Before Detroit was known as the Motor City, it was the Stove City. More specifically, Detroit was known as “the Stove Capital of the World.”
Detroit even had a “Big Three” of stove manufacturers: the Detroit Stove Works, the Michigan Stove Co. and the Peninsular Stove Co., the latter of which operated out of this factory on the southwest corner of West Fort and Eighth streets, just outside downtown, for four decades.
Detroit Stove City
In the 1870s and 1880s, stoves were Detroit's leading industry, producing more than 10 percent of the world’s stoves. This was due in no small part to the abundance of iron ore in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and ease of transporting it on the Great Lakes, especially following the opening of the Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., in 1855. (Iron ore is used to make steel and iron, required at the time for stoves.)
Stoves were a relatively new thing in America, not fully replacing the hearth as a source of cooking and warmth until after the Civil War. Indeed, they had become the country’s “must-have” innovation in the late 19th century. At the same time, the nation's Western Plains were being developed, and as families moved out to those states, they needed stoves to heat their homes and cook food. Coupled with the fact that a giant, heavy stove was not something easy to move then - or now, for that matter - Detroit's stove companies were baking up some incredible profits.
All of these factors combined to make the stove industry the largest employer in the city at the turn of the 20th century. Around 1900, some 15,000 Detroiters worked in the city’s stove factories. And almost all of them worked for a Dwyer, a family tied to almost all of the more than half-dozen stove-makers in the city.
Though the 19th and early 20th century would be Detroit’s stove-making heyday, even as late as 1927, Michigan still produced more than $36 million worth of stoves and ranges, the equivalent of about $625 million in 2023 dollars, when adjusted for inflation. In 1928, the stove companies still directly employed 7,500 Detroiters, and thousands more indirectly, like those working for shipping companies, railroad lines and other suppliers. At that time, Detroit was producing two to three gas ranges per minute and 250,000 a year.
Where there was a Detroit stove, there was a Dwyer
The Dwyer family was synonymous with stoves and almost single-handedly responsible for making Detroit the world leader in producing them. In the 19th century, Detroit's four largest stove companies accounted for more than 10 percent of the stoves sold around the world - and three of those four firms were founded by brothers Jeremiah and James Dwyer.
The Dwyers were born in New York, and moved to Detroit in the 1840s. Their father was an Irish immigrant and farmer, and the family settled on a farm in what was then Springwells Township, now part of Southwest Detroit. Jeremiah was the driving force who would lead the family into the stove business and with it, immense fortune.
Though the date varies in newspaper accounts, sometime between 1858 and 1864, Jeremiah and James Dwyer started making stoves in Detroit in a small iron foundry that had been facing bankruptcy that was located at the foot of Mt. Elliott Street at Wight Street. It was the first foundry in the state of Michigan that was dedicated exclusively to making stoves. The Dwyer brothers were soon making a stove a day, and would go around to local hardware stores in the city each day to try to sell the day's output.
In 1871, their small foundry became the Michigan Stove Co., which would go on to become the world’s largest stove manufacturer. Ten years after Michigan Stove’s founding, James Dwyer organized the Peninsular Stove Co.
Peninsular Stove Co. organized in Detroit on March 23, 1881, with its articles of organization filed on April 10, 1891, by James Dwyer, William R. Harmount, William B. Moran, and prominent Detroiters Robert M. Campau and Christian H. Buhl.
Backbreaking works of art
Work on the new Peninsular facility on West Fort and Eighth streets began Aug. 29, 1881, and the company began making stoves in its new Mason & Rice-designed home in February 1882. James Dwyer served as the company's manager. In the 1880s, the company produced some 270 varieties of stoves, and pumped out 20,000 of them in 1883 alone. It shipped to 16 states, Canada and even Asia.
It’s also worth noting that, though early stoves were black, blocky, bland boxes of iron, the stoves being produced in Detroit during this era were treated like decorative, ornate pieces of furniture. Where today, you might have a rather plain black-and-stainless-steel model named the Samsung NV51K7770SG, the Michigan Stove Co. produced “the Defiance.” The Detroit Vapor Stove Co. made the "Blue Star." The Art Stove Co. made the "Laurel." These stoves had elaborate designs with floral or scroll motifs and were plated in nickel and brass. The Detroit Stove Works catalog offered more than 800 models to choose from - and every other major manufacturer had hundreds of designs of their own.
It is also important to appreciate the work that went into producing each of these heavy heaters at factories like Peninsular. In these early days, stove-making was a backbreaking process and mostly done by hand. The stoves’ intricate patterns had to be molded, first into wax, then plaster or clay. Then they were carved into wood, onto which wax was pressed to form the molds for the plaster cast. Finally, from them the iron molds were made. To make the actual stove, a “molder” would then pour molten iron from ladles that weighed some 90 pounds when full into the molds. Once cooled, then everything had to be polished and painted and adorned with the decorative metals and knobs. Unlike Henry Ford’s assembly line process that sped up production and led to factories pumping out automobiles at a rapid clip, stove-making was a time-consuming and detailed process - and Peninsular was one of some half a dozen shops in Detroit crafting these works of warmth-generating art.
The process is described in more detail in this 2015 article by Bill Loomis in The Detroit News, which this article used for part of its research.
Just nine years after opening its new facility, however, the Fort Street Union Depot Co. filed a condemnation proceeding against Peninsular Stove on Nov. 25, 1891, seeking to get the company’s land in order to expand its railyard. Those attempts were shut down in court, and Peninsular would continue making stoves at the factory until 1929.
There were a few tragedies that occurred in the ensuing decades. On Nov. 1, 1893, a fire destroyed Peninsular's nickel-plating department in a four-story building on Woodbridge Street between Trumbull Avenue and Tenth Street. (The intersection no longer exists.) On June 13, 1909, a section of the plant's fifth floor collapsed, killing traffic manager William Hollar and injuring four others.
But despite those mishaps, Peninsular was the second largest manufacturer of stoves in the country as the Roaring Twenties neared a close, and the company decided to expand its operations and offerings - like oil-burning stoves - by building a new factory away from downtown. Another major reason for this was changes in the manufacturing process. Automation, so revolutionary in the automotive game, had made its way into stove manufacturing, as well. If it was to compete with its litany of competitors, Peninsular couldn’t be making stoves for the 20th century the 19th century way.
"Like many other institutions of similar growth, crowded and hampered in its operations in a limited and piecemeal-built plant," the Michigan Manufacturer and Financial Record wrote in its Dec. 10, 1927 edition. "It, therefore, decided to 'ditch' the entire outfit, sold its lands at a great profit, and made a new plant out of whole cloth.”
Peninsular’s plan was to market the property on West Fort for sale and then, once it found a buyer and a price its shareholders would agree to, decide where to build. It did not take long to find a suitor.
The West Fort site was sold for $2.5 million to the Michigan Central Railroad, though Peninsular retained a building on the northwest corner of West Fort and Trumbull Avenue to operate as a downtown branch.
The sale marked "an epoch in Detroit industrial history in many ways," the Free Press wrote Sept. 4, 1926. "It will open the way for the creation of a newer and greater Peninsular Stove Co., with the most up-to-date manufacturing methods known to the stove industry, including the manufacture of oil-burning stoves; the expansion of the Michigan Central railway in a totally unexpected quarter in the battle of the railroads for Detroit's huge freight business, and will also put an end to recurring rumors that the Pennsylvania railroad will make of the Peninsular site its proposed huge passenger terminal in Detroit."
Those rumors were tied to the acquisition of the Union Depot site to the east of the stove plant for a major expansion into Detroit. Had those come true, it would have been ironic considering the Union Depot had sought to acquire the Peninsular tract for its own expansion.
On Sept. 14, 1926, sale of the West Fort factory to the Michigan Central Railroad was approved by Peninsular stockholders for between $4 million and $5 million. The railroad said it planned to use the 7-acre site to extend its freight yard and storage facilities. The sale was said to be the largest tract of land in downtown Detroit to change hands in decades.
Hot-footing it to Brightmoor
Peninsular decided to lay its stovepipe hat in northwest Detroit’s Brightmoor area. That part of town was seeing a number of large manufacturing facilities rise at the time, including the huge Kelvinator factory nearby, on Plymouth and Schaefer roads (which later became the headquarters and plant for the American Motors Corp.) The Michigan Manufacturer & Financial Record deemed the new plant would prove to be “the most modern continuous molding plant in the world."
Ground was broken May 7, 1927, for a new Peninsular plant at Burt Road and the Pere Marquette Railroad, near Plymouth Road, with President Fred T. Moran turning the first spade. The new plant, designed by renowned Detroit architect Albert Kahn, had a two-story administration building and a 256-foot-by-800-foot factory with 230,000 square feet of floor space and room for 1,000 workers. The buildings covered 9 acres and cost more than half a million dollars to construct.
More than 3,000 people turned out for the ceremony on May 7, 1927. It was open for production just seven months later, on Dec. 15, 1927.
If Peninsular’s founders “had been told that 46 years (after founding the company) they would flout every tradition of the stove industry by supplanting broad backs and brawny arms with automatic machinery, providing for continuous pouring of iron and building their products in a one-story building, they would very likely have called the police to remove the intruder," the Michigan Manufacturer & Financial Record wrote. "If an old stove-maker was taken into the mammoth new plant of the Peninsular Stove Co. in northwestern Detroit, he would find few earmarks of his old craft. The giant molders who once trundled molten iron around the foundry floor have been supplanted by two giants, electricity and compressed air, which never complain about overtime and do a great deal of the work that the old molders used to do, without having so much as a lame back to show for it. …
"The old stove works rather resembled a brood sow surrounded by her suckling pigs, the main building towering up three or four stories above the clustered makeshifts which served as annexes," it continued. Where in the old days, "the height of architectural beauty was considered achieved in the use of red brick and the prosperity of the plant was evidenced in the quantity of dirt and grime that had settled upon it. Consequently, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the old-time stove-maker viewing for the first time the Peninsular Stove Co.'s trim, one-story, greyish-white building with walls of glass might comment, like the farmer seeing a giraffe for the first time, 'There ain't no such animal.'"
The new semi-automated facility promised to boost the company's production by 50 percent. In actuality, it would wind up sending the company into bankruptcy.
Peninsular gets cooked
The factory on West Fort was torn down in 1929, with the Globe Housewrecking Co. taking out a classified ad in the April 28, 1929, edition of the Free Press announcing the sale of 2 million bricks, "cheap," along with the plant's steam boilers, radiators, lumber, doors, trim and more.
But Detroit's stove industry was toppled by technology, specifically gas and electric stoves that made wood-burning stoves obsolete. At the same time, automakers were offering wages that the stove manufacturers couldn't compete with, hurting their labor supply and sales by making the companies unable to lower the cost of their product. By the time central heating came around, the parlor stove became a thing of the past, too.
The changing tastes, times and technology coupled with the company’s expenses on erecting the new Burt Road factory proved to be a disastrous combination that Peninsular could not weather. On May 6, 1932, Peninsular filed for bankruptcy in U.S. District Court, and entered receivership in 1934, with debts of $1.5 million to First National Bank (which represented 80 percent of the company’s debt).
As part of the bankruptcy, in June 1934, the Peninsular Stove Co. sold its manufacturing facility in Brightmoor to the Detroit Gasket Manufacturing Co., which had previously been located on East Milwaukee Avenue.
Peninsular Stove emerged from bankruptcy as a much smaller outfit and continued to manufacture parts for vintage stoves of various makes from a facility at 2660 Gratiot Ave. into the 1970s, leaving Detroit in 1977 for Normal, Ill.
Today, the former home of Peninsular on West Fort is the site of Detroit’s main post office, the George W. Young Post Office.
The Motor City’s other title of “the Stove Capital of the World” is an often forgotten piece of both the city and the nation’s past. But, as the Detroit Free Press reminded readers May 22, 1973: "Before Detroit put the nation on wheels, it made it warm."