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Detroit was once 'Stove Capital of the World,' thanks to Jeremiah Dwyer and family

1999 17 LINKEDIN 18 COMMENTMORE

Long before Detroit became known as the Motor City, it was world famous for another iron product: stoves. In the 19th century, Detroit's four large stove manufacturers produced more than ten percent of stoves sold around the globe. Indeed, Detroit became known as the "Stove Capital of the World." Three of those four companies were founded by brothers Jeremiah and James Dwyer.

Jeremiah Dwyer was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1837. His Irish father, Michael Dwyer, was a farmer. The Dwyers moved to Detroit in the 1840s, where they settled on a farm in Springwells, now southwest Detroit. In an interview much later in life Jeremiah said his farming neighbors spoke only French, which he learned to speak; however, he had no interest in his father's farm. Only one thing held his attention.

In 1850 as a 13-year-old old boy on his way to school he passed the Barclay Iron Works. He said he was captivated, even obsessed with the red, glowing rivulets of molten iron that skilled men, called "molders," carefully hand-poured from long-handled ladles into sand molds, which in those days were laid in rows outside in the company's yard. Until the early decades of the 20th century, iron molders were an elite group of well-paid craftsmen. They were highly respected artisans of an ancient profession, the aristocrats of the plant floor.

At night when the molds had been filled with molten iron they gave off an eerie reddish beauty that shimmered with heat under the stars. Young Dwyer watched alone from a distance and decided he wanted to be an "iron man."

Detroit's early foundries

In the 1840s Detroit became a western center for iron, copper, brass and other metal foundries. Early firms included the Fulton Iron and Engine Works; Cowie, Hodge and Co.; Buhl Iron Works; Detroit Forge, and William Barclay's foundry that Dwyer passed as a boy.

The largest of them all was the Detroit Locomotive Works, on Larned at Third , where they made a variety of things, including locomotives. However, most of these early companies were small. They cast parts and built engines for the steamship industry, later for the railroads, and other miscellaneous applications such as boilers, gears, parts for carriage makers, and agriculture. By the Civil War some firms, such as Fulton Iron, were casting artillery pieces.

Jeremiah Dwyer wanted to be a part of that growing metals industry as an iron molder. At the same time he kept up on news about a burgeoning industry emerging in New York State: manufacturing cast iron stoves. From the 1840s until the Civil War almost all U.S. stoves came from New York, where the casting sand was said to be superior. So Dwyer apprenticed in New York state, working at stove makers in Buffalo, Rochester, and Troy, and became a journeyman iron molder.

Interviewed in 1906, Dwyer said: "I was apprenticed for four years and was in fact articled. The indenture was a carefully worded, formidable document. Someone had to go on my bond. I pledged myself to maintain good habits, avoid gambling houses, saloons, and all undesirable companionships, agreed to be diligent, truthful, honest, industrious, and abide faithfully by the terms of the contract."

Dwyer began full time work at $2.50 a week, as a foreman for Geary and Russell Foundry in Hamtramck. It was primitive, dangerous work; horrifying injuries were common. Dwyer damaged his lungs from the intense heat and smoke, and had to take work elsewhere for some time.

The world before stoves

Until the Civil War, Detroiters and most Americans still heated their homes and cooked meals using an open hearth. While there was a romantic ideal of the hearth as the spiritual center of the home, the cook had little control over the heat of a hearth, and rudimentary cooking tools left women with limited choices for meals. In addition, cooking on a hearth was exhausting, smoky, and dangerous.

Putting all that aside, the growing problem with hearths was their inefficiency and fuel cost: They burned 10 times the amount of wood as a wood-burning stove. A cookbook from 1803, "The Frugal Housewife," discussed this problem: "All the culinary processes were carried on with one immense open grate, burning as much fuel in one day as might do the same work for ten. The cook and the furniture of the kitchen get a proportion of this heat, the articles to be dressed another portion, but by far the greatest quantity goes up the chimney."

And in Detroit wood was getting expensive. If you lived on land with trees, most likely the menfolk and the work horse spent winters hauling sledges loaded with cord wood for the hearth. If you did not, fuel became an issue.

In the decade of the 1830s, roughly 2,000 Detroiters burned 200,000 cords of wood in their hearths a year. As the city expanded, more trees were cleared for land while more people were still arriving. This meant the cord wood had to be carted farther and farther from woods to market, raising the price. The areas around Detroit had been cleared and cord wood was now shipped from the north or Canada.

The first recorded heating stoves in Detroit were shipped from Pittsburgh in 1797 and sent to the military's Garrison Station. In a letter dated Sept. 30, 1797, Pittsburgh's Quarter Master General John Wilkens wrote to Matthew Ernest in Detroit: "By boat which went a few days ago, I sent twenty stoves for the use of the garrison in Detroit. These will aid in making the soldiers more comfortable and save firewood."

Stoves enter elite homes

"Generally every shilling expended by the husband for the accommodation of his wife in her domestic operations is returned to him fourfold ... it will be in the order, peace, and happiness of his family. ... Where conveniences are found in a family, there are generally bright looks, happy feelings, and industrious hands." —Detroit Free Press, May 31, 1839

In winter some households rented stoves for heating. In 1830 two prominent Detroiters, C.C. Trowbridge and Judge Solomon Sibley, bought stoves for their homes and from that moment on, Detroiters wanted stoves.

The earliest stoves in the U.S. were large, blocky cast-iron boxes. The first ones were sold to the elite; Thomas Jefferson had one of the first stoves installed. Initially they were designed and sold as heating stoves, like space heaters, for drafty commercial areas such as hospitals and hotels. Later stoves were adopted for smaller rooms in homes and soon thereafter, with flat, cooking tops added for kitchens. (A cooking stove provided heat only to surface burners while a kitchen range also offered an oven below.)

Jeremiah Dwyer saved $3,000 and with a bank loan got started on his own iron foundry to make stoves. Along with his brother James, he took over a manufacturer that was facing bankruptcy. As Dwyer stated: "The firm had been trying to make reapers and stoves. Never a more unwise match. The sort of iron used for reapers is exactly the opposite the kind for stoves."

He established his stove manufacturing company, the Detroit Stove Works, in 1861, on the corner of Mount Elliott and Wight, near the Detroit River. There, he built his first simple, four-burner cook stove, which he called "The Defiance."

"It's gratifying to be able to announce that a new manufactory is now to be permanently and successfully established in our city," declared the Detroit Free Press. "It has long been a matter of surprise that in a state like Michigan there has never been a permanently foundry for the exclusive manufacture of stoves."

Working morning to night

Dwyer was a true workaholic: He began at dawn with a crew of 50 to cast the iron and assemble stoves, and then at night he delivered finished stoves to retailers or agents in Detroit. After hours he walked through the plant as the factory night watchman and slept in a small wooden house next to the "manufactory." He worked so hard he nearly killed himself with "pulmonary exhaustion" and had to retire to the South for a year to recover.

He returned to Detroit and got right back to making stoves.

In 1866 the Detroit Stove Works received outside capitalization and Dwyer expanded the operation, moving to a new facility on East Jefferson. The business now employed 90 men and was putting out 30 to 40 stoves a day.

However, for a second time Dwyer began to suffer heart problems, so he sold his interest in the Detroit Stove Works and spent a year resting in the South. He returned in 1871 and joined the newly formed Michigan Stove Company as operational manager. Eventually he became president.

An explosion of patents

Stoves were really America's first mass-marketed, had-to-have durable good. The market was wide open. Traveling salesmen and agents hit the roads. The industry was competitive in the extreme and design was seen as the way to beat your competitors.

Professor Howell J. Harris in his fascinating study of the stove industry called "Conquering Winter" states that in the late 1840s, the U.S. Patent Office issued almost 90 percent of all design patents for stoves, and it remained above 50 percent for the next decade.

Everything was patented, even scroll or flower designs for certain models. At the same time the stove manufacturers differentiated their products through functional features, such as plate warmers, water tanks, adjustable racks, and hundreds more, all patented.

Since the heating stoves were to sit in parlors and bedrooms, they could not be big, black iron monstrosities but needed to be tasteful, like pieces of furniture.

Manufacturers and their designers relied on cast iron's ease of bas-relief decoration. Simple decoration also served another purpose: it disguised some of the imperfections unavoidable when casting stove plate. Stove patternmakers selected designs to capture the spirit of the times, scenes like the opening of the Erie Canal or the Battle of Lake Erie. There were Egyptian themes, patriotic scenes, knights of the round table and more. They gave the stoves exotic names, such as the "Antelope," "Occident," and "The Golden Age."

Detroit stove manufacturers displayed their stoves during the 1869 Michigan State Fair, where 30,000 people passed through the Domestic Hall to see rows of working stoves, whose combined heat made the exhibit unbearable for most.

Real cooking options

American housewives and families were proud of their kitchen stoves. A hearth may have been homey, but the kitchen stove provided real cooking options. Nationally known cookbook author, columnist and cooking instructor Maria Parola described the functionality of a stove from the 1890s: "With proper management of dampers, one ordinary-sized coal-hod of anthracite coal will, for twenty-four hours, keep the stove running, keep seventeen gallons of water hot at all hours, bake pies and puddings in the warm closet, heat flat-irons under the back cover, boil tea-kettle and one pot under the front cover, bake bread in the oven, and cook a turkey in the tin roaster in front."

Cookbooks soon changed as women could now regulate heat in ovens and on ranges. New recipes for soufflés, tarts, pies and cakes appeared that would have been difficult to impossible in a hearth.

Of course, a stove did not spell the end of hard work in the kitchen for the women. Susan Stasser in her book "Never Done" reports on a study of coal stoves done in 1899 which found that during a six-day period, "twenty minutes were spent in sifting ashes, fifteen minutes in carrying coal, and two hours and nine minutes on blacking the stove to keep it from rusting." During those six days, "292 pounds of new coal were put in the stove, ... 27 pounds sifted out of the ashes, and more than 14 pounds of kindling" were hauled. To keep one fire burning through the winter required 3-4 tons of coal.

The famous giant stove

Stove companies never missed an opportunity to promote their products. To grab attention at the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, George H. Barbour, vice president of the Michigan Stove Co., had his woodcarvers replicate on a gigantic scale a Garland brand model kitchen range built by the firm. Factory superintendent William J. Keep designed the huge stove and had it carved in oak.

It measured 25 feet high, 30 feet long, and 20 feet wide. Painted to look like metal, it stood at the Chicago exposition on a platform 20 feet high over an exhibit of regular stoves.

After the exposition was over the giant wooden stove sculpture was brought back to Detroit and stood on the property of the Michigan Stove Co. Later it was moved near the entrance of Belle Isle. Over the years it was moved around the city, ending up at the Michigan State Fairgrounds. In 1998 the giant stove was restored but in 2011 it was struck by lightning and burned to the ground.

By 1908 there were 12 companies in Detroit manufacturing stoves, including Peninsular Stove Co., started by James Dwyer in 1881. While several were small entities, the stove industry in Detroit employed 7,500 people. Detroit was consuming 80,000 tons of iron to produce 450,000 wood, coal, and coke stoves and ranges, and 250,000 gas stoves, an innovation first displayed in Detroit in 1866. The Michigan Stove Co. exhibited the first electric stove at the Chicago Exposition in 1893.

Tailoring for tiny markets

Jeremiah Dwyer learned early that stoves popular in one part of the country would not sell in others. Regions of the United States and sometimes very small areas needed special accommodations to the stove to make it work properly. In some regions gas pressure could be weak; homes built on hillsides had to cope with winds that produced odd drafts in the ventilation; some areas had only anthracite coal, others bituminous, and some had only wood. Armed with this knowledge, the big stove manufacturers managed to accommodate tiny market segments and still make money.

The manufacturers ornamented with spun brass, nickel, aluminum, tiles, buttons, knobs — anything that might catch a customer's eye. The designs were influenced by traveling salesmen who interacted with retailers, dealers, or customers, and provided manufacturers with a constant stream of market research. The industry held trade shows in Chicago, where they scrutinized competitors' stoves.

This grassroots information drove the design process and was probably more important competitively than a company's production capabilities. Sixty years after 13-year-old Jeremiah Dwyer watched molders pouring iron by hand, the craft process was unchanged, with men hand casting iron parts in 1906.

However, designs were regarded by the companies as seasonal style, much like furniture or clothes fashion, and were short lived. As Dwyer stated in an interview in 1906: "The stove business is a hard one to handle. There is an immense amount of detail and one style follows another with rapidity. I often compare it to the millinery [hat] business. Patterns that sell well today have little or no demand next season; and there is endless rivalry bringing out new models."

The results of all these continuously changing styles were enormous catalogs and increasing expense. Detroit Stove Works offered more than 800 models and Michigan Stove Co. had more than 700, which were typical of the catalogs of the times. If you visited the Detroit Stove Works or other stove companies you might be shown the cavernous "exhibit room" that housed upwards of 900 actual stove samples made over years but still sold.

Author Howell J. Harris explained that over time, management at the top level of stove firms began to get involved in extensive discussions of the designs, an activity that would rarely happen in other businesses. But they feared unpopular designs could bankrupt a company.

How to make a stove in 1898

After a design drawing had received approval, several intermediary steps followed to ensure the stove would look as good as the drawn concept. In pattern rooms the stove was initially molded into wax, plaster, or clay models for further evaluation. Once approved, expert woodcarvers, typically Germans or Swiss, hand carved pine panels based on the original drawings. Wax was pressed onto the wood panels to produce an impression which was in turn cast with plaster. From these impressions were cast the iron "master patterns" used for part production. The iron molds were ground and highly polished and prepared for the foundry.

The immense mold rooms were very popular, and Detroiters were welcomed to take tours; most large firms had viewing galleries above for visitors. The mold room was a kind of dark, hellish environment with pig iron and scrap melted in enormous cupola furnaces, a haze of blue smoke and sudden echoing noises. Most molders were covered with black grime and soot, and due to the heat in the room, few wore shirts. They were paid by the piece, not by the hour; if a cast panel had a flaw it was scrapped and the molder was not paid, so there was intense focus on the process. Few talked.

In 1890 the Michigan Bureau of Labor Statistics surveyed the Detroit iron industry, including some of the stove companies. It found 3,920 men employed. Most plant workers were very young, starting at age 13; the majority were between the ages of 16 and 20, and only a tiny percentage worked past the age of 50. Most were Germans or had German parents. Many supported families. The majority earned between $7.50 and $10 per week, and they worked without vacation, 52 weeks a year.

In the good foundries the molders followed rules of order to prevent accidents; at other foundries foremen might carry billy clubs to keep men on task. Molders worked in teams of two. One man hammered the iron patterns into the casting sand to make a perfect impression of two panels, while the other clamped a wooden box frame (called a flask) around the sand to keep it together when the liquid metal was to be poured.

When the molten iron had reached the right temperature, bells clanged to make everyone aware of the danger. Men moved down the long aisles between the wood frames, picked up the long handled iron ladle which weighed 50 pounds, now filled from the furnace with 40 more pounds of glowing, sparking cherry-red molten iron. Aisles were grated to prevent slipping.

After the parts were cast, they were cleaned, polished and some plated with aluminum or nickel. Another trade group called "mounters" assembled the stoves in "setting up rooms," after which stoves were then crated and held in vast warehouses until shipped by boat or train.

Here a Dwyer, there a Dwyer

In his later years Jeremiah Dwyer was the gentleman giant: tall, handsome with white hair and white beard, patient, innately courteous, living in a resplendent mansion on Jefferson. Patents he owned on the baseburner heating stove made him and his family a fortune. His Michigan Stove Co. had branches in Chicago, Buffalo and New York, and its Garland stoves also were sold by agents in London, Paris, Berlin and Constantinople.

He was Mr. Dwyer on the job, but to family and friends, Jerry. He was chairman of the board of the Michigan Stove Co., but he knew each employee and their families.

And he hired family at every opportunity. In fact, by the 1880s most of the Detroit stove companies were started, owned, or managed by a Dwyer. At his death in 1920, his brother James was president of the Detroit Stove Co. and his sons and nephews were everywhere: John M. Dwyer, vice president, Peninsula Stove company; William A. Dwyer, president, Art Stove company; Emmitt Dwyer, vice president, Michigan Stove Co.; Edwin L. Dwyer, treasurer of Peninsular; William H. Dwyer, former treasurer of Peninsular; Jeremiah Dwyer Jr., superintendent at Peninsular; Albert E. Dwyer, purchasing agent at Peninsular; James M. Dwyer, treasurer at Peninsular, and, Francis Thomas Dwyer, with Ideal Manufacturing, a stove supplier.

Detroit stove companies began to merge at the change of the century, and people turned away from cast iron stoves for steel enameled stoves. Automation was being introduced, which spelled the end of the 19th century skilled trade groups, such as the molders and mounters. And the excitement of automobile manufacturing had replaced the public's interest in cast iron stoves.

On Jan. 30, 1920, Jeremiah Dwyer passed away at age 83. His coffin was carried by men from the plant floor of the stove works.

In 1927 the Detroit Stove Co. merged with the Michigan Stove Co. to form the Detroit-Michigan Stove Co. It continued making stoves for many years, its most profitable being in the late 1940s. In May of 1955 the Detroit-Michigan Stove Co. merged with Welbilt Stove Co. of New York to become the Welbilt Corp. A month later, after 92 years, the Detroit Stove Works was closed and operations moved to Masbeth, New York.

The Garland stove brand from the old Michigan Stove Co. continues to this day as a division of Manitowoc Food Service. Garland is now a premier line of commercial restaurant grills and ranges for the food service industry.

Bill Loomis is the author of two books on Detroit. His third book "On This Day in Detroit" is to appear on bookshelves in the Fall of 2015. He is a regular contributor to WUOM 91.7 FM's "Stateside with Cynthia Canty."

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