Treasure Mart

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, November 1991,
November 1991

Author: Susan Wineberg

As Herman Krapf's Planing Mill, it Made Fancy Trim for 19th-Century Builders

The Treasure Mart resale shop is a ritual stop for many Ann Arbor-ites, one that's been drawing people to Detroit Street since long before there was a Zingerman's—or a Kerrytown, for that matter. It is housed in a very old building with an interesting history of its own. It was built as a wood planing mill, specializing in "sash, doors, blinds [shutters], moulding and scroll work." An engraving of the mill and the miller's house (still standing next door at 521 Detroit Street) appears in the 1874 Atlas of Washtenaw County. It was constructed in 1869, after an earlier mill on the site burned down.

Detroit Street hummed with industrial activity in the mid-nineteenth century. Connecting the railroad depot to the county courthouse, it was the main gateway to the center of town. Other industries on the street included two buggy factories (one where Auto-Strasse is now, another on the site of the Old Brick) and Luick's Planing Mill, now the old part of the Kerrytown complex.

American woodworking underwent an industrial revolution in the last half of the nineteenth century. Steam planing mills—of which the Treasure Mart and the Luick Building are Ann Arbor's remaining examples—freed woodworking from its historic dependence on waterpower. The newer mills could be located in industrial districts close to their raw materials, and they utilized elaborate labor-saving machinery. This allowed them to produce economical finished products for the home building industry, which boomed after the Civil War.

Mills like these specialized in details—fancy brackets, cut shingles, doors, moldings, and the ornate ornamentation known as "gingerbread." A distinct American architecture, lavished with such wood detailing, climaxed at the end of the century. With a paucity of labor and an abundance of raw product, America gained world prominence in the design and production of woodworking machinery. A British team visiting the U.S. in 1854 was astonished at the specialized machinery for mortising and tenoning, boring, slotting, edging, and grooving.

John G. Miller operated the original mill (at first with a partner, John Reyer), beginning in the early 1850's. He rebuilt it after the 1869 fire, and finally sold it in 1878 to Herman Krapf, who operated it as the Detroit Planing Mill.

According to O. W. Stevenson's history of Ann Arbor, Krapf's mill was one of three that for many years supplied a good share of the lumber and interior materials used in constructing the growing city. Krapf was an Ann Arbor native, born five years after his father immigrated from Germany in 1836. He fought in the Civil War and married a local girl—which may explain why he became a Presbyterian, highly unusual among Ann Arbor's overwhelmingly Catholic and Lutheran nineteenth-century Germans. He served as an officer of the Old Fourth Ward from 1895 to1900.

Krapf remained in business until 1905, when he closed the mill and retired. By then, Michigan's lumber was almost gone. Without cheap local wood supplies, small mills like Krapf's found it hard to compete with trim produced by bigger operations in prime lumber areas, like the American South. The building was used as a machine shop in 1910, but by 1920 the City Directory listed it as vacant. The Barnard Toy Company occupied it for a short while, but by 1930 it was again listed as vacant. By 1940 it was the Warehouse Furniture Store, and in the 1950's it was the home of Ann Arbor Fruit and Produce, which moved in 1960 and rented the building to Mrs. Demaris Cash. Her Treasure Mart has been there ever since.

The idea of a retail consignment shop came to Mrs. Cash as she groped for ways to cope with a series of family troubles, including a daughter diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, a mother with a broken back, and a husband with a heart condition. Several "miracles" followed: the idea of a resale shop was suggested by a friend; Mrs. Cash was able to buy display cases and open the store on the same day; she prayed for and found a business partner, Mrs. Grace Bigby; and her first customer—who bought a crystal chandelier—appeared after she prayed for one.

Mrs. Cash bought the onetime mill, and the Miller's house next door, in 1983. Now finishing her thirtieth year of business, she is an active eighty-something. Her store, which some call resale shop and she calls a "junk shop,"is on many visitors' lists of places to see and is an addiction for many of its regular customers. (I allow myself to go only once a week.) The Treasure Mart is still a family enterprise, with Mrs. Cash's daughter, Elaine Johns, as its manager.

[Photo caption from original print edition]: Detroit Street was a bustling industrial district when this engraving appeared in the 1874 Atlas of Washtenaw County. Moribund for much of the century, the street began a comeback when Demaris Cash rented the one-time mill as a resale shop in 1960. Above: the Treasure Mart today.