Up Front

Five Faves — 'Lost' Products

Forgotten products that were once made in Kalamazoo
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A wooden windmill from around 1880 made by B.S. Williams and Co. Photo courtesy of Kalamazoo Valley Museum.

For years, Kalamazoo produced a variety of products that made the city famous around the state, around the country and around the world. Some of these even gave our community nicknames such as “The Paper City.” Even today, many people outside of Kalamazoo know our community from the taxicabs, fishing rods, buggies, stoves and musical instruments — just to mention a few products — that came out of the factories here. Of the products no longer made in Kalamazoo — lost products, as I call them — here are five of my favorites, some of which might surprise you.

Windmills

For many years before and after the Civil War, the primary industry of Michigan and many other states was agriculture. Several companies in Kalamazoo produced many types of agricultural implements, including windmills, which were first made here in 1867. Twenty years later, five local companies, employing a total of 200 workers, were manufacturing more than 4,000 windmills a year. At one time Kalamazoo produced 80 percent of all windmills in the world. Kalamazoo-made windmills could be found in Europe, South America, Africa and Australia. The image shown here is a wooden model from around 1880 made by B.S. Williams and Co., which later made silos. The Phelps and Bigelow Co. continued to make windmills here until the late 1940s.

Corsets

For many years, corsets were a part of everyday life for women, and one of the largest manufacturers of women’s undergarments was in Kalamazoo. The Kalamazoo Corset Co., which moved here from Three Oaks in 1891, was located on the northeast corner of North Church and Eleanor streets and used turkey feathers rather than whalebone to stiffen the garments. Although it was not the only corset company in the city, it was the largest. It employed more than 800 workers, mostly women, and by 1906 produced 1.5 million corsets a year in more than a hundred styles. A three-month strike in 1912 led to the company’s bankruptcy and reorganization. It was renamed the Grace Corset Co. and remained open, although it was much smaller, until 1957.

Regalia and Uniforms

Frank Henderson, known now more for his house than his business, started out making saddles and harnesses in the 1860s but later abandoned that enterprise and instead manufactured trunks and travel bags, along with regalia and uniforms for the Knights Templar part of the Masons. By 1873, he chose to concentrate not only on equipment and clothing for lodges and fraternal organizations, but also on uniforms and other supplies for the military, bands, civic organizations and fire departments. The Henderson Co. merged with the Ames Co. in 1893, becoming the Henderson-Ames Co. and expanding its offerings to decorative swords. By 1924, the company notched more than $1 million in annual sales. A merger with the Lilley Co. in 1933 led to the company’s departure to Ohio.

Flinch

While two Kalamazoo companies made playing cards in the 1890s and early 1900s, bookkeeper Arthur Patterson, who worked at a local book and stationery store in the city, decided to do something different, creating a unique card game called Flinch that caught on across the United States. The game, created in 1901, involves 150 numbered cards and is played by anywhere from two to eight people. The object of the game is to get rid of your cards in the proper sequence. Within two years, Patterson sold 1 million copies of Flinch, and by 1930 it was one of America’s most popular games. After selling more than 7 million sets, Patterson sold Flinch to Parker Brothers. The game continues to be available.

Sleds

In 1894, two Kalamazoo companies merged to make a product highly popular during the winter months — sleds. The Kalamazoo Sled Co., located on Third Street, eventually produced 80 styles of sleds, ranging in price from 20 cents to $3.50. By 1906, the company made more sleds than any other company in the United States. Very early on, the Kalamazoo Sled Co. diversified, also making folding chairs for ferries and circuses, along with lawn furniture and educational toys. It produced arctic sleds during World War II. The company was known for the Champion line of sleds and began to manufacture the plastic Champion Flying Disc in the 1950s. The Gladding Corp. purchased the company in 1968 and moved all operations to Maine four years later.

The images are from the Kalamazoo Valley Museum’s collection. To see more images from the collection, go to kalamazoomuseum.org.

About the Author

Lynn Houghton

Lynn Houghton is the regional history curator at the Western Michigan University Archives and Regional History Collections. She leads the Gazelle Sports Historic Walks, a series of free architectural and historic walks held at various locations in Kalamazoo County during the summer and fall, and is the co-author of Kalamazoo Lost and Found. She also participated in the PBS series 10 that Shaped America. She has a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in history from WMU and a master’s in library and information science from Wayne State University.

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