Remember the Napoleon

Even if you think you know your Traverse City business history, it still might surprise you to learn that Chrysler, Ford and General Motors were not the only Michigan-based car companies faced, at some point at least, with shaky finances even while manufacturing solid vehicles. No, almost a century ago the only automobile manufacturer to be headquartered right here in Traverse City faced challenges similar to those the Big Three encountered not so long ago.

It's expensive to make a car today, and apparently it was expensive to do it just after the turn of the century, too. Back in 1918, the Traverse City Motor Co. had dozens of unfilled orders for both of their reliable and affordable vehicles – the Chummy Four and the Big Six – yet the business itself was still floundering. Capitalization was the problem and it wasn't a new one, either.

Lack of cash flow was actually the reason the former Ohio company, previously named "Napoleon Motor Co.," decided to relocate to Traverse City in 1916 and change its name. The Traverse City Chamber of Commerce lured the car-maker here by promising use of an Eighth Street warehouse rent-free as well as a stock sale that would raise as much as $75,000. Those promises were mostly kept: The warehouse was suitable for the work and in June of 1917 a stock sale was launched at the City Opera House. Later that same year, 2,000 stockholders, business leaders and interested onlookers attended an open house at the newly remodeled warehouse, now a state-of-the-art car plant. An orchestra played, people gave speeches, and salesmen milled through the crowd selling stock. The full $75,000 goal wasn't met, but people did buy and the effort raised enough capital to get the business started in its new home.

All of Traverse City had a stake in making the company successful – one of the city's biggest employers, the Oval Wood Dish Co., moved out of town only weeks ago, taking along its 200 workers and their families. Another industry was needed, preferably one not related to lumber or wood, and many believed the Traverse City Motor Co. was it. In the early 1900s, as many as 1,000 new automobile manufacturers were popping up randomly across the country like stones under a car tire. Some would make it, most would not, and financing was often the deciding factor.

When it was founded, the company made one car a day. After its move to Traverse City, that output doubled for several months, then declined again. In 1918 the company produced 95 cars, added a truck model and produced 25 of those. The trucks were popular and profitable, but yet another influx of cash was needed for the business to switch gears and add a line of trucks. Four men with experience in the automobile business, W.C. Rath, C. D. Peet, Stanley Rae and W. H. Schmaltz, invested $20,000 each, and moved their families into the former lumber baron's houses on Sixth Street.

"Just give us a few weeks and we will show you a decided change in the local plant," Rath told a reporter from the Traverse City Record-Eagle. "Watch our smoke!"

Another stock sale was organized. This time, business leaders were more circumspect, but our area's farmers, clerks and laborers supported the new business with their hopes and their wallets and bought another $25,000 of stock, again $10 at a time.

The four men did seem to know their business. The factory was re-tooled and streamlined, issues in the supply chain were addressed, the bookkeeping system was modernized, and the name of the company was changed back to "Napoleon." By 1919, the plant was working at its peak, manufacturing 125 trucks and 125 cars. Fifty men worked 10 hours a day and on some days, five cars rolled off an assembly line. By 1920, the trucks were so popular and profitable, the car line was dropped. Five trucks a day were now the regular output, not the exception, and they were purchased by national and even international buyers. Napoleons went to India, Belgium and England. Employees were given raises, $1,000 life insurance policies, and even plots on company land for vegetable gardens.

This was also the close of World War I and steel was in short supply, a post war recession loomed, and the railroads, used day and night for years to transport war supplies, were in bad shape. Manufacturers like Traverse City's Napoleon Motor Co. were soon faced with dire supply delays and a shrinking customer base. By 1921, only thirteen men were still employed by Napoleon. In 1922 the once vibrant plant sat idle and in 1923 the business failed and the building was sold to a fruit company which itself soon went out of business.

And that probably would have been the end of the Napoleon, if not for the curiosity and mechanical ability of two men from northern Michigan. Sometime in the 1990s Dennis Kuhn, an organizer of the Buckley Old Engine show, saw what he thought was a Napoleon rotting in a neighbor's swamp. It turned out to be a Dodge with a Napoleon radiator, but Kuhn was hooked – he wanted to restore a Napoleon truck, though none could be found. In 1997 he saw an advertisement in Hemmings Motor News for a 1919 Napoleon truck in startling disrepair. Most of the original wood, including the steering wheel, the body and the wheel spokes, had been burned in a Nebraska prairie fire. He bought it anyway and he and retired machinist, Carl Kreiser, spent two years restoring it. In 1999 it was displayed at the Buckley Old Engine Show and in July it took the monthly place of honor in the Hagerty window.

"But for the failure of the Napoleon Motor Company," wrote our now deceased local historian, Al Barnes, "Detroit might well be taking a back seat to Traverse City today."

Thanks to the Traverse City History Center for background information.