|Mrs. Alberta Muirhead|
If you grew up in Downriver, Detroit in the 1950s or 1960s, after the Hudson's Thanksgiving Day parade on Woodward Avenue, you had your heart set on a visit to Santa's igloo at Muirhead's on Michigan Avenue in West Dearborn. Baby Boomers have precious memories of riding along on rails in Santa's sleigh with their parents and siblings to get their photo taken with Santa Claus. Over the years, several men have donned the red suit and white beard. Early on, Mr. Muirhead played the role, but succeeding Santas were Bob Oxley and Tim Pryce. There may have been others.
In 1946, John Muirhead married Alberta (Jamieson?), and they opened a neighborhood department store featuring women's clothing and a toy department. Dearborn resident Jon Jahr explained that his father drew up the blueprints for the original Muirhead's building which was on three levels.
"The basement was the storeroom, shopping was on the street level, and the Muirheads lived on the second level. As their business grew, they expanded the footprint of the building, and in the early sixties, they built a new building around the old building, replacing the street facade for a modern, upscale look." By then, John and Alberta lived in their own home, creating more sales space on the second level.
|Mrs. Muirhead - 1971|
Lynn Richards Tobin worked at Muirhead's in 1961 and 1962. She remembers, "Mr. Muirhead was in his early sixties. Mrs. Muirhead was younger, maybe in her forties.... She always wore the cash register key around her neck. She took care of their customers and oversaw sales on the main floor. Mr. Muirhead spent most of his time on the second floor in the stockroom and oversaw employees to make sure everyone was working and not goofing off.
"The main floor was girls and teen clothing in front and children's clothing in the back. A customer service center was in the middle of the sales floor where shoppers could take returns and ask questions. There was a cash register station near the front door and one near the parking lot exit in back. An elevator and a stairwell led to the second floor where the stockroom and business offices were. Dolls were sold upstairs including the exclusive Madame Alexander dolls. Another stairwell on the ground floor led to the toy department in the basement which featured bicycles."
|My family in 1957. I'm sitting next to my mother.|
During the Christmas season, Santa's igloo sleigh ride in the basement was the big attraction. As far as I have been able to determine, the sleigh was manually pushed back and forth on a rail track. Jon Jahr remembers seeing the sleigh in the Muirhead's warehouse in the early 1970s. Jahr asked Mr. Muirhead if he might bring the sleigh out just for Christmas photos, but he was done with it by then. I wonder if the sleigh is waiting somewhere in Dearborn waiting to be rediscovered.
John died in 1983 at the age of eighty-three. Alberta operated the store by herself with the help of a dedicated band of loyal employees for seven more years. Then, she closed the popular store after forty-three years in business. Competition from shopping malls and Crowley's on Michigan Avenue off Outer Drive in particular cut into her business.
Alberta's story didn't end with the closing of her boutique department store. Mrs. Muirhead--as most people called her--became a model for philanthrophy. She believed in giving back to the Dearborn community who had supported her and her husband John, making their business a success. Alberta devoted her later life to Dearborn and its people.
Alberta Muirhead parlayed her charismatic personality and charitable spirit to become Dearborn's biggest benefactor and philantropist since the Ford family. For starters, she donated her three-level building to the Oakwood Health Care Foundation for their data-processing center. An avid believer in public education, Alberta became the namesake for Dearborn's Teacher of the Year award established in 1997. She supported both Henry Ford Community College and Rochester College giving generously to their scholarship funds to help needy and struggling students. Dearborn Public Schools awards an annual scholarship named after her.
In 2007, Alberta Muirhead established the Oakwood Healthcare Foundation with a $500,000 gift to support nursing education and advanced nursing degrees for Oakwood Healthcare employees. Many a nurse owes a debt of gratitude to the memory of Mrs. Muirhead. Her support was not limited to people. Alberta was a supporter of the Dearborn Animal Shelter and received their Big Heart Award in 2006.
After the death of her husband, Alberta and Russ Gibb--of Grande Ballroom fame and Dearborn High School teacher--became friends. How and when they met is unclear, but Gibb was a deejay at WKNR-FM which was next door to the department store. They became lifelong friends and companions for nearly thirty years until Alberta's death on January 14, 2011 at the age of ninety-one. "Alberta put so many people through college," Gibb said. "She was a great, generous lady and I loved her dearly."