A Manufacturing Hub
Photo by Kanti Sandhu, from Kalamazoo: The Place Behind the Products, p. 219
Situated at 610 W. Willard Street, the Bowers Building is currently home to the Water Street Coffee Company. But prior to its current commercial function (roasting coffee beans, office space, storage), the three-story structure housed several other businesses, including a tool and die company, a manufacturer of cigars, and a maker of lighters. Let’s take a look backward.
Bremer Tool and Die
The building was built in 1890 in the manufacturing-heavy Northside Neighborhood. At 646 W. Willard Street (pre-1925 address), the building sits on the north side of the street, where Willard merges together with Greenwich Place. Sometime in the late 1800’s, the Bremer family moved into the building and developed their foundry business. In city directory listings, Louis F. Bremer is cited as foreman, with his father Godfrey J. Bremmer as an machinist. The father also shows up in the earlier 1871-2 city directory as having worked at Lawrence and Chapin Iron Works, and as a saloon keeper prior to developing the family business. The German-born Godfrey died in 1910, and is buried in Mountain Home Cemetery. His son Louis died in 1948 and is buried in the Mount Ever-Rest Memorial Park South.
From around 1905 to 1909, one of Kalamazoo’s largest cigar makers shared space with Louis Bremer. Noted in a previous
article about the cigar industry in Kalamazoo, the once thriving business of tobacco manufacturing dramatically diminished after a worker strike in 1908. Verdon was one of the larger companies in Kalamazoo, and with their departure, the building that once housed their employees was once more available for new tenants. Over the next twenty years, an assortment of different manufacturing businesses moved in and out, including the Electric Phonograph Co., which produced jukeboxes that played cylindrical records. The Kalamazoo Valley Museum has an intact jukebox made at the Willard Street factory as part of their collection. The Bowers Tool & Die Company
Photo by Steven Richard Ellis, c. 2019
Founded in 1928 by Ernest C. Bowers, and later run by his son Frederick H. Bowers, the Bowers Tool & Die Company moved into the building. A few years later, confronted with the economic fallout from the stock market crash and subsequent contraction of sales opportunities, Bowers shifted the business toward the manufacturing of cigarette lighters–believing that customers who smoked would still do so despite financially lean times. The Bowers-designed lighter was called the Slide Sleeve. With the outbreak of World War II, a ban on German and Japanese-produced lighters provided the company with an opportunity to grow. The decade of the 1940s was a boom time for the Kalamazoo company, as it supplied 55 percent of all lighters to the Armed Forces, and opened a new plant in Ontario, Canada. By the end of the decade, the company employed 150 workers. In 1949, Ernest retired, and the company ceased the tool and die portion of the business, focusing primarily on the production of lighters.
Unfortunately, the Korean War’s economic impact (a ban on nickel), as well as the flooding of the market with Japanese-made lighters, put a dramatic halt to the company’s earlier success. By the late 1960’s, the emergence of anti-smoking campaigns, and a shrinking market meant the company would once more pivot in a different direction. In 1975, production of lighters came to an end as Bowers Manufacturing Company looked to a future centered around “contract anodizing and buffing of aluminum products.” Despite moving their production facilities to Portage, the old factory building on Willard Street remained home to tool and die manufacturing until the late 1990’s.
Article written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, February 2023
“He felt the heat…and stayed!”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 17 March 1963
Kalamazoo: The place behind the products, an illustrated history, Larry B. Massie & Peter J. Schmitt,
(H 977.418 M417A)
Local History Room Files
Bowers, Ernest C.
Bowers, Frederick H.
Bowers Lighter Co.
Bowers Manufacturing Co.