Common sense to mufflers

Published 10:07 am Thursday, January 14, 2016

An exterior shot circa 1940 shows the Round Oak factory looking north to the warehouse. (Photos courtesy of the Dowagiac Area History Museum)

An exterior shot circa 1940 shows the Round Oak factory looking north to the warehouse. (Photos courtesy of the Dowagiac Area History Museum)

The view from the Dowagiac Area History Museum has changed dramatically in the past month.

The tearing down of Round Oak Warehouse No. 9 changes the streetscape of Dowagiac and made many current and former residents nostalgic for the days of a thriving industrial city.

While it was certainly time for the large building to come down, it did provide some perspective to the popular question of just how big Round Oak was. To be able to point to that building as one of two large warehouses definitely gave visitors a sense of how big Round Oak was in its heyday. We now clearly see Round Oak’s main manufacturing building, which now houses Ameriwood.

The site has an industrial history that long predates that warehouse. The 1872 Cass County Atlas shows a “Handle Factory” on a lot between La Grange and Spaulding Streets and soon Willis Farr began manufacturing his Common Sense Sand Band there.

What is a “common sense sand band,” you may ask? Myron Stark of Silver Creek Township invented the device, which attached to a wheel axle to scrape mud and sand from the axle — a great invention in the days of dirt roads — and Willis Farr manufactured it.

A rare 1890 bird’s-eye view of Dowagiac puts Willis Farr’s Sand Band factory on several lots on the corner of East Railroad between Spaulding and La Grange Streets.

According to the 1906 History of Cass County, Willis Farr’s Sand Band Factory “is recognized as one of the productive industries of this part of the state.” I take that statement with a grain of salt as the biographical portions of that book served largely as propaganda. An advance scout visited town to sell interests in the book and investors could have their biographies written up — in glowing terms of course. Farr clearly came up with the money to be featured in the book. This does suggest, however, that Farr was still manufacturing the Common Sense Sand Band in 1906. He continued at that site until 1916.

The Sand Band Factory grew over the decades and J.V. Lindsley and the Dowagiac Auto Car Company leased a portion of the factory to produce automobiles from 1908 to 1911. Contemporary reports clearly show that this was the site of Dowagiac’s brief foray in the nascent automobile industry.

Round Oak peaked in the 1910s with over 1,200 employees and annual sales in the millions. The warehouse south of Division on the west side of the railroad tracks did not fill its needs, so Round Oak purchased from Willis Farr the large parcel of land to construct another warehouse in 1916. Plans called for the 325 feet by 100 feet, three-story warehouse to incorporate 326,000 bricks, 6,000 barrels of cement, 6,000 yards of gravel and 200 tons of reinforced steel. The floors were 18 inches thick to hold the weight of the cast-iron stoves!

Round Oak used warehouse No. 9 for 30 years before selling it to the Goerlich Company, a muffler manufacturer based out of Toledo, Ohio, in late 1945. According to the Daily News, Goerlich chose Dowagiac because it was located halfway between the Toledo headquarters and a manufacturing facility in Grand Haven. Goerlich used the warehouse until 1967, when it announced the closure of the building. The closing of the Goerlich warehouse left more than 90 residents without jobs.

For the next 48 years, Round Oak Warehouse No. 9 saw minimal usage as a storage facility and some companies used it for other purposes over the years. It has sat mostly vacant for the past 20 years. Though Goerlich left town in 1967, the company name remained on the building when I moved to the area in 1998 and it has been known as the “Goerlich Building” to most longtime residents.

After years of neglect, old Warehouse No. 9 had fallen into such a state of disrepair that it would have certainly cost millions of dollars to rehabilitate it.

Now the building is gone, workers are removing the rubble; I look forward to seeing what will become of the space.


Steve Arseneau is the director of the Dowagiac Area History Museum. He resides in Niles with his wife, Christina, and children, Theodore and Eleanor.