Old Mack

Photos from June, 2009.

If you follow Mack Avenue out across Detroit's east side just before Conner it goes up over the rail yard on a huge modern overpass at Chrysler’s Mack Stamping / Budd Wheel Plant, but tucked off to the side there was a row of buildings that used to stand on Mack before the grade-separation was built. On today's maps it is called "Mack Service Road," but I've also seen it called "Old Mack." It's a dead-end road now, a stub cut off from its parent by the big overpass directing traffic elsewhere, leaving it to die.

Ruins from one collapsed building were spilling over into Manz Playfield:

As of 2018 most of these buildings have been demolished, so here is a brief run-down of some of their history.

The building on the right in the next photo still bears a date-stone in its cornice, reading “1919”...it was originally the Pitman & Dean Co. (coal & ice supply) at 12165-69 Mack. The sign under the FOR SALE sign says that it used to be the ____ Cold Extrusion Corp. It was occupied from at least 1977 to 1986 by lmerman Industries, Inc., who also did metal extrusion work, according to hits I found via Google Books.

...The building on the left was originally part of the J.A. MacIvory Lumber Co.'s Mack Avenue Yard. The c.1929 Sanborn map of this street shows the following other businesses here at that time: the McDonald Coal & Brick Co. Yard at 12017 Mack, the C.P. Steinheiser Co. (builders' supplies) at 12035 Mack, and the Grace Harbor Lumber Co. at 12081 Mack. None of them still stand.

Sadly, the c.1910 map does not cover this area, indicating that it was not developed land yet. This spot was still a couple hundred yards outside city limits in 1910, in what was then considered the Village of St. Clair Heights. This block would have been located right under the map key, across the tracks from the Lozier Motors plant:

Image of 1910 Sanborn map from loc.gov
The Lozier Motors plant once stood at 11801 Mack, a small luxury car company that was started in 1910 to rival Packard. According to the book How Detroit Became the Automotive Capital, Henry Ford and James Couzens visited Lozier Motors frequently to watch the assemblers working on the chassis line in the Albert Kahn-designed plant. Lozier fizzled out in 1915 when Cadillac essentially put them out of business. Their plant was bought by the Motor Products Corp.

Here is a snapshot of the area in 1929...we are standing right under the number "61" at center:

The vacant patch where 55 is used to be a Hudson Motors factory. Across the street on the south side of Mack from us there was mostly empty space in 1929, behind the Budd Wheel and Hudson Motors plants...which were later turned into Chrysler’s Mack Stamping Plant.

On a later second visit to this street I found there to be massive damage done since I was here last…scrappers got at it. In fact, they were there while we were there.

Talk about wrack & ruin...Edison poles chopped down and the whole bit. Keep in mind, this is mid-2009 near the height of the scrapping epidemic. After my first visit, the remnants of this street spiraled very rapidly into complete dissolution.

So much for the roof…scrappers “Packardized” that one (ripped out the iron trusses and let it fall). It looks like that is what's getting ready to happen here too, with the iron posts exposed and ready to be notched with a cutting torch, just like lumberjacks felling a tree:

I believe I remember hearing that at least one of these structures was set ablaze too. A cell tower site sits in the middle of the ruins:

More missing roof trusses:

Whoops, bit of a flood here...

The blue paint mark "W/O" in the next photo means that the water has been shut off to the building by the city (probably after the pipe froze and burst, causing that flood in the photo above):

This yellow building, at 12121 Mack, was the Foam Distributing Co., at least according to the sign on the front of the building, and a reference to them in a 1997 business directory.

That grey stone building on the far end, at 12101 Mack (which I now regret not going into), used to be the UAW Local 212 union hall. Here it is on Google Streetview, in 2013:

Image via Google Streetview
It was also the location of a popular barn dance every Saturday night...the heart of industrial Detroit seems a weird place to find a shindig, but according to a couple books I searched online, this building was sort of like a country equivalent of the Grande Ballroom on weekends. Local bluegrass pioneer Cranford "Ford" Nix was a member of Local 212 and helped Casey Clark secure the hall for his dances. Besides hosting the "Lazy Ranch Barn Dance" here Casey Clark was a fiddle player who even had his own TV show on CKLW-TV, and deejayed a country show on WJR radio in the 1950s, according to The Birth of the Detroit Sound: 1940-1964.

Image via Google Streetview
It probably sounds weird to think that Detroit ever had a country music scene of all things, but don't forget that in the Postwar, post-Depression era, Detroit was flooded by an influx of poor Appalachians looking for work in the factories, and they certainly brought their banjos and fiddles with them. Ford Nix himself worked at the old Chrysler plant here on Mack Avenue. Local 212 was the biggest and strongest UAW local on the east side back in those days, and they represented the Briggs Mfg. plants around here, which were the scene of several major battles in Detroit's organized labor movement.

Image via Google Streetview
This Google Streetview image (above) from October of 2011 shows that like many buildings in Detroit during the Great Recession someone painted "NO COPPER" on the front entrance when it was boarded up, to indicate to would-be scrappers that all the valuable metal had already been removed, in hopes that it would spare the building from being ripped open. Little did they know, skyrocketing metal prices would soon lead the scrappers to come for the actual iron structural members of the buildings. This building no longer stands.

Sanborn map for Detroit, Vol. 19, Sheet 61, etc. (1929)
Sanborn map for Detroit, Vol. 8, Sheet 95 (1910)
How Detroit Became the Automotive Capital, by R. Szudarek
Automotive Engineering, Volume 86, p. 149
Michigan Manufacturer's Directory, (1997), p. 139
The Birth of the Detroit Sound: 1940-1964, by Marilyn Bond and S.R Boland, p. 33
Detroit Country Music: Mountaineers, Cowboys, and Rockabillies, by Craig Maki, Keith Cady, p. 307
American Directory of Organized Labor (1992), p. 528

Cross Reclamation

Photos from October, 2014.

You may recall that I explored the Quincy Dredge #2 in an older post by walking across the ice on Torch Lake. This time, riding in my Minnesotan colleagues' 4x4, we did some Dukes of Hazzard @#$% and drove right up to it.

But this time I was more interested in the actual Quincy Reclamation Plant ruins than the dredge...

As I've probably explained before, the purpose of this dredge was to float around out in Torch Lake and suck old stamp mill tailings off the lakebed with its big suction head, and convey them back to the Quincy Reclamation Plant to be refined for copper. The milling practices of the "olden days" in the Copper Country left a lot of the good stuff behind in the waste product, so this was a modern way of "re-refining" old waste for profit, using chemicals. The only problem is that after this process was complete, the company redeposited the now extra-toxic tailings right back into the lake, which is why no one swims here.

Lawrence Molloy writes that the Quincy Reclamation Plant was built in 1942 to 1943, right smack in the middle of WWII. For there to have been any new building on the homefront during that time in America's history, it must have been directly related to the war effort, so I'm guessing it was driven by the sudden renewed urgency for copper production. The old mines were back working at full tilt, but the Department of Defense wanted more, more, more.

The cost to build this plant was $1.2 million, and from 1943 to when it closed in 1967 it recovered 50,000 tons of copper from the old stamp tailings on the lakebed.

Unfortunately an unexpected fence kept me from getting any closer photos than this.

As it turns out the Tamarack Mining Co. also had a reclamation plant just down the road, whose ruins we drove through rather quickly...

According to mountainscholar.org, chemical reclamation of copper tailings began in the 1910s, and the Tamarack and Osceola mining companies each had two stamp mills here at that time, as well as a reclamation plant. When the giant Calumet & Hecla Consolidated Copper Co. bought up these companies however, they dismantled the stamp mills in 1920. The Tamarack Reclamation Plant kept operating until the 1940s however.

My colleague Mike at coppercountryexplorer.com says that the mills dumped so much stamp sand that it enlarged the "shoreline" of Torch Lake by some 140 acres.

As it turns out, these unspectacular ruins are in somebody's backyard, so we only stayed long enough to turn around and head back toward Hancock.

Time to scrape the mud off our boots and have dinner at Gemingnani's...!

CLICK HERE to go back and explore the inside of the Quincy Dredge.

A Guide to Michigan's Historic Keweenaw Copper District, by Lawrence J. Molloy, p. 19, 20, 21

House of Fire

Photos from May, 2015.

One day as I was traveling along M-60 through the town of Homer in Calhoun County, I saw a park with the ruins of a dam along the South Branch of the Kalamazoo River, and decided to stop.

This was the site of the old Cortright-VanPatten Gristmill, also sometimes just referred to as the Homer Mill.

David M. Brown visited the mill back when he was compiling his Michigan County Atlas in the 1980s. He says that the area was particularly favored by the local Potawatomi people, who were friendly to the first settlers of Homer, but they were soon forced at gunpoint to walk the Trail of Tears. The first building was erected in 1832, and the first mill opened on this site in 1837—the same year Michigan officially became a state.

Calhoun County itself was organized in 1833, and although it was named after John C. Calhoun and settled in the Puritan tradition of "righteous" colonization, Brown notes that it ultimately came to stand for much more progressive ideals, such as: developing the first state-wide education system, helping pave the way for the abolitionist and women's rights movements, founding the first railroad union, and the invention of the first healthy breakfast foods—giving Battle Creek its world-famous title of Cereal City. The county seat of Marshall is today known for its reputation of historic preservation, and its intact collection of mid-19th Century homes.

You may recall my older post from Calhoun County, about the ruins of Clark Equipment and the United States Register Co. in Battle Creek.

This mill was erected by C.C. Cortwright in 1887, built atop the ruins of Milton Barney's c.1837 mill that burned down in 1886. It was bought by H. VanPatten in 1940. The Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) says that this mill was framed with massive oak timbers on a rubble foundation, and topped by a mansard roof; an addition was built in 1913. In 1976 when the HAER agent visited the site it still had its two original Leffel turbines intact, as well as the bearings and lineshafts. Even though all of the other machinery had already been removed, the mill was placed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

This photo below by Joe T. Fletcher shows what the mill looked like before it burned to the ground in 2010:

Photo by Joe T. Fletcher, rescued from Panoramio.com
The Lower Michigan Paranormal Society actually has a fairly well-researched looking webpage for this old mill, which stopped milling flour in 1970. It was bought in 1974 by James L. Miller, who turned it into a successful dinner theater establishment. The building was most recently bought in 1991 by another restauranteur, which is when it also became part haunted house; it operated as a haunted themed restaurant and bar, and functioned as a haunted house during Halloween. Apparently shock rock icon Alice Cooper even approved of this business model, making occasional appearances at the mill. Sounds like it must have been a pretty good haunted house...

I wonder if any of the ruins at the site today still date from the original 1837 mill?

The Lower Michigan Paranormal Society also claims that a young boy and girl died here (although it is not stated what year this allegedly occurred) while swimming in the river, after being sucked into the mill and drowning. Their ghosts supposedly haunted the basement and grounds of the mill prior to the fire that destroyed it in 2010.

Another ghost story claims that a mill foreman also once died here after falling into a silo of grain and suffocating to death. Yet another even less substantiated legend is that the wife of one of the mill owners once hanged herself upstairs.

I applaud the town of Homer for continuing to embrace the ruins of the site with a park even after the catastrophic fire destroyed the mill.

As I've stated in other posts, ruins and old buildings are an important part of the fabric of any good town. They are teachers and reminders, and should not be cleared away simply for the sake of "clearing the way," as the cliché terminology goes.

Children shouldn't grow up in towns where the oldest building is the same age as their parents...I think the American obsession with modernity is a bit misguided, and perhaps a symptom of our subconscious penchant for forgetting our nation's not-always-pleasant history (like sending the Potawatomi on the Trail of Tears, for instance). Growing up amongst completely modern, sterile surroundings leads to a shallow understanding of history...which leads to a shallow understanding of the future.

Ruins should be built upon, if not preserved as-is for their own sake. But enough of my preaching.

I wandered around some more and checked out the other ruins. I guess this was part of the mill's spillway?

I continued up to M-37 on my journey across Calhoun County.

North of Battle Creek I saw the charred remnants of what had to have been another old mill. I just can't seem to catch these things before they go up in smoke, can I? I mean this thing was practically still smoldering...

This was the old Payette Mill in Bedford, which some a teenager had "Cleansed by Fire" the previous July. It too was featured in the Historic American Engineering Record, which says that it was built in 1855 on the Walbascon Creek by H.M. Marvin. It changed hands many times over the decades but was owned for 50 years by the Payette family, from the 1880s to the 1930s. Like the Homer Mill, it became a restaurant in 1950 and then an antique shop and private residence. It had been vacant for awhile prior to the blaze.

Here's what it looked like in July of 2012:

Image from Google Streetview
There sure aren't too many buildings left from the 1850s anymore, and now there is one less, thanks to this apparently troubled kid. According to the news reports, the same 19-year-old had already been apprehended for attempting to burn the mill down once, just weeks prior, and was released on bond. No clear motive was discovered as to why he did it, and he was charged with felony third-degree arson.

I hope the village of Bedford can find some way to turn these ruins into something productive, the same way that the village of Homer has.

Lower Peninsula of Michigan Inventory of Historic Engineering and Industrial Sites, HAER, 1976, p. 7, 8
Michigan County Atlas, 2nd Ed., David M. Brown, p. 24, 179

Chevy-in-the-Hole and the Battle of Flint

A while back when the Flint Water Crisis was near the peak of its media attention, I paid a visit to that city to put in a few hours volunteering with the Red Cross before continuing on toward Grand Rapids and other areas I would be exploring that day.

But since I was in Flint I decided to take a drive around and do some sightseeing afterward. I noticed that the former brownfield where the old "Chevy-in-the-Hole" plant used to be was being turned into a park. So I decided to stop and have myself a walk along the infamous Flint River, source of all the recent water-related hubbub. After all, it was GM who is largely blamed for the polluted state of the river that everyone got sick from.

Image from Google Earth
I have commented before that while Flint is not known for the fabulous ruined architectural gems that Detroit is infamous for, some of its ruins are so vast that they can only be properly viewed from satellite photos. A more zoomed-in view of the massive concrete scar that Chevy-in-the-Hole left behind...downtown Flint is to the right:

Image from Google Maps
If Chevrolet is the "Heartbeat of America," then the heart of Chevrolet is a barren concrete scab riddled with cancer, and its main artery is the Flint River. Ironically, GM discontinued Chevy's "Heartbeat" slogan in 1994 right around the same time as they began shutting this plant down for good. As for America, I will let the readers draw their own conclusions.

Image from Google Maps
Sadly I never had the chance to explore the mighty 20-building complex that once stood here along 130 acres of the Flint River, but it doesn't seem like too many Flintstones miss the place either; it was pretty much universally disliked by locals I think. The *official* name of the complex was "Chevrolet Flint Manufacturing" (later "Delphi Flint West"), but as you might've guessed almost everyone called it "Chevy-in-the-Hole" because it was a grimy polluted sh*t-hole to work at or live next to. Not quite the same thing as an ace in the hole—on the contrary it seems to have been a place of last resort. Demolished in 2004, it remained a cursed, empty brownfield for almost 20 years, and when I visited in January 2016 it was being transformed into a park.

Chevy-in-the-Hole sits in the center of the Flint River watershed, which eventually drains to Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron. The Flint River itself was put into this concrete trench by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1963 after a few floods threatened the factory. You may recall that the Army Corps did the same thing for Ford Motor Co. on the Rouge River in Detroit...an environmentally irresponsible move that they are currently in the process of undoing.

A recent Genesee County Land Bank report says that after the Chevrolet buildings were demolished, the vast empty site was paved over "to minimize movement of residual contamination, the contaminants remaining in the site’s soil and groundwater from earlier times." Yummy.

The downtown skyline of Flint in the distance:

When this plant began in the 1910s it was the flagship of the fledgling Chevrolet Motor Division of GM and remained so for much of the 20th century. It grew to a workforce of 8,000 people, and it played a crucial role in the great Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1937.

Here is a historic view of the vast plant in 1937 looking up Chevrolet Avenue, which goes down into "the hole," crosses the Flint River, and up the other side of the valley:

Weaver family photo, via buickcity.blogspot.com

Here is what the same spot looked like more recently:

Image from Library of Congress
Speaking of its role in the Flint Sit-Down Strike, author Robert Conot dramatically recounted in his book American Odyssey how key plants at Chevy-in-the-Hole helped break the month-long stalemate between GM management and the UAW men occupying Fisher Body Plant #2 and #1. The problem was that the union was strong in the Fisher Body plants, but they were weak in the Chevrolet plants. If the UAW could seize Chevrolet Plant #4 (which made engines), they could halt GM production nationwide. GM knew of this vulnerability, and as a result they had been extra vigilant to keep the union spirit from spreading into Chevy #4, so most men in that plant were scared to join.

Aware that company spies were hiding in the ranks, UAW leader Roy Reuther (a brother of Walter Reuther) called a union meeting to lay out a plan for seizing Chevrolet Plant #9. The company naturally got word that the sit-down was coming, so when the union men sounded the call to strike Plant #9, management was ready with 200 guards. Teargas bombs were fired into the plant, and when the men began scrambling out to safety, the guards started pummeling them. The men fought back, and as the fists were flying, women sympathizers smashed the plant's windows to let the gas escape.

But while this decoy battle was raging, Reuther unleashed the real assault. A handful of union men from the day shift had been hiding out in a bathroom at Chevrolet Plant #4, and during the chaos they emerged and tried to rally the workers to stop the assembly line. They were too few to be effective, but luckily a UAW committeeman in Plant #6 named Ed Conk was successful in rallying a massive posse there. According to Conot, Conk pulled a hidden American flag from his pocket, unfurled it and shouted "FOLLOW ME!" before leading a running charge against Plant #4. They ran about 200 yards across the complex from Plant #6, stormed their way into Plant #4 and joined the effort to rally the men there.

Image from Library of Congress
Foremen desperately tried to quell the insurrection, but they were soon shouted down, and the machines of Plant #4 stopped. The conquerors climbed to the roofs of the captured plants with their flags and shouted "SOLIDARITY FOREVER" across to each other to signal the victories...America was shocked, General Motors' top brass was absolutely mortified, and even the liberal President Roosevelt and Governor Frank Murphy were taken aback by the brazen coup. This battle was separate from the "Battle of the Running Bulls" of a month prior, where the Flint Police were pushed back across the Chevrolet Avenue bridge when the UAW seized control of Fisher Body #2 nearby.

The Genesee County Sheriff threatened that the workers had 24 hours to vacate the captured plants or be removed by any force necessary. Governor Murphy already had 1,200 National Guardsmen on duty in Flint because of the Fisher Body siege, on top of the 200 local police...a bloodbath appeared imminent. Conot wrote that many feared "America's 1917 was at hand." Business leaders called it a Communist attempt to wrest control of American industry, and rumors flew through Detroit, where the Cadillac, Ternstedt Mfg, and Fleetwood Body plants were also engaged in the sit-down against GM.

Image from Library of Congress
Almost as if the city's name was conceived as a pun, President Roosevelt recognized that if this unrest in Michigan was not resolved peacefully, "the sparks of Flint" would ignite a full revolt across a nationwide tinderbox of worker discontent. He and Governor Murphy worked swiftly to defuse the situation and prevent bloodshed.

The next photo shows another view of Chevrolet Avenue, and two Michigan National Guardsmen are seen maintaining the siege with a heavy machine-gun, while another mans the line with a bayoneted rifle:

Weaver family photo, via buickcity.blogspot.com

The Michigan National Guard had Fisher Body #2 surrounded, and held fast. When the sheriff's deadline to vacate the captured plants came and went, 5,000 workers marched to Fisher Body #1 and encircled it, singing Solidarity Forever. That was the tipping point...GM's president William Knudsen grudgingly agreed to negotiate with the UAW-CIO, and a peaceful wave of similar sit-down strikes rippled outward from Flint to almost every other industry in the country. The course of U.S. history was instantly changed here in February of 1937...it was the dawning of a new era for the American working class.

Image from Library of Congress

GM began closing Chevy-in-the-Hole in the 1990s, and finished demolishing it by 2004. Gerry Godin, author of the Buick City blog, has a few great historic photos of Chevy-in-the-Hole on his website. He commented:
My grandfather and I both worked at this location. I was there in 1973-1974 and he was there during the sit down strike in 1937. I never worked in Factory 2 but did work in 4, 5, 6 and 9. Believe me when I say: This was "Chevy In The Hole" in more ways than one, emphasis on the "hole." It was called the hole because of the valley it was in, but those that worked there had a little bit different meaning for "the hole." I much preferred working at Buick.
It is also important to note that the river that the plant sat on was a racial dividing line in Flint's heavily segregated neighborhoods, which I talked more about in an older post. Additionally the west side of Flint was Chevy country, the east side was AC Spark Plug territory, and the city's north side paid its allegiance to Buick.

Mr. Godin went on to surmise that the origin of the phrase "Chevy-in-the-Hole" came from when the Fisher Body Plant #2 moved from Chevrolet Avenue in 1947:
I would have to think that the workers just said they worked at Chevy until the other plant was built. All I know is when I worked there it was the dirtiest place I had ever seen. And the way workers were treated there was almost like before the union was even allowed to represent you. I could not get out of there fast enough. The stories I've written down in my unpublished memoirs would curl most other auto workers' hair.

A differing perspective on how this factory got its nickname comes from a person commenting at the website Flint Expatriates, who asserted that the factory in the "hole" in fact represented the "cradle of upward mobility," and went on,
I believe it was Buick and AC Spark Plug people, along with the jealous academics who hated the people who worked there in the auto industry because they made so much money with little education, who came up with the hateful name, "Chevy In The Hole." In better days, the Buick and AC Spark Plug people called it "Happy Valley." Up until about 1970, it was the most profitable complex in the whole corporation. It also irritates me greatly that even Google Maps has it labelled "Chevy In The Hole," considering the fact that the grandfather of Lawrence Page, cofounder of Google, worked there. I worked there for short periods in the summer, and I met some of the finest people there I have ever known.
Two other "near-celebrities" also allegedly worked at Chevy-in-the-Hole: Mark Farner's sister (of Grand Funk Railroad), and Casey Kasem's brother.

It is also popularly believed (probably thanks to Michael Moore) that due to Flint's industrial significance during the Cold War, this neighborhood was allegedly Soviet Russia's #3-priority nuclear target in the United States.

In 2005 a partnership between the Genesee County Land Bank, Sasaki Associates, Kettering University, and the C.S. Mott Foundation began forming the "Flint River District Strategy." The goal was to come up with some sort of development plan that would essentially fill in the massive gap in downtown Flint caused by the death of Chevy-in-the-Hole, as well as remediate the nasty pollution trapped under it. Their answer is to turn most of it into a park. Personally, I think parks are always a good idea...in fact since they're making it a park, The Hole probably deserves to be managed as if it were a historic "battlefield," sort of like how the National Park Service does Gettysburg or the River Raisin Battlefield. Now if only we could fix the tap water situation.

Here are my other Flint-related posts:

"Shots Fired at U.S. Factory," The Glasgow Herald (Reuter), February 2, 1937, p. 9
American Odyssey, by Robert Conot, p. 343-350