Steering the World

In the town of Onaway, Michigan, there are the ruins of a factory that was once the biggest producer of steering wheels in the world, the American Wood Rim Co. In recent years the Moran Ironworks next-door has made Onaway "roadside famous" for the strange metal sculptures they produce in their apparently abundant spare time. Partnering with the local Awakon Federal Credit Union, they formed "Awakon Park," as a place to exhibit these bizarre sculptures amongst the ruins of the factory. The most recognizable one is a huge bust of George Washington that can be seen from the highway. The "world's largest steering wheel" is also amongst the sculptures to be seen here, emblazoned with the words, "Onaway Steers The World"...

There are plenty of signs telling you what the ruins were. They also apparently designed and built their own style of trashcans for the park as well:

This small stone hut was part of the water works system. The plant originally had its own self-contained water system fed by a well, although as the company expanded it was no longer adequate, and it was connected to city water. Once the company left Onaway, the well was taken over by the city for municipal use.

Edward Lobdell moved his bicycle parts manufacturing company here from Ohio in 1901 in order to take advantage of this hardwood supply (his previous factory conveniently burned down under suspicious circumstances, right around the same time). With the advent of the automobile boom, Lobdell shifted away from bicycle parts and started making steering wheels for the cars being built in Detroit, calling his new venture the American Wood Rim Co. 

Bicycles still remained in their repertoire however, and they even opened a new factory near Paris, where French demand for wood rims was still increasing. I wonder if that factory is still around...?

American Wood Rim Co. became the world’s largest producer of automobile steering wheels and bicycle rims, while its sister company Lobdell-Emery Manufacturing owned the forests, handled the logging, operated two sawmills, and also produced items such as dowels, broom handles, wooden flooring, lath, and coat hanger stock. Most of the automobile rims for average cars like Huppmobiles and Maxwells were made of maple or beech, but exceptional brands such as Duesenberg, Packard, Peerless, Pierce-Arrow, Rickenbacker, and Cadillac received wheels made of local black walnut and imported mahogany. Not surprisingly Ford was one of the only car companies that made its own steering wheels, rather than do business with Onaway. The bicycle rims were made of hard rock maple, or beech. The company owned 28,000 acres of virgin hardwood left behind from the pine-logging heydays of northern Michigan. 

Onaway's population at its peak in the 1920s was around 4,000 people, and up to 1,500 of them worked at either American Wood Rim or Lobdell-Emery.

This was the dynamo house for power generation:

On January 14, 1926 this factory was destroyed by a catastrophic fire, which claimed the lives of four employees (unlike the previous Ohio plant, this fire was not deemed suspicious). In order to fight the blaze Cheboygan Fire Department had to be called for mutual aid, but the local water reservoirs had already run out and municipal water had to be shut off to the town for four hours so they could be replenished, while the plant continued to burn. The firemen were able to save the lumber stockpile from destruction however.

Ray Young, an employee of Hudson Motors recalls how the fire in Onaway crippled the Detroit auto industry. After their stock of steering wheels was exhausted they "had to drive the otherwise finished cars and trucks off the assembly line with monkey wrenches." One might compare this situation with the current microchip shortage that is causing unfinished, unsellable vehicles to pile up around the Metro-Detroit area today. Henry Ford, of course, was unaffected by this steering wheel shortage.

American Wood Rim announced that it would take too long to rebuild in Onaway, and instead relocated to the vacant Republic Truck factory in Alma. Everyone who worked in the Onaway plant was offered a job if they chose to follow the company to the new location. Overnight, the town of Onaway lost half of its population.

The graffiti reads, "LOVE THIS LAND." It was the only grafiti to be seen anywhere, and it carried a positive message, so...?

Partly due to the loss of the town's main industry, the Onaway State Bank closed in 1933, and the city found itself in debt when its assessed valuation dropped from $1,500,000 to $200,000. During the Great Depression Onaway's many empty houses were reoccupied by squatters. American Wood Rim Co. merged into Lobdell-Emery Manufacturing as one company. It continued on to become the largest employer in Alma, with a workforce of around 600 people, staying in business until 2005.

One of the many interpretive signs to be found in the park:

Click to enlarge

Inside the powerplant:

Iron scraps.

The interior of the powerplant was mostly overgrown.

The base to a large smokestack:

A smaller, brick & cobblestone chimney base:

At this point another couple pulled into the park and began walking their dog. Despite being located behind a warehouse and a gas station, I'd say this park is fairly popular with the locals, and isn't just meant for downstate gawkers.

A side trail leads to the ruins of the foundry and machine shop, where the metal spokes (or "spiders") of the steering wheels were made:

Most spiders were made from pure aluminum ingots, but iron was used for the truck steering wheels. Bronze was available as well, and generally steering wheels for luxury cars could be custom ordered in any material or style.

Even with as many different minerals as have been mined in Michigan aluminum was never one of them, so back then it had to be brought in from Britain.

There were a couple spots here where the woods were thick, and I suspected that a lot more small ruins could be hidden within.

If you look through the window in the next shot, you will see part of a locomotive:

Actually a sculpture of a locomotive, over in the sculpture section of the park. This one is decidedly less unnerving than the giant George Washington head...

What the...?

Slowly it dawned on me that the sculpture park was in fact tied into the ruins park.

Now this one is creepy. It's either General Patton, or a Dire Straits music video version of Homer Simpson. In either case, his mouth was a detail considered superfluous. And those eyes, man...

He looks like he wants me to help him move some refrigerators and color TVs...

These ruins are the footings to the sawmill, and sawdust kilns. According to the sign, very little waste material was left behind from the milling and manufacturing processes. What scrap wood was left over from steering wheels was used to make other products, and the sawdust was burned for heating.

Gotta make sure our logo is also on our own custom park benches...

Honestly this is a very nice park, despite the creepy sculpture and ubiquitous corporate logos—and I will never complain about reusing ruins or turning a former industrial site into a public space / natural area, so I am still calling this one a win. It is clean, they didn't molest the historic ruins in order to Disney-ify them for their own purposes, and it is certainly unique.

Honest Abe, with authentic 1¢ copper-tone skin.

And judging by those pupils I'd say Abe's enjoying a NICE-ass buzz... There were more sculptures further into the park, but it was starting to rain, and I was due for breakfast at my friend's place shortly...


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