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Making a Factory Town

The close proximity of Albion between Detroit and Chicago made it an attractive location for industry. The earliest mills and factories were in the area known as downtown today. Jesse Crowell and the Albion Company reserved the east side of Superior St between Cass St and Erie St to build their mills. A mill race was created on both sides of the Kalamazoo River. This narrow man-made channel made river water move through rapidly, powering several mills that lined the mill race.

Mills were joined by early manufacturers located downtown as well. The north-west corner of Superior and Cass St was one such place. The Kalamazoo River bordered this block to the north. Only a few blocks away from several mills and the mill race, manufacturing began in the center of Albion as well.

The Wolcott Union Wind Mill and Manufacturing Company started on the northwest corner of East Mulberry and North Huron Streets in 1876. L.J. Wolcott became one of Albion’s best known citizens, serving as mayor in 1887, councilman in 1888 and 1889, and State legislator from 1911 to 1917. He was a founder of the Homestead Building and Loan Association and an organizer of the Commercial and Saving Bank. The Wolcott Union Wind Mill and Manufacturing Company ceased operations in 1898 and was reorganized as the Albion Wind Mill & Improvement Company. The company was losing money, however, and was eventually ruined by an elaborate forgery scheme in 1911. This foreshadowed the growth and later decline of a number of other industries located in Albion.

Gale Manufacturing operated from a building on the north-west corner of Superior and Cass St. German and Eastern European immigrants were recruited to work at this site. When the Gale moved in 1888 four blocks to the west to a new factory building on land donated by the city, workers settled immediately south of the factory. Much of this worker housing was removed in the 1960s as part of the West Central Urban Renewal Project and the area remains largely undeveloped to this day.

The photo shows what the plant looked like in 1883.

When Gale Manufacturing vacated their downtown factory in 1888, Albion Malleable was founded and operated there for 10 years, until they also moved four blocks to the west, to a location across the river from the Gale. Malleable also provided worker housing north of the factory building on the south-west corner of Albion St and Austin Ave. These homes were occupied by Russian immigrants during the first decade of the 20th century. When WWI began, foreign immigration was halted, causing labor recruiters to look to the Appalachian and Deep South regions of the United States. These migrants replaced Russian immigrant who by this time found new places to live.

Warren S. Kessler is one figure who factored largely in the growth and development of the Albion Malleable Iron Company. Mr. Kessler was born in Albion, New York, though eventually made his way to Albion, Michigan. Through his acquaintance with H. Kirke White, Kessler came to Albion for the first time to attend the wedding of one of White’s daughters. At the wedding White suggested with expansion of the Gale Manufacturing Company, that malleable iron castings were needed, so why not come to Albion and start a plant on the old site of the Gale Manufacturing Company on Superior and Cass Streets. Mr. Kessler founded the Albion Malleable Iron Company in 1888 with the help of 20 original stockholders.

Ten years later Albion Malleable had outgrown their Cass Street plant, so they abandoned it in favor of a larger plant on North Albion Street. Kessler was actively involved in local affairs. He was an alderman on the city council in 1897 and 1898. He was also a founder of the Albion State Bank, and served on the Board of the First National Bank of Albion. In his later years Kessler divided his time between Albion and Pasadena. When he came to Albion in the summer months, he’d stay at the home of his step-son Harry Parker, located at 501 East Michigan Avenue. He died there on July 23, 1933.

Kessler’s step-son Harry Parker, married Mary Theodosia Gardner, the daughter of U.S. Senator Washington Gardner. They attended the Methodist Episcopal Church together, of which Parker was a gernous contributor to. Parker served as vice president and general manager of the Albion Malleable for many years. He became President upon Kessler’s death in 1933.

Parker was active civically and philanthropically. He provided funds to assist with the construction of several Albion churches, gave land for a new City Hall on West Cass Street, and was active with the Sheldon Memorial Hospital Board of Trustees. In 1900, Kessler and Parker built a handsome brick commercial block on part of the site that the Albion Malleable had vacated at Superior and Cass Streets.

Stone Mill (on far right) before being converted into a bank.
(Souvenir of the City of Albion, 1894)

The conversion of downtown from manufacturing to commercial and entertainment functions continued in the decades ahead. As late as 1894 on the east side of Superior St between Cass St and Erie St were Jesse Crowell’s mill, though by this time Crowell was deceased. In 1916 the grain elevator was moved one block east. In 1929 the Bohm Theater occupied the site vacated by the mill. Another change occurred in 1917 when the Stone Mill was converted into a bank. The top story was removed and a neoclassical facade was placed on the front of building. Though today the cut stone wall on the south side of the building is visible.

Another important local figure was George Dean. He came to Albion to study at Albion College. Following graduation he started out as a contractor and began a hardware store. Later he became secretary-manager of the Union Steel Screen Company where he advanced to become President. Union Steel Products was started in Jackson in 1904, though moved to Albion in 1905. Their original plant was south of the Michigan Central Station on the southwest corner of North Clinton and Michigan Street. They remained there until 1907 when they moved to North Berrien Street. The company expanded their product line from a sand screen and iron rack, to include refrigerator shelving and fan guards. Bakery equipment was added at a later date.

All six children of George and Belle Dean attended Albion College. The family lived on East Erie Street for many years in a building later donated to Albion College that became a woman’s annex. They built a new residence on their dairy farm in Haven Hills. Following Belle’s death on August 2, 1961, this too was donated to Albion College and named Bellemont Manor.

Industry in Albion had the effect of attracting similar companies. The Service Caster and Truck Company had a strong relationship with the Untion Steel Products Company. For that reason Service Caster moved to a new Albion plant in September 1923. The plant quadrupled in size between 1924 and 1929.

Officials from the Lonegran Manufacturing Company.

The Lonegran Manufacturing Company moved to Albion in 1937, and was located on the site of the old Hayes Wheel Company. They manufactured air conditioners, dehumidifiers, and space heaters. The company merged with McGraw Electric Company in 1956, and their Albion plant closed in 1980.

Perhaps the greatest boom to industry in Albion came about with the arrival of the Corning Glass Works in 1950. The announcement to build a 300,000 sqft plant in Albion was made March 15, 1950. Production of television glass began months later on September 22, 1950. At one point they employed up to 1,400 persons from their plant at North and Clark Streets. Their Albion plant closed in 1975.

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