From harness making to work clothes
Soon after Herman Ehnis opened his harness shop at 116 West Liberty, he realized he had gone into a dying field. But by adroitly shifting his focus from horses to the workmen who cared for them, Ehnis created a business that is still here eighty-two years later.
The son of a German immigrant, Ehnis grew up in Saline and attended both German and English schools before being apprenticed to the local harness maker. In 1910, he rented a storefront in the Schaeberle Block of West Liberty from Walter Mack, whose Mack & Co. department store was just up the street. Ehnis arranged to repair harnesses for Mack's horse-drawn delivery fleet and to have the fees subtracted from his rent. Evidently, Mack used a lot of harnesses: most months, the repair bill and the rent came out even.
Along with harnesses (most of which he made himself during the slower winter months) Ehnis sold saddles, bridles, horse collars, whips, blankets, and robes. As farmers prepared for the new season, Ehnis could repair their equipment or fit them up with new. But he soon realized that cars were fast replacing horses. When Ehnis opened, the city directory listed just four auto dealers. Ten years later, the classified section of the city directory devoted eight pages to car-related businesses.
By about 1914, Ehnis began selling shoes to make up for the declining harness business: not dress shoes, but the kind of work shoes worn by the farmers and tradesmen he was already serving. At about the same time, Ehnis was joined in the store by his older brother, Matt, who set up a shoe repair business in the back corner.
Ten years later, Ehnis called his shop a shoe store in the city directory, although he continued to sell harnesses to the dwindling number of farmers who were still using horses to plow their fields. A few farmers continued using horses until World War II, but by the mid-1930's harness sales had fallen so much Ehnis quit them altogether, leaving Malloy's on Ann Street as the last harness store in Ann Arbor.
Somehow, Ehnis survived the Depression, a time when many downtown stores--including Walter Mack's fabulous department store--went under. The first year after the crash, business dropped 55 percent, and on some days Ehnis made only a few dollars. But remarkably, he managed to come through with a store to hand down to his son and grandsons.
It was during the Depression that Ehnis began carrying work clothes. His son, Leroy, then a high school student working part-time, remembers there were two basic choices of work clothes before World War II: bib overalls, usually blue but also white for painters and carpenters, and two-piece gray uniforms--fleece-lined moleskin for winter and lighter covert cloth for summer. Although they never sold topcoats or suits, they were soon selling everything else for men--warm jackets, underwear, heavy socks, work gloves, suspenders, belts, and headgear.
Before World War II, Saturday night was the big shopping time of the week. Families from the surrounding farms and small towns would come to Ann Arbor for the evening, bringing along their children and hired hands. Kids might go to a movie at the Wuerth Theater (now Gratzi), the parents would run their errands, and hired hands would go off to buy candy or (after Prohibition) a drink.
Many of the Saturday night shoppers were regular Ehnis customers. They seldom bought in quantity ("In those days people got by with less," says Leroy Ehnis), but they were faithful, generation after generation. Herman Ehnis knew most of his customers by name; he kept track of their diverse genealogies and could talk to them in German if they preferred. Leroy Ehnis remembers that what he calls "low German" --German with a Swabian accent-- was spoken in the country for years after it was no longer heard in town.
After serving in World War II, Leroy Ehnis joined his father in the store. Work clothes began to appear in a much wider variety of styles and colors. No longer all cotton, they now came in synthetics for permanent press and easy care. Another postwar change was the widening popularity of work clothes, especially blue jeans. Ehnis & Son experienced a surge of student business in the 1960's and 1970's as painter pants and bib overalls became commonplace on campus.
Herman Ehnis retired in 1967. As they reached adulthood, his three grandsons, first Steve, then Jim, then Larry, entered the business alongside their father. Steve remembers that his grandfather still worked occasionally in the store until he died in 1974; sometimes he took over on football Saturdays so Leroy could go to the game. Steve remembers his grandfather greeting longtime customers and asking about their cousins and in-laws. He also recalls him wrapping their purchases in brown paper and tying them with string he pulled off a holder that still hangs from the store's ceiling.
Since 1985, when Leroy retired, his sons have run the store. Ehnis & Son still offers long-lasting work clothes, American-made whenever possible. The number of farmers, who once made up about half the customers, has plummeted, but a core of loyal customers from the farm families remains. As Larry puts it, "Farmers can come in here with muddy boots. They'd never think of going to Briarwood like that."
[Photo caption from original print edition]: When harness maker Herman Ehnis (left) posed for a picture c. 1910-1915, bridles, hits, and horse collars hung from the ceiling and fly nets hung spread across the window. As trucks took over, Ehnis adroitly shifted his focus from horses to the men who worked with them, adding work shoes and then work clothes. (Below) Two generations of Ehnises in the store today (1. to r.): Leroy, Jim, Steve, and Larry Ehnis.