A peek at Marquette’s Piqua

The Piqua Handle Factory in Marquette is seen. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

MARQUETTE — In 1917, the Piqua Handle and Manufacturing Company opened in Marquette on the site of today’s Marquette Senior High School. The business was brought to Marquette from Piqua, Ohio, by the Marquette Commercial Club, which later became the Marquette Chamber of Commerce. The Piqua, which had been founded in 1882, was seeking a new location with an ample supply of lumber.

The name Piqua came from a Shawnee story. Gathered at an annual feast, members of the Shawnee tribe were seated around a large fire which had burned down to embers. Puffs of smoke arose, followed by the form of a fully delineated man. The tribe exclaimed, “Otaht-he-wagh-Pe-Qua!” Translated, the exclamation means, “He has come out of the ashes.” From this story, the town and later the company was named.

To build the Piqua plant here, land was cleared, Specular Street (now College Avenue) extended and water lines installed. A wagon road opened first. The eight buildings comprising the plant were built on the 15-acre site. These buildings included a main factory, enameling room, finishing room, dry kilns, powerhouse, warehouse and offices.

The 1,000-horsepower turbine generator served multiple duties. When the city had a power shortage in 1923, the Piqua supplied Marquette with power from midnight to 5 a.m. daily. The company also built a railroad line to Michigamme for its timber supply.

During World War I, the manufacturing of Army tent poles delayed the company’s grand opening, presumably for security reasons. Other wartime products were parts for cots and stretcher handles. Rolling pins were made for Army kitchens at twice the size than those for households.

Following the war, the Piqua made utilitarian pieces such as broom handles, clothespins, kettle knobs, butter molds, trays, bread boards, lawn mower parts, and pail handles. In later years, baby cribs, highchairs, rocking chairs and other furniture were also produced.

Wooden sliding window screen frames were manufactured by the boxcar load. The screen frames, which had to be very slim, were made of beech, a tough wood. Most of the beech came by rail from Alger County. Scrap wood fueled the furnaces.

The company changed ownership several times. In 1934, the Piqua merged with the Munising Woodenware Company, which had been established in 1911 on what is now Mill Street in Munising. A walk-out by 250 workers occurred in 1940 and financial problems caused the company to file for bankruptcy that same year. A reorganization prevented the factories from shutting down.

Now called Munising Wood Products, the company began producing woodenware bowls. Pieces were usually made of maple, although birch and even pine were sometimes used. Bowls were cut in 9, 11, 13, 15, 17 and 19-inch diameters. Occasionally, someone would make a 21-inch bowl, but that was rare. Some locals remember kids using the early flawed large bowls, called “culls” as sleds. All were sanded by hand.

While there are pieces made of bird’s eye maple, the most popular were items with painted designs on the natural wood backgrounds. Designs include fruit, flowers (such as dogwood or hibiscus), folk art motifs, ducks and ivy.

Sometimes the initials of the painter are cleverly hidden. Examples in this style date as early as the late 1940s. Other bowls from the 1950s are carved with a simple repeating design on the outer rim.

The woodenware was distributed nationally to companies such as Sears and Marshall Field’s. In an advertisement, its high quality was promoted, claiming “you will be proud to use them in your home and pass them along to future generations as heirlooms to be treasured and cherished.”

When the plant opened in 1917, the female employees dressed in overalls. They liked it so much that they wore them to and from work despite comments that were made around town. In later years, women who worked at the plant were required to wear jeans, have their shirts tucked in, have tight cuffs, wear a kerchief and flat heeled shoes.

Operations ceased in Munising in 1955. Foreign competition and the growing plastics industry had narrowed the market. Marquette operations continued for several years, suffering a fire in 1956 before finally closing in 1960. By 1964, the new Marquette Senior High School had been built on the site.

A short street in Marquette, running from Fourth to Seventh Streets, between Park and Magnetic Streets, remains named after the company.


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