Michigan Buggy Company

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For thirty years the Michigan Buggy Company helped make Kalamazoo a center for horse-drawn vehicle production. Additionally, it would become one of the city's first major automobile manufacturers. The 1911 Model D is shown here.
Orange Dot File: Wagons

Leading Vehicle Manufacturer

Few things better illustrate Kalamazoo’s rapid growth during the late nineteenth century than the rise of the city’s carriage industry. By 1887 eighteen firms produced approximately forty seven thousand horse-drawn vehicles sold nationwide. In fact, so many vehicles were produced from factories on the north side that in 1885 the Kalamazoo Gazette  suggested the area be dubbed “Vehicle Square.” It was a sign of the times that these firms were the city’s largest employers and that total employment of the industry was second only to celery.

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George T. Lay
History of Allegan and Barry
Counties, Michigan
D.W. Ensign & Co, 1880

Family Ties

A solid partnership, made stronger by marriage, gave the founders of the Michigan Buggy Company a leg up over their competition. Michigan Buggy’s origins trace to Moses Henry Lane. Originally from New York, Lane first came to the Kalamazoo area as a regional sales manager for the New York Wagon Company. It was during this time that he met and eventually married Ida Lay, the daughter of George T. Lay of Allegan, in 1878. The marriage would cement the friendship and eventual business partnership of the two men. Lane put down roots in Kalamazoo and expanded upon his experience in the carriage industry by being one of the founders of the Kalamazoo Wagon Company in 1881. However, while Kalamazoo Wagon would be successful, Lane’s time there would be short-lived.

In 1883 Lane left the Kalamazoo Wagon Company to form a new business partnership with his father-in-law George T. Lay, and his brother-in-law Frank B. Lay. Both Lane and the Lays had considerable property holdings throughout the city but chose to build the Michigan Buggy Company factory, a large three-story box with a central courtyard, on Willard Street between Pitcher and Porter, directly on the tracks of the Michigan Central Railroad.

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The Michigan Buggy Company's first factory on Willard Street was built in 1883. This building would burn to the ground in 1896.
Local History Room Photograph File P-304

Tony Pony

The intention was to build a complete line of horse-drawn vehicles that were second to none. Michigan Buggy’s catalog would include buggies, carts, wagons, and sleighs/cutters. The firm offered convenience. In addition to manufacturing vehicles, the company raised ponies offered as part of a complete package. Dubbed the “Tony Pony” line, customers were thus provided one-stop shopping.

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An early advertisment.
Orange Dot File: Wagons

The line did so well that the factory proved insufficient to meet demand. Soon Michigan Buggy had departments scattered in rented space throughout the downtown area. A more suitable arrangement was achieved with the 1887 construction of a massive four-story brick building kitty corner from the original plant. This was heralded as good news for both the company and Kalamazoo. But when the construction job was awarded to firms from Allegan, the Kalamazoo Gazette pondered, “What’s the matter with Kalamazoo contractors?”

Evidently even this expansion was not considered sufficient. In 1891 plans were announced to build a new factory on the east side of town. The local papers boasted that it would be the largest carriage factory in the world. The Kalamazoo Gazette was then filled with speculative real estate ads encouraging investors to hop on the Michigan Buggy bandwagon and buy adjacent property, the value of which was sure to rise. But ultimately, for reasons that were not documented, this structure was never built.

Spontaneous Combustion

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A small sampling of the horse-drawn vehicles
Michigan Buggy offered in its 1911 catalog.
Orange Dot File: Wagons

In 1893 the country was hit by its most severe economic recession up to that time, the Panic of 1893. But, according to the Kalamazoo Gazette on 22 April 1894, Michigan Buggy continued to prosper. The Gazette wrote, “This company stood up under the financial depression as well as any in the country, and since Sept, 1 last have been doing nearly as much business as in any former year.” All told, the Michigan Buggy Company’s first decade had seen great success.

However, disaster loomed. On the evening of 13 August 1896 a fire started in the paint shop inside the company’s original factory. The structure, built of wood and filled with combustibles, was entirely incinerated. The Kalamazoo Gazette remarked that the fire department had no chance to save the building and that the fire had “swept it clean.”

When asked about the cause of the blaze, Frank Lay credited it to “spontaneous combustion.” Regardless the cause, the result was devastating. Estimated losses to Michigan Buggy reached as high as seventy five thousand dollars, more than two million in today's currancy, only forty thousand of which was covered by insurance. Additionally the firm lost needed production space, a large number of completed buggies, and valuable records. Recovery would be difficult but the firm’s surviving facilities and the good reputation of its products ensured business would eventually resume.

Garland Buggy

For the remainder of the century, Michigan Buggy Company continued operations out of the surviving 1887 building. This was expanded in 1899 with a brick addition that doubled the factory’s size and helped make up for the loss from the fire. Business also recovered, becoming stronger than ever, and the fire could be forgotten.

Perhaps as a sign of that recovery, in November 1897 M. Henry Lane and Frank B. Lay organized a new buggy company, technically separate from Michigan Buggy, to manufacture “top buggies of a cheaper grade.” The new enterprise was named the Garland Buggy Company and the Kalamazoo Gazette noted that it was leasing a building on Willard Street, between Edwards and Pitcher. This was a block west of the Michigan Buggy plant. This small factory had formerly been occupied by the Winans Buggy Company. However, period city directories show the Garland business as having the same address and telephone number as Michigan Buggy, at the existing factory at Willard and Porter. Whether Garland ever occupied the former Winan’s building is uncertain. Obviously the two businesses shared Michigan Buggy’s office. The extent of the ties between the two businesses is unknown, although it is likely that they were closely linked. No further mention of Garland Buggy appears after 1902.

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This fine brick building, Michigan Buggy's second, was built in 1887 and expanded in 1899. Its destruction by fire in 1902 almost ruined the company.
Local History Room Photograph File P-305

Up in Smoke

On the night of 16 January 1902 fire struck once more. As with the previous disaster, the blaze was so intense that there was little hope of saving the building. The entire structure, including the recent addition, was completely demolished. Even the neighboring Michigan Central tracks were damaged. The fire department’s efforts were limited to preventing the fire’s spread to surrounding dwellings and the nearby Michigan Central switching tower. By the time dawn broke all that remained of the Michigan Buggy Company were charred bits of walls and smoldering ash.

The next day the Kalamazoo Gazette described the fire’s advance with poetic prose. But the paper was less romantic in pondering the fire’s impact on the city’s economy. That Kalamazoo had been dealt a severe blow was undeniable. The economic value of the fire’s destruction far outweighed the company’s insurance policies. Losses were estimated as high as two hundred thousand dollars, over five million today. Additionally, unlike the previous conflagration, this time Michigan Buggy had no surviving factory space to operate from. Thus, it was in doubt whether the company would ever resume operations. In the span of a few hours, three hundred men had lost their jobs indefinitely and the livelihoods of countless families were threatened.

Hays Park

Kalamazoo would have to wait several months before learning the fate of Michigan Buggy. Lane and the Lays could not seriously consider rebuilding before the insurance claims were settled. Even after the insurance was paid out in February, additional moneys had to be arranged. Finally, on 6 April 1902 readers of the Kalamazoo Gazette saw the welcome news that financing had been arranged and the Michigan Buggy plant was to be rebuilt at once.

Rebuilding on the old downtown site was rejected and that property was then sold to the city. The Lane and Lay families also decided against building on their other land holdings in the city. Rather, property at Reed and Factory Streets was purchased from developer Charles Hays. This was the extreme southeastern edge of Kalamazoo at the time and was known as Hays Park. At a glance the remote location seemed an odd choice. But it was adjacent to a new woodshed the company had built prior to the fire and had ready access to the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad.

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Hays Park was relatively remote at the time Michigan Buggy's new factory was built there in 1902, a fact that is evident in this postcard view.
Author's Collection

Charles Hays was undoubtedly pleased to sell the sizable parcel and also to have a large employer move in, driving up demand for the rest of his development. In such a manner Michigan Buggy played an important role in the growth of the surrounding residential neighborhood. Given the distance from the rest of the city, hundreds of employees would seek homes there to be nearer to their jobs. It is worth noting that two adjacent streets were named Lane and Lay Boulevards, honoring Michigan Buggy’s role in helping build up Hays Park.

The new factory that took shape suggested that Michigan Buggy learned a lesson from the two fires. Poured concrete was the material of choice, chosen not only for its strength but also its fire resistance. As a further precaution, the interior was networked with a complex sprinkler system, a novel idea at the time, and supplied by a massive water tank atop the building. Final fire-proofing measures were evident in the arrangement of the various departments. Those departments that posed a greater fire risk were housed in stand-alone structures, so should they burn the rest of the factory would be safe. Lastly, the office was a bunker-like structure connected to the main building by a single fire door. The memory of the burned business records was a bitter one.

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An advertisment for the Kalamazoo Blanket
Company that appeared in a Michigan Buggy
catalog.
Orange Dot File: Wagons

Besides their fireproof qualities, the buildings were spacious. Most were two or three stories. Just south of the main plant the company erected a mill to house the Kalamazoo Blanket Company, a subsidiary of Michigan Buggy that produced horse blankets. Such blankets were used to protect the animals in harsh weather. The space between the two structures was occupied by lumber storage and grazing land for the “Tony Pony” ponies.

The new plant was ready for Michigan Buggy to resume business by Thanksgiving 1902. The first products of the reborn factory were cutters. It would not be until January of the following year that the first completed buggies were shipped. By all accounts, as with the first fire, the company quickly recovered from the second. Business was so good that over the next several years the Kalamazoo Gazette was filled with headlines of new additions being added to the factory.

Much of this post-fire success was credited to the firm’s new secretary-treasurer, Victor Palmer. Palmer had first joined Michigan Buggy in 1894 as head of sales. He quickly proved himself with considerable organizational and financial planning skills, and was appointed the secretary-treasurer position. He was charged with determining much of the company’s financial direction. In later years this role would come to haunt him.

A New Era

The steady expansion of the Michigan Buggy plant was certainly a sign of the company’s revived business. But it also reflected the company’s interest in new markets. Automobiles were the great innovative product of the age; their production seemed a logical next step.

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M. Henry Lane around 1900.
Men of Progress in Michigan
Evening News Association, 1900

The first venture into the automobile market was a plan to manufacture a vehicle called the “Kalamazoo” in 1902. M. Henry Lane announced the proposed car to the press, and the company acquired an automobile from Chicago for inspection. In the end the proposed “Kalamazoo” did not materialize as envisioned. Rather Michigan Buggy entered into a joint venture with the Burtt Manufacturing Company to build the Cannon automobile from 1902 to 1905.

The Cannon would prove an ideal first-step towards eventual full-scale automobile production. Michigan Buggy was able to lend its experience of building horse-drawn vehicles towards the new automobile venture, chiefly producing wood bodies, paint, and upholstery work. In the process the company learned about the automobile business with less risk.

The Mighty Michigan

In September 1909 Lane again announced Michigan Buggy’s intentions of producing a car of its own, a vehicle named the Michigan. The Michigan was aimed at the mid-priced market. The models offered in a 1911 sales catalog ran the price range from eleven hundred and fifty dollars to fifteen hundred dollars. The intention was to produce a high-class luxury car at a low price. In the short term the car would be built alongside the firm’s carriage trade in the existing factory. But the company optimistically announced that a new plant, equal in size to the existing facility would eventually get built.

The Michigan Buggy Company did not manufacture its own engines. In fact, the company made few, if any, of the mechanical components within its cars. Rather the Michigan was powered by motors from third party manufacturers. Regardless, it would be the engines that would earn the cars much of their reputation. Most models were equipped with an impressive thirty three horsepower. But the top model Michigans came with an astounding forty horsepower motor, and bore the nickname “The Mighty Michigan.” By comparison, the Ford Model T had around twenty horsepower.

Another advanced feature, starting with the 1910 models, was the use of electric driving lamps rather than acetylene gas lamps, the standard of the time. Although highly touted in advertising literature, the electric lamps were, perhaps, ahead of their time. The 1912 Michigans skipped over the electric lamps in favor of gas. Electric returned in the 1913 model year. By that time the innovation had spread to other manufacturers and become more popular among the driving public.

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The forty horse power Model B Michigan sold for $1500 in 1911. It was common practice in early automobiles to place the steering wheel and other driving controls on the right side.
Orange Dot File: Wagons

In order to distinguish the automobile side of Michigan Buggy’s business, the Michigan Motor Car Company was incorporated on 24 September 1912. Technically independent, the creation of this firm had little impact on the operation of the business or the manufacture of vehicles. Rather, the name was used in all of the automobile advertisements onward. Buggies continued to be sold, quite profitably, under the Michigan Buggy name.

Mighty Michigans were aggressively marketed with a nationwide advertising campaign. Many advertisements referred to the “War of the Forties,” comparing the Michigans against similarly powered vehicles from other manufacturers. The Michigan, it was argued, was the best bargain, as other cars in its class cost over two thousand dollars. In time this bargain would prove to be too good to be true. The cheap price of the Mighty Michigan led to the undoing of the Michigan Buggy Company.

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This slightly exaggerated rendering of the Hays Park factory was frequently used in automobile advertisements and bears the Michigan Motor Car Company name.
Progressive Herald, 12 July 1913, page 6.

Family Feud

The Lane and Lay families’ business partnership had been a huge success. Michigan Buggy had successfully weathered economic downturns, ventures into new markets, and even disastrous fires. But strains were beginning to crack the family ties. In 1901 the “elder statesman” of the partnership, George T. Lay, passed away. This was a considerable blow. By all accounts, the relationship between the two families slowly deteriorated following his passing.

Sources suggest that it was a combination of events that led to a strained relationship and finally a feud. Disagreements over business decisions, and expanding into the automobile market all occurred within close succession. The combined stresses of these events continued to build until they boiled over in 1911.

Specific factors often credited include M. Henry Lane’s withdrawal of funds from the company to help finance the construction of his new home at Main and West Streets, today’s Michigan and Westnedge Avenues. Completed in 1893, the structure was a testament to lavish spending. It cost $70,000 and featuring fieldstone walls, a massive tower, and the nickname “Lane’s Castle.” Frank B. Lay, for his part, lived in a substantial home purchased on South Street.

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M. Henry Lane's home at the corner of Main and West Streets showed off the success of Michigan Buggy. The withdrawal of company funds for its construction caused strain between the Lanes and Lays.
Author's Collection

Another of Lane’s activities that led to tension was his involvement with the Kalamazoo Telegraph. He was involved in an effort to purchase the newspaper, and was listed as its president from 1909 and 1910. This was a business venture that former Telegraph editor Edward Dingley would bitterly describe as a takeover in his new publication, the Progressive Herald. Regardless of the nature of the Telegraph venture, it proved financially unsuccessful for Lane. Furthermore, in the view of his partners at Michigan Buggy, it threatened their business by distracting Lane from his duties.

The culmination of this family feud was the ouster of Lane from the firm’s presidency in 1911. He would, however, remain on the board of directors. Frank B. Lay replaced him in the presidency and Lay’s sons, George and Frank Lay, would assume greater roles within the firm as vice presidents. Victor Palmer and the Lay family would later claim that this was done to protect Michigan Buggy from ruin. However, with Lane now out of the leadership, ruin was just over the horizon. The feud would continue into the 1920s before the family relationship began to recover.

Collapse

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This advertisement boasted that there were
64 Michigans in Kalamazoo, and claimed that
number would soon jump to 100. However,
within a year the company was in serious
financial trouble.
Kalamazoo Gazette, 9 June 1912, page 8. 

Family problems and leadership changes aside, going into 1913 the business outlook at Michigan Buggy appeared to be better than ever, at least to an outside observer. Despite the hardships of the past, the company had always managed to recover and expand. Now it was apparently succeeding in the automobile business, selling more cars than it could build. That summer both the Kalamazoo Gazette and Progressive Herald published glowing features describing the company’s sound business, high reputation, and unlimited potential. Within a few months both would be using very different terms to describe Michigan Buggy.

To observers within the industry, the outlook was far from rosy. At the same time that the local papers were heaping praise upon the company, suppliers and creditors were encountering increasing difficulties in receiving payments. Rumors floated that Michigan Buggy was a million dollars in debt. During the spring months a few creditors were able to arrange alternate forms of payment, including cars instead of cash. But most would not be so fortunate, convinced by Victor Palmer and the Lays that the situation was well in hand.

Yet, within the company it was clear that the financial situation was a growing disaster. M. Henry Lane, the Lay family, and Victor Palmer all agreed that some sort of reorganization was required, and a number of meetings were held in hopes of devising a recovery plan. Unresolved disputes between the Lanes and Lays, however, prevented the cooperative action that was necessary.

On 31 July 1913 the Gazette abruptly reported the first public signs of trouble. It was announced that due to a few financial difficulties the Michigan Buggy Company was to be reorganized and that, for the short term, six hundred workers were being idled. However, the full extent of the company’s problems was still not public. Company officials boasted, “the present difficulty is only a matter of short duration.” A gross understatement if there ever was one. Kalamazoo was just beginning a nightmare that would see one of its largest businesses collapse and its executives put on trial.

Optimism

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The Michigan Buggy logo.
Orange Dot File: Wagons

Optimism that the firm’s troubles would be short-lived continued throughout the summer. It was believed that Michigan Buggy could be reorganized and production resumed. These hopes were buoyed when W. A. McGuire, a noted expert in the automobile industry, came from Detroit to examine the company’s books. The Kalamazoo Gazette cheered that he had come to take charge of the business and that production would soon resume. In fact, he was merely the beginning of the investigation into the collapse.

Hope for a Michigan Buggy restart lingered into early August, but on the sixth of that month the doors of the factory were formally shut. They would only be reopened on September tenth as the company’s drafting room was converted into a makeshift courtroom for bankruptcy hearings. By the end of the summer, the formerly optimistic press began to refer to Michigan Buggy as “defunct.” By then it was realized that Kalamazoo’s only hope for retaining the auto plant was for a third party to purchase it.

As the courts looked into the failure of Michigan Buggy, there were a number of offers put forth to purchase and restart the factory. Notable local efforts were attempted by the Kalamazoo Commercial Club and even by a group of former Michigan Buggy employees. The proposal that had the most traction, however, was offered by Edwin Gerber. From Pittsburgh, Gerber was the president of the Pennsylvania Sales Company and the largest distributor of Michigan automobiles. His prior shady dealings with the company, including large purchases of cars at deep discounts, did not escape scrutiny. Ultimately the plant and its equipment were sold at auction.

Investigation

A 1912 advertisement to prospective distributors described Michigan Buggy’s financial approach to the automobile business. The ad claimed “we did not go into the business to make a ‘killing.’ We saw no reason why an automobile manufacturer should expect to make a young fortune on each car.” A review of the company’s books and testimony of its bookkeepers, including Earl J. McCone, verified that the company was not making a “killing.” If anything, the cars were killing the company. McCone had determined that the company was losing money on each car sold. The great value the company touted in its advertisements was too good to be true. The problem was exacerbated by the deeply discounted cars being sold to Edwin Gerber. High sales of Mighty Michigans created an illusion of a successful enterprise. In fact, the more cars were sold, the worse the company fared. It was only the continued profits from horse-drawn vehicles that allowed the company to survive as long as it did.

Perhaps more remarkably, McCone testified that he received little interest from his superiors when he reported his concerns. Victor Palmer did not appear alarmed with the revenue problems or when he was told of delinquent accounts in excess of three hundred thousand dollars. Frank B. Lay, on the other hand, seemed uninformed of the situation.

The lack of revenue provided an explanation for the seemingly sudden collapse. But the bankruptcy hearings would uncover more sinister findings, including criminal activity. The month of October 1913 was especially gloomy as the hearings brought to light the dealings of the firm’s leadership.

Newspaper publishers must have been thrilled by the series of unusual business practices that were uncovered, for there was no shortage of eye-catching headlines. One of the more sensational discoveries was dubbed “the velvet payroll.” As the financial situation of Michigan Buggy became dim, the officers proceeded to pad their compensation at the expense of the creditors. This included additional cash payments as well as cars. Frank Lay Jr., for example, had four Mighty Michigans. Owning four cars in 1913 was an inconceivable extravagance. Meanwhile the creditors had been lied to regarding the company’s finances.

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This headline appeared in the 8 October 1913
Kalamazoo Gazette. The article went on to
accuse: "During delirium of power auto
company officials carouse and make merry in
house on West Street. Duped investors must
pay bill." 

Even more outrageous was the claimed existence of the “harem.” It was alleged that Michigan Buggy maintained a house at 1216 South West Street (South Westnedge Avenue) where potential customers were taken for elicit entertainment purposes. This naturally made for sensational headlines. However, due to the evasive responses given to prosecutors by Victor Palmer and Frank Lay Jr., a direct financial connection was never conclusively proven. Nonetheless, the outrage generated in the public was considerable.

Placing Blame

As the troubles of the company became known, a war for public opinion was waged within courtroom of the bankruptcy proceeding and headlines of the newspapers. The partnership that had sustained the company for so long completely unraveled as the former Michigan Buggy officers played the blame game. Victor Palmer was particularly aggressive in getting his version of events told, a version that absolved him of any blame.

Both in court and in the press, Victor Palmer denied he controlled the company’s finances, claiming instead that he reported to M. Henry Lane and Frank B. Lay. He placed the bulk of the blame squarely on Lane’s shoulders. In a dramatic moment of testimony, Palmer insisted the velvet payroll had been Lane’s creation, Lane had milked Michigan Buggy of funds for years, and had angrily vowed to bring the company down following his removal from the presidency. The Progressive Herald made special note of Lane’s courtroom reaction to Palmer’s version of events. According to the Herald, Lane “flushed and expectorated tobacco juice worse than ever.”

The conclusion to this story, sensationally covered in the papers, was an argument between the two at the Burdick Hotel the following evening. Having bumped into each other in the hotel’s arcade, Lane furiously disputed Palmer’s testimony and then invited him to “come outside.” The Progressive Herald was blunt in its account of the tension, stating “had the two not been separated by the crowd, there would have been blood shed.” Palmer’s side of this encounter dominated the presses’ reporting the following day. He claimed it as vindication that Lane was to blame for the company’s downfall. Suffice to say, the poisoned relationship between the Michigan Buggy officers could now clearly be seen as a factor in its troubles.

Trial

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Victor Palmer would face federal
prosecution for his role in the
collapse of Michigan Buggy.

However, for the most part Victor Palmer was far less bold on the stand of the bankruptcy hearings. Investigators often found him evasive, he responded with vague answers or claims not to remember details. This behavior ultimately did not help his case, nor did his attempt to flee Kalamazoo in the midst of the proceedings. The escape was foiled thanks to Palmer having sent his baggage to the Michigan Central Station early. Court officials were thus alerted of his planned flight and were waiting for him at the station.

Palmer had good reason to flee. Despite his accounts to the press, the actual evidence was piling up against him. As the investigation concluded, prosecutors agreed that he was the financial brains of the firm, that he and the Lays had misled the creditors, and that the velvet payroll had been the creation of Palmer and the younger Lays. At the conclusion of the bankruptcy hearing Palmer, as well as the younger Lay brothers, disparagingly dubbed “The Lay Boys” in the press, would be targeted for legal prosecution. Frank B. Lay would face financial penalties and M. Henry Lane escaped prosecution.

Victor Palmer appeared before a Federal Grand Jury in Grand Rapids on 3 March 1914. He was charged with fraudulent use of the mail by sending out false financial statements on three separate occasions. The trial lasted until 11 April 1914, during which it was clear that Palmer was a broken man. It came as no surprise that he was found guilty and sentenced to two years at Leavenworth, Kansas. He departed Kalamazoo on 19 June 1914, amid a gathering of curious and well-wishers. Palmer would not return to Kalamazoo until March 1915, when he was called to testify in the trials of Frank and George Lay Jrs. However, upon arrival in the courtroom, Palmer pleaded the fifth.

The case against “the Lay Boys” would not be settled until the end of 1917. Both brothers were tried separately for embezzlement linked to the velvet payroll, and both were found guilty in April 1915. However, both verdicts were appealed and tied up in the courts until 16 December 1917 when the brothers entered guilty pleas. They were subjected to a cash settlement to the creditors instead of a prison sentence.

Aftermath

The demise of the Michigan Buggy Company cast a dark cloud over Kalamazoo for several years. The city’s name had been linked to a well-publicized scandal, hundreds of jobs were lost, and the city’s hopes for a piece of the emerging auto industry were dashed. But just as Michigan Buggy had recovered from fires, so would Kalamazoo recover from the failure of Michigan Buggy.

The happy result of M. Henry Lane’s ouster from Michigan Buggy’s presidency was that he emerged from the bankruptcy without serious legal and financial penalties. In 1916, after the dust had settled, Lane founded the Lane Motor Truck Company with partner W.A. Cook. The firm enjoyed a brief success, and was able to secure lucrative government contracts during the First World War. An estimated four hundred and fifty trucks were ultimately produced a stone’s throw from the ex-Michigan Buggy plant. But in March 1919, due to declining health, Lane sold the company to H. M. Crawford, owner of the Lull Carriage Company. Lane later retired to California where he died in 1930 from injuries sustained in an automobile accident. Crawford reorganized the Lane and Lull firms as the Kalamazoo Motors Corporation, producing trucks out of the old Lane factory. Kalamazoo Motors Corporation lasted until 1924.

Due to their continued leadership roles in Michigan Buggy, the Lay family faired considerably worse. As a result of the legal prosecution of his sons, as well as his financial difficulties, Frank Lay was deeply embittered by the experience. Unlike Lane, he never returned to the manufacture of vehicles. Instead, after the bankruptcy, he bought a farm in Allegan County and raised pedigree cattle and thoroughbred horses. He died in Kalamazoo in 1933. His sons went to Detroit where they continued work in the automobile business. Frank Lay Jr. remained there, but George eventually returned to Kalamazoo.

Victor Palmer’s two year prison sentence was reduced for good behavior, and he returned to Kalamazoo on 17 January 1916. He had weathered most of the blame for the collapse of Michigan Buggy. The experience had taken a dramatic toll on his health. He passed away on 14 January 1924 at the age of 53.

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The former Michigan Buggy factory was returned to operation by the Barley Motor Car Company. Barley manufactured the popular Roamer car here in the years before the Great Depression.
Kalamazoo Valley Museum Photograph File

Kalamazoo’s loss of an automobile plant was not permanent. After sitting idle for nearly two years, activity returned to the ex-Michigan Buggy plant upon its purchase by the State Motor Car Company. This, however, proved a short-lived reprieve and State quickly folded. The following year the Barley Motor Car Company moved in and began the successful production of its luxurious Roamer automobile. Barley found success for many years and continued automobile production until just before the Great Depression.

In 1914 the former Kalamazoo Blanket Company plant was taken over by the Limousine Body Company, which produced removable canvas tops for open touring and roadster cars. The firm made the tops for the Roamers produced next door as well as for Auburns. The company followed the fate of its two biggest customers and closed in 1935.

Traces

All told over seven thousand Michigan automobiles were produced from 1909 to 1913. A handful of these have survived to be restored by collectors. Michigan Buggy’s horse-drawn vehicles were produced in far greater numbers, and many examples can be found throughout the country in barns and restored by collectors.

Physical traces of Michigan Buggy are scattered around town. Lane’s magnificent stone residence, the funding of which was a point of contention between the two families, was demolished in 1937 and its fieldstone recycled in construction projects throughout the region. The impressive Tudor home of Frank Lay still stands within the South Street Historic District. It provides a sense of the wealth and prestige of both the Lay family and Michigan Buggy itself. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the house on Westnedge, alleged to be the company harem, still stands. No trace of the company remains at its former Willard Street locations, but significant sections of the company’s final home on Reed Street remain standing. Nearby, both Lay and Lane Boulevards are an enduring testament to the role Michigan Buggy and the two families played in developing Hays Park, known today as the Edison Neighborhood.

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This surviving section of the former Michigan Buggy factory on Reed Street shows the poured concrete used in its construction, a lasting testament of the fires that ravaged the company in 1896 and 1902.
Photograph taken by David Kohrman, Library Staff. 

 

Sources

Books

The Kalamazoo Automobilist

  • David O. Lyon
  • Kalamazoo: New Issues Press, 2002
  • H 629.2 L991

Articles

"Vehicle Square"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 10 April 1885, page 3

"The new building"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 10 July 1886, page 2

"Swept it clean"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 21 August 1896, page 10

"New buggy company"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 12 November 1887, page 3

"Main plant of Michigan Buggy Company totally destroyed by flames"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 17 January 1902, page 1

"Plant will be rebuilt"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 6 April 1902, page 1

"A marvel of fast machines"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 8 February 1903, page 2

"New auto plant is now assured"

Kalamazoo Gazette, 29 September 1909, page 6

"Michigan Buggy Company is to be reorganized"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 31 July 1913, page 1

"Directors near fisticuffs in hotel lobby"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 18 September 1913, page 1

"Velvet payroll of buggy company is uncovered on witness stand"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 18 September 1913, page 1

"Maintain gay harem on cash of stockholders"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 8 October 1913, page 1

History Room Subject Files

History Room Subject File: Michigan Buggy Company

History Room Subject File: Wagons

History Room Orange Dot File: Wagons