The Hillsdale Screen Company and H.J. Gelzer & Son, Inc. Connection
With the departure of Alsons from the factory at the corner of Oak Street and Carleton Road, the building sat abandoned, an eyesore begging for a wrecking ball. To the rescue, in 2017 and 2018, came H.J. Gelzer & Son, Inc. They purchased the building and demolished the irreparably damaged two-story section. That part would be replaced with a parking lot and a new one-story building, affording easier parking and entry into the hardware. The historic four-story part of the building would more adequately house their extensive stock. The restored building becomes the latest incarnation of businesses in that location that included the Hillsdale Screen Company.
THE HILLSDALE SCREEN COMPANY
William T. Buchanan began his business not with screens, but with a planing mill near McClellan Street, west of Hillsdale College, built there to take advantage of the St. Joseph River for power. The scope of the business was expanded to include finished items of wood. At the urging of his son, Harry T. Buchanan, William added screen doors in 1882. These were so popular that within a year all other products were dropped and the company, (named in different historical accounts as Buchanan’s Screen Door Factory and the Screen Door Works), was able to expand.
William had a generous and trusting nature, which made him not such a great business man. His son, Harry, was made of sterner stuff. He bought his father’s interest in the screen company in 1890 and proceeded to make it a great success. Unfortunately, within a year two terrible events marred his accomplishment: A fire destroyed everything—the building, machinery and stock—and Harry died. Harry’s youthful but capable widow took over, and in 1895 the Buchanan Screen Door & Window Works opened its new factory on the corner of Railroad (Carleton Road) and Oak Streets.
(CLICK HERE to have a glimpse into Dr. Walter Sawyer's professional and private life.)
Around 1900 the company was sold to Dr. Walter H. Sawyer and George N. Smith. Dr. Sawyer’s brother-in-law was Corvis Barre, who became the president and reorganized the company. (Sawyer and Barre both married daughters of Charles T. and Harriet Wing Mitchell.) It was renamed the Hillsdale Screen Company. In 1901 a large two-story addition was built, making the factory one of the largest in the county. Then, on Dec. 2, 1903, the factory burned to the ground,.
The fire was discovered by Mrs. Tom Benedict, a cook at the Mosher House, as she walked from her house on Marion Street to work early in the morning. She saw a blaze in the boiler room at the Hillsdale Screen Company and pounded on the door to rouse the watchman. When she got no response she woke Frank Stoner, who lived across the street, and Stoner ran to alert the fire department. She also notified Don Clark, who ran to ring the fire bell. Hundreds of people arrived to help save as much of the contents as possible by running into the burning building! They managed to carry out the contents of the brick warehouse, including a carload of screen wire that had recently been received. They also managed to grab the books, a typewriter and a few other articles from the office on the second floor despite fire burning on three sides of them.
The fire burned so fast and so thoroughly that the loss sustained probably constituted the worst disaster in the history of the city. Losses were estimated at $40,000 to $45,000. Twenty train car loads of finished doors and windows were burned.
Corvis Barre, the majority shareholder of the Hillsdale Screen Company and its president, wasted no time in preparing to rebuild the factory. He had let lapse $20,000 in fire insurance and needed to get back in business quickly to recoup his losses. He employed the Campbell Company to repair or build new structures for occupancy within a week or two. Barre sent men to clear the debris, assessed what machinery could be used and what needed to be ordered, and where the workers would be placed on a temporary basis in the buildings that were not so badly damaged. In an impressive outpouring of support, other screen companies offered their surplus stock to Barre so that he could fill his current orders, a generous offer that wasn’t necessary because he was determined to be back in business quickly.
Amid this organized rush to recover from the fire, a grizzly discovery was made. A lantern and a small number of badly charred bones were found about 60 feet from the engine room, at a doorway to another room. It was assumed that the bones belonged to the night watchman, Joe Cawley. At first it was speculated that Joe had either been intoxicated or had been overcome by smoke. But a theory emerged that Joe was “foully dealt with and the fire kindled to cover the crime.” The basis for this was that Joe wore a good silver watch and had $60 or $80. The money would have burned, but there was no silver found in the melted metal near Joe’s corpse.
Two and a half years after the screen door factory fire, Laverne Fitton and Will Dunnigan were arrested for stealing chickens. Through things that were said by the men, Sheriff Eggleston and Undersheriff Bibbins began to suspect that Dunnigan had been involved in the murder of Joe Cawley and the fire at the Hillsdale Screen Company. Panicking after being confronted by Sherrif Eggleston, Dunnigan tried to smuggle out letters to his wife and Walter Knox. He drilled holes through the cement wall of his cell to pass the notes to tramps and other prisoners, but they ended up in the hands of the officers. The following letter to his wife was the most damaging: “I want to tell you something. If they ask you any questions tell them that I got home a bout 12 o’clock and if they ask you if I had a watch that night tell them No or No ring if they should ask you for I have told them that Walter Knox got the Watch and ring for I had to in order to clear my self and I guess I can if you help a little It will mean 5 years for Walter and Life for smith and I don’t know how much for my self yet now don’t for get to stick to what I have told you Will you for it will help me out a lot Now do as I have told you.”
That did it. It was assumed that the watch mentioned in the letter had belonged to the night watchman. Dunnigan, Walter Knox and George Smith were put on trial for the burglary and murder of Joe Cawley. Apparently, finding enough men to serve on a jury who would be able to presume the innocence of the three men was very difficult. A pool of 130 was required to find 12 who could begin at that point. In the end all three men were sentenced to life at hard labor in Jackson Prison.
Fire hit Railroad Street again on June 15, 1913, with the disastrous Corlett Lumber Yard Fire (CLICK HERE and scroll to the bottom to read more about that). This time the Hillsdale Screen Company was saved by firemen who concentrated their efforts on the west end of the building when the windows and doors on that side were discovered to be on fire. They were successful in putting out the flames before any of the machinery or stock was destroyed.
The Hillsdale Screen Company sold its products at wholesale to retail dealers in different states, utilizing the conveniently located railroad tracks nearby. The delightfully effusive promotional booklet, “The City of Hillsdale Michigan,” published in May 1915, lists some statistics that certify that the Hillsdale Screen Company was an important, successful concern: “In 1914 the firm made and shipped 13,000 dozen screen doors and 30,000 dozen window screens. It employed 85 people and had an annual pay roll of $25,000. It paid $70,000 for lumber and $40,000 for wire cloth. Recently the building was fitted with a sprinkler system at the cost of more than $5,000 …” reducing the insurance rate.
Hillsdale County legend—with no supporting evidence—contends that the Hillsdale Screen Company was the first to manufacture screen doors, that most wonderful invention that allowed people to open not only their windows, but also their doors for insect-free air circulation in warm weather. A 1928 illustrated catalog from the company lists numerous screen doors, screen door/storm door combinations, window screens and “The Hillsdale Ventilator Cloth Screen.” The last allows for air flow “without Drafts or Dirt, Rain or Snow.” It was touted as a way to not only prevent illness, but also as a way to protect curtains and furnishings.
In 1953 the Plymouth Flush Door Factory took over the building at 103 E. Carleton Rd. It was followed for a short time by Hillsdale Doors, Inc., owned by Richard Deller, before Hillsdale Doors moved to a new factory in the Hillsdale Industrial Park in 1977. Then the old Hillsdale Screen Company building was used by Alsons Corporation.
H.J. GELZER & SON
To understand the Gelzer Hardware story we need to begin with a quick bit of genealogy and a dash through a few decades. Henry J., the Gelzer hardware patriarch, originally opened a store in Delta, Ohio in 1893. About 1900 his son, Warner M., joined him in the business, which thus became H.J. Gelzer and Son. In 1919 Henry and Warner came to Hillsdale and purchased a grocery store from Herbert W. Samm. This was sold in 1923 and a hardware store was established on the north side of the current Gelzer furniture store. Henry and Warner added dry goods to their stock until the mid-1930s, when a furniture business replaced the dry goods. The hardware and furniture stores existed at 92-94 N. Howell St. until 1946, when the building at 56 N. Howell was purchased. That same year George B. Gelzer, Warner’s son, joined the business and the company was incorporated. In 1950 Warner’s daughter (and George’s sister), Ola Gelzer Baker, became a part of the business. During 1971 Grant Gelzer Baker, Ola’s son and great-grandson of the founder, joined the firm. Around 2010 Andrew Gelzer, grandson of George, also joined this enduring family business.
Through the years the store has expanded. The south section of H.J. Gelzer & Son, Inc. on Howell Street was actually built for that purpose by George Smith in 1891, who called it Hillsdale Hardware. (Yes! This is the same George Smith who bought an interest in the screen door factory around 1900!) To the north of Hillsdale Hardware was the Underwood Opera House. (CLICK HERE for more about it.) When movie theaters displaced live theater, the building became G.C. Murphy’s, a variety store that morphed into Bargain World. With the demise of Bargain World in the 1980s, the Gelzers expanded their hardware into that section. The narrow section to the north of Gelzer’s main hardware was Hoover’s Tavern before it, too, was purchased and became an area for sporting goods.
So … after almost 100 years on N. Howell Street, H.J. Gelzer & Son, Inc. will move to Carleton Road, reviving the building that housed the Hillsdale Screen Company.
JoAnne P. Miller 2017