Acme Jackson

January, 2010.

One hour west of Detroit sits a city named Jackson. Every Michigander knows that town as the place you never wanna get sent against your will. To us Jackson is synonymous with the largest and most infamous prison in the state, having over the centuries been home to Michigan’s most notorious criminals, and worst punishments. Nowadays both the new prison and the old one are abandoned, as is a place called “Acme Industries,” fascinatingly enough, which sat next door to the old prison.

I’d already snooped around the old prison a few times (CLICK to see that post), but I decided to go back out there on a day off and actually go into Acme, and I wasn’t disappointed. Neat place.

2005:


2010:


2007:


Did it originally have something to do with the old Jackson Prison that it sat next to...maybe as a license plate factory or a prison laundry? When the old prison next-door was turned into an "artists’ loft development," of course Acme was slated for demo soon after, even though it was originally supposed to be part of that development. Eyesore!!


Here’s an excerpt of a 2009 editorial from MLive, explaining the situation in a little more detail:
City Hall wants to demolish the derelict Acme building, located near the fairgrounds, because it is so contaminated no one will fix it up. Most Jacksonians agree. They look at the building and see an old factory with no particular claim to fame. Michigan's State Historic Preservation Office sees something else. It says the Acme building appears qualified for the National Register of Historic Places so it cannot be torn down without a little further review. Acme, in fact, is not on the National Register or any other official list of historic sites. So what makes it historic? The answer given to me is Acme Industries was part of a prison factory complex important to the industrialization of Jackson. 
Jackson, to be fair, helped create this situation in 2004. Developers at that time planned to renovate the Acme building, so historic designation sounded like a smart way to get grant money. A historic district was drawn up, but then contamination was discovered. Acme was quickly dropped from both development plans and the historic district. 
Don't blame preservationists in Lansing if they suspect Jackson identifies and unidentifies historic sites partly for financial convenience.
I really doubt that this "contamination"—gasp—is anything near as scary as they make it out. But once you say the "C-word," that's it....might as well be the effing Love Canal. More like it was contaminated with ugly, and the developer eventually quailed from his original plans.


According to something I quickly Googled, the EPA said the site was last used as a manufacturer of machinery and commercial air conditioners, and is contaminated with “solvents, oil, and heavy metals.” In 1970, Acme was bought by Rheem Manufacturing Co., which was then based in Kalamazoo, but then immediately moved all operations to Arkansas. I assume it was sometime after this that the Acme facility closed down.


Another MLive article published a week after I visited the plant was a lot more detailed in its outline of the complex's history. Apparently demolition began as soon as I left.

In the article, Leanne Smith states that the complex indeed employed convicts from the prison, and first housed Austin, Tomlinson & Webster Manufacturing Co., makers of the Jackson Wagon. They began in 1842 and soon became "the largest wagon manufacturer in the world, with more than 80 free men and 120 prisoners producing more than 5,000 wagons in 1898." General Ulysses S. Grant was said to have valued the sturdiness of the Jackson Wagons when they were used by the Union Army during the Cumberland and Potomac campaigns. A Jackson Wagon was also used by P.T. Barnum to parade Jumbo, the world's largest elephant, through the streets of London.


Smith writes that the birth of the auto industry caused the Austin, Tomlinson & Webster Manufacturing Co. to flounder. It merged with Michigan Wagon Manufacturing Co. in 1907, and relocated to St. Johns where it eventually went out of business. The farm implement manufacturer American Fork & Hoe Co. then tore down those first buildings at this Jackson complex, and constructed their own on the same foundation, around 1911.


Another of the buildings in this complex housed the Jackson Furniture Co. Smith writes,
The building at 626 N. Mechanic St. that housed this former factory is not part of the current demolition. The company was launched by Seymour Gilbert, Henry C. Ransom and Hollis F. Knapp in 1866 as Gilbert, Ransom and Knapp Furniture Manufacturers. It became Gilbert & Sons when Ransom and Knapp retired. The 1869 Jackson City Directory claimed the company was "the largest manufacturing firm of its kind in the west." It used 104 prisoners to produce 60 beds, 500 chairs, 30 wash stands and 40 tables a day. Gilbert sold the business to the Jackson Furniture Company in the late 1870s. It later moved to 130 W. Cortland St. One of its most noted employees was William M. Eaton, who worked as an accountant, timekeeper and salesman. He became the second president of General Motors Corp. The building later housed automotive accessory company Zoerman-Clark Manufacturing.

Once inside the fence I could see that there was quite a bit of “townie traffic” through the place, by the swarm of footprints all converging on the wide open doorway I had used:


Graffiti inside dated in some cases as far back as the 1990s.


Another tool company by the name of Pinney, Connable & Co. was founded here in 1847. It was bought out in 1858 and renamed Sprague, Withington & Co., and added cast-steel hoes, forks and garden rakes to its product line, making it the only producer of those kinds of products in the state. In 1877 it became Withington, Cooley and Co., also called Withington Works, then merged with American Fork & Hoe in 1902.

As farming became more mechanized, the company changed with the times and instead marketed to city and suburban gardeners under the name True Temper, whose products are still on shelves today. The company relocated to West Virginia, and Acme Industries moved into this plant in 1936.


According to Smith's article, Acme Industries was founded in Jackson in 1919 by brothers Roy and Clyde Weatherwax, who first called their business the Acme Welded Pipe and Coil Company...
Its original location, which produced refrigeration pipe coils for the ice industry, was on Cooper Street. Recognizing that refrigerators were soon to replace ice boxes, the company had expanded its product line by 1923 to include ammonia condensers. By the early 1930s, it had added Freon condensers, fin coils and industrial blower units. 
In 1935, to reflect its increasingly expanding product line, the business changed its name to Acme Industries Inc. That same year, its Cooper Street factory burned, forcing the company to work for a year at the Wolcott Machine Co. building off Jackson Street. In 1936, Acme purchased a group of buildings in a nearly 6-acre spot at W. Ganson and N. Mechanic streets that was key in establishing Jackson as an important state manufacturing hub. Located adjacent to the state's first prison, built in 1838, the site was appealing to manufacturers because of its proximity to cheap convict laborers and the Michigan Central Rail Road.


I could tell the place was very old in some spots, but more modern in others, a sure reflection of the fact that no less than seven different manufacturing concerns had been headquartered here over the decades.


It had obviously been added onto successively for many years...some buildings still bore stacked fieldstone foundations, I wonder if they dated all the way back to 1842 with the Austin, Tomlinson & Webster Manufacturing Co.?


Smith continues,
Acme soon became a major supplier to air conditioning manufacturers, and it made refrigeration components for Frigidaire and General Electric. During World War II, Acme trained and employed six women as U.S. Navy-approved welders. They and everyone else at the factory were engaged in 100-percent war work, making casings for aerial bombs, refrigeration units for battleships and food preservation units for the U.S. Army. 
Acme employed more than 500 people by 1953. It built a new plant at 3151 W. Michigan Ave. in 1956 but maintained offices at N. Mechanic Street until the company was sold to Rheem Manufacturing Co. in 1971. Rheem sold it to Bohn Aluminum Co., a subsidiary of Gulf & Western, in 1975. Gulf & Western sold it to Ametek in 1984, and the company moved to Texas.


At any rate, it is clear that a lot of important industrial history is here. The birth of refrigeration technology—along with domestic electricity and plumbing—is one of the primary reasons that mankind enjoys the high standard of living that it does.

I wrote a lot about Michigan's connection to the history of refrigeration in other posts on this website:
The "Cathedral of Refrigeration"
Lambs to the Slaughter
How Detroit and the Yoopee Used to be Connected
'Welcome to the Jungle' ~or~ 'Reefer Madness'


I am a huge fan of vast expanses of steel sash windows like these. Obviously I was in ecstasy here…


Some kind of parts conveyor:


Oops, more windows:


Overall this place was no bigger than say, Fisher Body #21.




A restroom:


For what it's worth, the word "acme" itself means "the best," or refers to something that is at the peak of quality. Despite what the Coyote & Roadrunner cartoons may lead one to believe.


In a darkened area, I found this large shipping crate…


The stencils say, “U.S. GOVERNMENT PROPERTY. HANDLER LIABLE FOR DAMAGE.” Notice the NASA logo on the side…

I wonder if they made air conditioners or condensers for the Space Shuttle?




View of downtown Jackson, from a roof:


Yet another piece of Michigan's once-great industrial empire, wiped away.


I briefly toured some other disused industrial sites around Jackson, before leaving town for the day.








References:
http://blog.mlive.com/bradosphere/2009/07/jacksons_acme_building_is_it_h.html
http://www.mlive.com/living/jackson/index.ssf/2010/02/peek_through_time_eyesore_acme.html
http://ashraemadison.org/downloads/Company_Histories/rheem_history.pdf

2 comments:

  1. My uncle was a draftsman at Acme for many years. He said they worked on the cooling system for the atomic bomb but were not told what it was for.

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  2. Excellent research.
    I found your page after discovering (and Googling) ACME maker-plates on two derelict air conditioning units on the grounds of the abandoned International Telephone & Telegraph radio building site, 2601 East Bayshore Road, Palo Alto, CA 94303. I took photos today of the units and the plates and will send them along with some site photos--with an emphasis on windows ;)
    Regards!
    Bill

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