BY RON DZWONKOWSKI
FREE PRESS EDITORIAL WRITER
A dozen or so years ago, companies, unions and just plain folks raised $300,000 to restore the world's largest stove and install it atop a mound at the Michigan State Fairgrounds. You can see the 25-foot-tall behemoth behind the fences as you pass the fairgrounds on Woodward Avenue, south of 8 Mile.
Because of its budget woes, the state shut down the 161-year-old fair after this year's run and is now seeking the right project for economic development and job creation on its 208-acre grounds.
If something comes along, what happens to the stove, an icon of Detroit's first industrial era -- long before it was the Motor City, Detroit was Stove City, USA -- and a monument to the rarity of people around here working together to get something done?
State officials are emphatic that the stove, built in 1892 to represent Detroit at the 1893 world's fair in Chicago, is not for sale. But that doesn't mean they wouldn't entertain offers to move it to a location where it would once again be accessible for public jaw-dropping.
A sizable problem
This is not a real stove but an enormously outsize wooden replica of a model made by Garland Stove Co. when stoves were for cooking and home heating -- and Garland was the biggest of Detroit's six manufacturers. The stove is 15 tons of Michigan oak and pine, shored up by a steel frame. Its legs are framed by a concrete wall bearing the names of major contributors to the restoration. The walkways leading up to it are paved with bricks filled with messages from donors who chipped in $25 apiece. Because it's mostly wood, the stove requires regular maintenance. There is some obvious repair work needed immediately.
"It needs a good, visible home and it needs constant protection," said former state fair manager John Hertel, who led the effort to resurrect the stove. "But it's worth saving. It represents an era. It was built four years before the auto industry got rolling around here. It really is a symbol of how we can reinvent ourselves, and that's a good message for right now."
Big piece of history
After its run in Chicago, the stove stood for decades on the Garland Co.'s front lawn along Jefferson before it was moved east to near the bridge leading to Belle Isle. In 1965, it was moved to the front of the fairgrounds along Woodward, but lasted there only until 1974.
The stove was "was literally falling apart" when it was taken down and left in a pile inside the warehouse of the Detroit Historical Museum at Ft. Wayne, Hertel said. More than two decades later, he had 20 truckloads of stove pieces brought to the fairgrounds where artisans from Greenfield Village supervised the removal of 12 coats of lead-based paint, salvaged about 60% of the original wood and repainted and rebuilt the stove over three years, adding a rubberized top layer to afford it better protection.
So now what? Frankly, there are higher priorities. Still, it would be a shame to just let it go or dismantle it and pack it away someplace. After all, nobody else has one.
My favorite idea is putting it under the "Spirit of Detroit," a perfect reminder that sometimes you have to light a fire under people around here to get anything done.
But if you've got a proposal for the stove, you are invited to send an e-mail to DMBemail@example.com, the real estate division of the state Department of Management and Budget, which is now in charge of the fairgrounds. Actually, if you've got an economic development proposal for the site, they probably would welcome that, too. A stove factory, maybe?