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Recycling Rugs on Huron Street

Grace Shackman

The Ann Arbor Fluff Rug Company turned old carpets into new

For more than forty years, from 1895 to 1936, thrifty home owners from all over the United States sent their old carpets to Ann Arbor for recycling. At the Ann Arbor Fluff Rug Company, 409-421 West Huron (now replaced by the Performance Network building), worn, shabby carpets were cut and rewoven using machinery developed by owner Henry Schlemmer. The end product was a new rug of a more mottled color than the original but sturdy and strong and usable on both sides.

Schlemmer initially modeled the business after a similar one in Toledo that was, according to his daughter, Geraldine Schlemmer Seeback, "more of a rug cleaning outfit." He offered every conceivable service connected with rugs: sizing, cutting, laying, sewing, repairing, scouring, trading, and buying and selling used rugs. But his biggest business soon became making new rugs out of old.

Schlemmer was born in Ann Arbor in 1864 and grew up on the family farm, which was bounded by the present-day Hoover, Davis, Brown, and Main streets. His father, who had immigrated from Stuttgart, supported the family by drilling wells. Before starting in the rug business, Schlemmer worked as a blacksmith for Staebler and Elmer, makers of road carts and wagons. His training as a blacksmith no doubt gave him some of the know-how to build his rug machines. "He never patented them," says Seeback of the machines. "If he had, we might be rich today. Of course, they are obsolete by now."

Rug prices were high enough back then that recycling was cheaper than buying a new carpet. But even with Schlemmer's machines, the operation was still relatively labor-intensive. When they arrived, all rugs were cleaned and disinfected with formaldehyde. Seeback remembers they were put in a wire bin that spun, shaking the dirt out the bottom. Next, a man named Shepard cut and discarded the totally worn areas. The good parts were then cut into strips approximately two inches wide, with a machine created by Schlemmer. Next, the strips were twisted vertically, again by a machine created by Schlemmer. The strips were then woven with conventional looms. The new rugs, which were softer (if not exactly fluffier) than the originals, could be any size up to nine by twelve feet, depending on the amount of material. The last step was hand-tying the warp into Turkish knots, leaving about four inches of fringe at each end of the rug.

Several old rugs could be combined into one, with the different colors used as stripes or borders. Customers always got back rugs made with their own materials; the only exception was when they needed a larger size than their old carpets could produce and so authorized the company to add extra rugs they had on hand. Some also requested additional materials to brighten the finished product or give it more of a pattern. Chenille curtains and rugs too light or loosely woven to be made into fluff rugs could be made into lighter-weight rugs using the same technology.

When the rugs were finished, they were delivered by horse-drawn cart, either directly to the customer's home if it was in town, or to the Ann Arbor Railroad station on Ashley to be shipped. The cart was pulled by a horse named Nancy, who lived in a barn behind the factory.

Geraldine Schlemmer and her sister, Catherine, made their contribution to the family business by modeling for its advertisements. A picture of Geraldine, still a tiny baby, lying nude on a roll of carpet, was used as the company's logo.

Schlemmer also relied on personal advertising, appearing in parades with floats that displayed his carpets and exhibiting at fairs. He almost lost Geraldine at the 1908 State Fair in Detroit. Still under a year old, she was lying on a fluff rug when a man picked her up and started to run away. Her father sped after him and quickly retrieved her.

The advertising paid off. At one time Schlemmer had fifty agents around the country who could take orders, advise customers on what size rug they could expect from their old one, and arrange for shipping. A 1912 Ann Arbor Fluff Rug Company brochure boasted, "Today you will find our rugs from coast to coast in the most up-to-date homes, churches, theaters, offices, stores, hotels, state capitals, hospitals, charitable institutions, YWCA's, etc."

The staff of the fluff rug company ranged from fifteen to twenty-five and included many Schlemmer family members. Henry Schlemmer's sister, Lydia Schlemmer Carlough, and his widowed sister-in-law, Elizabeth Schlemmer, worked as finishers. Younger brother George worked closely with Henry in the early days, serving as his right-hand man as they developed the rug business. Brother Charlie Schlemmer was a foreman and also drove the wagon. Brother Jake sometimes worked as a cutter. During busy seasons other members of the family were called in.

From 1905 to 1909, family members operated a related business, the Ann Arbor Steam Carpet Cleaning Works, out of the Germania Hall at the corner of Second and William streets (now the parking lot for GT Products). First run by Reuben Schlemmer, husband of Elizabeth, the business was taken over by George Schlemmer after Reuben died. But in 1909 George disappeared and was never seen by the family again. The steam cleaning operation, which also included feather renovation, was absorbed by the fluff rug company and moved to Huron Street.

Henry Schlemmer met his wife, Cortland Ferguson Schlemmer, when she came to work in the rug company office. A widow (her first husband, Jay Ferguson, had been killed in a trolley accident) with a young son, Lee, to support, she was twenty years Henry's junior. Even after the birth of Geraldine and Catherine, it was not unusual for Henry and Cortland to return to work at night, taking the young children with them. When the girls got tired they would just lie down on the piles of rugs and go to sleep. Their parents would wake them when they were ready to go back to their home at 537 Third Street, five blocks away. Catherine usually walked with her mother, while Geraldine rode on the handlebars of her dad's bike. (They never did own a car. If they had somewhere farther to go, for instance to Cortland's parents' farm on Wagner Road, they would ride the company cart with Nancy pulling them.)

Henry Schlemmer retired in 1919. Although he was only fifty-five years old, his health was failing and he no longer felt up to the demands of the business. He sold the company to his longtime bookkeeper, Clarence Cobb, who moved some of the equipment to 1003 Broadway, now a barbershop next to the St. Vincent De Paul store. Elizabeth Schlemmer also stayed with the business. She and Cobb ran the fluff rug company until 1936, but it was never again as big an operation as when Henry Schlemmer owned it. The original building was bought by machine tool innovator Francis La Pointe, who tore it down and built his American Broach factory (now the Performance Network) on the site.

In retirement Schlemmer continued his involvement with the Odd Fellows Lodge, then located in the brick house on Liberty that's now the Moveable Feast. Although totally untrained in music, he could play by ear, and played for all the Odd Fellows' drill teams and marching work. He died in 1945 at age eighty-one.

Geraldine Seeback still has two of her father's rugs, which she is saving to pass on to her two sons. Although both were used in her family's house for many years, they are still in excellent condition, a testimonial to the sturdiness of the product.

[Photo caption from original print edition]: Henry Schlemmer employed many relatives in the business and drafted infant daughter Geraldine to pose for the company's logo. Above right: a fluff rag today (Geraldine Schlemmer Seeback is behind it, holding it up).

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Grace Shackman