Mack & Company

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, May 1982,
May 1982

Author: Grace Shackman

The Nieman-Marcus of Ann Arbor

Urged by Elsa Goetz Ordway, for years we have intended to do a piece on Mack & Company, the big department store that once occupied four floors covering the larger part of the west side of Main Street between Liberty and Washington, from the sites of the present-day DeFord's department store to the Parthenon.

Mack & Company was Ann Arbor's counterpart to downtown Detroit's big J.L. Hudson store. It sold everything from furniture and carpets to cosmetics and lingerie, from dry goods to insurance, from health food to postage stamps. It had its own pharmacy. And it even had its own bank. Weakened by the Depression, Mack & Company finally closed in 1940. Its story would die out with the last generation of old Ann Arbor who remembered it, Mrs. Ordway feared. Thanks to the energetic investigations of Grace Shackman, who talked with twenty Mack & Company employees and patrons, we are happy to have finally produced this piece.

The history of Mack & Company, like the history of most major Main Street retail stores and banks in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is closely connected with Ann Arbor's large German community. The store's founder, Christian Mack, immigrated from the region of Swabia in the kingdom of Wuerttemburg, where most Ann Arbor Germans are from. He worked in John Maynard's dry goods store for five years before starting his own business at the age of twenty-three. Three years later, in 1860, he formed a partnership with his brother-in-law, Frederick Schmid, Jr. Schmid was the son of Pastor Schmid of the Bethlehem Church, the first German-language minister in Michigan. Mack & Schmid, like many downtown stores back then, sold a big variety of merchandise including yard goods, crockery, carpets, and groceries. In 1881 it was the first Ann Arbor store to replace its wooden sidewalks with stone ones.

Both Mack and Schmid were active in business and civic affairs, as would be expected, and both were deacons at Zion Lutheran Church. Schmid was president of Ann Arbor Piano and Organ, the factory founded by David Allmendinger. Mack served on the school board for twenty-five years and had an elementary school named in his honor two decades after his death. In 1895 Schmid left the firm. Christian Mack's youngest son, Walter, became a part owner, and the store was incorporated as Mack & Company.

Walter Mack had joined the store as a clerk, but soon "his natural abilities manifested themselves and demanded recognition," according to the quaint but not entirely straightforward write-up in Past and Present of Washtenaw County, a 1906 publication which described prominent citizens who agreed to underwrite the cost of publication. Some employees remember Walter Mack as charming; others considered him condescending and unfair. He was at the top of a clearly ordered store hierarchy, with clerks at the bottom, going up to department heads, to floor managers, and finally "the boss." Former employees agree that his word was law and also that he was careful with money. Some idolized him, while others could not stand him. Some complain that he gave preferential treatment to favorites and that he refused to pay for overtime. But others loved the store, working there for years, even during the worst years of the Depression when they were no longer paid salaries, just commissions. Because Mack was willing to hire young people, many have fond memories of the store as their first place of employment. Also, women could find work there in a day when few jobs were open to women.

The high-caliber employees were what many customers remember about Mack & Company. Many were already specialists in their fields when hired; others were trained to be. In the Schwaben Verein building on Ashley, where Mack had warehouse space linked by hovered ramps, regular classes were held to demonstrate new products and to give pep talks on being nice to customers. In those days Ann Arbor was small enough that most customers were known by name. The store altered garments and offered free delivery and even free pick-up for items purchased on approval which customers wished to return. The wagons and horses used for deliveries until after World War One were housed in the building on Washington at First, which was erected in the 1840's for Bethlehem Church.

One of the best-remembered salespeople was Myrtle Dusty, who ran the art department. She taught many Ann Arborites to knit. Another favorite was Mary Rogers of the sheet music department, who often demonstrated pieces on the piano. Music teacher Geraldine Seeback remembers going there as a child and singing the songs being played as a crowd gathered round. Many of the store's employees later started businesses of their own, notably Mae Van Buren, who ran the corset department; Walter Mast of the shoe department; and Charles Hutzel and Guersey Collins, both of women's ready-to-wear.

Mack & Company went all-out for special events. Many longtime Ann Arborites like Ted Heusel recall the store's outstanding toy department. Christmas featured a real Christmas tree on a revolving music-box stand and Santa Claus, played year after year by Grandpa Brooks, the bewhiskered elevator operator. Two or three times a year fashion shows presented the latest styles, especially those from the store's exclusive "French Shop." Big-name bands were hired for them, and once Walter Mack paid five hundred dollars for a woman to come from New York to coach the models, who were always selected from among the prettiest employees. At these shows Mrs. Mack, a Southern belle from Kentucky who lived a reclusive life in the Macks' big house on Haven Street, was the guest of honor, smiling at the models as they made their appearances.

Mr. Mack spent much of each year at his cottage on Whitmore Lake, where he raised dogs and gladioli. The glads, planted by the acre, were sometimes used for decoration at the store. After World War One Mr. Mack employed many German refugees, using them in the store as painters, custodians, drivers for the delivery trucks, and as chauffeurs. They also worked at keeping up the grounds at Whitmore Lake and in digging up, dividing, and replanting the gladioli bulbs.

During the Depression years Walter Mack struggled valiantly to keep his store afloat, employees recall, but as sales went down, he no longer could afford to replenish the stock, so sales decreased even further. He tried renting out on a commission basis departments such as furniture, rugs, and china, but the new operators could not do any better. By 1939 the store was in too bad a financial shape to continue, and Mr. Mack announced that he was "quitting business forever, and everything must be sold to the bare walls in the shortest time possible." Chauncey Ray tried running the store for another year as Mack, Inc. but did not succeed, either.

In the last years of his life, Walter Mack continued to run the insurance business which had once been a small part of his big department store. Since he had rented out the rest of the building on Main at Liberty, the owners of the Liberty Inn let him enter his second-floor office through their restaurant. Mr. Mack died in 1942 with almost no money and his store only a memory.

Many former Mack employees were interviewed for this article: bundle girls Eleanor Snow, Fern Braun Shaffer (who later worked in the approval office), and Mabel Marie Seyfried Sager (who was an occasional model as well); ribbon department manager Rowena Schmid; elevator operator Don Hough; Elsa Weber St. Clair, who did alterations and made draperies from scratch, including some extremely large ones for the Michigan League; Elizabeth Maier and Betty Smith in cosmetics and drugs; Elsie Feldkamp and Agnes Wright, basement clerks; window trimmer Frank Pardon; Helen Rice, office; Alfred Graf, carpenter; Erma Jahnke, the cashier in the "cage" on the mezzanine; and Gertrude Druyoer, who woked in the commission furniture department after Walter Mack left the store. Former customers Edith Staebler Kempf, Louella Weinman, and Geraldine Seeback were also contacted.

[Photo caption from original print edition]: In 1905 Made & Company occupied five storefronts on Main 'Street just north of Liberty. "The Leading Furniture and Carpet House," proclaimed a large sign on the south side. (Top right) In 1899 fire destroyed an earlier location of Mack & Company on the southwest corner of Main at Liberty. (Above) The present-day site of the old Mack & Company. The store extended from the corner of Main and Liberty through part of the site of DeFord's.


[Photo caption from original print edition]: 85 store employees posed for this 1924 group portrait in the meeting rooms of the Schwaben Verein on Ashley. (Inset) Walter C. Mack, store president.