Last weekend I was browsing the internet looking at commercial real estate properties in Port Huron, Michigan. I came across the sale of the property at 708 Lapeer Avenue, the old Active Lounge. This property tugs at my heart because it was built by Henry McMorran and Wilbur F. Davidson in 1891. Two capitalists who have captivated my attention for the past few years. Having researched the life of Henry McMorran, I have a special place in my heart for this building that still stands at 7th and Lapeer.
When Henry McMorran and Wilbur F. Davidson were making plans in 1890 to construct a building to house their real estate partnership, the City of Port Huron was experiencing a population increase. Over a period of 15 months the population had increased by 2,800 people. By 1891, 187 building permits for new home construction were granted by the city and 50 homes were being built without a permit. Commercial buildings under construction at the time included 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. Revenue from building permits 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 to this problem was found in stretching the business district on west on Water Street past 6th Street. 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. It asked to run a line from Third & Water Street to 7th Street and Lapeer to Sixteenth Street. Wanting to have their building located in the new business area, McMorran and Davidson chose the corner of 7th and Lapeer.
Off to a Bright Start
Before McMorran and Davidson formed their real estate partnership in 1890, they were partners in the electric business together for a few years. It can be said both men held a curiosity for new inventions and ideas. These interests made them fast friends and business partners.
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 businesses that ran on electrical energy that contributed to the growing success of Port Huron.
McMorran & Davidson
After McMorran & Davidson purchased the Charles Steward property at 7th and Lapeer, they tore down the rental houses located on the land and built a three-story brick building on the site. It was complete by September 1891. It was known throughout town as the McMorran & Davidson building. McMorran and Davidson used the building to house some companies they formed together. They also rented space to other commercial businesses. This period of McMorran’s life is 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 at this time. The business was their effort to manufacture a horseless carriage.
The Businesses at McMorran & Davidson (1891-1910)
From 1891 to 1910, the McMorran & Davidson building housed the following business:
1891 – Pabst Brewing Company of Milwaukee, Joseph O’Hearn’s Saloon and the Foresters.
The Pabst Brewing Company and Joseph O’Hearn’s Saloon have been identified as the first businesses to occupy the McMorran & Davidson building. They were located on the first floor. The first floor of the building had ornate fixtures and the saloon was described as the finest place in town. The third floor was set up as living quarters to lodge the Foresters of the city. Wilbur Davidson was a member of the Foresters.
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 an education. 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.
1892 – 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.
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 called the Opaline Fibre Works which had been burned out by fire in 1893. It made paper collars, sleeves, and cuffs for ladies clothing, which were of fashion at the time. Henry started the business in 1891 in partnership with Edward Lovely. After it was burned out, the original company dissolved. In 1895, McMorran & Davidson reorganized it into the Standard Fibre Garment Company. In 1897, the company moved from the McMorran & Davidson building to a new building on Military Street.
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 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, as being powered by a four-cylinder engine with an attractive design with upholstered seats.
It was regulated to run, five, ten, and 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. They demonstrated its driving ability on August 21, 1899, by taking it out for a drive through 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 automobile that ever appeared on the streets of Port Huron. However what most people do not know is he was not alone in the endeavor. Henry McMorran was also involved. Together, the two men built the first automobile.
While the Standard Novelty Company advertised the sale of its horseless carriage in the Detroit Free Press, I have found no documented evidence showing McMorran and Davidson built more than just the one sample 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 that Emma McMorran was often seen in a motorized carriage around Port Huron before motor vehicles frequented the streets. When I saw this photograph of Henry and his family, it reminded me of the clerk’s story.
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. Mr. Lauth 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 the 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 really 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.
1902 – 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. They sold the pants out of their storefront on Military Street called the Boston Store.
In 1906, McMorran & Davidson closed up their Standard Novelty Company shop and leased the third floor space in 1907 to Larned, Carter & Co. This company came from Detroit and made overalls. In some old photographs and postcards of the building you can sometimes make out the etched letters of the company displayed on the windows.
1910 – The J.G. Philpot Company.
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.”
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. As noted earlier, she sold her interest in the building to him. He served as her personal attorney. She obviously trusted him. Wilbur acted as the Registered Agent and Secretary of the foundation she created with her sister, Clara Mackenzie, and husband, Andrew Murphy, in honor of their father called the Henry McMorran Memorial Foundation. After their deaths, Wilbur was named Trustee of the foundation.
In my youth, the McMorran & Davidson building held the Active Lounge. The old bar front is still displayed today. What is left of their grand three-story building is only a portion of what it once was. When you go past the corner, you can notice the front windows have been slightly altered, the corner triangular piece and the whole section located on the 7th Street side of the building is gone. But what is left of that building, serves as a reminder of the history of our city and those who came before us. The “those” who walked these same old streets.
708 Lapeer Avenue, Port Huron, Michigan [image], 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.
B.J. McCormick Buys Standard Novelty Company Stock and Business (1902, December 11). The Port Huron Daily Times.
Bob Davis, Port Huron, Past & Present, Part 142 & 143, Youtube.
Charles R. Stewart property (1889, December 14). The Port Huron Daily Times.
Chris Lauth (1889, April 22). The Port Huron Daily Times.
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.
City Railway Company Application (1890, July 10). The Port Huron Daily Times.
Clara McMorran Returns Home from School in Germantown, Pennsylvania (1894, December 22). The Port Huron Daily Times.
Contract Awarded to build McMorran & Davidson Building (1891, August 24). 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.
Drug Store in McMorran & Davidson Building, George Williamson (1892, August 30). The Port Huron Daily Times.
Emma McMorran Enrolled at the University of Michigan for 1893-1894 School Year (1894, May 4). The Port Huron Daily Times.
Estate of Henry McMorran (1935), Docket No. 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
Foresters of the city to occupy lodge rooms at McMorran & Davidson Building (1891, October 13). The Port Huron Daily Times.
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.
Lady Dentist McMorran & Davidson Building (1892, March 26). The Port Huron Daily Times.
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.
McMorran & Davidson Building Permit (1891, September 15). The Port Huron Daily Times.
McMorran Family and Davidson Family Vacation in Florida (1897, March 9). 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.
Pabst Brewing Co. of Milwaukee to occupy McMorran & Davidson Building (1891, September 29). The Port Huron Daily Times.
Port Huron Fibre Garment Company fibre fabric in great demand (1895, March 28). The Port Huron Daily Times.
Port Huron Fibre Garment Company Fire in McMorran & Davidson Building damages to Joseph O’Hearn saloon (1895, April 24). 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.