Why Oscar Mueller, an invested “man among men,” left Port Huron

The following article was first published at Blue Water Healthy Living on June 27, 2018, under a slightly different title.  All rights belong to the author, Vicki Priest, however, and republished here by permission.

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Oscar Mueller. Undated photo from muellerfamilytree.com.

It was a happy day in Port Huron when Oscar Mueller announced that his family agreed to open a metal working plant here, and a sad one when he decided to sell his interests in what became Mueller Brass, and leave. He did so much to make a wonderful home for he and his wife, too—establishing a large recreational park for his employees along the Black River, and on his estate next door, planting a large orchard that he thoroughly enjoyed—that one would wonder why he left that all behind. But for those living here at the time, in 1935-1936, no doubt it was not a surprise at all.

Oscar was one of Hieronymus Mueller’s seven children to carry on with the family’s various factories (which primarily produced plumbing-related parts and fixtures), centered in Decatur, Illinois. His father was mechanically gifted and filed several patents, some of which, like the Mueller Water Tapper and various auto-engine features, are still being used today; he and his sons filed 501 patents. His sons, like their father, were gifted in business as well as mechanics and engineering. And as Mueller craftsmanship and products became recognized as the best, the family business grew, with their metal working factories springing up here and there. For his part, Oscar graduated from the University of Illinois, got married to Beatrice Wetzel in 1895, and together they had their first child, Bernhardt Frederic, in 1901.

Hieronymus’ interest in automobiles led him to demonstrate his patents. His youngest son Oscar was the driver of their modified car in the first race in this country, perhaps the world, in 1895. He came in first place in the 92 mile race in Chicago, speeding through the track at 10 miles per hour (one source said his car was the only one to finish). Another (official) race was held the next year and Oscar and the Mueller car came in second. Unfortunately, Hieronymus’ work with autos also led to his death. While working on an auto in 1900, his oil-soaked clothes caught fire and he died from his injuries some days later. He had plans to open an auto factory, but those plans were not carried out by the family after his death.

Mueller Manufacturing had a New York branch, which Oscar began to manage in 1904. During their time in New York, in 1906, a second child was born to Oscar and Beatrice, Beatrice Florence (known as Florence). The Muellers expanded into Canada with Oscar as president, and their Sarnia plant was opened in 1912. During World War I, the English government requisitioned this plant for munitions (precision detonation fuses) manufacture, but when the U.S. entered the war the government canceled their contract with Mueller without warning. This left the company in a real bind, as it had had more than $1,000,000 worth of materials in stock. The Muellers had talks with the U.S. government, which decided it would like those detonators made for its own military. A new plant in Port Huron would allow all the machinery to be relocated close by. This plant, Mueller Metals, was up and running in 1917 with Oscar in charge.

After the war, the Mueller family invested about $2,000,000 for the plant to be converted to manufacture other metal-based (primarily brass) products instead of munitions. This plant did very well and Oscar liked Port Huron enough to commit to it entirely, both selling his interest in Mueller Manufacturing (the name was actually simply “Mueller” beginning in 1924) and acquiring all interest in the Port Huron plant in 1927. Apparently he had been planning this for a few years.

Oscar sold the family house at 1117 Pine Grove Avenue late in 1925 (or early in 1926) and built his new home far up Water Street (on what would later be Strawberry Lane). The 100 acre estate came to be called Waldheim. It was filled with an extensive orchard, and vegetable and flowers gardens, all of which were watered with a sprinkler system. His Mueller Country Club was announced in 1924 and all was up and running by 1926. This recreation area was made for his employees but still exists, in part at least, as the Black River Country Club. Oscar Mueller was highly regarded by all, even his employees, whom he took a great interest in. He felt a responsibility for his employees, was amongst them all the time, and even looked into their welfare indirectly. One fellow recalled Oscar calling him into his office and asking about his family and financial situation, which surprised him since he didn’t know how Mueller knew about his problems. Upon finding out the nature of the problems and the amount of debt the employee was in, Oscar wrote the man a check for $2000 to cover it all (Times Herald, April 25, 1941, pp 1, 4; this same article is the source of the quote found in the title).

Beatrice Florence Mueller Irving. Undated photo from muellerfamilytree.com.

So things seemed good for Oscar and his family. He had obviously made plans to stay in Port Huron and the fruition of his plans, the acquisition of the Mueller company plant here, came to pass. He liked it here and people liked him. But then tragedy struck the family in the same year that he gained sole control of Mueller Brass. His daughter, Florence, who had just gotten married in June of that year at the Waldheim estate, was killed in an automobile accident in Seattle, Washington.

She had married John Hamilton Irving who lived there (he was a nephew of Hamilton Irving, a Safety Commissioner for Port Huron), and it was in August 1927 that the car they were passengers in crashed. She was the only person to die. According to one article (Detroit Free Press, Aug. 12, 1935, p. 8), Florence had earlier suffered from the strange “sleeping sickness” that struck people starting in 1916 and afflicted Americans into the 1920s. Many died from this strange ailment, and if they didn’t die they usually never fully recovered. So it must have been with a great deal of relief and gladness that Florence had finally recovered after a years’ time. Yet she was still taken from her loved ones while still very young. One of Oscars brothers, Phillip, also died that year, and another, Frederick, died the next, in 1928.

Bernhardt “Bud” Mueller. Undated photo from muellerfamilytree.com.

Time passed and Oscar’s son Bernhardt, known as “Bud,” learned his dad’s trade and became Vice President of Mueller Brass. He was a member of the Chamber of Commerce’s legislative committee and General Chairman of that organization’s FHA committee. As such, Bernhardt was in charge of the local Better Housing Program, a program of the new (depression-era) Federal Housing Administration. His personal life appears to have had some ups and downs, as he married Mayme M. MacQueen in 1923, and after apparently divorcing, married her again in New York in 1931. They never had any children, and while reference to Mayme could still be found in papers, Bernhardt married Alberta F. Chartier in February 1934. They had a boy, Frederic, in the spring of 1935. But then tragedy struck the Mueller family again.

Bernhardt wanted to have some fun with his new car and with his friends, which ended up costing him his life as well as the life of one of those friends. While taking a drive with three others in his car, Bernhardt swerved to miss hitting a dog, but the swerve led to a plunge. Gordon Godley, husband and father, was killed instantly, and Bernhardt was seriously injured. The two others were much less injured in the May 18th, 1935 accident. Very sadly, Bernhardt succumbed to his injuries and died on May 25th.

Idealized sketch of Bernhardt (Bud) Mueller. From the Times Herald, May 23, 1935, page 1.

Reading testimony presented in probate court2, one wonders if Fate was trying to take a holiday and Bernhardt just wasn’t listening. The following is not meant to demean Bernhardt, but to wonder at events seen in hindsight. When he and his friends had left the Black Water Country Club that evening, Bernhardt was very insistent that they go with him for a drive in his new car, which was at his house. They didn’t want to go, but he was insistent. When he arrived at his house, he argued with his wife. He also realized he left his new car’s keys at the club house. He wanted to take the drive so badly that he wouldn’t take no for an answer from his friends, he appears to have disregarded his wife’s interests, he drove all the way back to the club house to get his keys, and he was driving dangerously fast at the time of the crash (the odometer read 92 miles per hour after the crash). The last thing Bernhardt said in the car was in response to his friends commenting on the speed he was driving.

So, enduring what no parent should have to—the death of all one’s children3 before one’s self—Oscar decided to retire and leave behind all he had done here. Considering how he had developed his estate Oscar no doubt planned on spending his retirement years here, watching his son run the company he had built.4 But that all changed. After the arrangements to transfer the company were made in 1935 he sold his interest in it and retired the following summer. He and his wife had a summer home in Florida and that’s where they moved to permanently, although they also spent much time in North Carolina. In Florida, Oscar fished like he wanted to, catching a 99 pound Tarpon during a 1937 contest (the winner was actually 120 ½ pounds!), and he and Beatrice involved themselves with other social and community doings. Back in Port Huron the Waldheim estate, described as “one of the most beautiful sites on the Black River” (The Times Herald July 28, 1940, page 5), began to be subdivided in 1940. Oscar died in Bradenton, Florida, in 1941, and Beatrice followed him some years later in 1952.

Notes

1) This house was likely demolished with one of the later hospital expansions; an inventory of the affected properties needs to be taken. If demolished it might seem ironic, since the new hospital that was finished in 1937 was largely funded by Oscar, other Mueller family members, and Mueller Brass.

2) The cases against the Bernhardt Mueller estate also went to the circuit and state supreme courts, but were ultimately settled out of court or dismissed.

From the Honolulu Advertiser, May 5, 1989, page 6.

3) Bernhardt’s son, Frederic, was raised by his mother and her new husband (Cyrenus Gillette) in Hawaii. He had inherited $2.5 million from his grandparents and went to Harvard, graduating with a degree in art history. He enjoyed acting and produced a play in 1961 that included Barbra Streisand and Dom De Luise. His primary activity, however, was running an art gallery, the Pace, in New York. Frederic returned to Hawaii a few years before he died, which was in 1989. He left no children, ending the Oscar Mueller and Beatrice Wetzel line. Sources: The Times Herald July 12, 1952, p. 1; The Honolulu Advertiser May 5, 1989, p. 6; New York Times May 9, 1989, archived; The Times Herald May 20, 1989, p. 3.

4) When he left, Mueller Brass was having its best year ever. It was expanding. In 1925 the Detroit Free Press (August 12, p 8) called it the city’s leading industry, and when he died The Times Herald (April 24, 1941, p 1) wrote that Oscar founded the “city’s largest plant.”

Sources. In addition to those included in the article itself, the following sources were used for this piece (those sources read and compared, but not used directly, are not included):

Bellows, Alan. The Sleepy Sickness (this isn’t the best source, but it is accessible; see ScienceDirect.com for “encephalitis lethargica” if you want to know more).

Find A Grave Memorial #162186202, Beatrice A. Wetzel Mueller.

Hieronymus Mueller Museum, various pages and photos.

News-Press (Fort Myers, Florida). December 24, 1937, p 5.

Tallahassee Democrat. March 8, 1931, p 7.

The Decatur Daily Review. July 17, 1932, pp 7-9; April 24, 1941, p 48.

The Decatur Herald. April 25, 1941, p 3.

The Tampa Tribune. August 11, 1927, p 3; March 8, 1931, p 26; June 4, 1937, p 18

The Times Herald: March 21, 1922, p 16; December 24, 1923, p 6; January 21, 1924, p 7; June 26, 1925, p 4; July 17, 1925, p 14; October 27, 1925, p 4 (house ad in later months as well); January 14, 1926, pp 1, 8; June 22, 1927, p 8; August 8, 1927, p 1; February 2, 1924, p 8; December 21, 1931, p 8; October 30, 1934, pp 1, 2; January 30, 1935, p 7; May 18, 1935, p 3; May 23, 1935, pp 1, 6, 14; May 25, 1935, p 7; May 28, 1935, pp 1, 14; November 30, 1935, pp 1, 12; June 9, 1936, p 1; June 23, 1936, p 1; June 24, 1936, pp 1, 12; August 6, 1937, p 7; April 25, 1941, p 6.

WTVP. Illinois Adventure #1406 “Mueller Museum”

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