Sunday, May 26, 2024

Detroit's Speedboat Champion Gar Wood

Garfield "Gar" Wood
One of the least remembered Detroit sports celebrities is speedboat champion Garfield "Gar" Authur Wood. He was known as the "Grey Fox of Algonac" by many in the speedboat racing world. He was the first person to go over 100 mph on the water. Gar Wood won five straight powerboat Gold Cup races between 1917 and 1921. He won the British International Trophy for Motorboats known as the Harmsworth Trophy nine times and retired from speedboat racing in 1933 to concentrate on business concerns.

Gar Wood was born in Mapleton, Iowa on December 4, 1880. His father was a patriotic Civil War veteran and named Gar after the current president James A. Garfield and his vice-president Chester Arthur. Gar was the third of twelve children. As a growing boy, Gar assisted his father who was a ferryboat operator on Lake Osakia in Minnesota. It is here where he learned his love of boating and developed his mechanical skill for inventing devices to solve mechanical problems.

Without any formal engineering training, Gar Wood invented the hydraulic lift for the titling beds of coal trucks in 1911 at the age of thirty-one. In addition to the dump truck, his company developed the self-packing garbage truck familiar in every corner of this country. In all, Gar Wood held over thirty United States patents making him a multi-millionaire by the age of forty.

Gar Wood and his eight brothers established the Wood Hoist Company which soon became Garwood Industries. Alongside industrial giants like Ford, Dodge, and Chalmers, the family built an industrial empire around the hydraulic lift which enabled Gar to pursue his love of speedboat racing.

In 1916, Gar Wood purchased his first motorboat naming it Miss Detroit. The following year he put a Curtiss "12" airplane engine in a speedboat against the advice of everyone and won the 15th Annual Gold Cup Race on the Detroit River. Fours years later, he set a new water speed record of 74.87 mph. In the next twelve years, he and his racing team built ten Miss America's and broke the water speed record five more times raising the speed to 124.86 mph on the St. Clair River in 1932.

Miss America X was the last of Gar Wood's racing boats. The $600,000 speed boat was powered by four 1800 horsepower, twelve cylinder Packard engines run in tandem in a double-hulled boat. The boat's stringers were made of top quality spruce with the rest of the boat made of mahogany. This was the first boat to go over two miles a minute using 10 gallons of fuel per mile when full open. After Wood won the international Harmsworth Trophy in 1932 and 1933, he retired from racing leaving his son to carry on the family tradition. Gar Wood did more to develop the American speedboat sport than anybody.

In the 1930s, Garwood Industries built a new boat plant in Marysville, Michigan capable of producing 1,200 quality custom boats a year. Their two basic commercial models were a 28' runabout and a 22' runabout. In all, the factory produced 10,000 boats before the company converted over to the war effort during World War II. The company had extensive military contracts for military hoists, hydraulic units, dump trucks, tow trucks, and transport trucks. After the war, Garwood Industries quit boat production in 1947.

In his later years, Wood worked on a commercially feasible, battery-powered electric automobile. His electric car used eight 12-volt lead batteries connected in a series to power two specially designed 90-volt, 2 hp DC motors. The top speed was 52 mph and cost about twenty cents to recharge the batteries. The car was named the Gar Wood Super Electric Model A and was featured in the July 1967 issue of Popular Mechanics.

Garfield Arthur Wood died from stomach cancer at the age of ninety on June 19, 1971 and was buried in Algonac, Michigan. Upon his death, Detroit News reporter George Van wrote, "To the public, he was Tom Swift, Jules Verne, and Frank Merriwell, with a little bit of Horatio Alger thrown in."

A short clip of Miss America X and Gar Wood in action winning the Harmsworth Trophy in 1932.

Saturday, May 18, 2024

Antoine Cadillac--Detroit's First Godfather

Bust of Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac
An expedition financed by the French monarch--King Louis XIV--and promoted by his Minister of Marine--Comte de Pontchartrain--appointed military man and soldier of fortune Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac as their agent to establish a fur trading post and fort in New France. In return, Cadillac was granted generous riverfront real estate. He envisioned a permanent French colony controlling the fur trade routes through the upper Great Lakes, with him at the helm.

Commander Antoine Cadillac led a fleet of 25 large canoes--with 50 soldiers, 50 empire builders, 2 Roman Catholic priests, and his 11-year-old son--on a 52 day trip westward from French-controlled Montreal to the western bank of a swift running river that connected Lac Erie with Lac St. Clair.

This site was chosen because it was the narrowest point of the strait--de troit--which is how Detroit earned its name. There was an eroded 40' clay bluff leading up from the river bank to a flat clearing. Once a fort was built on the plain, anything moving up or down the river could be seen and was in easy range of their cannons. This was a defensible position to discourage the British from taking control of the fur trade.

The empire builders arrived on July 24, 1701 and began work on a log fort Cadillac named after his benefactor--French Minister of Marine--Comte de Pontchartrain. Two days later, a mass was said in honor of Ste. Anne--the patron saint of France and mother of the Virgin Mary. After the service, the foundations for the church were laid. Catholicism had come to the wilderness.

Fort Pontchartrain contained a warehouse which doubled as a store. There were also two guard houses, Ste. Anne's Church, and about 15 houses within the fort. Lots could be no larger than 25 square feet and some were smaller.

In an official report about Detroit to his superior officers, Cadillac noted, "Especially attractive was the region that lies south of the pear-like lake to which they gave the name of St. Clair, and the country bordering upon that deep, clear river, a quarter of a league broad, known as Le Detroit.

"On both sides of this strait lie fine, open plains where the deer roam in graceful herds, where bear, by no means fierce and exceedingly good to eat, are to be found, as are the savory poules d'Indies (wild duck) and other varieties of game. The islands are covered with trees; chestnuts, walnuts, apples, and plums abound; and in season, the wild vines are heavy with grapes.

"Le Detroit is the real center of the lake country--the gateway to the West. It is from there that we can best hold the English in check."

French trade with the local Native American tribes went well for the most part. Cadillac encouraged the Ottawa, Pottawatomie, Miami, and Wyandotte tribes to cluster together in villages near the fort for protection from their mutual enemies--the Iroquois and the British. In total, Cadillac estimated that there were about 2,000 Indians in and around Fort Pontchartrain allied with the French.

In 1702, the first European baby born in Detroit was the daughter of Alphonse de Tonty, Cadillac's second-in-command. Not to be outdone, in 1704, the Cadillac's gave birth to Marie Therese, who became the first recorded baptism christened in Ste. Anne's Church registry.

Cadillac wanted the settlement to grow rapidly, but few if any unattached women were available to single men, so he proposed that christened Indian women be allowed to marry French settlers. The Jesuit priest strongly objected on moral and religious grounds, and the plan was soon rejected. This is likely the first official instance of discrimination in Detroit's long history.

In 1707, Cadillac began issuing farm grants, known as ribbon farms, to attract new settlers. These farms ranged from 200' to 1,000' wide and extended from the shoreline for 2 or 3 miles. Each farm had waterfront access. Many of Detroit's current street names derive from the original ribbon farm grant holders, for instance, Beaubien, Campau, Livernois, Riopell, Dequindre, and others. Cadillac plotted out 68 parcels. 

Cadillac acted like a feudal landlord requiring farmers to pay him an annual rent and a percentage of their grain to use the windmill he had built on the waterfront north of the fort. He was the mill's sole proprietor and could charge whatever he wanted. Renters were also required to work on Cadillac's farm for a specified number of days each year, making him a gentleman farmer.

To engage in any kind of trade, settlers had to pay a licensing fee and annual taxes. Cadillac grew rich by padding the fees and taxes and skimming off the top. When he withheld an allotment of imported brandy behind padlocked warehouse doors, it was discovered and reported that he was trading it to the Indians for beaver pelts. Cadillac defied a Royal decree not to provide liquor to the native population.

When complaints about Cadillac reached Montreal and Paris, King's Deputy Francois Clarembault went to survey the Detroit area holdings in 1708 and found they did not match Cadillac's reports. After nineteen days in Detroit, Clarembault returned to Canada and sent his findings off to France. In 1709, Count Pontchartrain wrote to Cadillac complaining that he showed "too much greed and little moderation in his dealings with the settlers."

In 1710, Cadillac was called to Quebec to answer charges against him brought by his detractors. The empire builder was acquitted of extortion and abuse of power charges, but he was removed from his post never to return to Detroit. The following year, Cadillac was promoted to the governorship of the Louisiana Territory.

Saint Anne's Church

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Michigan Outdoors with Mort Neff

Mort Nell armed with a 16mm camera.
One of the most beloved programs in early Detroit television was Michigan Outdoors hosted and produced by Mort Neff. The original outdoor show debuted in 1951 specializing in hunting and fishing segments. It ran for twenty-three straight years and 1,196 shows before it was cancelled in 1977. Michigan Outdoors has the distinction of being the longest-running outdoor and sportsman show in American television history.

Mort Neff graduated from the University of Michigan with a double major in journalism and electrical engineering. Upon graduation in 1927, Neff began writing an outdoor sports column for a small newspaper in Detroit. In 1942, the Michigan Conservation Department asked Neff if he would be interested in doing a recorded radio show. At first, he did his recording from a small studio, but Neff drew upon his background in electronics to devise a battery pack to power a wire recorder for remote reporting from the fields and streams of lower Michigan.

In 1946, Neff learned to fly and used his single engine Piper Apache to cover outdoor stories all over Michigan including the Upper Penisula, which at that time was accessible only by slow-moving ferry boats that took hours of waiting in your car before boarding. Neff surprised ice fishermen by landing his plane on frozen lakes and interviewing the anglers with his battery-powered wire recorder.

Mort Neff and his Piper Tri-Pacer on Brighton Lake with ice fisherman.
By 1951, Neff ran an advertising agency specializing in outdoor films for the commercial and industrial market when he was approached to produce a show called Michigan Outdoors. Neff recalled, "Fran Congdon--ad manager for Altes Golden Ale Brewing Company--asked me to produce a TV show. Two weeks before the show debuted, the chosen host had a conflict of interest and was dropped from the program. Fran insisted I do it."

Neff's only experience was behind the camera. Of his early days in television, Neff said, "I was awful. Who had any idea how to do a television show? Nobody!" But despite his lack of experience as on-air talent, the show became an immediate Thursday night hit and one of the most popular programs on Detroit television. 

Mort Neff soon became a local television personality and a much sought-after luncheon and banquet speaker around Detroit. Michigan Outdoors brought out the ham in Neff. He enjoyed his new-found celebrity and soon sold his ad agency. Mort had discovered his life's work.

Neff and his various cohorts over the years filmed segments on sportsmanship, hunting, and fishing, as well as wildlife and habitat conservation. Michigan Outdoors prided itself on giving accurate, up-to-date information on current hunting and fishing conditions in Michigan. The Catch of the Week feature was one of the most popular segments of the show.

If Neff mentioned on his Thursday night show an area where hunting was good or a lake where the fish were biting, 200 to 300 Detroit area sportsmen could be expected for the weekend trek up north, which sometimes caused problems for local residents. Often county roads were not adequate to handle the onrush of city traffic. Getting "Neffed" was not always welcomed by county officials. After some negative publicity, the show developed a policy of not reporting specific hotspots in favor of regional locations.

When Mort worked for the Michigan Conservation Department decades earlier, he learned that the South American country of Chile imported rainbow trout eggs from them in 1918. The eggs were hatched and the fry released into the Chilean mountain river system. Neff always wondered what happened with that forty-year-old project. Now, he was in a position to find out. He organized a two-week expedition with a film crew and a few friends to report on the original project and catch some rainbow trout.

Mort and his cohorts discovered that Chilean rainbow trout grew larger and faster than their Michigan cousins. "On average," Neff said, "a two-pound rainbow would reach six pounds in Chile. When we cleaned our first catch, their bellies were full of crabs the size of half-dollars found only on the river beds of the Andres Mountains. My fishing friend Buck Newton from Traverse City caught a rainbow over 21 pounds. It sounds like a fish story, but we have film and the photos to prove it."

On the strength of his successful Chilean fishing trip, Neff was recruited as an outdoor correspondent for ABC's American Sportsman hosted by Curt Gowdy. ABC producers financed Neff and a film crew for several more South American fishing trips which were featured on the network show giving Neff national exposure.

In 1971, Michigan Outdoors moved from WWJ-TV (channel 4) to WXYZ-TV (channel 7). As the 1970s wore on, American attitudes about hunting changed. Sportsmanship and conservation were always central to Neff's outdoor narrative, but his audience was aging and younger viewers were not tuning in.

In response to this new trend, Neff told reporters, "I think the hysteria over ecology has been overdone. Sportsmen and conservationists were working on the environment long before it became fashionable. I do think it is good that more people are aware and interested in preserving our natural resources and protecting the environment." Michigan Outdoors continued to lose audience market share until it was cancelled on January 7, 1977.

Neff wasn't bitter. He told the Detroit Free Press that "My wife Maureen and I decided twenty-three years was long enough to support the tremendous burden of a weekly television program, and we're ready to move on. I've been lucky. I've had one of the most golden careers ever." The Neffs retired and built a beautiful summer home just north of Harbor Springs.

Mort Neff passed away from a stroke at the age of eighty-six on Wednesday, August 15, 1990 at Northern Michigan Hospital in Petosky. Ten years before he died, Mort selected the tree to make his coffin, had it sawed into planks, and asked his neighbor Bill Glass to build it. Bill kept telling Mort it wasn't time yet. Mort brought the subject up one last time two weeks before his death. Bill Glass began building the pine box on Thursday for Friday's private funeral service at Harbor Springs Presbyterian. Mort was laid to rest in the coffin lined with cedar boughs cut by his family members.

World Adventure Series hosted by George Pierrot