Dry Goods at Main and Washington

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, June 1995,
June 1995

Author: Grace Shackman

Between them, Philip Bach and Bertha Muehlig furnished the community with dry goods and notions for 115 years

Today's Main Street is dominated by destination restaurants and specialty shops. But for most of the city's life, Main Street was a regional shopping center catering to the county's everyday needs: hardware, clothing, food, farm supplies. No store served this market longer than the dry goods store at South Main and Washington. It opened in 1865 as Bach and Abel and closed in 1980 as Muehlig's. Dry goods--a term no longer used in the Yellow Pages--denoted a business that sold both fabric for home sewing and items manufactured of cloth.

Philip Bach built the store in 1865, part of the post-Civil War building boom. He replaced a much lower wooden storefront that looked like a set for a western. Bach came to the United States from the Duchy of Baden (now part of Germany) at the age of nine and began working in the dry goods business when he was fifteen. When Bach's first partner, Peter Abel, died he was replaced first by his brother, Eugene Abel, and later by Zachary Roath.

At that time, before mass production, Ann Arbor supported as many as fifteen dry goods stores at a time. Housewives sewed nearly all of their families' clothing and even household items like sheets. In the early days, the only ready-made item in Bach's store was cloaks.

Downtown's retail market was volatile in the nineteenth century. As early as 1881, Bach had been in the same business longer than anyone else in town. He worked for fourteen more years, selling his store only months before his death in 1895 to Bruno St. James, co-owner of Goodyear and St. James, the competing store next door. Along with the business, St. James acquired the services of Bach and Roath's young bookkeeper, Bertha Muehlig, who had joined the staff in 1891 at the age of seventeen.

St. James altered the street-level windows and installed an innovative spring-operated cash carrier to send money and sales slips to a cashier on the mezzanine at the back of the store. After St. James died in 1911, Bertha Muehlig bought the business.

"There wasn't an article that was usable that she didn't sell," remembers Hazel Olsen, a former Muehlig's saleslady. Muehlig supplied the everyday things homemakers needed--mattress pads, linens, blankets, drapes, towels, aprons, tablecloths--in addition to everything needed for home sewing. She also sold clothes and accessories, primarily for her women customers--house dresses, underwear, purses, baby supplies, and children's clothing. The three floors were filled to the brim, with products hanging from the walls. Fay Muehlig, Muehlig's niece by marriage and herself an employee, remembers that people would say, "If you can't find something, go to Muehlig's; they'll have it."

Muehlig's combination of high quality and reasonable prices brought a loyal clientele. The stock remained the same year after year, regardless of fashion. Even after paper tissues were widely used, she continued to sell handkerchiefs, as one former employee remembers, "by the bushel full." She carried women's long underwear (called Tillie Open Bottoms) long after central heating made houses more comfortable in the winter.

Personal service was a hallmark of the store. Stools in front of the long counters allowed customers to sit while they were being helped. Frieda Heusel Saxon, who just celebrated her hundredth birthday, remembers twirling around on a stool as a little girl while her mother, Mary Heusel, shopped. When she was busy, Heusel would telephone her orders. Despite her sometimes vague requests--"enough blue material to make an apron," for instance--the store managed to fill them satisfactorily, according to Elsa Goetz Ordway, the neighbor girl who was sent to pick up Heusel's orders.

As Bertha Muehlig aged, her stock appealed more to mature women. "Owners buy what they need themselves," explains former employee Chuck Jacobus. Her store was the best place to get service-weight stockings, support hose, and step-in dresses without buttons or zippers. Corsets and girdles were fitted by a specially trained woman. The sales staff mirrored the customers: many worked there for years and simply cut back their hours when they reached retirement age. Muehlig herself worked even after she needed a wheelchair: she came in every day and was carried up to her mezzanine office, where she sat, wearing a visor, going over the books.

Muehlig, who never married, lived out her life in the home where she was reared, at 315 S. Main, a block and a half from her store. With no children to leave her money to, she gave lavishly to local churches, scout troops, and hospitals, earning the nickname "the Santa Claus of Ann Arbor." Her pet charities were the Donovan School, later Northside, and the Anna Botsford Bach home. In her store, Muehlig gave discounts to anyone with a hard luck story or a worthy cause. She was also good to her regular customers, giving them presents at Christmas.

When Muehlig died in 1955 at eighty-one, she left the store to two longtime employees, Alfred Diez, a German immigrant whom she had hired in 1926, and Margaret Jones, her bookkeeper since 1937. A third share was left to her nephew, who sold it to Raymond Hutzel. Muehlig's home, the last house on the block, was torn down in 1962 and replaced by a modern storefront building (now Stein and Goetz). Many mourned the loss of this landmark house.

The store continued largely unchanged after Muehlig's death. Jacobus, who was Diez's assistant, remembers that people from out of town were "flabbergasted" at the old-time feel of the store and that chil≠dren were fascinated watching the spring-loaded cash carrier whiz to the mezzanine and back. While Diez worked to broaden the stock to bring in younger customers, he never would go so far as to sell jeans. Jacobus remembers Diez's wife, Dorothy, saying, "I don't like them, I won't wear them, I won't sell them."

Diez died in 1976, and Muehlig's was sold to Tom and Nelson DeFord, who ran it until 1980, when they moved down the street and renamed their store DeFord's. The building lay empty for a year until Hooper, Hathaway, Price, Beuche & Wallace, one of Ann Arbor's oldest law firms, bought and renovated it. Using an 1867 picture, they restored the facade to its original appearance. They kept as many of the store's internal features as possible, including the pressed-metal ceiling, the mezzanine, the elevator, and the oak staircase.


[Photo caption from original print edition: Muehlig at age eighty, accepting a candy replica of her Main Street home made by grateful students at Northside School.]

[Photo caption from original print edition: Celebrating Muehlig's 60th anniversary in 1971: l. to r.) Alfred Diez, Dorothy Diez, Cora Schmid, Irene Howell, Gladys Lambarth, Fay Muehlig, Frieda Volz, Emma Schairer, Helen Coon, Elsa McGee, Lillian Hewitt, and Chuck Jacobus.]