Turning the clock ahead in Dexter

Author: 
Grace Shackman

From car showroom to coffee shop

Before car salesrooms and gas stations were relegated to the outskirts of town, Ralph Kingsbury's Ford dealership stood on the corner of Main and Broad streets in Dexter. Today the building is the Clock Works Coffee house.

"It's as different as you can get in the same space," says Elizabeth Kingsbury Davenport, Kingsbury's daughter. The Clock Works, although located in the former dealership's post-Civil War Commercial Italianate building, manages to look very modem and airy with exposed brick walls, scenic watercolors, and generously spaced tables and chairs.

In Davenport's time, when her father's business included the main storefront, a garage on the east, and gas pumps on the west, this same site was anything but open: a single Ford floor model took up most of the showroom, surrounded by vats of car parts, barrels of freebies for the gas station, and cane-bottom chairs for people to sit on while they waited for their cars to be repaired.

Harvey Blanchard opened Dexter's first Ford dealership in 1911. Ten years later he started a bus line between Ann Arbor and Dexter using Fords. In 1926, in the last years of the Model T, Blanchard gave up the car business and Kingsbury took over.

"He always loved cars," recalls Davenport of her father. "He drove a Studebaker, but the Dexter Ford dealership was open and his mother bought it for him."

Kingsbury had graduated in 1912 from the U-M's railroad accounting program, the precursor of today's business school. He had been working for the Pere Marquette Railroad in Detroit when the opportunity arose. He moved to Dexter with his wife, Marian, who became the local piano teacher; their three young children, Elizabeth, Doris, and Stewart; his mother, Loretta Kingsbury; and his mother-in-law, Jennie David. They were later joined by his brother-in-law, William David—"Uncle Will," as Davenport knew him.

The new ownership was celebrated with a grand opening. The building was decorated with red and white flags furnished by the Ford Motor Company, and salami, liverwurst, cheese and crackers, and pop were served inside. According to Davenport, the fanfare was probably a bit "too much" for local residents. "They were used to a quieter approach," she explains. "It was a farming community. There were some prosperous farmers, but it was not a rich community. People lived simply. They played cards on Saturday night; they went to weekly dances or church suppers."

If the opening sparked any resistance among members of the community, it didn't affect the business, which grew big enough to employ three mechanics, two salesmen, and a bookkeeper. Davenport remembers her dad sitting at his Mission-style desk in the back of the store wearing a green visor and cooling himself with a palm-leaf fan. In front of him stood the dark green metal counter. With an old-fashioned cash register and a Philco beehive radio. Uncle Will, a short man who always wore a hat—either a fedora or, in summer, a straw boater—managed the two gas pumps (regular and ethyl), although "whoever was around did the gas. They didn't exactly line up for service," Davenport says. To keep customers coming, premiums were given for buying certain amounts of gas. Davenport remembers Depression Glass dessert plates, cups and saucers, creamers, sugars bowls, and salad plates, later replaced by lacy pressed glass that was a yellow-amber color, a light green, or pink.

The store itself was decorated in "Ford Motor olive drab," recalls Davenport. The company had a standard look for its showrooms and sent out posters of cars, large cardboard cutouts of cars, ad materials, and flyers, things that all Ford dealers were expected to use. The repair area (now a video store) was connected to the salesroom by a side door; it had roll-up garage doors on the street, an oil-change pit (hoists were rare in those days), and a back door large enough for cars to exit to the alley.

In the early days of the dealership, Kingsbury sold one car at a time—after a customer bought the floor model, he would order another. Occasionally a Fordson tractor or an additional car or two would be on display outside near the gas pumps.

Later Ford switched to a quota system, sending a car hauler with Kingsbury's assigned delivery. New models were celebrated at the dealership with blue and white triangular banners, while yellow banners were used for special sales. Davenport still remembers the day in 1927 when the Model A was introduced: "I went to the candy store and told them it went sixty miles an hour. They didn't believe me."

Once a month the Ford road man came and inspected the books, an event that Davenport recalls as "always stressful." Henry Ford's visits were even worse. He and his henchman, Harry Bennett, would park in front and "sit and watch," she remembers. "It was like God watching. We were paralyzed with fear and not allowed anywhere near them."

When the Great Depression hit, it was harder to sell cars. "Dad sold a lot of cars to U-M faculty and to his frat brothers or their friends. The repair work was for Dexter folks," recalls Davenport. Area farmers needed to keep their old trucks and tractors running and would sometimes bring them into the dealership "literally held together with baling wire. Dad had a soft heart and knew you couldn't farm without gas. Some people paid their bills with in-kind goods instead of money, a practice frowned on by Mr. Ford, but we ate very well," she says.

During the depression the car dealership was also the repository for surplus food, which was lined up against the west wall. People came in and signed for the food they took. "I was embarrassed that people had to come in and pick up food. I'd always make myself scarce when I could," recalls Davenport.

Kingsbury moved the dealership twice, each time to bigger quarters—first to the top of Monument Park in the building now home to Cottage Inn pizza, and then to the top of the hill, now an AAA office. In 1941 he sold the business to Al Gross, who had been a salesman with him from the beginning. Kingsbury took a job as bookkeeper at the Buhr Tool Company in Ann Arbor, where he worked until he retired. He died in 1976.

After Kingsbury moved out of the Blanchard building, it stood empty until 1944, when Art Lovell moved his appliance store into it from across the street. Lovell, an excellent mechanic, kept the garage as a car repair place and continued to run the gas station, although he changed it to a Dixie Gas station, supplied by the Staebler Oil Company of Ann Arbor. He used the storefront to sell Frigidaire appliances. As engines improved and cars needed fewer overhauls, he segued into doing more appliance repair.

Kate and Mike Bostic opened the Clock Works Coffee Shop in the building in 1997. They survived the first two years despite heavy construction going on around them. "Fortunately we're serving an addicted population," laughs Kate. In addition to coffee the Bostics serve morning snacks and light lunches. They are obviously filling a community need; people come in on the way to work, parents stop in after dropping their children off at school, and local merchants come in for lunch. In warm weather, people can drink their coffee at tables on the side of the building where the gas pumps once stood.

In one respect the present operation is not as divergent from the car dealership as it seems. Davenport recalls that when her father ran the place people came in throughout the day, some waiting for their cars to be fixed, others stopping in if they were buying gas or just passing by. Although the dealership didn't serve coffee (as many do now), "there were newspapers to read," says Davenport. Or, she adds, people would simply drop by, coming in to "sit and talk"—just as they do at the Clock Works today.

—Grace Shackman

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Grace Shackman