Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Detroit Pitchman Ollie Fretter

Ollie Fretter

Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1923, Oliver "Ollie" Fretter moved with his parents to Royal Oak, Michigan when he was in his early teens. He graduated from Royal Oak Dondero High School in 1941. After serving in the military during World War II, Fretter borrowed $600 from an uncle to open an appliance repair shop.

By 1950, twenty-seven-year-old Ollie Fretter decided he may as well sell home appliances and consumer electronics. With the post-war G.I. Bill and Veterans' Administration funding boom, America moved from a nation of renters to a nation of home owners. Selling appliances and electronics was a forward-looking career move for Fretter. His first store opened on Telegraph Road, north of I-96 in Redford, Michigan. Within ten years, Fretter had eight Detroit area stores.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Fretter Appliance and Electronics ran print ads in all of Detroit's major newspapers. The ads ran on Mondays to advertise mid-week Wednesday sales and on Fridays to generate weekend sales. The ads featured photos of appliances with the "Lowest Prices in Town" listed beneath them. Fretter's headshot was prominently displayed near his slogan, "If I can't beat your best deal, I'll give you five pounds of coffee."

Typical Fretter Appliance Print Ad
An unidentified Fretter employee revealed to a Detroit Free Press reporter, "Fretter gave away about 200 pounds of canned coffee a month costing about $500. When coffee prices rose, Fretter ordered one-pound cans of coffee with the label Fretter's House printed on them listing the weight as five-pounds. Somehow, Fretter got away with it. The cans became gag items that most customers were good-natured about. My guess is these short-weight coffee cans would be valuable collectors' items today if any have survived.


In 1971, Ollie Fretter increased his advertising budget and shifted into television advertising. He starred in his own commercials projecting a hokey, amateurish charm 40 or 50 times a week over most small market TV stations. His ads ran in the afternoon and late nights when buying television time was cheaper than prime time.

At first, Ollie Fretter played it straight as an owner/pitchman, but to distract his potential customers from the mind-numbing repetition of his commercials, he began hamming it up with all sorts of silly promotions like dressing as various characters. Sometimes, he would appear as a Gypsy violist, a mountain man, George Washington on President's Day, Uncle Sam on the Fourth of July, Johnny Cash, or Mother Nature. He would do almost anything to sell a refrigerator, a vacuum cleaner, a television, or a stereo system.

Ollie Fretter became Detroit's King of Local Advertising despite newspaper columnists ridiculing him in their editorials. He cried all the way to the bank. When Detroit Free Press reporter James Harper asked Fretter why he appeared in his own commercials, he replied, "People like to think they're dealing with the owner of a business. A too professional approach is not good. People like to think they're listening to somebody just like them."

In May of 1980, Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley brought a $25,000 lawsuit against Fretter Appliance and Electronics for violating the Item Pricing and Deceptive Adverstising Act. The company's media advertising and signs that hung in their chain stores proclaimed "The Lowest Prices in Town." Ollie Fretter and his lawyers failed to provide documented evidence to backup that long-held claim.

Fretter updated his company's advertising by making the products the focus. An off-screen announcer described the appliances and electronics featured that week. At the end, Fretter's image was superimposed over the products with him saying, "The competition knows me, you should too." The new approach reflected the loss of Fretter's consumer protection lawsuit and the increasing competition from Highland Appliance.

But there was also a new threat--the big box appliance stores popping up along the retail horizon. Advertising had gone from cute to cutthroat. By offering lost leaders (items retailers sold at a loss) big box stores like Best Buy, Circuit City, and Sam's Club undersold their competition. Fretter rolled the dice and took his company public on the New York Stock Exchange in 1986 to raise capital and expand into new markets to compete nationally.

Fretter's long-time competitor Highland Appliance filed for Chapter 11 bankrupcy in 1992. It owed its creditors $241 million dollars. Best Buy saw an opportunity and stepped in to fill the retail void by opening six big box stores in the Detroit area by the end of 1993.

Fretter bought up his biggest competitor Silo Electronics, but Silo hadn't posted a profit since the early 1980s. Fretter assumed Silo's debt and lack of liquid assets but expanded into more states anyway. The bottom dropped out of consumer electronics market due to stiff competition and falling stock values. Fretter spread his assets too thin and banks refused to lend him any more money. By 1995, all Silo Electronics stores closed, with all Fretter stores closing by the end of June 1996. Ollie retired after forty-six years in the retail business.

Fred Yaffe, president of the advertising agency that handled the Fretter account from1992 until 1995, noted, "It wasn't any one thing that killed Fretter's business. It was a bunch of things that all happened at once. He had serious competitors with deeper pockets, constant price wars in the appliance and electronics industries, and a lack of new products like VCRs and handheld video cameras."


Oliver "Ollie" Fretter lived out his life in Bloomfield Hills and died at Beaumont Hospice on June 29, 2014 at the age of ninty-one. He was survived by his wife of sixty-five years Elma M., his adult children Laura and Howard, and his grandchildren Alexandra, Andrew, and Catherine.

"Ollie's Ooop" Sale (1979) 

Friday, July 5, 2024

The Long-Awaited Ambassador Bridge Connects Detroit with Windsor

Ambassador Bridge Announcement--Detroit Free Press

When the automobile business took off early in the twentieth century, the need for an international bridge connecting Detroit with Windsor to expand the auto industry and increase international commerce became apparent, but securing government funding for the bridge project was a hard sell fraught with political red tape and delay. The highest-profile person supporting the bridge project was automobile magnate Henry Ford. "The only way to get things done today is by private business," Ford said.

A team of Detroit business leaders incorporated the Detroit Bridge Company and sought out a former Detroiter, successful New York City banker Joseph A. Bower. Bower sold securities to finance the project and was able to raise $23.5 million in privately financed funds, including his own investment.

The project details were presented to the Detroit Common Council and approved unanimously. But one dissenting voice vetoed the project, Mayor John W. Smith. In additional to several ambiguities in the project's prospectus, including revenue for the city of Detroit, Smith was rightly concerned that the bridge deck would only be 135' above the Detroit River.

Mayor Smith, mindful of the future, realized that 135' would limit future navigation of larger freighters. The project engineers went back to the drafting table and re-engineered the bridge to be 152' above the water.

Recognizing the long-term value of the bridge and the threat any further delays might pose to the overall project and his substantial investment, Bower assumed the $50,000 cost of a referendum in a special election supporting bridge construction. The referendum passed by an eight to one margin on June 28, 1927. The next month, McClintic-Marshall engineering firm was awarded the bridge contact which ran from August 16, 1927 until August 16, 1930.

The penalty for late completion would require the firm to pay the interest on the securities until the bridge could generate revenue. If they finished construction early, they would be entitled to half of the bridge's revenue until the official end of the original contract. The newly christened Ambassador Bridge opened six months ahead of schedule despite having to change out the original suspension cables which were found to become brittle in freezing weather. They were quickly replaced with cables spun with stronger cold-roll steel. Still, the bridge cost came in 1% under the original budget allocation.

When finished, the Ambassador Bridge was 1.5 miles long, requiring 21,000 tons of steel. The clearance from the Detroit River was 152' but the bridge's roadway never rises above a gentle 5% grade. The four-lane roadbed (two coming and two going) was 47' wide with an 8' wide pedestrian sidewalk on the west side of the bridge. The bridge was anchored on the American side on West Jefferson and 21st Street. On the Canadian side, the anchorage touched down on London St and Huron Line Road in Sandwich, Ontario.

Opening day ceremonies coincided with Armistice Day (Veteran's Day) Monday, November 11, 1929. An estimated 100,000 from both sides of the Ambassador Bridge were on hand to cheer the ceremonial opening. With much pomp and circumstance, dignitaries from both countries held cermonies on their respective sides of the bridge. At 3:15 pm, Canadian bands played patriotic selections such as "God Save the King" and "Oh Canada," while at the same time, American bands on their side played tunes like "America" and "The National Anthem."

Following the musical programs, speeches were made by dignitaries on both sides of the bridge. Then, bronze "Friendship Tablets" designed by New York sculptor Jonathan M. Swanson were unveiled on the anchorages on both sides of the bridge. The plaques celebrated more than 115 years of friendship between the United States and Canada. The ceremony ended when dignitaries met at the exact international boundry. They shook hands and cut a white, silk ribbon. Then in concord, sirens and fog horns of river craft sounded continuous acclamation while many airplanes soared and circled above the bridge.

The bridge was originally scheduled to open in 1930 which is what the plaques reflect.

In what only can be described as a loosely controlled riot, joyous crowds on both ends of the bridge swarmed the deck. When the roadbed became so crowded that people could not move, some of the braver revellers climbed the construction catwalks on each side of the bridge to the top of the piers. It took well into the night before the bridge was cleared and secured again.

Photo from Windsor Star.

Four days later, the Ambassador Bridge opened for business. The opening was signaled by the passage of two cars filled with dignitaries from each country that left simultaneously from each side of the bridge. They honked in friendship as they passed at the center of the bridge and a signal cannon boomed to officially open the bridge to the toll-paying public. Cheers and applause broke out on both ends of the bridge.

The Ambassador Bridge was now officially open. An estimated 235,000 persons crossed the bridge the first day--35,000 of them were pedestrians. Traffic was backed up almost two miles on each bridge approach with people wanting to claim bragging rights that they had crossed on the first day.

On opening day, American customs officials reported that eleven quarts of whiskey were seized in three separate incidents. Prohibition was still in effect on the American side. At 8 pm, a man carrying four quarts, and at 9:15 pm, a woman carrying six quarts were detained by customs inspectors. Both people used the same excuse, they needed the whiskey to make holiday fruit cake." Just after 11 pm, a single quart was found tucked under the back seat of a car.

It was determined by customs agents that none of the instances was a commercial violation. The smuggled Canadian liquor was confiscated and the offenders were released after paying a $5 fine for each quart.

The Ambassador Bridge had the misfortune of opening just twenty-one days before the Great Depression struck. To compound the misery of the bridge's investors, the new Detroit-Windsor Tunnel opened downtown the following year charging lower automobile tolls. One factor remained in the bridge's favor though, the Detroit Bridge Company held a monopoly as the only Michigan international crossing for the commercial truck business.


When World War II broke out just over a decade later, American gas rationing dramatically cut automobile bridge traffic, but commercial truck traffic increased due to the war effort. In 1944, two years into the United States entry into the war, the Ambassador Bridge became profitable for the first time. Investors were paid 75 cents per share which began an unbroken stream of dividends every year since.

Gordie Howe International Bridge 

Sunday, June 30, 2024

The Evolution of America's Patriotic Images: Yankee Doodle, Uncle Sam, Miss Columbia, and Lady Liberty

Originally titled Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Spirit of '76 was painted in 1876 by Archibald MacNeal Willard for the centennial celebrations in Philadelphia.

Today, the most internationally recognized personification of the United States is Uncle Sam, but it wasn't always so. Before and during the Revolutionary War, the British Red Coats characterized ramshakle colonial soldiers as Yankee Doodle Dandies. It wasn't a compliment. The rousing British drinking song portrayed colonists as foppish, anti-royalists impugning their manhood.

The colonists were able to co-opt the insulting song and make it their own. Taking the song's melody, Edward Bangs--a Harvard University sophomore by day and a Minuteman by night--wrote fifteen new verses to the British song in 1775 and circulated the lyrics throughout New England. Yankee Doodle Dandy went from being an insult to a song of American national pride.

On September 7, 1813, Uncle Sam became the official nickname and image for the United States government. The name is attributed to cattle tender and meat packer Samuel Wilson. He supplied oak barrels of meat to the United States government for rations during the War of 1812. His workers stamped US on his government shipments, and he became known locally in Troy, New York as Uncle Sam. Soldiers soon picked up on the name.

Early on, the image of Uncle Sam did not have a standard appearance. Popular political cartoonist Thomas Nast is credited with the first image of Uncle Sam in a November 20, 1869 editorial cartoon in Harper's Weekly supporting the Fifteenth Amendment for universal sufferage. Uncle Sam (symbol of the government) and Columbia (symbol of the country) are hosting a Thanksgiving dinner for a group of diverse immigrants. Nash's Harper's Weekly editorial cartoon images of Uncle Sam helped establish the patriotic icon we know today.


The image we all recognize as Uncle Sam evolved over time. The long and lanky man with the white goatee and white hair, dressed in red and white striped pants, a dark blue frock coat, a white top hat with a blue starred band, and a red bow tie was the creation of James Montgomery Flagg for the famous 1917 World War I United States Army recruiting poster which was used again during World War II. Millions of copies were distributed establishing Uncle Sam as the national symbol of American patriotism and pride.


The earliest known personification of pre-United States appeared in 1738. Miss Columbia was the embodiment of liberty. European nations used the term "Columbia" to refer to the New World and then the thirteen colonies, based on the mistaken belief that Italian explorer Christopher Columbus discovered America. Miss Columbia's image was depicted as a strong, classical woman modeled after Greek goddess Athena and infused with a healthy dose of Americanism. She became a central figure in the narrative of early America, its values, its Westward expansion, and its promise of establishing the American ideals of liberty and justice for all.

 
Columbia's image was often seen in political cartoons in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, but her dominance as America's favorite female icon was challenged in 1886 by the installation of the Statue of Liberty. The two iconic images co-existed for thirty years, but the personification of Columbia fell out of favor with the issuance of Liberty Bonds in support of the World War I war effort which had The Statue of Liberty's image printed on them.

When Columbia Pictures chose their trademark in 1924, they created a blended version of Miss Columbia with The Statue of Liberty pose, doing neither icon any favors. To compound Miss Columbia's troubles, some of America's most iconic coinage bore the image of Lady Liberty, who became the favored personification of liberty.

 

Columbia endures as the name of many cities and streets throughout the United States, as well as Columbia University in New York, Columbia Records, Columbia Pictures, Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), and the name of our ill-fated space shuttle which exploded in mid-air on February 1, 2003. 

Contemporary cartoonist for The Independent Weekly in Durham, North Carolina D.C. Rogers may have expressed it best, "One of the reasons Miss Columbia has declined is that The Statue of Liberty has risen." The most famous American monument to liberty was a gift from the people of France.

America's enduring symbol of freedom--The Statue of Liberty.

Lady Liberty's image also has a long and distinguished history on American coinage. A one cent coin was struck in 1793. Liberty's cameo image was considered unattractive with a wild mane of hair and a balding, sloped forehead. It was quickly retired making this coin one of the most sought after American coins for collectors.


In 1795, the Liberty Draped Bust silver dollar showed an attractive, middle-aged Lady Liberty with flowing hair held back with a decorative bow. She is surrounded by stars representing the number of states. This image of Lady Liberty was minted from 1795 until 1804. 
 

In 1878, George T. Morgan designed what is known as The Morgan Silver Dollar, prized by collectors because of its size and weight. The model for the coin, Anna Willness Williams, became known as the "Silver Dollar Girl." Morgan designed a cameo profile with Liberty's beautifully quaffed hair in a Phrygian cap which signifies freedom and the pursuit of liberty. This silver dollar was minted until 1921.


The Walking Liberty half dollar was minted from 1916 until 1947. This silver coin is rich with symbolism. Lady Liberty walks towards the dawn of a new day. She carries a bouquet of laurel and oak representing military and civil victories of the nation. Her outstretched arm imparts the spirit of liberty to others. She is clothed in a lovely, flowing gown representing the American flag, and she is wearing a Phrygian cap. The coin was reissued for collectors because of its exceptional beauty. It is also known as the American Silver Eagle because of the image on the reverse side.
 

Thursday, June 20, 2024

A Brief History of the Gordie Howe International Bridge

 


With the installation of final edge girders on the Gordie Howe International Bridge on June 14, 2024, the long-awaited connection between the Canadian and United States sides of the Detroit River transpired.

This momentous occasion was the culmination of a nineteen year journey which began on June 15, 2005, when the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) announced that a new international bridge was being proposed by a bi-national partnership between the United States Federal Highway Commission and Canada’s Ontario Ministry of Transportation. Its mission was to address “border crossing needs in Southeastern Michigan and Southwestern Ontario.”

Highway traffic research on both sides of the border indicated that the present Ambassador Bridge, which went into service over ninety years ago in 1929, was inadequate to meet the region’s future needs. The new bridge project originally known as the Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC) would have six lanes with an additional twelve foot wide pedestrian and bike lane, rather than the four lanes of the current Ambassador Bridge.

The cable-stayed bridge would have a 138’ clearance from the river and a total length of 8,202’ (1.5 miles). At its highest point of 722’, the bridge would rival the height of Detroit’s Renaissance Center. Two-hundred, sixteen spun steel cables will support the roadway and bear the traffic weight loads. The bridge will be illuminated at night with high-powered LED lighting.

The bridge plazas will have 24 primary inspection lanes and 16 toll booths. The port of entry and border inspection facilities on the United States side will have dedicated exit lanes to connect with Interstate 75, while the Canadian port of entry’s border inspection facilities and toll collection booths will directly connect to Ontario Highway 401.

Artist's rendering of Gordie Howe Bridge lit up at night.

Arguments in favor of the DRIC bridge were:

·       It would improve global trade between the two countries.

·       It would create an estimated 10,000 constructions jobs and 3,350 permanent jobs.

·       It would ease the daily traffic jams and border delays on both sides of the Detroit River.

·       It would save fuel, reduce air pollution, and minimize time lost, especially on the Canadian side where semi-trucks could avoid the gauntlet of city traffic lights leading to the Ambassador Bridge.

***

Major opposition to the DRIC bridge proposal came from the billionaire owner of the Ambassador Bridge, Manuel “Matty” Moroun, who made his fortune in the trucking industry and from collecting tolls on both ends of the bridge, including owning the Duty-Free shops.

The Ambassador Bridge is one of the few international, privately owned toll bridges in North America. While the Detroit/Windsor Tunnel downtown allowed passenger cars and buses through its crossing, the Ambassador Bridge became the only way commercial truck traffic could cross the Detroit River for almost 100 years, except for slow, obsolete ferry service. Matty Moroun purchased the Ambassador Bridge from the Joseph A. Bower family in 1979 and enjoyed its monopolistic status for over thirty years. Now, the DRIC threatened it.

Ambassador Bridge art deco plaque installed midspan.

Moroun used every legal delay his lawyers could devise and argued in the courts that his bridge had “exclusivity rights” granted to him by the previous owners. The courts summarily shut down that argument. In desperation, Moroun offered to build a six-lane twin span and use the old Ambassador Bridge for foot traffic and special events saying that his proposed project would be less expensive to build. The Canadians argued successfully that Mouron’s project would not solve the underlying traffic problems in the Windsor metropolitan area.

Moroun switched from the court battles to the political arena after losing a lawsuit brought by the MDOT in 2009 for his failure to construct new ramps to connect the Ambassador Bridge directly to Interstate 75 in violation of a previously negotiated contact. Michigan Republicans began voicing their support for Mouron and opposition to the DRIC bridge project.

Manuel "Matty" Moroun

In 2010, Moroun’s opposition to the new bridge prompted the Canadian government to offer to pay Michigan’s portion for the new span in exchange for collecting all tolls from the bridge for the next fifty years to reimburse Canada. Michigan Senator Alan Cropsey, Republican from DeWitt County, remained opposed to the Canadian offer. “The new bridge is unnecessary, and it would put an American businessman (Moroun) out of business. Is this some kind of foreign aid?”

Dan Stampler, president of Moroun’s Detroit International Bridge Company, warned that jobs created for the DRIC would go to Canadians casting doubt on Michigan’s Governor Jennifer Granholm’s loyalty as a Canadian born United States citizen for supporting the Canadian funding proposal. “She has offered to sell the Michigan border to Canada,” Stampler said.

Governor Granholm quickly refuted the broadside charge as “Totally absurd! When it comes to jobs and expansion on both sides of the border, this is the only game in town.” The political battle raged on.

In 2011, the Michigan Senate rejected a bill that would have allowed the state to accept a $550 million cash advance to fund the United States portion of the bridge construction. United States special interest politics interfered with the bill’s passage. The new Michigan Republican Governor Rick Snyder threw his support behind the DRIC bridge bill in his State of the State address telling his party that economic growth was his top priority. “It is time to solve problems,” he said.

In a last-ditch effort to enforce his will, Moroun promoted a proposal for an amendment to the Michigan Constitution requiring approval for the new bridge construction by not only Detroit voters, but also Michigan voters at large in statewide elections. The ballot proposal was defeated by a wide 60% to 40% margin. Mouron’s aggressive lobbying and litigating had worn thin with Michigan voters paving the way for the project to proceed.

***

On May 14, 2015 in a ceremony along the Detroit River on the Canadian side, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and Gordie Howe’s son Murray Howe jointly announced that the publicly owned DRIC bridge would be renamed the Gordie Howe International Bridge, after a native Canadian who played hockey for the Detroit Red Wings leading them to four Stanley Cup victories. Because of his prowess on the ice, Howe earned the nickname “Mr. Hockey.” In his remarks at the naming ceremony, Prime Minister Harper said, “Gordie Howe was a proud Canadian who built extraordinary goodwill between the two countries.”

On October 26, 2014, Howe had a stroke while at his daughter’s home. At the time of the naming ceremony announcement, Gordie Howe suffered from dementia and could not attend. His son told him about the honor bestowed upon him. Howe said, “That sounds pretty good to me.” Thirteen months later on June 19, 2016, he died at his son’s home in Sylvania, Ohio of undisclosed causes at the age of eighty-eight, two years before groundbreaking on the bridge began.

Howe’s casket was brought to the Joe Louis Arena for public visitation. The following day, his funeral was held at Detroit’s Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament. Acting as pallbearers were hockey great Wayne Gretsky, winningest NHL coach Scotty Bowman, and Detroit Tiger legend Al Kaline. Howe’s remains were returned to Canada and interred in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Mr. Hockey--Gordie Howe

***

Construction officially began on the Gordie Howe International Bridge in 2018, but the completion and opening have been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The long-awaited bridge opening is now scheduled for the fall of 2025 once the bridge plazas, signage, and traffic lights are installed. People on both sides of the Detroit River look forward with anticipation to the ribbon cutting ceremony marking the end of a twenty year odyssey.

Ambassador Bridge Opening Day Ceremony 

Friday, June 14, 2024

Norman "Turkey" Stearnes, Mack Park, and the Detroit Stars

Norman "Turkey" Stearnes

The Negro National League (NNL), America's first successful Black baseball league, was the brainchild of Andrew "Rube" Foster, who was born in Calvert, Texas in 1879. He grew up playing sandlot baseball in the Deep South. A gifted pitcher, Foster was a much sought after player for neighborhood and regional teams. He became a vagabond ballplayer and barnstormed throughout the South, scratching out a living on the mound rather than the land. Like many Black Americans, Foster was drawn to the North by the Great Migration for jobs and a better life.

In 1910, Foster had the foresight to realize that the Chicago area, and other Midwestern cities had sizeable Black populations which could support their own city teams. He organized, owned, and managed the Chicago American Giants. The American Giants were a barnstorming team that picked up games whenever and wherever they could, or they hosted exhibitions which allowed local teams and factory teams to compete against a professional team and split the gate profits after expenses were paid out.

Rube, as he became known professionally, also pitched for the American Giants until 1916. At the age of thirty-seven, his weight became a problem, and he lost his snap. Foster decided to hire younger men to take over the hurling chores, so he could devote his full attention to managing and scheduling the team.

When World War I ended in 1919, Foster acted on his dream to create a professional Negro league modeled after the White major leagues. He installed a new team in Detroit and hired known numbers [illegal lottery] operator John T. "Tenny" Blount to manage the team which Foster dubbed The Detroit Stars. Foster also owned the Dayton Marcos from Dayton, Ohio; he hired someone to manage that team for him also. From these three charter teams, the fledgling NNL was born. Soon four other teams rounded out the league though teams came and went over the life of the league.

For the next decade, the Detroit Stars played at Mack Park on Fairview and Mack Avenues in the middle of a White, working-class, German neighborhood on Detroit's near Eastside. It was a short four-mile trolley ride from Detroit's Black Bottom neighborhood to the ball park. The Stars performed before mixed crowds and had fans on both sides of the color line.

Mack Park was constructed in 1914 by Joe Roesink, an avid sports fan from Grand Rapids, who ran a chain of successful haberdasheries [men's clothing stores]. He leased his field to the NNL Detroit Stars, so Detroit could have its own Black team. Roesink also got 25% of the gate.

On most weekends, as many as 8,000 people could be squeezed into the bleachers with another 2,000 in the grandstand. The ball park was a single-decked structure made of fir lumber planking and tin sheeting over the grandstand. The expensive seats were padded stadium seats under the grandstand. The cheap seats were in the bleachers where spectators had to contend with the elements and teeming crowds. Surprisingly, crowds tended to get along well for the most part. 

Mack Park was a left-handed hitters' ball park. Right center field was 279' from home plate, the right field power alley was only 265'. The left field fence was 358', left center field was 390', and center field was 405'. Statistics indicate that NNL batters hit 128% more home runs in Mack Park than in any other Negro league park. Soon, the Stars were to have their first superstar who would take full advantage of that.

***

In an aside, on Sunday, July 7, 1929, the Detroit Stars were to play a double-header against the Kansas City Monarchs. Two days of heavy rain had soaked Mack Park. Owner and operator John Roesink wanted to get these two games in before he had to issue rain checks and lose money. The skies cleared and 2,000 fans were inside the ball park anxious to see some good baseball. 

Standing water surrounded first and second base. A common practice in those days was to use blazing gasoline to evaporate standing water. [Wouldn't spreading sand be safer and more effective?]

Roesink telephoned a nearby gas station ordering 40 gallons of gas, but the ball park did not have an approved storage tank for that amount, so they filled eight, five-gallon gas cans and stored them under the grandstand along the first base line where the team club houses and the ground keeper's lodging were.

Two gas cans were taken to the infield and emptied on the standing water around first and second base. Before the field was set ablaze, an explosion was heard under the grandstand and someone shouted "FIRE!" Smoke and fire began to rise from the stands and a full-blown panic broke out. 

Only three days after the 4th of July, it seems likely someone threw a powerful firework like an M-80 or Cherry Bomb under the stands, but the fire marshal surmised someone dropped a hot cigarette butt under the stands starting the blaze. That theory did not explain the many reports of an explosion and a cloud of black smoke rising before the conflagration. Nobody was ever charged with arson.

Fans were trapped in the stands by a chicken wire barrier to protect them from stray foul balls. Quick-thinking ball players pulled down the wire barrier with some difficulty, allowing fans to pour onto the field, but they were now stuck on the gasoline soaked field. Players from both teams bravely battered down a section of wooden wall enclosing the ball park so fans could escape the flames.

Sixty-one people went to the hospital with thirty cases of broken arms, legs, and other injuries. Miraculously, nobody lost their life. Damage to the park was estimated to be $12,000. Five cars were also lost in the fire. The Stars played out the rest of their season at Dequindre Field at Dequindre and Modern streets on Detroit's far Eastside.

For the 1930 season, Roesink built a new $30,000 ball park for the Stars in Hamtramck, Michigan, located at 3201 Dan Street. Originally named Roesink Stadium, this ball park had a 315' left field fence and a 407' right field fence. Now, right-handed batters had the homerun advantage. Soon, the ball park became known as Hamtramck Stadium.

2022

***

Over the lifetime of The Detroit Stars, many great ballplayers donned the uniform, but one player stood above the rest as the Stars' greatest player. His name was Norman "Turkey" Stearnes from Nashville, Tennessee. The agile and quick Stearnes played first base and pitched for the semipro Southern Negro League in 1920 for the Montgomery Grey Soxs and in 1921 for the Memphis Red Soxs. Scouts from Detroit liked what they saw in the left-handed thrower and batter.

Detroit Stars management offered Stearnes a contract for the 1922 season, but he turned it down so he could finish high school at the age of twenty-one. When his father died, Norman Stearnes had to quit school and get a job to help his mother support their family. But Stearnes returned when he could and graduated late. In 1922, he earned his diploma, much to the joy of his mother. She was determined that Norman get an education. 

The achievement is all the more remarkable because in the 1920s, most males and females of both races quit school in the eighth grade when they were fourteen so they could get working papers. Times were always hard and money was to be made.

Stearnes signed with the Detroit Stars for the 1923 season at $200 a month. He soon earned the nickname "Turkey" because of the peculiar way he ran with his arms flapping. But in a foot race, at 5'11" and 175#s, Stearnes was one of the fastest men in the league.

He sported broad shoulders and had a powerful, whiplike swing that could connect with the ball and hit home runs to any field in any park he played in. Remember that in the 1920s and 1930s, baseballs were not as wound tightly and less lively than they are in today's game. When Turkey Stearnes hit a long ball, the leather sphere cried out in pain.

Satchel Paige is considered one of the greatest pitchers of all time in any league.

Turkey Stearnes' upper body strength, quick reflexes, and good batting eye made him a threat at the plate. Legendary hurler for the Kansas City Monarchs Satchel Paige called Turkey Stearnes "one of the greatest hitters in the Negro leagues, as good as anybody who ever played baseball. I feared him more than any other hitter."

The Stars shifted Stearnes to center field where his speed and wide-ranging fielding ability could cover a lot of ground. Most of the real estate in Mack Park was in center field and he owned it.

Turkey Stearnes' career statistics boast a .349 lifetime batting average, 186 league homeruns, 129 stolen bases, 997 runs batted in, and a .617 slugging percentage. Stearnes is the only professional baseball player to lead his league in triples for six years. Five times he was chosen for the Black All-Star Game, twice he was the NNL batting champion. On November 7, 1987, Stearnes was inducted into the Michigan African American Sports Hall of Fame along with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.

As a player, Turkey Stearnes was detached, colorless, and cooly efficient. Unlike other players, he did not enjoy the spotlight and rarely spoke more than a phrase or a brief sentence. Off the field, he did not smoke, drink, chase women, or keep irregular hours. Stearnes donned the Detroit Stars uniform for eleven seasons. Longer than any other player, and unlike most of the Detroit Star players, he lived in Detroit in the off season with his wife.

In the off season, rather than barnstorm like other players to earn extra money, Stearnes worked in Walter Briggs' automobile body factory at Harper Avenue and Russell Street as a spray painter and a wet sander. He could make steady money that way and spend more time with his wife Nettie Mae.

After working from late autumn through early April, Stearnes left for spring training in 1927, only days before a fire burned down the block-long Briggs factory. From then on, Stearnes worked the off-season in the foundry at Henry Ford's Rouge Plant until he retired from baseball and worked there full time. 

After Stearnes passed away, his wife Nettie Mae worked tirelessly to get her husband into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, where some of Turkey Stearnes' contemporaries like Rube Foster, Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, Ray Dandridge and Satchel Paige were already installed. She told the Detroit Free Press, "It's not for me or my daughters' sake, it is for Norman. He deserves it."

Baseball Hall of Fame Plaque

When the Detroit Tigers moved to Comerica Park in 2000, Norman "Turkey" Stearnes was finally honored with a bronze plaque mounted outside the stadium at the center field gate. Although meant as a tribute to Stearnes by the Tiger management, many Detroit African Americans wondered aloud what it was going to take to get Turkey Stearnes inside the ballpark. There is also a display honoring Stearnes along the third base concourse at The Corner Ballpark, the site of the old Tiger Stadium at Michigan Avenue and Trumbull.

Joyce Stearnes-Thompson at a preservation ceremony for Hamtramck Stadium proudly displaying a photo of her father.

Norman "Turkey" Stearnes was finally elected to Baseball's Hall of Fame in 2000, sixty years after his career ended and twenty-one years after his death on September 4, 1979, Norman "Turkey" Stearnes was elected along with former Tiger manager Sparky Anderson. 

In Comerica Park's center field, a NNL flag flies commemorating the Negro league, and during every Negro League Weekend at Comerica Park, Stearnes' daughters Roslyn Stearnes-Brown and Joyce Stearnes-Thompson sing the National Anthem.

Early Detroit Tiger History

Saturday, June 8, 2024

Willow Run Bomber Plant Changes Ypsilanti Forever


Original Three-story Ypsilanti Depot Station.
At the turn of the century, before the second World War, Ypsilanti had an active downtown area along Michigan Avenue. Northeast of town, there was a thriving business district called Depot Town.

Depot Town was the area's commercial hub and provided services for weary train travelers. Ypsilanti's three-story brick depot station was ornate compared to the depot in Ann Arbor. In its day, it was said to be the nicest train station between Detroit and Chicago.

The Norris Building built in 1861 was across from the depot on River Street. It was originally supposed to house a retail block on the ground floor and residential rooms on the two upper floors. Instead, the building became an army barracks during the Civil War. The 14th Michigan Infantry Regiment shipped out of Depot Town in 1862, as did the 27th Michigan Regiment in 1863. 

The facade of the historic Norris Building remains on North River Street, despite a fire which decimated the rear portion of this last remaining Civil War barracks in Michigan. Renovated, the Thompson Building as it is now know is an important addition to the Depot Town community.

Michigan State Normal School was located west of Depot Town on West Cross Street and northwest of downtown Ypsilanti. It spawned a growing educational center which later expanded its mission to become Eastern Michigan University. 

Ypsilanti's residential area with its historic and varied architecture filled the spaces between. Surrounding everything was some of the most fertile farm land in the state.

The water-powered age of nineteenth century manufacturing on the Huron River gave way to the modern electrical age of the twentieth century. The soft beauty of the gas light was replaced with the harsh glare of the incandescent light bulb. The times were changing for Ypsilanti--ready or not.

***

The countryside was prime tillable ground with fruit groves scattered about the landscape. Henry Ford owned a large tract of land in an area known as Willow Run, named for the small river that ran through it. The Ford patriarch used the land to plant soybeans, but the United States government needed bombers for the Lend Lease program with Great Britain. On December 8, 1941, one day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the Nazis declared war on the United States on behalf of their ally. America was drawn into the second world war.

The Roosevelt administration asked the Ford corporation, now run by Edsel Ford, to build a factory that could mass produce the B-24 Liberator Bomber. Edsel Ford, Charles Sorenson (production manager), and some Ford engineers visited the Consolidated Aircraft Company in San Diego to see how the planes were built. 

That night, Sorenson drew up a floor plan that could build the bomber more efficiently. His blueprint was a marvel of ingenuity, but the Ford corporation made one significant change in his master plan.

The best shape to build a front to back assembly line operation is in a straight line. But to avoid the higher taxes in Democratic Wayne County, the bomber plant took a hard right to the south on one end to stay within Republican Washtenaw County, which had lower taxes. This was at the insistence of Harry Bennett, Ford's head of security who had strong ties to Washtenaw County being a graduate of Ann Arbor High School.

The construction of the plant in Willow Run began in May of 1941, seven months before Pearl Harbor. Legendary Detroit architect Albert Kahn designed the largest factory in the world, but it would be his last project. He died in 1942.

The federal government bought up land adjacent to the bomber plant and built an airport which still exists today and is used for commercial aviation. The eight-sectioned hangar could house twenty Liberators.

***
Soon, workers flooded into Ypsilanti and the rapidly developing Willow Run area where makeshift row housing was hastily constructed. The Ford Motor Company recruited heavily from the South. By March 1, 1943, the bomber plant brought in 6,491 workers from Kentucky. That's when the derisive term "Ypsitucky" was first heard. But Ford recruiters also brought in 1,971 workers from Tennessee, 714 from Texas, 450 from West Virgina, 397 from Arkansas, and 314 from Missouri. In the most demographic shift in the area since the white man drove the red man west, the sleepy farming town of Ypsilanti went from a sunrise-to-sunset community to a three shift, around-the-clock, blue collar factory town. 

Suddenly the area was hit with a housing shortage. Ypsilanti homeowners rented rooms to workers or converted their large Victorian homes into boarding houses. It was wartime and money was to be made. Some families rented "warm beds." One worker would sleep in the bed while another was working his shift, but still there was a housing shortage. Many people slept in their cars until they could make other arrangements. 

Long time residents did not like the changes they saw in their town. The bomber factory workers worked hard and drank hard. Fights broke out in local bars, often over women. Ypsilanti developed a hard edge and a dark reputation.

Because so many men were in uniform serving their country, there was a shortage of skilled labor at first. But then the women of Southern Michigan stepped up big time. To make up the labor shortfall, they donned work clothes, and tied up their long hair in colorful scarves collectively earning the nickname "Rosie the Riveter". It was calculated that by the end of the war, 40% of every B-24 Liberator was assembled by women.

***

Little known factoid: The first stretch of expressway in America was made with Ford steel and Ford cement. It connected workers in the Detroit area to their jobs at the bomber plant in Willow Run via Ecorse Road. It's still there and runs along the north end of the former GM Hydromatic Plant and Willow Run Airport.

***

The Yankee Air Museum housed on the east end of Willow Run Airport was established in 1981 to restore and preserve the almost forgotten history of Willow Run Airport, and to commemorate the achievement of the men and women who helped win the war by the sweat of their brow producing 8,685 B-24 Liberators.

***

Background history of the Yankee Air Museum: http://yankeeairmuseum.org/our-history/

Rosie the Riveter short: https://fornology.blogspot.com/2013/03/rosie-riveter-happy-womens-history.html

The following link has some vintage bomber plant footage: http://www.annarbor.com/news/ypsilanti/pbs-to-air-documentary-about-ypsilantis-legendary-willow-run-b-24-bomber-factory/

Sunday, June 2, 2024

Dodge Brothers Stand Up To Henry Ford

Automobile pioneers John and Horace Dodge

John Francis Dodge [October 25, 1864 - January 14, 1920] and Horace Elgin Dodge [May 17, 1868 - December 10, 1920] were born in the era of the horse and buggy, and the marvel of the age, the steam engine locomotive. They were born in Niles, Michgan where their father Daniel Rugg Dodge operated his own machine shop next to his house repairing steam engines for boats and farm equipment. He often had to machine his own custom, precision parts. 

In addition to his sons' traditional book learning, John and Horace learned to operate machine tools under the watchful eye of their father. Both boys were mechanically inclined. The family moved several times before settling in Detroit in 1886 where work in the stove, boiler, carriage, and wagon industries was booming. The brothers apprenticed in different machine shops aound Detroit learning their trade to become skilled journeymen.

In 1892, the brothers began working in Windsor, Ontario, at the Dominion Typograph Company owned by Frederick Samuel Evans. While working for Evans, Horace and John invented and manufactured the enclosed four-point, wheel ball bearing hub for bicycle pedal assemblies which made biking easier and more enjoyable. 

The brothers were granted a patent in 1896 and went into business with Evans to create the popular E&B [Evans and Dodge] bicycle which soon became known as the "Maple Leaf." In 1900, they sold their interest in the company for $7,500. 

With that start-up money, the Dodge brothers were able to open their first machine shop called the Dodge Brothers Company on the ground floor of The Boydell Building at 132-137 Beaubien Street and Lafayette Avenue. They began their enterprise as builders of special machinery and high-speed pleasure craft, but the manufacture of automobile parts and components soon took precedence.

A Detroit Free Press Sunday feature article dated September 1, 1901, proclaimed in its headline "Dodge Brothers Open One of the Most Complete and Modern Machine shops in Michigan. Everything is New and Up-To-Date." 

The Free Press staff writer wrote a glowing description of the factory: "The typical machine shop of the age is dimly lit and litter-obstructed. In contrast, the Dodge Brothers machine shop has an orderly appearance with a thoughtful arrangement of machines to facilitate production and minimize the handling of machine parts, with the greatest ease and rapidity at a fraction of the expense and time employed in the days when hand labor dominated manufacturing [sic]. Machines of the latest design are used intelligently operated by the highly skilled labor force. Their reputation for quality is unequaled."

The Dodge brothers' machine shop soon became busy making precision automobile parts and sub-assemblies like chassis, axles, transmissions, clutches, and complete engines. In 1902, the Dodge brothers signed a major contact with  Ransom E. Olds to produce quality transmissions for his Oldsmobile line. Much to Mr. Olds' chagrin, the contract was not renewed the following year because Henry Ford contracted with the Dodge brothers to exclusively build complete engines and other automobile components in 1903. 

The Dodge brothers agreed to supply 650 Model A engines, transmissions, and axles at $250 each. The added business soon outgrew their shop's floor space, so they built a larger two-story building at Hastings and Monroe Streets in 1906. That space today is the Greektown Casino Hotel parking structure. 

By 1908, they outgrew the Hastings Street facility and began building their own modern factory complex in Hamtramck, Michigan, on sixty-seven acres of vacant land on Joseph Campau Avenue where property taxes were cheaper than in Detroit. 

The four-story, four-building complex contained an extensive machine shop, a power plant, a forging plant, and company headquarters, all with plenty of natural light and ventilation from steel-framed windows. Everything was well-organized in a thoughtful, systematic way. 

The plant came equipped with four cafeterias, male and female restrooms with separate lounges in each, and a well-equipped clinic and first aid center. Automakers from around the world came to see Dodge's state-of-the-art parts factory converted into an automobile plant.

***

Henry Ford

In the beginning, very little of the original Ford Motor Company cars were actually manufactured by Ford, including the bodies, powertrains, and chassis. FoMoCo was essentially an assembly business which subcontracted much of its mechanical work to independent machine and tool & die shops around the Detroit area.

The Dodge brothers became Ford stockholders when they each bought 50 shares in 1902. They paid $3,000 cash and pledged $7,000 worth of Dodge manfactured car parts to help Ford get his fledgling company on its feet. 

It was not long after that when Henry Ford realized what he had done when he signed over 10% of his company's stock to them. The Dodge brothers were double-dipping. On the front end, they made money selling automobile components and parts to Ford, and on the back end, they drew handsome dividend checks based on FoMoCo profits.

In 1905, Ford began producing his own engines and transmissions in a move towards self-sufficiency. In 1910 when Ford sold his Piquette Plant and moved into his newly built Highland Park Plant [the largest auto plant in the world at that time] the Dodges realized it was not in their best interests to remain tied to Henry Ford. 

In August of 1913, John Dodge resigned as Ford vice-president, but the brothers remained on the board of directors. The Dodge brothers announced they would quit supplying parts to FoMoCo, so they could begin producing their own cars. They retained their Ford stock and counted on their million-dollar yearly dividend to help finance their rival operation. 

Henry Ford felt betrayed and vindictive. The embittered industrialist began to squeeze the Dodge brothers and Ford's half-dozen other minority stockholders out of their dividends. He wanted to exercise full control of his company without stockholder interference. 

To make it more difficult for the Dodge brothers to attract and retain workers for their new automobile plant, Henry Ford and his vice-president James Couzens announced on January 5, 1914, that FoMoCo would double wages for their assembly-line workers to five dollars a day. 

The move was touted in the national newspapers as a way for Henry Ford to stabilize the chronic absenteeism and high 300% turnover rate of his workforce with a more dependable worker. Paying out higher wages also made it possible for many Ford employees to buy a car on credit for the first time, a car they had a hand in making.

Consequently, sales and productivity surged. Soon, with efficiency refinements in the assembly line and speeding up the line, the time to produce a Model T dropped from 12.5 hours to 93 minutes. FoMoCo doubled its profits in less than two years. Henceforth, Henry Ford was portrayed as the industrial Moses who led his people into the consumer-driven, blue collar middle class.

But the Dodge brothers and the Wall Street Journal criticized Ford's five-dollar-a-day plan as a stratagem to discourage workers from looking for work at their new Dodge plant where they paid only three-dollars a day. 

Thousands of people came from all over the United States to find work at the Highland Park Ford plant and job riots broke out. Ford Security turned waterhoses on the crowd in bitter cold January weather. FoMoCo was compelled to announce they would hire only workers who lived within the Detroit city limits. 

There were other strings attached to the higher wages, like sobriety which was monitored by the Ford Sociological Department. Rather than deprive the Dodge brothers of employees, the result of Ford's plan left the brothers with their choice of the most qualified people from all over the country.

The next scheme Henry Ford devised to squeeze the Dodge brothers out of his company was offering everyone who bought a Model T in 1914 a $50 rebate check, thus denying the Dodge brothers and the other minority investors millions of dollars of dividends. Each time Henry Ford lowered the price of the Model T, the profit pie shrank accordingly. An increase in sales often made up the difference.

Once again, Henry Ford looked like the Rainmaker to the public. John and Horace Dodge were still on the FoMoCo board of directors and were outspoken in their opposition to Ford's blantant disregard for shareholders' rights which cost the minority stockholders millions of dollars in lost dividends.

To further anger the minority stockholders, Henry Ford announced in August of 1916, that rather than pay out dividends to shareholders, he planned to shut down Model T production to expand his manufacturing capablity and develop a whole new automobile. This move adversely affected Ford dealers nationwide as well as workers and stockholders. 

The Dodge brothers knew what was going on. Ford could not stand anyone stealing his thunder, and the positive media attention the Dodge brothers plant was receiving in the national and international press stuck in Ford's craw. Henry Ford wanted to be the only Golden Boy in Detroit.

Ford quietly began to break ground on an industrial complex along the banks of the Rouge River on a scale the world had never seen. Something that would impress even the most discriminating pharaoh of ancient Egypt, an industrial complex that takes in raw materials at one end and converts them into finished automobiles at the other. Ford's vindictive mind reasoned that turnaround was fair play. FoMoCo helped finance the Dodge factory complex; it was only fitting that they help finance his vision.

Henry Ford's Rouge Plant industrial complex

Ford purchased Dearborn farmland that was over a mile of Rouge River waterfront and a mile and a half wide with his own money. He announced that his Rouge project was a personal one. Ford incorporated a new company named Henry Ford and Son which would produce Fordson tractors. Henry Ford told the press that the Rouge River site would involve "no stockholders, no directors, no absentee owners, and no parasites." This was a direct swipe at the Dodge brothers.

When Ford announced his intention to build his own blast furnace and coke plant to make massive amounts of raw steel, the Dodge brothers knew the Ford tractor plant was destined to mass produce automobiles. The brothers refused to take that lying down. 

On November 2, 1916, the Dodge brothers filed a law suit on behalf of the minority stockholders requesting that the FoMoCo pay out a minimum of 75% of its cash surplus to shareholders, amounting to over $39 million.

After more than two years working itself through the court system, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Dodge brothers' lawsuit. Ford was ordered to pay over $19 million to stockholders with $1.5 million in interest. The money hardly mattered to Henry Ford. As the majority stockholder, he owned 58.5% of FoMoCo stock. His payout was close to $12 million.

Henry Ford was determined to buy out his stockholders, so his company would be 100% family owned. While he and his wife Clara took an extended vacation in Southern California, his twenty-five-year-old son Edsel was entrusted with the task of buying out the minority stockholders. 

The opening bid offered was $7,500 per share. The Dodge brothers knew the bid was undervalued. They negotiated for $12,500 per share. On their original investment of $10,000 in 1902, the brothers made $9.5 million in dividends and sold their Ford stock in 1919 for an additional $25 million, realizing a grand total of $34.5 million.

After the settlement was announced, members of the automobile press asked John Dodge for a statement. "Someday," he said, "people who own a Ford are going to want an automobile." In two short years from 1914 through 1915, the Dodge Model 30-35 touring car ranked second behind Ford in total sales.

A 1915 Dodge four-door sedan used by the United States Army.
 

Dodge cars were clearly superior to Ford's Model T. They had solid all-steel bodies rather than sheet metal fastened to a wooden frame; the Dodge four-cylinder engine developed 35 hp, almost twice that of the Model T's 20 hp; the electrical system was 12 volt, compared to the Model T's 6 volt system; the Dodge car used a sliding-gear transmission, rather than the Model T's old-fashioned planetary transmission; and the stylish body came in a variety of colors, while the Model T came only in black.

By 1920, Henry Ford's protracted battle with the Dodge brothers and his heavy debt load financing the construction of the Rouge Plant left Ford close to bankrupcy.

But Ford's financial problems gave the Dodge brothers little comfort. While attending an automobile banquet in New York City, both brothers contacted the Spanish flu. John suffered for a week before dying at the age of fifty-six on January 15, 1920, at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel with his wife by his side. 

Horace was also critically ill in a room down the hall from his brother, but he recovered in four days. Horace never recovered emotionally from the sudden death of his brother who had been his business partner all of their adult lives.

Eleven months later, while staying at this Florida home, Horace died of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of fifty-two, with his wife and son at his side on December 10, 1920. His married daughter was overseas and could not make it back for her father's funeral.

In 1925, the Dodge widows sold their husbands' company to Dillon, Read & Company for $146 million to become the largest cash transaction in United States history, that is until 1928 when Walter Chrysler purchased the company for $170 million.

Chrysler boasted to the automotive press that the purchase of Dodge Motors was the smartest financial decision he ever made. The mid-priced Dodge fit nicely between  Plymouth on the low-priced end and Chrysler on the high-priced end. Chrysler Motors now took its place among Detroit's Big Three automakers.

The Tragedy of Edsel Ford