Ken-Way prefabricated concrete homes of Port Huron, Michigan

by Vicki Priest (c)*

Many people seem to know of the small concrete Ken-Way homes in Port Huron, but that they were a very local and very short-lived phenomenon seems less widely known.  Ken-Way, or sometimes just “Kenway,” homes were developed by Kenneth Wyillie of Port Huron.  They were made by assembling locally constructed pre-cast walls–which included insulation, wiring, and plumbing–at the house site (the foundation and roof were not pre-cast).  The homes were built from about 1950 to 1957.  These years are representative of articles or ads found regarding new Ken-Way homes in the local newspaper, but some homes may have been built shortly before or after.

An article from November 1951 (The Times Herald, page 5) reported that “several of the modernistic, flat-roofed buildings already have been erected in the Port Huron area.”  A 1950 ad states that they had built a “test home” five years prior.(1)  It can be assumed–perhaps wrongly–that the address of the home they provide in the ad is that “test home.”  Whether it is the 1945 test or another early example, it is still standing and shown below the pictured ad.

Ken-Way Homes ad, first one discovered so far (The Times Herald 09-17-50, p 23).

2573 Robbins Court, Port Huron–the house mentioned in the above ad. If this is the Ken-Way test home, it was built in 1945 (author photo, 06-04-19).  It is unknown at this time if the hip roof was added later.  The front door is around the right corner.

An ad from September 1955 states that “over 120 Ken-Way Homes” had been built in the area.  While preliminary research has not divulged why Ken-Way homes were built only for such a short time, it seems that an impetus for their development was the Housing Act of 1950 (Public Law 81-475, which amended the VA Home Loan Guaranty Program of 1944 and 1945).  Now, veterans or their widows could more easily purchase a home with the government’s backing, and one that met minimum construction standards.  Ken Wyllie, having experience in the building trades (2), saw the opportunity to sell low-cost housing via the Housing Act.(3)  This can be seen in his ads and news articles, which include statements such as:

“The current two-bedroom model is to retail for $5,375.  This means that a non-veteran buyer, owning a lot, would be able to have one of the houses erected and financed through the FHA with an initial investment of less than $1000.  For veterans, the first cost would be considerably lower. . . .  So with full realization that seeing is believing, we invite the general public, especially GI’s, to take a look at our little [model] home . . . ” (4)  and, “GI’s You’ll Look Far To Beat This Value!” (5)

As one might imagine, Kenneth Wyllie was not the only person in the country to see the possibilities of the Housing Act.  National Homes Corporation of New York advertised their “National Thrift Home” and others in 1950.  Their ad showed four homes and stated that “15 floor plans offer you 94 variations in designs!”  The prefabricated homes were available in 500 cities.(6)  Of course, there was already a long tradition in America of buying “kit,” “ready-cut,” or mail-order homes, with Sears, Montgomery Wards, Aladdin, Ready Built, and others doing such business for decades.

But why the quick demise of the Ken-Way home?  Marketing did not seem to be the problem.  Ken-Way Homes seems to have been good at it, as it even had a “Ken-Way Korner” segment on the radio.(7)  Perhaps it was the style?  The modern style with flat roofs was not favored by everyone (8); however, they were soon built with a choice of roof styles.  They are very low to the ground, yet many exist today in very nice form.  One was found so far that has a second floor addition, so they must be structurally sound.  Further research is needed, and comments are welcomed.  Considering that mail-order homes no doubt always provided stiff competition, perhaps labor costs proved to be too much in the long-run.

Indicative of this possibility is a workers’ strike in 1953.  Port Huron Building and Construction Trades Council members picketed the manufacturing location of Ken-Way Homes, 2009 Petit Street, and Wyllie had sought an injunction to prevent the picketing.  In refusing Wyllie’s request Judge Kane found, in part, “that wages paid were vastly below the union minimum scale and were equally below the minimum standard for its members in relationship to benefits over time.” (9)  In the spring of the next year, 1954, an ad announced a future 5% increase in house prices. (10)

Below are photos of a small number of Ken-Way homes as they appear today.  It is noted in the captions if there appear to be more in specific neighborhoods.

2204 Hancock, Port Huron. While this home had not yet been found listed in a historic newspaper, it is most certainly a Ken-Way house (author photo May 30, 2019).  This neighborhood, north of the east-bound entrance to the Blue Water Bridge, seems to have many Ken-Way homes and the next three are from that area.

2417 18th Avenue, Port Huron. This home is assumed to be a Ken-Way by visual identification. Though it may be hard to see in the photo, it has the distinct door wall that juts out from the other wall (author photo, May 30, 2019).

2323 18th Avenue, Port Huron. This home is identified as Ken-Way via a 1957 newspaper ad. Note the jutting front wall. The house appears to have a back addition as well as a newer second story (author photo May 30, 2019).

2806 17th Avenue, Port Huron. This home has the distinctive jutting front wall (the wall the the right of the door is set back a short distance) (author photo, June 4, 2019).

2543 Spruce Street, Port Huron (if Google street view is not mistaken). The home directly across the street looks to be the same model as this one. This home was advertised as a modified Ken-Way for re-sale in 1958 (Google street view image from 2013).  Note the left jutting wall.

Ken-Way homes identified in newspaper ads and not shown here (to 1958 only):  2741 Michigan Street, Port Huron (demonstrated in 1951–still standing?); 7830 Lakeshore Road (larger home, for sale in 1952); 1313 New Hampshire, Marysville (now 1323?, for sale in 1955); 1650 Mansfield, Port Huron (for sale in 1956, now gone); 2300 Krafft Road, Port Huron (for sale in 1957); 2532 10th Ave., Port Huron; and many on 25th Street (definitely 2515, 2603, 2627) for sale in various years.

Further research and a historical buildings survey of the neighborhoods could possibly identify most Ken-Way homes.

* Cite author and web source when using this article for research and/or quoting.  For significant use of the research information used in the article, contact the author via porthuronhistory@gmail.com for permission.

Sources and notes:

(1) The Times Herald, September 17, 1950, page 23.

Ken-Way ad from December 30, 1954 (The Times Herald, page 15).

(2) A 1946 ad for Home Roofing & Siding Co. shows Wyllie as manager (The Times Herald, Feb. 23, page 7).  An ad-type of “article” from that same year boasts that he had 12 years experience in building, roofing, siding, and insulation (The Times Herald, Jan. 7, 1946, page 7).  In what seems a reverse foreshadowing, the article says he’s a “man with a past,” with the article using a twist of the normally negative expression to introduce his good past.  However, Wyllie soon acted in ways to give him a negative reputation. In 1947 he punched a Union representative in the face 2 or 3 times, breaking his nose.  Charges were not filed at first, but 2 years later Wyllie was found guilty of assault and his victim, Wesley Kercher, was awarded damages (The Times Herald, June 9, 1947, page 1, and other articles from that year, and Dec. 17, 1949, page 2).  Another lawsuit was filed against Wyllie in 1949, the plaintiffs claiming that they purchased the timber rights to a property that Wyllie owned, but that Wyllie sold the property before they removed the timber.  The suit was settled out of court (The Times Herald, Sept. 17, 1949, page 5).  Wyllie was in trouble yet again when, having not paid the damages from the Kercher suit, he was arrested in 1950 (The Times Herald, May 4, page 2).

(3)  Legislative History of the VA Loan Guaranty Program, Department of Veterans Affairs (www.benefits.va.gov), last updated August 23, 2006.

(4) The Times Herald, November 9, 1952, page 5.

(5)  The Times Herald, January 17, 1953, page 3.

(6)  ClickAmericana.com (accessed May 31, 2019).

(7)  It is not known how long the radio segments went on, but one was advertised on November 3, 1953 in The Times Herald, being scheduled for 7:15-7:30 am, on WTTH 1380 (ABC) radio.

(8)  “”Battle of Design’ Looms Over Kenway Housing Units,” a Marysville controversy, in The Times Herald, February 15, 1953, page 11.

(9) “No Injunction in Picket Case,” The Times Herald November 14, 1953, page 5.

(10)  The Times Herald, March 29, 1954, page 15.

 

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Peeps in (local) History Contest Entries–and Winners

We decided to announce the winners on the same page used for the entries, making it easier to find and also giving the opportunity for everyone to see all entries (if they haven’t already).  It was difficult for us to finalize some winners, as judging for a contest like this is necessarily subjective to a certain degree.  And we’d like to give something to everyone simply for participating and trying!  Thank you all!  We wanted to mention that although a couple of the entries did not meet the rules for the contest, we really liked them anyway and do not wish to discourage anyone.  We have a similar contest planned for next year; it will be announced sooner and will hopefully appeal to more people.  Watch out for it!  The winners are announced with their photos below (images can be clicked on in order to view them in a larger size).  Prizes are listed at the contest page, but we have added more “honorable mention” prizes ($10 gift certificates from the Raven Cafe) since that was posted.

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Below are the entries to the Peeps in (local) History contest, in no particular order.  Please enjoy looking at them, and feel free to leave comments–we’ll be reading these and taking them into consideration as we decide on the winners!

Honorable Mention.  Laura White.  “Phineas went all through town and he was so tired he needed to rest. He thought that this would be a great time for a selfie in front of his favorite clocks, Moshers.  (After this he he went on his way to many more places in Port Huron which he may show you in the future.)”  Mosher’s is at the corner of Huron and McMorran, in downtown Port Huron.  The Mosher’s clock was purchased by Clarence Mosher in 1912 (it was a used clock and was originally hand-cranked), and formerly at 209 Huron Avenue.

Honorable Mention.  Melissa Kohl.  “Mrs Peep and her lil’ peeps go to school.”  (Garfield Elementary at 1221 Garfield Street, Port Huron.)  PHAHPA note:  Garfield was originally a junior high school, and opened in 1925.

Kimberly Allen. Historic Bush Building that used to be at the northwest corner of Military and Water streets.  Photo has no date; from the Port Huron Museum Collection.  An astonishing building (as is the ornate bank building next door), now lost:  Harvey S. Bush building.

First Place Winner.  Andrew Kercher.  “Freshly back from the war, Peeps in Jeeps and even a DUKW parade down Huron Avenue” (Russell Sawyer collection, ca. 1946).

Randi Mathieu. (Historic postcard from the early 1900s)

Lauren Nelson. “This peep family is enjoying the traveling Michigan in the Civil War exhibit at Port Huron Museum’s Carnegie Center.” PHAHPA note: the museum is housed in the original Carnegie Library, built 1902-1904.

Carol Whiting. “Penelope Peep is checking out SC4 [St. Clair Community College], which is almost a century old.” PHAHPA note: The building shown is a former Port Huron High School, which was built in 1906 (113 years ago). Port Huron Junior College, the forerunner of SC4, moved into this building in the 1950s. PHJC was established in 1923 (96 years ago), and the named changed to St. Clair Community College in 1967.

Second Place Winner.  Abigail B. 4th grade student (M. Kohl, teacher). Pere Marquette RR bridge, 1931.

Austin K. 3rd grade student (M. Kohl, teacher).  Huron Lightship, 1920.  PHAHPA note:  This ship, formerly “The Relief” and the last of its kind, was designated a National Landmark in 1989.

Clara B. 4th grade student (M. Kohl, teacher).  Lighthouse, 1829.

Grant D. 4th grade student (M. Kohl, teacher). Blue Water Bridge, 1936 (PHAHPA note:  the first span opened in 1938, and it is the background span here).

Greyson J. 3rd grade student (M. Kohl, teacher). Thomas Edison Museum, former Grand Trunk RR depot, 1858.  PHAHPA note: listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.

Jenna F. 5th grade student (M. Kohl, teacher). Blue Water Bridge, 1936 (PHAHPA note: the first span opened in 1938, and it is the foreground span in this photo).

Honorable Mention.  Nolan G. 3rd Grade (M. Kohl, teacher). St. Clair Tunnel, completed in 1891.  PHAHPA note: This is a recognized National Landmark, a higher level of designation than the National Register of Historic Places.

Tessa B. 5th grade student (M. Kohl, teacher).  St. Clair Tunnel, completed in 1891. PHAHPA note: This is a recognized National Landmark, a higher level of designation than the National Register of Historic Places.

Third Place Winner.  Siri C. 5th grade student (M. Kohl, teacher). Federal Building, 1877.  PHAHPA note: constructed from 1874-1876, and listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

Honorable Mention.  Taylor H. 5th grade student (M. Kohl, teacher). Lighthouse, 1829.

Please leave comments below!  Winners will be announced on April 20th.

We most wholeheartedly THANK the sponsors of this contest–please thank them too!  Enter State Right, Kate’s Downtown, The State Perceptory (in downtown Port Huron), and Raven Cafe.

Peeps in (local) History Contest

Mrs. Peep and her children, strolling along Military Street in 1908. Unbeknownst to her, time lord Dr. Who is right behind her. What disaster could this portend?! (V. Priest, 2019)

PEEPS IN (local) HISTORY CONTEST!

Take photos of peeps (any type) at or in an area historic property or with a historic photo (the photo above is an example).  Photos can be a close-up of a nice detail; don’t be afraid to get creative, and certainly have fun!  Filtered, modified, and “photoshopped” images are also welcome! The included property doesn’t have to be a “landmark,” but can even be your own home–just as long as it’s at least 50 years old. Creativity is the top consideration, not quality (you don’t have to be a professional photographer!).  The image above is a regular photo that has had filters applied to it (using ipiccy.com, but there are other free photo editing applications out there too).  Photos taken with phones are of course acceptable.  Rules and submission policy are below.

Deadline is April 13, 2019.  Photos will be posted at PHAHPA.ORG at that time, and comments accepted.  We will consider comments when judging the entries.  Winners will be announced on April 20th.

Where the photos can be from:  Port Huron, Port Huron Township, Fort Gratiot Township, or Marysville

Prizes (4):  1st Place, Enter Stage Right gift certificate for 2 tickets to a production + refreshments, plus a PHAHPA 16 GB flash drive; 2nd Place, Enter Stage Right gift certificate for 2 tickets to a production + refreshments; 3rd Place, $20 gift certificate to Kate’s Downtown coffee restaurant, and;  Honorable Mention, $10 gift certificate to Port Huron’s downtown vinyl record store, State Perceptory.

Please support our kind sponsors, representing the local arts and downtown businesses!

Check out Enter Stage Right and their upcoming plays!  609 Huron Avenue, Port Huron.

Caffeine comes in great packages at Kate’s Downtown.  Give them a try next time you’re in the heart of Port Huron. 

Visit State Perceptory for vinyl records and more in downtown Port Huron (219 Huron Ave., open 10 am to 7 pm Mon-Sat).

Submitting photos:

  1.  Photos can be any size–large file sizes may be reduced when we post them to our website.  They can be “as is” or filtered, or even photoshopped (modified peeps photo inserted in, or layered onto, another photo, for example).
  2. Photos must be the submittor’s original work.  By submitting a photo to this contest you are attesting to its originality. Photos must not have been used in any previous contest. Your name will be posted with the photo.
  3. You MUST provide information about the location and age of the property in the photo.  If you do not know the exact age, say so, but provide other information as to why you think it meets the rule of “50+” years. Remember that the properties must be in either Port Huron, Port Huron Township, Marysville, or Fort Gratiot Township; these are currently the areas PHAHPA specifically serves.  (Maybe next year we will have expanded our service area before the next contest.)
  4. If you want to submit a caption along with the photo, please do. You can have fun with the caption like we did in our sample.  We reserve the right to edit the caption.
  5. One submission per person only.
  6. By submitting an entry you are agreeing that PHAHPA can post it at its website and use it at other social media places it utilizes, and that PHAHPA may also print it with marketing and informational materials if it ever deems that would be useful. You would retain full copyright otherwise.
  7. Email your submission to porthuronhistory@gmail.com, subject: Peeps Contest.  Provide your name and another way to contact you (besides email) if you desire.  If you are a winner we will contact you to ask the best way to get the prize to you.
  8. Have fun 🙂  (questions?  write to porthuronhistory@gmail.com)
  9. We know, but just so you know, PHAHPA board members (the only volunteers associated with PHAHPA at this time; there are no employees) are not allowed to submit entries to the contest.

Peepzilla at Palm’s Krystal Bar & Grill (Chicken in the Rough), Port Huron. Vicki Priest and Zakery Stiegemeyer photo.

Peepzilla attacking Chicken in the Rough poster. Zakery Stiegemeyer and Vicki Priest image.

“A Brief Historical Review of the City of Port Huron,” 1915, by Wm. Jenks

William Lee Jenks (1856-1936). The National Cyclopedia of American Biography (Vol. XVII. 1920), page 189 (filtered).

The following article is from The Port Huron Times-Herald, February 20, 1915, pages 18 and 22.  Two words had typos and it was decided to correct the spelling, but the temptation to add commas was successfully avoided.  If you are unaware of Jenks, he was the author of the 1912 St. Clair County, Michigan, Its History and Its People (two volumes), and was a member of the Michigan Historical Commission, among other things.  In one place below  a corrected date is shown.  This had to have been an editorial typo since Jenks and everyone else who knew the history of Port Huron knew the year; it was at least somewhat common knowledge.

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The great success of the recent campaign to bring back the Grand Trunk shops to Port Huron, and the result it has had in unifying and bringing together in concerted action all sections of the city, seems to make this an appropriate time to look backward for a moment, and trace the general course of our city from its beginning. Continue reading

Histories of Fort Gratiot and Port Huron Townships (including Marysville) from an 1876 Atlas

For reference purposes, the following word-for-word histories of Fort Gratiot Township and Port Huron Township (including Marysville) are provided here.  From the Combination Atlas Map of St. Clair County Michigan . . .  by Everts & Stewart, Philadelphia, 1876, pages XVII and XVIII.

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Fort Gratiot Township was organized as a township in the year 1866, with H. Stevens as the first Supervisor.  It is situated in the eastern part of the County, at the foot of Lake Huron.  It is a fractional township, and is designated Town 7 north, Range 17 east; it is bounded on the north by Burtchville, east by Lake Huron and St. Clair River, south by the city of Port Huron and Port Huron Township, and west by Clyde Township.  The surface of the country is mostly level, with some marsh land, and was originally timbered with pine and hemlock.  The soil is of a sandy nature, producing wheat, oats, hay, potatoes, and corn.  It is traversed by the Black River in the southwestern part.  T. Lymburner is the present Supervisor; and the population numbers one thousand three hundred and sixty-one. Continue reading

New Pages: I Love Your Rear and Wish List

Hello wonderful supporters and readers.  As you hopefully know already, we’ve been incorporated as a nonprofit in Michigan and are working toward 501(c)3 status (currently, we’d like at least one more board member to file our forms, and more on that if you want to message us).  So, we’re a fledgling organization with very little funds and need all the free promotions we can get.  That includes sharing our posts from here or from our Facebook page. If you love Port Huron history and the historic built environment, please share our information with others!  It’s discouraging (and odd) how very few people do in fact share about us (as a newer person that has come to this area and experiencing this disconnect, it is not surprising at all that so much has been demolished already).  We will be conducting studies, of course, nominating buildings and districts to registers, publishing a journal (hopefully!) for authors covering the history and built environment of the Thumb area, and more.  To do that takes support.

In any case, one of our new pages is called “I Love Your Rear,” where we’ll post the backs of buildings and then compare them to the fronts.

What does the front of this building look like?

Rear view of the St. Vincent De Paul Thrift Store on 24th St (1335), Port Huron.

The second page, Our Wish List (a subpage of About Us), will have–what else?–things the organization needs.  All donations will be tax-deductible retroactively (for example, donations made this year will still be tax-deductible even if we don’t obtain 501(c)3 status until 2018, although we have no intention to wait that long).

Thanks so much for reading this far, and for any support you can give or do!

Preservation Laws: How is Michigan doing? Part 1

When reviewing the historic resources in Port Huron that still stand, and those that don’t (along with the how, when, and why of their demise), a person can easily assume that no historic preservation laws actually exist in Michigan.  The non-federally owned properties that are protected to a certain extent here are those that people have simply wished to be protected, and, those persons had some ability to get that protection in place.  What about all the other properties that are worthy of protection, but aren’t?  What about all those that were worthy of protection in the past, but are now gone?  If protection laws exist, why have they been implemented so capriciously or subjectively, at least in the Port Huron area?

Preservation laws and ordinances are based on lots of things, like federal law and enabling laws passed by the states.  A good way to learn about them is to start at the “top” and work “down.”  Often, federal laws begat state Laws, and enabling laws stem from those  (enabling laws are those that allow the legal passage of local, instead of statewide, protective ordinances).

Continue reading

Intact Homesteads in the Blue Water Area

Lucius Beach House

Pre-1859 house on Beach Road, Port Huron Township.

The lack of recent posts hasn’t reflected the amount of work being done, only sleepy eyes and a discrimination over what to make public at any given time.  But this is fun and there are no clients for it presently (hey, if you want to donate toward my unpaid work, my bills would place you on a pedestal!).  Through word-of-mouth, a couple of properties were brought to my attention that are interesting–not simply because the still-standing homes are old, but because they are old AND still have descendants from the first land owners living in them.  Now, that’s something.[1]  If you know of any of these types of historic resources, please comment or contact me through a contact box here or via email (phahpa@zoho.com) for inventory and future study purposes.

Continue reading