The History of Genesee County, MI
Chapter XXIX
Greater Flint

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Clayton

 

CHAPTER XXIX.

Greater Flint.

The transformation of the city of Flint from a population of thirteen thousand in 1910 to a city having approximately, according to the data available, eighty-five thousand people in 1916, all in a period of about sixteen years, is a story which merits special mention. Genesee County and the city of Flint are so much a part of each other that the history of one is necessarily a record of the progress of the other.

The industrial activities of Flint for the twelve years from 1904 to 1916, have been of such unusual proportions as to have engaged the attention of the public and the press throughout the country.

The percentage of increase in population from 1900 to 1910, as shown by the United States census, and the percentage of growth from 1910 to the end of 1916, has made a new record in the history of the United States the townships which border on the city have also been the beneficiaries of the growth of the city.

In the early part of the nineteenth century, when the Indians roamed the forest of the Saginaw Valley, Flint was a trading post. Among the first white men to visit the spot were two Catholics priests, who were soon followed by a Frenchman named Bolieu, but they did not remain long, pushing to the north. Later, Jacob Smith, who had been a captain at Detroit at the time of Hull's surrender, came to Genesee County. After the close of the War of 1812, he was employed by the government to visit the Chippewa Indians, and, locating on the Flint river, he soon entered upon intimate terms with this tribe, his efforts facilitating the treaty made by General Cass at Saginaw a few years later. Jacob Smith, the founder and father of what is now the city of Flint, was a German by birth and a native of Quebec, and on a gentle, shaded slope in Glenwood cemetery there stands a tall black monument, its inscription dimmed with age, commemorating the early deeds of this first white settlers, who died in 1825.

Flint was located on the only main road from Detroit to Saginaw, part of which was a rough highway cut through the forests from the Saginaw river tot he Flint by two detachments of the third United States Infantry, under Lieutenants Brooks and Bainbridge in 1822-23. It was little more than a bridle path. From the Flint river to Royal Oak the Indian trail was used, and from there to Detroit a corduroy road was built across the swamp and low land. Flint thus became a station of rest, as it were; so the historic tavern of John Todd was built for the accommodation of travelers journeying overland to Saginaw, the straits of Mackinac and Lake Superior. This building, constructed mainly of rough hewn logs, is said by old settlers to have stood near where the Wolverine Citizen building now stands. Mr. Todd also operated a primitive ferry immediately in the rear of his tavern, but a little later the government bridged this spot across the river, which then was much wider than it is at the present time. In 1828 a saw-mill was built upon the banks of the Thread River, which marked the beginning of the lumber industry which made fortunes for many Flint men. Little did its one-time proprietor, Rowland Perry and Harvey Spencer, dream that nearly a half century after the passing of this industry Flint was destined to grow to magnificent proportions, which might prove disquieting to even old "Uncle Ben," Pearson, who prophesied years ago that although Flint as a thriving place, he "hardly thought it would ever become a seaport town."

The installation of a Untied States land office in 1836 added to the prestige of the little community, and later a grist-mill and a saw-mill were built to supply the needs of the settlers.

The Michigan Gazetteer, published in 1838, contains the first obtainable semi-official information in regard to the village:

FLINT: A village, post office and seat of Justice for Genesee County, situated on Flint river. It has a banking association, an edge tool factory, saw-mill, two dry goods stores, two groceries, two physicians, a lawyer and the land office for the Saginaw land district. The United States road passes through it. There is a good supply of water power in and around it. The emigration to this place has been very great the past two years and still continues. The village is flourishing, and the country around it excellent. It is estimated to contain three hundred families. Distant from Detroit, 58 miles northwest, and from Washington City, 5484 miles northwest.

In the early fifties, lumbering as a commercial enterprise was undertaken and about ten years later Flint became the center of the lumber industry in Michigan, a large amount of the finest timber in the state being found along the Flint river and its tributaries. At the zenith of this industry a million feet of lumber was being sawed annually by some of the larger lumbermen of the period. Along the Flint River were located the once famous mills of Governor Crapo, McFarlan & Company, William Busenbark, Hamilton, Smith & Carpenter; Hascall, Begole Fox & Company; J. B. Atwood & Company, Eddy, and a dozen others, not including mills in operation at Geneseeville and other points on the river and along the Kearsley creek. The village of Flint in the fifties, which had a population of about two thousand, took on the general aspect of a typical lumber camp, the old McFarlan tavern on St. John street being the center about which the social life of the lumbermen revolved.

The lumber industry gave out in 1876, however, as the resources had become practically exhausted, and for a few years Flint, the county seat of Genesee, although growing slowly, had practically settled down to become the entrepot of a prosperous agricultural region. The men who had operated the mills and the men who had worked in the mills either bought or leased the lands of the country and the latter had engaged in farming or gone into other lines of business, most of them remaining in the county.

In 1880 there were a few varied industries. William A. Paterson, a practical wagon-maker of Guelph, Ontario, who had come to Flint in 1869, had started a small carriage and repaid shop and also manufactured farm wagons. The Begole Fox & Company lumber yard had become the site of the Flint Wagon Works, a small concern which later grew to large proportions and whose inception was presided over by James H. Whiting.

Flint in 1886 had a population of about eight thousand people. Its streets were wide and shady, its homes, some even pretentious, were homes of taste, set far back on green lawns and surrounded by stately elms and maples. It was the typical small American community of the middle West.

About this time there appeared on the horizon a young man destined to rock the cradle of an industry from which has emerged a colossus of enterprise, that has made Michigan one of the most prosperous states in the Union and marked Flint as a city of achievement. On August 1, 1886, William C. Durant, the grandson of Governor Henry H. Crapo, then a young man of twenty-five, embarked in the road-cart industry in Flint, in company with J. Dallas Dort, who was at that time salesman for a local hardware concern. The total capital of these two young men was two thousand dollars, and the product which it aimed to manufacture and place upon the market was a two-wheeled road cart, on which a manufacturer at Coldwater, Michgian, had obtained a patent. It was claimed that the cart neutralized the motion of the horse and, as an inexpensive vehicle, was suited to the needs of the Western agriculturist.

Mr. Durant went to Coldwater and purchased patterns and machinery of the old Coldwater Cart Company, which had been partially damaged by fire, and established a small plant in Flint. The output of the new company for the first year was four thousand vehicles. The business increased rapidly and the firm was soon sub-letting its manufacturing to other concerns, in order to keep up with the public demand. The company, foreseeing the great possibilities which would accrue from the manufacture of a general line of vehicles, developed the "Blue Ribbon" line of carriages, which, within a comparatively short time, reached annual sales of one hundred and fifty thousand, the evolution of this enterprise being sensational in the manufacturing field at that time.

About this time

Flint awoke to the consciousness that an industrial awakening was imminent, and became alive to its possibilities. W. A. Patterson, who had been building road carts for the Durant-Dort Company, in addition to the manufacture of his own line, embarked on an extensive scale in the manufacture of carriages, and the Flint Wagon Works, with J. H. Whiting, as general manager, expanded to greater proportions and was soon building many thousands of wagons and carriages annually. In the early days of this industry W. F. Stewart started the manufacture of carriage bodies and woodwork, the enterprise growing into one of the foremost rising industries of the city, and soon Flint became known as one of the largest centers of the vehicle industry in the United States.

In the year 1900 Flint was keeping step with the march of progress and with its vehicle factories and other industries had grown to be a community of about thirteen thousand people. It was a city equipped with all things conducive to ideal working conditions, coupled with comfortable homes and a most enjoyable environment.

About this time Thomas Buick, a practical engineer, was working on a gasoline engine upon which he had secured a patent, and was operating a small plant for its manufacture in Detroit. the Flint Wagon Works company, seeing a market for stationary farm engines through their farm wagon agencies, purchased the business of Mr. Buick and removed it to Flint, building for the purpose a factory which now forms a part of the Mason Motor Company. Meanwhile Mr. Buick, with the assistance of Walter L. Marr, now chief engineer of the Buick Motor Company, built the first Buick automobile, which was practically the old "Model F" car. The officers of the Wagon Works company brought the car to the attention of Mr. Durant, who was one of the first manufacturers in the country to realize that the motor-driven vehicle was destined to displace the horse. He foresaw the possibilities of manufacturing automobiles in large quantities and, in spite of the antagonism which prevailed among skeptical persons, entered the automobile field with the courage and determination born of his vision of an evolution to come in the means of transportation. In 1904 Mr. Durant formed the Buick Motor Company and the plant was moved to Jackson, Michigan, where the old buildings of the Imperial Wheel company were utilized pending the erection of the first Buick factory at Oak Park.

During the year 1900, men interested in the advancement of the city conceived the idea of enlarging the area of Flint, to provide for future development. The result was the platting of Oak park subdivision to the north of the city limits. The Durant-Dort company was behind the movement, and through the efforts of its officials and with the hearty co-operation of the business men, Mrs. Minnie Loranger, daughter of William Hamilton, who had owned the land, and William C. Durant, acting as trustee for the Flint Factory Improvement Association, arranged for the opening of the plat. About ninety of the three hundred acres platted consisted of a dense oak forest, from which the subdivision received its name. Out of the three hundred acres, one hundred were set aside to furnish sites for future industrial concerns. The balance was divided into residence lots and sold. The profits accruing from the sale of these lots were set aside as a fund to be used by the association in bringing new factories to the city. To this movement may be credited the securing of the Flint Axle Works (now the Walker-Weiss Axle Company) and the J. B. Armstrong Manufacturing Company. Later, through the constructive genius of Mr. Durant, there came the Buick Motor Company, Weston-Mott company, the Imperial Wheel Works plant, later occupied by the Monroe Motor Company, and now a unit of the Buick plant; the Flint Varnish Works, the W. F. Stewart Company, Champion Ignition Company, and the Michigan Motor Castings Company.

As factory after factory arose where there had been but woodland and cultivated fields a short time before, the western part of the plat became dotted with residences and business places. In 1916 Oak park is one of the most thickly populated sections of the city, being the home of thousands of men employed in the great factories of the north end industrial section.

The first years' output of the Buick Company factory was sixteen automobiles. The second year it produced five hundred, and at the beginning of the third year Mr. Durant completed plans for a plant and organization to develop the increasing volume of business which the great Buick Motor Plant, the largest group of factory buildings in the world given over to the manufacture of one make of automobile, was destined to enjoy.

The original three-hundred-acre tract known as the Hamilton farm, is now the site of affiliated factories which cover eighty acres of ground and from which in 1916 were shipped sixty thousand automobiles, with a production of one hundred and twenty thousand planned for 1917.

In 1908 Mr. Durant organized the General motors Company, of which the Buick Motor Company was a subsidiary plant. Into this corporation was brought the Cadillac motor Car company of Detroit, for which the corporation paid nearly five million dollars in cash; the Olds Motor Works, of Lansing; the Oakland Motor Car Company, the Northway Motor Company, of Detroit; the Jackson-Church-Wilcox Company, of Saginaw, the Weston-Mott Company, and the General Motors Truck Company, of Pontiac.

The first year the sales of the General Motors Company exceeded $34,000,000 making Mr. Durant the recognized leader in the field of motor cars. The profits of the General Motors Company in 1909 were over $9,000,000, and the second year of business resulted in profits exceeding $10,000,000. From its inception the General Motors Company was a holding company, each unit of the organization being operated upon a separate basis.

The results obtained by Mr. Durant and his associates were most gratifying. One of the most important industries secured for Oak park was he Weston-Mott Company, a small manufacturing concern in Utica, New York, which was induced to transfer its equipment and force of workmen to Flint, to produce axles for the Buick Motor Company, the Weston-Mott Company, starting in one factory building, increased its production in accordance with the demands made by the Buick and other motor companies, until today it occupies five immense factory buildings, and has become one of the most important units of the General motors Corporation, by which it was later absorbed.

In 1908 Durant-Dort Carriage company established, in this industrial section, the Flint Varnish Works. From a very small beginning the company has grown to be the largest maker of high-grade finishing natural for automobile and railroad use in the world. The company was sold by the Durant-Dort concern and reorganized as the Flint varnish and Color Works, and William W. Mountain, who had been the general manager, became president of the organization. The company now produces everything in the line of paint, colors, enamels and varnish utilized in the finishing of automobiles and cars. In 1916 the company increased the size of its plant, enabling it to more than double its production, and also added a Canadian branch at Toronto, Ontario.

Also located in the center of this great industrial center of Flint are the following manufacturing institutions: The Champion Ignition Company, with its capacity of seventy-five thousand spark plugs a day, and the Michigan Motor Castings Company, which in 1916 occupied a new foundry building costing six hundred thousand dollars and having a capacity of two hundred and fifty tons of gray iron per day, both of which are units of the General Motors Company; the W. F. Stewart Company, producing automobile bodies; the Walker-Weiss Axle Company; the J. B. Armstrong Company, makers of steel springs; and the million-dollar plant of the Commonwealth Power Company. The latter plant is used to transfer the one hundred and forty thousand voltage brought three hundred miles overland from an Au Sable river and used to furnish electricity for commercial and domestic purposes, including the operation of all factories and the city street car lines.

Flint had sprung from a town of thirteen thousand in 1900 to a city of thirty-eight thousand in 1910, enjoying at this time the distinction of having the largest increase in population and also in postal receipts of any city in the United States, according to the government statistics. Meantime property values had made phenomenal advances, the real estate dealers had placed thousands of residence lots on the market, streets were cut through portion of the city previously used for garden lands, factory building after factory building was being erected, and Flint in 1910 was the typical boom town of the West.

The peculiar conditions of this period may be noted with interest, as it was impossible in any way for the city officials to provide for the influx of its rapidly-increasing population. Up to the time of the erection of the present postoffice building, patrons of the general delivery window would stand inland for one hundred feet to receive their daily mail; hotels and boarding houses were turning people away, and lodgings were at a premium, some of the keepers of large boarding houses in the factory district renting their beds to first day and then night "shifts." It is said that about this time a theatrical company and a base-ball team who were scheduled to appear in Flint were forced to seek accommodations for the night in the neighboring town of Lapeer. In 1909-10 there were estimated to have been one thousand people who were living in tents along the river banks and in the woods adjacent to the factory buildings.

In 1912 Mr. Durant, the genius who was becoming a center of attraction in the manufacturing and financial world. Organized the Chevrolet Motor Company, which was soon followed by the establishment of subsidiary plants in New York, Tarrytown, St. Louis, Oakland, California; Bay City, Toledo, Fort Worth and Oshawa, Ontario. The Chevrolet Motor Company is anticipating an output in 1916 of eighty thousand cars, and is making plans for a production of one hundred and ninety-four thousand cars in 1917.

The Chevrolet company first occupied the buildings of the old Flint Wagon Works and later took over the plant of the Mason Motor Company. In 1915 these structures became overcrowded with machinery and employees, which necessitated plans for a number of large additions. Those already completed or in process of construction are a large new plant for the manufacture of Mason Motors, a mammoth three story factory, an axle plant, and a separate heating plant. This enormous expansion has made necessary the construction of several miles of railroad sidings, the erection of a new steel bridge for factory and railroad purposes only, and a new city bridge at Wilcox Street, to care for the greatly increased traffic.

What the Buick Motor Company and other plants have meant to the north end of the city, the Chevrolet Company has meant to the western section. The fourth ward, originally known as "The Pinery," a rather less improved section of Flint than the other wards, in 1916 became crowded with thousands of workmen who sought residences in the near vicinity of the great manufacturing plant. The expansion of the city by platting has resulted in the erection of homes as far as three miles beyond the city limits, where a real estate concern platted twenty acres into one-acre and half-acre plats, and sold them all within a few days.

Today the great companies, the General Motors and the Chevrolet, which Mr. Durant organized and which have meant so much to Flint, have a combined volume of business of $200,000,000, which is more than the income of the New York Central and Lake Shore railroad.

In 1914 Mr. Durant disposed of his holdings in the Durant-Dort Carriage Company. Shortly after this the Dort Motor Car Company was organized with J. Dallas Dort as president. The new automobile concern took over a large portion of the carriage plant and increased its output so rapidly that in 1916 it became necessary to expand. There was no vacant land adjacent to the Dort group of factory buildings, so the company purchased two entire blocks of residence property between Smith streets and the Flint river, and South street and the Grand Trunk railroad tracks, razed the dwellings thereon and started the construction of a mammoth two-story assembling plant which will cost when completed ninety thousand dollars. The company has also purchased twenty acres at the south end of the city at the intersection of the Pere Marquette and Grand Trunk railways. In 1915-16 the output of the Dort Motor Car Company was nine thousand cars.

Though motor car manufacturing has evidently become the principal interest of Mr. Dort, still he has not yet abandoned the manufacture of carriages, considerable space in the Durant-Dort Carriage Company plant being still utilized for the building of carriages, the output of this branch of the business being fifteen thousand jobs in 1915.

Other accessory companies to the automobile industry are the Marvel Carburetor Company, the Imperial wheel Company, the United States Brass and Iron foundry, Flint Pattern Company and several minor manufacturing concerns.

In the meantime the W. A. Paterson Company, the pioneer vehicle manufacturers of Flint, had also turned their attention to the building of automobiles. A large portion of the group of factory buildings, located in the heart of the city, were devoted to that industry, the different models proving from the outset very popular with the public. The Paterson Motor Company is now building about fifteen hundred cars per annum.

Thus from the establishment of a single industry has arisen a vast combination of allied interests, which hare known the world over. While the growth and progressiveness of any one commonwealth can only be due to combined efforts, still the citizens of Flint realize that without the foresight and genius and generalship of such a leader as Mr. Durant., Flint would not have been the manufacturing and commercial center that it is in 1916 when this book goes to press.

 

History of Genesee County, Michigan, Her People, Industries and Institutions
by Edwin O. Wood, LL.D, President Michigan Historical Commission, 1916

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

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