“Made in Owosso” will travel through time from the mid-1800’s early woodworking industries to the turn of the 20th Century, when Owosso was one of the leading rail centers in Michigan, to post-Depression when Owosso became a leader of the small metal parts industry, churning out small engines that helped fuel the automobile, environmental and high-tech industries to the present day.
Two themes in Owosso’s history have worked together to make the city of Owosso a significant and unique community in Michigan. In 1829, when Benjamin O. Williams, accompanied by his Chippewa Indian guide, Esh-ton-quet (Little Bear), first set eyes on what was to become Owosso, he reported back to his brother A.L. Williams of the beauty of the valley and the potential that the Shiawassee River possessed for the generation of power. Following the land purchase, the brothers’ conscious selection and recruitment of highly trained craftsmen, artisans and designers from New York State set the tone of the early community.
The second major influence that has made Owosso unique was the aesthetic and visual tradition established by these early settlers in the woodworking industry with the production of refined furniture, carriages, sleighs, caskets and the outstanding architectural homes Owosso still enjoys today. Their descendants, including Frederick Frieseke, internationally-known impressionist artist, James Oliver Curwood, renowned author and conservationist, Thomas E. Dewey, twice Presidential candidate and Alfred Hershey, Nobel Prize winner, and other accomplished people who were attracted to the area, have continued Owosso’s tradition of high quality over 150+ years.
Comstock Pioneer Cabin
Made in Owosso - The Beginnings
The Comstock Pioneer Cabin will tell the story of early Owosso. Beginning with the founding fathers of Owosso – AL and BO Williams – the story begins when they first viewed the “big rapids” and decided that this was the place they were going to call home. They co-founded what was to become the city of Owosso in 1836 --- 180 years ago. The brothers’ conscious selection and recruitment of New York State highly-trained craftsmen, artisans and designers set the tone helping to make Owosso a significant and unique community in Michigan. The story continues with Elias and Lucy Comstock, Amos Gould and finally the Owosso Argus.
About the Comstock Pioneer Cabin – Midland Log Cabin
This one room log cabin, Midland Style, was the first permanent residence in the settlement that became Owosso. It was the home of Elias Comstock and his wife, Lucy Lamson Comstock who had been married for fifty-nine years when Judge Comstock died in 1886. Over his long life, Comstock was a merchant, school teacher, justice of the peace, township supervisor, judge and county clerk.
The cabin was the site of the first church services (Baptist) as well as the first school classes and the place where newly arrived settlers could stay until their cabins were built. The Van Wormer and Overton families cleared the land and felled forty logs, after which, the men gathered to erect the cabin in one day. Comstock’s cabin originally stood just south of Main Street near the river.
Over the years, the Comstock’s made frame additions and added a long front porch to the cabin. The cabin itself became the living room. Lucy Comstock died in 1890 and the home passed to the Leitch family, then the Corey family. When the Standard Oil Company purchased the property in 1920, they began to tear down the house only to discover the primitive cabin perfectly preserved inside.
Through the efforts of the Shiawassee County chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and Mr. and Mrs. Fred Woodard, the cabin was moved to the back of the lot and preserved as a museum. The cabin was then moved three times, and came to rest in its present location in 1969, with most of its original logs intact.
One of the most important aspects of cabin building is the site upon which the cabin was built. Site selection was aimed at providing the cabin inhabitants with both sunlight and drainage to make them better able to cope with the rigors of frontier life. Proper site selection placed the home in a location best suited to manage the farm or ranch.
Key Features of a Midland Log Cabin
• Constructed of hewn, hand worked logs
• One room – termed single pen – building
• Fireplace dominates the interior
• Sometimes simple sleeping quarters above
• Logs are sealed from the elements through chinking and daubing
Woodard Paymaster Building
Made in Owosso - Woodard: Wood Furniture and Caskets
In 1866, when the country was beginning to recover from the Civil War, many young men ventured far and wide to seek fame and fortune. Lyman Elnathan Woodward*, a 32-year-old builder from Dansville, New York, was one of these men. Here we tell the story of Lyman, who having heard of the abundance of Michigan hardwood, pine timber and the most crucial element . . . water power, boarded a train to Owosso with $10,000 in his pocket that he had saved from building frame houses. Lyman went on to build an industrial legacy in Owosso that continues 150 years later with the manufacturing of wrought iron furniture.
About the Woodard Paymaster Building – Gothic Revival
This picturesque building stood over 100 years ago almost directly across Main Street from its current location in the midst of the huge lumberyard and factories of the Woodard Manufacturing Company. Woodard, now Owosso’s oldest manufacturer, was founded in 1866 as a lumber mill located on what was the mill race—Water Street. The company evolved from milling lumber to manufacturing doors and window sashes, to furniture, especially dining room and bedroom pieces, until the 1940’s when their business model changed to manufacturing wrought iron furniture. The Paymaster building was moved in about 1903 to South Elm Street, the site of the new Woodard Factory constructed after fire destroyed the old factory on Main Street in 1898. The Woodard Casket Company subsidiary, the largest manufacturer of caskets in the United States, had already relocated to its new factory on South Elm prior to the fire and as Woodard’s had acquired enough property at this site they constructed their new factory next to the Casket Company. The old factory has been rehabilitated into condominium and loft apartments as well as retail space known as The Woodard Station. The Owosso Historic Commission acquired the Paymaster building and had it moved to this site in the 1980’s.
As in previous centuries, Americans of the early nineteenth century were influenced by the cultural movements of Europe, including the Picturesque. In 1832, the first example of Gothic Revival architecture in the United States was designed by architect Alexander Jackson Davis (1803-1892). Late for Gothic Revival, this charming, petite building has many Gothic Revival features.
Key features of Gothic Revival:
• Steeply pitched roofs
• Open cornices and exposed rafters
• Wood-frame “carpenter-gothic” predominate
• Windows and doors commonly extend into gables
• Square-topped windows with hood molds common
Shiawassee Arts Center
Made in Owosso - Manufacturing and Industry
The history of industry in Owosso is divided into two eras, pre-depression and post-depression. The big difference is that before the depression, the bulk of Owosso’s industry was woodworking. The large companies were Woodard Furniture, Owosso Casket Company, Estey Furniture, Robbins Table Company and the Owosso Manufacturing Company.
Since the depression industry became highly diversified. Some were automotive, some still woodworking with others turning out a wide variety of products. Two of the largest manufacturing plants, Universal and Redmonds made fractional horsepower motors. A third made brake shoes. Others turned out automotive trim (Mitchell-Bentley), plastic products, farm feeds, pancake flour, mobile homes, phonograph records (American Record Pressing), castings, commutators (Toledo Commutator), fertilizers, and others.
Owosso currently has a diversified industry producing pontoon boats (Crest Marine), technology (Covenant Eyes) and air pollution control equipment (Viron, Tri-Mer and Duall as examples). Owosso Graphic Arts, celebrating its 67th year in business, is America’s largest brass, copper, and magnesium photoengravers. Wolverine Sign Works is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2016. And, Woodard, Owosso’s oldest industry, is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.
These industries, and more, have played a significant role in Owosso’s history.
About the Shiawassee Arts Center – Pre WWI Shingle
This large building was once a single family home built just before World War I along the Shiawassee River on John Street. Now known as the Shiawassee Arts Center (SAC), it has grown substantially over the years.
With a 2006 grant from the Michigan Council for Arts & Cultural Affairs (MCACA) SAC added a handicap ramp, porte cochere and circular drive with a parking area. Through a grant from the Cook Family Foundation SAC developed the lower level into an Arts Education area with year-round multi-media classes offered to both children and adults. In 2008 with major support from Connie & Jerry Voight and Gary & Joanne Slaughter SAC added the River Gallery and new classroom space increasing the facility to nearly 9,000 square feet. In 2014 a three-floor elevator was added with the support of MCACA and a large bequest from Bill Burk. Encompassing nine galleries, SAC displays and sells the artwork of local, statewide and national artists through consignment and with featured exhibits.
SAC has devoted a gallery to one of Owosso's internationally famous native sons, Frederick C. Frieseke (1874-1939), whose impressionist work is in most every major museum in the world. On display in SAC's Frieseke Gallery are many reproductions and three original paintings including "Lady with the Sunshade", c.1910, that the artist gave to the City of Owosso in 1926.
The Arts Center, which is open year round to the public, free of charge, Tuesday-Sunday, 1-5pm, offers a specialty Gift Shop. The River Gallery and Cottonwood Terrace are popular rental sites for special events.
Pre WWI Shingle
Architects rebelled against Victorian fussiness when they designed rustic Shingle Style homes, popular in the Northeast and Midwest between 1874 and 1915. The architects used natural colors and informal compositions to suggest the rustic homes of New England settlers. By covering most or all of a building with shingles stained a single color, architects created a uniform, unembellished surface. Mono-toned and unornamented, these homes celebrated the honesty of form, the purity of line.
Shingle Key Features
• Continuous wood shingles on siding and roof
• Irregular roof line
• Cross gables
• Eaves on several levels
• Large, wrap around porches
• Asymmetrical floor plan
• Roughhewn stone or brick on lower stories
Curwood Castle Writing and Conservation Studio Museum
Made in Owosso - Retail
Although many of the Made in Owosso exhibition artifacts housed in the Curwood Castle were not “made in Owosso,” they tell the story of the entrepreneurial spirit that was key to success of the manufacturing industry which started on the “mill race” along the Shiawassee River.
This part of the exhibition will tell the story of the rich history of Owosso’s retail prominence, primarily centered in three areas – North Washington Street, Main Street and Westown., and how these retail stores drove the growth of the city.
About James Oliver Curwood’s Gilded Age Castle
James Oliver Curwood – Author, Conservationist, Visionary, Iconoclast, Imaginer and Movie Pioneer – built Curwood Castle to serve as his writing studio. Curwood, one of America’s foremost authors of adventure novels and an early advocate of environmental conservation, skillfully created a replica of a 15th Century French Norman chateau on the banks of his beloved Shiawassee River. Curwood personally selected the stones that are seen on the turrets from nearby farmer’s fields. At least 200 motion pictures have been based on or directly inspired by his 33 novels, articles, short stories and serializations. Begun in 1922 and completed in 1923, Curwood Castle was used for a brief time by Curwood until his untimely death in 1927 at the age of 49. At the time of his death, he was the highest paid author – per word – in the world.
The Castle contains many of Curwood’s original furnishings, including his typewriter and desk, first edition copies of his books and several important oil paintings which depict illustrations for his adventure stories, many set in the Canadian Rockies. Using existing vintage photos of Curwood in his Castle, the Owosso Historical Commission is engaged in the ongoing process of restoration through acquisitions and by replicating the interior with furnishings viewed in the old photos.
Owosso’s Gilded Age Castle
The term “The Gilded Age,” popularized by American author Mark Twain, conjures images of lavish palaces and castles and wealth beyond imagination. Late for a typical Gilded Age structure - 1875 to about 1900 – Curwood Castle exhibits many of the features and characteristics – both physically and emotionally – of a Gilded Age Mansion. Although on a much smaller scale than the mansions and estates usually associated with names such as Vanderbilt, Du Pont, Carnegie and Rockefeller, James Oliver Curwood built his Castle in Owosso on the banks of the Shiawassee River to show people that he had indeed become a worldwide personality. The fortune he derived from his writing and early movie making brought Curwood – in his eyes and the eyes of his community – a financial and emotional status second to none.
Key Features of Gilded Age
• A dramatic aesthetic
• A grand entrance hall
• Modeled on the grand palaces and castles of Europe