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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.

Chelsea Farmer's Supply

Chelsea Farmer's Supply
It’s still got the feel of its heyday

In 1987, Greg Raye suggested that Chelsea Farmer’s Supply be torn down. Two years later he and his wife, H. K. Leonard, bought the building to keep it from being turned into a parking lot. “I had no desire to run a business,” explains Raye. But today he and Leonard are still running it.

Brewed on Fourth Street

At the Michigan Union Brewing Company and the Ann Arbor Brewing Company, Ann Arborites could pick up beer by the pail.

The Ann Arbor Brewing Company at 416 Fourth Street was the only brewery in the city to survive Prohibition. Yet its product was not greatly valued in its hometown. "It was considered good only for putting out fires," claimed the late Carl Horning in a 1995 interview.

415 West Washington

The garage at the center of the greenway debate

When the Washtenaw County Road Commission built a garage at 415 West Washington in 1925, no one dreamed that its future would ever be so hotly contested. But today, the Arts Al­liance of the Ann Arbor Area, Downtown Kiwanis, and the Allen Creek Task Force have all taken an interest in the crumbling masonry structure.

Osias Zwerdling's Art Deco Sign

From 1915 to 1943, Osias Zwerdling ran a fur store at 215-211 East Liberty. Sometime in the 1920s, he had an Art Deco sign—a twi­light scene of a wolf baying at the moon—painted on an ex­terior wall. Zwerdling always took pride in the fact that the sign was painted by a profes­sional artist, and its "painterly quality," says architectural conservator Ron Koenig, is probably the reason no one ever painted over it. But the main reason a group of peo­ple recently raised $12,000 to restore it is Zwerdling's role as patriarch of Ann Arbor's Jewish community.

Economy Baler

A fortune built on waste paper

In 1911, George Langford took out a second mortgage on his house in order to start Economy Baler. The company, headquartered on North Main Street, grew to be the largest business of its kind in the world. In a 1943 Ann Arbor News article, Langford claimed that its success was "a direct result of the old system of free enterprise which not only permitted but encouraged the plowing of profits back into the business."

The Passing of the Old German

It was a favorite of townsfolk for 67 years

"I feel real bad that I've celebrated my last birthday there," says Gottlob Schumacher, a former owner of the Old German, who turned ninety-one on January 29. After almost fifty years of working seven-day weeks, the restaurant's current owner, Bud (Robert) Metzger, is closing the business and retiring.

Yanitsky's

A Real Family Restaurant

Just before World War II, Antoniette Yanitsky and her eight children ran a small restaurant at 515 East William. With the whole family plus in-laws and friends pitching in, they kept Yanitsky's open from seven in the morning until eleven at night, seven days a week.

When Downtown Was Hardware Heaven

For over a century, a bevy of stores served the farmer and the fixer-upper

Downtown Ann Arbor was once a mecca for hardware shoppers. From the town's early days, there were always at least four hardware stores, which drew customers from the entire city and from all the small towns and farms in the area. During the week, the stores served the area's tradespeople--plumbers, painters, carpenters, plasterers, contractors, and builders. On weekends, farmers came into town to buy supplies--pitch-forks or baling twine for the harvest, axes or mauls for chopping wood, and all the myriad bits of hardware they needed to repair their farm machinery and to fix their barns and fences.

As the farmers' ranks dwindled in this century, they were replaced by growing numbers of home owners and do-it-yourselfers. If the part needed wasn't made, the hardware store could make one. And if it needed installation, they had work crews they would send out.

By 1835, just eleven years after promoters John Allen and Elisha Rumsey began selling lots in the village of "Annarbour," William Dennis and Hierome Goodspeed were advertising a hardware store on the corner of Main and Huron. Along with farm supplies like cowbells and horseshoes, their inventory included knives, scissors, coffee mills, waffle irons, razors, and latches. By the 1870's and 1880's, the early competitors had sorted themselves out into four major stores, all of which survived well into this century: Schumacher's, 1870-1940; Schuh's (later Schuh and Muehlig, Muehlig and Schmid, Muehlig and Lanphear), 1872-1962; Eberbach's (later Fischer's) 1880-1981; and downtown's sole surviving hardware store, Schlenker's, founded in 1886.

Hardware was big business back then. Schumacher's, located where Kline's is now, grew to fill three storefronts. Schuh's occupied all three floors of a building on the southeast corner of Main and Washington. Hardware stores were valuable assets that were passed on from generation to generation: after founder John Schumacher's death, his business was taken over by his sons, Bert, Philip, and Robert. Jacob Schuh took a younger clerk, Andrew Muehlig, as a partner and eventual successor. When Schuh's original store was torn down to make room for the First National Building in 1929, Muehlig's nephew, Edward Muehlig, and partner Don Lanphear moved to a new building at 311 South Main (now the Full Moon).

Eberbach's, on the northeast corner of Main and Washington, was started by Christian Eberbach as a business for his two younger sons, Ernest and Edward, since his oldest son, Ottmar, was getting the pharmacy. Later, the State Savings Bank, which had an interest in the store, moved into the very corner, nestled in much like the Del Rio fits into the corner of the Old German. Bob Eberbach remembers that as a boy he could enter his great uncles' store from either Washington or Main. By 1892 the store was taken over by John Fischer, who had been a clerk there, although the Eberbachs continued to work there and kept an interest in it. In 1937 the store moved two blocks east, to 219-223 East Washington.

Schlenker's was first located on West Liberty in the building that is now Rider's Hobby Shop, then across the street in the store now owned by Ehnis & Son. In 1906 they built the present store a block west with room upstairs for the family to live.

The hardware stores sold all the small, practical items that other stores didn't want to bother with--tools, nails, fittings, and utensils. The owners were all tinsmiths, and before the days of mass production and easy transportation, they made much of what they stocked--gutters, furnace parts, funnels, coffeepots, pitchers, and pans. The tinning complemented the other stock in the store, and it also helped keep the employees busy during the slower winter months.

Each store also developed its own specialty. Schuh and Muehlig's was sewing machines: they sold and repaired all the major brands. They also sold such house finishing items as tiles, grates, mantels, and pressed tin ceilings. (Edward Muehlig put a tin ceiling in the house he built in 1909 at 801 West Liberty.) Later, Muehlig and Lanphear put in furnaces and made a specialty of installing locks. Schumacher had plumbing crews and later spun off Schumacher and Backus Plumbing and Heating. Fischer's and Schlenker's both had roofing crews. (Schlenker's put the slate roofs on the First Methodist Church and on many U-M sorority and fraternity houses.)

Until central heating became widespread in the 1920's, wood and coal stoves were a big part of the hardware business--Risdon's, one of the pre-Civil War stores, put stoves above hardware on their sign. Eberbach's sold Round Oak heating stoves and Adams and Westlank Monarch cooking stoves. Marty Schlenker remembers that in the 1920's his father's store had a row of stoves all along one wall from front to back.

Often newly developed products were first sold in hardware stores before being spun off to a store dedicated to them. Schumacher's sold washing machines as early as 1916 ("My neighbors can't understand how my washing can be on the line by 8 o'clock," said one ad). They also had a niche in sports equipment. Doris Schumacher Dixon, daughter of Robert Schumacher, remembers that as a girl she always had the newest in sports equipment from her family's inventory--bicycles, footballs, baseballs, tennis rackets, ice skates, roller skates, hockey equipment, and golf clubs.

Fischer's was the first area hardware store to specialize in housewares. It also was known as the store with the most university trade, maybe because it was closest to campus. Schlenker's sold the first refrigerators in town and was also a pioneer radio dealer, selling Atwater Kents. When Marty Schlenker's uncle Paul was involved in the store, he sold all kinds of fishing equipment--outboard motors, tackles, rods. And, as today, Schlenker's was known as the store where you could get anything: if you couldn't find what you were looking for anywhere else, you would go to Schlenker's.

A store's proprietors set the tone of their store, not only with what they sold, but with their personalities. John Schumacher was a leader of the temperance movement, and during his lifetime his store was known as a center for like-minded idealists, just as Eberbach's pharmacy had been a center for early Republicans. Muehlig and Lanphear contributed to the community by furnishing supplies for Albert Warhnoff, Ann Arbor's Santa Claus, who made toys for needy and sick children in the 1930's and 1940's.

When there were numerous hardware stores within a few blocks, the owners cooperated as much as possible, honoring their specialties and sending customers to each other. Mary Cruse, a stockholder of Fischer's and co-owner of East Ann Arbor Hardware, says they even traded inventory when something moved in one store and not another. Marty Schlenker remembers running joint ads with Fischer's, Ann Arbor Implement, and Herder's, figuring they were appealing to a similar crowd while offering different merchandise. They also sometimes ordered together, going in on train lots to reduce costs.

After World War II, a new generation of hardware stores opened on the commercial strips on Washtenaw, Stadium, and Packard. With easy access and ample parking, they gradually took over most of the business that had previously come downtown. Schlenker's singular survival was thanks in part to a 1950's decision to tear down the old tin and roofing shops to build its own parking lot.

With appliances and other mechanical products getting cheaper, fewer people repair broken appliances and the like, so there is less demand for traditional hardware services. Many stores now sell other merchandise, such as Christmas decorations, office supplies, table linens, and toys, to fill the gap.

Some of today's nonfixers give their broken or worn-out appliances to the Kiwanis sale instead of the landfill. On Kiwanis sale days, Marty Schlenker is reminded of the old days, when people flocked in to buy small parts to make their bargains work again.


[Photo caption from original print edition: Employees watch a parade on Main Street from Schumacher's upstairs windows. In its heyday, the store filled three storefronts in the spot where Kline's is today.]