Last weekend I was browsing the internet looking at commercial real estate properties in the Port Huron area. I came across an advertisement for the sale of the property at 708 Lapeer Avenue. This property tugs at my heart because I know it was built in 1891 by Henry McMorran and Wilbur F. Davidson. Two capitalists who have captivated my attention for the past few years. Having researched the life of Henry McMorran for almost four years, I feel a kinship with him and this building. When it popped up in my search, I felt the need to share what I have learned about this building over the years.
By 1891, the City of Port Huron had experienced an increase to its population by 2,800 over a period of 15 months with the city issuing over 187 building permits for new home construction. The city also had knowledge of 50 homes built that year without a permit. A city report detailed new commercial buildings under construction. Included are the following buildings detailed in that reporting: The McMorran & Davidson building, Grace Episcopal Church, E.F. Percival’s new brick block, Robert Walsh’s depot, Commercial Bank, the White Building, Goulden’s and Davidson’s block, Charles Baer’s building, and a new fire engine house. City Revenue from building permits that year totaled over $300,000.
As Port Huron was booming with new residents and businesses, space became scarce in the business districts located downtown on Huron Avenue, Military Street, and along Water Street stretching east to the St. Clair River and west to 6th Street. A solution for this problem was found by clearing out and selling land located west on Water Street past 6th Street to stretch the business district. In anticipation of the expansion, the City Railway Company made application to the City of Port Huron in 1890 for the construction of a street railway line running from Third & Water Street to 7th Street and Lapeer Avenue to Sixteenth Street.
Off to a Bright Start
Before McMorran and Davidson formed a real estate partnership in 1890, they were partners in the electric business together. It can be said both men held a curiosity for new inventions and ideas. This shared trait is what initially brought them together.
Thomas Edison may have invented the incandescent light, but it was Wilbur F. Davidson who brought electricity to the City of Port Huron. Davidson was born in Adrian, Michigan in 1852. He worked as a clerk in a general store after high school in Howell and Flint, Michigan. He came to Port Huron around 1882, where he purchased a dry goods store in the Opera House Block. Davidson held a fascination with the new electric industry, and he paid close attention to Thomas Edison’s new incandescent lamp. He read everything he could on electric lighting and the dynamos that powered it. In October 1882, after Thomas Edison’s success in New York City with his “Jumbo” dynamo at Pearl Street Station, Davidson got it in his head he wanted to light his store to promote his new business. In the fall of 1883, he installed a small electric lighting plant in his store. He ran this promotional advertisement in The Port Huron Daily Times, November 19, 1883:
“W.F. Davidson and Co., the Opera House dry goods dealers are about to introduce the Edison electric light in their store and invite the public to call and buy something as a souvenir of the first electric light in Port Huron.”
Davidson’s trial run was a success. Having demonstrated the promotional value of electric light he attracted the attention of Henry McMorran and Charles F. Harrington. Together, they formed the Excelsior Electric Light Company on March 1, 1884. During its testing phase, the company installed its power plant in the McMorran Milling Company, and the rest is history. A new friendship and close business association between Wilbur and Henry had begun. Together they would create many manufacturing businesses that ran on electrical energy.
McMorran & Davidson
McMorran and Davidson formed a real estate partnership called McMorran & Davidson around 1890. Their first purchase was the property on the corner of 7th and Lapeer that was known as the Charles Stewart property. The Stewart property held five rental houses on the land. After McMorran and Davidson made their purchase, they tore down the rental houses in anticipation of building a new brick building on the site. Construction was complete by September 1891. This commercial property became known as the McMorran & Davidson building. Their intention was to lease out the building space to business tenants, but over time McMorran & Davidson began using the building to also house some of the businesses they created together.
This period of McMorran’s life can definitely be called “his experimental phase”. He and Davidson took many chances together manufacturing various types of clothing. Some of them got off to a strong start, had a small run, and eventually failed. Others were successful and sold off to other business owners. Only one of their businesses deviated from clothing manufacturing during the years 1891 to 1910; their endeavor to manufacture a horseless carriage. I was not able to determine in my research why their attempt to manufacture gas-powered vehicles never got off the ground. They advertised they had a patent for the engine. It is my understanding only one sample was ever built. If anyone has further information on the horseless carriage, I would love to hear from you.
McMorran and Davidson Building (1891-1910): A Brief Glimpse of Businesses
1891 – Pabst Brewing Company of Milwaukee and Joseph O’Hearn’s saloon. These two businesses are identified as the first businesses to occupy the McMorran & Davidson building. The first floor of the building had ornate fixtures and the saloon is described as being the finest place in town. The third floor was set up as a boarding house and the quarters were rented out by the Foresters of the city.
1892 – Dental Office of Lucy K. Waterloo, lady dentist. It was no surprise to see this business taking up space in Henry McMorran’s building. Henry was very supportive of working women. He employed many women during his business career. Henry was also supportive of a woman having an education. He strongly encouraged his daughters to pursue one. His purchased a house in Ann Arbor for his family to live in while David and Emma attended college at the University of Michigan. Clara attended and graduated from Miss Steven’s School in Germantown, Pennsylvania, a college prep educational institution.
The Russell Manufacturing Company. This company manufactured spiral armlets covered with silk and cotton, corset lacing, fish lines, chalk lines, cotton and silk braids of all kinds. It employed two men and 15 women. This company was encouraged to come to Port Huron by R.C. Mudge, a business partner of McMorran and Davidson in the R.C. Mudge Paper Clothing Company later known as the Port Huron Paper Clothing Company.
A drug store owned and operated by George Williamson leased space in the building.
1894 – Eskimo Tanning Company. This company originated out of a patent for processing tanning hides. O.E. Harrington came to Port Huron and asked McMorran and Davidson to review the patent. McMorran and Davidson determined the process expanded upon the current practice used to tan hides and furs. They invested in the business. The company manufactured robes, gloves and mittens and employed 25 men.
1895 – Port Huron Fibre Garment Company. This company was owned and operated by McMorran and Davidson. It was a re-organization of a prior business owned by Henry that he had started in 1891 with Edward Lovely called the Opaline Fibre Works. It was burned out by fire in 1893. It made paper collars, sleeves, and cuffs for ladies clothing, which were of fashion at the time. When it re-organized it was owned and operated by McMorran and Davidson. In 1897, McMorran & Davidson re-organized this company again into the Standard Fibre Novelty Company. They moved it from 7th and Lapeer to Military Street.
Source: Youtube, Port Huron, Past & Present by Bob Davis, Part 143
1899 – The Standard Novelty Company. This company was organized by McMorran and Davidson to manufacture mechanic’s clothing. It was a huge success and employed over 60 workers. The business expanded to manufacture a metal polish and cleaning product called Polishine. The patent to this product and the business was sold in 1902 to a gentleman by the name of B.J. McCormick who manufactured a line of his own polishes.
In 1899 the Standard Novelty Company manufactured a model gasoline powered motor carriage known as a horseless carriage. They advertised this carriage for sale in the Detroit Free Press in July of 1899. It was said the carriage could be regulated to run five, ten, or twenty miles an hour. Once again Davidson had something sensational to promote. He and McMorran placed a sample vehicle in the McMorran & Davidson building on exhibition and demonstrated its driving ability on August 21, 1899, when it was driven though the streets of Port Huron for everyone to see. It must have caused quite a stir and made a lasting impression. Wilbur Davidson has been attributed to building the first auto that ever appeared on the streets of Port Huron. However, he was not alone in this endeavor. Henry McMorran was by his side, and together they manufactured the first auto to ever appear on the streets of Port Huron.
While the Standard Novelty Company advertised the sale of its horseless carriage in the Detroit Free Press and promoted it on the streets of Port Huron, I have found no documented evidence showing McMorran and Davidson built more than one vehicle. A few years back, I was doing some research at the St. Clair County Register of Deeds office. One of the clerks told me a story his grandfather used to tell him about Emma McMorran driving a motorized carriage around Port Huron before motor vehicles frequented the streets. A year later when I was researching the Standard Novelty Company, I recalled that story about Emma McMorran.
1901– The Lauth Hotel. This hotel was not located in the McMorran & Davidson building. But one cannot talk about the corner of 7th and Lapeer without a small discussion about the Lauth Hotel across the street. This hotel was owned and operated by Chris Lauth. He bought the property on the corner of Lapeer and Water Street in 1889. Construction began in November 1900, and the hotel was open for business on June 15, 1901. Were you aware that at one point Mr. Lauth actually contemplated building a drug store on that property instead of a hotel? Thank goodness he did not go through with that plan. What a unique hotel he built!
I do not know what year the above picture of the 7th and Lapeer area was taken. I love this picture because it captures a streetcar and a horse and buggy. Can you imagine living in a place where a horse drawn carriage and an electric railway car are your modes of transportation?
If you want to go back in time and experience the history of this area of Port Huron, I strongly recommend taking the time to watch Bob Davis’ historical videos No. 142 and No. 143. Bob is an inspiration. The work he has done and continues to do in his historical video series, Port Huron, Past & Present, is amazing. He has a true gift for presentation and his videos offer a unique storytelling about the history of Port Huron. Check him out when you have time.
1901 – The Flint Pantaloon Company. This company originated in Flint, Michigan in 1896. The original owners were Oren Stone and David Traxler. In 1901, this company was purchased by McMorran and Davidson. They manufactured pants out of the McMorran & Davidson building. A storefront on Military Street, also owned by McMorran and Davidson, by the name of The Boston Store sold the pants.
1907 – The Standard Novelty Company closed up shop in 1906. In 1907 McMorran and Davidson leased the third floor to Larned, Carter & Co. This company came from Detroit and made overalls. In some old photographs and postcards of the building you can notice etched letters displayed on the windows that read “Larned, Carter & Co.”
1910 – The J.G. Philpot company started out as a small liquor business that operated a small space in the McMorran and Davidson building in 1893. By 1910, it had expanded to a liquor and mail order business and it operated on every floor of the building. The storefront on the ground floor was described as being the most elaborately furnished business in the city, resembling a bank with “heavy counters” and “fancy brass lattice work.”
The Ties that Bind
Wilbur Davidson died in 1913 and Henry passed in 1929. Henry left one-half of his interest in the building to his daughters through a Trust Agreement. I assume Wilbur’s spouse, Margaretta, inherited his one-half interest and it eventually passed to their children upon her death.
In 1958, when the building was damaged by fire it was owned by Mrs. A.E. West and Mrs. Arthur B. Davidson. Mrs. West told local news reporters at the time:
“There hasn’t been a soul living in the building for a year and a half…..in fact the two upper floors have been locked. The building used to be known as the McMorran-Davidson Building and was built around 1880. Henry McMorran and Wilbur F. Davidson were the original owners. It was during World War II that Mr. Wilbur Davidson, (Mr. Davidson’s grandson) purchased the McMorran interest in the building. My sister in law and I inherited the building in 1956.” (Source: The Port Huron Times Herald, September 5, 1958.)
McMorran and Davidson were a perfect match. Their close business association grew into a close friendship. Their families became close and that bond continued between their children and Mr. Davidson’s grandchildren. Emma McMorran and Davidson’s grandson, Wilbur, kept the bond the two men had. He served as her personal attorney and acted as the Registered Agent, Secretary, and after Andrew Murphy’s death, Trustee of the Henry McMorran Memorial Foundation. Obviously, Emma trusted him. I like to believe the close association between Emma and Wilbur would have made Henry and Wilbur happy.
When I drive past the corner of 7th and Lapeer, I see only a portion of what was left of a grand three-story building. The front windows have been slightly altered, the corner triangular piece and a section located on the 7th Street side of the building is gone. The windows on the side bricked over. But a portion of the 2nd floor is still standing, and for that I am grateful. When I see what is left of that old building, I am reminded of Henry and Wilbur and that makes me smile.
708 Lapeer Avenue, Port Huron, Michigan [images], point2homes.com
A Half Century of Electric Service in Port Huron 1884-1934; The Detroit Edison Company. Retrieved from: Google Books
A Hot Fire: The Opaline Fibre Works and Several Other Buildings Burned (1893, August 11). The Port Huron Daily Times.
A New Industry (1892, April 4). The Port Huron Daily Times.
A New Industry Will be Established in Port Huron at Once: Standard Novelty Company to Make Mechanic’s Clothing; From Forty to Fifty People Will be Employed (1899, July 11). The Port Huron Daily Times.
A New Industry Which Will Give Employment to Twenty-Five Men: Henry McMorran and W.F. Davidson and Projectors; All Kinds of Hides Will be Bought and Tanned (1894, November 13). The Port Huron Daily Times.
A Port Huron “Auto”: Standard Novelty Co. Will Build Horseless Carriages; A Sample Here (1899, August 21). The Port Huron Daily Times.
Appointment of Resident Agent (1951). Articles of Incorporation of the Henry McMorran Memorial Foundation.
Bob Davis, Port Huron, Past & Present, Part 142 & 143, Youtube.
Chris Lauth Hotel Will be an Ornament to the Town (1900, October 13). The Port Huron Daily Times.
City News: Chris Lauth is Removing the Little Frame Building at the Intersection of Water Street and Lapeer Avenue to One of the Lots on Eighth Street (1900, September 28). The Port Huron Daily Times.
City News: The Work of Laying Brick on Chris Lauth’s New Hotel Has Begun (1900, November 9). The Port Huron Daily Times.
Detroit Edison Benefit (1984, July 24). The Port Huron Times Herald.
Downtown Building Burns: Flames Sweep 3-Story Unit at 7th & Lapeer; Salvation Army Store Ruined; Other Concerns Hit (1958, September 5) [image & quote]. The Port Huron Times Herald.
Estate of Henry McMorran (1935), Docket No.s 60090, 66106. Memorandum Opinion. U.S. Tax Court, BTA Memorandum Decisions; Prentice-Hall Inc., New York.
Flint Pantaloon Company (1896) [image]. Headlight Flashes Along the Grand Trunk Railway System, Flint, Michigan, Volume II, No. 12; Flint, Michigan. Retrieved from: Google Books
Flint Pantaloon Company. Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Port Huron, St. Clair County, Michigan, November 1903 [image]. Library of Congress: https://www.loc.gov/resource/g4114pm.g041591903/?sp=14&r=0.315,0.348,0.434,0.148,0
Headed to Port Huron (1889, August 26). The Port Huron Daily Times.
Historic House Recalls Past: Beauty of 1890 Restored (1976, July 4). The Port Huron Times Herald Bicentennial Edition.
Horseless Carriage Ad (1899, July 26) [image]. Detroit Free Press.
Largest Wholesale Liquor Store and Mail Order House in Michigan: The J.G. Philpott Company Occupies Every Floor of McMorran & Davidson Building; Product Shipped to Every Portion of the State (1910, July 21). The Port Huron Times Herald.
Last Will and Testament of Emma McMorran, February 10, 1956 & Codicil to the Last Will and Testament of Emma McMorran, September 10, 1959.
Lauth’s Hotel Will be Ready for Occupancy on June 15th (1901, May 4). The Port Huron Daily Times.
Lauth Hotel Ad Open for Business (1901, July 6). The Port Huron Daily Times.
May Move to Port Huron: The Busy and Prosperous Flint Pantaloon Company (1902, January 13). The Port Huron Daily Times.
New Hotel: Chris Lauth Will Build One at the Junction of Lapeer Avenue and Water Street (1900, September 18). The Port Huron Daily Times.
No Headline –Chris Lauth (1889, April 22). The Port Huron Daily Times.
No Headline –Charles R. Stewart property (1889, December 14). The Port Huron Daily Times.
No Headline – City Railway Company Application (1890, July 10). The Port Huron Daily Times.
No Headline – Contract Awarded to build McMorran & Davidson Building (1891, August 24). The Port Huron Daily Times.
No Headline – McMorran & Davidson Building Permit (1891, September 15). The Port Huron Daily Times.
No Headline – Pabst Brewing Co. of Milwaulkee to occupy McMorran & Davidson Building (1891, September 29). The Port Huron Daily Times.
No Headline – Foresters of the city to occupy lodge rooms at McMorran & Davidson Building (1891, October 13). The Port Huron Daily Times.
No Headline – Lady Dentist McMorran & Davidson Building (1892, March 26). The Port Huron Daily Times.
No Headline – Drug Store in McMorran & Davidson Building, George Williamson (1892, August 30). The Port Huron Daily Times.
No Headline – Emma McMorran Enrolled at the University of Michigan for 1893-1894 School Year (1894, May 4). The Port Huron Daily Times.
No Headline – Clara McMorran Returns Home from School in Germantown, Pennsylvania (1894, December 22). The Port Huron Daily Times.
No Headline – Port Huron Fibre Garment Company fibre fabric in great demand (1895, March 28). The Port Huron Daily Times.
No Headline – Port Huron Fibre Garment Company Fire in McMorran & Davidson Building damages to Joseph O’Hearn saloon (1895, April 24). The Port Huron Daily Times.
No Headline – McMorran Family and Davidson Family Vacation in Florida (1897, March 9). The Port Huron Daily Times.
No Headline – B.J. McCormick Buys Standard Novelty Company Stock and Business (1902, December 11). The Port Huron Daily Times.
Out of Business: Flint Pantaloon Company Will Soon be a Thing of the Past (1906, December 12). The Port Huron Times Herald.
Residential Listing for Mrs. Emma McMorran (1888). Ann Arbor Directory, R.L. Polk & Co.; Ann Arbor, Michigan.
R.L. Polk & Co. (1897) – Standard Fibre Novelty Company Listing. Michigan State Gazetteer and Business Directory for 1897, Volume XIII; Detroit, Michigan
Standard Novelty Company Polishine Ad (1900, March 20 and March 30). The Port Huron Daily Times.
State of Michigan Bureau of Labor (1896) – Listing for Port Huron Fibre Garment Company. Joint Documents for the State of Michigan for the year 1895 in four volumes. Volume I containing the 13th Annual Report of the Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics, Lansing; Robert Smith & Co. (State Printers and Binders). Retrieved from Google Books.
Stone Flint Woolen Mills, Flint, Michigan (Stone, Atwood & Co) [image]. Retrieved from:
The Building Record (1891, November 13). The Port Huron Daily Times.
The Last Dash: Boston Store Closed Today for Final Preparations: How New Industry Was Brought to Port Huron (1907, May 17). The Port Huron Times Herald.
Wilbur F. Davidson Well Known Citizen and Capitalist Dies: His End Comes After Protracted Illness: Installed First Electric Lighting Plant in Port Huron: Also Built the First Auto Which Ever Appeared in this City: Had Been Prominent in Banking and Commercial Circles (1913, June 18). The Port Huron Times Herald.