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PROGRESS 2019: A brief historical overview of local industries

Although not all of today’s successful businesses are dependent on Northeast Michigan’s natural resources of lakes, lumber and limestone, historically, those resources have and continue to play a vital role in our community’s economy.

Alpena is unique in that many local companies grew to be some of the largest in the nation, with several remaining in operation to this day.

Alpena’s commercial fishing, lumbering, cement, and block machine manufacturing once boasted of being the largest in their industries, as was the 1920 Alpena Garment Factory that closed in 1940. Alpena also found success in the wood paneling industry and paper-making industry. Several Alpena factories also played significant roles in the auto industry.

Commercial fishing was one of the first major industries in the area. Fishing villages were established on Thunder Bay Island before the first lumbermen arrived. During the 1930s, Alpena County had one of the largest fishing operations on the Great Lakes, employing upwards of 600 people in the industry. Today, two commercial fishing vessels are docked at the mouth of the Thunder Bay River, but neither are locally owned.

The lumbering industry put Alpena on the map in 1855 when George Fletcher and James Lockwood purchased 450 acres of land that stretched from the mouth of the Thunder Bay River up to Hillman, with land lying on both sides of the river. Businesses and social amenities quickly sprouted up in and around Alpena to support the families engaged in the lumber industry.

Although the timber boom dwindled in the 1890s, several timber-based companies continued to thrive. The Fletcher Paper Co. started in 1886 and operated until closing in December 2000. Although the paneling plant changed hands from Abitibi (1957), Abitibi Price (1967), ABTco (1993), Louisiana Pacific Co. (1999) to DPI (2004), the factory has continued to make a variety of paneling, pegboard, and marker board. The company’s Forest Management Program also continues to assist private landowners improve timber and wildlife productivity of their forestland.

Bob Granum was employed at Abitibi in 1971 when he recognized an opportunity for fabrication of hardboard that would better satisfy clients’ needs by offering a variety of board sizes with decorative finishes. Abitibi was not interested in creating a fabrication shop, so Granum reached out to a handful of professional colleagues in Alpena who could help him achieve his vision for the business known today as Panel Processing.

Among Granum’s partners were Grant Benjey, who helped design and fabricate a machine that would precisely punch holes to make pegboard, and Curt Eagle, who engineered the painting process and plant layout. By 1976, Panel Processing was the major supplier of pegboard to K-Mart and Walmart as they built stores across the country. Panel Processing has been in business for over 48 years. Headquartered in Alpena, the company operates 12 plants in six states and now offers an extensive line of flat-panel wood products sold and shipped across North America.

Norm Beauchamp was part of Panel Processing when he ventured out in 1978 to start Fiber Char Corp. Initially making wooden picture frames, the company is now a leader in manufacturing wood molding and wood components sold across the U.S. and seven different countries. The company is now owned and operated by Dennis Shultz.

North Eastern Michigan Rehabilitation and Opportunity Center Inc. started in 1968 to provide employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities, opening its first sawmill in 1971.

Today, NEMROC operates the only sawmill in the U.S. run by people with disabilities. The sawmill and lumber yards are drying millions of board feet per year, making basswood blanks, paint paddles, rulers, meter sticks, walking sticks, pallets, and crates sold throughout the U.S. They also make boxes for the U.S. Department of Defense.

Although lumber continues to be an important resource for several local industries, many businessmen shifted their interests from lumber to limestone in the early 1900s.

In 1899, local lumber barons invested in Alpena Portland Cement. In 1903, Michigan Alkali opened a quarry in the area and began mining and shipping limestone to produce soda ash to make plate glass.

Within 10 years, Alpena Portland Cement was sold to Michigan Alkali, which in 1908 would become known as Huron Portland Cement, the company that earned Alpena its nickname as “Cement City” for having the world’s largest cement plant.

In 1986, Lafarge took over operations, and, today, the plant is owned and operated by Lafarge/Holcim, which also owns and operates the Presque Isle Stoneport quarry.

Lafarge is not the only limestone quarry doing business in Alpena. The Levy Group of Companies/Specification Stones Products purchased what was the Glawe Quarry on Long Lake Avenue in 2009. Some of the material mined from that quarry has been used to build I-75 and many of the rails-to-trail bike paths in the region. The Levy quarry also produces asphalt materials, concrete stone, road base, and armor stone used for shoreline protection all around Michigan.

Herman Besser was among the local lumber barons in 1899 that first invested in Alpena Portland Cement.

While making shingles and barrel staves at the Besser-Churchill sawmill, Herman and his son, Jesse, expanded their business interests to making cement blocks. In 1902, a crude block-making machine was purchased to produce block for local construction. By 1904, Jesse improved the hand-tamp block machine, which started a series of innovative ideas that would catapult the Besser Co. to an international leader in the industry. Today, Besser continues to be a world leader in production equipment technology for concrete products.

Several local entrepreneurs gained experience working at the Besser Co. before owning and operating their own companies. Engineer W.G. Benjey helped Besser work on the breech mount for the 3-inch naval deck guns manufactured during World War II. While there, Benjey designed the largest cement mixer still in use at Besser Co. today. He Benjey went on to open his own manufacturing shop, which was later purchased in 1976 by another Besser Co. engineer, Michael Ableidinger.

Ableidinger, an Alpena native, graduated from Alpena High School before attending Michigan State University, where he earned a degree in engineering. Today, W.G. Benjey Inc. operates seven locations and designs, engineers, and manufactures parts for Besser, Lafarge, DPI, Carmeuse, Panel Processing, and other companies from all around the country, including automotive companies.

The late Ron Winter, an Alpena native graduating from AHS, attended Alpena Community College before going on to the University of Michigan to earn his degree in mechanical engineering.

Winter worked for a short time at Besser in the shop and drafting department before attending U-of-M. He also worked at several Alpena firms before founding his first company, Omni Metalcraft Corp.

Over the span of his career, Winter founded, co-founded or acquired several dozen additional companies, with operations in northern Michigan and various other locations in the U.S., mostly engaged in the manufacturing of industrial products for the automation and materials handling. Today, the Winter family businesses provide hundreds of jobs in Northeast Michigan.

No longer in existence, Thunder Bay Manufacturing, located on 11th Avenue, once operated as a foundry, making parts for the automotive industry, as did Detroit Gasket, once located on Long Lake Avenue.

Few may remember Kingsley Doutt’s factory, situated on the corner of Bagley and M-32, where the strip mall stands today.

Doutt held several patents to his inventions related to the auto industry. Doutt was the first to manufacture and supply all the automotive hydraulic and pneumatic piston cylinders for the auto industry. He also held a patent on an automatic shutoff valve for welding electrode coolant systems.

After selling that business, Doutt started King Valve, located in the proximity of where Neiman’s Family Market stands today. Valves were manufactured and sold to all types of auto industries. Doutt sold King Valve to a company in New York. During the process of moving the business, the building caught fire and burnt.

Doutt was part of what was known back in the day as the Fabulous Five, which included Benjey, George and John Baker (Baker Sheet Metal, now Besser Baker), Petch Manufacturing, and Denver Reynolds.

Reynolds’ manufacturing shop started in what is now the Alpena News building before moving to Cavanaugh Street. Other innovative engineers and local manufacturing companies, such as Eagle Engineering, provide services to other industries, including the Besser Co. and Panel Processing.

Many of today’s local industries may not rely on the natural resources of our lakes, lumber and limestone.

However, they do rely on a labor force that adheres to a work ethic that has helped to keep those businesses thriving for decades. Attracting and retaining talent is an ongoing challenge facing many industries today. Although potential opportunities still abound, unfortunately, the human resources are not as abundant as the natural resources are in Northeast Michigan.

Christine Witulski is executive director of the Besser Museum for Northeast Michigan.

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