Saturday, February 6, 2016
Boiler Works Stories
Every time I read about people in my home town in earlier generations, I’m struck by how dramatically different their lives and times were. I thought about this most recently when I was searching for information on the Internet about the Menominee Boiler Works. The Boiler Works had special significance in my childhood because the firm’s president, John Fernstrum, and his wife Grayce and kids shared a house with my parents and myself at the foot of the Interstate Bridge on Ogden Avenue. The Fernstrums lived on the first floor, and we lived on the second floor. Their daughter, Sally, and I were the same age, and we began kindergarten together at Boswell School. Sally and I walked to school together every morning. My recollection is that Boswell was at least a mile away, but, when I look at a city map, it was more like 6 or 7 blocks. In any case, during the freezing U.P. winter it was a long trek for five-year-olds. Fortunately, the Fernstrum Boiler Works was exactly halfway between our house and the school. Sally and I would stop there every morning to warm our hands and mittens over the pot-bellied stove in the office. We must have been cute little kids because the office staff always greeted us enthusiastically. They might even have given us hot chocolate, though my memory could be playing tricks on that. In any case, the Boiler Works was our sanctuary — sort of a home away from home.
The Menominee Boiler Works had belonged to the Fernstrum family for well over half a century. The first Fernstrum owner was Sally’s great-grandfather, Frank Gustav Fernstrum. Frank was born in Westergotland, Sweden, on May 11, 1884 (see sources listed below). After his childhood schooling, Fernstrum served a seven-year apprenticeship to learn the boiler-making trade. At age 19 he took a job in a machine shop and shipyard, gaining further experience in building steamships and railroad engines. In 1869 he emigrated to the United States, landing at New York City on July 3rd. Fernstrum travelled to Chicago, but had trouble finding work there because he didn’t speak any English. After a short stay in Illinois, he moved north to Marinette, Wisconsin. Marinette and Menominee had become a thriving lumber capital and had many Scandinavian immigrants. Fernstrum worked for a month at the Hamilton-Merrymen sawmill, then took a position at the Menominee River Lumber Co. for the next four years.
Fernstrum had met his future wife, Christine Wilhemina Lagergren, in Sweden. Christine was born in 1849 at Motola, Sweden, and Frank lived as a young adult at a rooming house owned by her family. Frank’s family name at birth was actually Anderson. However, another resident at the rooming house was named Fernstrum. Deciding that there were “too many Andersons” in the world, Frank, with Christine’s approval, decided to change his name to Fernstrum, and he did so when he moved to America.
Christine also emigrated from Sweden in 1869, and she and Frank were married in Marinette on October 30th of that year by Dr. J. J. Sherman. The couple lived in Marinette for some years, then moved across the river to Menominee in 1882. They lived at Dunlap Ave. and McCullogh Street (now 11th Ave. and 18th St.) behind the Menominee Boiler Works, and they later moved their house to Stephenson Ave. (14th Ave.) across from the Menominee Granite Company. Over the years the couple had nine children: Rosina Christine (1871-1959), Frank Oscar (1873-1896), John Emil (1875-1961), Ellen Marie (1877-1965), Caroline Johanna (1879-1935), Robert Gustav (1884-1904), Herbert William (1888-1971), Benjamin Albert (1893-1973), and Mabel Victoria (1896-?). The family belonged to the Swedish Luthernan Church in Menominee, and Christine was a member of the Missionary Society.
The Menominee Boiler Works had been established in 1872 by D. M. Burns and Lewis Young. Employing the technical skills that he’d learned in Sweden, Fernstrum began working at the Boiler Works in 1873. When Frank expressed an interest in moving East in 1882, Young sought to keep him with the company and sold him a one-quarter interest in the firm. Fernstrum became a full partner in 1882, and, when Young died in an accident in 1886, Fernstrum purchased the entire business from Young’s estate. According to the Menominee Evening Leader (1900), the Menominee Boiler Works was the largest such company in Northern Michigan and Wisconsin, conducting business over a 100-mile radius from Menominee. The firm, located initially at 1208 Ogden Avenue and later at 1824 Ogden Avenue, manufactured high quality steam boilers and various other kinds of sheet iron work. Fernstrum’s son, John Emil Fernstrum, was foreman of the shops in the early 1900’s, and a second son Herbert was in charge of the office. Two-thirds of all the boilers in the twin cities were produced by the firm. Much of the manufacturing work was done during the winter months, while summer tasks were mainly repairing and small shop work. The Boiler Works employed from 16 to 30 men over the course of the year in the early 1900’s. According to a biographical statement by historian Charles Moore (1915), “Mr. Fernstrum has been a man of indefatigable industry and perseverance and through his well directed efforts has achieved a worthy success. He is numbered among the substantial, reliable and valued business men of Menominee and is a citizen who commands unqualified confidence and esteem.” Frank died in 1924 in Menominee, and his wife Christine died there in 1929.
The Menominee Boiler Works continued as a family firm until its dissolution in 2001. According to Polk’s Michigan State Gazetteer and Business Directory, three of Frank’s sons were operating the company in 1921-22. John E. Fernstrum was President and General Manager, Benjamin A. Fernstrum was Vice-President, and Herbert W. Fernstrum was Secretary and Treasurer. John A. Fernstrum, Sally’s father, was the company president in my youth and young adulthood, and her brother Jack, a close friend of my brother Steve, began working at the firm as a fourth-generation family member in the 1960s. For myself, I still have fond memories of the pot-bellied stove in the Boiler Works office and our temporary reprieve from the harsh winter elements.
Sources: “The Menominee Boiler Works,” The Evening Leader (Menominee, Michigan; Illustrated Industrial Number, Oct. 25, 1900, p. 37); www.genealogy.com, “Descendants of Frank Gustav Fernstrum”; www.books.google.com, “Polk’s Michigan State Gazetteer and Business Directory (1921-22)”; www.genealogy.com/ftm/w/i/l/Lynn-R-Williams/BOOK-0001/0012-0001.html; www.quod.lib.umich.edu, “History of Michigan,” by Charles Moore (Vol. 4), “Frank G. Fernstrum,” pp. 2281-82; www.quod.lib.umich.edu, “A History of the Northern Peninsula of Michigan and Its People (Vol. 2), Alvah L. Sawyer, pp. 713-714; www.quod.lib.umich.edu, “Memorial Record of the Northern Peninsula of Michigan,” “Frank G. Fernstrum,” pp. 189-190.