Barker & Hamel

If the history which has passed down through Jeff Harrison’s four generations is correct,  we are seeing the first Flint built Buick engine,  for the first Flint built Buick automobile, being cast in April of 1904. The reason the previous sentence sounds redundant is because in the beginning Buick was making engines only for farmers, other car builders and also marine engines. This is what was done by Buick in Detroit and continued when they first came to Flint. The decision  to make an automobile came later. In the photo above Robert Wilmont Harrison is at the left with no hat. Jeff said  the notation on the back of this photo  says: first Buick upper and lower case  being poured. He also mentions numbers on the back:  10-6.  I do not know what 10-6 is. My first guess would be some type of model number but I can find no number matching this. If it were a date you would think it would also include the year. And if it were the date, it would be too late in 1904 to be the milestone first engine of the first Flint Buick. Also consider that history shows Barker & Hamel not starting until January of 1904 and the first Buick auto was ‘running around’ the Buick factory in late May of 1904.  It would be easy to say it’s not a date, but it could very well be one. Lets just say for a minute that it is a date,  and 10 is October and 6 is the day, then we could be talking 10-6-1903. Could a foundry have been pouring Buick castings in Flint at that time? I would say it is not only possible but probable, given the fact that David Buick was already taking orders on engines of all types even before he left Detroit. This kind of putting the horse before the cart goes on even today but more so back then. Buick could never keep up with orders right from the beginning. I mention one place that I think this casting work could have taken place farther on in this posting. This kind of constant ‘hurry up and wait’ philosophy  is what led to the lawsuit in 1907 against the Reid Manufacturing company. That lawsuit came about for lack of payment on engines delivered but never paid for. If you need the in depth story on this you will need to read the second edition book: “David Buick’s Marvelous Motor Car” by Lawrence Gustin and Kevin Kirbitz.  Buick had taken the Reid orders on December 14, 1903 with a promise to deliver the first ones by Christmas when construction of the new Buick plant had just started in September. Since David Buick was promising engines by Christmas he would almost surely have had a casting plant lined up to pour the parts needed. Maybe he was still using the foundry in Detroit until they could get settled in Flint. The Detroit foundry did their work during the flood in Flint that caused the scramble by raft for rescuing the patterns used in making the molding cores. David Buick was not the brightest bulb in a room of businessmen. He was a hands on kind of guy who really understood mechanics and seemed to have a mindset that would let his thoughts wander onto other matters once he had gotten bored with something.   One thing that makes this photo ring true is that Jeff said his ancestor told a story  of the flood in the last month of April 1904. His understanding was that his ancestor had given a bottle of scotch whiskey to a man with a raft so they could save the patterns from the foundry. This story sounds a lot like the transcripts from the Buick & Reid lawsuit.  David Buick said the same thing “minus the scotch”.   One thing Jeff knows for certain is that his great grandfather, Robert, had always claimed to have poured the first Buick automobile engine in Flint. If he was pouring Buick engine cases in 1903, they would almost certainly be the warmed over L-head marine engines, used  in automobiles he was selling to Reid for use in the Chainless Wolverine. Lets not forget that the Wolverine prototype was mistaken for the first Buick prototype for nearly 100 years until someone finally noticed it had a drive shaft instead of  a chain. A photo in the “Buick’s First Half-Century” book in 1953 shows this exact engine and states it was the first Buick  engine. I know of several books put out by Buick concerning their own history that are riddled with errors but I do believe Jeff’s great grandfather poured the first automobile engine for the Buick Motor Works. I have no reason to doubt Jeff’s family history and I just need to see all the pieces fall into place. I’m still researching and trying to answer some of these questions. I will give more clues in the post after this one.
Here are the workers in front of the Barker & Hamel foundry on West Water street in downtown Flint  during April of 1904.This photo was supplied by an ancestor of one of those men who poured the iron of the first Flint Buick engine. Thanks should go out to the family of Jeffery Lloyd Harrison whose four generations have accumulated  142 combined years of  service,  helping build Buick’s. “That is pretty impressive”. Robert Wilmont Harrison is shown above in the middle of the group with his arms crossed and wearing a bowler hat and white shirt. Jeff said he is almost certain that the gentleman in the suit at the extreme left is William A. Barker one of the partners in this new firm. Jeff stated it was his understanding that Henry Hamel was more of a bookkeeper instead of a day to day presence around the workers. One side note is that Robert Harrison was a Bare knuckle fighter at this time. I would suppose that after lifting heavy iron all day you would definitely develop some upper body strength.
This page from the Book Of The Golden Jubilee from 1905 mentions the foundry but not by name. Weston-Mott axle factory was (at the time of this book going to print) being built at the north Flint site. That was another main part of the Buick car, “the front and rear axles”. In 1904 the Weston-Mott company from Utica New York was still delivering  them C.O.D. One of the other main parts were the springs which were brought over from Armstrong Spring Co. on St. Johns street near the future site of the huge Buick complex in the Oak Park Industrial Complex.
This Pentons foundry list shows the foundry still in place as of 1912. The abbreviations GI-MS mean Grey Iron and Malleable steel.
This annual factory inspection shows the maximum number of employees  that I have ever found listed for the Barker & Hamel foundry.  The red arrow shows the foundry listing with the blue arrow showing the breakdown of employees. They have 16 total with only one being a woman. I won’t post anymore but I did find that between 1905 and 1906 they gained 1 employee. This report is from 1909. Also notice the Buick factories. Factory #08 is the last one shown which just by coincidence was built in 1908.
Here is a snippet from a Sanborn fire insurance map in 1909.  Doing the math I find the Barker  & Hamel building is about 150 feet west of Saginaw street with the building itself having frontage on Water street of 65 feet and a depth of 50 feet. The original map, ‘which is great’ was supplied for my research by author and Buick historian Kevin Kirbitz who is always of great help. One more thing about Kevin is you can take what he says and put it in the bank. His research is impeccable.
Here is the location of the Barker & Hamel  foundry after all the buildings were removed for the downtown riverfront project in 1966. This open area is now the location of the stage on the island at the riverfront amphitheater . My band Azure Blue played live there in 1987. You can see the Winegarden’s building is still standing but not for long. You can still see the ghost image of the old Pere Marquette rail line through Flint which was so important  to Flint in another age and time. When I was a small child I would become confused when coming with my parents down here to pick up coney’s and chili at the old U.S. Coney Island located on the bridge. Being a child I did not understand that buildings could be built on a bridge and I always wondered where the river went. The same thing happened to me in 1972 when I headed down to factory #40 at Buick on Hamilton avenue for my first day of work. I was lost and confused because the last time I was down there the original office building#07 was still on the north side of Hamilton with factory #08 where the parking lot was now at. ‘Oh to be young again’.
Here is a photo facing south over the Flint river in 1920. The yellow arrow shows the construction of the new Durant Hotel ‘which dates this’. The blue arrow shows  Winegarden’s furniture company standing on the location of the old Barney granite works that was across from the  Barker & Hamel foundry. The red arrow just so happens to catch a moment in time when the old foundry is being demolished. It’s smoke stack is still standing.
From Michigan Federation Of Labor.
This article from the Wolverine Citizen dated April 2, 1904 is explaining that the buildings located on Water street, which includes the Barker & Hamel foundry will probably be too badly damaged to stay standing. I have not been able to confirm this actually happening but judging by different  maps of the time I’m thinking this may have happened. There would have been other buildings left standing after the flood  that could have supported this kind of work. One in particular comes to mind and that would be  the old Peerless plant on Mill street that was used at one time for casting parts for the first mass produced automobile in Flint “The Flint Roadster” built by A.B.C. Hardy. This is only speculation on my part and should no way be taken as a fact. Chasing down history like this can often be confusing and can not always come out with a clear conclusion. All I know is that the Barker & Hamel foundry was still listed as being in operation throughout the teens, being listed in different publications and also the Flint City Directory.
This east view up the Flint river during the 1904 flood was taken from the Garland street bridge, which still exists at this time.  The iron truss bridge we see here is mentioned below. The yellow arrow shows the Durant & Dort carriage factory #1 where it’s  blacksmith shop has fallen into the river after the pounding it took during the flood. The red arrow shows the Barker & Hamel foundry barley visible in the distance. I can make out a smoke stack.
This 1890 view showing the future location of the Barker & Hamel foundry may well be the same buildings used in 1904. That is hard to say ‘when your trying to use a drawing’ of the site. This view is facing south east overlooking the Flint river and the first Saginaw street bridge in downtown Flint. The building is located on west Water street and you can see that no bridge has yet crossed the river at the foot of Water street. The iron truss bridge (shown above) would cross over this area very soon connecting Water street with South street. This bridge would survive many floods and also the ravages of time, and would allow this writer to walk across that same bridge many times on my way to downtown Flint. I’m sure my mother and her family crossed here many times in their lives since they lived just across the river at this location. In my time the bridge was no longer being used for anything but foot traffic and that was precarious at best.
This 1899 view before the Buick factory was built in September of 1903 shows the relative locations of three of the main players involved in the building of the first Flint built Buick’s. They are all located on the south side of the Flint river and west of Saginaw street which is the main artery through downtown Flint. The Flint Wagon works was already well established on west Kearsley street, at the location known as the Pinery and  whose main building burned in Flint’s largest fire up to that time in 1900, but was quickly rebuilt. This area was later known  as the Chevy in the hole,  This would be the assembly location of the first Flint Buick in May of 1904. The W. F. Stewart factory was also located just a few  blocks east on Kearsley street beyond  Thread Creek, in the area known as the Hall Flats. This is where the body’s for the first Flint Buick’s were built. Stewart built most of the early automobile body’s for different auto makers for many years at various locations throughout Flint.  Just a few more blocks east and you would be at the Barker & Hamel foundry on west Water street near where Saginaw street crossed the Flint river. There was an old building already in place and taken over by William A. Barker and Henry Hamel with their company being established  in January of 1904 specifically for casting  the first Buick engines.

 

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