Up In Smoke

Photos date from March 2010 and later.

This cold storage warehouse complex closed down for good in January 2008 or thereabouts. My first visit was in March 2010, and by then it was well on its way to becoming blighted. A pungent ammonia smell emanated from the basement of one of the buildings when we first started hanging out here, causing us to start referring to it as "that ammonia place."

We eventually realized that it was caused by the massive refrigeration system of the warehouse complex leaking its coolant in the flooded basement. On a hot summer's day, the fumes could almost knock you off your feet if you were standing near the basement stairway, but after a few years the ammonia either dissipated on its own, or was remediated by some cleanup effort.

The factory building on the right in the next photo, Fisher Body Plant #10, no longer stands, while the Maccabbees Building in Midtown can be seen in the distance...

The buildings on the left are the ones we are dealing with here. Research on these no-name no-address industrial complexes can be tricky, but generally the silver bullet is always the Sanborn maps, which is why I always go there first.

On one of my first visits I could faintly make out the words "HOBAN COLD STORAGE" painted across the watertower, so I surmised that was the original company I was dealing with, but the Sanborns from 1921 showed otherwise.

The wood and masonry structures of this complex predated 1921 obviously, but were labelled on the map as the "John J. Bagley & Co. Tobacco Factory." The more modern six-story concrete warehouse was shown as built in 1910. I didn't see any of these structures standing at this site on the c.1897 Sanborn maps, so they must have been built sometime between 1897 and 1910.

According to a c.1881 directory, the John J. Bagley & Co. Tobacco was then located at 48-50 Bates Street, (close to where the RenCen is now). John Judson Bagley, known for his gigantic Victorian style beard, was not only a tobacco company owner, he was also the 16th governor of Michigan (1873-1877), and president of the Detroit Safe Co., as well as plenty of other business concerns.

Tobacco and cigar production was one of Detroit's big businesses prior to the birth of the automobile industry, and John Bagley played a part in making that happen. Furthermore, the cigar manufacturing methods utilized in those days presaged the assembly line style of mass production that Henry Ford would pioneer. Specifically, the process of making and packaging cigars was broken down into a series of repetitive tasks that were divided up amongst different work stations within the tobacco factories.

Bagley started as an apprentice in a tobacconist's shop in the 1840s, and eventually bought the business, renaming it the Mayflower Tobacco Co., which grew to become one of the major tobacco companies in the city. One article in the Free Press even says it was the first tobacco company in Michigan, although that doesn't sound correct. According to one blogger on the topic Bagley manufactured plug tobacco, in a tin with a friction-fitted lid that became an industry standard. He soon made quite a fortune, and helped make Detroit a leader in the industry.

It would seem from a c.1896 Free Press article that while Governor Bagley's Mayflower Tobacco Co. was started in 1853 at Woodward near Adelaide, the company bearing his own name was incorporated in 1879 following his successful two-term stint as governor, most likely for publicity reasons. According to that, John J. Bagley Tobacco was then located at the corner of Bates & Woodbridge.

According to the Detroit Historical Society, cigar making was this city's biggest industry until the boom of the railroad car manufacturing business in the mid-1880s. At its peak in 1881, Detroit's tobacco industry consisted of 38 companies producing 40 million cigars annually, and the city even earned the nickname "Tampa of the North." That was the year the automatic cigarette rolling machine replaced human labor in the tobacco business.

Ironically, Governor Bagley also died in 1881, leaving behind the Bagley Memorial Fountain in Cadillac Square as his legacy. He was so well admired as a statesman that all of the rival tobacco companies even shut down their factories on the day of his funeral so that their executive officers could attend his service, according to a Free Press article.

Although the Detroit tobacco trade waned thereafter, it still continued for several decades, and remained the biggest employer of women in the city. Cigar-making was basically a skilled trade (apparently suited to those with dainty hands), and although Detroit was an "open shop" (non-union) city at the time, immigrant women were able to make a handsome wage for their time, up to $20-$40 per week. Nonetheless it was still a lower wage than what was being paid in other major cities—a big reason why companies chose to set up shop here, although Detroit's union-free days were fast coming to a close.

On June 26, 1916, Gregory Fournier writes, Detroit's San Telmo Cigar Co. signed a contract with its unionized male cigar makers, giving them a significant pay increase. Women made up over 90% of the tobacco workforce in the city however, and naturally they demanded equal pay, setting off a wave of sit-down strikes across the city over the next couple days. Although they did not get quite all of their demands met, the female solidarity was definitely noticed by the tobacco companies. The 100th anniversary of that strike occurred this past summer. The San Telmo building at 5716 Michigan Avenue still stands.

The tobacco business remained centered in the northern U.S. until 1920 when Prohibition went into effect, and Cuba unseated southern Ontario as the best locale for sourcing tobacco crops. Late in 1922 the John J. Bagley & Co. Tobacco was sold to the Tobacco Products Corp., which was the predecessor of today's Phillip Morris, Inc., according to smokershistory.com. An article in the Free Press also asserted that J.J. Bagley & Co. was the oldest tobacco concern in Michigan, and one of the oldest still existing in America at the time, having been "established...in 1852," which seems to indicate that it was in fact incorporated from the capital of the ex-governor's earlier Mayflower Tobacco Co.

The company was still in its location here at 1599 E. Warren when the sale to Tobacco Products Corp. occurred, and it produced a line of cigarettes as well as the usual cut plug tobacco. You can almost envision the lively billows of blue smoke sputtering from his mouth as treasurer Paul F. Bagley tut-tutted at the reporter while being interviewed from the hazy halls of the hoity-toity Detroit Athletic Club, proclaiming that,
The taking over of our company...will make no difference whatever in the local affairs of Bagley & Company...the business will go forward here just as it always has heretofore, and the stockholders in the corporation will not be eliminated from its interests by the merger. No new stock issue or other financing in connection with the transaction is contemplated by the Tobacco Products corporation, I believe.
Another interesting factoid about this tobacco company is that its secretary, Governor Bagley's trusted right-hand man Col. George H. Hopkins, was also the man who introduced the bill that made Belle Isle into "the People's Park."

Detroit1701.org notes that as of 2016 there were at least six other tobacco company buildings still standing in Detroit (besides John J. Bagley Tobacco):
Brown Brothers Cigar, 119 State Street
Globe Tobacco, 407 E. Fort Street
San Telmo Cigar, 5716 Michigan Avenue
John P. Hemmerter Building, 230-242 E. Grand River
Banner Cigar, 2941 W. Warren
Mazer Cigar, 5031 Grandy

I finally made the connection to the Hoban name from the Official 1907 Year Book of the Michigan Federation of Labor, which described them as having an earlier location separate from this site: "One of the most popular produce companies in our city is conducted by the Hoban Bros., at 368 High Street east." High Street East was of course later renamed to E. Vernor, and that particular section of it was even later obliterated by I-75.

The Year Book continues with its prosy description: "This firm, through its upright and honorable manner of doing business, has established a large trade and is highly respected by all who have had dealings with it. They carry only the best that can be obtained on the market." The proprietors were N.A. and C.B. Hoban, who were "among the best known business men in this locality. Their attitude toward labor always has been most friendly, and you will do well to give them your firm support and co-operation." Indeed, harumph!

Most of the rest of what I know about Hoban Foods comes from various obscure trade journals from back in the day. For instance, according to The National Poultry, Butter and Egg Bulletin of November, 1921, there was also an "N.A. Hoban Co." at 114-116 W. First Avenue up in Flint, Michigan (which was described as a wholesaler of butter, eggs, and cheese), and according to the American Egg and Poultry Review, Vol. 18, there was a James P. Hoban, N.A. Hoban & Co. still operating in Detroit in 1956.

From a smattering of other journals it would appear that the transition from Bagley Tobacco to Hoban Foods was not a direct one, and that there were multiple tenants of the complex at different periods. The N.P.V. Big Four Beverage, Inc. occupied this address in 1939 for example, and the General Cold Storage Warehouse. Co. was here in 1950. They were still listed at this address as late as 1963. Hoban seems to have first moved here in the 1940s.

My colleague Ben Gravel says that this tall 6-story building was first built by the General Necessities Corp. as a factory in 1920, and it was designed by Albert Kahn. You may recall that I explored their headquarters building downtown in another post. The Absopure Coal and Coke Co. was a division of General Necessities—the same Detroit-based company that now deals in bottled water.

The Directory of the Canning, Freezing, Preserving Industries shows Frigid Food Products, Inc. as occupying this address in 1972. It is their name which still partially appears in letters above the front doors of the concrete warehouse along E. Warren Avenue (seen in the second photo from the top of this post).

A business directory from 2001 says that the address is 1599 E. Warren Avenue, and that it was still occupied by Hoban Foods, Inc., under a Mr. Donald VanTiem. Hoban Foods, Inc. was also listed in the National Job Bank 2005 as a distributor of frozen foods to restaurants and nursing homes, was headquartered at this location along with their sales and service departments, with a John VanTiem as president (which could be a typo, since it rhymes with Don?).

Donald VanTiem's LinkedIn profile is viewable online, stating that he is an alumnus of Western Michigan University, was president of Hoban from April 1982 through December 2007, and is a member of a LinkedIn group called "We Miss Ronald Reagan." And now you know more than you ever wanted to know about this group of crusty old buildings, heh.

Lights still on in the old Fisher Body #10 plant next-door:

One other feature that stood out in my mind about this mostly-collapsed ground floor of the Bagley plant was the fact that there was a series of small trenches running throughout the floor, almost as if it were some sort of sluice or drain. Two of them can be seen in this next shot:

Because of that, we theorized that the building could have been a slaughterhouse originally, which would've also explained the tall cold storage building attached.

Speaking of which, that structure had lately been heavily gutted, and holes were busted in its walls to throw the debris out into dumpsters below.

Climbing to the roof for the first time, we could see that this was a really cool vantage point to view the city from.

It was already dusk so I was limited in what I could shoot, but here is a view looking back west down Warren Avenue towards Wayne State University:

The watertower was a trick to get up onto, which involved a little bit of free climbing. Some ladders were missing...

From the watertower's catwalk the view of downtown was great, although oddly interrupted by the sprawling new Federal Reserve compound across the street:

At a later date we made a return trip into the tall, c.1910 concrete warehouse for a better look during the day...

We found a typical cold-storage facility, with few windows and lots of heavy cork and foam insulation covering everything. Big surprise.

As I said earlier, this place had mostly been cleared out already.

Apparently I only took these three shots.

On one floor it was possible to go through a hole busted in the wall out onto the roof of the adjacent structure, over which I could walk to the powerplant building:

It was awfully cramped quarters in there for photography without a wide-angle lens, but I did get this shot:

My Bostonian colleague Dave O'Connor managed to get a few really cool shots (12) in the powerplant after things had been "opened up" a bit by heavy scrapping and fire.

Photo by Dave O'Connor
Here, a boiler manifold or something had been removed, resulting in this crazy scene of rusty, antique dials and gauges popping off the wall, dangling at bizarre angles by their unsupported conduits...sadly I neglected to bring my camera that day, so I made Dave shoot these photos of it for me, heheh. The hoped-for bokeh effect was not as dramatic as I envisioned in my mind, but if Dave couldn't make it happen then I wouldn't've been able to either.

Photo by Dave O'Connor
Returning to the cold-storage warehouse again, it was time to head to the roof for some better daytime shots of the skyline.

From the roof there was a redonkulously cool panorama of the Packard Plant stretched out across the horizon to the east, which I could barely fit into this next shot:

With this close-up, you can see St. Hyacinthus Church, the southern watertower of the Packard Plant, the crumbling ruins of Building 92, and the Nine Mile Tower in the extreme distance:

A better look at the Packard Plant:

St. Stanislaus Church, with the GM Poletown Assembly Plant transposed ominously behind it:

This view to the north shows the Grand TrunkRailroad's old Dequindre line extending past the Grand Trunk Cold Storage Warehouse:

The historic St. Albertus Church and school, with the towers of the east riverfront seen behind it:

The magnificent Sweetest Heart of Mary Church and school are prominently seen here, the biggest of the many old Polish Catholic parishes that are readily visible from this rooftop, as well as the Brewster-Douglass Projects:

Around the year 2012 I think, the remaining timber-frame structures of Bagley Tobacco / Hoban Cold Storage were drastically diminished by a large fire that reduced much of the complex to rubble.

The amount of graffiti had also increased commensurately with the drastic uptick in bored college kids coming to roam the city in search of adventure by that time...

Fisher Body Plant #10 had also just suffered its death-inferno in 2014, resulting in a scene here every bit as apocalyptic as that seen over at the infamous Packard Plant:

Here it is, being torn down already:

The highrises of the city of Southfield are seen in the distance of this next photo behind a mess of Milwaukee Junction industries such as Fisher Body #23, Production Equipment, and Clawson Concrete:

The clocktower of U of D Mercy is visible too, as well as the tower of the old Yellow Pages building in Highland Park:



[Insert comforting, benedictory platitudes here]

Detroit City Directories, Volume 1, 1881, pg. 171
The Michigan Alumnus, Volume 37, 1930, pg. 530
Sanborn Maps for Detroit, Vol. 3, Sheets 71-72 (1921)
Sanborn Maps for Detroit, Vol. 3 (1897)
"Jno. N. Bagley, Stricken, Dies," Detroit Free Press, January 11, 1929, p. 1
"John J. Bagley & Co.," Detroit Free Press, December 30, 1896, p. 11
"J.J. Bagley & Co. Joins Merger," Detroit Free Press, February 12, 1923, p. 5
"The Tobacco Trade, and the Late John J. Bagley," Detroit Free Press, August 3, 1881, p. 6
Official Year Book, 1907, Michigan Federation of Labor, page 84
The National Poultry, Butter and Egg Bulletin, Volume 6, November, 1921
American Egg and Poultry Review, Volume 18, of 1956, page 6
Michigan Manufacturer and Financial Record, Volume 63, 1939
The National Fruit and Vegetable Directory, p. 111, 1950
Directory of Public Refrigerated Warehouses, p. 64, 1963
The Directory of the Canning, Freezing, Preserving Industries, 1972
Ward's Business Directory of U.S. Private and Public Companies, Vol. 44, Part 8, Gale Research, 2001
The National Job Bank 2005, by Adams Media


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I just came across your Blog about the Frigid Food Products Inc. Warehouse. Frigid Food Products,Inc. was our family business and my great grandfather Wm. Roth started the company in the early 1900's as well as several other sister companies under the Frigid Food Products Inc. group of companies. Frigid Fruits, Sutton's Bay Cherries (Sutton's Bay, MI) Hoban Foods (our Egg & Butter Company). Don Van Tiem worked for the Roth Families Egg & Butter company Hoban.

    Anyway, it's wild to see how the building has changed over the past almost 10 years!


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