I Remember When: The Business Community

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In this episode, John Hathaway talks about the Staebler family and some of the early businesses in Ann Arbor; John Feiner recalls his grandfather's start as a cobbler; former council member, H. C. Curry, recalls his experience in the Carpenter's Union and on the Human Rights Commission; and former city administrator, Guy Larcom, talks about city planning, historic buildings, and the importance of city improvements.

Written and produced by Steve Fenwick
Directed by Ray Lukasavitz
Exec producer: Catherine Anderson
Sponsored by the Ann Arbor Public Library, with help from the Ann Arbor Sesquicentennial Commission and the University of Michigan Speech Department.

Length: 00:29:13
Copyright: Creative Commons (Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-alike)
Rights Held by: Ann Arbor District Library
Repository Information: Ann Arbor District Library Archives


  • [00:00:00.00] [MUSIC PLAYING]
  • [00:00:40.17] SPEAKER 1: Ann Arbor is no longer a small university town or even a small Midwest city. Its growth in the past 50 years has been truly remarkable. Today there are more than 100,000 people living in Ann Arbor, nearly five times as many as in 1925. During the last 15 years alone the city's populace has doubled. The business community has grown just as fast, providing the jobs and services demanded by the ever increasing populace.
  • [00:01:07.27] Ann Arbor has felt the effects of inflation. But its economy remains vigorous thanks to the phenomenal expansion of business in the recent past. This rapid economic growth has brought within our borders the nationally advertised fast food restaurants and luxury motels.
  • [00:01:23.63] Shopping centers have appeared at the edge of the city to challenge the Main Street shops of the traditional Ann Arbor merchants. Major highways have been built, and heavy traffic is predictable during the morning and afternoon commuter hours. On the surface, Ann Arbor is not unlike 100 other modern American cities. There are people within the business community, however, who see beneath the modern surface.
  • [00:01:47.60] For these people, Ann Arbor's past is still a tangible reality. And it plays an active part in their lives. John Hathaway is one such person. He now owns the old second ward polling place on South Ashley, which he is currently renovating. I asked John recently to tell us what happened when the city first introduced the parking meter back in 1937.
  • [00:02:11.59] JOHN HATHAWAY: There were no parking meters here when we came at first. And, of course, anything of this sort was considered to be a great imposition. Our family, we had a car. So we were probably one of the unusual families.
  • [00:02:28.77] We had always assumed that when you wanted to buy something in a store on Main Street that you would drive your car down right in front of the store and park and go into the store and make your purchase and walk back out of the front of the store and get in your car and drive away again. That was just the way you did business. And it was all angle parking on Main Street in those days. And there were not so many cars that it was a problem.
  • [00:02:59.53] But as those 1930s, as General Motors and Ford started putting out mass produced cheap cars, more and more people had them. And as the parking meters came in it was a way of controlling traffic as well as getting the revenue to buy parking lots for the city. And I think the first city parking lot that they acquired is the one which is next to the public library now on fourth ave.
  • [00:03:31.42] And that was acquired with funds that were raised from the parking meters. But there was a great deal of controversy. As a matter of fact, some of the people used to take the parking meters right out of the wet concrete and pull them out and throw them out on the street because they said you can't do that. We're entitled to park here. You can't make us pay for it, you know. They thought that the whole thing was a violation of a basic constitutional right to park your car anywhere you wanted to.
  • [00:04:01.88] SPEAKER 1: John Hathaway's family has lived in the area since the mid 1800s. He grew up in Ann Arbor during the Depression and World War II. Eventually he graduated from the University of Michigan Law School. John told me why he decided to become a lawyer.
  • [00:04:21.03] JOHN HATHAWAY: Actually it was because I got interested in the state tax sales of real estate. They used to advertise that every first Tuesday in May they would have a tax sale down at the old county building. And anyone who hadn't paid the taxes on their property would have the property sold for the taxes.
  • [00:04:41.85] And as a kid this fascinated me that anybody could own a piece of land for just a few dollars. So as a kid I went down there and bid on some of the property and actually got some deeds, tax deeds for real estate, for as little as $2 or $3 apiece. In those days the taxes weren't very high but some people couldn't pay them.
  • [00:05:06.91] And then the problem was that once having gotten these deeds was how to perfect the title and how to go ahead and get something useful as far as the legal aspect of the ownership was concerned. And I had to go up to the law school to read some of these law books to try to figure out what these tax laws were and how you got titled real estate. And subsequently decided, well, there's no use just going halfway. If you're going to do all this research, you might as well have some benefits. So I decided I would try to go to law school.
  • [00:05:40.55] SPEAKER 1: A number of merchant families arrived here during the 1800s and early 1900s. Grain mills were built as well as three different breweries. Western Union opened a branch in the city, and two separate telephone companies were formed.
  • [00:05:55.70] Many small businesses were set up in the Main Street area. The Newlings opened a general store. The Wagners specialized in clothing. The Hutsels and Schlankers sold hardware. The Stablers were involved in a variety of business ventures. And the Finers dealt in glass and paint. I visited John Finer at his shop and asked him about his great grandfather who came here in the 1860s.
  • [00:06:24.22] JOHN FINER: Ann Arbor when he was employed by a cobbler whose name I can't remember at this present time. But eventually Finer, my grandfather, and a Mr. Broadback went in the cobbling business together. And they were located on West Washington Street in the 100 block.
  • [00:06:45.53] And the reason that-- if we want to go on to, yes, how Finer started, which I believe is the reason you're here today-- my grandfather, at the age of 16, was employed by a William Herz who owned a painting and decorating shop in the same block. And all I can imagine is that this gentleman, Mr. Herz needed a young boy to do miscellaneous jobs around his store, probably sweep the floor, miscellaneous things like that. And my grandfather was available. When the Herz company closed their business after many years, I was able to obtain a pay record.
  • [00:07:34.18] And it showed my grandfather started working for $2 a week. And after a year his wages had been raised to $3 a week. And that is how he actually started as a painter.
  • [00:07:50.56] When Finer's, as we call it now after many name changes over the years-- in fact, it used to be called Finer's Paint Shop. That is the way my grandfather started. He worked for two other painting contractors in Ann Arbor in the 1800s. He finally went into business for himself and operated out of his home. For some reason or other, glass has always been associated with paint. And although he did run a big painting crew, glass became more and more important.
  • [00:08:29.13] He started as a single painter, eventually employed more painters, eventually got into more and more glass. The biggest job that he did is the-- it's now called the Ann Arbor Trust Building down on Main and [INAUDIBLE]. At that time it was called the Glazier Building. And he installed all the glass in that particular building. And that was back in 1908, approximately 1908, 1907, 1908.
  • [00:09:05.18] SPEAKER 1: John Hathaway is not a member of an old merchant family. But he does have a special concern for Ann Arbor history and an exceptionally fine ear for stories about the past. This story is about one of the first members of the Stabler family to live in Ann Arbor.
  • [00:09:21.87] JOHN HATHAWAY: And he used to do it every Friday, noon, at the old German restaurant, at the [GERMAN], the liar's table in the back of the restaurant. And he was very fond of telling some of these stories, some of which I'm not sure I could repeat here, although Herman wouldn't have any compunctions. But there was one he told about when his brother had the grocery store, which I think then was, if I'm not mistaken over, on Liberty Street. It might have been Washington. But I think it was Liberty Street.
  • [00:09:55.97] And they sold fireworks in the grocery store for kids to use on the 4th of July. And under the arrangement with the fireworks distributor, if a local grocer or distributor sold a certain amount of fireworks, he would get certain free fireworks as a sort of a bonus. And Herman, who was working in the store then as a stock clerk and as an errand and delivery boy, was very fond of getting these bonus fireworks.
  • [00:10:26.13] And he and his brothers used to be sort of competitive about who was going to get the biggest firecracker or skyrocket or whatever it was. Well, they had a particularly good sale one year one Herman was working there. And they got a huge skyrocket.
  • [00:10:44.14] And the way he describes it in his 70's, you know, it must have been an enormous firework. But the old city streets didn't used to be paved the way they are now. They used to be brick surface.
  • [00:10:59.22] And instead of having storm drains with sewer gratings the way we do now, they had a drain that was sort of a V-trough down the center of the street. And so Herman and his brother decided one day that they had this huge bonus skyrocket that they were going to take this sky rocket out and lay it in that V-trough right in the center of the street and fire it and see what would happen. You know, ordinarily a skyrocket, you direct with a bracket that sends it up into the sky.
  • [00:11:32.16] So Herman got out there with his brother. And they got this big skyrocket and laid it down right in the trough in the middle of the street. And they lit the fuse. And then they stood back.
  • [00:11:43.92] And it was aimed up the hill towards Main Street. They thought it'd be more exciting to have it go up where there were some people around, you see. And so all of a sudden this skyrocket fuse lit. And the sky rocket went up the trough, and it was throwing sparks and smoke out in all directions and really creating quite an impression.
  • [00:12:07.76] And just as it got up towards Main Street, an old junk man came along with this horse and his wagon full of junk. And he was evidently oblivious to what was happening down the street here where these kids were playing with fireworks. And he went on and crossed the intersection.
  • [00:12:26.68] And just as the horse got to the middle of the intersection, the sky rocket went right underneath the horse. And the way Herman described it, the horse went about 10 feet up into the air as that skyrocket went underneath him. And he came down running.
  • [00:12:43.66] And the junk man was thrown off of the seat because he'd just been sort of casually holding on to the reins, you know, and trotting along. And according to Herman, that horse spewed junk and debris and everything all away from that intersection all the way out to the village of Saline before they got the horse stopped and turned around. And that junk man never did know what happened. I guess he never knew anything about the skyrocket or anything else. But I guess Herman and his brother hid down behind Allen's Creek here until after supper that night because they were sure they were going to be put in jail or prosecuted or something like that.
  • [00:13:23.58] SPEAKER 1: Later on other immigrants arrived, not to begin businesses but to find jobs in the growing city. Some of the newcomers were hired by the independent businessmen in the old Ann Arbor town. Some went to work for the university or the city itself.
  • [00:13:39.29] Others found jobs in the city's mills or breweries or in the booming construction trades. H.C. Curry worked as a carpenter in Arkansas, Kansas, Washington, Ohio, and Pennsylvania before he finally settled down in Ann Arbor. He recalls his move to our city from the special perspective of a black working man.
  • [00:14:03.02] H.C. CURRY: Well, I came here. I had a job. What happened, coming out of Washington D.C., JD Hastings Construction Company, they were trying to raise the Veteran Administration Building out here. And they didn't have no carpenters. They were short of carpenters. They was advertising for carpenters, see.
  • [00:14:19.57] But anyway, in the country I got this ad at Little Rock, Arkansas. They were needing carpenters out here. So I called a guy. I had a telephone number, and I said call collect. I called him here in Ann Arbor. I'd never been here before.
  • [00:14:29.54] I called a guy. And I told him I was a carpenter, and I was a black man, and I wanted a job here. And he said, well, when can you come? I said, I don't know. I said, when do I got a job?
  • [00:14:39.04] He said, if you are here Monday morning-- that was Saturday evening. He said you can go to work Monday. He said I need carpenters bad.
  • [00:14:44.04] So I was still reluctant about coming because I had been discriminated against so much, you know. But I left Little Rock. I came to Muskegon, Michigan. That was the first time I'd been in Michigan. I came to Muskegon, and I got over there, and I got a job over there at the steel mill and then making my $200 a week over there.
  • [00:14:59.52] And I needed some money right away. Then they was hiring them three shifts 24 hours around the clock. I went to work at 3:00 that one evening. And I worked there, I think, four days. And I had a total of hundred some dollars working the steel mill. And then I had two hundred something coming.
  • [00:15:17.62] So I call here again and ask this guy was this job still open? His name is J.T Bell. I'll never forget it. He said, sure. Said, I've been looking for you a week. And I said, I'll be there this Monday.
  • [00:15:27.43] So I caught a Greyhound bus in Muskegon and came here. And I got a taxi cab. Came out to the Veteran hospital. And when I got out that morning, the guy hired me.
  • [00:15:35.70] And when I went out and went to work-- and you better believe me-- every carpenter on that job quit working. They struck. They said they wasn't going to work with me. That's right here in Ann Arbor.
  • [00:15:49.34] And so I went back in the office. And the supervisor said, well, look. Said, you want to work with me, go out and go to work. If they want to quit, let them quit.
  • [00:15:57.01] He went and told the Steward out there, said this man is going to work here. He said you guys that don't want to work with him, you can go because I can get more just like I got you. They stay off about two hours. They came back and went to work.
  • [00:16:07.75] But, you know, you feel funny when you got a group of guys and they act that way about you. Well, I was afraid. I didn't know whether they might try to hurt me or not. And I worked out there.
  • [00:16:17.57] So finally it cooled down and so I got along with the guys pretty nicely. But you just wouldn't have thought that about the guy. But most of the guys on this job though, remind you, came in here just Iike I did. They weren't natives of Ann Arbor. So they recruited from other places and brought them in here.
  • [00:16:33.85] And that's my first job here. So worked out there. And, of course, my family wasn't here at that time. And then I went home for Christmas in '50 and stayed away for Christmas. And I came back here then.
  • [00:16:47.64] And when I came back here, that's when I moved. And I've been here ever since. And I have not been out of work six months since I been here.
  • [00:16:56.07] SPEAKER 1: Mr. Curry quickly became an important man in the carpenter's union. And he gradually assumed responsibilities in the city government. He especially remembers one experience during his tenure on the Human Rights Commission.
  • [00:17:09.56] H.C. CURRY: After going through all this and the employment situation was, well, they was prejudiced and discrimination in a lot of employment around here. And you couldn't get certain jobs. I was determined to fight this things. And this how come I got on the Human Rights Commission, City Hall.
  • [00:17:25.44] And we sat up there. And this was one source you could go to with your complaints and gripes about being discriminated against through the HRC. But they didn't have no legal power to try and do anything about it. They would just expose the guy, let the citizens know this guy was prejudiced and he wouldn't have blacks or non whites or what have you.
  • [00:17:45.08] So I worked on that. And it seemed it wasn't doing too much good. But at least we're putting guys on the spot. So while I'm working on HRC, I went down-- Sears and Roebuck used to be down here on Main Street. I don't know if you remember or not.
  • [00:17:57.21] But I want down there one day. And I went in and I was talking to the manager about hiring black. He says I don't know what you're talking about. We ain't hiring some black person here. Don't you know my white employees won't work with no black salesperson here?
  • [00:18:11.43] I said, well, why? He said, because they just ain't been used to it. They're not going to do it. He said, and I think the best thing you can do, he says, is to get up and get out of here now instead of I throwing you out.
  • [00:18:20.69] I was sitting in the office at Sears and Roebuck. I looked at him, and I said, well, I'll tell you what. I said, I'll get out. I said, but I don't think your men will throw me out. And I said, if you think so you can get [INAUDIBLE]. I said, I just don't believe that.
  • [00:18:33.62] So he got up. Boy, he got red in the face. He looked at me. And I got up to look at him. I didn't rush out. So finally he said, well, get out of here.
  • [00:18:41.26] I said OK. I said thank you. I said one thing about it, I said, now, when I was just a small kid my mother used to order things from Sears and Roebuck. I didn't know anything about them. I know she used to have a big catalogue.
  • [00:18:52.42] And I said black people been supporting this company ever since it's been here. I understand one of the head leaders is a black man. I said, and this is kind of the attitude you have about it. I said, I don't know. I said, you're going to hear something else from me. I said, it may take me ten years. But I'll be back.
  • [00:19:07.17] So I walked on out, and I got out of the store. He come by. He call me. And he says, come back here a minute. I want to [INAUDIBLE]. He told me to come into the office. I went in there.
  • [00:19:15.95] He said have a seat there. So I sat down at the desk. He apologized for everything he said. And he told me, he said, now, if you send me a black person in here that's trustworthy that I have, he said I'll hire. He apologized for all he said to me. And I thanked him very much. And two weeks later we had a black saler there at Sears and Roebuck.
  • [00:19:39.44] SPEAKER 1: H.C. Curry eventually left the Human Rights Commission to run for public office. He served three terms on the city council and represented the city at conferences in Washington, Pittsburgh, and in our sister city of Tubingen, Germany. In 1970, Mr. Curry was honored with an official day celebrating his contributions to the community. He has enjoyed is life in Ann Arbor despite some early hardships and disappointments. Here he was able, finally, to gain the respect and recognition he had been denied elsewhere.
  • [00:20:14.77] H.C. CURRY: It's been a good experience to live here in Ann Arbor and work with such guys as Doug [INAUDIBLE], like I said before. And there are other guys in this town that I think's great peoples. Not just only he. But, you know, I wouldn't dare try to name all of them because I work with a lot of peoples in this town, especially, the white, upper class, rich people, I'll call them because most of them are rich. But that didn't have any bearing on the way they treated me or most blacks that, you know, tried to better the situation in this town.
  • [00:20:46.44] But, as I said before, the roughest [INAUDIBLE] we had was houses. See, you couldn't buy a house in certain places in Ann Arbor for a long time. And we set up what the call this civil rights movement through the NAACP. And we picket in this town 24 hours without letting up, night and day.
  • [00:21:10.88] Somebody was walking the street every minute of the night all night long on account of houses in this town, to get houses for black people to live in. We laugh about it now. And a lot of the whites do with me. See, it was kind of funny.
  • [00:21:24.85] You take from dark to morning and people, every 30 minutes, are passing your house and going just around them. We had certain areas to go in. And the whites was afraid to go to bed that night. [LAUGHS] Every time we passed windows like that, they'd have the shade by looking at us. We ain't bother nobody.
  • [00:21:44.13] But we had a white minister up in Pittsfield at that church. And he come out and told us, say, every time y'all come around here, stop and get you a cup of coffee. He sat up all night with us and kept coffee for us. It was cold too.
  • [00:21:58.03] That's the reason I say we had a lot of nice white people in this town. They wasn't all, you know, prejudiced. This guy stood up there all night long and served us coffee. And the next morning, at 7 o'clock, we still had peoples on the picket line trying to do away with discrimination in houses here. I must say now, though, I think it's very good now.
  • [00:22:19.80] SPEAKER 1: It is the goal of historians to learn from the past, not just so we don't repeat old mistakes but also so we don't lose those things of lasting value. Former city administrator, Guy Larcom is now the head of Ann Arbor Tomorrow, a nonprofit organization which is trying to preserve the best elements of Ann Arbor's past in order to enrich its future. I spoke to Mr. Larcom about what lies in store for the old Ann Arbor section of the city.
  • [00:22:51.23] GUY LARCOM: All right, what do you do when areas are getting old? We have been pushing for more housing downtown, for redevelopment of some properties. But we ran into the possibility of historical renovation as being good business. Some of my people on some of our committees made a visit to Old Pioneer Square in Seattle and Gas House Square in Vancouver. And they'd been to a number of them.
  • [00:23:28.14] And it turns out that in these areas, by giant public, private, that is, city and private effort, by renovating and restoring buildings that have some real character, architectural, historical significance, not only do you get an attractive building, a series of buildings, you get an area that's attractive to business. And the opening of small shops, specialty stores, all of these things seem to occur when that kind of an approach is taken. And then, of course, you have the-- it seems to be sound economically because you're not tearing down buildings and then going into costly reconstruction.
  • [00:24:12.53] The city owned three buildings, which incidentally I helped the city buy back when I was with the city some years ago, on Liberty street. They had been originally purchased. It's the so-called [INAUDIBLE], which you've heard about.
  • [00:24:30.72] They'd originally been purchased for parking. They were to be torn down to expand a parking area that already exists behind some Main Street stores. The city determined that these three buildings, and [INAUDIBLE] had great architectural, historical, Ann Arbor significance and they should be preserved and not sold. And that is not torn down.
  • [00:24:56.42] So the city has proposed selling them subject to their being retained and renovated to bring out their best historic characteristics. This gave us the idea to take a look at the adjacent blocks. And we find that in the adjacent blocks you have a number of buildings, I think some 28, that had been surveyed by the Ann Arbor Historical Commission. And those 28 are all of high value, that is, high significance in terms of their architectural qualities, their exterior qualities.
  • [00:25:36.60] So we thought why not make a Liberty Square, Washington Square, take the Liberty, Washington, Ashley, First Street area and try to get the buildings renovated, preserving their best characteristics? So we've started a kind of a three pronged campaign. One is to organize the property owners and renters and to sell them and organize them, sell them on this kind of an approach to their buildings, the advantages of investing in this kind of improvement.
  • [00:26:12.07] The second approach would be to get local financing for this through the banks with a revolving fund, which we're working on. The third would be to get the city to do its share, which is what you might call improving the street scape, that is the sidewalks with plantings, grow work, special patterns with seat street furniture with trees, maybe the sidewalks widened so that they have great pedestrian capacity, improvement of the alleys with cobblestones and so on, still to be used at times for service but also as pedestrian walkways. So if you could put all this together-- and we have pictures that show how this could be done-- then ultimately you're going to have a three or four block area right downtown that could really be a splendid example of what historic business preservation is all about and what good business it would be.
  • [00:27:20.84] SPEAKER 1: This year, the Ann Arbor business community reaches a milestone. Like the city itself, it is now 150 years old and still growing. I hope you have enjoyed this glimpse of how it used to be and what it's likely to become.
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