From Wooden Ladders to Computer Software

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, February 1992,
February 1992

Author: Grace Shackman

The Associated Spring building recaps the city's economic history

The Associated Spring building, at 401 E. Stadium near Crisler Arena, has witnessed firsthand Ann Arbor's amazing economic evolution during the twentieth century. From 1910 to 1919, it housed a company that made wooden ladders. From 1919 to 1988, its workers produced metal springs for Detroit's carmakers. Subsequently renovated for office use, it's now the home of C-Text software, a national player in the fast-growing computer typesetting business.

The first tenant of the building, according to the City Directory, was the Newton-Haggerty Ladder Company. It was one of the first factories to locate away from the center of town, in what a 1926 Chamber of Commerce pamphlet called the "South End Industrial Section." The U-M athletic complex had not yet been built, and Stadium was then "Boulevard Drive"--a dirt road just outside the city limits.

It's unclear why the ladder factory folded after less than a decade; perhaps the Michigan Ladder Company in Ypsilanti, which is still in business, offered too much competition. In any case, the building was purchased in 1919 by the Cook Spring Company, a New York firm that was moving to Michigan to get closer to the state's fast-growing auto companies.

Cook Spring was founded in 1896, and as early as 1909 it was already selling springs to Michigan carmakers. The company, which is still in business, is today Buick's oldest continuous supplier. By the time of the company's move from New York City, three men owned nearly all of Cook Spring's stock: A. J. Donally, his nephew Melvin Donally, and William Scholey. In 1928, when A. J. Donally and Scholey were getting ready to retire, the three partners decided to sell the business.

The sale ran into an unusual complication. In 1900, Melvin Donally's father (also named Melvin) had given ten shares of his company stock to a sailor named Connors. By 1928, Connors was in the Antarctic as a member of Admiral Richard E. Byrd's Little America expedition. The other stockholders had to wait for the right atmospheric conditions before they could contact Connors by ham radio to ask him if he was willing to sell--and then wait again for the right conditions to receive his reply. As a result, the deal, which should have been completed in January 1929, took an extra month.

The buyer was Barnes-Gibson-Raymond, another East Coast spring company eager to win a share of Michigan's automotive business. (Though based in Bristol, Connecticut, it had opened a Detroit plant of its own in 1923.) The new owners continued to use the Cook name for the Ann Arbor plant until after World War II, when the entire company was renamed Associated Spring. They also kept on most of the employees, including two of the former Cook partners. Scholey served as manager until he retired, in 1932; Melvin Donally, who said he would stay as long as they paid him, was employed as production manager and then as general manager to replace Scholey.

Peg Harrigan Joseph was the plant's secretary when it was sold. Asked if the place changed, she says, "Heavens, yes." The new owners set up their own systems and added people. One of the newcomers was Oscar Joseph, an accountant trained at Ohio State who had been working as timekeeper in the Detroit office. He became head accountant of the Ann Arbor plant and succeeded the younger Melvin Donally as manager when Donally retired in 1958. He also married Peg Harrigan.

Despite the changes, says Peg Joseph, "it continued operating like a family plant. The workers took pride in what they did." Melvin Donally III, who himself started working at Associated Spring in 1942, concurs about the loyalty of the work force. "When a windstorm tore the shipping room off, the workers came back the next day," he recalls. "When the furnace went out, the workers came and worked in their coats." And the tradition of hiring members of the same families continued. Donally remembers warning a new employee "to check out [family] relationships before saying anything."

The company had ups and downs during the Depression but was still able to add new employees. In 1932, a brick office building was added on the west side of the property. During World War II, the plant made valve springs for aircraft engines. During the energy crisis of the late 1970's, they helped General Motors develop torque converter clutch springs to improve fuel efficiency.

By 1988, the plant was too small and out-of-date, so Associated Spring moved to a new 100,000-square-foot facility in Saline, where it continues to turn out engine valve springs and torque converter clutch springs. The old complex was purchased by Nub Turner and Jay Hartford, owners of GT Products.

Turner is the person who saved Ann Arbor's last downtown factory from closing in 1982, when he led a leveraged buy-out of the former Chrysler parts plant at the corner of First and William. GT Products is still based there, manufacturing fuel vapor valves, diesel governors, and oil pumps.

Jay Hartford oversaw the renovation of the old spring factory. Architects Brice Lambrix and Michael Rupert did the design. The brick office building, which was in fairly good shape, now houses offices (including those of Lambrix-Rupert Architects) plus a large recreation room with an added deck that GT Products uses as a hospitality suite to entertain customers on football Saturdays.

The factory portion was a greater challenge. Lambrix and Rupert started by hauling out fifty tons of debris and then sandblasting the walls to get rid of the residue left by years of factory use. They strived to retain the original look, keeping the high ceilings and clerestory windows and adding wood compatible with the wood trusses already there to shore up the under-designed and overloaded structure. They refurbished the stucco on the outside.

C-Text, the new tenant in the factory space, designs computer-based publishing systems for newspapers, magazines, and books. (Nub Turner is an investor in the company.) They use the space mostly for offices that, although divided by partitions into fairly small work areas, feel very spacious because of the height of the ceiling and the number of windows. Turner and Hartford plan to use the back area, which was used by Associated Spring for shipping and receiving, as additional factory space for GT Products.


[Photo caption from original print edition]: Since 1910, the same Stadium Boulevard building has produced wooden ladders, automotive springs, and lines of computer code. Cook Spring Company (top) took over from Newton-Haggerty Ladder in 1919. In 1988, the building was rebuilt and renovated as the home of C-Text software (above).