Dr. Chase's Successors
Author: Grace Shackman
Dobson-McOmber returns to the Steam Printing House
By Christmas the Dobson-McOmber Insurance Company plans to move into new offices in the former Dr. Chase's Steam Printing House at the corner of Miller and Main. One of Ann Arbor's landmark buildings, it was immodestly described by its original owner, Alvin Wood Chase, as "without question the finest printing office in the West."
Chase had little reason for modesty. He started the building in 1864, putting up the corner section as a place to print his book, Dr. Chase's Recipes; or Information for Everybody. A collection of folk remedies and practical suggestions about almost every aspect of everyday life and work, it was a best-seller--at one time, his boosters claimed, second only to the Bible in sales. As sales rose and Chase began also publishing a newspaper--the Peninsular Courier and Family Visitant--which he bought primarily to tout his book--he found he needed more room. Within four years, he tripled the size of the building.
Chase opened the completed printing plant with a great flourish on December 29, 1868. Ann Arbor mayor Christian Eberbach served as master of ceremonies at a banquet for 400 people, introducing a lineup of speakers that included U-M president Erastus Haven and the Albion College president. The ceremony celebrated not only the completion of a building but also the rise of a man from humble origins to a place of prominence. In the nineteenth-century manner, Chase earned his fame and fortune with equal parts of hard work and self-promotion.
Born in New York State in 1817, Alvin Chase came to Ann Arbor in 1856 to pursue a medical degree after a career as a traveling peddler of groceries and household drugs. While taking classes at the U-M, he supported his family by selling home medical remedies and household recipes that he had picked up in his travels, starting with a single page of hints and cures.
Chase only audited classes at the U-M, since Latin was required to complete the program and had not been taught at the "log school" he'd attended in New York. He earned the title "doctor" in 1857 after spending sixteen weeks in Cincinnati at the Eclectic Medical Institute.
After returning to Ann Arbor, Chase practiced medicine and continued to expand his book of recipes. To the modern reader, many of his remedies seem very quaint. Besides cures for five kinds of "apparent death," they included tinctures, teas, and ointments made from plants, tree bark, and--in one case--cooked toads. But at a time when doctors were still bleeding patients or poisoning them with mercury, his cures may have been as much help as anything the local doctor prescribed.
Chase himself admitted to no doubts about the efficacy of his remedies. His entertaining, first-person style is full of anecdotes about where and when he got the recipes and the wonderful luck people had using them.
Chase was fifty-one when he celebrated the grand opening of his building. The next year, afraid that sales of his book would soon decline, and also sure that he would die young, he sold the building and the businesses to Rice Beal. Sales did not decline. After Chase tried unsuccessfully to get back his book rights, he began an all-new recipe book. He died in 1885 (at age sixty-eight), just before completing the book, which was published posthumously as the "memorial edition."
Rice Beal eventually passed his interests to his son, Junius, who continued to publish a newspaper from the building. In 1910 Russell Dobson Sr. bought what was by then called the Ann Arbor Daily Times-News. His specialty, according to his grandson Jack Dobson, was buying failing newspapers and bringing them back to economic health. He had just finished reviving and then selling the Akron Beacon Journal. His decision to come to Ann Arbor was influenced by fact that his son, Russell Jr., was entering the U-M law school.
Dobson's doctoring of the newspaper worked. He moved it from the Chase building to a new building on Ann Street in 1916. Three years later he sold it to the Booth chain, which still owns and publishes it--as the Ann Arbor News.
In 1924, Kyer, Whitker, and Dobson, a wholesale grocer, moved into the building at Miller and Main. The Dobson was Russell Jr. He was also practicing law and soon left the business altogether to work full-time in insurance. His partners remained in business there until Charlie Kyer's death in 1938. Henry Whitker then sold the business to Symons, a big distribution company, who used the building until they moved out to State Street in 1946.
After Symons vacated it, the building was used as a warehouse for various companies--Argus, Montgomery Ward, Smith Floor Covering--becoming increasingly dilapidated through neglect. The cornice and brackets were removed during the Symons occupancy, and during the warehouse years the windows were boarded up, probably to decrease theft.
In 1968 Johnson, Johnson, and Roy, a landscape architecture firm that was a pioneer in historic restoration, bought the building from the Whitker family and began fixing it up--demonstrating that they could do for themselves what they advocated for others. They used the top floors for their offices and rented out the street level to various businesses. Last year they moved into a new building they built on Miller right behind their old one, then sold the corner building to Dobson-McOmber Insurance.
For Dobson-McOmber, the move will be a homecoming of sorts, since both the Dobson and McOmber strands of the company have their roots in downtown Ann Arbor. The company traces its beginnings to 1893, when Fred T. McOmber left his job at the post office to start an insurance business.
The Dobson family became involved in insurance in 1924, when Russell Sr. started the Ann Arbor Trust Company. Russell Jr., who had worked as an assistant prosecuting attorney and then in a private law firm, joined the trust company in the title insurance division. When Dobson Sr. sold the trust company, Dobson Jr. retained the insurance division, starting his own company.
The two insurance companies, Dobson and McOmber, ran parallel paths, both operating in various downtown offices. Both men had sons who fought in World War II and then came back to join their father's businesses. Fred T. McOmber, although well past retirement age, held on "with grim determination" through the war in order to keep the business for his son, Ted. Ted McOmber, who returned in 1945, when his dad was seventy-seven, says, "I felt I owed it to him to try. It was the least I could do." Ted found he enjoyed working with people and stayed with the insurance business until his own recent retirement.
Bill Dobson finished his MBA right after the war and then joined his father's agency in 1948, eventually becoming the owner. Ted McOmber and Bill Dobson, who had known each other all their lives, merged their companies in 1957. Dobson-McOmber Insurance moved out to East Stadium and later Manchester Road as business grew. The tradition of passing the business on to a son is continuing: Steve Dobson, Bill's son, has been Dobson-McOmber president since 1987.
Fred T. McOmber's firm started out with one employee, a secretary. Today Dobson-McOmber employs forty-five people--enough to use all of Dr. Chase's old building. Continuing the historic renovation begun by Johnson, Johnson and Roy, they're painting it in shades of green to bring out the ornate brick detailing. Back windows that were covered over will be opened up and all the windows replaced with four-over-four glass similar to what was there originally. The garage on the back is being torn down and replaced with an entrance and an elevator shaft, making the building handicapped-accessible and providing space for customer parking.
[Photo caption from original print edition]: Chase's recipes included cures for five kinds of "apparent death" and an ointment made from cooked toads.
[Photo caption from original print edition]: (Above) Dr. Alvin Wood Chase began his printing house in 1864; his self-help medical book sold so well that he was able to triple the plant's size by 1868. (Left) Bill and Steve Dobson and Ted McOmber of Dobson-McOmber Insurance. The century-old firm is restoring Chase's showplace as its new headquarters.