Walter Owen Briggs

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
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Author: Jan Anschuetz

When I was a child growing up in Detroit in the 1940’s, “Briggs” was a word that I thought of daily. My father went off to a Briggs manufacturing plant to work and his Briggs paycheck paid for my food and clothing and home. We didn’t have many outings as a family because my father worked such long hours at Briggs, but my father did take us to Briggs Stadium at least once each year to cheer on the Detroit Tigers baseball team when Briggs employees were given free tickets. We also went to the Detroit Zoological Park and often rode in the miniature train with the name “Walter O. Briggs” written on it. At least twice a day, when I visited the bathroom at Finney Elementary School in Detroit, I would read the word “Briggs” stamped on the toilets and sinks. In addition to these connections, I even married a man whose father also worked for Briggs.

Now, 70 years later, I have learned many facts about Walter Owen Briggs and was amazed to find out that he was born on the street I live on – North River Street, and then lived in a home a few blocks away on Oak Street. His amazing professional career began working at a factory two blocks away while he was still a child. The life of Walter O. Briggs could serve as the model for the realization of the American Dream. He was a hard working, ambitious, imaginative and generous self-made man whose formal education ended before he was 14 years old, yet somehow he learned the secret of living a good life.

Walter O. Briggs was born February 27, 1877 at his mother’s childhood home at 414 North River Street. This is the house just north of the Thompson Block, which was originally built as a home for military officers during the Civil War. Briggs was the son of Rodney and Ada Warner Briggs. Ada’s father, Oliver, worked for the Quirk family. Oliver’s obituary states that he managed the Quirk home. Ada’s mother was Mary Ann Rook Warner. Rodney’s parents were Elizabeth and John Peter Briggs, whose family originated in New York State, where Rodney was born. According to The Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: A-F edited by David L. Porter, Walter’s father was a locomotive engineer for the Michigan Central Railroad. Walter had a brother named Guy, who became a physician and eventually lived in Flint, Michigan. He also had two sisters, Myrtle who was born in January, 1880 and Lauvin, who was born in 1879.

The family later moved to 6 Oak Street, as we find this address in the obituaries of both of Briggs’ grandfathers who died in the house, which was situated on the north end of the present Depot Town parking lot and once stood at the junction of Norris and Oak Streets. Walter’s first job, while still a child, was crating baskets, probably at the Ypsilanti Reed Furniture Factory in the Thompson Block on River Street. The family moved to Detroit about 1890.

We know that a young Walter attended the John S. Newberry Public School in Detroit where he was a catcher and first baseman for the school team. He dropped out of school at the age of 14 to become a car checker for the Michigan Central Railroad, where his job was to sort the freight cars in the train yard. He also worked as a cement plant foreman, shipping clerk, and auto body trimmer. His hard work, dedication and ambition were rewarded when he was offered a job by C. H. Lewis at B. F. Everitt’s carriage shop. By 1906, Briggs had been promoted to president of this firm, which by this time was manufacturing Studebaker cars and was renamed E-M-F. Everitt sold the company to Briggs in 1909, and Briggs renamed it the Briggs Manufacturing Company.

Briggs Manufacturing Company soon became a major supplier of automotive bodies for Ford Motor Company. Under Briggs’ leadership, the company purchased the Sterling Auto Top Company and the Murphy Chair Company. In 1923, he purchased the Michigan Stamping Company, and by 1925 Briggs was providing 500,000 car bodies to Ford Motor Company alone, and made about $11 million dollars in profit in one year! Briggs also manufactured an Essex auto body which was a closed coach, yet it sold for about the same price as the “open coaches” which provided little protection from the elements. With these business decisions, the poor boy from Ypsilanti became a multi-millionaire. Soon his company was supplying car bodies to other automobile companies such as Chrysler, Packard, Hudson and Willys-Overland. By 1953, Briggs operated 12 plants and had more than 30,000 employees

Briggs personal life also was rapidly changing. He married Jane Elizabeth Cameron in Detroit, on November 22, 1904, who was the daughter of Angus and Elsa Cameron, and they were blessed with five children. His early struggles in finding housing for his growing family is described in the book Michigan: A Centennial History of the State and Its People, edited by George Fuller. “When Mr. and Mrs. Briggs were looking for an apartment in those days when their son Walter O. Jr. was a baby, they found it difficult to obtain adequate quarters because landlords did not want children in their property. Mr. Briggs then vowed that if he ever had the money he would have an apartment building to which no one could come as a resident without children.” (According to Briggs’ obituary, this is a promise that he kept when he invested in real estate. He even had a clause that tenants in his building must have a child under the age of five.)

In 1915, Briggs built a palatial home in Detroit for his family, which still stands at 700 West Boston Boulevard in near original condition. The home was built in the prestigious Boston-Edison area. Families such as Sebastian S. Kresge (Kresge & Kmart), Ira Grinnell (Grinnell Brothers music company), Charles and Edward Fisher (Fisher Body), Henry Ford, Joe Louis, Berry Gordy, Paul “Dizzy” Trout and Willie Horton once lived in this neighborhood. He named his home “Stone Hedge.” It was designed by Chittenden and Kotting Architects, and was built in the English Manor style. It is nearly 10,000 square feet and features 11 bedrooms. There are nine fireplaces, elaborate woodwork with faces carved in them, an elevator and a carriage house.

One of Brigg’s neighbors was Frank Navin, who owned 50% of the Detroit Tigers. When William Yawkey died, who owned 25% of the team, Navin suggested that Briggs purchase Yawkey’s shares. Then John Kelsey, another part owner, died and Briggs quickly bought an additional 25%. At Navin’s death in 1935, Briggs eagerly snapped up Navin’s shares from the estate and Briggs became sole owner of both Navin Field and the Detroit Tigers.

With so much going on in his professional life, Briggs, a lifelong fan of baseball, was still able to make strides in his desire to advance the “everyman’s sport.” Briggs vowed that he would improve and enlarge the stadium so that every man who wanted to buy a ticket could enjoy the game of baseball. It was reported that in the year 1909, Briggs was unable to obtain tickets to attend the American League Championship between the Tigers and Pittsburgh at the Detroit baseball field then known as Bennett Park, which had a capacity for only 10,000 fans. With this in mind, Briggs greatly enlarged his newly acquired Navin Field, making it large enough for 52,000 fans and he changed the name to Briggs Stadium. He also poured his own money into improving the team. Briggs declared that he would never take a penny from the team and sport that he loved.

Briggs is remembered for using part of his own fortune to obtain the best players at considerable expense such as Mickey Cochrane, Al Simons, Fred Hutchinson and Dick Wakefield. Briggs was named Baseball Executive of the Year in 1941. He was recognized for his ability to operate a successful team, his sportsmanship and generosity. While under his ownership, the Tigers won American League pennants in 1940 and 1945, and the World Series in 1945.

Baseball was just one of the sports that Briggs was interested in. He owned a 236-foot yacht as well as a racing stable. His interest in physical education along with his friendship with the president of The Michigan State Normal College (now Eastern Michigan University) inspired Briggs to donate the funds necessary to build and equip a new field house in 1937. A newspaper article in The Ypsilanti Press describes the gift, which his son “Spike” Walter O. Briggs, Jr., announced at a centennial dinner at the college, as originating from the “old friendship” his father had for his birthplace of Ypsilanti. Today Briggs Hall is still used by the students and faculty at Eastern Michigan University, but not as a field house. It has been remodeled and contains classrooms and office space. Briggs Field House acted as a gateway to Briggs Field, which had seating for 300 spectators for both football and baseball. Today, Mark Jefferson Hall, Strong Hall, and a parking lot cover the former Briggs Field.

One might wonder how Walter O. Briggs continued to give money away during the height of the Great Depression when the sales of automobiles had fallen to a new low. Using his imagination and skills in engineering he branched out into the field of plumbing fixtures and again was able to fill a void in the market. Prior to his inventiveness, bathtubs were heavy, difficult to store, install, or maneuver and were made of cast iron with legs raising them from the floor. Briggs instead manufactured porcelain coated stamped steel tubs which could be stacked for delivery and were more manageable to work with than cast iron. Bathtubs, sinks and toilets were easier to sell, even during the Depression, than were automobiles. This was largely due to the fact that in the 1930s and 1940’s more and more homes were tearing down their outdoor outhouses and building modern bathrooms.

Briggs was involved in other profit making enterprises as well, such as real estate and land development - especially in Florida and Arizona. He owned a stable which bred, raced and sold horses. As if this were not enough to keep him busy, he was also a generous man who spent many hours helping with the founding of the Detroit Zoological Society, buying thousands of dollars worth of zoo animals for the facility with his own money. The Detroit Zoo honored him by naming one of their three miniature trains after him. Briggs was a kind man who remembered his own early struggles to earn money to support his family and was the director of the Detroit Community Fund where he quietly and unostentatiously gave his own money and provided assistance to those who needed it.

Briggs lost the use of his legs around 1944 and was thereafter confined to a wheel chair, but he continued to be active. He spent the winters with friends and family in his mansion in Florida. On January 17, 1952, he died of kidney failure at the age of 74 at his Florida home. His body was brought back to Detroit for burial at Holy Sepulcher Cemetery. Besides his wife, he was survived by his brother Guy Briggs, a physician, four daughters and a son. His daughter, Grace, married W. Dean Robinson, who was president of the Briggs Manufacturing Company. Another daughter, Elizabeth, married Charles T. Fisher, who at that time was president of the National Bank of Detroit. Another daughter, Susan Ann, was married to E. E. Fisher, who owned an automobile dealership. His most well-known daughter, Jane Cameron Briggs, was married to then attorney Phillip A. Hart, Jr. who later became a much-loved senator from Michigan, for whom Hart Plaza in Detroit is named. In her own right, Jane was an amazing woman who became the first woman “licensed” helicopter pilot in Michigan and was a noted horsewoman, winning many awards for jumping.

Briggs’ son “Spike”, Walter O. Briggs, Jr. was active in assisting his father with his many endeavors, including the Detroit Tigers. He attempted to keep the Detroit Tigers in the Briggs family after inheriting the team, but due to some difficulties in the conditions of Briggs’ will, he was unable to do so. The Briggs Manufacturing Company was sold to Chrysler Corporation around 1953. My father and father-in-law, and thousands of other Briggs employees, spent the remainder of their careers as employees of Chrysler. My father and father-in-law would talk with nostalgia about working for Briggs and had fond memories of their time under his employ. I have read articles that have stated that Briggs employees were not treated or paid well, but that was not the experience of my family.

So, perhaps the only dream of Walter O. Briggs that did not come true was to keep the Detroit Tigers baseball team in the family for his children and his 22 grandchildren. Even so, knowing what we know about this man’s humble beginnings, hard work, diligence and imagination, no one could ever say that he didn’t have a life well-lived. He certainly is the most famous man to ever have been born on North River Street in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

(Janice Anschuetz is a long-time member of the Ypsilanti Historical Society and a regular contributor to the Gleanings.)


Photo Captions:

Photo 1: Detroit Tigers player/manager Mickey Cochrane and team owner Walter Briggs at Fenway Park during the 1934-35 season.

Photo 2: Detroit Tigers player/manager Mickey Cochrane speaking with team owner Walter Briggs at Fenway Park in 1937.

Photo 3: In 1915 Briggs built a palatial home in Detroit for his family which he named “Stone Hedge.”

Photo 4: In 1937 Briggs donated funds to Michigan State Normal College to build and equip a field house.

Photo 5: Walter Briggs was born in this house at 414 North River Street in Ypsilanti.

Comments

I had a student last name Briggs.

Joked with her about owning Tigers. It was her great grandfather.
TB