Detroit's giant stove and tire

Workers prepare the stove for its move from Belle Isle’s entrance on Jefferson to the State Fairgrounds in 1965. At right is the giant tire on eastbound I-94 in Allen Park.

Two industries that once were of major importance to Detroit were outlived by giant symbols of their power that loomed over the city for years– the “World’s Largest Stove” and the “World’s Largest Tire.” The tire still survives, although the company and plant it symbolized are long gone from Detroit’s waterfront.

The “World’s Largest Stove” debuted at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, while the “World’s Largest Tire” debuted at the New York World’s Fair in 1964 as a working Ferris wheel. After the fairs, each took on new life at sites in Detroit serving as advertising landmarks and tourist attractions.

The stove, sponsored by George H. Barbour, vice-president of the Michigan Stove Company, replicated a “Garland” model kitchen range built by the firm. Factory superintendent William J. Keep designed the huge stove and had it carved in oak by an unnamed sculptor, possibly either John Tabaczuk or Joachim Jungwirth. 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.

The Detroit Stove Works building on Jefferson, circa 1940. The horse-drawn float in front was sponsored by the company, but it’s unclear which parade it was entered in. 

      In 1880, Detroit was the recognized center of the stove-making industry. But by 1902 the growth of other industries had relegated stove-making to sixth place in Detroit. An industry boom pushed stove-making back into second place by 1922.

In 1860, Jeremiah Dwyer and his brother James started the city’s first stove factory at the foot of Mt. Elliott on the near east side, where they prospered and expanded. The stoves could burn wood, coal or coke. Their success attracted others to the area. Gas ranges also became more popular and later replaced the old style stoves. By 1922 Detroit makers built 400,000 stoves worth $10 million in one year.

A stove devotee admires the world’s largest at its site on Jefferson in 1957. The Welbilt Company in is the background.

      The industry was dominated in the city by five major firms: The Michigan Stove Company, The Detroit Stove Works, The Penninsular Stove Company, the Art Stove Company, and the Detroit Vapor Stove Company. In later years the Welbilt Company emerged as the last surviving stove company and inherited the giant stove.

George Stark, Detroit News writer and city historian, recalled the original site at Jefferson near Elmwood and Adair Streets, where the stove first stood after it was brought back from Chicago. Already famous as the old battleground where Indian Chief Pontiac and his men massacred of some British troops, Stark remembered the place as having a majestic and historic tree:

“My own memory teaches me that this was a huge whitewood tree, in whose leafy branches the great chief, Pontiac, was supposed to have hidden to direct the ambush of the British troops, a gory episode which changed Detroit’s most colorful place name from Parent’s Creek to Bloody Run.

“Like the chief, the tree came to a melancholy end. I seem to remember that it was struck by lightning and was cut down, after disintegration set in. Parts of the tree were distributed as souvenirs, and here again, Miss Helen Keep supplies some good information.

“For it was her father, William Keep of the Michigan Stove Company, who had designed the giant stove, and who later fashioned the souvenirs out of the old tree. These took the form of gavels and there were also some desk boxes. Many persons, having an affection for the old scene, claim to have a piece of the old tree among their treasures. But how can they be sure? You can be sure if you received it from Helen Keep, who once had several, now has only one (in 1952).”

The stove replaced the tree as an attraction near the battleground at 3306 East Jefferson. In 1926, the stove was repaired and refurbished and moved up Jefferson to the west side of the approach to the Belle Isle Bridge near the headquarters of the newly merged Detroit Stove Works and the Michigan Stove Company at Jefferson and East Grand Boulevard.

The new company was known as the Detroit-Michigan Stove Company until 1955 when it was bought out by the Welbilt Corp. In 1957, Schaefer Bakeries leased the stove to advertise its bread and in 1965 the wooden stove, much worn down by ice, wind and rain, was moved again, this time to the Michigan State Fair grounds. It stood there until 1974, when it was disassembled and the parts put in storage at the Fort Wayne Military Museum. In 1998 it was restored and moved back to the state fair grounds. It was consumed by fire in August, 2011, believed to be caused by a lightning strike.

The giant stove sits in cinders on Aug. 14, 2011. Fire officials said it appears lightning from a storm caused it to catch fire. (Brandy Baker / The Detroit News)

Uniroyal plant grew up with Auto Industry

A looming gray fortress of concrete and brick across from Belle Isle on the Detroit River, Uniroyal’s Jefferson Avenue plant had been another local landmark for 73 years. Construction on the first buildings in the riverfront complex began in August 1905. Completed in October 1906, the plant housed the Morgan & Wright Bicycle Tire Co., once the world’s largest marker of bicycle tires. Morgan & Wright had migrated from Chicago to link up with Detroit’s developing auto industry.

In its early years, the tire plant housed several of the annual Detroit Auto Shows. Initially the 750 people who worked there produced 350 tires daily. In 1906, company President Samuel P. Colt commented on the auto-rubber connection: “Judging from the past, the growth of the automobile tire business will be of momentous importance in the future. Ten years ago, rubber tires were not important. Now they consume one-half of the raw unprocessed rubber product.”

The giant tire began life as a Ferris wheel at the New York World Fair in 1964.

      In 1906, the complex started with 900,000 square feet of floor space; by 1929 it grew to 2.5 million square feet. By the 1980s the complex included 20 buildings on 20 acres with 3 million square feet. In 1914, U.S. Rubber Company acquired and expanded the firm which later became Uniroyal. In 1929, the company decided to concentrate its auto-related production in the city. The Detroit facility brought new efficiency to the tire-making industry in the early ’30s. A new process nicknamed the “merry-go-round” introduced the efficiencies of assembly line production which substantially reduced material handling and dependence on skilled labor and training.

The Uniroyal Plant on Jefferson as it appeared in January, 1980, when the company announced it would be one of two tire plants to be closed in order to reduce company losses.

      The Uniroyal plant was a magnet for immigrants from Europe, and the South looking for rich job opportunities offered by an expanding auto industry. Like their neighboring auto plants, the Uniroyal facility sizzzled as a hotbed of union organizing activity in the 1930s. The Akron, Ohio, based United Rubber Workers union gained certification as the workers’ bargaining agent on St. Patrick’s Day in 1937. Four years later, U.S. Rubber became the first multi-plant rubber company to negotiate a company-wide contract with the union. This union pioneered the six-hour workday as a job-sharing device during the Depression and the notion spread to other unions in Detroit.

But labor peace was not to last. The short workday ended when the plant joined the war effort. New priorities required making aircraft tires and rubber aircraft gasoline tanks.

During its peak in the mid-1940s, 10,000 workers produced 60,000 tires per day. Many of the workers migrated to the city to work at Uniroyal and at other Detroit “Arsenal of Democracy” plants. Some would share boarding rooms, often sleeping in shifts, and shuttling between jobs at Uniroyal and nearby auto assembly plants. Eighty-hour workweeks were common. But by the late ’70s, sales had dropped sharply and operation fell into the red. Like steel and autos, tire manufacturing had become a mature, low-growth, low-profit margin business. People bought fewer cars, which meant fewer tires sold to auto manufacturers. Also the new radial tires, which lasted much longer than conventional bias-belted tires, resulted in less replacement business.

The abandoned Uniroyal plant as seen from Belle Isle in 1984.

      The tire industry battled over market share, with each of the big four – Goodyear, Firestone, Uniroyal and B.F. Goodrich – scrambling to keep position in the face of emerging foreign competition from Michelin and Bridgestone. The struggle hit Uniroyal especially hard. By January of 1980, the company announced plans to shut down the riverfront facility, idling its remaining 1,700 workers.

The city of Detroit purchased the riverfront property in 1980 and razed the buildings in 1985, with high hopes of developing the prime riverfront property. Today the still vacant land offers a clear view of the river and Belle Isle.

The only remaining symbol of the once proud Detroit tire manufacturing industry is the landmark giant tire on I-94 in Allen Park. Like the giant stove, it starred at another fair, the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. The gigantic tire doubled as a Ferris wheel. About 2 million people rode the wheel, including Jacqueline Kennedy and the Shah of Iran.

Allen Park’s giant tire as seen by night.

      After the fair, the mammoth 86-foot tire was dismantled and shipped by rail to Detroit, where it was reassembled outside a Uniroyal sales office. Later the sales office moved but the tire stayed put, becoming a symbol of Detroit’s industrial might.

The interior’s Ferris wheel assembly went to an amusement park and a new framework of structural steel was built to suppport the giant attraction. The tire weighs more than 100 tons and took 130 days to rebuild. The tire, described as “the largest ever built,” is designed to withstand hurricane force winds, and certainly blowouts.

In 1990, Michelin Tire bought Uniroyal-Goodrich Tire Co, and in 1994, announced plans to renovate the structure. The tire’s fiberglass cover, washed, painted and updated, emerged with a sporty new look. A company official, Lowell Eckart, Uniroyal brand marketing manager, said: “Updating the giant tire is symbolic of the revitalization that the Uniroyal brand itself is experiencing,” he said. “Given the brand’s prominent position as an original-equipment supplier, it is fitting that the symbol of the brand’s close connection to Detroit be refurbished.”

The Uniroyal plant attracted generations of men and women seeking a better life and a better future. Now only the giant tire remains to bear witness to the working lives of those who sweated and toiled in the riverfront factory that helped build the city of Detroit.

The site of the Uniroyal and Detroit-Michigan Stove plants as it looks today. The Belle Isle bridge is at top and Jefferson Ave. is at left.

By Vivian M. Baulch and Patricia Zacharias / The Detroit News