The Wolverine Tube Co. was founded in 1916, in a plant at 1411-1467 Central Avenue, Detroit, to make small copper and brass tubing for the auto industry, such as that used in radiators, and undoubtedly found themselves well-positioned to provide materiel for WWI. Being that Detroit sat right along the main shipping route for all the copper mined in Michigan's Upper Peninsula made it an ideal location as well, and this section of the city served as home for many such copper and brassworking factories going back to the 1850s.
This was a plant that I passed by several times per year and noted occasional changes in appearance. Especially when the watertower disappeared:
Notice too that the roof-trees are "shorter" in this second shot, indicating that the former roof is now sitting on the ground:
It was in 2010 that I made my first attempt at access, thinking that the place surely must be empty. However when we heard the hum of large transformers on the other side of a well-sealed door, we thought otherwise.
I recently noticed that the one part that we did get into back then, a small detached metal shed, was also gone and most of the trees cleared away:
There wasn't much inside the shed anyway:
A c.2006 post to the "Old Car Factories" thread on the DetroitYes forum by "Mikem" contains a nice historic image of the plant in its early days and a now-defunct link to the company history on Wolverine Tube's current corporate website, which he quoted as follows:
The Long Manufacturing Company of Detroit, Michigan, manufactured radiators using seamless tubes. They were having difficulty getting timely deliveries of tubes for their radiator production, and they believed the war [WWI] would probably continue for several years.Another poster, "Hornwrecker," offers an image of a c.1917 Sanborn map that actually shows a smaller Wolverine Tube Co. plant on the southeast corner of McGraw Avenue & 33rd Street. The Sanborn indicates that pickling, tube cutting & testing, and crating & shipping were done there; this was most likely the original "6,600 square-foot mill" referred to in the quote above. Today this site is a vacant field next to the abandoned historic Kronk Recreation Center.
To improve that situation, they decided to open a small tube redrawing mill in Detroit with the specific purpose of making and selling tube to Long Manufacturing Company. In November 1916, Wolverine Tube Company was organized and a 6,600 square-foot mill was built...
...the executives of Wolverine realized that the plant would have to be much larger if they were to increase business significantly. Within a month of entering the business [the new owners who purchased the business in 1919], the started to look for another plant. They finally found a location that would be large enough for expansion and was close enough to a railroad siding. In November 1919, the operations were moved into a building at the new location. It was there that the continuous growth of the Wolverine began.
I recently noticed that someone had apparently been surreptitiously demolishing the plant from the inside out, in such a way that it could not easily be noticed from the outside, and I knew something was up...
Take a closer look to the left of the roof monitors:
After some diligence I found a mouse-hole that allowed me to pass inside. There, I found my suspicions were confirmed--the steel sections of the plant had been under demolition for some time already. In fact, the excavators were still sitting there.
As the early automotive industry's demand for brass began to wane in favor of other manufacturing methods and materials, Wolverine found itself a new market for its services--that of the up and coming refrigeration industry, whose coils, condensers, and compressors required lots of little copper tubes and wires. According to an archived version of the company's history on their corporate website, in 1935 Wolverine Tube invented "the first high performance heat transfer tube which revolutionized the HVAC and commercial chiller industry."
One Detroit-based manufacturer who undoubtedly comprised a large share of Wolverine's business in that area was the Kelvinator Corporation. I've written a lot about Michigan's connection to the history of refrigeration in other posts on this website:
Lambs to the Slaughter
The "Cathedral of Refrigeration"
'Welcome to the Jungle' ~or~ 'Reefer Madness'
Arctic Ice Cream
In 1942 the Calumet & Hecla Mining Co. bought Wolverine Tube, making it a division of their company. It was an attempt by the Upper Peninsula-based copper giant to diversify their income streams at a time when the underground reserves of Michigan's once-great "Red Metal Empire" were beginning to run dry.
Of course their production at that time focused on military contracts for the duration of World War II, but afterward Calumet & Hecla continued to capitalize on the growth of the refrigeration industry in the prosperous postwar boom era via their Wolverine Tube holding. When air-conditioning became all the rage in homes and cars, Wolverine Tube helped C&H capitalize on that, too.
Their total line included almost any product or innovation relating to cylindrical copper or copper alloys: fire extinguishers, door chimes, spray guns, refrigeration units, heaters, air-conditioning units, fluid coolers for the automotive and aviation industries, many condenser applications such as in the petroleum refining industry, household copper plumbing pipe, and brass pipe. Clearly this was a diverse and profitable enterprise--one that would outlive its parent company when the mines of the Upper Peninsula dried up.
For a much more in-depth analysis of the roles that the Keweenaw region of the Upper Peninsula and the city of Detroit played when Michigan dominated the world's copper mining industry in the 1800s, see my older posts on the Norwich Mine.
Before Michigan's Copper Country was really established beyond being a mere foothold in the wilderness, any and all copper mined up north had to be shipped to Detroit for smelting; this is an aspect of Detroit's industrial past that had pretty much been forgotten by the time Wolverine Tube was making radiator coils for early automobiles.
Sign says, "Caution: Chemical Storage Area":
If you're down to watch a 47-minute Youtube video prefaced by some Yooper old-timer's soliloquy, you can see an extremely in-depth look at not only the processes of Wolverine Tube, but also of the Calumet & Hecla copper empire on the whole, including underground footage from one of their mines, and scenes shot inside the Wolverine Tube plant here, seemingly during the 1940s-1950s:
The part that talks about Wolverine Tube begins at 22:15.
In a darkened back corner of the oddly-shaped plant I found an old link-belt conveyor motor:
At the 23:20 mark in the film, there is footage where you can see this conveyor working! So apparently this was the gizmo for moving the copper billets to the different stations around the plant, still sitting here after all these decades:
It shows up again at 28:55.
At 30:12 the film talks about a "decided advance" in quality tube production via a process they call "scalping," which was yet another means of insuring the highest quality seamless copper tubing. A thin layer of the tube's outside surface was removed, thereby permanently removing any last remaining impurities or imperfections. These imperfections would be undetectable to the human eye, but if they were to remain during the drawing operation, it would result in a weak spot, and an inferior product.
Another development Wolverine was known for was their "spun-end process," which was a "revolutionary" method of closing or otherwise forming the ends of tubing in order to facilitate the production of a multitude of fabricated parts to high tolerances by their customers, for a number of different applications.
Furthermore, when Wolverine shipped a finished copper coil, they often filled it with a neutral gas and thusly closed the ends of the tube to hold it in, ensuring that the tube's interior would remain unblemished by oxidation during shipping.
According to the film, they also invented "True-Fin," the integrally-finned tube. Of course by now everyone knows that car radiators are essentially made of tubes passing through heat-sink "fins" meant to dissipate heat by increasing the surface area of a metallic duct via the metal fins, which dissipate more heat than a simple flat tube alone.
It was Wolverine Tube that developed the idea of extruding fins from the wall of a tube itself. "The reputations of many units in the refrigeration field depend on the consistent quality of this tubing," the film's narrator asserts.
Some areas of the plant were of concrete construction, while others were brick.
An entry on a .gov website shows that Wolverine Tube currently qualified as a FUSRAP (Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program) site under the Army Corps of Engineers, and had low-level radioactive contamination from Uranium and Thorium present until 1989.
How is that, you ask? As documents have been declassified, the general public has begun to learn how many manufacturing sites across the country actually took part in making parts for the Manhattan Project, and Wolverine Tube was no exception. In their case, they made "alloying condenser tubes" of extruded aluminum for the A-bomb, according to the Detroit Historical Society. The former Revere Copper & Brass Works next to Fort Wayne also did similar A-bomb parts production.
The FUSRAP webpage also indicates that in 1943 Wolverine Tube researched and developed of "methods for spinning and welding the ends of aluminum cans," and from 1943 to 1946 investigated methods to "fabricate metallic tubing and its application to production of metal sheaths." I wonder if they had anything to do with the birth of the modern pop/beer can?
In 1943, the University of Chicago subcontracted to Wolverine Tube of Detroit, Michigan, for help in extrusion of metals that were needed as part of the Manhattan Project. Wolverine Tube performed research on the fabrication of aluminum slugs and the process of aluminum canning and also experimented with Thorium and Beryllium. This contract ended in 1946. Wolverine Tube received other AEC contracts because of its extrusion expertise.
It also notes that "Work probably continued through 1955 under sub-contract with DuPont (Savannah River Operations)."
Thanks to a .pdf'd article hosted by CopperCountryExplorer.com, I was able to learn a little more about Calumet & Hecla Mining Inc.'s reasoning for buying Wolverine Tube. The c.1945 article, "General Manager A.H. Wohlrab Comments on Company's Future," found in the Calumet & Hecla company newsletter says that due to the low grade of Michigan copper ores in comparison with those being discovered in "other districts," it was becoming increasingly difficult to operate profitably.
Therefore C&H entered into the manufacture of copper products in the hope of offsetting the operational loss of remaining here, "to permit the continuance" of mining in Michigan. "With this in view, the Wolverine Tube Company was acquired by the company," an enterprise that quickly secured "encouraging results," and led them to delve more extensively into the business of secondary copper treatment and manufacturing of "various chemical copper products."
A photo caption in the October, 1946 Calumet & Hecla News Views indicates that Wolverine made tubes for condensers being built by Acme Industries down in Jackson, Michigan, which I have featured in an older post.
Anyway, perhaps this old 1930s Ford wreckage was from one of their other concoctions?
I rescued the "V8" logo hubcap and it now hangs on my wall instead of in a scrapyard.
I was unable to access the second floor of this concrete section of the plant, because the fire-door at the top of the stairs was firmly secured:
I did however climb up through this hole into a stairway:
Upstairs was what looked to have been converted into an office space:
Demolition here seems to have been at a very gradual pace, though it can't be cheap to have those excavators just sitting around:
This area is along the Central Avenue side of the plant.
A big modular compressor of some sort:
Yes, I put the hardhat on the dummy. Just in case the boss comes around.
During the production of the Motor City Motors series, a few graffiti murals by local artist MALT were commissioned with the show's logo. This one was on the Pershing Street side of the plant, but it has since been gone-over:
Another still remains, on the inside of the same wall:
And here's those "M"-shaped roof monitors we saw from outside...
What do you want to bet this property continues to languish as a brownfield once all the harvestable metal has been taken? I'm not sure who owns it, but it just seems they are trying to be sneaky with the way the demolition is being done. I guess we'll wait and see.
Another article appears in the July, 1944 Calumet & Hecla News Views courtesy of CopperCountryExplorer: "Orange Blossoms Bloom at Wolverine Plant." Weddings don't get much more "Detroit" than this.... She was a crane operator in the brass mill, and he was a leader in the final inspection department. Helen Near and Herbert Donnell met on the midnight shift, and fell in love.
They decided to celebrate the wedding by throwing a party with coworkers on their lunch break at the plant (which happened to fall at 2:30am). They had a gaily festooned wedding table with flowers, cake, and decorations, and everyone ate breakfast together. After the cake was eaten however, "all resumed their work at the plant," the editor of the company paper stiffly noted. You can almost hear the president stodgily harumphing over the loudspeaker, and pound his desk to break up this joyful outburst with a gruff, Scrooge-like bark of "Get back to work!"
But work life at Wolverine Tube may not have been that draconian however, as Calumet & Hecla was famous for their corporate paternalism in the mining towns of Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula. A book entitled Tupelo Man: The Life and Times of George McLean, a Most Peculiar Newspaper Publisher, by Robert Blade explains that Wolverine was looking to build a plant somewhere in the American south in 1945-1946, and was courted by interests in Tupelo, Mississippi, mostly lead by a man named George McLean. Wolverine's general manager, H.Y. Bassett wrote that he chose to build in Decatur as opposed to Tupelo. Remarkably, one of the main reasons he chose against Tupelo was because of the social and labor climate he found there when he visited.
Bassett wrote that Wolverine intended to relocate at least 70 families from Detroit to the new plant, and that the culture clash he foresaw with Tupelo made it unattractive as an option because of the hostile attitudes of Tupelo leaders in regards to labor unions. "While we are not philanthropists by any stretch of the imagination, we at the same time feel that the people working for us are due certain considerations." Furthermore, Bassett said that he found Tupelo to have a "two-class system," as he put it, and that there "seemed to be no middle class;" the town therefore lacked social opportunities for Wolverine's middle-management employees.
The "we are not philanthropists by any stretch of the imagination," line almost cracks me up...let's not forget that Wolverine Tube's parent company Calumet & Hecla Inc. was the very same company that held such a virulent stance against the strikers when the Upper Peninsula miners tried (and failed) to unionize in 1913. It resulted in one of the most infamous clashes in Michigan's history, which required the dispatch of 2,500 National Guard troops to Calumet. Any miner identified as a strike supporter was summarily terminated, and evicted from his company house by Calumet & Hecla.
Ironically, this was one of the reasons so many Copper Country families made their way to Detroit in 1914, to sign up for the work at Ford's Highland Park Model-T Plant.
There seemed to be a lot left behind from Motor City Motors...
In 1960, Wolverine Tube opened another plant in Dearborn Heights, Michigan "to produce zirconium and titanium tubing for the nuclear power industry." In 1968 the great Calumet & Hecla Consolidated Copper Co. was bought by Universal Oil Products, and later that year the employees of its six remaining copper mines in Michigan went on strike. Unable to resolve the conflict, the company shut down the dewatering pumps in the mines in 1970, and the era of copper mining in the Keweenaw was at an end. The great C&H empire was finished, and Wolverine Tube was basically on its own in the corporate universe.
Other companies that are listed on the NIOSH report as having occupied this plant since Wolverine Tube moved out include Star Tool & Die Works, Hermes Automotive Manufacturing Corporation, and the Mamif Corporation.
The Star Tool was one of the eight charter members that formed the Automotive Tool & Die Manufacturers Association (today called the Tooling, Manufacturing & Technologies Association), which was founded in 1933 in order to promote lower costs and greater efficiency through mass purchasing power. President Roosevelt's National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 also had a lot to do with spurring the formation of the Association.
Curiously, Hermes Automotive Manufacturing Corporation appears to currently reside at 2703 23rd St., an address that Star Tool seems to have also used. Today Star Tool resides in Clinton Township, Michigan. I can't find much else about Hermes, or the Mamif Corporation.
Not sure what all this stuff was:
A beautiful old wooden door, possibly original to the building, still in near perfect condition:
Inside looked to be the hastily-constructed dressing rooms and lounge for the Motor City Motors talent and crew:
The surrounding Springwells Village neighborhood is actually fairly thriving, unlike many areas of the city burdened by large vacant factories.
Wolverine Tube, Inc. still exists today, with headquarters in Decatur, Alabama, plants in Tennessee and Oklahoma, and a European sales office in the Netherlands.
Calumet & Hecla corporate film, via http://www.pasty.com/cam/2012/03/18/cameo/index.html
"General Manager A.H. Wohlrab Comments on Company's Future," Calumet & Hecla News Views Vol. 3 No. 10, August, 1945
Photo and caption, Calumet & Hecla News Views Vol. 4 No. 12, October, 1946, pg. 8
Tupelo Man: The Life and Times of George McLean, a Most Peculiar Newspaper Publisher, by Robert Blade
"Orange Blossoms Bloom at Wolverine Plant," Calumet & Hecla News Views Vol. 2 No. 9, July, 1944, pg. 2