In the early hours of January 22, 2013, the historic Bank Block building in East Tawas, Michigan was consumed by fire. Firefighters from the entire county and beyond battled the blaze, successfully preventing it from spreading to other buildings nearby (and no lives were lost) –but the structure itself was completely destroyed. My family owned a part of this building for more than 80 of its 126 years, and operated a business there for 62. A building, just like a home, contains the memories, experiences, and reflections of the people who used it–and when it is destroyed, it is as if someone has died. For me, even though its ownership had passed to others and I live far away in another state, it was also a physical–and I thought permanent– reminder of my family. Beyond the current owners, whose loss is obviously the greatest, those in the community are saddened at the demise of a wonderful old landmark and testament to the town’s history. For all of us, I hope these reflections will help keep the building alive in memory.
The phone number was 2-2671. Back in the 1940s and 50s, you only needed five digits to reach anyone in East Tawas, and it might easily have been my mother, who worked part time at the Bell Telephone office located on the second floor of the Bank Block building, who helped make the connection to
Hennigar’s Department Store. The Bank Block was actually two buildings in one–a corner part that originally housed the bank, and later law offices, and an L-shaped section that began as a dry goods and grocery store owned by Locke, Taylor and Company. Both sides also owned rooms on the second floor, and in 1889, the then owners agreed that the deed would include a stipulation “to maintain and keep forever a suitable stairway not less than 4 feet wide for ingress and egress to and from the upper rooms in said Bank Block.”
Hennigar’s moved to the part of the Bank Block previously owned by Locke & Taylor in 1927. Started in 1925 by my grandfather and Joseph Danin, a Russian emigre who operated businesses in Whittemore and Saginaw as well, their first store burned down in the fire of 1926 that destroyed the Opera Building across the street from the Bank Block. Danin originally bought and owned the building on his own, leasing it to the business, but sold it over a period of years to my grandfather. After World War II, my father started coming into the business as well, and eventually he and my grandfather bought out Danin.
On the second floor, down the hall from the telephone office, there was a one bedroom apartment with a small nursery that was my parents’ first home after they married in 1950 (they met at the store when my father waited on my mother–the picture on the left is of my mother outside the entrance to the second floor). We lived there until I was 4, when we moved to our house on East Bay Street. I still remember the long staircase–it must have had 60 or 70 steps– up to the apartment from the entrance on State Street. (I’m with my mother on the right, in early 1953). My mother and I stayed the first two weeks of my life with my aunt in West Branch largely because, recovering from a difficult birth, she could not climb those stairs.
My earliest memories of the store below were when I was a toddler. Until the late 1950s, Hennigar’s carried shoes as well as clothing and dry goods, and one spring evening when I could not have been more than three, Dad took me down to the store for not one, but two pairs of P.F. Flyers –a blue pair and a red pair. I still see those shoes in my mind’s eye and feel the luxury of having a pair in each of my favorite colors. In later years, Dad would steer me to items on the rack that weren’t selling–but on that evening, I felt like I had the best shoes in town.
On another occasion at about the same age (so I was reminded repeatedly as I grew older) I got it into my head to clean the bathroom floor in the apartment with water from the toilet bowl. My mother was busy in the kitchen, and did not notice me sloshing away until she got a call from my dad–what was going on upstairs that was causing water to leak into the store below?
As I grew older, the back room of the store, with its receiving area and entrance on State Street, is anchored in my mind for its visual images and rich memories–the high work area where Grandpa did the daily balancing and prepared the bank deposits for walking to the People’s State Bank; the desk where Dad wrote advertisements and due bills, and called salesmen; the coffee pot next to the furnace room where he had his morning brew and offered it to our faithful salesladies, Lena Sheldon and Denege LaBerge from the 1940s and 1950s, and later, Mildred Braddock, Marlene Anschuetz, Mary Ellen Krebs, and Marge Haglund. There were high school girls who worked there part time as well–Sandy Cadorette was one, and later, I was another. For the most part, when Grandpa was active in the business, he was the bookkeeper and Dad was the creative director–it was Dad who trimmed the windows, came up with the idea for “The Hennigar Hour” on WIOS radio in the 1960s, and devised the tag line “The Store Dependable.” He also used that desk to write the occasional poem on company letterhead in his “pen name” –I found this one long after he retired in some papers from the store that had been boxed away (a la Emily Dickinson, his favorite poet).
From elementary school until I graduated from high school, I hardly missed a day stopping by the store on my way home, and my first job there was at the age of 8, assembling boxes for Christmas presents. Grandpa was usually in the back room to greet me, and in elementary school we would draw houses and garages together on his high desk. Later, he helped me with arithmetic and mathematics, his favorite subjects and my least, and I vividly recall the day Kennedy was shot–we talked a long time in the back room of the store that afternoon with Dad and Grandpa recalling the details of the last sudden death of a President — FDR, 18 years before.
There was a high step and ledge onto the front door on Newman Street, and one day when he was well in his 80s, Grandpa lost his balance on the step and fell backwards on the sidewalk. Miraculously, he didn’t break a bone or even bruise himself. (And he didn’t know why all those passersby wanted to help him, either–he was perfectly fine. ) He came to the store every day until a few years before his death, though growing more frail each year. To his great chagrin, he began making mistakes in the balancing, until finally he gave up and let Dad take over for good. Cleaning out the papers from the store, I found an accounting envelope from the late 1970s, a couple of years before Grandpa passed away–with the plaintive note in Dad’s handwriting, “Pa’s last balancing day.” They were a matched pair, those two–some salesmen even confused them for brothers.
Dad retired in 1989, and Hennigar’s was no more. He kept the building and rented it out, but towards the end, with the economic downturn, it became increasingly difficult. We sold it once on a land contract, but after a few years it was turned back to us. Dad, and Grandpa too, would have been very pleased that the new owners, who purchased the building in 2011, remodeled it extensively and opened a children’s clothing store. It seemed that 229 Newman Street had a new lease on life and once again was becoming a cornerstone in the downtown business district.
But, just as in other parts of life, the Lord works in mysterious ways when it comes to buildings, too. The Bank Block had a long life, and the land beneath it endures. It is said that when a door closes, another opens. I sincerely hope that whatever replaces the Bank Block will have ahead of it as many days of glory –and provide as many memories–as its predecessor. Rest in peace.