Monday, February 11, 2019

Detroit's Edgewater Park--A Fading Memory

Pay-One-Price Ticket
The Rouge River ran behind Edgewater Park--a twenty-acre amusement park on the West Side of Detroit. The park opened in 1927 on West 7 Mile Road and Grand River--just in time for Depression and World War II generations to escape the dire headlines while having some fun and diversion during hard times. 

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s--my era--the amusement park was one of the most popular recreation spots in the Detroit area. When we were kids, my parents took us to the park every year or so, but when my friends and I started to drive, Edgewater park was a regular after dark destination. We drove north up Telegraph Road from Dearborn Heights. It took no time at all to get to this oasis of affordable amusement and cheap thrills.

Popular rides and attractions were the one-hundred and ten foot tall Ferris Wheel with its great neon lighting effect at night, the Wild Mouse that would give riders whiplash, the always popular Dodge-Em cars, the reality-altering Hall of Mirrors, and the Fun House where many a male got to first base for the first time.

Clicking and clacking before The Beast's first drop.
Edgewater Park's premiere ride was a wooden roller coaster named "The Wild Beast." During the days of Pay-One-Price admission, some riders would see how many consecutive times they could ride The Beast in a day. I remember riding it seventeen times and having bruises all over my body afterward. One person claims to have ridden it twenty-seven times in one day, but I'm not certain how many of those rides were pre- or post- mortem. He must have worn protective clothing. The real record is lost to history.

In the 1960s, the Teen Scene became a popular weekend spot. Admission to the park and the concert were included in the ticket price. Popular Motown groups often appeared at the park--as did the likes of Del Shannon and David Cassidy. Corn dogs, Coney dogs, cotton candy, and real French fries with malt vinegar drew teens to the park in huge numbers.

Roller Coaster Ruins
Declining revenues and competition from modern steel roller coaster amusement parks like Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio proved to be more than the old park could handle. The last click of the turnstile was on September 13, 1981. The park operated for fifty-four years, but little is known of its history. Today, the site is home to the Greater Grace Temple.

Photos of Edgewater Park: http://photos.metrotimes.com/15-nostalgic-photos-of-detroits-old-edgewater-amusement-park/#16

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

When White Pine was Green Gold in Michigan

"Brag Load" of Logs and Ten Man Crew with a Team of Horses

The Michigan forest landscape was bountiful for early settlers. Rivers and lakes provided plenty of fish and wildlife while the forests and open glades provided game and fowl for hunters. Clearing the land was a slow process with timber cut with axes. The first order of business was throwing up some hasty shelter. Log cabins were built and railings cut for fences to pen livestock. What scrap wood was left became firewood. These small pioneer farms had minimal impact on the environment.

Rapid development of the American East in the first half of the nineteenth century depleted much of the lumber forests east of the Appalachians. By mid-century, New York lumber speculators discovered the vast virgin hardwood forests of Michigan's lower and upper peninsulas--especially the stands of old-growth white and red pine for building materials. Many of these trees were over 200 years old, 200 feet high, and over 5 feet in diameter.

With the invention of the steam-powered circular saw in the 1850s, the lumber business ramped up production. Fortunes were made by enterprising men who had vision and deep pockets. They bought large tracts of private and government land and were quickly dubbed Lumber Barons. They owned the saw mills and set up the system of lumber camps that made more than a few men rich. The "shanty boys" as the owners called the lumberjacks did the heavy lifting. After a harsh winter, they could walk out of the forest with several hundreds of dollars--big money in those days--only to be targets of robbery or worse. The lumber business attracted a tough crowd in and out of the forest like any boom town industry would.

The first great lumber area in the state was Saginaw Bay which fed into Lake Huron. What made this location ideal for the lumber business were the six rivers that converged to form the Saginaw River: the Chippewa, Tittabawassee, Cass, Bad, Shiawassee, and Flint. From 1860 until 1890, most of the trees from the heart of the state were felled and floated down these rivers on their way to the saw mills.


Logging was a cold weather job. The logs were too big and heavy to drag through the woods. The loggers cleared timber roads first. When the roads iced over in winter, huge sleds were loaded with timber and dragged by horses or oxen to the river's edge where they were stacked awaiting the spring thaw; then, the logs were pushed into the swollen rivers and floated down to the lumber mills. Once at the saw mill, the logs were cut into boards, kiln-dried to reduce weight and warping, and loaded onto ships.


Lumber camps were rustic, quickly built, and meant to be temporary. When the land was exhausted of timber, the operation moved on. The camps consisted of a bunk house, a cook shanty with dining room and kitchen, a camp store, a blacksmith's shop, and a barn for the horses. Each camp had about seventy men and two foremen, twenty teams of horses, and seven yoke of oxen. A ten man crew could produce about 100 logs a day with a two-handled, cross-cut saw and double-edged axes.

Lumberjacks worked from sunrise until sunset, six days a week out in the wilderness with little to occupy them. Their pastimes were telling tall tales and playing cards on Sundays, as well as any mischief they could get away with in town if they were near one.

Lumber camps competed with each other to see which outfit could stack the highest load--called a brag load--and pull it twenty feet over the ice with a team of horses. My guess is the winning camp won a wager and a keg of beer along with bragging rights. I hope the horses got a little something extra for their efforts.

Stump Prairie
When the logging industry was finished raping the land, lumber camps were abandoned because owners didn't want to pay taxes on the land they owned, so they simply defaulted and the land went to the state. In all, over nineteen million acres were clear cut with no reforestation strategy, leaving behind barren "stump prairies" contributing to soil erosion, river and lake pollution, more atmospheric carbon dioxide, and degraded wildlife habitat.

One of the few forest animals that benefited from the clear cutting was the whitetail deer. With new open ground for grazing and more abundant and accessible plant food, populations grew. Little good it did them though. By 1876, professional hunters were killing 70,000 deer each year to supply the booming lumber camps and ship the surplus to Chicago and Detroit--two cities that had a taste for venison.

In a report on Michigan Forest History compiled by the Michigan Department of Resources, researchers found that: "Land clearing for agriculture, logging, and settlement altered local stream flow patterns and volumes, eliminated some waters, and introduced pollutants into others. Huge quantities of sediment from log drives and sawdust from sawmills were dumped into rivers. In one instance, the mouth of the Manistee River accumulated sawdust to the extent that it formed a delta of several square miles. At sawmill locations throughout the state, wherever sawdust was dispensed into the river, toxic and oxygen-deprived conditions were created for fish. These detriments, combined with land clearing efforts, exacerbated soil erosion into rivers, significantly reducing the quality of fish habitat in rivers."

The Hartwick Pines State Park near Grayling has the only remaining stand of Michigan old growth forest. The park consists of fifteen square miles featuring forty-nine acres of old growth white pine saved from the teeth of the loggers' saw. The land was gifted to Michigan's Department of Natural Resources in 1927 by Karen Michelson Hartwick as a memorial to the logging industry in the name of her husband Edward E. Hartwick--a lumberman killed in World War I.


During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built a logging museum adjacent to the old growth forest in the park to educate visitors about the logging industry. The CCC also hired unemployed men to plant millions of seedlings to reforest Michigan's barren areas, but even after one hundred years, some of the "stump prairies" still exist. On a brighter note, over half of the state is covered by new growth forests.


Michigan Logging History (5 minute video): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ShqFL9vWXmY

Friday, January 18, 2019

Detroit's Pfeiffer Brewery and Johnny Pfeiffer


The Johnny Pfeiffer plaster-of-paris figurine depicts a Revolutionary War minuteman playing a fife. Designed by Walt Disney Studios in 1951 for the Pfeiffer Brewing Company, the back bar statuette was made by the Plasto Corporation in Chicago. A company spokesperson says Pfeiffer Brewing commissioned eight different versions of Johnny over the 1950s. Two thousand of the 7.25 inch figurines were produced every month making it the most common and least valuable statue they ever produced, currently selling on Ebay for $25 to $45 depending on condition and the motivation of the buyer.

Brewery founder Conrad Pfeiffer brought the original beer recipes from Germany in the late nineteenth century. The original styles were "Pfeiffer's Famous"--a light lager--and "Pfeiffer's Wurtzburger"--a dark lager. Their brew masters used only new seasoned white oak kegs and barrels to insure consistent quality and taste. Pfeiffer became Detroit's third most popular beer brand behind Stroh's and Goebel before Prohibition took effect in 1920.


Repeal was passed by Congress and signed by President Franklin Roosevelt in December 1933, ending America's nightmare experience with Prohibition. Beginning in February 1934, Pfeiffer restored the exterior beauty of its original building built in 1889. The interior of the plant was completely remodeled, enlarged, and modernized. Legal beer shipments resumed on May 15, 1934.

Pfeiffer gained considerable market share after Prohibition repeal largely due to heavy-handed distributors who intimidated vendors and tavern owners to take their beer products over other brands. Complaints from vendors prompted the Michigan Liquor Commission to investigate Pfeiffer distributorships.

On February 22, 1935, Michigan Assistant Attorney General Gordon E. Tappan testified at a Liquor Commission public hearing that "(Pfeiffer Brewing Company) made no attempt to screen its distributors for character, qualifications, morals, or police records." Tappan charged the company and its agents with using strong-arm tactics to muscle in on Michigan's beer industry. The company made no attempt to rid itself of underworld influence.


The Macomb Distribution Company had Mafia boss Joe "Uno" Zerilli and his underboss William "Black Bill" Tocco on their board of directors with Anthony Lambrecht, Alfred Epstein, Abe Rogoff, and H. Armin Weil, who also had police records. The board of Meyer's Products Company--another Pfeiffer distributor--included Donald F. Gray--president; Charles Leiter--vice-president and Oakland Sugar House Gang co-boss; Henry Shorr--treasurer and Sugar House Gang co-boss; Elda Ruffert--secretary; James Syla--manager; Sam "the Gorilla" Davis--company agent and known Purple Gang enforcer; and Henry Toprofsky--company agent and known Purple Gang enforcer. 

Pfeiffer Brewery officials were required by the Michigan Liquor Control Commission to show cause why their brewing license shouldn't be revoked. Then president William G. Breitmeyer pled ignorance and said the company was having trouble keeping up with demand. They didn't need to force their products on anyone. On April 10, 1935, the company agreed to bar all persons with criminal records from serving as beer distributors and suspended their contracts. Despite the bad Depression-era publicity, Pfeiffer became Detroit's most popular brand overtaking Stroh's and Goebel by the end of the 1950s. But trouble was brewing on the horizon.

In the 1960s, Budweiser, Miller, and Pabst sought to become national brands. Because of their assets, access to capital, and huge advertising budgets, the Big Three brewers put many regional brewers out of business--not because of superior products but because of marketing and financial resources.


To compete with the Big Three, Pfeiffer changed its corporate name to Associated Brewing Company (ABC) in 1962. ABC acquired and consolidated smaller Midwestern brands and breweries to position itself in the national market, but they overextended themselves and became overburdened with debt. The old Pfeiffer brewery and bottling plant on Beaufait Avenue closed in 1966, and by 1972, the rest of ABC's remaining assets were sold off.

Detroiters are left with some aging memorabilia and a few random facts. In some small measure, the microbrewery movement of the twenty-first century is nipping at the heels of the national brands and cutting into their profits. Many of the old-style beers are once again available for our quaffing pleasure.

Many thanks Renee Reilly-Menard for gifting Johnny Pfeiffer to me along with the Vernor's gnome. The Detroit Historical Museum already has Johnny Pfeiffer in its collection. He looks good on my mantelpiece. I think I'll keep him.

Home for the gnome: https://fornology.blogspot.com/2019/01/vernors-gnome-found.html

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Vernor's Gnome Found


The Vernor's gnome--created by artist Noble Fellows--is one of Detroit's beloved corporate mascots. In the 1970s, the company ran a Gname the Gnome contest. The chosen name--Jerome the Gnome--happily never caught on. The Gnome was forced into an early severance program in the 1980s. The bearded man in the green hat faded from sight until the Dr. Pepper-Snapple Beverage Group--present brand owners--brought the logo out of retirement in 2002. They renamed the gnome Woody. That didn't catch on any better than Jerome. Most people call him the Vernor's Gnome.

In case you aren't from Detroit and don't know what Vernor's is, I'll try to describe it for you. Vernor's is a mildly sweet, highly carbonated ginger-flavored soda, with a touch of caramel for golden color and a kiss of vanilla for flavor and bouquet. Warm Vernor's was grandma's remedy for upset stomach or nasal congestion. It is a great hydrating fluid.

In summer, few things go down better on a hot day than a Boston Cooler--ice cold Vernor's blended with vanilla ice cream thin enough to draw easily up a straw. Cafe D'Mongo's Speakeasy on Griswald Street in Downtown Detroit combines Vernor's with Royal Crown and bitters and calls it a Detroit Brown.


A friend of mine--Renee Reilly Menard--from my Allen Park High School days--was going through a box she hadn't opened for many years and found a Vernor's Gnome mascot plush toy from the 1960s in its original packaging. Renee's father worked for Vernor's and brought the plush doll home one day. This stuffed mascot was a point-of-sale promotional item. At some point, it was thrown into a box and forgotten about.

Renee entrusted me with it. I'm tempted to tear open the sealed plastic bag and enjoy the gnome in the moment, but it's rare. I'm thinking it belongs in the Detroit Historical Museum so more people can enjoy seeing it too.
 
The label reads: Canasia Toys & Gifts Inc, Downsview, Ontario, Made in Korea.

Vernor's Ginger Ale Story: https://fornology.blogspot.com/2014/09/detroits-liquid-gold-vernors-ginger-ale.html

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Zug Island Novel Gets Facelift

July 2017 marks fifty years since the Detroit Riot left its indelible mark on American history. Anyone who experienced this week of bloodshed and arson can never forget it--43 reported deaths, 7,000 arrests, 4,000 injuries, 2,500 buildings looted or burned to the ground, 5,000 residents left homeless, 16,682 fire runs, and a river of fire ten blocks long.

Zug Island: A Detroit Riot Novel tells the story of two young men, one white and one black, who push the boundaries of race as they explore each others culture. Set in 1967 against a backdrop of industrial blight and urban decay, Jake Malone and Theo Semple get a crash course in race relations as they stumble in and out of rhythm on Detroit's mean streets discovering the face of racism comes in every shade of color.
 
Kirkus Reviews, a publishing trade magazine, said of Zug Island, "The novel is tightly written with a dramatic plot, well-rounded characters, and clear insights into social history. An engaging, dynamic story that grapples intelligently with the themes of race, class, and morality."

My award-winning revised 2nd edition has a new cover and includes several enhanced scenes. Since writing Zug Island in 2011, I've learned more about the Detroit communities of Delray, Black Bottom, and Paradise Valley, and this edition reflects that. Also new is a segment on the Algiers Motel murders conspicuous by its absence from the original. 

Paperback copies are available online from Amazon, B&N, and all five ebook formats. Zug Island Amazon Site

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Detroit's Numbers Racket



Today's state run lotteries are first cousins to the illegal policy rackets of the early twentieth century--known by players as the numbers game. Curious how things once illegal become legal when the government gets involved. The grass-roots game had much better odds but much lower payouts than today's state-run lotteries. To win, a player needed to match only three numbers rather than the six or seven used today with astronomical odds against winning. Then as now, some of the most avid players were the people who could least afford it.

Beginning in the 1920s, the Purple Gang-controlled numbers game in Detroit was a profitable money machine for the Bernstein Brothers and their associates who were many. Numbers runners, bag men, and accountants kept the money flowing. There was a fortune to be made from the pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, and dollars of working-class immigrants--particularly Italians, Jews, and the Irish. Members of Detroit's black community developed into major players in the innercity numbers racket where the game was popular.

Many people made tax-free extra bucks running numbers. Seemed like everybody had a favorite number or several numbers they played daily if they had some small change. Playing was convenient, bets could be taken over the phone. People could also place more costly combination bets of any permutation of their three numbers. For example, 127 could win with 127, 172, 217, 271, 712, and 721. Every place where liquor or soda pop was consumed became a numbers drop. Every grocery store, barber shop, beauty shop, candy store, and virtually every business within a runners assigned territory was a potential numbers drop. The more money a numbers runner collected, the more money he or she made. 

The numbers game appealed to people who were not habitues of the “high-class” gambling establishments of Detroit’s high rollers, social climbers, and underworld figures that mingled nightly with unsettling familiarity. The urge to gamble was not limited to the well-heeled public and wealthy industrialists. Everyday people wanted to place bets. If they couldn’t afford to chase Dame Fortune, they were content to wink at Lady Luck.

Spare change and small bills made up the bulk of the daily take. The game was easy to play—pick three numbers ranging from 000 to 999 and wait for the daily winning number. Players placed bets with a numbers runner who collected the money and recorded the bets in a handbook with the bettor’s name and date written in. A receipt with a serial number printed at the bottom was given to the bettor to prove he or she placed the bet in the event they won. A more sophisticated version of the game we known as Keno had greater payouts but greater odds.

The odds for the basic game were one in a thousand. If you were the only person to hit that number that day, your payoff could be 600 to 1, otherwise the jackpot was split among the winners. Bagmen collected the money from the runners and took it to a central location called a numbers bank where a group of accountants processed the bets, counted the money, and passed it on to a central drop at a secret location.

At first, the numbers were drawn from numbered balls in a ball cage or three spins of a wheel of fortune. These methods could be manipulated and soon fell out of favor. Players wanted three numbers that were certified random. Bernstein’s game used the last three numbers of the United States Treasury Department balance which was printed daily in the business section of newspapers. When the Treasury Department began to round off their numbers—so they wouldn’t be a party to illegal gambling schemes—the three last digits of the number of shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange became the daily winning number. That number was found conveniently in the daily papers. Choosing today's lotto number picks have gone back to the numbered-ball drops which are televised to prevent fraud.


Accounting books seized by treasury agents in a 1940 raid of a Paradise Valley numbers drop revealed as many as 6,000 men and women were employed by Detroit numbers operators. The average payout was 16% of the take divided among the winners. The number runners who took the bets filled out the betting slips and got 25% of their daily take. The bagmen who collected the money and betting slips from the bookies took them to a secret central location. They made 10% of what they brought in. Finally, the promoters took 49% for themselves and their overhead. All of those accountants needed to be paid—not to mention the occasional bail bondsman.

Because of the large territories where the game was played, the profits were huge. But this scheme was not without its dark side. Anyone skimming money off the top, holding out on winners, compromising the operation, or attracting unwanted attention from the authorities would be quickly eliminated.

Link to the wine brick rackethttps://www.blogger.com/blogger.g?blogID=7073297057923413840#editor/target=post;postID=2979020335839039617;onPublishedMenu=postsstats;onClosedMenu=postsstats;postNum=5;src=postname

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Coca-Cola Santa Story


Santa's origin can be traced back to ancient Germanic folklore and the Norse god Odin. The modern character of Santa was embraced by America with the 1823 publication of Clement Clarke Moore's poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas"--better known as "Twas the Night Before Christmas." In 1881, political cartoonist Thomas Nast created the first Santa images based on Clement's fifty-six line poem.


Haddon Sundblom at work.
Michigan artist Haddon Sundblom painted the iconic image we now recognize as Santa Claus--for the Coca-Cola company from 1931 until 1964. These images appeared in Coke's print advertising, store displays, billboards, posters, calendars, and on television commercials. Sundblom helped make Santa the most recognizable and successful pitchman in advertising history.

The Coca-Cola Santa story: http://www.coca-colacompany.com/stories/coke-lore-santa-claus/