The History of the Ann Arbor Foundry
Who'd have guessed that Ann Arbor's distinctive manhole covers were made by a black Canadian orphan and a Russian Jewish Revolutionary?
The renovated office building at 1327 Jones Drive is named after the Northern Brewery, which occupied its site, just east of Plymouth Road, from 1872 to 1908. But the building had an equally interesting life after that, from 1920 to 1972, as the Ann Arbor Foundry. The foundry's "The Ann Arbor" logo, cast into manhole covers and storm sewer grates can still be found all over the older parts of town. Newcomers who spot them sometimes get the impression that Ann Arbor is so snooty it even has customized sewers.
The Ann Arbor Foundry was anything but snooty. It employed only about forty people, and it lived on small orders - for instance, a single manhole for a street repair project - that bigger competitors couldn't be bothered with. But it was an extraordinary place all the same. It began as a co-operative, a self-employment plan for a group of displaced foundry workers. In later years, the original group of owners dwindled to an effective but improbable duo: Charlie Baker, an orphan whose forebears fled to Canada to escape slavery in the U.S., and Tom Cook, a Jewish refugee from Czarist Russia.
In 1872, George Krause bought the site for his brewery. He was attracted by its proximity to Traver Creek and to the natural springs nearby. Krause used the spring water to make his beer, and ice harvested from the creek to keep it cool. Krause sold his Northern Brewery to brothers John and Fred Frey. John bought out Fred and then sold the business to German-trained brewer Herman Hardinghaus in 1885. The next year Hardinghaus built a substantial two-story brewery - "a fine brick block," Samuel Beakes called it in his 1891 Portrait and Biographical Album. According to Beakes, in addition to beer Hardinghaus brewed "a superior quality of ale which he ships to different cities and towns."
Hardinghaus ran the brewery until it closed in 1908. Although there was no sign that heavily Germanic Ann Arbor had lost its taste for beer, many small brewers were folding then in the face of competition from regional and national brands. When Krause opened the brewery in 1872, there were five other breweries in Ann Arbor alone. By the time Hardinghaus closed it, only one other was left.
The brewery building was briefly taken over by an ice business, and later by a creamery. But it had stood empty for about three years when the organizers of the Ann Arbor Foundry bought it in 1920.
The group had worked together at Production Foundries, at 1300 North Main, and all had lost their jobs when the foundry closed. Rather than look elsewhere for work, ten of them decided to form a co-op and go into business for themselves.
Only active foundry workers were allowed to join the group - no passive investors were permitted. Each of the ten founders agreed to work for the same wage—seventy-five cents an hour— and to invest $500 in the business. With total capital of $5,000, they put $1,000 down on the purchase of the brewery building and spent the rest on used foundry equipment.
It sounded like an ideal working situation—except that even a co-op foundry was still a foundry. Melting metal and casting it in molds is notoriously hot, dirty, and dangerous work. Ernie Jones, who worked at the Ann Arbor Foundry from 1948 until it closed in 1972, remembers that some new employees hated the heat and heavy lifting so much they quit after their first day on the job.
In addition to the built-in problems, work was slow at first. Four partners left and sold their investment to the rest within the first few years. (The buy-out value was set in monthly business meetings in which the organizers reviewed the company's financial situation.) Gradually, others left for various reasons—ill health or injuries (one organizer lost an eye on the job and decided to leave before he lost another) or to take other jobs. By 1946, only two of the original ten were left: Charlie Baker and Tom Cook.
Instead of looking for new partners, Baker and Cook decided to inaugurate profit sharing. Every three months, they divided 25 percent of the profits among their employees, which by then numbered about forty. There was an additional 2 percent bonus at Christmas. Ernie Jones remembers that he was able to buy a house on Daniel with his share of the profits.
The two partners came from totally different backgrounds. Baker was born in Buxton, Ontario, in 1886, part of the black community that settled in Canada before the Civil War. According to his widow, Ruby Baker, he had no formal training in foundry work; "he just learned." (Now in her nineties, Ruby Baker still has frying pans that her husband cast for her.)
Baker's parents died when he was a child; afterward, he lived with various relatives and with people who would let him work around their places in exchange for a bed. When he was twelve, he ran away to work for the railroad. In 1918 he came to Ann Arbor and found work as a laborer in the Production Foundries. That was where he met Tom Cook.
Cook was born Tevye Kooks in 1887 in Kherson, Ukraine. He qualified to continue his schooling at the local gymnasium, but his parents were too poor to buy the required uniform. Under the czars, Jews couldn't get apprenticeships in heavy trades, but Kooks went on to learn iron molding at a special ORT trade school funded by foreign Jewish philanthropists. When Kooks was nineteen, anti-Semitic pogroms broke out. He became a revolutionary, was jailed for passing out literature to soldiers, and escaped to Austria. After working in Europe for a few years, he managed to get to the United States in 1909—where his name was changed by U.S. immigration officials.
Within a year, Cook had a job working for pioneer car builder R. E. Olds in Lansing and had saved enough money to send for his childhood sweetheart, Esther Noll. They married and moved on to Detroit, where he worked at the Stroh foundry. When his foreman there, Everett Bets, left to start the Production Foundries in Ann Arbor, he persuaded Cook to join him.
When Bets's foundry failed, the job disappeared. But wanting their children to get a good education, the Cooks decided to stay in Ann Arbor. Cook and Baker went on to become the Ann Arbor Foundry's central figures.
The two men "had a beautiful relationship," says Ernie Jones. "They were the best of friends." If they had any differences, adds Jones, "they would straighten it out behind the scenes." In the pre-civil rights era,, there were some advantages to their bi-racial partnership. Cook, for example, could attend and learn from industry conventions where Baker did not feel welcome.
Neither partner had had an easy time getting established, and both were compassionate men who did not believe in bosses. Instead of hiring foremen or overseers, they worked side-by-side with their employees. According to Jones, "If someone walked in, they wouldn't know who was boss." Nor, he jokes, could you tell who was black and who was white: within fifteen minutes of starting work, everyone was uniformly covered with soot from the smelting furnace.
The work involved a lot of heavy lifting, and was so dirty that the company provided lockers and showers so the men could clean up before going home. But Jones says the work crew was "like family. If you saw someone struggling [with a task], you would help them." At noon, everyone stopped work and sat down to eat together. On warm days, they would eat outside by Traver Creek.
Cook's daughter, Henrietta Sklar, calls the Ann Arbor a "jobbing foundry," one that specialized in small custom orders. If the city wanted a large number of sewer castings for a construction project, for instance, the bid was likely to go to a big company
like the N^enah (Wisconsin) Foundry. On the other hand, if a crew repairing a street needed a single casting, it was a lot handier to pick one up from the Ann Arbor Foundry than send a truck all the way to the Neenah warehouse in Detroit.
The Ann Arbor Foundry did machine castings for American Broach (then on Huron Street just west of downtown) and dies for General Motors. In the early years, one of its most important jobs was casting coal-furnace parts. It also made auto parts, irrigation pumps, old-fashioned door latches, and ornamental items.
The foundry also cast many one-of-a-kind jobs, ranging in weight from one pound to 5,000 pounds. The owners took pride in never turning down a job. "Anything that is hard to make—I like to tackle it," Cook told an interviewer in 1969.
Ruby Baker remembers that her husband and Cook worked very hard. "They were the owners, so they stayed until the job was done—sometimes quite late." But both men found time to be active in the community. Baker was one of the founders of the Wild Goose Country Club, a recreation center in Lyndon Township for black families in the days of segregation. He was also active in his church, Bethel AME, while Cook was active in Beth Israel and a number of Jewish organizations.
Foundry workers could take advantage of what Henrietta Sklar, who worked in the foundry office, called "our free loan association." An employee in financial straits could get an interest-free advance of up to several hundred dollars, which would be repaid in $10-per-week payroll deductions. "One of our employees was always being jailed for failure to pay child support," Sklar recalls. "We would bail him out, pay his back payments, and he would pay us out weekly."
Baker and Cook also supported each other's causes. Minutes of the Ann Arbor Foundry from the 1950's record Baker moving to give money to the United Jewish Appeal, while Cook moved to give funds to the Dunbar Center, forerunner of the Ann Arbor Community Center. Cook was believed to be the first local contributor to the United Negro College Fund.
Neither Baker nor Cook ever retired. Cook was still working when he suffered a heart attack in his early eighties; he died in 1971 at age eighty-four. Baker was one year older, but continued working until the foundry closed the next year. He died in 1978 at age ninety-one.
After Cook's heart attack, his daughter, Henrietta Sklar, tried to take his place. But the team that had functioned for fifty years had begun to come apart. The final blow came in 1972, when the foundry was cited by the Michigan Air Pollution Control Commission.
Buying pollution controls would have cost $100,000. Ernie Jones believes that if Cook had still been alive and Baker younger, they could have solved the problem, but it would have taken more than just pollution controls. Though the foundry had added cinder block wings onto the original brick brewery, it needed to be enlarged again to be competitive.
It also would have had to move out of an area that was becoming increasingly residential. When Jones started work at the foundry, three cows grazed in the field out front along Plymouth 'Road. In the 1960's, they had been replaced by large apartment complexes. While its longtime neighbors accepted the foundry, the new renters hadn't bargained on
being showered by, cinders when they went outside to sunbathe.
The Ann Arbor Foundry closed in 1972. Its building stood empty until 1978, when the Fry/Peters architectural firm took it on as a project. By then it was so dilapidated that Dick Fry had to appear twice before the city's Building Board of Appeals to convince them not to condemn the building before they could line up investors for its renovation.
Fry and David Peters turned the inside space into offices. To retain the historic flavor, they kept the overhead cranes that had been part of the foundry and painted the tall smelter stack orange. They also dug out the basement to reveal the brick vaults where beer had once been stored.
The renovation was expensive, and the space hasn't always been filled (though it is now). But Fry is still glad they made the effort. "Part of what makes Ann Arbor special," he says, "is saving something like this."
The white-collar workers who populate the building these days don't have to worry about soot, injuries, or summer heat (the building is now air-conditioned). But they do hark back to their foundry forebears in one way. As part of the renovation, Fry and Peters built a deck on the back of the building, overlooking Traver Creek. In the summer, office workers eat lunch there, watching the blue heron that lives nearby.
[Photo caption from the original print edition]: Foundry co-owner Tom Cook pouring iron. Cook and partner Charlie Baker worked side-by-side with their employees. "If someone walked in, they wouldn't know who was the boss," recalls foundry worker Ernie Jones. Nor, Jones jokes, could they tell who was black and who was white: within fifteen minutes of starting work, everyone was covered with soot from the smelting furnace.
[Photo caption from the original print edition]: Dave Drumright cleans a machine casting. As a "jobbing foundry," the Ann Arbor made its living on special orders too smaU for its larger competitors.
[Photo caption from the original print edition]: The Ann Arbor Foundry closed in 1972, when it confronted a $100,000 bill for air pollution controls. To continue, the foundry probably also would have had to relocate outside its increasingly residential neighborhood—tenants in nearby apartments resented getting sprinkled with cinders when they sunbathed. Today, the renovated building is rented out as offices.