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The Rise and Transformation of American Broach

Grace Shackman

Its huge Huron Street factory is now a haven for low-budget arts groups.

The factory building at 408 West Washington, now the home of numerous arts groups, including the Performance Network, was from 1919 to 1963 the headquarters of American Broach, a pioneer machine-tool maker. American Broach flourished during the heyday of the U.S. auto industry, supplying broaches (specialized metal-cutting tools) and broaching machines to the Big Three auto companies, their suppliers, and farm machinery manufacturers. At its peak during World War II, American Broach employed 500 people and ran around the clock making equipment for munitions factories. Unlike many of its competitors, it weathered the long decline of the U.S. auto industry, and it still survives, on a smaller scale, in a modern factory on Jackson Road.

Broaching is a method of machining in which a series of rotating cutting teeth are used to shape an edge or an opening in a piece of metal. Invented in the mid-nineteenth century, broaching was improved by J. L. Lapointe, who created a faster and more accurate broaching machine at his factory in New London, Connecticut, in 1901.

American Broach was founded by Lapointe's son, Francis, who is often called the father of modern broaching. According to John Podesta, chief engineer under Francis Lapointe and later general manager of American Broach, "Lapointe had a genius for knowing and inventing tools. He could throw out ideas as fast as you could catch them."

Francis Lapointe was a practical businessman, too. He was one of the first to appreciate the usefulness of broaching to the newly emerging automobile industry. In 1919, accompanied by about six skilled employees, he left his father's broaching company and moved to the Midwest to be closer to potential customers and to take advantage of the good labor market. With the help of the Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce, he found land on Huron Street just west of the railroad overpass, where he built a small factory on the eastern edge of the property.

Lapointe's optimism was vindicated. Driven by the burgeoning growth of the auto companies and their suppliers, American Broach grew rapidly over the next two decades. Lapointe added sections to the factory until it reached Third Street, then built a wing stretching to Washington. During World War II, he built a second wing on the western edge of the property, parallel to the railroad tracks.

Just as it shared in the prosperity of the auto industry, however, American Broach was touched by its labor problems. In 1937, Francis Lapointe sold the business to an Illinois-based machine-tool company, Sundstrand, but stayed on as general manager. Later the same year, American Broach had the distinction of hosting Ann Arbor's first sit-down strike. The immediate cause was the refusal of management to grant a nickel-an-hour raise.

Inspired by the successful sit-down strike in Flint's GM plant earlier that year, a group of workers locked the shop doors from the inside at 10:01 a.m. on Tuesday, August 3. Then they pulled the main switch, stopping all the electric machinery. Since the shop was on the first floor, food was easily delivered to the strikers through the windows on Huron Street. Management continued working in the second-story offices, entering and leaving by outside stairways.

Strike supporters picketed in front of the Washington Street parking lot. Sophie Reuther, who, along with her husband, Vie Reuther, was the UAW organizer assigned to Ann Arbor, took an unintentional ride on the hood of a car that drove through the human barrier the picketers had formed. Tacks were then strewn on the driveway, causing several flat tires. But no irreversible harm was done, and after thirty-six hours, the strikers were persuaded to leave the building by Ann Arbor mayor Walter Sandier, who sneaked in a back door to tell them that Michigan governor Frank Murphy had agreed to mediate the dispute. The strikers returned to work after both sides agreed to collective bargaining.

American Broach's finest hour was during World War II. Working twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the factory built broaching machines and broaching tools needed to "rifle" guns and artillery. Rifling creates grooves inside a gun barrel so that the bullet spins when fired, giving it greater accuracy and distance.

John Podesta remembers accompanying Lapointe on a trip to the Springfield Arsenal in Massachusetts, early in the war. On the way home, the two men sat up all night in their Pullman sleeper designing a faster broaching method. When they ran out of paper, they drew on the cardboard their shirts had been wrapped in. When they arrived back in Ann Arbor the next morning, they were, ready to begin producing machines that could rifle a gun barrel in one hour instead of the six hours it had taken.

After the war, the broaching business waned. In 1946, Lapointe left American Broach to start a new company in Kentucky. Podesta took over as general manager until 1957, when Sundstrand moved the broaching-machine business to their headquarters in Rockford, Illinois. In 1961, two employees, Harold Holly and Everett Vreeland (whose father was one of the six men Lapointe had brought from Connecticut in 1919), bought the broaching-tool division. In 1963 they moved it to Jackson Road, where it still thrives, now under the ownership of Ed Kohmeyer.

After American Broach left West Washington Street, the huge building was partitioned off and rented to a number of businesses, including Bonavia Bedding Co., Seyfried Printers, the Breast Cancer Detection Center, Sears Roebuck's advertising office, Sycor, and Ann Arbor Circuits. By 1980 it was down to a couple of tenants, and the owners renamed it "The Technology Center" in hopes of attracting electronics companies.

Instead, they found an important tenant in the Performance Network, which in turn attracted a number of the small artists and arts groups--including dancers, musicians, and painters--that make up an important (if poorly paid) segment of Ann Arbor's current economy. The complex is now home to more than 100 groups, many of whom, in the words of one of the owners, Dan Hussey, "couldn't find any other place to be, either because of the cost or because of what they are doing."

[Photo caption from original print edition]: American Broach thrived during the golden age of Michigan's auto industry, growing from half a dozen people in 1919 to 500 workers during World War II. This early 1940s photo includes Ev Vreeland (fourth from left in the front row), who later became an owner of the company. The woman at far left is plant nurse Leanna Delhey, mother of the longtime county prosecutor.

[Photo caption from original print edition]: The J. Parker Copley Dance Company rehearses at the Broach's former west side factory. The sprawling complex is now rented to over 100 small tenants, including ^musicians, painters, and the Performance Network theater.

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Grace Shackman