Deconstruction of the Fletcher Oil Company building on Marquette Avenue reveals a historic sign from lumbering days.
HISTORY UNVEILED: Old Kneeland-Bigelow Sign Shows Up on Fletcher Building
Site Dates to Native American Village, French Occupation of 1700s
March 3, 2017
By: Dave Rogers
Bay City's remarkable history, dating back at least 300 years to the days of European contact, is recalled as an old riverfront factory and warehouse is being deconstructed on the West Side.
The sign of one of Bay City's most historic businesses, the Kneeland-Bigelow hardwood flooring company, is once again visible at 800 Marquette Avenue.
As crews dismantle the aging bones of the massive Fletcher Oil Company warehouse, the wood to be recycled by the City of Bay City, the old sign showed up this week when the siding was torn off the building.
From the shambles emerged an archaic portrait of the past glories of Bay City industry, rooted in the rough timber flowing here from northern and mid-Michigan's magnificent forests that half a century previously had begun to yield their bounty and attract entrepreneurs and investors from all points of the compass.
Retired shipmaster and maritime historian Alan Flood noted the Fletcher building was part of American Shipbuilding Co., successors to the Wheeler Shipbuilding yard located on that site.
And the Fletcher Site, just south of the building, was home to one of the area's most important archaeological digs under the direction of Dr. Earl Prahl of Michigan State University in the late 1960s. Numerous native American burials were recovered there, along with artifacts recalling the occupation of Michigan by the French during the reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King (1638-1718) and the thriving tribal life in the Saginaw (later Bay City) area.
In an article in American Antiquity in 1985, Robert C. Mainfort, Jr., postulates that a village of at least 800 Central Algonquins, mainly Ottawas and Chippewas, populated the Fletcher Site in the mid-1700s. An extensive burial area was originally discovered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1967.
Mainfort states that the site had been populated by paleo-Indians in pre-historic times as far back as the Woodland era, 500 B.C. to AD 1100. He asserts that it "was the locus for intensive settlement."
Population estimates and a 1762 map drawn by Thomas Hutchins led to Howard Peckham's 1970 estimate of 400 Saginaw tribe warriors living at the village here who participated in Chief Pontiac's uprising of 1763. Peckham, director of the William Clements Library at Ann Arbor, in 1947 wrote perhaps the earliest account of Pontiac's uprising based on documents in the library established by the famed Bay City industrialist and book collector.
Linking the Bay City Fletcher Site to a historic native uprising is frosting on the cake for local and Native American historians. Pontiac, an Odawa chief, led a loose confederation of warriors from various tribes in a futile attempt to drive the British from the region over dissatisfaction about abusive policies after their victory in the French and Indian War, Peckham concluded.
The deconstruction of the building not only engenders images of the past but gives promise for the future, as part of the strategic agenda of City Manager Rick Finn -- that of demolishing housing and industrial stock that has outlived its usefulness -- and recycling the materials where possible -- is accelerating.
The demise of the Fletcher building also cannot help but recall in longtime residents the emergence of a petroleum empire from the shards of the declining timber business. Fletcher's had busy locations scattered at intervals along US-23 prior to the coming of the expressways in the early 1960s.
Travelers from the south were greeted by a Fletcher sporting goods store on Broadway near Lafayette, several gas and oil stations as vehicles progressed on the road through the city and Fletcher businesses north into Pinconning and Standish. Besides vehicle fuel, hunters could purchase hunting and fishing licenses, rods, and tackle, guns and ammo, boots, red plaid shirts, hats and coats for woods-wear "up North."
Kneeland-Bigelow began its Bay City life at 19th and Water streets in 1901, under leadership of D.M. Kneeland, president, and Charles A. Bigelow, secretary-treasurer.
In 1905, "impelled by confidence in the future of Michigan hardwoods, the firm purchased the saw mill and all the timberlands of Wylie-Buel Co., and was reorganized as Kneeland-Lunden & Bigelow Co., the combined interests producing one of the largest timber holders and producers in the middle west."
The official yearbook of the Michigan Federation of Labor in 1907 observed "this company has added much to the popularity of Bay City as a lumber center. In all their dealings with patrons and the public, they have been fair and square and they are entitled to the support and cooperation of all well-thinking people."
By 1915, The Iron Age trade magazine was reporting a name change to The Bigelow-Cooper Company, organized with $150,000 capital stock to manufacture lumber and wood products, stating: "It has acquired a site and will at once proceed with the erection of a flooring plant, planing mill, etc. The incorporators are Charles A. Bigelow, D. M. Kneeland, and James Cooper."
In 1923 American Lumberman was reporting "All Kneeland-Bigelow Interests are Merged in New Company," noting production of maple, birch and beech flooring through the use of 16 modern dry kilns. Their extensive yards covering 60 acres, including a 700-foot dock on the Saginaw River and air drying sheds for selected hardwoods."
Bay City was a center of the hardwood flooring industry, including the W.D. Young firm in Salzburg, considered the largest in the world.
Gradually the titans of the timber field died and the massive firms they had built passed into other hands. I recall during World War II, as a boy growing up on the West Side, finding the Kneeland-Bigelow factory abandoned. Water had seeped into the basement and frozen, making a huge indoor skating rink for neighborhood boys. It was a once-in-a-lifetime unforgettable experience, recalled by the deconstruction activities currently underway.