South Park Historic District Moving Forward

3803 Electric Avenue, known as the Conner House. It is one of the earliest South Park homes and was depicted in a Factory Land Company booklet (ca 1902). George Conner was an industrial inventor and promoter of important South Park companies. A street in South Park is also named after him.

3803 Electric Avenue, known as the Conner House. It is one of the earliest South Park homes and was depicted in a Factory Land Company booklet (ca 1902). George Conner was an industrial inventor and promoter of important South Park companies. A street in South Park is also named after him.

With the preliminary questionnaire accepted by a Michigan State Historic Preservation Officer, further study and considerations of boundaries for the South Park Historic District are moving forward.  To show our progress, an excerpt from the preliminary questionnaire is given below (the formatting was changed because of website conditions, however).  It is a concise consideration of the early period of the district.


A Concise History of South Park: Beginnings and Early Development

By Vicki Priest (2016) (c) (Not to be used without permission of the author)

What is known as South Park, at the south end of the City of Port Huron, began in 1901[1] as a planned community that had minor similarities to a company town.  Unlike any other turn-of-the-century neighborhood or town known in the region, South Park was designed with a long (east-west) central park which was to be surrounded by homes, while the community’s north end was reserved for commercial enterprises and industrial plants.  Employees could buy lots (sometimes with houses already built on them) directly from The Factory Land Company, the owner and promoter, with easy terms.  And aside from some minor stipulations,[2] research so far suggests that neither the Factory Land Company or any associated company controlled residents or owned commercial businesses in the manner that traditional company town developers did.

“Eugene H. and Edward L. Moak were the prime movers in the Factory Land Company’s plan for the South Park community, said to have been an outstanding example of early city planning” [3] (Burnell and Marcaccio 1983).

 

The Factory Land Company, Developer and Promoters of South Park, 1900-1915 (Background)

The Factory Lands, or South Park, was the offspring of Eugene and Edward Moak’s desire to develop the area near both their residence and their place of employment, and the Port Huron Electric Railroad[4] Company’s happy collaboration (the electric railway, newly constructed all the way to Detroit, used to lie along the east end of the development, while the Port Huron Southern Railroad coursed along the west side).  Of course, some of the other land owners in the area, most notably the Sturges family, had to willingly sell or offer their lands for this development as well.[5]  The Factory Land Company, Ltd., was formed in 1900 as a means to draw capital, workers, and other manufacturers to the immediate vicinity of the newly established branch of the Port Huron Engine & Thresher Company (PHE&TC), The Port Huron Manufacturing Company.  This branch’s structure, which was probably built between 1899 and 1900, still stands along 24th Street between Moak and Conner Streets; within a very short time it was known simply as Plant 2 of the PHE&TC.  The chairman of the Factory Land Company was William Jenks (attorney and historian)[6], with Eugene Moak as director and Edward Moak as secretary (The Factory Land Company, ca. 1902-1903, and Moak 1982).

In order for The Factory Land Company to develop the land the way it envisioned, the owners had to convince land owners, the City, and others to make agreements with them.  The north part of the development, the 50 acres set aside for industrial plants, was reverted back to the jurisdiction of Port Huron Township for the purpose of enticing companies with lower taxes.  The park that runs through the residential area was sold to the City of Port Huron in perpetuity, with the agreement that the City would build a school in it and lay out the roads surrounding it.  For its part, The Factory Land Company promised to the City that employment due to their development would rise by about 100 more workers per year for the first three years (which they successfully did).   Amazingly, perhaps, the land contracts between The Factory Land Company and lot purchasers included a “Cancellation Option” which was based on the promises the City and The Factory Land Company made to each other.[7]

Since The Factory Land Company met its obligation to employ more workers per year for three years, it can be opined that, by their own measures–the City’s and the company’s–the development was a success.  Also, for its part, the City put in the roads around the park and built a fine school, Lincoln School (within the park on, east side of 28th Street, but no longer extant).   South Park seemed to be destined for growth and success.  However, development in the earlier years may not have been as intense as hoped for.  It is impossible to say without further research, but this tentative assessment is based on a seeming lack of a growth in South Park between (at least) 1910 and 1915 (see next paragraph) and a dip in Port Huron’s and St. Clair County’s population during South Park’s formative years.  Michigan’s population grew at this time, as did Wayne County’s (based on US Census data).

South Park Population graphsIt is theorized that the new automobile plants that opened in the Detroit area drew workers away from Port Huron and St. Clair County during this period.

In a preliminary examination of Port Huron’s historic directories for Plat 1 (1901) and the industrial reserve, it was found that in 1910 there were approximately 153 head of households (the individuals attached to an address), compared to 151 in 1915 and 250 in 1920.   The number of new (and not yet occupied) houses in 1920 far outpaced the other years surveyed so far.  Clearly, there was a growth spurt after 1915.  The number of industrial enterprises remains relatively steady throughout the first decades, while commercial business numbers grew (the number of commercial businesses is harder to easily determine since the Port Huron directories usually only provide the owner’s name and not the business associated with the address).

For reasons so far undetermined, The Factory Land Company was dissolved in 1915.  Whatever the reasons, it seems appropriate that the first layer of significance of the proposed district, based on the community planning and promotion carried out by this firm, should mirror the years the firm existed:  1900-1915.  However, it seems that South Park’s heyday was just beginning between 1915 and 1920.  It seems likely that the amount of growth and the influence this growth had on the City of Port Huron (and Port Huron Township) during the next couple of decades (or more), will account for an additional period of significance.  More research will have to be carried out for a determination, but, besides the residential and commercial growth, it is known that a number of industrial firms based in South Park were very successful during this period (nationally and regionally) during this tentative second phase of South Park’s history.[8]

South Park as an Early Example of Industrial Town Promotion by a Non-municipality (Importance)

South Park is important regionally (perhaps even at the state level) as an early, privately–as opposed to municipally–planned community along the lines of a utopian industrial satellite town.  “This tract of land [Plat 1] was the first true example of City Planning in this area . . .” and the park “at that time was one of the prettiest parks in the State” (Moak 1982: 68, 69).  The illustration below, from The Factory Land Company (ca 1902-1903:16-17), not only shows the earliest factories, but the organically landscaped park.  An early photograph of the eastern end of the park[9] confirms this type of beautiful landscaping was carried out.

S Park brochure page 17 - CopyThe earliest example of a utopian company town is that of Pullman, Illinois, which was constructed and quickly occupied in the early 1880s.  It was beautiful for a company town, but employer oversight of virtually all aspects of employees’ lives contributed to the nationally-felt Pullman Strike of 1894.  Pullman was like a gilded cage from the gilded age.  The founders of South Park, like the rest of the country, would have known the details concerning Pullman.  In fact, it’s obvious from both a booklet and a brochure published by The Factory Land Company that the South Park founders were perfectly cognizant of both employer fears and employee wants.

Aimed toward employers, this is from the brochure (no date; accents are in the original): “Port Huron factories have developed a novel Labor Contract System which has proved to be satisfactory to workmen, profitable to employers, and a safeguard against strikes.”  The booklet (ca. 1902-1903) promotes South Park to all parties, but has sentimental quotes and writings aimed at workers.  More to the point, we read: “A rented house is not a home . . . Don’t pay for the landlord’s house, but pay for a home of your own” (page 19).  In practical and enticing terms, prospective workers were told:

“$5.00, What it will do.  $5.00 (and $1.00 a week).  Put it into one of these lots, and you put it into manufacturing too.  You get a home on easy terms at fair price, and your dollars are paid to a Company which appends them near your property and increases its value . . .” (page 14).

What else might have influenced the founders of The Factory Land Company?  Community residents insist that the founders had visited a similar town that informed their future plans, perhaps in Indiana; hopefully, further research will divulge this secret.  In any case, the Michigan historic district of Gwinn, Michigan (in the Upper Peninsula), a “model town,” is from a later date:  it was designed and subsequently constructed between 1907 and 1915.  Firestone Park, now a part of Akron, Ohio, wasn’t begun until 1915, and Kohler, Wisconsin, began at the same time as South park (amazingly, the Kohler company still controls building and property standards).

No doubt that highly educated and civically involved persons like William Jenks were aware of The City Beautiful Movement.  Perhaps one or more of the founders attended the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893) where The Movement really gained ground.  Certainly the aesthetic of both Pullman and later City Beautiful Movement examples would have been enough for them to envision such a community as South Park.  It seems that the social reform ideal of the City Beautiful Movement, coupled with the knowledge that controlling unfavorable rents spelled disaster (this was the primary cause of the Pullman Strike), lead to the very different social and economic structure of The Factory Land Company’s South Park.[10]

The manner in which The Factory Land Company promoted South Park appears to be a very early example of industrial town promotion.  While industry-poor municipalities in Canada began promoting their towns by providing some subsidies to companies beginning in the latter 1800s, promotional brochures like The Factory Land Company produced show up years later in the United States, according to Stephen V. Ward, and these were from efforts by municipalities, not private enterprises.  In his book Selling Places: The marketing and promotion of towns and cities 1850-2000 (1998), the earliest examples are as follows:  1898 Canada, Oshawa [Ontario], The Manchester of Canada[11]; 1900 Britain, Luton as an Industrial Centre; 1903 America, Atlanta: The Twentieth Century City; 1907 Canada, Toronto: Favored Field for Factories.  As can be seen, The Factory Land Company is an early example of an American industrial town promoter.

Integrity of South Park

The community of South Park, being in an economically depressed city located in an economically depressed state, has lost some of its buildings, the most noticeable, perhaps, being commercial.  The western portion of the industrial tract (between 28th and 32nd streets) has lost all of its historic buildings and therefore would not contribute anything (it seems) to the proposed historic district.  However, many of the industrial buildings in the larger eastern tract remain extant.

As a whole, when one enters the heart of South Park, a difference is definitely seen and felt.  The park is still a park, though it is not landscaped in the original fashion, and the school, built in 1904, was demolished in 1977[12] (the name of the park was changed to Lincoln without long-time resident approval and it’s likely that a petition, together with clear and researched arguments for changing it back to its original name, would be successful).  The neighborhood retains many, if not most, of its homes built during the early years of South Park’s development.  While some homes have been demolished due to anti-blight measures, the neighborhood is perhaps surprisingly “intact.”  So far, there hasn’t been out-of-place infill. . . .

Footnotes

[1] Plat 1 and the industrial reserved area (unplatted with the City for many years) are the main South Park tracts.  Smaller and later plats are: Plat 2, north of the industrial tract, 1903; Plat 3, northwest of the two first tracts, 1904; Plat 4, north of Plat 2 and discontiguous with other plats, 1907.  These latter plat areas were never fully developed or took far longer to receive city services, like sewer and trash service.

[2] No saloons, and building set-backs from front property line.

[3] The authors are citing a 1900 book by William W. Black (self-published), Port Huron in 1900, a copy of which this author has not been able locate as of yet.

[4] Also known as Dixon’s, after two of three owners, Albert and Fred Dixon.  The third owner was William L. Jenks.

[5] While not the original patentees of the area, the Sturges family owned much of what was to become Plat 1, but kept the 14 southernmost acres for themselves.  According to a letter from a descendant of Barlow Sturges [a copy of the letter did not include the writer’s name], the extant house was built in 1847 (Jean Waddell collection, South Park box: Streets, collections of the Port Huron Museum); an 1859 map shows a structure in the house’s location.  A community member shared that a Sturges family member has always lived in the home. The church the family helped to found is across the street.  These Sturges-related properties should be researched more for potential National Register nominations.

[6] William Jenks was an attorney, businessman, the key figure in bringing a Carnegie Library to Port Huron, the “historian of St. Clair County,” and basically the founder of the Michigan State Historical Commission.

[7] From a copy of a land contract between F.A. Peavey (a director and officer of the major South Park companies) and the Factory Land Company for Lot 1 in Block 23 of Plat 1.  Perhaps because of who Mr. Peavey was, the building restrictions specifics were left blank.  These restrictions normally defined how many feet back a structure minimally had to be from the front lot line, and a minimum market value for the newly built house.  On file with the Port Huron Museum collections, South Park box: Deeds, Titles, Land Contracts.

[8] Anker-Holt was one, a national leader in the manufacture of cream separators; South Park Manufacturing Company, later called Moak Machine and Foundry, was quite successful and remained in business until more recent times; Port Huron Engine & Thresher Company sold their machines nation-wide and were well known, and when they foundered and eventually closed in the late 1920s, the buildings were used by other successful manufacturers.  And even though it didn’t last as long as hoped (1918-1934), the Great Lakes Foundry had become the world leader in flywheel manufacturing (Moak 1982: 82).  Ogden & Moffett Trucking Company was one of eastern Michigan’s largest as well.

[9] On file at the Port Huron Museum Carnegie Center, South Park box “Streets,” Jean Waddell collection.

[10] From Wikipedia pages on Gwinn, Michigan, and Kohler, Wisconsin; Ohio.com from June 25, 2015, “Akron’s Firestone Park Celebrating Neighborhood’s Centennial,” and Hardy Green (2010).

[11] “Oshawa had one of the most aggressive industrial promotion policies of any Ontario settlement in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century” (Ward page 166).  Ward also quotes a newspaper editorial from Oshawa, dated 1873, exhorting the benefits to all from “fostering manufacturing enterprise” (page 149).  When McLaughlin Carriage Company (later, General Motors of Canada) considered moving after a fire at its facilities, Oshawa was successful in keeping the company there after winning a “bonus award” with other competing municipalities; this was in 1900 (page 147).

[12] Port Huron lost a great many of its fine structures in the 1970s.

Bibliography (see footnotes for additional sources)

Burnell, Mary C., and Amy Marcaccio. Blue Water Reflections: A Pictorial History of Port Huron and the St. Clair River District. Virginia Beach: The Donning Company Publishers, 1983.

Green, Hardy. The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills that Shaped the American Economy. New York: Basic Books, 2010.

Moak [Jr.], Eugene H. History of the Moak Family and Other Families, Including Brief Histories . . . Port Huron: Self, 1982.

The Factory Land Company, Ltd. Manufacturing and Homes in Port Huron, Michigan. Port Huron: Port Huron Engine & Thresher Co. Press, ca. 1902-1903.

Ward, Stephen V. Selling Places: The marketing and promotion of towns and cities 1850-2000. New York: Routledge, 1998.

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