democrat, but Quirk put his name down for $50,000.00” It is said that, in later years, Sam would stop by the First National Bank of Ypsilanti and joke with the tellers, asking them if Quirk had $50,000.00 in his account!

From Squeaky-Clean Politician to a Squeaky-Clean Business: Samuel Post’s career as United States Pension Agent at Detroit came to an end with the election of President Grover Cleveland, who appointed a Democrat to the position. But this also freed Sam for a new undertaking. Having distinguished himself as a “squeaky-clean” politician, he now formed a squeaky-clean business, the Detroit Soap Company. Again, he started out with a partner, Digby V. Bell. But, following the early death of Bell, the company was reorganized and renamed the Queen Anne Soap Company. At this juncture, Samuel’s sons, William R. and Samuel, Jr., joined the management. From then on, the company, located in Detroit, prospered under Sam’s leadership and skills as a salesman.

A Good American Businessman and a Typical Englishman of the Victorian Age: In 1893, at the age of 59, Samuel rented out his beautiful home on West Forest to the president of the Normal College, and for 45 years it served as the official residence of the college president. In 1938, the home was torn down and replaced with a new official president’s home. King Hall, a dormitory, was also built on the site. For many years, Sam’s two beautiful and rare Camperdown elm trees continued to stand outside King Hall. There they reminded passers-by of the grace and elegance of the stately Post home, until they finally died of old age over a hundred years after they were planted.

On leaving his home, Sam took residence (presumably with his wife Mandy and sister Helen, though the records don’t make this clear) at the then elegant Hawkins’s House Hotel on the north side of Michigan Avenue (then Congress Street). From that location he commuted daily to various destinations by trolley or train. In a letter written by Carl W. Dusbiber to the Ypsilanti Historical Society many years ago, we learn something about Sam’s life as an elderly man: “He was a typical Englishman of the Victorian age. He wore a stovepipe hat, a frock coat and his jowls were garnished with sideburns…. Mr. Post lived … at the Hawkins House, which at the time was considered one of the best hostelries round about. He went to the Michigan Central Depot for his frequent trips to Detroit, he always rode in a carriage…. Sam Post was a very picturesque figure. And he was friendly and affable. He was on the vestry of St. Luke’s Episcopal…. He occupied a private pew, indication that he was a very generous contributor. I observed all these things, because around 1904, I was a choir boy at St. Luke’s and once a month Sam Post and the reverend gave the boys a jolly party.”

Samuel’s unusual appearance was commented on in the newspaper article by Kelsey: “For 40 years or more, Sam Post was a notable figure in Detroit. Strangers who passed him on the street stared at him. Who was he? A medicine man from some show? An advertiser of something? A strayed wedding guest? For wherever he went, Mr. Post was arrayed in a silk hat and a frock coat. Long after these articles of apparel had become the signs of an extra-formal occasion, Sam Post wore them to his daily work. It is probable that Mr. Post adopted this garb when he was elected to the Legislature in 1870, and decided that it was the correct attire for a statesman…. He was in no sense ridiculous; the costume became him. But it made him a marked man, so that people asked who he was, and got so they felt they knew him, saluting him and speaking to him as they passed, and receiving a courteous nod in return. No doubt Sam Post enjoyed this publicity and thought it was good for Queen Anne Soap, as well as for himself.”

A Pioneer in Creative Sales Promotion: Not only was Samuel’s appearance a good advertisement for Queen Anne Soap, but he had many ways to make sure that the public knew about, and bought, his product. Each bar of soap had a trading card inside. These are now common on eBay, and the card illustrations range from flowers and infants to farmers with moonshine. Another gimmick was that the soap was sold at a discount by the case to enterprising housewives, who in turn would keep the coupons inside the case and sell the bars of soap to family and friends. The coupons could then be exchanged for such diverse items as furniture, lamps, and even a trip on a daily excursion boat to Cedar Point on Lake Erie! My mother-in-law always proudly displayed her family’s Victorian desk bought with soap coupons.

Mrs. Addie Murray of Farmington, Mich. wrote about her childhood introduction to Queen Anne soap: “I was a small girl living in Detroit and my mother would walk with her four children to a spot known as Campans dock. We would board the Belle Isle ferry and for about ten cents ride all of a summer afternoon and evening up and down the river with the orchestra playing ‘In the Good Old Summer Time.’ My first notice of Queen Anne Soap when I learned to read was a mammoth sign located at the river’s edge, which I saw on the excursions. Then later I remember Mother saving the wrappers for a new parlor lamp or something.”

Perhaps Post’s most imaginative venture into advertising was at the Detroit Fair and Exhibition of 1899. Visitors to the fair could smell the tantalizing fragrance of Queen Anne Soap, said to be the first scented soap, and couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw a full-sized cottage carved out of a giant block of the product!

Sam’s Last Years and Legacy: After the age of 80, Samuel Post sold the soap company and also the famed Opera House in the Post Block. The Opera House was never the same after that, and the Hawkins’s House Hotel was hit by a “cyclone” in 1883 and rebuilt around 1886. The Ypsilanti Opera House was converted into a movie theater in 1918, which, according to the April 2, 1918 issue of “The Michigan Film Review,” was called the Forum Theatre. The Forum then became the Wuerth Theater, which showed silent films and held occasional live shows. The part of the building that was the Wuerth Theater was torn down in 1959 to provide space for a parking lot.

Samuel Post died in Miami, Florida in December, 1921, and, after a well-attended funeral at St. Luke’s on North Huron Street, joined his wife Amanda, who had died in 1901, in peaceful rest at Highland Cemetery on North River Street.

Today, we can remember Sam Post not only for his squeaky-clean conduct as a politician, and the squeaky-clean product he made at the Queen Anne Soap Company, but as a talented public servant who was elected to the state legislature, appointed by the governor to serve six years on the Board of Trustees of the Michigan Asylum for the Insane, and appointed by two United States presidents to head the United States Pension Board at Detroit.

Sam was also a community activist. He was a life-long member, warden, and supporter of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. As reported in the 1908 Book of Detroiters, by Albert Nelson Marquis, he was also a member of the Detroit Board of Commerce and of the Masonic Order, Knights Templar, Detroit Post No. 384.

Ypsilanti historians know Sam Post best as a colorful and productive contributor to the city’s early growth. His Post Block still stands today as a reminder of a creative vision that can continue to inspire our efforts to make Ypsilanti a more vital and attractive place to live.

(Janice Anschuetz is a local historian who contributes regularly to the Gleanings.)

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: Sam Post dressed in his silk hat and frock coat

Photo 2: An ad for Sam Post’s Queen Anne Soap

Photo 3: In 1857 Sam married Amanda “Mandy” S. Flower, who was born in New York.

Photo 4: Sam Post’s father William Rollo Post

Photo 5: Sam Post’s mother Mary Ann (Pardee) Post

Photo 6: The Post house on West Forest near College Place, at the edge of the campus of the Normal School

Photo 7: The Post Block with the Opera House and Hawkins Hotel where Sam Post lived as an old man

Photo 8: The Queen Anne Soap building in Detroit

Photo 9: Sam Post Jr. went into the soap business with his father and brother William

Photo 10: “Queen Anne Soap – without an equal as a family soap”

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