Traverse City Business Hall of Fame
It might be hard to imagine, but Traverse City hasn't always been all beaches and pie. Just a few generations ago, it was a hardscrabble, sparsely populated frontier scored with lumber-choked rivers and bays.
Like many 19th century American towns, Traverse City's first business community rose from the riches of its natural resources. Though its makeup has undoubtedly morphed since the 1850s, it is likely those who lay the business foundation for this region would have no trouble recognizing the entrepreneurial spirit that continues to define Traverse City today.
To celebrate that spirit, TCBN is launching the Traverse City Business Hall of Fame, an annual roster that melds past and present movers and shakers. By no means complete, the Hall of Fame is meant to enshrine our town's founders as well as those who continue to raise the bar of commerce today.
The Business News would like to thank Peg Siciliano and Dave Pennington at the History Center of Traverse City for their feedback in choosing the charter class and locating newspaper clippings. We extracted a significant portion of information below from "Grand Traverse Legends" – three volumes of invaluable history books written by Robert E. Wilson, a 1954 graduate of Traverse City Central High School.
J. Perry Hannah
The Father of Traverse City
"His leadership and vision during the first 50 years of Traverse City's existence have left an indelible imprint on the modern community and its people."
– Robert Wilson, author, Grand Traverse Legends
Born in Erie, Penn., Perry Hannah sailed north to Traverse City from Chicago in 1851 to inspect a timberland camp owned by Captain Harry Boardman. Where Boardman saw an "inefficient saw mill" run by his own unmotivated son, Hannah saw a gold mine – choice pine lumber that could last at least 30 years with the right equipment.
He and partners A. Tracy Lay and James Morgan bought the 200-acre camp and quickly built a new steam-powered mill by the bay, which in turn attracted settlers. Hannah had the ability to recognize and recruit just the right people to contribute to the community's growth.
In addition to the mill, the partners built the Hannah Lay company store, which was the only store in the village until 1860. Hannah also paid for half of the first railroad to come to the city and started the first bank.
Hannah was one of the first to see the potential of the region as a tourist attraction. A self-appointed public relations official, he escorted distinguished citizens around the village, even providing evening cruises on his own steamboat.
He served in the state legislature from 1857 to 1959, representing the northern Lower Peninsula. His annual visits to Lansing lasted just one month per year, but he impressed the movers and shakers of the day with his ability to accomplish tasks quickly and made many influential friends.
In 1881, when five towns were in the running for a northern Michigan asylum, Hannah's "ability to win people over to his way of thinking" tipped the scale in Traverse City's favor (though the official reason was its artesian wells). The impact on the city was huge: The state of Michigan poured $300 million into the asylum.
In the 1850s, Hannah, Lay & Co. employed nearly 100 percent of the region's labor force, but Hannah also saw to it that living conditions improved. The company was the financial powerhouse that launched myriad other businesses. Hannah's 1904 funeral was the biggest ever held in Traverse City.
The Utilities Man
It's hard to imagine Traverse City without the Park Place Hotel. Fortunately, Henry Campbell had the gumption to believe he could open the "largest and most elaborate hotel north of Grand Rapids." His most significant contribution,
however, was bringing a waterworks system
and electricity to the downtown area.
At five feet even, Henry Campbell was short in stature, but tall in spirit. At age 21, he left his family's farm operation in upstate New York to search for new challenges.
He arrived in Traverse City in 1852 and found employment with Hannah, Lay & Co. Eleven years later, he was appointed postmaster of Traverse City, but resigned soon after to establish his own system of stage lines for the transmission of mail.
Campbell Stage Lines covered 250 miles of rough roads from Big Rapids to Cheboygan. Once rail service from downstate was initiated and Traverse City began to grow, so did Campbell's vision for a first-class resort within the village.
He withdrew from his stagecoach interests and set out to build the Campbell House Hotel, the "largest and most elaborate hotel north of Grand Rapids." In 1873, he purchased a plot of park property from the city and constructed his dream hotel with 50 rooms.
After five years at his successful venture, he sold the hotel to lumber barons Hannah and Lay. The property was upgraded to a level of luxury and service equal to the world-class hotels of the day and renamed the Park Place.
By 1880, water was becoming a very large concern for the village. Well water was available to drink, but a larger amount was needed for commercial purposes and to increase the fire department's effectiveness. Campbell decided the town needed a state-of-the-art water works and distribution system, so he put together a waterworks plan. By May 1882, water under pressure was available in the downtown area.
Seven years later, Campbell used his own funds to build a structure to house both the waterworks and electrical plant, thus turning on the first lights downtown. He improved and expanded the waterworks until he sold it to the city in 1900.
When Traverse City officially became a village in 1881, Campbell, by then a probate judge, drew up the village charter.
A. Tracy Lay
Founder of the Village
He was Perry Hannah's business partner, but Albert Tracy Lay did something perhaps even more significant: He laid out the 1852 plat map for the town of Traverse City, thus becoming the "founder" of the village.
A. Tracy Lay entered into a lumber mill partnership with Perry Hannah and James Morgan, forming Hannah, Lay & Co., with offices in Chicago. After hearing about 200 acres of timberland in northern Michigan, the team paid Captain Harry Boardman $4,500 for the parcel and never looked back.
One year after making his first visit to the camp, Lay, with help from a civil engineer surveyor, laid out the plat map for the town of Traverse City and technically became the "founder" of the village.
At that time, Hannah and Lay alternated the supervision of the logging camp, each spending every other year in Chicago. Lay also supervised the renovation of the first school near the corner of Front and Wellington streets and in 1853, traveled to Washington, DC to secure the establishment of a post office at Traverse City.
His efforts resulted in a new mail route between Traverse City and Manistee and the contract for carrying mail ($400 per year). The first post office was located in the Hannah Lay company store.
In 1878, Lay helped organize and incorporate the Banking House of Hannah, Lay, which became Traverse City State Bank. Later, despite living in Chicago, he commuted north for 30 years to serve on the bank's board and served as president for many years.
Frank Hamilton could be described as a reluctant Traverse City visitor who ended up becoming one of its most successful merchants and greatest ambassadors.
In 1868, Frank Hamilton and James Milliken were searching for work in Boston when a Hannah, Lay & Co. recruiter invited them to check out "up and coming" Traverse City. At first, Hamilton didn't like what he saw – a dozen homes scattered along Front Street.
"My first thought was to take the next boat and leave the wilderness at the earliest opportunity," he wrote. "There was never a more homesick fellow than I during my next few days in Traverse City."
Fortunately, Hamilton got over his homesickness and went to work for Hannah, Lay & Co. Three years later, Hamilton and Milliken were offered the chance to open their own store, with Hannah, Lay & Co. pledging financial support.
Hamilton, Milliken and Co. was born and as Traverse City grew, so did the store. A large brick two-story building commanded the corner of Front and Union streets. Three years later, Hamilton and Milliken amicably spilt.
Milliken took over dry goods, becoming Milliken's Department Store, and Hamilton stayed in clothing, opening Hamilton's Clothing, which continued to do business for nearly a century. Hamilton believed in the future of Traverse City and invested heavily in real estate. He later became vice president of First National Bank, which was on the ground floor of the building Hamilton and Milliken built.
Hamilton co-organized the Traverse City Business Men's Association, served as president of the Michigan Business Men's Association and was one of the founders of the Traverse City Rotary Club. He became a leader in the "good roads" movement and was instrumental in the first paving of rural roads in Grand Traverse County.
R. Howard Whiting
The Poor Man's Banker
He ended up a wealthy businessman who left his namesake on a beloved hotel in downtown Traverse City, but Howard Whiting will always be remembered for his generosity. Known as the "poor man's banker," he enabled many others to start their own farms and businesses.
In 1873, 19-year-old Howard Whiting borrowed $300 from Perry Hannah to open a grocery store on the south side of the Boardman River. It was successful and possibly one of the earliest grocery stores in the village.
A few years later, after buying and selling a number of buildings along Front Street, he formed a partnership to construct two new brick buildings on Union Street, just behind the Masonic Building. He built his saloon at 117 S. Union Street (now known as Union Street Station) and the family lived upstairs.
In 1893, Whiting decided Traverse City needed a modern downtown hotel – a more practical alternative to the opulent Park Place Hotel. He built a three-story brick building, which was the first brick building in the village. The ground floor included a saloon and dry goods store, and the hotel occupied the second and third floors, including a fine dining restaurant on the second. The Whiting Hotel was located on Front Street, close to the train depot and was a favorite respite for traveling salesmen.
He eventually sold 40 acres to Grand Traverse County – now the Civic Center property – as well as his hotel and "retired." To Whiting, this meant building yet another business. He opened Whiting Implement Co. with his son, selling farm equipment and supplies.
When automobiles appeared on the scene, Whiting was one of the earliest automobile dealers. Even though he was personally acquainted with Henry Ford, he chose to be a Chevrolet dealer. He was always willing and eager to help others get their footing in the business world. One such recipient was Gerald Oleson, founder of the Oleson Food Stores chain.
The Butcher (Turned Entrepreneur)
Local meat cutter Tom Deering took a financial risk in the 1940s, opening a small market in Traverse City. His 11th Street store would become a seven-store enterprise employing hundreds of area residents.
Running a market was in Tom Deering's blood. Born in Empire in 1908 to pioneer meat market operators Mark and Jane, Deering's own great-grandparents grew, slaughtered and sold their beef from a horse-pulled wagon.
It wasn't much of a stretch that young Tom would become a meat cutter. He opened Deering's Market in 1946 at 11th and Maple (currently the Salvation Army furniture store) when most stores at the time were located on Front or Eighth streets.
The market was small, but Deering persevered and in 1953, after several additions and remodels, changed the name to simply "Tom's."
Two years later, he purchased property at the corner of M-72 and M-22 to make way for the next Tom's Food Market. Son Dan Deering became involved in the business, and together they traveled and researched other stores before opening the store overlooking West Bay.
When it opened in 1961, the L-shaped Tom's West Bay was considered the most up-to-date shopping area in northern Michigan in both design and services. Unfortunately, Deering didn't live to see the opening of his 14th and Division store seven years later; he died when the excavating was nearly finished.
That same year, 1968, his original Deering's Market closed, but since that time, five more stores opened: Acme in 1983; Cherryland in 1986 (now closed); Northport in 1993; the East Bay market in 1994 and the new Interlochen location in 2009.
Dan Deering is currently CEO of Tom's. His daughter Christy serves as president and daughter Jane as corporate director. Depending on the season, Tom's Food Markets employs 350-400 at its six stores and donates truckloads of food to local food pantries. It's also sponsoring the Michigan Land Use Institute's program, Taste the Local Difference.
Gerald Oleson Sr.
The mark Gerald Oleson left on Traverse City is likely unsurpassed. A humble grocer, land owner, buffalo farmer and millionaire, he established the Northwestern Michigan College barbecue fundraiser and continues to give back to the community posthumously through a foundation he started with his wife, Frances.
Grocery magnate Gerald "Jerry" Oleson started small, buying his father's old storefront on Front Street west of Division in 1926. In spite of the Great Depression, he moved Oleson's into a larger brick building next door six years later to accommodate customers. With a meat department, self-service, checkout lanes and wide aisles, the store stood out from other neighborhood grocery stores.
He started buying farms in 1931 because his father always wanted to own a farm, but couldn't afford it. He bought his first farm from Howard Whiting, paying $1,200 for 40 acres. After that, he bought a farm every year for several years, thus becoming one of the area's biggest landowners.
Hard work and helping others defined his life. Oleson often worked 12-hour shifts and worked at the store right up until his last days. In 1953, he built the Garfield Avenue location, considered at that time to be the largest store north of Grand Rapids.
From the 1960s through 1981, the Oleson Food Stores chain expanded into Cadillac, Manistee, Charlevoix and Petoskey.
In 1956, Oleson provided food to help a then-fledgling Northwestern Michigan College raise some money. In the late '50s, around the time he purchased his first three buffalo (which later grew into the largest buffalo herd east of the Mississippi) he began using buffalo meat instead of beef at the barbecue. The annual NMC barbecue has since raised more than $1.5 million for campus projects, equipment and programs. Oleson Food Stores continues to donate all of the food for the event.
Gerald and his wife, Frances (a Deering whom he met walking home from school, according to the Traverse City Record-Eagle) created the Oleson Foundation in 1962, which disburses $1 million a year to the community.
Oleson may have shunned the spotlight while he was alive, but his legacy lives on under the bright lights of Thirlby Field. Through the foundation, his sons Gerry and Don Oleson footed the bill for the estimated $825,000 installation of artificial turf, bringing the Oleson family's support of the Regional Community Foundation's "Fourth and Goal for Thirlby Field" campaign to more than $1 million.
"Biederman was like nature, someone once observed, in that he sowed ideas like nature sows seeds. Many of these never took root, but many did."
– Former Traverse City Record-Eagle City Editor Ken Parker, 1991.
Lester Biederman grew up in Philadelphia, but a fierce interest in broadcasting brought him to Traverse City – an area he felt was underserved by broadcasting stations.
In 1939, he and several of his friends, including engineer Bill Kiker and financier Drew McClay, decided Traverse City was a city destined for growth. So, Biederman and Kiker moved and launched Traverse City's first radio station. In 1941, WTCM went on air. Then in 1954, Biederman brought local TV to the area when he signed on NBC WPBN-TV 7 in Traverse City and, five years later, WTOM-TV in Cheboygan. Eventually, his Paul Bunyan Network included eight radio stations throughout northern Michigan, and TV stations in Traverse City and Cheboygan. Almost nightly, Biederman visited the WTCM studio to record an editorial.
Biederman was eager to get a college off the ground in Traverse City. "A college for Traverse City became the primary interest in my life," he wrote in his autobiography, "Happy Days." When the NMC Board of Trustees was formed in 1955, he was elected chair and held the post for 22 years. His enthusiasm for having the college involved in a maritime venture led to the opening of the maritime academy.
Peter Chris Dendrinos
The Born Leader
A former all-state football player, Dendrinos launched a pie business that became the city's largest employer and the top provider of pies to the U.S. food service industry.
In 1954, Peter Dendrinos joined his family's long-operating Muskegon-based pie business after earning his business degree from the University of Michigan.
Two years later, he started Chef Pierre, Inc. and moved the business to Traverse City.
His older brother, Michael Dennos, whose contributions helped launch the Dennos Museum Center, also came north, becoming president of Chef Pierre, Inc. in 1973 and then CEO in 1981 after merging the company with Consolidated Foods, parent company of Sara Lee.
Described as a generous man who treated all of his employees well – from the truck driver to the executive – Dendrinos was well liked and respected. Hal Van Sumeren, who served as president and CEO of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce from March 1970 thru 2002, says Dendrinos was "a born leader and very aggressive racquetball player."
He served as a trustee for Munson Medical Center for 10 years and Interlochen Center for the Arts for 16 years. As a city commissioner from 1975-78 and mayor of Traverse City in 1978, Dendrinos supported many local causes, such as Munson Medical Center, Northwestern Michigan College, St. Francis High School, Interlochen Center for the Arts and more. According to a 2010 Traverse City Record-Eagle article, Dendrinos was a major supporter of Grand Traverse Area Community Living Center, which provides housing alternatives and independent living support for adults with developmental disabilities. Later, when he moved to Crystal Lake, he supported Frankfort-area projects.
Interesting note: On the day after Italy invaded Greece in 1940, Peter's father Christos restored the "s" to the end of his Greek surname. He had received the Italian-sounding "Dendrino" surname when coming through Ellis Island. Each son was given the option of choosing his own surname. Peter chose Dendrinos; Michael chose the shorter version, Dennos. Source: Traverse City Record-Eagle
It seems fitting to end this section with Ray Minervini, whose vision is bringing back to life the very site Perry Hannah fought hard to establish in 1881. Minervini's dream to resurrect the historic 63-acre core of the Grand Traverse Commons is paying off. Twelve years into the project, an estimated $60 million from private and public sources has been invested into its redevelopment, with some 300 jobs created in the process. It is the largest private development in the area and one of the largest mixed-use historic redevelopments in the country.
Ray Minervini made a living as a Detroit-area commercial contractor specializing in masonry before moving to Traverse City in 1989. He became enamored with the 19th century Traverse City State Hospital buildings and felt compelled to do something about their decay. In July of 2000, Minervini and The Minervini Group team began negotiating with the Grand Traverse Commons Redevelopment Corporation to secure a redevelopment agreement to renovate the buildings.
After months of negotiations, the Commons Board approved The Minervini Group's proposal. Minervini worked to secure state redevelopment tax incentives and cleanup grants to get the project off the ground. After a massive Building 50 reroofing project, the site began attracting small business owners and condominium buyers. The multi-use development now boasts 22 retailers among 75 businesses and is a hub for the arts. With a total redevelopment capacity of nearly one million square feet, to date 250,000 square feet has been cleaned-up, renovated, sold or leased, including 130 residential units.
"Ray Minervini has changed the landscape of Traverse City, and the notion of redeveloping and being stewards of historic properties forever," said Doug Luciani, president & CEO of the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce. "His vision for the former State Hospital property and his willingness to do whatever it took to make it happen, including the nastiest grunt work, inspires each of us to try a little harder, sacrifice a little more, and set our goals a little higher."